2003 Reviews

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Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)
Starring: Bruce Campbell, Ossie Davis, Bob Ivy 
Directed by: Don Coscarelli
Plot: The real Elvis Presley, now aged, forgotten and stuck in a rest home, must team up with an inmate who thinks he's JFK to battle an age-old Egyptian mummy from using the facility's helpless residents to feed itself.
Review: Based on the short story by author Joe R. Lansdale, Bubba Ho-Tep sounds and often looks the part of a cheap, silly B-movie, but manages to lift itself up from its limitations to provide a solid, engaging narrative. Though the production values are nothing to write home about, the script has enough wit, charm and good-natured (though R-rated) humor that it's hard not to root for its sad but tough protagonist. The horror elements are kept to a minimum, strangely enough, the filmmakers preferring to spend its time on its main characters and his thoughts. Sure, the occasional caricatural drawls do come up ("thank yew, thank yew verramuch"), but there's a real heart to the proceedings, and some terrific dialogue, that makes it all worthwhile. As for the mummy, it barely registers oher than another typical monster / excuse, and the final confrontation lacks any originality or cleverness to make it memorable. But then, that's not the real point of the exercise. Genre director Coscarelli (Phantasm) manages to blend the horror and comedy elements just about right and stays true to the original story and the required tone. Fan-favorite Bruce Campbell takes on the role of The King and imbues him with a terrific character, more-so than the real Elvis ever showed in public, and single-handedly raises the status of the film. Ossie Davis is charming enough in a very secondary role as the fellow inmate who believes he's JFK, but there's no stretching his acting abilities. True, the film might have benefited from a little more polish, but then it might not have been quite as engaging. All told, there's enough chutzpah and charm to be had in Bubba Ho-Tep to make genre fans (and non-fans) enjoy a very different entertaining experience.
Entertainment / Comedy: 6/10

Double Vision (Taiwan - 2002)
Starring: Tony Leung Ka Fai, David Morse, Rene Liu
Director: Kuo-fu Chen
Plot: After a series of bizarre, mysterious murders with ritual markings, an FBI profiler travels to Taiwan to help a troubled local cop hunt for a serial killer who may be using an ancient prophecy to attain immortality. 
Review: On occasion, even a somewhat derivative affair can make you stand up and take notice thanks to just the right combination of elements, and Double Vision is in such a category. Slightly apart from the new wave of Asian horror, the story effectively combines the darkness of Seven with an X-Files like procedural to provide an interesting, thoroughly intriguing mystery thriller. The movie has just the right amount of creepy atmosphere, cop-buddy bonding, and careful gore to keep even the most blasé of audiences involved. The horrific and possibly supernatural elements of the story are also well presented. Aided by high production values and slick mainstream filmmaking what we get are very effective thrills and spills, emerging from an engaging narrative. There's also some fine directing by Kuo-fu Chen, who gives a polished sheen to the well-paced proceedings. The cast makes for much of the success of the film, especially when it's in the form of two such underrated actors as Morse and Leung, both of whom show a good, unforced chemistry together. Sure, we've seen this type of gruff banter and growing respect thing before, but their solid performances provide a very necessary anchor to the film's more flashy (and sometimes violent) moments. New fans to the Asian genre will appreciate the use of an American protagonist to bridge the gap into this exotic world, and the rest of us will enjoy the jokes at his expense. It's unfortunate that the climax, reminiscent of the type of what we've come to expect from the stuff that Hollywood churns out, almost undermines the rest of the film after such a terrific build-up. Still, though the ending is a tad disappointing, there are enough good elements here to make Double Vision a worthwhile supernatural thriller.
Entertainment / Horror: 7/10

Godzilla Vs. Megaguirus (Japan - 2000) 
Starring: Misato Tanaka, Shosuke Tanihara 
Director: Masaaki Tezuka 
Plot: A new super-weapon created to destroy the rampaging Godzilla opens up a gateway between dimensions and lets in a swarm of giant insects that are attracted to Godzilla's power source.
Review: After a half-successful attempt to create a more "serious" Godzilla (see the failed American remake Godzilla and Japan's own take on the legend in Godzilla 2000), the venerable King of the Monsters is given new life with Godzilla Vs. Megaguirus. Taking a step back to the more comic-book style and feel of the early installments where monster-on-monster fights (as well general destruction) were the order of the day, the film delivers some old-time thrills. As an adversary, the giant flying bug actually comes out OK, even if the effects aren't quite up to Western standards. Same goes with the rather cheap special effects (including the rubber suits), but then most of the G films have always been low-budget affairs, and that's part of its charm. But the man-in-rubber-suit Godzilla generates a definite pang of nostalgia for those of us who watched the series as kids, and it definitely provides the giant lizard with more emotional range than any computer-generated creature could have. Not to say that the film doesn't have its share of CGI, of course, but the cities remain true to the cardboard models of old. What most of the G movies lacked is a good pacing between monster moments, but thankfully director Tezuka knows enough, and cares enough, to make these go at a descent pace without eveer forgetting the occasional tongue-in-cheek moment (see Godzilla do a jumping smackdown on the villain). An added plus is that the characters, for once, don't annoy and even the plainly derivative background story (usually just a throwaway to center the action) moves along well. It's unfortunate that the story dismisses much of the previous background of the character, but there's enough here to please fans. In the end, the production values are adequate and the monster action is light and lively making Godzilla Vs. Megaguirus a fine entry in the stalwart franchise.
Entertainment: 6/10

Green Snake (Hong Kong - 1994)
Starring: Maggie Cheung, Joey Wong, Chiu Cheuk
Director: Tsui Hark
Plot: Two immortal snake-women seeking to explore the pleasures of the human world seduce a young scholar but are pursued by a zealous, powerful Buddhist monk who strives to maintain the world order.
Review: Based on a classic fantasy tale of Chinese literature and adapted as part comedy, part fantasy, and part social commentary, Green Snake definitely impresses. For anyone other than director Tsui Hark (Peking Opera Blues, Time and Tide), this would have been an ambitious undertaking. However, he has never been one to shirk away from difficulty and here he surprises with a work that is visually opulent for such a low-budget production, and whose unbridled inventiveness bellies grander productions. Sure, the special effects are, for the most part, quite poor (if not downright cheesy) to Western eyes, but it is so beautifully shot and excessively over-produced, and shows off Tsui Hark's terrific style and imagination to such great effect, that one can dismiss these minor failings. Hark also never misses an opportunity to comment on the political turmoil of Hong Kong, and some may see an anecdotal take on the then-looming problems of Chinese repatriation. There is also a definite moral tale in the narrative, lashing out at religious hypocrisy and social conformity. But these are only part of its charms for there's something for everyone here: romanticism and melodrama, wit and humor, fantasy and magical combat, all given careful attention and, in the typical mainstream Hong Kong way, all given the wildly over-the-top treatment that we've come to expect. None of this would have been half as good, however, without the participation of its two female stars. Both show a willingness to get into their parts with abandon and, though theatrical to the extreme, help us get into the characters. To be fair, for those uninitiated the film may appear to be too bizarre, too disjointed to make much sense, and it's true it does need a certain attention and acceptance on the part of the audience to be enjoyed. It may not be a classic, but for those willing to go the distance, this is the director's Art-House film, and it's a delightfully interesting experience.
Entertainment: 7/10

Inner Senses (Hong Kong - 2002)
Starring: Leslie Cheung, Karena Lam, Waise Lee 
Director: Bruce Law
Plot: A workaholic psychiatrist becomes emotionally involved with one of his patients, a young independent woman who is convinced she sees ghosts in her new apartment, forcing him to uncover some scars of his own.
Review: Inner Senses, Hong Kong's latest attempt at jumping into the supernatural bandwagon, is a respectable entry in a fast-growing genre. Though much of the film could be seen as a decent ghost story, with the appropriate tingling and creepiness required of the genre, the film takes what seems to be an abrupt turn into the childhood psychological issues of its main character. The idea is an interesting one and the process is well achieved (with a limited amount of violence or cheap scares), but when it tries to crank up for the film's climax, it devolves into a second-rate Ringu wannabe. Worse, it gives a close-up to its child monster (bad make-up and all) and loses its audience with what could have been poignant, but ends up being clichéd, sentimental denouement. It's a fine effort for what appears to be a rather low-budget affair, to be sure, with the right amount of gloomy atmosphere and keeping up audience uncertainty as to whether things are real or imagined, but the script could have used a bit more of a polish. With its subject of protagonists looking into doing themselves in to escape their own inner demons, it's odd to think this was international star Leslie Cheung's last film before committing suicide earlier this year. However, his performance, that of Karena Lam as an emotionally fragile young woman, as well as that of the rest of the cast are uniformly solid and help make the film easier to swallow. Though a bit too uneven in its tone and mix of genres, Inner Senses does provide the occasional scare and makes for a decent twist on the Asian ghost story.
Entertainment: 5/10

Kick the Moon (South Korea - 2001)
Starring: Lee Sung-jae, Cha Seung-won, Kim Hye-soo 
Director: Kim Sang-jin
Plot: Two old high school acquaintances, one now a phys ed teacher and the other a big-time gangster, both fall for a noodleshop owner at the same time something that complicates their new-found camaraderie.
Review: The plot may be "high concept" but mixing elements from the gangster flick and the romantic comedy, Kick the Moon is just an excuse for an enjoyable time at the movies. Director Kim Sang-jin follows up on his extremely popular Attack the Gas Station! with this lower key affair, and comes up a winner. The zaniness of his previous effort is still visible on occasion (especially in the gangster parodies and the final brawl), but he's taken here a more sentimental approach - be it the feeling of nostalgia, the coming-of-age bits, or even the familiarity of its situations. Oh, there's ample tongue-in-cheek mockery in evidence as well, and the humor is for the most part light-hearted and much less subversive. Though there are the usual (and surprisingly well executed) fights and violence we've come to expect from crime dramas, the real battle is for the heart of "the girl", and though the film finishes with no clear-cut winner, it's the low-down and sometimes even bloody battle that ensue between the two suitors that makes for much of the comedy and entertainment. Above all, however, are the carefully scripted interactions between this love triangle, and the three terrific leads flesh out their characters to a point not normally experienced in this type of comedy. Indeed, despite their flaws (and they're usually pretty big ones!), the characters are quite sympathetic and feel real enough, helping make some scenes even funnier, and make even the slower portions of the film thoroughly engaging. With enough wit, charm and polish to make most Hollywood productions blush in shame, Kick the Moon proves that Korean mainstream cinema is taking over.
Entertainment / Comedy: 8/10

The Legend of Gingko: Gingko Bed 2 (South Korea - 2000)
Starring: Kim Seok-hoon, Kim Yun-jin, Seol Gyoung-gu
Director: Park Je-hyeon
Plot: Born to an evil clan to be a sacrifice, a young woman escapes and is protected by a tribe of gentle warriors, but her past catches up to her when the clan discovers her whereabouts.
Review: Very different in style and substance to the original Gingko Bed romantic fantasy, The Legend of Gingko is a tale of sword and sorcery, a sequel (or prequel) pretty much in name only. Relating the tragic love story only seen in flashback in the first film, the movie is a strange beast, full of crosses, double-crosses, violent love triangles, and syrupy melodrama. Oh, and some swordfights, too. The fighting is hectic and frenetically edited, and there's enough of it to please die-hard fans who might be non-plussed by the more romantic aspects of the film. Though well enough directed by Park Je-hyeon (who did the much-better Shiri) and featuring some fine landscape cinematography that will remind viewers of The Lord of the Rings, nothing can help the fact that the whole affair is quite derivative and predictable. There's evidence of some decent production values for the most part, though some instances can't help but remind one of the '60s Hollywood style of clothing and sets (including a very Stargate-like portal). The script drags more often than not, and the ending (which ties to the first film) could easily have been cut by a good half hour. The real problem is that none of this is engaging, and the characters never really garner much empathy from the audience. Heck, the center of all this attention, brotherly hatred and romanticism is just your basic spineless damsel-in-distress. We're supposed to believe these people will kill each other for her? Not a chance. Both as a love story and as epic fantasy, The Legend of Gingko fails to really make a mark, and sometimes even gets both exasperating and (the real kiss of death) boring. It may be enough for some, but for everyone else, stick to the original.
Entertainment: 4/10

Musa, the Warrior (South Korea - 2002)
Starring: Jung Woo-sung, Ahn Sung-ki, Zhang Ziyi 
Director: Kim Sung-su 
Plot: Exiled to the desert by the Ming dynasty, a Korean diplomatic envoy made up of soldiers, attachés and slaves is given an opportunity to redeem themselves when they help a Ming princess escape the clutches of her Yuan captives.
Review: A Korean-Chinese co-production, Musa, The Warrior is a heroic historical epic in the grand tradition full of brooding atmosphere, honorable soldiers, violence and melodrama. This is the most expensive Korean film ever made, and the production values show it: the fine costumes, cool characters, and impressive, brutal combat sequences all make for a visually arresting tale. Director Kim Sung-su freely admits to trying to imitate such filmmakers as Kurosawa and Sam Peckinpah in his approach, mixing elements from classic samurai films and American Westerns. And it pays off: the beautiful cinematography of both the desert vistas and the violent battles is a pleasure to watch, and there's no denying that every shot is technically impeccable. If there's a downside, it's that too much attention has been spent on making the film look good, at the detriment of a more interesting or engaging story. Oh, the plot plays out like a modernized version of The Seven Samurai, but without taking the time to really make us believe in these characters (leaving them pretty one-dimensional) it never quite engenders our sympathy. The script could have also used a but of editing, especially in the last third, and a few less blockbuster-like clichés. As for the cast, everyone is quite able, if a little cold. None, not even star Ziyi, really makes much of an impression here. Though it's a lot of style over substance, perhaps, for those looking for a grand old sword epic without the usual fantasy elements Musa, The Warrior does deliver the goods.
Entertainment: 7/10

My Sassy Girl (South Korea - 2001)
Starring: Jeon Ji-hyun, Cha Tae-hyun, Yang Kum-young
Director: Kwak Jae-yong
Plot: After saving a drunken girl from possible injury in a subway, a likable college student ends up with more than her bargained for when she eventually bullies her way into his life.
Review: Based on an on-line diary, the extremely popular, mainstream romantic comedy My Sassy Girl is a downright crowd-pleasing experience with a flavor all its own. The film is clearly split in two halves (plus an epilogue). The first half plays pretty much like a straight screwball comedy, including some brief spurts of gross-out bits and lots of humiliation, embarrassment, and general slapstick aimed at our poor hapless protagonist. This section also indulges in some well done, amusing imaginary passages of a movie script in progress, which includes parodies on sci-fi action, romantic melodrama, and sword-fighting fantasy flicks with the two actors playing major roles. The second half tones down the comedy elements and eventually shows a real undercurrent of sentimentality, eventually ending in pure melodrama. Yet we've invested in these characters, and - though this is a commercial product with commercial sentiments - there's a satisfying payoff at the end. Director Kwak Jae-yong masters the different elements, styles, and situations quite well, and has made a polished, well-produced and enjoyable affair. One of the most important factors for the genre, however, are the stars and here the two young actors are excellent in their respective roles. Popular singer and TV personality Cha Tae-hyun makes the leap into film and his naive and doey-eyed looks prove to be quite charming, while Jeon Ji-hyun, in a role that's half bitch half heart-broken waif, just steals the show. The two have a great chemistry together - their relationship is bizarre, seemingly one-sided and dysfunctional, but their burgeoning romance doesn't feel forced at all. Though not altogether original, My Sassy Girl is a refreshing take on the light-hearted romantic comedy and one can't help but fall in its spell.
Entertainment: 8/10

Phone (South Korea - 2002)
Starring: Ha Ji-Won, Kim Yu-Mi, Choi Wu-Je
Director: Ahn Byeong-Gi
Plot: A journalist follows a trail of mysterious deaths while trying to uncover the secret behind her new cell phone's horrifying calls and her niece's strange new behavior.
Review: The latest entry in the Asian horror craze, Phone plays well with the genre conventions while adding its own flavor to the mix. A blend of slasher film trimmings, ghost story, supernatural horror, and a surprising whodunnit twist, some of its parts are very reminiscent to What Lies Beneath or Ringu, among others. Though for the most part the plot follows the formula for this type of horror / suspense flick, the film also plays with our own expectations, adding twists and turns to the story. Thanks to some very slick production values, solid shadowy cinematography, and a judicious use of special effects to enhance the creepy atmosphere, the film manages some unnerving scares instead of the requisite gory chills. Oh, there are a few cheap jolts, accompanied by the requisite throbbing soundtrack, but for the most part it provides some genuine thrills. There are some faults, to be sure: the narrative doesn't always follow through, the script has plot holes, and the pacing doesn't always flow. But though it's not terribly original, and some of it is quite predictable for genre fans, director Ahn Byeong-Gi manages to effectively bring all the different parts into a quick-paced and consistently entertaining whole. The cast is adequate for the different roles, but the real standout is the downright eerie and mature performance of the young daughter; though not quite at The Exorcist level, her possession turns out incredibly believable and scary, including a particular stair scene that you wouldn't see in any Western film. In the end, while it won't put the genre on its ear, Phone is a fine little supernatural thriller that will have you looking at those pesky cell phones in a very different light.
Entertainment / Horror: 7/10

Returner (Japan - 2002)
Starring: Takeshi Kaneshiro, Anne Suzuki, Goro Kishitani
Director: Takashi Yamazaki
Plot: Traveling back in time from a world on the brink of destruction, a young woman from the future enlists the help of an expert hit-man-for-hire to stop an alien invasion from ever happening in our present.
Review: Let's just get one thing straight: as an SF action-thriller Returner never tries to be anything more than super-slick, high-gloss, popcorn entertainment, and it this it work beautifully. Created as an effects-driven mainstream effort to win back some of the audiences lost to American films, it's an unabashed imitation of the Hollywood blockbuster formula yet one that manages to maintain a Japanese flavor, especially to those familiar with the country's anime fervor. Taking ideas (heck, entire sub-plots!) from such contemporary sci-fi classics as The Terminator, Independence Day and E.T., and throwing in some Matrix-like action sequences for good measure, the film threads various trailer-savvy scenes into one silly whole. It might not make for great narrative, but it's never boring and the computer effects are top-notch. Said action sequences (from the impressive futuristic flashbacks to the well-choreographed modern gun-play) are quite dynamic and entirely thrilling, even for jaded movie-goers. Sure, some of the plot points sound ludicrous (a UFO crash-lands and is captured by a local gangster), or too coincidental (said crook just happens to be the man who killed our hero's childhood friend) but it's all part of the comic-book charm. More difficult is the inconsistent pacing, changing from one instant to another, from intense world-threatening moments to quiet, charming instances (such as the girl from the future trying on fashions in a high-end store - while the end-of-the-world clock is ticking). Hong Kong pretty-boy Kaneshiro, replete with blowing leather jacket, cool demeanor, and double-fisted guns, makes a rather engaging hero. The rest of the cast, from the cute girl-warrior Suzuki to gangster Kishitani (a man who really chews up the scenery), also all work out fine. Despite its obvious lack of originality, Returner knows how to entertain a mainstream audience raised on American media, and by throwing in everything but the kitchen sink into the storyline it ensures audiences will never be bored.
Entertainment: 7/10

Sakura Wars: The Movie (Japan - 2001)
Director: Mitsuru Hongo 
Starring: Chisa Yokoyama, Michie Tomizawa, Urara Takano 
Plot: In an alternate 1920's Tokyo where steam and sorcery have become prominent, a team of young girls protect the city by fighting demons in special combat suits and must face off against a very powerful American entrepreneur.
Review: Sakura Wars: The Movie is definitely a mixed bag. The film is an extension of a popular Japanese TV series (itself based on a video game), and it shows. For one, the story and chirpy, bubble-gum characters (all under 18, both special agents and part of an Operetta Troupe) are only given a very shallow treatment, as if viewers are supposed to be in on the back story of this particular "steampunk" universe. Fans of the series might get more out of this than most, perhaps, but its too fragmented to really be enjoyable. Second, the animation, a combination of traditional cel drawings and some decent computer graphics, is nothing to write home about and definitely not in the league with more modern movie fare or even the production company's own gems such as Blood: The Last Vampire or Ghost in the Shell. Though there are some interesting bits here and there, and the mechanized combat sequences are quite enjoyable in a chaotic sort of way, the plot itself is derivative of many a various anime. Oh, there's potential here, but the movie just doesn't bring enough to the table to really make an impression. Add to this a terrible opening sequence (a musical number) and some might just give it up as childish nonsense. Thankfully, a well-done (if incoherent) climactic battle adds some action to the tale, and a surprisingly engaging final stage act provides more interest than all the rest of this short movie. Mixing different tones and genres, Sakura Wars: The Movie is entertaining enough for those in need of a quick anime fix, but others should stick to a much better choice of recent imports.
Entertainment: 5/10

So Close (Hong Kong - 2002)
Starring: Shu Qi, Vicki Zhao Wei, Karen Mok
Director: Corey Yuen
Plot: Two sisters take on the most difficult assassination jobs for hire helped by a satellite program that taps into video-surveillance equipment, but are faced by a tough female cop seeking justice and a vicious band of criminals.
Review: The popular Hong Kong bullets and babes genre, that had its best moments with the '80s series In The Line of Duty, gets an extra boost with So Close. Mixing high-tech gizmos, typical Hong Kong cheese and three athletic, pretty Asian actresses and letting them loose to kick butt with the best of them, is a recipe that promises a lot. Adding to this the veteran hand of director Yuen (Dragons Forever, Enter the Eagles) and we've got a film that actually delivers on its promise of a satisfying (if mindless) over-the-top action flick. Oh the script is downright silly and completely logic-prone but this a typically throw-away movie plot, an excuse for some fancy martial arts and eye-candy - and for fans of the stars, in more ways than one thanks to the numerous poses and close ups. There's even some unconvincing melodrama (who wants romance here?), but thankfully these are kept to a minimum. Director / choreographer Yuen's real strength is, of course, in the action sequences, and the film doesn't disappoint in that department. Indeed, the fight choreography is top notch and exciting, the gun battles and car chases appropriately thrilling, and the pacing rarely lets up. Of note is a terrific sequence in an elevator, a girl-fight mid-way through, and even a playful fight scene in a bathroom! The whole affair is also quite slick visually-speaking as if trying to capture the feel and look of that savior of the genre The Matrix, and the dynamic fighting, editing and decent camera-work on display (all helped by a large amount of computer effects) helps us forget the more ridiculous moments. And the film wins, hands down, the prize for the most broken glass! Fans of the genre will lap this up, and those in the general audience that can put their sense of disbelief on hold will enjoy an excellent example of HK excess.
Action: 8/10

Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance (South Korea - 2002)
Starring: Du-na Bae, Ha-kyun Shin, Kang-ho Song 
Director: Chan-wook Park 
Plot: To secure enough money to help his ailing sister get a kidney transplant, a deaf-mute steelworker makes a desperate attempt at kidnapping a rich businessman's young daughter, but events take a bloody turn for the worse. 
Review: Vengeance is a dish best served cold, and that's definitely true in Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, a bleak, well-told tragic tale. Touching on black-market organ trade, healthcare system problems, and a definite sense of overall social malaise, the plot is complex and well-told, and though some story links aren't obvious the film definitely repays the attention required. Some of the sequences are somewhat understated, perhaps, but when things go awry (and boy do they) the progressive events bring on a very strong emotional impact. There are some realistically brutal moments here (including a torture by electricity and a beating with a baseball bat) but these are never gratuitous. Director Chan-wook Park (who also made the extremely popular Joint Security Area) takes us on a gritty ride through a self-made hell and adds a heavy dose of pathos as well as a touch of black humor. Park never delves into the downright sentimental; the narrative is almost clinical in its depictions, making the emotional engagement that much more felt. There's also no fancy camera work to be seen, only some careful cinematography and a visceral capturing of people at their worst. The cast is all excellent, especially the two leads, men at odds and seeking "just" retribution. There's a definite distancing in the way the characters are viewed, and much of the sympathy that's engendered for the characters is more for their situation than for themselves. You don't go as far as caring for these characters, but there's a definite understanding involved to the cruelty that is done in the name of revenge. In fact, the people here all seem to be pushed by escalating events and fodder for an implacable destiny, pulling them into a dark, downward spiral and tragedy. There is no redemption or happy ending here, and that makes the film all the more powerful. A really dark, hard-boiled thriller that eschews the typical exploitation or entertainment elements, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance hits hard.
Drama: 8/10

Previously Reviewed Films, Playing at the FantAsia 2003 Festival:

In the Line of Duty 4 Saviour of the Soul

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