Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Cowboys 'n Vampires 'n Zombies 'n, um, Thai people.

The Good, The Bad, (&) The Weird

I haven't seen a lot of Korean films. But, between this and The Host, I certainly want to see more. Genre blending (or perhaps more accurately, genre collision course) is the name of the game here, as a Korean director Kim Ji-woon takes on a few of the basic plot elements and visual motives of Sergio Leone's classic Western, splices it with an Indiana Jones style treasure hunting adventure, adds a dash of Hong Kong style heroic bloodshed, and then paints the whole thing in one of the most vibrant and colourful palates I've seen outside of The Wizard of Oz – despite the complete lack of Indiana Jones style supernatural elements, the visual style alone places the film firmly in the arena of the pulp adventure, and Lord am I ever thankful for that.

Plot-wise, we've got the three eponymous characters using an ancient map to find a Qing dynasty treasure in 1930's Manchuria during the Japanese occupation. 'The Good', Park Do-won, is a bounty hunter in a great big duster and a cool hat, who has a prefence for rifles. 'The Bad', Park Chang-yi is, according to my girlfriend, horrifically hot, has floppy hair, likes knives and pistols and generally being a jerk. And, of course, there's 'The Weird' , Yoon Tae-goo (the dad from The Host! Hurrah!), a roguish character who gets about in a pilots cap, is the most human character and for the most part, the audiences frame of reference. As the film goes on, we learn very little about the characters (barring The Weird, who's past occasionally catches up to him... much like his proxy from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, natch), but generally, we don't need to. They're fairly archetypal western adventure characters, and they're there for one reason – to do awesome stuff. And they do. This film is pleasantly action packed, with extremely busy set-pieces to swash-buckle around. Highlights include a gunfight in a black market town, and the 5-way chase scene at the end that has the Do-won and Tae-goo racing for the treasure's prize against Chang-yi's gang, a gang of bandits, and the Japanese Imperial Army! (all set to Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood. It's pretty rockin'.).

Finally, I must mention the utterly frantic, kinetic direction and cinematography. The camera takes full advantage of the set design (or perhaps the sets are taking full advantage of the camera. Whatever!) to bring an incredibly diverse array of shots, angles, tracking and so on. The camera sometimes feels as though it's being strung about the place on a complex series of wires (or at least, flying around under its own power), as it will follow a protagonist across an elaborate set-piece before pushing in to a close up of said character narrowly avoiding getting crushed, and then swivelling around to look at some new threat. And only THEN will it cut. It's truly something to see, and I certainly found it tremendously exciting, as it lent each action scene a an air of continuous, unrelenting energy. In short, a giant 'Fuck you' to the overly tedious, over-produced special effects shots and the hyper-active editing of many Western action films that obscure all sense of what's happening in the name of creating some sort of impressionistic interpretation of events. GBW demonstrates once again that it is quite possible to keep the audience informed of what's happening on screen in an interesting way, and that such cheap tricks are completely unnecessary.

In short, after watching this film, I came away with one major question: Why is an Asian director doing a better Western-style adventure film than the West? Make no mistake, despite the film's obvious Asian aesthetic, at its heart it's a love letter to a particular style of film that has generally been the province of the West for decades. If shifting this genre to a difference continent will continue to revitalise flagging and tedious genres, I can only hope this keeps happening. Fast and the Furious, Cambodian style! Italian Mobster movie as performed by a Malaysian theatre company! Under-dog sports story except done by Hong Kong with crazy Chi-powered moves! Wait, that already happened. It was called Shaolin Soccer, and it was awesome.

Is it entertaining? Extremely so. Every character's a badass, and big coats will always be cool. Unless they are black. That's Matrix-chic and hasn't been cool for a long time.

Is it worth watching? Definitely. There's so much to enjoy about every element of this film that it's hard to imagine anyone coming away totally unsatisfied.

Ong Bak 2

So this film really has nothing to do with Ong Bak. Yeah, Tony Jaa's still in it, it's still a martial arts film, and he still kicks all manner of ass. But it's also set 600 years in the past during a period of feuding states in medieval Thailand. Now, my Thai history is pretty shoddy, so there's not a lot I can tell you about this period, but for the purposes of this film, it really doesn't matter. To be honest, the plot's pretty simple martial arts fair: Tony Jaa's character, Tien (like his name matters. He's Tony Jaa, man!) is the son of a noble, er, noble. His family is killed by an ignoble noble. He falls in with a band of guerilla's/bandits/assassins/I'm not really sure what they are, and learns how to kick ass from a variety of fighters from all over the world. He then uses this knowledge to wreck vengeance on those who murdered his father. Now, yes, it is a simple plot, but here's the thing: during the film it's almost impossible to tell what's actually going on. Scenes jump back and forwards in time a lot, and are often bereft of any particular context. Come to think of it, this often happens when the narrative is trying to be more linear. We'll see Tony Jaa training with his homies, and then we'll cut to him wondering into a cave and fighting some sort of weird vampire person. His mentor figure then shows up and tells Jaa he must be ruthless, so he kills the weird vampire person. That's it. I really have no idea what was going on there. It might have been more training, it might just have been Tony Jaa's bad day for random vampire attacks. Ah well.

However (and it's a pretty important however), none of this really matters. The plot is nigh-incomprehensible, but once little Tien stabs a Crocodile to death, you won't care. And when he back-flips off an elephant and stomps a guy, all your qualms about the storyline will probably be forgotten. And then Tien is attack by crazy Persian-lookin' ninja dudes, and all is suddenly as it should be. Put simply, it is very fortunate for the audience that this film is utterly action packed. Martial Arts films are really just talent reels. We're here for the spectacle, and this film delivers. The film does slow down on occasion, but this is usually solved by having a random cutaway to the bandits killing some caravan, or to Tony having a three round mini-tournament with a succession of international fighters, or to a flashback where there's a fight scene for some reason. It's really marvellously entertaining. However, boo to the occasional use of wire-work. Tony himself doesn't seem to use it, but the appeal of his films (for me, at least) has always been the complete lack of these sorts of stunt props, as well as a lack of CGI. Keep it out of future instalments, y'hear?

Is it entertaining? Do you find Thai dudes fighting hordes of Persian-lookin' ninjas on the back of an elephant entertaining? The correct answer is, of course, yes.

Is it worth watching? Again. Backflip. Elephant. Ignore the plot, and hang out for the spectacle. You'll be alright.

Blood: The Last Vampire

Based onthe Production IG Original Video Animation of the same name, this is a bit of a mutant creature. Despite its Japanese character's and setting, it's a joint French/Korean/Hong Kong production, filmed primarily in English, with action scenes that either adopt Zack Snyder's habit of playing with film speed, or clearly inspired by Wuxia style Chinese fantasy. Its mythos is definitely Japanese, though, so I dunno, it all feels a little weird. Oh, and I should also mention that it has little to do with the Anime series Blood+, other than they both draw on the orignal OVA for inspiration.

Blood: The Last Vampire, then, is the story of a Japanese school girl named Saya who kills demons with a sword. Except that she's actually a fairly old vampire who kills demons with a sword. I guess they just feel she looks fetching in a fuku. Anyway, she infiltrates a school for the children of US servicemen on Okinawa, looking for more demons to kill, with a particular eye for the biggest, baddest demon Onigen, who had betrayed and murdered her father. It's also set in the 70's during the time of the Vietnam War, but this isn't really relevant. Most likely, it was so they could use random afro disco demons at one point, which, I have to admit, is the best reason to set anything in the 70's at all. Oh, Saya's also got the support of an ancient organisation called The Covenant, who don't like the demons either, so that kind of works for both of them. Yeah. Plot's not really all that interesting or important, and you'll probably pick out the twists far in advance of their occurrence.

A couple of interesting things about the film: there are a few scenes which are near exact recreation of scenes in the original OVA, which is kinda nifty, and at least shows some respect for the source material. Of course, anyone familiar with the source material knows that there wasn't really a lot of depth to the thing, so the story is expanded a fair bit. In fairly melodramatic directions. But, if you can get past that, there's quite a few action scenes to enjoy. There is a pretty major problem with them, though: really quite bad special effects. The blood is all CGI, and doesn't look or act remotely like blood might. The demons, when they transform into their inhuman state, are likewise pretty shoddy constructions, and make for a bit of an eyesore whenever it happens. In fact, the only really effect shot that I feel really works is the film form of Onigen, which is based on an old Oni image and is actually rather nifty. Never-the-less, all the actions scenes are kind of hampered by these effects, particularly when the whole thing keeps swerving between self-aware campitude and excessive melodrama. Some of the action has its eye firmly on cheesy good times (such as the aforementioned afro demons), but all too often we get scenes which are probably supposed to have some sort of gravities for the characters come off as overwrought and silly, and that isn't very good for the story.

I don't know, I really don't know what to make of this. I guess you could enjoy it if you'd ever wanted to know what a Chinese fantasy story with a Japanese flavour would look like, but there's too many glaring faults for me to really recommend it.

Is it entertaining? ...Bits of it. Kinda.

Is it worth watching? I can't really endorse it, but it's fairly harmless. Watch the Anime spin-off Blood + instead.


Eep, a Western film? I BROKE THE PATTERN.

Anyways, pretty good fun, this. Follows the adventures of a neurotic, awkward teenager Colombus surviving in post-zombocalypse America. He meets up with fellow survivors: Tallahassee, the gun totin' wisecrackin' redneck; Witchita, con-woman love interest; and Little Rock, con-little-girl and generally child. If you're noticing a theme with the naming, well, give yourself a button – they're all known for their areas of origin, and for the most part, that's all we know them as. This, of course, ties into a pretty damn prevalent theme about deliberate distance and alienation, and all eventually ties in to a sweet moral about trust, and learning to rely on others and the importance of companionship and family. Aw.

But yeah, this is a comedy. Furthermore, this is an extremely genre-savvy comedy. Whilst I wouldn't say that knowledge of previous zombie films is a necessity to enjoy this film, and there are few if any deliberate and obvious shout-outs (beyond the fact that there are zombies and they have eaten everyone), the entire past 30 years of the genre weigh heavily upon each and every scene of the film. Accordingly, the film uses this weight to lead the audience around by the nose several times, both fulfilling expectations and, at times, subverting them. To be perfectly honest, it doesn't really break any boundaries, but that's okay. This is pretty much the scenario every geek has had in their head for decades: when the zombocalypse goes down, it is those condition in the school of John Romero et al who survive. That said, the film is no where near as bleak as a Romero film. Sure, civilisation (or at least, America) is basically totalled, but hey, at least killing zombies is fun!

Like its trans-Atlantic cousin, Shaun of the Dead, the film has been structured as a straight zombie film as opposed to a parody or farce, and that's one of the keys to its enjoyment factor. Characters are not just gag-vehicles, and there's nothing really hokey about it (though there is a certain degree of action-movie logic to the whole affair. Well, alright, there's also a celebrity cameo. But it's funny! Honest!). Humour is born from dialogue, mostly by contrasting Columbus' idiosyncratic personality disorders with Tallahassee's callous disregard for anything besides killing zombies and searching for quaintly American spongy cake-things. The girls are less interesting, this has never really been a genre known for its female character's, so it doesn't really bother me so much. It's also a very modern incarnation of the zombie film: zombies run, and have more in common with the 28 Days Later variety of rage-infected lunatics than with the Romero zombies or yesteryear. There's also a lot of slow motion in the action scenes, but that really seems to be par-for-course nowadays.

Is it entertaining? Yeah, it it'll do.

Is with worth watching? For holiday entertainment, you could do a lot worse.

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