|Cure (Japan - 1997)
Starring: Koji Yakusho, Masato Hagiwara, Anna Nakagawa, Tsuyoshi Ujiki
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Plot: A wave of gruesome, identical murders sweep Tokyo. Each time, a different murderer is found near the victim and can't explain the reason for the crime. The detective assigned to the case is baffled until the police come upon a young man suffering from amnesia who has a strange effect on everyone who comes into contact with him.
Review: Cure combines different film genres into a true "mystery", captivating the audience with its images and its subject matter. What starts off as a typical crime drama, slowly evolves into a tense, intelligent and often even frightening psychological horror film. The acting is top-notch, especially by Koji Yakusho (seen in The Eel) who plays the conflicted detective. The film was the winner of the 1997 Japanese Critics award, and it's easy to see why. Highly recommended.
(Hong Kong - 1992)
|Dreadnaught (Hong Kong - 1981)
Starring: Yuen Biao, Kwan Tak-hing
Director: Woo-ping Yuen
Plot: A violent killer hides from the police in a theater troupe, and becomes obsessed with killing a cowardly laundry man who keeps escaping him. The coward finally realizes he can't hide forever and overcomes his fears with the aid of his new master.
Review: Director Yuen WooPing is now famous for helping choreograph the action scenes in The Matrix, and his skill in directing action pieces shows here. There's a particularly impressive acrobatic sequence where two rival teams fight while donned in Chinese dragon costumes (only in HK films can you get this type of stuff!). Yuen Biao is good, as always, but Kwan Tak-hing, who had been playing the role of master Wong Fei Hung for over 30 years by the time this movie came out, still steals the show.
|Expect the Unexpected (Hong Kong - 1998)
Starring: Lau Ching Wan, Simon Yam
Director: Patrick Yau
Plot: An elite group of the Hong Kong police must stop two different groups of criminals, one a band of amateur jewelery-store thieves, the other a gang of heavily armed, vicious killers.
Review: The pacing is excellent throughout, mixing the lives of the characters with the progress of their investigations with an even hand. The film is violent, as is required by the subject matter, but never passes into the level of usual Hong Kong excess. The plot has some great twists, which raise it above that of similar HK films. The movie itself is well produced in all respects, and seems to display a more mature style of Hong Kong cinema.
(Hong Kong - 1994)
|Gamera 3: The Awakening of
(Japan - 1999)
Starring: Yukijiro Hotaru, Shinobu Nakayama, Ayako Fujitani
Director: Shusuke Kaneko
Plot: Gamera (the monstrous flying turtle) is back, fighting his nemeses the Gyaos. But this time he must also face the new challenge of Isis, a monster brought back to life by a girl bent on revenge.
Review: Though Gamera was originally created as a kid's version of Godzilla, the recent film adventures have been anything but infantile. Great special effects, decent acting, and good direction go hand-in-hand with an interesting story-line. This latest offering ups the ante with two impressive pyrotechnic sequences of urban destruction as the monsters battle it out. This time, the camera captures the huge casualties such battles incur, and adds a bit of reality not normally seen in this type of movie. Of course, parts of the story remain silly, and some of the interesting plot points are left in the air, but as far as monster movies go, this is one of the best.
(Japan - 1995)
Director: Yasuhiro Imagawa
Plot: A new universal power supply has brought prosperity to all. A young boy and his giant robot join an international team responsible for protecting Earth from a shadow organization bent on world domination that is using a huge energy-absorbing weapon to attain their goal.
Review: Conceived as a set of seven tapes, Giant Robo is a hugely entertaining science-fiction adventure with a cool '50s and '60s Retro style. Combining good animation, an excellent script, interesting characters and thrilling adventure, Giant Robo stands out as one of the best animated features of recent years.
|Hero Never Dies, A (Hong Kong - 1998)
Starring: Leon Lai, Ching Wan Lau
Director: Johnnie To
Plot: Two expert gunmen from rival gangs form a bizarre friendship based on mutual respect. During an assassination attempt, both are badly injured in the ensuing gun-battle. Abandoned and left for dead by their respective bosses, they vow revenge against their former masters.
Review: Combining major gun battles with quiet, occasionally even poetic moments, A Hero Never Dies is a mixed bag of melodrama and over-the-top Hong Kong action. Re-treading the plot of A Better Tomorrow, director Johnnie To still manages to make the film seem fresh and interesting. Of particular interest is the scene where the two adversaries have a test of skill over (many) glasses of fine wine.
(Hong Kong - 1997)
Starring: Andy Lau, Tony Leung
Director: Michael Mak
Plot: A triad boss decides to run for government office in Taiwan. A band of special investigators pursue him at every turn trying to uncover his criminal plots and foil his political agenda.
Review: The story is well written and interesting enough, though there's nothing we haven't seen before in other gangster movies. The film is also well directed, the actors are all good, and the high production values are quite apparent on screen. The problem is that Island of Greed is a film that does not seem to know what it should be aiming for, and tries to please everyone: it is a straight, serious crime drama interspersed with gratuitous sex scenes and several large-scale action sequences full of Hong Kong style excess that seem out of place with the otherwise determined pacing of the rest of the film. Still, it's an entertaining effort, worth watching especially for the impressive taxi-riot sequence and the over-the-top final vehicle showdown.
From Shaolin, The
(China - 1983)
Starring: Jet Li, Chia Hui Liu
Director: Xinyan Zhang
Plot: Two rivaling families, one with only sons and the other with only daughters, finally gang up to defeat a band of evil marauders. All the while, the sons are trying desperately to get their father and uncle married off but are confounded at every step by the daughters' paranoid father.
Review: The Kids From Shaolin is the movie that put martial-arts star Jet Li in the spotlight. As usual the plot is an excuse for good martial-arts set pieces with a lot of good-natured comedy thrown in. Not nearly as sophisticated as later Jet Li releases, but a lot of fun.
|Jin-Roh (Japan - 1998)
Director: Hiroyuki Okiura
Plot: In the 1950's, in a world where World War 2 had a very different outcome, a young Japanese commando, part of a heavily-armed police force, is caught between government forces and terrorist dissidents.
Review: Jin-Roh regroups the team that created the popular Japanese anime Ghost in the Shell. The animation here is striking in its style, using soft lines for the characters, with detailed, almost photo-realistic backgrounds. The story recounts and parallels the fable of Little Red Riding Hood to good effect, creating many interesting (and sometimes ambiguous) moments. unfortunately, the story tries too hard to make a political as well as social statement regarding the inhumanity of people who lose sight of their duty towards society, but gets marred in a banal story of political double-crosses. Still, the film has some great visuals and a decent story and is a must-see for fans of mature anime.
|Millionaire's Express (Hong Kong - 1986)
Starring: Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, Cynthia Rothrock
Director: Sammo Hung
Plot: A shady businessman decides to derail a train carrying many wealthy people near his hometown to bring in much needed income. Unfortunately, a gang of thieves also targets the train forcing the villagers and the train passengers to combine their efforts to stop them.
Review: Millionaire's Express is a wonderful collage of many different movie genres: classic western, martial arts, adventure and slapstick comedy. Amazingly enough, it works! The action scenes are amazing, especially the ones with Yuen Biao, the story zips along, and there are enough zany characters to make your head spin. All in all, a very entertaining film.
|Once Upon a Time in Triad Society 2 (Hong Kong - 1996)
Starring: Francis Ng, Roy Cheung, Cheung Tat-Ming
Director: Cha Chuen-Yee
Plot: Second-rate members of opposing Triad gangs, one morally-corrupt and looking for notoriety, the other a coward and desperate to avoid violence, are forcibly involved in a large-scale brawl in the streets of Hong Kong.
Review: Unsure if it should be a melodrama or a comedy, the film doesn't provide much of either. The story tries to take a different spin to the crime genre, showing "real" people behind the violence, but the story is not particularly engaging, and the characters, though interesting, aren't properly flushed out. It does have its moments, though, (especially the scene when the coward is pushed to kill the rival gang-leader) and ends up being passably entertaining fare.
(Korea - 1998)
Starring: Na Moon-Hee, Park In-Whan, Song Kang-Ho
Director: Kim Ji-Woon
Plot: A family decides to buy a lodge in a remote hiking area. Their first customer commits suicide and the distraught family buries his body to avoid the bad publicity. But their luck gets worse, the bodies start piling up, and the family becomes frantic to rectify the situation.
Review: A very amusing and very black comedy, that plays on the failings of the different family members. A good amount of suspense is combined with the laughs, the film mixing a comedy of errors with slapstick and (many) bloody corpses. Wicked fun definitely not for the whole family.
Starring: Christopher Lambert, Rick Fox, Robert Joy
Director: Russell Mulcahy
Plot: Two cops are on the trail of a twisted serial killer who is dismembering his victims, hoping to use the body parts to recreate a complete corpse and bring about Christ's resurrection.
Review: Though the idea sounds ripe for a supernatural thriller, Resurrection (once again pairing Highlander vets Mulcahy and Lambert) is actually played as a straight-out crime drama. Though the first half of the film will immediately bring another similar movie, Seven, to mind, there are some interesting bits here, but also a lot of unused potential. The film actually seems to be two very different movies tied together, and the effect is a bit jarring, before finally breaking down in the end. Still, the movie progresses at a good clip with the help of some great camera shots, some shocking moments, and a decent script. Predictable, yes, but mostly entertaining.
|Ring (Japan - 1998)
Starring: Nanako Matsushima, Miki Nakatani, Hiroyuki Sanada
Director: Hideo Nakata
Plot: After hearing rumors linking a mysterious video cassette to some horrible deaths in rural Japan, a reporter searches for clues to the origins of the tape to help avert her death and that of her son's.
Review: One of the most unsettling, creepy, well-crafted films I have ever seen. The direction and camera work is impeccable, the story is intelligent and scary, and the editing is superb. The film has no scenes of gore or the grotesque relying instead on the audience's innate fears and imagination. I still have shivers remembering some of the scenes! A smart horror film that will delight any fans of the genre.
(Japan - 1999)
Starring: Nakatani Miki, Matsushima Nanako, Sanada Hiroyuki
Director: Hideo Nakata
Plot: More people are falling prey to the "video curse" that kills anyone who watches it. One of the victim's assistant decides to discover the reason behind the deaths and befriends a young orphaned boy who is inhabited, and being taken over, by an evil spirit. The race is on to stop the spirit and the propagation of the tape.
Review: The producers were obviously trying to one-up the previous film and had more resources at their disposal, but the sequel seems a bit contrived and not nearly as scary. Where Ring had a constant sense of foreboding which made the scary scenes truly frightening, the sequel seems to have gone for the more conventional Hollywood approach (quicker pacing, more killings, more in-your-face horror scenes) limiting its effect. True fear comes from the unknown - once explained or seen, it does not hold the same power. Taken on its own, though, Ring 2 has much to offer, providing a captivating story and enough disturbing and frightening scenes, helped by some good camera work and editing, to give most people nightmares. Not as good as the original, but still far, far better than the standard horror fare.
|Spriggan (Japan - 1998)
Director: Hirotsugu Kawasaki
Plot: Two warring factions fight for control of what seems to be Noah's Ark, a device that can control Earth's weather, using super-powered soldiers.
Review: Katsuhiro Otomo, the animator best known for his classic Japanese anime feature Akira, shows off his talents by combining great imagery, pacing and impressive backgrounds with some great action and an interesting story-line. The scope aims to be grand, and mostly succeeds, but too much time is given to (admittedly impressive) battle scenes to the detriment of the more interesting mystery of the Ark itself. Fans of well-made anime, though, will not be disappointed.
|Shiri (Korea - 1999)
Starring: Suk-kyu Han, Min-sik Choi
Director: Je-kyu Kang
Plot: Two South Korean agents track down a female North Korean killer who is involved in the theft of a new, devastating explosive intended to be used in a terrorist scheme to blow up a soccer stadium.
Review: A huge hit in Korea, Shiri can best be described as an action-thriller with very definite Korean sensibilities. The movie advances at a good clip, the action is well staged, there are some good plot twists, and the background political climate, that of continuing tensions between North and South Korea, is fascinating. The film also delves into a bit of melodrama to very good effect, making the struggle and situation personal. The problem is that in trying to do a Hollywood-style Cold War thriller, the film has fallen into many of the clichés of these Hollywood productions, including some weak plot points and some repetitive action sequences. That aside, Shiri is a good, intelligent thriller that puts most of the American ones to shame.
|Ultraman Tiga & Ultraman Dyna
& Ultraman Gaia: Inter-dimensional Battle (Japan - 1999)
Starring: Takeshi Yoshioka, Gaku Hamada, Mai Saito
Director: Kazuya Konaku
Plot: A young boy discovers a magical orb that allows him to wish the alter-ego of Ultraman into our reality. Things turn ugly when the school bully takes possession of the orb and creates a formidable monster to crush Ultraman.
Review: What can be said of an Ultraman movie? Incredibly popular since its inception in the '60s as a kids TV show, this Ultraman adventure won't disappoint fans of the genre. Starting from an amusing premise, the film quickly jumps into an extended and entertaining monster fight sequence with some impressive effects. Of course, it's still guys in rubber suits, and some of these effects are really cheesy, but that only adds to its charm. Made for kids, but with true nostalgia content for adults.