Thursday, 31 December 2009

Mother (마더) (2009)

Life is hard when you're a single mother living with an adult son with learning disabilities, making ends meet as the town's herbalist and illegal acupuncturist.

Life is much, much harder when above said son is the prime suspect in a murder mystery - prime because retarded people are always convenient suspects for police investigations short on leads.

Your task, if you should accept it: Take on City Hall, prove son's innocence, solve murder mystery, and perform acupuncture for client!

Read my full review at Fridae, first published on 30 December 2009.

Treasure Hunter, The (刺陵) (2009)

What happens when Chinese Ed Wood makes a movie with Jay Chou?

For better or for worse, is The Treasure Hunter actually (respectively) worse or better than Fantasy Mission Force?

Read my full review at Fridae, first published on 30 December 2009.

Monday, 28 December 2009

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Did Guy Ritchie dodge the infamous post-Madonna divorce career slump curse?

Is Sherlock Holmes really a suited to be an action hero?

Do Holmes and Watson bicker too much over trivial things like who owns the dog, the flat, and the money?

Read my full review at Fridae, first published on 23 December 2009.

No puedo vivir sin ti (不能没有你) (2009)

Will Taiwan's 2009 Academy Awards entry make it to the shortlist for Best Foreign Film?

No pudeo vivir sin ti is a piece of neorealist cinema set in modern Kaohsiung, focussing on the plight of poorest of the poor in society: squatters and itinerant workers.

Read my full review on Fridae, first published on 23 December 2009.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Avatar (2009)

James Cameron took 15 years and a budget fit to bail out a bank to make this film.

Has Cameron Rip Van Winkled himself into irrelevance?

Does he prove that even with Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro on the scene, that he's still the king of the world?

Read my full review at Fridae, first published on 16 December 2009.

Bodyguards and Assassins (十月围城) (2009)

Sun Yat-sen. To some, a patriot, revolutionary, and father of the nation. To others: a traitor and a target for assassination.

Will Dr Sun Yat-sen ever be safe from the imperial assassins?

Will he see to his revolution before the Manchu court has his head?

Will Donnie Yen yet again bash someone's head in for no apparent reason?

Read my full review at Fridae, first published on 16 December 2009.

The Storm Warriors (风云 2) (2009)

The Pang brothers revive the 风云 franchise after a long 10 years. Will their CGI flick hold the key to Aaron Kwok's 3rd Golden Horse Best Actor?

Will Simon Yam out-do Sonny Chiba's scenery mastication?

Will Aaron Kwok and Ekin Cheng once again cross their huge swords with each other?

Read my full review at Fridae, first published on 16 December 2009.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Princess and the Frog

How does Disney fare with its first hand-drawn animation in years?

Is a pic about a very dated classic the right way to herald a comeback for Uncle Walt's studio?

And really, casting a black princess in pre-War New Orleans? Really?

Read my full review at Fridae, first published on 9 December 2009.

Private Lives of Pippa Lee, The (2009)

A Desperate Housewives for the SuicideGirls generation, Private Lives is an ambitious meditation on the frailty of identity and ego, as well as probably the first coming-of-age story of a middle-aged housewife.

It's something that Virginia Woolf would approve of, and might have made if she were a filmmaker...

Read my full review at Fridae, first published on 9 December 2009.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Zombieland (2009)

Join Woody Harrelson and gang on a wild road trip across America (or Zombieland, as it's known post-apocalypse), killing zombies and smashing up property in the search of the last surviving heavenly twinkie on Earth!

You know this is really good stuff when the zombie designs come from the creator of the undead creatures in Michael Jackson's Thriller video...

Read my full review at Fridae, first published on 2 December 2009

New Moon (2009)

Forget about vampire lore. Forget about movies constantly reinventing vampire lore. New Moon's teen vampires and werewolves just want to fall in love, and you will fall in love with them too.

New Moon is written so that you too can appreciate the beauty of shirtless Native American types prancing around, without having to read the novel or even know about the previous instalments of the Twilight franchise...

Read my full review at Fridae, first published on 2 December 2009

Couples Retreat (2009)

Welcome to the couples retreat, where a very ditzy Jean Reno plays spiritual guru and relationship counsellor to a group of 4 married partners in search of happiness - and not necessarily with each other!

A very average romantic comedy, Couples Retreat shows far more discipline, coherence and consistency than Hollywood's other recent romcoms, which is a plus in its point.

Read my full review at Fridae, first published on 2 Novemeber 2009.

Friday, 27 November 2009

An Education (2009)

Nick Hornby's tale of seduction is both a comic unfolding of a seduction fuelled by the oldest and cheesiest lines in the book, as well as a sensitive coming of age tale.

This Sundance favourite fuelled by the comedy of watching the seduction of a precocious teen who mistakes book smarts for intelligence for wisdom, is wicked fun to watch.

Read my full review at Fridae, first published on 26 November 2009

Mulan (2009)

Jingle Ma proves that he can make a credible Chinese epic movie without an Olympic-sized budget, artsy pretensions, forced Shakespearean comparisons, strained dialogue, or Jay Chou!

Chinese cinema is in such a bad shape that it takes a Jingle Ma, with very modest directorial skills and cinematic sense, to make a decent epic...

Read my full review at Fridae, first published on 26 November 2009

Friday, 20 November 2009

The Informant! (2009)

While Mark Whitacre is no Maxwell Smart, his goofy antics are sure to drive his FBI masters up the wall and send audiences into laughter in Steven Soderbergh's latest spy comedy...

Watch Steven Soderbergh conduct a wild spin on the spy drama, and Matt Damon parody his Jason Bourne superspy routine in The Informant!

Read my full review at Fridae, first published on 19 November 2009.

Fantastic Mr Fox (2009)

Fantastic Mr Fox may well be the best-written and most engaging animated movie of 2009. Yes, Mr Wes Anderson is an auteur, and he should be proud of it.

He proves very decisively that you don't need no stinking 3D CGI to make an animation picture, and that you don't need to make your audiences wear 3D goggles either.

It's the scriptwriting, the directorial vision, and the storytelling. And that sense of humour.

Read my full review at Fridae, published on 19 November 2009.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

A Frozen Flower (쌍화점) (2009)

Speaking both as a God-fearing Christian movie-goer and a member of the general public, allow me to full-heartedly endorse Korean director Yoo Ha’s effort in making a historical court drama with homosexual themes.

Anticipating Jane Austen's novels by a few centuries, this domestic melodrama is about inheritance, power, and marriage. The unhappy king, chafing under his status as a vassal prince to the great Mongol Empire, stands to lose his power, his land and his title if he does not produce an heir to his throne. Unhappily married to the Mongolian princess, the king seeks solace in the arms of his strapping bodyguard.

It probably seemed like a good idea at that time to order the bodyguard to serve as the breeding stallion to the princess, but that will expectedly lead to a romantic triangle, a royal melodrama, and other gruesome and bloody political intrigues that dominate this picture. That and a host of explicit scenes.

Comparisons to King and the Clown will not suffice as director Yoo Ha is intent on marching to his own beat, one not sanctioned by the gay lobby and the politically-correct sanctions of the elites. While the homosexual angle is used very sparingly – there is but just one short, strangely unpassionate sex scene and plenty of saccharine dialogue commonly seen in gay-themed dramas produced for straight female fangirls – what drives this movie is the genuine passion and affection from the heterosexual bonding and secret trysts between these two victims of the king.

While this means that the expected romantic triangle is more like a tripod with 1 very short leg, the director's courage in sending the message that gays can change, and that heterosexual love has no substitutes, is something to be admired.

First published at incinemas on 23 July 2009
(Yes, I know I forgot to upload it here)

Sunday, 15 November 2009

2012 (2009)

[It's been a long while since this blog has been updated, but I'm back in the reviews circuit - this time with

I haven't been slacking, though. DVD reviews will feature more prominently here in the near future.]

Roland Emmerich destroys the Earth once again this year, in 2012. How would you like your planet and civilisation destroyed? Emmerich serves us apocalypse Mayan-style this time. CGI-fans are in for a treat: we have earthquakes, an exploding super-volcano, tsunamis and more for you...

Full review at Fridae

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Taking Woodstock (2009)

Dream a little dream

As the joke goes about Woodstock: If you remember it, you weren't there. On a more serious and bleak note: If it is seared into your cultural consciousness as a mythical feel-good event, chances are you weren't born then.

While not a direct indictment of the 1960s, Ang Lee's adaptation of the reactionary melodrama The Ice Storm (1997) depicts the social and existential aftermath that followed the bursting of the decade-long dream. We are not surprised at its reception in the US: when wide-eyed optimism, social liberation, and activism fail to solve any of the world's problems, the social pendulum swings back into reactionary conservatism. The backlash guarantees that even 'decent liberals', in very embarrassing attempts to gain credibility, have to badmouth the decade and engage in wholesale character assassination of the Left, SDS, flower children, hippies, et al. In short: commemorating Woodstock, Stonewall, the sexual and chemical liberation, love and peace - all this is a lost cause in American cultural politics.

But don't tell that to Ang Lee. Lee was still in a Taiwanese middle school when Woodstock kicked off, but he certainly has a good impression of the decade and its flower children. If The Ice Storm was a downer on the 60s, this movie tells us what the decade stood for and the hope it held out to a generation.

The very modest Ang Lee shies away from recreating Woodstock in Taking Woodstock. In the interest of diminishing disappointments, let me forewarn that what you get in Taking Woodstock is the making of Woodstock. You won't get a re-creation of the legendary festival itself. There will be no documentary footage or re-enactments of the now-legendary performances by Janis Joplin or Jimi Hendrix. Bob Dylan does not appear as himself. You will not see the stage or the crowds at the stage.

Instead, what you'll get is the the organisers' misadventures in getting the festival up and running, from inception to cleaning up, almost like a reality show done as a feature film. There are plenty of boo-boos, close shaves and pure mayhem to provide the laughs: recurring gags feature closeted protagonist Eliot Tiber who gives up his big city life, returning to save his very eccentric parents' decrepit motel from going down, his avaricious money-pinching mom's antics, and a local theatre company with a penchant for public streaking. And that's just for starters. Who would've thought Ang Lee had a healthy sense of humour?

Lee instead builds the festival from the ground up, from the perspectives of not just the organisers or the local community but the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who went there, got caught in the traffic gridlock, ended up miles from the stage, and turned the music festival into a good-natured, sprawling picnic, carnival, and camp site. I am told Lee was impressed that this beyond critical mass of counter-cultural youth did not spark a riot - this movie conveys that impressiveness and I think could go some way to rehabilitate the cultural memory of the 60s.

What Ang Lee brings to this retelling of Woodstock is not just his non-judgemental respect for the decade and its actors, but his treatment of Woodstock as one of those logistical nightmares - say a Chinese wedding banquet. It is perhaps from this cultural perspective that Lee treats his comic characters with equal reverence and concentrates on the celebrants who were there for more than just the music itself. The man understands that Woodstock wasn't really a music festival but something far greater, something whose meaning was collaboratively created by the majority who came but never got to see Janis Joplin, Jimmi Hendrix, or Bob Dylan.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

I Love You, Man (2009)

Go on, shout it to the world

The quintessential Judd Apatow movie without the involvement of Judd Apatow, I Love You, Man takes Apatow's 'bromantic' twist on classic Hollywood romantic comedy to its exquisite, logical conclusion, while employing Apatow's stable of actors and co-directors and refining his usual tricks of the trade to one-up the genre's creator by a fair bit.

I love you, man is both a traditional romantic comedy and a bromantic comedy at the same time. The wedding plans of the lucky groom to be (Paul Rudd), having gotten past the all-important proposal to the luckier bride to be (Rashida Jones), stutters on the couple's realisation that the groom has a grand total of zero close male friends in his life and needs to race against time to produce a proper best man for the wedding. I don't know why this is even an issue of social embarrassment, but time for misadventures in male bonding, I say!

While in general the bromance movie does not allow the groom to run away with the best man, the shenanigans in this movie come very close to this. Its innovation: trashing out the bromantic genre's vague unease with the homosocial/homosexual ambiguity, along with the but this is-a-macho-movie uncomfortably comic moments where the ambiguity rears its head. Replacing all this is a willingness to acknowledge and explore the homosocial/homosexual ambiguity as part of a feel-good comedy, to build into comfortably comic punchlines.

Here, it is achieved through the 'serial date' structure of the movie and the screen chemistry between Paul Rudd and Jason Segel. Paul Rudd, of course, is a comic actor who has been playing the feminine coded male stock character since The Object of my Affection, and part of the intertextual comedy comes from just how female coded his "best girlfriend with a dick a girlfriend would want" character here is.

Like Anthony Perkins's character in The Trial, Paul Rudd acts almost so instinctively guilty that some people might be inclined to watch this as a subtle gay comedy.

As a result of the more relaxed, less hung up storytelling attitude of Hamburg and his collaborators, I Love You, Man is the least macho of bromantic comedies to date. Its comedic sensibilities should in fact appeal to a much broader audience than say Superbad: this one goes easy for movie watchers of all genders and persuasions.

An earlier version of this review was published at incinemas on 18 June 2009

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (2009)

I see you didn't wash your hands after using the urinal!

Take A Christmas Carol, turn it into a romantic comedy, and you have Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. In this retelling of the well-worn classic (whose adaptations and deformations are as hoary and tired as the classic itself), Matthew McConaughey plays the Scrooge character as a cad and womaniser who humbugs at the idea of Love, and sees his life-long mission to set Olympic records for wooing, bedding, and leaving women in succession. In other words, Matthew McConaughey plays the same annoying character he's been playing in his last 10 or so movie features. Hopefully, the twist in this adaptation is that he DIES.

But this being a romantic comedy, he will end up falling in disgustingly in lurve with his greatest critic and long-term crush, and this being an adaptation of A Christmas Carol, he will reform his ways thanks to ghostly visits from a deceased mentor (played by Michael Douglas) and old associates (this time former girlfriends).

Look, it's not a bad concept and the plot practically writes itself. So you have to wonder what took them so long to get this movie off the ground (production was canned in 2003 after Ben Afleck got axed by studio execs, and revived only last year).

It could be the script – due to the lack of writing talents, the romantic comedy has been in the doldrums for the past decade. The Jon Lucas-Scott Moore team is hardly the epitome of brilliant screenwriting, and it shows in how much they messed up this a no-brainer of a story idea.

There's something very wrong, for instance, with how unbelievably slimy, dislikeable, and off-putting a "Mr Sex On Legs" character turns out to be – for a character who charms women into his trousers, McConaughey's character has zero effective charm in the script. For some reason, Mr Sex On Legs becomes even more creepy and disgusting after his reform, thanks to horrific lines that sound either cheesier and cheaper than his pre-reform cad routine.

Then again, it could be Matthew McConaughey himself, or his legendary lack of chemistry with any female co-stars, or his semi-permanent annoying smirk. After all, Michael Douglas plays his mentor and deceased uncle, and him you can believe charming women into his bed and having them still love him after he's dumped them.

On the whole, this movie has a few genuinely funny lines and gags that are spaced out too far apart between some seriously tedious exposition, and boasts a strong and quirky supporting cast (notably Michael Douglas, and his Fatal Attraction co-star as the mother of the bride) whose efforts are eclipsed by the blandness of the leading actors.

While based on a very interesting and creative twist on the Scrooge tale, this movie ends up making Scrooged look like a revolutionary retelling.

An earlier version of this review was published at incinemas on 11 June 2009

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Still Walking, 歩いても 歩いても (2008) (SIFF 2009)

Happily families stop at ZERO

Families. Don't we just love them? Religious nutters see everything they object to as threatening the sanctity of the (fragile? endangered?) family. The Singapore Government desperately wants people to get married early and have more children, in a decades-long, unintentionally humiliating series of cloying, pollyanna-ish commercials. People living in advanced industrial societies (that includes Singapore nowadays) know better: it's an open secret that the family is one of the most upsetting and unpleasant social institutions to be invented. And better yet, we have an entire genre of eccentric family dramas from East and West to prove it, from Oedipus Rex to The Royal Tenenbaums.

I have no doubt that Kore-eda Hirokazu's film will yet receive a commercial release in Singapore, courtesy of its Ministry of Community Development. It is, after all, a warm family drama that optimistically reaffirms the value of the family. That said, Still Walking presents a quietist Asian take on the more familiar eccentric/broken family more often seen at Cannes and Sundance.

Taking place within the space of 24 hours of a family reunion and death anniversary, the Yokoyama clan - an elderly couple living alone are visited by their children's families - get together for some quality time, amicably chatting away while performing the mundane rituals of family: cooking, eating, looking at old photographs, reminiscing, and gossiping.

But (repeat after me!) it's a family and everyone has problems and resentments. The beauty of Kore-eda's script and dialogue is its naturalistic, anti-theatrical feel. Instead of building emotions to melodramatic crises that demand catharsis, the quotidian presentation of the generic fraying family is low-key and simmering - and very much more realistic than theatrical or deliberately fictional.

Aided by script and ensemble acting, long chapters of bonhomie amidst subtle tensions flare up for the briefest moments to demonstrate Kore-eda's understanding of why family life is resented and feared: Asian families operate on a fine balance between politeness and passive aggressiveness; behind every act of familial generosity is a potential moment of deliberate, tender cruelty and a lifetime of simmering resentment.

The beauty of Still Walking and Kore-eda's script is its optimism - even when the family is the site of passive aggression, people do turn out all right most of the time, despite their very rare and nasty moments.

Monday, 25 May 2009

Son of the Northeast, ลูกอีสาน (1982) (SIFF 2009)

The anxiety of influence

Ostensibly, Son of the Northeast is a historical drama set in the 1930s Thailand, in its Isan (Northeast) province, telling the travails of a small clan of subsistence farmers and their village as a particularly bad drought reduces them to bush living.

I suppose one could enjoy this movie on a literal level, which is encouraged by director Vichit Kounavudhi's moving, documentary-like presentation of this work of fiction. The story plays out like a Thai version of Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali (পথের পাঁচালী), but like many other films, history has caught up with Son of the Northeast, and we can no longer watch it with naive eyes.

I'm referring to the unfolding political turmoil in Thailand, where the source of the troubles hail from its Northeast province and its turbulent denizens - the only beneficiaries of the otherwise questionable reign of Thaksin Shinawatra, and understandably the only parties angry enough to derail the post-Thaksin political process.

And I'm also referring to the fact that the Northeast province has historically been troublesome for Bangkok: the last territory to be incorporated (or annexed) into the Kingdom during its final stage of expansion just prior to the 20th century, its culture, language, and people are more Lao and Cambodian than Thai, and politically rebellious. That the province was renamed "The Northeast" at the beginning of 20th century is a hint at the Bangkok's simultaneous nation-building agenda and anxiety of influence, under which the film actually operates.

While this story is set in the 1930s, the director behind the camera and the author holding the pen are strictly creatures of the 1980s, an era where Bangkok was already casting its nervous to the Northeast.

The nation-building message and its corresponding anxiety over Isan in the film becomes more apparent and unsubtle through time: the villagers (coded as Thai) are set against their ethnic Vietnamese, Chinese and Laotian neighbours (coded as foreigners), who fight a cold war between themselves. The villagers are entranced by a gramophone playing a nationalist song praising the monarch and the unity of the Thai state. They happily send their children to Buddhist temples that double up as schools for the Thai language - a function that came only with the region's annexation by Thailand. And best yet, they call themselves Northeasterners.

With that heavy a burden of historical revisionism and nation-building, it is no surprise then that the film does not end up being the Thai Pather Panchali. As a straightforward documentary-like drama, the film is more than watchable in its recreation of rich ethnographic detail of early 20th century life in Isan, but far more can be gleamed if one is aware of the political anxieties expressed inadvertently in this work.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

The Young Victoria (2009)

Playing at royalty

Before Queen Victoria was a size 50 matriarch, formidable Grandmother of Europe and the most powerful empress Britain had seen, she was an unremarkable princess whose tragedy was being the under-aged heir apparent to her uncle’s throne, and hence a powerless pawn in an aquarium of power-hungry monarchs, politicians, royals, and ambitious men.

The historical drama is 3 parts politics, 1 part romance. The intricacy of portraying power politics of Europe, the royal politics of British monarchy, and the popular politics in parliamentary Britain is tempered by the courtship of Victoria and her cousin and eventual prince consort Albert. As an impoverished minor royal, the prince is yet another pawn in the Great Game, and in a case of real life playing like a good story, the two meet, fall in love, marry, and solve their political problems.

The director's approach is commendable; in the age of trashy, sexed-up, more fictional than historical royal dramas (The Tudors, The Other Boleyn Girl) that The Young Victoria hews to decent storytelling and a reasonable level of historical accuracy. Julian Fellowes's script is respectful to its subject, and displays an ability to carry several simultaneous sub-plots coherently, a skill he last displayed to better effect in Gosford Park.

Alas, The Young Victoria is not the best that it can be. Fellowes may have turned in a competent script, but one does not attract praise for its middling performance: where the movie is a romance, it is not a captivating romance; where it is a political drama, it is not a riveting or engaging political intrigue.

This may not be the worst costume drama ever, but the researchers do make complete amateur-level howlers in their depictions of Victoria's coronation ceremony and royal protocol in the first 10 minutes of the film. In a movie where none of the actors end up speaking in an American accent, everyone speaks in too modern an English accent - and everyone except for the foreigner mispronounces the name of Lord Melbourne. This is disappointing, given that the co-producer is Fergie, Duchess of York. It's perfectly understandable why Queen Elizabeth II kept wincing during her premiere screening of the movie.

The Young Victoria is directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who turned in a brilliant C.R.A.Z.Y. a few years ago. It's clear that the costume period drama is not a forte of the director, and we wish him the best in his future endeavours.

An earlier version of this review was published at incinemas on 21 May 2009

Der Baader Meinhof Complex (2008)

The director wanted chicks with guns...

The Summer of 1969 was the closest the West had to its own Cultural Revolution, with an entire generation of students in open revolt against the political establishment in France, Germany, and the United States. It was a time of peace-loving young hippies, but it was also a time of student revolutionaries who blew up commercial buildings, police and state installations. We call them terrorists today, but these groups had the tacit support of a wide section of their societies. Here, director Uli Edel tells the gripping story of the founders of the German Red Army Faction, depicting their radicalisation from middle class roots, activities as an urban guerilla group, eventual capture, trial and suicides.

All this is too big to be told in a 2.5 hour film. The pacing of the movie suffers from the director’s decision to tell the entire story, spanning over 10 years, multiple generations of the RAF, the changes in its ideology and tactics, and the clampdown by different arms of the not-entirely-innocent German state.

If there is too much to be told, the director compounds his mistake by telling it in a cacophony of Hollywood genres, all badly executed: the Michael Mann action film with Michael Mann camerawork, the documentary on the brutality of German post-war authoritarian leaders, the Bonnie and Clyde criminals on the run film, the procedural noir film with a government agency dedicated to the neutralisation of the terrorist forces and ending the radicalisation of society, the Sophie Scholl prisoner of conscience film, and also the terrorist hijack film.

When a director throws in everything and the kitchen sink to tell everything there is to tell, he loses the overall coherence and flow of his story. By abandoning his directorial duty to set clear boundaries for the story he wishes to tell, Edel ends up skimming the surface of things in an attempt to tell everything.

The Baader Meinhoff Complex could have easily been shortened by an hour, the storytelling tightened and more focused to a laser-like precision. We see the potential for a very German movie about the RAF as the unfortunate inheritors of a strong national tradition of principled and moral defiance of unjust rulers. The bloat also obscures a darkly humorous noir procedural about an Agency man trying to capture and thwart a group that has lost its way despite its high principles, while half-realising his own government has lost its moral authority and purity through the downright dirty actions of its politicians, judges, and police. Quentin Tarrantino himself might have directed an 80 minute dark comedy about the botched training, botched plans, botched leadership, and botched thinking of a wannabe-terrorist group.

If not for the historical importance of his subject and its enduring significance to our times, this bloated and undisciplined movie would certainly try the patience of most audiences.

An earlier version of this review was published at incinemas on 21 May 2009

Friday, 22 May 2009

White Days (2009) (SIFF 2009)

Hell is other people, but when they're your friends, it's a divine comedy

Lei Yuenbing's debut feature film looks and sounds like any feature film from his self-professed director-idols Tsai Ming-liang and Hou Hsiao-hsien: there is minimal action on the screen, from the camera, and the actors in the film. While Lei's penchant for languid pacing, long shots, and completely unscripted dialogue may point towards yet another indie film's indie film-wannabe, this is more of an alibi for Lei's true project - to offer a parody and tribute to local indie filmmaking.

Three protagonists play more or less versions of themselves in real-life: Vel Ng is a translator with a life-long dream to travel to Taiwan to catch Hou and Tsai films where they are made; Chris Yeo is a talkative raconteur in search of a greater meaning to life; Daniel Hui acts out a depressed character from a short film he might have directed.

Bound together by the commonality of their yearning and their articulation of this yearning, the trio stand apart in solidarity from the rest of their world. What makes this film watching though is the commonality of their yearning and their conversations that ironically sets the trio apart from each other. We normally think of dialogue as a bonding process; here in this film, Lei's actors can just speak pass and above each other, building walls of isolation that leave everyone alienated.

Surprisingly, this is not a depressingly angsty film. Lei and his collaborators are fully aware of the ridiculousness of the indie genre as practised in Singapore, and they play up this sense of the ridiculous through their mutually alienating interactions, making even uncommunicative, thwarted, and self-thwarting dialogue sardonically funny.

Much of this film's good-natured ridiculousness comes from Chris Yeo's monologues. He plays his character like John Goodman's Jewish convert and macho man in The Big Lebowski, confidently making completely illogical and incoherent claims about life, the universe and everything while expecting his friends to convert to the saving grace of God. We are sure there's nothing like this character in film, but we certainly remember the hordes of well-intentioned but unwise and annoying Singaporeans doing the same thing in real life.

All in all, White Days is an experiment that is bound to fall either from the weight of its ambitions or its long, dialogue-heavy scenes. The vision of hell as other well-meaning friends, though, is one that you'd gladly pay the ticket price to watch.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Eid milad Laila (Laila's Birthday) (2008) (SIFF 2009)

You won't guess who I ran into today, dear

Students of international relations freeze up when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is raised. But naturally: even the United Nations, that force for global peace and reconciliation, is powerless to solve that most shameful and outrageous problem.

We're talking about a state whose existence was guaranteed as a form of blood payment by Europe for its apartheid and genocide of the Jews through the centuries, yet whose existence currently implies the apartheid of Palestinians and the destruction of their own state.

It's enough to drive anyone batty. Yet the beauty of Rashid Masharawi's short feature (weighing in at a restrained 74 mins) is its refusal to hurl itself into the abyss, to gibber mindlessly at the uncaring stars even when it documents, with a slowly ratcheting moral outrage, the hellish everyday life of citizens living in the Gaza.

In a series of vignettes, the film follows the work and travels of judge turned taxi driver Abu Laila on his daughter Laila's birthday. The fares he picks up form the director's investigation of everyday Palestinian life under Israeli state terrorism, Palestinian state corruption, and a populace struggling between madness and sanity, humiliation and dignity, anger and resigned humour.

While refusing to put on rose-tinted glasses, Rashid Masharawi still manages to avoid the typical liberal shrillness of fellow Middle Eastern directors dealing with the same topic (Amos Gitai et al), and eventually finds the sliver of optimism that fuels the continued existence of everyday Palestinians.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

The Uninvited (2009)

Momma dishes out tough love

Korean cinema is still recovering from the financial collapse and the flight of liquidity that began circa 2007. Let's just say that I'm not one to miss the recent 'heyday' of its films, fuelled by excess liquidity, banking solely on idols, and made with mass production cookie cutter plots.

It's ironic then that the recovery of Korean cinema has relied on the kindness of Hollywood remakes and adaptations of its second-rate offerings, often improving on them in the process (see The Lake House).

The Uninvited is a remake of third-rate K-horror flick A Tale of Two Sisters (장화, 홍련). The original is a typical K-horror flick, exhibiting the best and the worst of its national approach to film in general, and the genre in particular.

The crimes are innumerable. Overweening art house ambitions create a "so lurid my eyes hurt" set design (a twee overdecorated genteel 'English-style' house) just so director Kim Ji-woon can hammer the heads of his audiences with the European faerie tale/Wicked Stepmother motifs, as if they wouldn't get the allegory had he been more subtle about it. Had the script been less pretentious, more coherent, less over-directed, its attempts to make some form of social and psychological commentary might have been appreciated. But no... that commentary hammers its point home through yet another incomprehensible "can you top this?" surprise twist ending.

As the first film of directors Charles and Thomas Guard, this Hollywood remake attempts to take the best of the original film while jettisoning its worst excesses. They generally understand the expectations of non-Korean cinema audiences when it comes to cinematic grammar, script and storytelling, mostly through filming the movie in naturalistic tones and avoiding the over-directed antics of the original.

The result is a modest horror film that more than stands its ground against other Asian horror remakes as well as Hollywood's home-grown gore and shock fests.

Oh, if you must know: Young Anna survives a traumatic household accident that took the life of her invalid mother and is institutionalised in a hospital for several months, reliving that unfortunate night in a series of recurring ghoulish nightmares. The doctor says after 10 months of therapy, she’s ready to go home. Dad hasn’t actually told her she’s getting a new mum, Sis hasn’t actually told her what a bitch their stepmother is, and the director hasn’t actually told her she’ll be getting even more ghoulish visions and nightmares...

An earlier version of this review was published at incinemas on 14 May 2009

Henry Poole is Here (2008)

And all the time, I kept wishing this were directed by Monty Python instead

There's something perverse about Henry Pool is Here. A Sundance film, it technically has the prerequisite traits of a small Sundance indie - a depressed, terminally-ill man (title character, played by Luke Wilson), an assortment of eccentric neighbours with histories, secrets, and private hurts.

What's perverse is its take on faith and the idea of miracles: they do happen, and not in the metaphorical sense. All you need to do is believe. This may be the first ever entry for Sundance which plays like "When you wish upon a star" for adults.

While Henry Poole slowly wastes away from his illness while angsting in self-seclusion (please leave me alone!), a literal miracle happens literally in his backyard. A water stain on Poole’s backyard wall seems to be the face of Jesus, attracting the attention of his neighbours, the local parish pastor, and even more people. As all Henry wants is to be left alone.

If this were an indie film, hilarity would ensue (either in a dark or irreverent style - think of how Kaufman, Monty Python, or Kevin Smith would have approached this material), and a point be made eventually about the human need to believe in miracles.

Except every moment you expect the punchlines to begin, director Mark Pellington decides to play it straight, laboriously and unimaginatively making and reiterating how a childlike, trusting surrender to belief can heal people – both physically and emotionally. And every moment he does that, your bored mind will be rewriting the script according to how you think Monty Python might have written each scene.

By avoiding any critical approach to its subject matter, Henry Poole is a family-friendly, heart-warming film. It is also simplistic and too straightforward to really take on the issues of belief and disbelief. This may be indicative of how fraught with difficulty any discussion of faith is at this point in American history, and the film suffers for it.

While one may fault its approach and predictable script, Mark Pellington's training in making music videos does ensure that at least this film is beautifully shot.

Henry Poole is available on DVD at the Esplanade library as of 25 March 2009.
An earlier version of this review was published at incinemas on 14 May 2009.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Call if you need me (2009) (SIFF)

Still life, deep waters

In the digital age of filmmaking, a lone holdout stands firm. In an era where savvy indie filmmakers put out increasingly slick feature productions thanks to cheap DV cameras, Malaysian director James Lee insists on using a single basic video camera to tell his tales on film.

For his latest offering, Lee and his single video camera takes on the gangster film. As an indie director, he has something radically different to say about the genre, something that he has the guts to stick with and develop to its exquisite end. Lee's highly original premise - as a sort of weird counterpart to Ip Man - is that stripped away of the glamour of the big screen, really-existing street gangsters are just about as charming, dangerous, and pathetic as middle-aged chavs in a mid-life crisis.

The action centres on village boy Or Kia (Sunny Pang), newly arrived to the big city lights of Kuala Lumpur and his cousin and gang boss Ah Soon (musician Pete Teo). Presumably Soon runs some sort of a gang, but we're not sure what they do for a living. They're either a loansharks, debt collectors, or outsourced finance officers for a bank. They're good at what they do, without resorting to violence.

In another continent and another age, this would have been the launching point of a good noir or an anti-noir. There are the grey moral zones (the collectors sort of move in between the margins of legality, dealing with legit businessmen, lawyers, and down and out luckers), the cynicism (it is the police who initiate the first on-screen illegal violence), the world weariness (exemplified by the casting of Peter Teo, who looks like everyone's black sheep sad-eyed jailbird uncle), and the romance of it all...

Yet when it comes to the scenes where the middle aged men downs their ecstasy, downers, pills and beers - there is a sense of quiet, existential pathos than glamour. And their uneasy awareness of an asymptomatic rot in their lives. These are basically decent men in what might be a vaguely indecent world, especially Soon, who despite being a good employer and a nice family man (all that's missing is a tender scene where he pets a stray dog...) ends up being the one who stares into the abyss.

If the self-imposed limitations of short films are said to inspire beautiful filmmaking, James Lee's self-imposed limitations for his feature films have helped him to master the aesthetics of film, the strength of storytelling through long takes, and the parsimony of editing and cutting. While camera movements may be inexorably slow, each long shot is paced briskly, telling as much as it can.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Dean Spanley (2008) (SIFF 2009)

Not a shaggy dog story

Watching Dean Spanley at the Singapore International Film Festival, my mind was brought back on several occasions to memories of listening to the BBC Radio 4 quiz/comedy show Just A Minute, where celebrity guests ("contestants", in the Iron Chef-esque parlance of the show) are made to speak extemporaneously on an unseen subject - without hesitation, repetition, or deviation, for just a minute.

The most entertaining results tend to happen when a guest approaches the given subject from an unexpected, unorthodox angle, to tell a hilariously absurd yet coherent story. And it is this strange, wonderful clash of the absurd and coherent that meet in this film adaptation of Lord Dunsany's short novel, Dean Spanley.

It is - on the surface - a tale about reincarnation, but like the performance of a good, mischievous guest on Nicolas Parsons's show, the magic lies in the eccentric and absurd angle the film takes on the subject, and how coherently it all comes together - even as you're grinning at the sheer lunacy of it all, and wondering how the cast managed to deliver all their lines without bursting into fits of laughter to ruin every take.

But while you're regaled by the sight of Sam Neil as a bland if affable clergyman recalling his past life as a devoted spaniel and raving about the bond between master and dog, there is a simple, emotional tale existing by its side, created through the masterclass performances by Peter O'Toole and Jeremy Northam, who play a wintry, emotionally abusive patriarch and his unhappy filial son.

As a movie, neither the comedy or the emotional drama stand well on their own; yet they come together in a wondrous, sublime manner.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

The Dish (2000) (SIFF 2009)

My first film selection from the Singapore International Film Festival for this year, The Dish is a charming and laid-back Australian comedy set during the moon landings.

Yes, those were great times, when people felt the potential of mankind was limitless and were inspired to greatness, seeing all the records of spaceflight broken. For the first time in decades, people had something to be proud of - first man in flight, first dog in space, first unmanned module to make it in space - as opposed to the dismal firsts of a few decades ago - first global war, first deployment of a thermonuclear explosion on a civilian population... you get the idea.

When Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, it felt great to be human. It felt better to be an American. Everyone else just lived vicariously through the snowy television footage. Unless they were Australians, who were somewhere between vicarious second-hand pride and actual pride, since they provided the titular dish that transmitted the footage from Apollo 11 to the rest of the world.

Of course, this mixture of provincialism and the curse of being aware of one's second banana status doesn't go unacknowledged in this comedy; the disasters and comic situations that happen in the movie all revolve around Australia's second banana and provincial status. It helps that the producers of The Dish are the comedians behind the Jetlag travel guides to fictitious countries - the comedy is light without being lightweight, the social and political observations cutting without cutting it.

The Dish owes a huge debt to Japanese film and in particular, the situation room drama. Most of the action in the movie occurs in the control room of the satellite receiver, and the writers must have made a detailed study of the entire genre, pouring the right amount of personalities, conflicts, and minor disasters and triumphs into the mix. All the characters in this film - from its avowedly apolitical mayor to its mailman - are endearingly and eccentrically drawn in the style of Japanese small-town dramas and comedies. Even the feel of being second banana, without the expectations of bristling angst and wounded pride, is almost what you'd get in a Japanese film with an international plot.

Like I said, the debt owed is huge. But The Dish is probably one of the best and well-balanced control room dramas there is.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Revolutionary Road (2008)

Why so serious?

Early last century, the Americans invented their own genre of cinema: the film noir. At the closing end of the century, another genre: the suburban angst movie. At the heart of both lies a love-hate affair with the city, but unlike the film noir, the suburban angst movie tends not to have any subtlety.

Part of the problem is that urban angst has far less creative room to manoeuvre: it's about how people are slowly driven to boredom, depression, and madness in their failed attempts to escape moral sterility, stifling conformity, and the puritan judgementalism of their neighbours.

In noir, one could at least make its characters in strange situations, make them do very interesting or outrageous things. All while being set in a bleak, fallen world. In urban angst, the furthest one could artistically go would be Little Children.

And then, we have Revolutionary Road, the 1961 novel by Richard Yates that kicked off the entire suburban angst cottage industry. Its cinematic adaptation by Sam Mendes (American Beauty) provides an unwitting lesson about the limitations of the genre, especially in an era where Desperate Housewives is the title of a suburban comedy, not angsty tragedy.

Picture this: Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslett star as an artistic and angsty (movie stereotype alert: it's all the same anyway!) couple who cannot take suburbia at all and are falling apart while making plans to quit and uproot themselves to Paris. Everything proceeds to fall apart because their plans meet a seeming wall.

I suppose one could sleepwalk through the movie and come out of the cinema convinced they've seen a most tragic film. But even the worst intentions of Yates and Mendes fail to deceive us here: this is a startlingly realistic movie about quitters, in the sense that Woody Allen's Sleeper and Terry Gilliam's Brazil are realistic movies about dictatorships and intellectuals in dictatorships.

Just like how the most efficient of dictatorships tend to historically produce the most navel-gazing, ineffectual and politically unaware 'intellectuals', suburbia tends to produce more angsty dilettantes with pretentious to artiness than truly angsty artists.

Hopefully, audiences not sleepwalking or in other states of somnolence will realise by middle of the movie that it is secretly a brilliant and daring comedy whose premise is how people who bitch and moan about how insufferable and soul-destroying suburbia and conventional life are really are insufferable and soul-destroying mediocrities themselves.

The clues are strewn all over the place - the histrionic, tripe-filled and overwrought declamations by the couple, the comedy of manners style naming of every character in the movie, and an otherwise annoying holy fool character whose sole purpose is to make too-accurate observations and analyses about the motive of every character. The screen time is filled with passive-aggressive dialogue where people batter and shame each other into submission, go on and on talking melodramatically about not talking to one another, or worse, about being honest with each other while communicating absolutely nothing. Comedy gold, this is.

As a tragedy, this movie is too full of theatrical tripe to work - you can blame the direction of Sam Mendes for this, and its success as an unintentionally campy flick. As a comedy, this movie is as black as they come. Still, one wonders what Ernst Lubitsch would have made about this American film genre. I suspect he might have laughed Revolutionary Road off, saying "Why so serious? Don't you know that suburbia and middle-class boredom isn't an American invention? Or even that devastating? Go on, it's okay to laugh at it!"

An earlier version of this review was published at incinemas on 16 April 2009

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Valkyrie (2008)

And then they discovered his head made great eraser material

Do not be mistaken: a movie may be based on real people and true events, but it ultimately stands as a piece of narrative where out of a universe of possible facts, only a few are selected and framed to achieve a dramatic or emotional effect in its audience.

Even Bryan Singer's mostly straightforward and by the facts accounting of Operation Valkyrie is not exempt from the artifice of storytelling. The dramatic turning point of Valkyrie occurs near the end, when Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg's martial coup falls apart as the voice of the Fuhrer on the radio rings through the conspirators' makeshift headquarters. The director's treatment of this scene provides a lesson on the deliberate choices that a director takes and those he consciously moves away from, and simultaneously illustrates the movie's strengths and weaknesses.

Told as a political thriller, the scene caps off half an hour of ominous dread of Things Going Wrong, beginning with botched instructions, hesitating coup conspirators, and a German Resistance leadership determined to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. From here on, the failures begin their cascade, culminating with the tragic end of one Col. Claus and the mass execution of the German Resistance.

Yet it's not too hard to picture this scene as an emotional turning point. With just a whisper on the wireless, the Fuhrer puts an end to the coup; his voice sweeping away all compunctions on the part of undecided military commanders to cooperate with Claus's plan, and the previously unshakeable loyalty of most of Claus's rank and file conspirators to his cause. And instead of pointing towards a thriller, the scene suggests rather a character study on loyalty and charisma, and questions that the director elided:

How did Colonel von Stauffenberg manage to break Hitler's charismatic hold on the loyalty of the German army?
How did Colonel von Stauffenberg manage to command, up to that point, an equally mesmeric hold on the loyalty of his co-conspirators?
Why was Colonel von Stauffenberg made the commander of the coup, despite coming to the conspiracy late?

Bryan Singer's political thriller has the Colonel as a German version of an all-American blue-eyed boy. Perhaps it is understandable that given the casting of Tom Cruise, it would have been box-office suicide for Singer to focus on the colonel as a German poet, war hero, and moral philosopher whose aristocratic pedigree, bearing, and moral conviction made him a larger-than-life opponent whose charisma did match Hitler's.

Eschewing the moral and idealistic dimensions of tyrannicide completely, Singer and his scriptwriters concentrate on the story as pure thriller, avoiding the ire of audiences who rarely take kindly to "overacting", especially from actors of Cruise's calibre. Though pacing is generally taut and the tale succinctly told, I am not convinced the tradeoff was worth it - given that the ending was never in doubt (hint: they FAIL).

The second, and greater strength of Valkyrie lies with the quality ensemble acting by its cast, culled almost entirely from the British stage. Far outshining the pared down, almost bland performance of the lead, the veterans offer subtly drawn portraitures of the historical players involved, far beyond what the script provides.

Compared to efforts like Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, Bryan Singer's Valkyrie is a much more mainstream, streamlined, and perhaps too conventional product that takes next to no risks in its treatment of the various attempts by ordinary Germans to protest against Hitler. The movie, though, has no glaring missteps to recommend against it.

An earlier version of this review was first published at incinemas on 19 February 2009

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

18 Grams of Love (2007)

More than love, the idea of love itself, and the words employed to incite the state of love..

Cosi fan tutte, the sex comedy about spouse swapping and mistaken identities, is as politically incorrect as they come. While no one batted an eyelid at the subject matter in Vienna in the 18th c., the moralistic turn in Europe condemned the opera to a historical footnote till its post WW2 revival.

You'd think that Mozart's opera would find new favour in cinema, especially in the age of Judd Apatow flicks and the American Pie franchise, but sadly, no. It might be the idea of mistaken identities; few of Shakespeare's comedies (the ones involving twins, crossdressing twins, and multiple impersonations) have had a decent showing. One could say that the idea of mistaken identities is so dreadfully passe it could only work in a hoary, stodgy narrative like the superhero movie.

And yet, we keep trying. The Singapore Lyric Opera production of Cosi fan tutte in 2006 attempted to keep the shenanigans of the plot realistic by having the impersonations and multiple identities take place in the virtual world, with giant video screens standing in for cyber-relations.

Perhaps learning from the over-enthusiastic and stagey update, Han Yew Kwang's 18 Grams of love romcom posits the 4 lovers in the modern time, but uses a romantic, slightly outdated, and very charming conceit: the anonymous love letter as the means to the spouse-swapping shenanigans.

It's a mature acknowledgement that the story is only slightly outdated (presumably letter writing was the fashion in Singapore's Chinese schools 3 or so decades ago), but still romantic and charming as hell. Accordingly, the set design is suitably boudoir-ish while the cinematography is a succession of whimsical Amelie-esque visuals.

As a comedy, 18 Grams of love is a strong showcase of Han's sense of sight gags, offbeat humour, and cinematography. What pushes it to the top is the cleverly written dialogue, which bears more than a trace of producer Kelvin Tong's fascination with the idea of words, as per Love Story.

The movie benefits from Han's unusual and bold decision to rip out the typical first act, allowing the narrative to hit the floor running without unnecessary preambles found in Hollywood's tired, mass-produced romcom genre. For this reason alone, (though there are more, and more justifiable ones), a trip to the cinema to watch this movie is recommended. Romantics and cynics alike, 18 grams is after your heart.