2004 Reviews

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Angel's Egg (Japan - 1985)
Voice actors: Mako Hyd, Jinpachi Nezu 
Director: Mamoru Oshii
Plot: Two strangers, a young girl protecting a mysterious egg and a soldier on an unknown quest, meet in a ruined, deserted city in a world out of time.
Review: A stark, brooding fairy tale, Angel's Egg is a forgotten masterpiece from the director of the modern animation classic Ghost in the Shell, Mamoru Oshii. Compared to more standard anime fare we've come to know, this is quite unabashedly an Art film, an experimental exercise in both graphic art and existential angst. If you're prepared for the slow, deliberate pacing, the hushed tones, and the rather static presentation, the film will be a revelation of what the medium can be: hauntingly beautiful, strange, and heartbreaking. The narrative follows these two lost souls in a lost world, their quiet routine, and their first meeting, though most of the focus is on the young girl and her large, mysterious egg. A lot of painstaking effort is put on mood and atmosphere, and for this alone the film gets high marks. Surreal scenes abound, the most memorable of which follows phantom harpooners chasing shadow fish across the empty cityscape. Yet for the most part, the filmmakers take great pains to minimize movement, using editing tricks and static scenes to create a hypnotic narrative, at the same time offering up stunningly realized dark imagery that has been brought to life with delicate, unusual care. The limited dialogue, when it first appears half-way through the film, seems intrusive, it's sole purpose laying on the oft repeated question "Who are you?", one that never gets a response. Oshii has set out to make a work that is thoughtful and metaphorical, filling it with Christian symbolism and careful nuances. Yet the exact meaning is never really clear. Is he criticizing Man's faith in a higher power? Though little happens here, the story's characters and their actions remain mysteries, finally raising more questions than it answers. It's up to audiences to speculate. Considering it's short running time, little patience is really required to admire this work. For fans of typical bubble-gum anime Angel's Egg will be nothing but a tedious bore no matter the length, but for a more mature and demanding audience, or for true for connoisseurs of anime, this is an achingly sumptuous work of imagination.
Animation / Drama: 8/10

Azumi (Japan - 2003)
Starring: Aya Ueto, Yoshio Harada, Aya Okamoto
Director: Ryuhei Kitamura
Plot: Trained as an orphan to become an expert assassin, a young woman and her childhood teammates follow a master samurai sworn to kill off the warlords who would be suitors to the throne in war-torn feudal Japan.
Review: Based on a popular Japanese manga (comics), Azumi harkens back to the classic Samurai action films with a heavy dose of modern sensibilities and violent, kinetic action sequences. But while the whole thing looks darn pretty, for the most part it's by-the-numbers. Director Kitamura's brilliant, energetic style so obvious in the indie action flick Versus is unfortunately toned down here, the camerawork isn't as frenzied as his previous work, and what visual tricks are inserted seem at odds with the rest of the film. The wry humor is also down-played, though there are some terrific instances of crowd-pleasing moments (including one of the best beheadings in film history). As for the core attraction - the action - there are ample swordfights with brigands and mercenaries to be had, but they quickly become repetitive, and there's not enough invention in the choreography to make it special, though some cool, quick ninja fights break the monotony. On the plus side, there are parts that seem straight out of the comic page, from its plot, sensibilities and action sequences. At times there's so much gushing blood, it's downright humorous, as intended. Unfortunately, there's too much emphasis on getting the characters and the story, but with so little emotional resonance in the bland melodrama it fails to be anything but filler. There's a stab at some introspection concerning the heroine's plight as an assassin, as she wavers between her mission and normalcy, but there are only shallow attempts. Worse, much of the film is sometimes surprisingly slow going; at a bloated 140 minutes, it could have done a second editing. Japanese pop star Ueto looks the part and gets the stoic stance down pat, but she's rather unconvincing as the fabled killer. The rest of the young cast do OK, but are no match to the adult supporting cast who go at the parts with gusto. Too bad that some potentially interesting characters (especially the villains, including a Monkey-look-alike Ninja and a white-robed, rose-brandishing effeminate master killer!) only get brief flashes of actual personality. All this, however, can be excused as a set-up for the literally explosive climax set in a run-down village, giving us a chaotic half-hour melee of opposing forces as our heroes face 100-to-1 odds. It's a violent bloodbath concluding with a thrilling one-on-one battle that harkens back to Kitamura's earlier works. For those who have already experienced Japanese sword-and-sorcery films, this isn't anything new. Still, Azumi is a violent, well-produced flick that knows how to entertain but just lacks that extra touch to make it something truly special.
Entertainment: 6/10

Blueberry (France - 2004)
Starring: Vincent Cassel, Juliette Lewis, Michael Madsen 
Director: Jan Kounen
Plot: A lawman raised by Indians must face crooked adventurers in search of gold and a hardened killer from his past who seeks to steal the local tribe's mystical powers.
Review: Loosely adapted from the European graphic album series by Moebius, Blueberry is not a typical Western. This confection is a blend of Sergio Leone Western-style action, modern romance, New Age mysticism, and Indian Jones adventure. Surprisingly enough, it all works. A quarter of the way through the narrative filled with the usual Western trappings (including violent gunfights, some brawling, horse chases, and even a scalping), the movie takes off on a more esoteric track. Like all the best tales, this is one of self-discovery as well as one of revenge - it's just that this "inner journey" literally delves into a drug-enhanced trip complete with extensive computer animated hallucinations. From here, the real heart of the film has become a Shamanic fantasy, where the real goal involving the power to trap souls. The climax isn't fought with guns but as a psychic battle within the spirit world. Action buffs may not be impressed by all the talk and non-standard fare, but true fans of the genre and of cinematic epics will be quickly taken in. The film is tagged as one of the most expensive French productions, and it shows on screen, not least of which is in the gorgeous cinematography of the landscapes and people. It's a stand-out work from director Kounen (who's last claim to fame was the violent, off-the-wall heist flick Doberman) who directs the whole thing in a serious, almost loving tone. The dialogue might be forgettable, but the story is thoroughly engaging, with a definite European flavor to the narrative that deftly avoids veering into camp or self-consciousness. Leading-man Cassel has the definite look and mannerisms down pat for the role. He's helped by a solid international cast that look and act the parts to perfection. The standout, however, is Madsen as the evil White-skin mystic: he just embodies the role. Blueberry will definitely confuse and bewilder some, but audiences ready to take a chance will be entranced by this visually splendid, entertaining and rich take on the classic American Western (see extended review).
Entertainment / Drama: 8/10

Cutie Honey (Japan - 2004)
Starring: Eriko Satoh, Eisuke Sakai, Hairi Katagiri
Director: Hideaki Anno
Plot: When a pretty super-powered android's scientist uncle gets kidnapped by an evil organization that threatens the city, she teams up with a female cop and hot-shot journalist to save the day.
Review: Based on the popular '70s anime, Go Nagai's R-rated manga / anime Cutie Honey makes a delightful, almost family-friendly jump to the big screen. As a thoroughly engaging romp that never takes itself too seriously, it often surpasses its animated origins. Director Hideaki Anno, best known for his anime work on Neon Genesis: Evangelion, gets it right on his first go, recreating the dynamic energy, silliness and candy-colored imagery of the original cartoons. Everything from the flamboyant villains and colorful costumes to the amusing misadventures is lovingly recreated and remain faithful to the feel of the books, putting more charm in every minute than most blockbusters do in their entire running length. The over-the-top action set-pieces that bookend the film are straight out of a comic book fantasy with lots of computer effects, large sets, and inordinate amounts explosions. To save on budget, a stylistic decision to show the more "expensive" shots as animated collages works remarkably well. Yet, though the real action is limited to a terrific intro and a climactic battle, the rest of the film stays sharp and entertaining by playing well with the main characters and some odd situations. Sure, it's all bubblegum for the brain, but it's also quite sophisticated in its silliness. In a wink to its school boy fantasy premise, from the hilarious opening sequence the film takes every opportunity to see our protagonist in bra and panties, but this teasing is done with such naive insouciance that you can't help but laugh. In tight pink spandex and revealing armor, the comely titular character is gloriously portrayed by Eriko Satoh, naive in her sexuality, chirpy in demeanor, and in full Gril Power mode when ridding the world of evil. Even the exaggerated acting only makes the character all the more sympathetic and sweet. With its crazy action set pieces, campy shenanigans, and wonderful art direction, Cutie Honey is that rarest of breeds: a successful anime adaptation that will have you smiling long after the credits have rolled.
Entertainment: 8/10

Doppelganger (Japan - 2003)
Starring: Koji Yakusho, Hiromi Nagasaku, Yusuke Santamaria
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Plot: A talented but stressed-out inventor inadvertently brings forth an evil twin of himself who assists him in doing the unconscionable things his real self could never do.
Review: Doppelganger starts off as a typically deep and intensive Kurosawa thriller that quickly devolves into black comedy, with equal parts goofiness and twisted cruelty. The story supposedly veered from the script as they were filming, and it shows: just like the protagonists, the film seems to have a split personality, and the two have a hard time consolidating. There are some imaginative bits mixed in with the tale, but these never seem to come to fruition. Even the horror aspects, so important at the beginning, are quickly shoved aside for rather tame, long-winded comedy. To be sure it's never predictable, but neither is it emotionally or psychologically relevant, one of the things that has always marked director Kurosawa's previous efforts (Cure, Sance, etc). The result is a film that's not consistent enough to be truly engaging or suspenseful. All this could have been partly saved by slashing the subplot regarding the construction of a wheelchair-like machine for paraplegic; it takes up way too much time and ends up being nothing but unnecessary filler, neither advancing the story nor revealing anything new regarding the main character. In fact, there's no reason for any of it. Still, many scenes show the director's humorous touches and skill at drawing out his protagonist's worst qualities and veteran actor Koji Yakusho does an admirable job at portraying both sides of the coin. He's helped, of course, by some low-key special effects and some clever camera-work and editing. In fact, some of these cost-cutting tricks (including some screen splits) give the film some much needed stylistic touches. For those patient enough, the half-hour climax, a chaotic, slapstick chase where everyone tries to steal the invention and back-stab the partners, will keep you guessing. Though a decent take on the idea of the "double", Doppelganger is ultimately a minor effort from such a great director.
Entertainment: 4/10

Fantasia (Hong Kong - 2004)
Starring: Cecilia Cheung, Lau Ching-Wan, Louis Koo
Director: Wai Ka-Fai
Plot: In 1969, a trio of bumbling detectives uncover a magic lamp whose novice, just-as-bumbling female genie tries to grant them three wishes.
Review: Made in the spirit of the 60's and 70's Hong Kong comedies / musicals, Fantasia is a "Chinese New Year" affair, which usually means lots of familiar faces from the HK pool of stars as well as a nonsensical narrative, slapstick comedy, general insanity, and colorful, immature fun - and the film offers it all in spades. It's an obvious homage to the popular flick Private Eyes and its ilk, with the lead cast imitating the original Hui Brothers trio from that classic detective spoof and trying to imbue the film with the same charm and slapstick humor. Apart from the retro shtick, the film also spoofs everything from Harry Potter to Bruce Lee, including an extensive parody of the kitchen sequence in Jurassic Park with a large toy dragon. Though there's an overall story here somewhere under all the sub-plots that pop up and just as quickly disappear, it's all completely forgettable and secondary to the film's main goal, that of being a silly, surreal, and chaotic experience. It doesn't always work, and many of the scenes will provide more groans than laughs, but there's so much going on, one skit so quickly replaced with something new, that even through the misses it keeps its momentum. Director Wai Ka-Fai (Needing You, Wu Yen), a veteran of countless colorful films, shoots every disparate sequence with just the right touch of flair and energy. And it's clear everyone here had great fun filming this over-the-top prank, though none of the cast "acts" so much as contorts, expounds, clowns around or mugs for the camera. On the downside, Fantasia is just not very accessible to non-Asian audiences (the silliness and antics might be just too much for some and there are too many references particular to local cinema and customs), but with so much going on, this farce does have its moments.
Entertainment: 6/10

Ginger Snaps Back: The Beginning (2004)
Starring: Emily Perkins, Katharine Isabelle, Tom MacCamus
Director: Grant Harvey
Plot: Lost in the 19th-century Canadian wilderness, two sisters seek refuge in a trading company outpost only to realize that the unfriendly, desperate inhabitants have been terrorized for months by werewolves that have kept the fortress under siege.
Review: A prequel to the cult favorites Ginger Snaps I & II, Ginger Snaps Back was made as a direct-to-video horror effort and taken on its own merits, its a fine addition to werewolf lore. The snow-covered woodlands is a very different setting and a different take on the material from the previous two, and it makes for a nice change of pace. Though the Shaman mysticism is dicey, the story gives some background history to the supernatural events of the original films. The two sisters are back strangely enough in a story set 150 years before the original film, and leads Perkins and Isabelle do a fine job once again, though the strength of their bond isn't quite as obvious here. It's also good to see a film that doesn't take itself self-consciously, yet allows for some humor. On a production stand point, this is easily the best-looking entry of the three. The sets, costumes, frozen locale, and even the strange set of characters all work wonders to bring the series to another time. The film also provides the requisite tension, ample gore, some terrific werewolf effects and some crowd-pleasing payback, all packaged in a nice Gothic setting. That said, it's too bad the plot and script doesn't give it a solid enough foundation. Taken as part of the series, audiences will quickly realize that it lacks the wit, chutzpah, intriguing storyline and feminist track that fans expect. Not to say it's not worth a look, but the sense of foreboding is lacking. Though it tries to capture the paranoia and isolation within the walls of the snow-bound fortress, it doesn't quite use its premise to best effect. Worse to some is that all the best parts come only at the end, and the on-going story doesn't quite have enough meat to it to keep us excited throughout, with a sub-plot involving a werewolf child that takes up quite a bit of running time and just doesn't pay off. Another mistake is the anachronistic dialogue (read swearing), obviously meant to show the sisters can "kick ass" (and they do), that only breaks the sense of the era. Note that some might also be disappointed that we don't get a chance to see any creature transformations this time around. As for the players, it's a surprisingly strong Canadian casting which includes David LaHaye, Tom McCamus and Hugh Dillon as the misogynistic priest. Too bad none of them really get a chance to flesh out their characters beyond the stereotypes. Ginger Snaps Back is a fun, well-made Werewolf flick, but one that's ultimately forgettable and not quite up to par with its brethren.
Entertainment / Horror: 5/10

*Classic* Godzilla (Gojira) (Japan - 1954)
Starring: Akira Takarada, Momoko Kochi, Akihiko Hirata
Director: Ishir Honda 
Plot: A giant, prehistoric creature is awakened by underwater nuclear testing and goes on a rampage in Japan, while a young couple try to convince a reluctant scientist to use his dangerous creation to stop it.
Review: Though King Kong appeared 20 years previously, Godzilla hit a chord with audiences world-wide that really ushered a brand new genre, that of the giant-monster movie, a fact that deeply influenced future Japanese sci-fi films. Before the series became campy entertainment for kids in the 60s and 70s, there was this original take on the classic monster. Serious, dark, and meant for adult audiences, it was a focus of the fears of a Japanese population still shocked by the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The film's message of peace is second only to its warning of Man's folly with Godzilla, obviously a metaphor for the A-bomb, as an unstoppable force of Nature awakened by our mad attempt at harnessing dangerous forces. The main story will be familiar to anyone who's seen any of the films, including a scared populace, an ineffectual army, a hero scientist, a primordial creature, and (of course) lots of destruction. Though the personal dramas are simplistic and the general acting is pretty sub-par, the overall effect is that of a moral tale, with the spectral references to nuclear contamination / radiation always in the background. The man-in-a-monster-suit is obvious, but it's the allegory that's the point, not the tepid romantic triangle, the scientist's ethical "Frankenstein" dilemma, or the monster himself. For fans of monster-mayhem, the lengthy destruction-of-Tokyo sequence makes up for any overly dramatic bits. The effects are mostly pretty primitive with a heavy reliance on rather unconvincing models, and the visuals of destruction can't compete with modern sequences of city-wide destruction, but it still holds quite well with some scenes downright impressive-looking, especially for its age. It helps that director Honda was looking to make a scary, poignant film, with the monster only half-seen in the darkness and the rampage meant to be harrowing, not thrilling. Future sequels were produced purely for entertainment value, but try the original again - you'll be surprised at the pathos to be found in this "monster movie".
Note: The version dubbed Godzilla, King of the Monsters that played for American audiences is a horribly cut version of the film with added footage of Raymond Burr spliced in to make it more "palatable". Forget that version - check out the uncut version now released for the monster's 50th anniversary.
Entertainment / Drama: 7/10

Immortal (Immortel) (France - 2004)
Starring: Linda Hardy, Thomas Kretschmann, Charlotte Rampling
Director: Enki Bilal
Plot: As a strange pyramid hangs over future-era Manhattan, a cast out Egyptian god inhabits the body of an escaped politcal prisoner to impregnate a mysterious young mutant with blue hair in order to retain his immortality.
Review: Based on the first two volumes of director / screenwriter Bilal's own deep, rich graphic novel trilogy Nikopol, Immortal is an impeccable adaptation of a classic work of imagination. What first leaves an impression is the look of the film: the brilliantly conceived visuals, the beautiful virtual sets, the glaring colors, it all makes for an absolutely gorgeous production that brings the original's illustrations to life. Even the superb computer animation, from the complex, chaotic cityscapes, to the many "upgraded" and strange virtual denizens la Final Fantasy, is expertly combined with the live-action, all brought together with a distinct European flair. Yet despite it's blockbuster-like effects this wasn't made to be a mainstream action flick but a deliberate, dramatic experience into another time and place. In fact, the real thing going for the film is the story-driven narrative with its thoroughly engaging, and surprisingly mature, SF plot imbued with fantastical elements. The three main characters are very different - the ancient god Horus, a brooding on-the-run rebel, a femme-fatale mutant afraid of becoming human - each with their own intricate back-story and dreams, all brought together by the strange pull of fate and the need for love and/or procreation. The story of the triangle at the heart of the film criss-crosses with different sub-plots that develop various socio-political aspects and themes of class, technology (particularly eugenics) run amok, and abusive governments. Great stuff! On his third try after the interesting but flawed Bunker Palace Hotel and Tykho Moon, writer / director Bilal finally masters his craft and lavishly brings to the screen a wonderful, rich, and vastly textured universe at times nightmarish and depressing, at others wondrous and exhilarating. Some scenes might be too slow or "talky" for viewers used to fast-paced fluff and it's a bizarre tale, for sure, one that's doubly daring for such an expensive endeavor. But for those ready for something more than just the same old stuff, this is an experience not to be missed. This is a technological leap forward for French cinema and, all told, Immortal deserves a place with other visionary works like Blade Runner as relevant and exciting science-fiction.
Science-Fiction / Drama: 9/10

Ju-On: The Grudge (Japan - 2003)
Starring: Megumi Okina, Misaki Ito, Misa Uehara
Director: Takashi Shimizu
Plot: A young couple and everyone who comes in contact with their house become victims of a curse that keeps a mother and her child, killed there years earlier, tied to the mortal plane.
Review: A big-screen remake of the direct-to-video series, Ju-On: The Grudge has been unfortunately over-hyped as being "the scariest movie ever made". An obvious imitator of Japan's own Ring, including shadowy, atmospheric scares and Sadako-like ghost, it's easy to understand its cult status. Though the production obviously shows its limited budget, there are some scenes of genuine creepiness, even one or two that will give definite goose-bumps. Much like its famous predecessor, the film has little blood or gore, relying more on some primitive effects and good camera work to deliver its atmosphere of dread and decay. Yet though director Shimizu is conscious of all the cinematic tricks required, he just doesn't have a real good grasp of keeping a consistent mood. It doesn't help that the film lacks a cohesive story, perhaps, being made up of eight separate episodes set in a chronologically chaotic manner, each focusing on one victim. It's obvious the film is only meant to give audiences the willies by killing off its characters in new ways. Keeping its supernatural creatures appearing in the corner of the eye provides more jolts in the beginning of the film than showing them clearly later on. The poor (or non-existant) effects means that once the monsters appear for any length of time, the whole affair looks pretty silly thus breaking any tension. The real downer though is that the film has too many inadvertently funny moments, and the young ghost - a young boy slathered in blue paint - is just not that scary, though his unexpected appearances will make some jump. In the end Ju-On: The Grudge offers up some spooky moments, but audiences who have already seen any other film in the same vein will not find any of particularly memorable.
Horror: 5/10

Last Life in the Universe (Thailand - 2003)
Starring: Tadanobu Asano, Sinitta Boonyasak, Laila Boonyasak, 
Director: Pen-Ek Ratanaruang
Plot: After their lives intersect following a terrible traffic accident in Thailand, a shy, obsessive-compulsive Japanese librarian hides out from gangsters in the beachside home of an outgoing and messy young female hostess.
Review: The dreamy, bizarre Last Life in the Universe starts with a suicide attempt, follows up with a double killing, a fatal accident, and then switches gear into a dark romantic comedy mixed with fantasy elements. This is not a typical love story by any means. Though there are occasional bursts of criminal, almost slapstick violence, with an amusing cameo by shock director Miike as a Yakuza lord, the humor and gangster aspects are really peripheral to the budding relationship between the two main characters. The film focuses on the themes of loneliness and despair, as the two very different souls (one a suicidal loner, the other desperately unhappy) who can't even speak the same language (both communicating with a smattering of English, Japanese and Thai) discover things about each other. Slowly, they form an odd bond, sharing their miserable existence, waiting for something to happen to break the monotony of their lives. In these intimate moments the movie really shines and tugs at our spirit as much as our heart. The two leads are also terrific, especially Asano who plays against type. The film is both weird and wonderful, enticing by the quiet script and direction which allows silences and visual cues to be just as important as its limited dialogue. To note however is that the delicate, deliberate pacing is at times entrancing, at others just plain slow, making this an affair that definitely requires patience. But it's so atmospheric and beautiful to watch thanks to the cinematography of Asian mainstay Christopher Doyle that those who can wallow in the wispy, dream-like visuals will slip into the right mood. The conclusion is properly tragic for such a depressing little film, yet there's a sweetness that lingers. Though it's not quite a masterwork, Last Life in the Universe is an offbeat confection that will leave a lasting impression.
Drama: 7/10

The Legend of Evil Lake (South Korea - 2003)
Starring: Jun-ho Jeong, Hyo-jin Kim, Hye-ri Kim 
Director: Kwang-hoon Lee
Plot: In a kingdom plagued by constant rebellions, the spirit of a vengeful sorcerer takes over a peasant girl to seek vengeance on the Royal heiress and only a strong general with a link to both of them can stop him.
Review: The Legend of Evil Lake harkens back to the Hong Kong fantasy epics of old, but with a distinct Korean approach to story-telling and pace. For sure, there's more emphasis on the tragic love triangle and the central character's dilemma between love for his peasant wife and his loyalty to the Queen than there is on pure fantasy. In fact, with its story of jealousy, honor, and period intrigue all told with overly theatrical sentiments, this feels like an opera that's been put to film. Case in point, the ending so overly tragic as the two lovers are separated in an (over-) extended under-water scene that you expect the cast to burst into song (only the music does). Some editing would have been called for. It doesn't help that the actors are pretty, but don't really show actual chemistry together. Not to say this is boring, as director Kwang-hoon Lee keeps things moving, or at least provides beautiful shots of sumptuous locales from castles to dark forests. The action sequences are split between somewhat passable swordfights between armored forces and magical, CGI and wire-enhanced battles between demons and magicians, some of which are brilliantly executed. Yet, while more coherent than most of the HK genre, the film is also rather ponderous, lacking the striking energy that is usually associated with the best of its ilk. Like most, the story and characters are short-changed for the visuals. But what great visuals: like many similar Korean productions of recent years, we're witness to impeccable, gorgeous production values, sets, and costumes that go hand in hand with some fine cinematography to make for a professional-looking package. Those familiar with Asian sword-and-sorcery flicks will undoubtedly find The Legend of Evil Lake only average, but with the paucity of recent additions to the pantheon, it's worth a look.
Entertainment: 5/10

Natural City (South Korea - 2003)
Starring: Yu Ji-tae, Yun Chan, Jeong Doo-hong
Director: Min Byeong-cheon
Plot: In a future Seoul, a member of an elite police force turns to criminal means to provide the resources to save a female android whose short lifespan is coming to an end, only to get involved in a conspiracy to take over the city.
Review: Natural City is something of a rarity outside the North American cinema arena: a slick, good-looking sci-fi drama that aims for blockbuster status. Though the story unabashedly steals its overall premise and plot details on Blade Runner, right down to the android hunters and its theme of impossible love, the filmmakers really try to invest the film with more than just the same old thing, taking the premise and running with it. It's definitely been made as a mainstream adventure flick with a love story at its core, but there's more SF meat here than most. However good intentions aren't enough, and the story remains altogether shallow and uninvolving. One of the big issues is that we're faced with is not a hero but a cad, a man who has left behind all honor, loyalty and apparent common sense to ensure that his android survives past her expiry date. But why? The attraction between rogue cop and artificial companion is not really shown, so we have no understanding of the emotional bond between them - and this is the romance that's supposed to be the center of the film. To make up for this, the story add some poorly defined but entertaining sub-plots, including an evil genius trying to take over the city. The dramatic ending comes after an extended showdown, as a slow motion, operatic tragedy, something that seems to be a recurring thing lately in Korean films. By the end, you're left wondering what exactly the point of the movie is. Plot aside, however, the look and feel of the film is just grand and worth the look. The futuristic visuals of the city is terrific and the production in general is way above average, even when compared to Hollywood's big budget flicks. The effects are a combination of well-done miniatures, impressive-looking CGI and full-scale sets which adds a very polished look to the film. As for action, the movie blends in some well-done The Matrix-like sequences and gunfights, especially the intense climactic pummeling, but there too few and far between to tag the film as a must for adrenaline junkies. Still, though it's finally disappointing, Natural City's slick production values, good cinematography, and solid pacing help make this a worthwhile and exotic-looking affair sure to please most sci-fi aficionados.
Entertainment: 7/10

One Missed Call (Japan - 2003)
Starring: Ko Shibasaki, Shinichi Tsutsumi, Goro Kishitani
Director: Takashi Miike
Plot: A young woman fears for her life after her school mates are mysteriously killed by a supernatural force following a cellphone message sent by themselves, 72 hours in the future.
Review: Using the premise of Korea's Phone, One Missed Call is an above-average - if rather standard - studio package following the Ring craze. The story is well-paced and keeps our attention, but what could have been an interesting theme - that of the prevalent use of cell phones in present society - is relegated to mere gimmick, one that's soon cast aside for the next amusing and frightening opportunity. The supernatural action can be damn freaky and sometimes just plain silly, with others being both at the same time. In fact, some of the sequences, and the unfolding mystery itself, go to such excesses at times that is becomes a parody of the genre. At its core, this is just more of the same ghost story we've seen being churned out of Japan these last years. Yet, it's also a very slick, energetic commercial horror offering from maverick director Miike (Visitor Q, Audition), who's better known for his outrageous gangster flicks and thrillers, and his brand of twisted drama does manage to slip in on occasion. He's also mastered the tricks, and all the expected elements are here: the spooky editing, the white-knuckle tension, the impossible deaths, and even the little girl with the long black hair. Some good effects, dark, atmospheric cinematography, eerie sound work and a decent cast help make it all complete. Oh, there are also some original moments, like the reality TV satire where one of the victims gets killed on the air, and the twist ending is pure Miike, things that decidedly elevate the material. But though an entertaining and successful addition to the popular genre once again masterfully directed, one can't help but feel that with Miike's pedigree One Missed Call should have pushed the envelope further.
Horror / Entertainment: 6/10

Ping Pong (Japan - 2002)
Starring: Ysuke Kubozuka, Arata, Sam Lee
Director: Fumihiko Sori
Plot: Two childhood friends, one a cocky teen who loves the game and the other a sulky, shy boy who brims with unreleased talent, are pulled apart by the pressures of high-school Ping Pong competition.
Review: Ping Pong, as the name claims, is all about table-tennis but one that provides a good-natured and humorous look at this Asian obsession over the sport. Based on a strangely popular manga (Japanese comic-book), it actually feels and works like one too - and that's actually a good thing! There's the usual sports drama themes to be found: the difficult struggle, the grueling training (there's even a Rocky homage), the winning-against-all-odds, and the inevitable redemption of all (yes, all) the players. Yet it's the fanciful, larger-than-life antics and outcome of the story that makes this more than just a sports film, bringing equal amounts nobility and goofiness to the tale of personal heroism and, most importantly, of friendship. The real highlight for viewers, however, is that it's all damn entertaining. The computer-enhanced matches, aided by some dynamic camera shots, make for some exciting competition showdowns, most noticeably during the climactic finale where some elements of pure fantasy make an appearance. Energetic, fast-paced, and thoroughly endearing, this is fondly directed by first-timer Fumihiko Sori who has a strong visual sense and takes the formulaic, "serious" template for the genre and puts it on its ear, not as parody but as a charming, zany, and downright amusing by-product with a very Japanese flavor. The two diametrically opposed friends are well portrayed and even the supporting characters, obvious stereotypes at first, all surprisingly come out as more than we'd expect, with even the opponents having redeeming qualities and a strong sense of honor. Ping Pong may not make all audiences run to the nearest table for a quick practice match, but it will definitely tickle your funny-bone and lift your spirits.
Entertainment: 7/10

Running on Karma (Hong Kong - 2003)
Starring: Andy Lau, Cecilia Cheung, Eddie Cheng
Directors: Johnnie To, Wai Ka-Fai
Plot: An ex-monk turned bodybuilder / stripper with the ability to see people's aura and past lives becomes emotionally involved with a female cop who is karmic destiny is to die while trying to resolve a murder case.
Review: While its pedigree, slapstick and star power may tag it as yet another high concept comedy, Running on Karma is one of those films that that it just defies categorization - and is proud of it. What starts off as an atmospheric crime thriller quickly plunges into many intriguing, complex tangents. Where else but in a Hong Kong film can you get such a strange blend of fantasy action (between two martial experts), hilarious comedy (see Big trying to ride a scooter while tailing a cab), surreal sequences, touching pathos, and serious meditation on Karma and past lives? What sounds both silly and impractical for the screen actually works out perfectly. Wholly unpredictable and strange, the story is a pure pleasure to watch unfold with so many ideas, entertaining asides, strong characterizations and, yes, a sweet relationship between its two odd protagonists as the pair try to change an unfair destiny. This is a film that takes huge chances in both tone and content, and one can't help but be impressed at the daring of its filmmakers. The last act might throw some audiences for a loop, what with the sudden mystical / Buddhist overtones and tragic ending, but it adds a powerful finale to an already exceptional film. Of particular note is the full body suit Andy Lau wears throughout the movie: its simply amazing, and the filmmakers even start off with a strip club scene and a naked chase through city streets, followed by an improbable muscle competition, to show it off. Zany stuff! All in all, this is a film that is pure HK craziness thats visually impressive and well-paced, directed with surprising seriousness, comic timing and impeccable flair by Asia's own prolific dynamic duo of To and Wai Ka-Fai (Fulltime Killer, Needing You). Of course it helps that the two main roles are charismatically portrayed by super-stars Lau and Cheung, who bring more than just their trademark charm but a substantial emotional resonance to the role as well. Showing off the best elements of many genres, Running on Karma is simply a treat from start to finish, a damn entertaining film that leaves a lasting impression. Deservedly, winner of the HK award for Best Picture.
Entertainment: 9/10

Save the Green Planet! (South Korea - 2003)
Starring: Shin Ha-Gyun, Baek Yun-Shik, Hwang Jung-Min
Director: Jang Jun-Hwan
Plot: A psychologically imbalanced man kidnaps the CEO of a powerful company and tortures him, certain that he's an alien from another planet bent on an invasion of Earth.
Review: In the midst of so many cookie-cutter genre films, Save the Green Planet! is a black, black comedy that is a daring combo of B-movie camp, tragic drama and shocking cruelty that demands notice. Coming out of the theater, you don't know if you should be laughing at the absurdity of it all or be completely horrified. The film simply defies categorization: a serial killer thriller, a sci-fi comedy, a surreal fantasy, all with just enough dose of realism to make you deeply uncomfortable, and with enough twists and unexpected turns to make you scratch your head in confusion. As the situations become more convoluted and desperate, the film manipulates our sympathies between victim and accuser, keeping us unsure right to the end: is our hero mad or isn't he? From an amazing array of emotionally felt pathos, downright silliness, and real chills, the film expertly keeps us enthralled through the various tonal changes and always guessing as to what's going to happen next. Throw in a love story, a scene on par with the zaniest parts of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and a traumatic childhood and you have a film that's completely different from what's gone before it. First-time writer / director Jang Jun-Hwan impresses in both tasks: Despite its theme of alien invasion, this is an intense, intimate film with a smart script that never insults its characters or audience and never takes the easy way out. And from the look to the camera work it's all technically impeccable. The cast, and most especially Shin Ha-Gyun as the possibly lunatic protagonist, is totally convincing, their performances managing to flawlessly switch from theatrical excess to dramatic calm to complete buffoonery in a heart-beat. It's a real, pleasant surprise and kudos to the filmmakers for having the courage to produce such a strange, compelling experience. Though it will most definitely become a cult hit, this roller coaster ride may not be fro everyone, but it does deserve a wider audience.
Drama / Entertainment: 8/10

A Tale of Two Sisters (South Korea - 2003)
Starring: Im Su-jeong, Mun Keun-yeong, Yeom Jeong-ah
Director: Kim Jee-woon
Plot: After spending time in a mental institution, two teen-aged sisters return to their father's oppressive country house to face their cruel, young stepmother and a dark family secret.
Review: Who knew a dark, gothic fairy-tale that primes character development over scares could be so successful? But that's exactly what happens with A Tale of Two Sisters, an engaging, emotionally seething horror flick with a few surprises up its sleeve. The first half is slow and deliberate in its pacing, taking its time to set up its situations and its fractured family dynamics with care. It's a terrific dramatic set-up that reminds us of European psychological dramas, ones where the skeletons in the closets (and closets are a big part of the film) were much in the subjective minds of the protagonists, all wrapped up with a definite sense of oppressive angst. From the mid-point, however, the real scares come with a vengeance, and its obvious the filmmakers aren't above throwing in some cheap scare tactics, with even the most predictable ones guaranteed to make audiences jump out of their seats. Yet while many of the elements we've come to know from recent Asian horror films since Ring make their appearance, the film resorts less to trickery and more on plot and atmosphere, fleshing out its story and characters making the eerie happenings on screen all the more shocking and visceral. Indeed, for the most part, however, this is a very professionally produced, gorgeously filmed and intimately rendered affair that will involve and startle most viewers. The three female leads making up the main cast are altogether excellent, a rarity for the genre. If there's one minor issue it's that, though the first clever "twist" ending to the story might be expected by those who've seen The Sixth Sense, further revelations and climactic tangents just confuse matters. Not that it takes away from the film, which by then will win over most audiences, but it does make the whole story rather ambiguous. In any case, though some parts may feel familiar to regular horror fans, the quality of the script makes A Tale of Two Sisters a fine addition to the genre, and a solid psychological drama to boot.
Horror / Drama: 8/10

The Tesseract (Thailand - 2003)
Starring: Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Saskia , Alexander Rendel
Director: Oxide Pang Chun
Plot: The destinies of two foreigners in Bangkok, one a drug courier, the other a grieving psychologist, intermingle with that of a young bell-boy and some violent gangsters.
Review: Basing its story only loosely on the novel of the same name by Alex Garland (who's first novel The Beach was also given the cinematic treatment), The Tesseract has noble intentions that get marred in the execution. For one, psychologically it never get into more than a very shallow aspect of its characters, one of the most important aspects of the book. The film also plays around with the chronology of events, intersecting the lives and stories of its protagonists into one another to almost confusing excess. As the story moves on the coincidences multiply and events fall into place and straighten, up until the linear climax. The film suffers from schizophrenia it seems, starting off as a high-intensity gangster flick (including an effects-laden intro scene straight out of The Matrix) and then switching gears into an ensemble drama with both elements feeling like they come from two different films. Part of the problem are the protagonists. From the Thai gangsters to the thieving boy to the English drug courier, these are all despicable or annoying characters for which we don't care or feel for, and the final tragic resolution doesn't really impart an emotional impact. The exception is Reeves' grieving, naive psychologist who ends up being the only sympathetic player in this tragedy. If the narrative is only initially intriguing and the overall story predictable, the visual flair, editing, the cinematic flourishes (film stock changes, psychedelic imagery), and the overall direction are all top notch proving once again that the Pang brothers (The Eye, Bangkok Dangerous) are talents to look out for. Be it the slickly managed shootouts or the more dramatic tensions, the pacing keeps it all lively. Though the story of waylaid tourists, gangsters and street urchins isn't quite as inspired as one would have hoped, the film still looks terrific and for that at least makes The Tesseract worth a look.
Drama: 4/10

Tokyo Godfathers (Japan - 2003)
Starring: Toru Emori, Aya Okamoto, Yoshiaki Umegaki
Director: Satoshi Kon
Plot: Three homeless Tokyo denizens, a drunk, a runaway and a drag queen, discover an abandoned babe in a garbage dump on Christmas Eve and spend the next few days trying to find her parents and the reason for it being abandoned.
Review: Despite its crime-drama-sounding name, Tokyo Godfathers is actually a vivid, engaging Christmas fairy-tale full of coincidences, rebounds, and twists that's also a gritty, unexpected success. Writer / director Kon (Perfect Blue, Millenium Actress) has taken a very different approach to his latest work; eschewing the play in narrative chronology seen in his past films, he's brought us a linear dramatic comedy, but what a show. Though the premise may seem straight out of films such as Three Godfathers or even Three Men and a Baby, the resemblance stops there. This is its own story, with its own take and sensibilities. In fact, the "raising of the child" scenes are only secondary to the adventures the trio endure as they face gangsters, teen hoodlums, and a child kidnapper on their way to solve the mystery of the child's parents. Like Kon's previous features, the film aims squarely at a more demanding, adult audience, and once again the situations are definitely mature in content. That's not to say it's not whimsical, humorous and at times even exciting, but the drama reaches levels not usually reached by such fare, playing with its main themes of family, redemption, and forgiveness.. All this is perfectly portrayed by the terrific animation. Going against the anime type, Kon's artistic style delivers a definite sense of realism by showing the dark side of Tokyo and giving great attention to the small details and quirks of his human characters. And these protagonists aren't what you'd expect, either: yes, they're homeless with some of the behavior and rudeness you'd expect, but they're also noble folk in their own way. Sure, the three are a parody of the family unit: the fatherly alcoholic with a checkered past, the young runaway making the daughter, and the tall, thin transvestite playing the mother figure who's always dreamed of raising a child of her own. Yet the film never reduces these characters for laughs, and Kon's care and obvious compassion for them is clearly evident in every scene, managing to make each one interesting, their interactions and feelings believable. Following these pariahs of society as they turn into everyday heroes is but one of the things that makes the film such a delight. Touching, funny, exciting and unexpected, Tokyo Godfathers is the perfect adult animated tale to show the real holiday spirit.
Entertainment: 8/10

Uninvited (South Korea - 2003)
Starring: Park Shin-yang, Jeon Ji-hyun
Director: Lee Su-yeon
Plot: Suffering from anxiety over his job and impending wedding, an interior decorator starts to doubt his sanity when he sees ghosts in his kitchen until her discovers a mysterious woman who can see them to.
Review: For good and bad, Uninvited isn't your typical Asian horror flick. The film starts off low-key and stays pretty much low-key, with only the occasional death to spruce up matters. The ghost story quickly takes a turn to a drama of social mores and childhood trauma. In fact, the beginning's ghostly appearances ends up being only an excuse to force the two leads into each other's lives. From then on, the revelations, coincidences, and tangents start piling up leading to the uncovering of a tragic, suppressed childhood. There are few real scares to be had and no overly supernatural moments, these elements being secondary to add perhaps a sense of mystery and oppressiveness to the proceedings. Through all this, the story shifts around bringing up some interesting elements, but all the connections between them are only tenuous at best, the link to the ghosts is not explained, and none of it is resolved to any satisfaction. It's also a long film, longer than what is required by the story with moments that drag on for no apparent reason and will make most genre audiences squirm in their seats. One reason is that the story is much more keen on focusing on the personal drama of its protagonist which is actually a nice change from the usual fare. Yet while character development is key here, but with such uninteresting characters - an ineffectual protagonist, frustrating in his blatant inaction and human inadequacies - it's hard to get involved. Not to blame the two leads who make a decent, if unremarkable, effort especially Jeon Ji-hyun who surprises in a serious, demure role. First-time director Lee Su-yeon ably captures her very own particular vision of Korean society, including a definite sense of claustrophobia in almost every scene. Added to the crisp visuals, surreal colors, quiet tone and slow, deliberate pacing and almost static direction it makes for an interesting if sober experience. Uninvited is a low-key supernatural tale, well executed and solid, but without enough going for it to make any real impression.
Drama / Horror: 6/10

Wonderful Days (South Korea - 2003)
Voice cast: Ji-Tae Yu, Joon-Ho Chung, Hee-Jin Wu
Director: Moon-saeng Kim
Plot: After an ecological catastrophe has forced makind to live in a City that produces energy by converting pollution, an elite cop discovers an old flame has associated with working class outsiders to stop their possible extermination.
Review: A high-budgeted sci-fi thriller, Wonderful Days is an stand-out effort from Korea, showing it's a new player in the anime market traditionally led by the Japanese. The biggest selling points are by far the impressive visuals, a blend of traditional 2D cel animation, 3D computer effects, intricate miniatures and even live footage, that have a very stylish look and feel. The attention to detail and style are obvious in every scene, some of which are plain cool (like the opening motorcycle run) and others that are downright beautiful to watch. The plot itself resembles many other eco-minded films with the usual themes of love, loyalty and man's industrial folly and, despite some focus on a love triangle between the main protagonists (with a slo-mo, and downright slow going, denouement), feels pretty derivative. Still, if the characters are barely one-dimensional, the story and the world created around them is interesting enough to keep our attention. It also helps that it manages to mix both the requisite action sequences and the melodrama with some pleasing eye-candy. It's obvious Wonderful Days was made mostly as a showcase for the country's and the studio's animation abilities, but the rest holds well enough together to make it a finely crafted diversion.
Entertainment: 7/10

Other reviewed films that played at the FantAsia 2004 Festival:

2009 Lost Memories Corto Maltese Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S.

Paranoia 1.0 Memories of Murder Sword in the Moon

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