2001 Reviews

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Castle in the Sky (Japan - 1986)
Voices: Anna Paquin, James Van Der Beek, Mark Hamill
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Plot: A young boy raised as a miner and a girl with a mysterious amulet embark on a quest to find her heritage and the legendary City in the Sky while being chased by sky pirates and an evil government agent.
Review: With Laputa: Castle in the Sky, creator Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke) has created an amazing animated work filled with adventure, memorable characters, and a relevant ecological message. This is a science-fantasy fairy-tale, complex and enthralling, mature enough for adults and entertaining enough for kids. Using a reference from Swift's Gulliver Travels, the film creates a world based on an alternate reality, one where the Victorian age has engendered an amazingly detailed, and beautifully rendered agglomeration of Jules Verne inspired flying machines. Laputa itself is a wonderful Atlantis-like place in the clouds, where technological and ecological balance is still maintained. The film is simply brimming with imagination, and the intriguing story is so well told that one can hardly blink for fear of missing any of it. There is a joy to the proceedings, a real sense of wonder and excitement that is rarely seen any more and that immerses the audience in a story that is vast and compelling with a good dose of humor, some truly thrilling action sequences and deep contemplation, all accompanied by a wonderful musical score. The animation is also first-rate, fluid and colorful, with a clearly cinematic flair for storytelling. With all these things going for it, it's no secret why Castle in the Sky has quickly become a lasting classic, a delightful, brilliant work from a legend of Japanese anime.
Entertainment: 9/10

Clean My Name, Mr. Coroner! (Hong Kong - 2000)
Starring: Francis Ng, Nick Cheung, Stephanie Che
Director: James Yuen
Plot: Having been framed for the murder of his partner and the theft of millions of police money, an undercover cop must enlist the help of a timid, by-the-numbers coroner to clear his name.
Review: Clean My Name, Mr. Coroner! sets itself up as an action/comedy, another outing in the mis-matched buddy movie. Though there aren't really enough comic elements to call it an out-right comedy, nor enough action to call it an action flick, the film manages to mix these into a rather standard hard-boiled crime thriller, with some added drama to boot, to good effect. The comedy comes uniquely in the form of Ng's rather straight-laced, almost goofy-esque character who is unprepared for anything that would disrupt his regimented life. Ng, who usually gets tough-guy roles (The Mission), does a great low-key turn against type as the rich nerd caught up in events he can't deal with. His interaction with usual funny-man Cheung, here playing the straight-guy cop, provides the film with most of its redeeming moments. There are some other interesting bits, however, such as an effectively shot foot chase through city streets. The film eventually suffers from its schizophrenic swings between brutal seriousness and comic slapstick, as well as some rather low production values. However, thanks to a tight script, rapid dialogue, and some good pacing, these drawbacks quickly become secondary. Clean My Name, Mr. Coroner! isn't as original or hilarious as the title would lead one to believe, but it still manages to offer up some amusing, light entertainment.
Entertainment: 6/10

Dead or Alive 2: The Birds (Japan - 2000)
Starring: Riky Takeuchi, Show Aikawa, Kenichi Endo
Director: Miike Takashi
Plot: A for-hire sniper sees his target brutally murdered by another hit-man and, following him, realizes that the killer is his long-lost childhood friend who is now in hiding in their old hometown.
Review: Dead or Alive was an uproarious, energetic, finally insane film that just couldn't be topped, so Dead or Alive 2 doesn't try to, heading instead in a much different direction. The film is part yakuza film, with its explosively violent displays of bloodshed, and part childhood drama, a rather thoughtful, often slow-moving, light-hearted look at the loss of childhood innocence, as the adult assassins go back to the island where they were raised and wax nostalgic about their upbringing, play some soccer under the rain, and perform a mildly vulgar but delightful play for the village's children. Of course, these heart-warming scenes are played amid inter-cutting of intense violence that includes gun battles and dismemberments, as a gang war starts back in Tokyo. The two lead actors are back in different roles, if in possibly the same twisted universe, and are allowed much more freedom to play with much meatier parts. The same rules of logic (or illogic) apply here, giving forth the opportunity for some surreal touches that not only border on the fantastic but actually cross into it as the story unfolds, bringing an unexpected, often bizarre feel to the proceedings. For one, their inner child occasionally takes their physical place in the present, sometimes at the most incongruous moments. What dos it mean? That even as adults we are still the same ones we were as children, that our paths have made us what we are? Heck, how does one approach this movie? Well, like most of director Miike's other works (The Audition, Bird People of China), you just sit back and go along for the ride - it's a mix of genres, full of hilarious comedy, plot twists and clever narrative ideas that defy expectations and will definitely keep audiences on their toes. Dead or Alive 2 doesn't quite always pull it all off, but it's a well-shot, dynamic, always surprising and definitely interesting experience.
Entertainment: 7/10

Ghost World (2001)
Starring: Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, Steve Buscemi
Director: Terry Zwigoff
Plot: Feeling disaffected after having just graduated high-school, two teenage outsiders play a prank on a shy forty-ish record collector and end up forming a friendship with him even as theirs falls apart.
Review: Based on the comic series by Daniel Clowe's, Ghost World is a remarkably faithful adaptation and a clever, different look at teen-age angst. Director Zwigoff (Crumb) manages to capture the essence of the original material perfectly, from the visual imagery (the drab sets, the comic-book-like framing), to portraying that elusive feeling of teen-age fears and the end of innocence. The script is full of sparkling dialogue, amusing one-note scenes, and emotional twists and turns. It exposes the cynicism of youth and yet manages to wax nostalgia as well, providing some interesting even touching moments that carefully avoids the usual clichés, offering a perceptive and honest look at its characters and their lives. It's hard not to sympathize with its three endearing characters who seem adrift and disaffected in normal society, geeks whose perpetual cynicism hides their own lack of self-worth. Because of this, a large part of the film's success lies on its cast and their ability to make these roles come to life, and most especially Birch - from the way she walks and talks to the way she stares, she does a wonderful, utterly convincing performance as the extroverted Enid. Engaging, honest and funny, Ghost World is a highly enjoyable coming-of-age film that really shines thanks to its memorable characters and engaging script.
Entertainment / Drama: 8/10

Gojoe (Japan - 2000)
Starring: Daisuke Ryu, Tadanobu Asano, Masatoshi Nagase
Director: Sogo Ishii 
Plot: After receiving a vision, a legendary fighter turned monk goes on a quest to destroy the demon of Gojoe bridge, a prince who hopes to bring back the glory of his clan by destroying the forces of Kyoto.
Review: Gojoe, loosely based on a Samurai folk tale and Japanese anime, is a minimalist action film filled with carefully set-up imagery. At times slow-moving and thoughtful, the film also counts some of the longest, energetic, quick-cut sword fights in recent memory. The story is typical of the genre, but manages to keep our attention thanks to the use of some imaginative camera shots and focus on some amazingly produced scenes. In fact, what raises the level of this film compared to others of the genre is its use of gorgeous, aesthetic cinematography, striking colors and myriad of beautiful detailed costumes. Unfortunately, after a great beginning, the film starts to drag and the startling imagery so present at first is discarded for rather standard narrative techniques. The fights are all chaos and energetic excess, full of quick edits, decapitations and geysers of blood. These sequences are all well choreographed and well shot, but quickly becomes repetitive as the interminable massacres of the Heinke army take up chunks of 10 to 15 minutes at a time. The final battle on Gojoe bridge, however, is spectacular and adequately climactic as the two "possessed" fighters battle it out under a lightning-streaked sky. The cast performs exactly as we have come to expect from a samurai film where stoic, cold characters show only larger-than-life emotions such as anger and hate. Ryu especially, as the monk, is mesmerizing in his intensity. The story is rather simplistic, but thanks to a fine sense of visual style and some impressive action scenes Gojoe manages to be a rather original take on the standard Samurai film.
Entertainment: 6/10

Joint Security Area (South Korea - 2000)
Starring: Yeong-ae Lee, Byung-hun Lee, Kang-ho Song 
Director: Chan-wook Park 
Plot: A Korean woman born in Switzerland, a representative of the neutral international forces, investigates a shoot-out at a North-South Korean border guard post that has left two North Korean soldiers dead.
Review: Joint Security Area has had incredible box-office success in Korea and it's not surprising - not only is it one of the first films to adequately tackle the emotional issue of the country's separation, but it presents the topic in a perfectly suited mainstream package. The film starts off as a standard military drama, with a mystery and characters clearly in place. Slowly however, in flash-backs, the film unravels the months-long events that preceded the violent confrontation, and it's not what one expects. It's a story of camaraderie, of human beings bridging their differences and of a longed-for rapprochement between the two emotionally charred sides, the Democratic South and Communist North separated for the past 50 years. And this is the film's success, that it manages to uncover and explain to non-Koreans the real divide and antagonism between the two sides, as well as the usually unspoken emotional and cultural bond of a country and a people divided against their will. Better still, it does so by wrapping its main theme in a slick production that moves from a hard-edged procedural thriller (the present) to a warm, almost comic human drama (the past) and back again. Add to this some fine performances, realistic sets, some solid camera work, and a pacing that never misses a beat, and you have a compelling story of a friendship facing a backdrop of political paranoia with a powerful, bitter-sweet ending. Joint Security Area has an important story to tell, and it's a fascinating drama that cleverly aims for, and is sure to be appreciated by, a wide audience.
Drama: 8/10

Metropolis (Japan - 2001)
Director: Rin Taro
Plot: In a future metropolis where technology has run rampant, an investigator and his assistant are thrown into a struggle between the city's elite with their robot slaves and the exploited workers living underground.
Review: Metropolis, the latest feature from Kutsuhiro Otomo (Akira) and Rin Taro (X: the Movie) is an adaptation of a 1949 manga by legendary creator Osamu Tezuka, itself an homage to Fritz Lang's classic silent-era expressionist masterpiece. The film ends up being very close to an homage to its live-action predecessor one in which the story and imagery is familiar, but where touches have been added to broaden its appeal to more mainstream genre fans. First and foremost, the film is a veritable delight to watch, full of incredibly detailed, brilliantly colorful scenes that have to be watched again and again just to take in all the side events happening on screen. As expected from the talents involved, the technical merits of the film are first-rate and the animation itself is superb, with an interesting fusion of styles, blending cel animation for the characters and computer animation for the cityscapes. The design of the characters with their classic, recognizable Astro Boy look, and the grandiose futuristic landscapes are definitely impressive. As for the story, it all starts well, creating a vast, complex template for an epic tale. However it quickly avoids the potential for greatness and succumbs to the trappings of standard anime fare. The political commentary of the original film, that of the worker class revolting against the elitist rulers, is quite diluted here, making way instead for a rather tired story of technology and greed running amok. The ending is spectacular in its destructive excess, but feels forced and is downright disappointing, taking the easy road to tying up all its plot threads. Visually stunning, Metropolis is an anime lover's delight, but a better script would have made this one a true standout.
Entertainment: 7/10

Millenium Actress (Japan - 2001)
Director: Satoshi Kon
Plot: After being in seclusion for 30 years, a popular Japanese actress agrees to be interviewed for a documentary after being offered a prized possession she had lost, a key that brings back memories of her life and her films.
Review: Millenium Actress is many things - an homage to cinema, a character drama, an epic love story, and a complex, fascinating trip through the fictional life and times of a beloved actress where past and present, fiction and reality meld together in the throes of her memory. As in director Kon's impressive first film Perfect Blue, the film is completely opposite mainstream anime, breaking down the usual conceptions of narrative, be it flashbacks or other techniques, and yet manages to flow perfectly, balancing all its various elements to ensure we are never lost. The actress' recollections transports the audience in an brilliant mix of history and cinema, jumping through time and space seamlessly, all held together by a sweet, but ultimately tragic, love story. In fact, these recollections literally carries her interviewers into her past, confusing realities and times, as her most memorable acting parts are recreated and relived. And just like in the best of movies, her memories start to have more meaning than history itself, facts become secondary, lost in the re-telling of her life from her own perspective. The animation itself is clean and beautifully rendered, and is a necessary medium for portraying such an impressive display of narrative imagination, and such a rapid overview of so many Japanese film-making genres. If there is one complaint that can be levied to the film it’s that it is too short - such a vast tapestry of events and ideas could easily have been prolonged. Passionate, nostalgic, humorous, entertaining and appropriately melodramatic, Millenium Actress is simply superb, and will hopefully reach a deservedly wider audience than the standard anime fare.
Drama: 9/10

Once Upon a Time in China (1990)
Starring: Jet Li, Yuen Biao, Rosamund Kwan
Director: Tsui Hark
Plot: In 19th century China, the legendary Wong Fei-Hung must face corrupt government officials, a band of violent local gangsters, a rogue martial arts master, and an array of evil foreign entrepreneurs to protect his school and the people around him.
Review: Often called the ultimate kung-fu flick, Once Upon a Time in China became an instant classic of the genre, and its easy to see why. The action scenes by famed choreographer Yuen Woo Ping (Iron Monkey, The Matrix) are peppered throughout the first half of the film, and are amazing in their inventiveness and raw energy, many of which depict the hero battling a multitude of adversaries with poles, swords, bare hands, and, yes, even one startling scene with an umbrella! But this section also exposes in no uncertain terms a very patriotic political agenda, not so much anti-Western as a pro-Chinese (or pro-tradition) indictment of colonialism, yet one that is tempered with the need to pull China into the modern world. The multitude of characters, all played by familiar faces, show this well: these include the down-trodden master willing to turn a blind eye to injustice for a return to glory (impeccably played by Yan Yee Kwan), or the disciple who doesn't know which master to follow (the always brilliant Yuen Biao), or the Chinese doctor who has learnt abroad and is now an outcast in his own country (played by Jacky Cheung, in fine form). But amongst the serious, there is also a healthy dose of humor which spans the romantic, the clever, and the downright slapstick. Director Tsui Hark (Peking Opera Blues) has puts all his skills on display here, from the excellent cinematography, to the dynamic camera shots and colorful mise-en-scene. The second half of the film, though, is absolutely spectacular as the heroes fight back in a crescendo of jaw-dropping martial artistry and wire-fu, most notable of which is an extended, high-flying battle between the two masters in a warehouse full of ladders and crossbeams. Apart from all its technical and fun-factor merits, the film is also famous for putting international action star Jet Li on the map - his rendering of the Wong Fei-Hung character is perfect, with just the right amount of grace, poise, caring and charm, all this on top of his amazing martial arts abilities, of course. Combining political subtext with some blazing action, Once Upon a Time in Chine revitalized the genre and is easily one of the best, most entertaining films to come out of Hong Kong, or anywhere.
Entertainment: 9/10

Once Upon a Time in China II (1991)
Starring: Jet Li, Max Mok, Rosamund Kwan
Director: Tsui Hark
Plot: In 19th century China, the legendary Wong Fei-Hung faces growing Chinese unrest against anything foreign in the guise of a violent hyper-nationalist sect, and must also defend a patriotic revolutionary from powerful government officials. 
Review: Not quite as impressive or epic-spanning as the first, the sequel to the classic OUATIC is still a lively showcase for the talents of star Jet Li and seasoned director Tsui Hark (Peking Opera Blues). Though the narrative seems to be much more driven and balanced, the straight-forward story isn't quite as interesting though it still manages to unfold at a brish pace. The social commentary, as well, is a little more subdued and much more even-handed, with a political message that tries to examine how best to deal with both the progressive and conservative elements that are still very much a subject in today's China. The action is thankfully still as prevalent, as is the good-natured humor now focusing on the romantic ties between Fei-Hung and his honorary aunt. This time around, Hark ups the ante by bringing us two impressive "final" battles, one against the invincible leader of the White Lotus Clan which sees the two adversaries balancing precariously over a stack of tables, and a climactic bamboo-fighting scene against the Regional Commander, aptly played by first-class action veteran Donnie Yen. Though neither make up for the sheer brilliance of its predecessor, they are aptly inventive and thrilling. Rooted in Chinese lore and history, filled with so much over-the-top martial arts action, and once again brilliantly highlighting the abilities of Jet Li, Once Upon a Time in China II is a worthy sequel to a great film.
Entertainment: 8/10

Séance (Ko-Rei) (Japan - 2000)
Starring: Koji Yakusho, Jun Fubuki, Tsuyoshi Kusanagi 
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa 
Plot: When a psychic medium finds the victim of a child kidnapping case lying in her garage, she and her husband see an opportunity for quick fame. But when the child accidentally dies, they soon have to deal with more than just the police...
Review: With Séance, director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Cure, Cairo) has created a psychological as well as a supernatural thriller, an intelligent, well-crafted film that is much richer than the typical scare-fest. Loosely-based on Séance on a Wet Afternoon, the film mixes in some captivating drama and suspense with a dose of the horror elements distinctly influenced by the popular Japanese horror film, Ring. The whole plot revolves around one ridiculous coincidence, but thankfully the story presents it matter-of-factly and, thanks to an interesting well-written script, manages to pass it off comfortably on its way to exploring the heart of the film, that of its failed protagonists. And the narrative is very much a character-driven, setting itself up as a drama, slowly baring the flaws of the normal couple and then veering into the supernatural. The two leads are impeccable and thoroughly convincing, especially Yakusho as the damned husband. Originally made for Japanese TV, the production values and overall feel make this look like a rushed project, but Kurosawa makes good use of limited resources to convey an atmosphere of prevalent creepiness by a good use of set composition and lighting effects. Indeed, though there are a few chilling moments, the tone is rather more thoughtful than terror-filled, creating an atmosphere of delicate unease instead of fear. In the end, Séance may not be the director's best work, but it definitely is an interesting, effective low-key ghost story.
Entertainment / Drama: 7/10

Wu Yen (Hong Kong - 2001)
Starring: Anita Mui, Sammi Cheng, Cecilia Cheung
Director: Johnnie To, Wai Kai-fai
Plot: A virtuous female warrior vies for the love of the cowardly Emperor but must confront her own suitor, an echantress that can switch between male and female personas who tempts the Emperor as a seductress to prove his/her love.
Review: Based on a popular Chinese folk legend, Wu Yen plays like an old-style farce, like an adaptation of a Cantonese opera with a heavy dose of farcical romantic and political intrigue spiced with modern touches. The script is full of low-brow comedy, gender-bending / cross-dressing shenanigans, slapstick, contemporary commentary, and spiritual nonsense. Yet the story doesn't always play well, bogging down in the repeated comic instances, and its' characters inability to change. The cinematography and the artistic values are also surprisingly lack-luster coming from To and Wai, two directors who have set the new standards for Hong Kong cinema (Needing You, Help!!!), feeling more like a rather rushed made-for-TV production. Still, the costumes are indeed gorgeous, and there are some original touches such as the shadow puppet scenes that act as narration for the heroic battles that take place. The performances of the three female leads are the very heart of the film, as they constantly go about in wild abandon. Canto-pop star Cheng is also terrific as the title character and anchors the movie. Anita Mui, plays the male role (and even playing a male playing a female) with all the over-the-top goofiness she can muster and is especially funny as the superficial and imbecilic Emperor. The rest of the supporting cast, all male, play amusing one-note buffoons that help increase the silly quotient. Wu Yen won't be to everyone's taste, but there's enough amusing moments, and enough wild energy, to make for an entertaining outing.
Entertainment: 6/10

Previously Reviewed Films, Playing at the FantAsia 2001 Festival:

Final Fantasy Jiang Hu: The Triad Zone Swordsman II

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