2005 Reviews

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Arahan (South Korea - 2004)
Starring: Seung-beom Ryu, So-yi Yoon, Sung-kee Ahn 
Director: Seung-wan Ryoo
Plot: After being severely beaten by a local thug, a young, bumbling cop grudgingly accepts to enter the school of five Tao Masters who have been in hiding in modern Seoul waiting for someone with his potential to train against a powerful rogue warrior.
Review: A slick modern-day action-fantasy with a heavy dose of under-dog comedy, Arahan starts off with one of the best scenes of recent memory: five centuries-old martial arts masters bickering over their moonlighting to make ends meet in modern society. From this strange beginning, the film steadily picks up steam and only gets better. Director Seung-wan Ryoo surprises with a very mainstream and relatively bloodless affair following such crime flicks as Die Bad, and shows a good grasp of the material, balancing well the obvious slapstick humor and a more serious tone with the air of a video-game fantasy setting. The action is altogether excellent, with many energetic super-heroics on display, and the final show-down - an incredibly (and almost ridiculously) extended wire-fu and special effects-driven confrontation - will leave audiences breathless. What really makes it a winner, however, isn't the incredible sword fighting or slick production values but the story and narrative itself, a mix of Karate Kid and The Matrix sensibilities with a Manga-like attention to its characters and supra-natural events. Indeed, the training sequences are inventive and quite amusing as our hapless hero tries to find his groove - and get the girl. It's every teen's dream come true - to have amazing abilities to right the wrongs done to them. Though the protagonist's constant whining does sometime get on one's nerves, especially his introduction as a good-meaning but petulant wimp, he does eventually grow on us. The rest of the cast, including some familiar local, are all above-par and help make the whole affair that much more engaging. With a fine amount of humor, charm, effects and unbridled action, Arahan ends up being a surprisingly entertaining affair that's sure to please.
Entertainment: 7/10

Breaking News (Hong Kong - 2004)
Starring: Richie Ren, Kelly Chen, Nick Cheung
Director: Johnnie To
Plot: After a mobile TV news crew broadcasts a humiliating confrontation with armed robbers, an ambitious officer turns a showdown between the thieves trapped in an apartment building and the assembled forces of the police into a media show.
Review: A satire on reality news as entertainment and a solid crime drama to boot, Breaking News is another fine entry in the genre. Getting right in the thick of things, the film opens with an accomplished sequence done as a single, complex 10 minute steadicam shot following the thieves as they get unmasked by a beat cop and engage plainclothes officers in a vicious gunfight. It's a masterful introduction to the main players and gives us the first in a half-dozen or so dynamic gunfights. More important, however, is the intense cat-and-mouse game played out not only in the hallways of a massive apartment, but also with the media, where the criminals and the cops vie for public opinion by manipulating the press for their own goals. One of the most highly regarded filmmakers in Honk Kong, director To is no stranger to stylish, engaging crime thrillers following such fine recent films as PTU and The Mission. Here he mixes both the outlandish and the gritty in a technically savvy, stylish exercise that provides enough tension, action, and melodrama to please his many fans. Though not quite as original as it could have been the script has enough twists and turns that, along with the dynamic pacing and clever cinematography, it comes out rather well. Local audiences were amused to see some popular music artists taking a stab at acting, but most of the cast is actually quite good from the menacing gang leader Ren to the frosty female officer Chen. If the message of media manipulation and news-as-circus gets lost somewhere towards the end, Breaking News ends up being a smart, entertaining mix of bullets and subtle comedy that will ring with just about any audience.
Entertainment / Drama: 7/10

Godzilla: Final Wars (Japan - 2004)
Starring: Masahiro Matsuoka, Rei Kikukawa, Kazuki Kitamura, Don Frye
Director: Ryuhei Kitamura
Plot: The last hope of Mankind lies in re-awakening an imprisoned Godzilla to defeat a technologically superior alien race and the slew of giant monsters they control.
Review: From his first appearance in Gojira in 1954, his slow descent into camp in the 70's and rebirth in the late 80's, Godzilla has been a cultural icon like no other. Celebrating his 50 years, this "last" chapter in the long-running series is an appropriate swan song that will please fans of old and casual action lovers alike. Director Kitamura made his name with chaotic, inspired fantasy-action films like the low-budget Versus and the colorful but bloody Azumi, and he doesn't disappoint. Given twice the budget of any other installment, he has managed to create what is by far the most spectacular installment of the series and still keep it family-friendly. Shot with a hodge-podge of styles reminiscent of the installments of old, from black-and-white to sand-colored footage, from the use of silly-looking model cities and tanks to state-of-the-art CGI effects, this is an homage to all things Godzilla, where all the most memorable stuff accumulated over the years has been thrown in, including the kitchen sink. The beginning of the film is probably one of the best, most engaging half hour of the entire series, as Kitamura assails audiences with all kinds of frenetic action scenes, his cast chewing the scenery, and the story coming in fast and furious. Disappointingly, he then falls into the usual trap: an uninteresting human-centric main story which could have easily been cut short. Even the mutant-alien Matrix-like fights (including a slo-mo motorcycle confrontation) inserted to make them more engaging just don't impress, and are rather unwanted. What we want is monster mayhem! Thankfully, we get that in spades - the Godzilla action is strong and seems to have been cranked up to a higher gear than fans may remember, with various fashions of the past making a comeback from creature fights involving wrestling tackles, energy rays and straight-on pummeling. Taking a cue from the Destroy All Monsters page book, just about every popular monster from previous installments makes an appearance, which will make long-time fans squeal with glee. And check out the US version of the creature who gets crushed early on, a statement on Toho's disappointment with the US-made Godzilla film. Going from the sublime to the absurd, Godzilla: Final Wars is a fantastic way to celebrate 50 years, and though it might go on too long in the middle it's a great send-off to the stalwart character as he rides (literally) into the sunset.
Entertainment: 8/10

Izo (Japan - 2004)
Starring: Kazuya Nakayama, Kaori Momoi, Ryuhei Matsuda
Director: Takashi Miike
Plot: Trying to make sense of a literally Hellish existence, an executed samurai turned into a vengeful demon phases in and out of the past and present raining death and destruction to all who get in his way.
Review: The acid-trip-like ode to irrationality that is Izo is probably as close to an Art film as has ever been done while still keeping the trappings of a blood-soaked sword-and-sorcery feature. Film genres and historical eras mix together as the man-demon Izo literally falls through time periods past and present. From a Christ-like crucifixion, to a ghost drawing a sword from her privates, to a battle with his consciousness taken form, the surreal, bizarre imagery combines with the fantastical elements to make for some fabulous sequences. Yet despite the blood-letting, the dozens of sword fights, this cannot be mistaken for an entertainment vehicle. Director Miike (Dead or Alive, Audition) has always played with the standards of mainstream filmmaking, something which has made him a talent to watch, but here he takes the theme of existential angst to the extreme while jabbing us with easy socio-political commentary, giving us what is undoubtedly one of his most experimental films but one that also quickly becomes repetitive and downright confusing. We expect bizarre from Miike, but audiences will get it in spades here. The non-linear narrative surprisingly doesn't bother much, considering the scenes are disjointed and are only relevant to give a feeling of Man as a force for evil and violence, with stock war footage to boot. Though the technical work is that of a consummate cineaste and the production is typically slick and ornate, there is little enjoyment to be had. Not to say it is ever boring - Miike is anything but that - but the story does get laborious at times. And what the heck is it with the guitar scenes?! These are completely self-indulgent, though they inadvertently made for some of the biggest laughs. For audiences willing to take a chance on the filmmaker, Izo is an experience that might be worth the trip despite its faults, but those looking for a fun time should definitely seek elsewhere.
Entertainment / Drama: 5/10

The New One-Armed Swordsman (Hong Kong - 1971)
Starring: David Chiang, Ti Lung, Li Ching
Director: Chang Cheh
Plot: Living in shame after falling into a trap which leaves him humiliated and missing an arm, a young, expert swordsman is forced to avenge the death of a comrade killed by the same fiend who tricked him years earlier.
Review: One of the highlights of the early 70's Shaw Brothers super-productions, The New One-Armed Swordsman is old-style sword-fighting / kung-fu at its best. Re-inventing his own genre classic The One-Armed Swordsman, esteemed and prolific director Cheh (Golden Swallow, Five Deadly Venoms) uses only low-tech stunts and some frenetic, able choreography to offer up another tale of honor, heroism and masochistic revenge, with all the bloody carnage he's famous for. The many inventive fight scenes peppering the film more than sustain our interest until the final showdown. The last 30 minutes are worth whatever wait, however, as our one-armed hero quite literally decimates his opponents on his path to revenge, giving way to a terrific shot of a bridge littered with corpses. As expected, the acting from the era's heroic duo of Chiang and Lung is plainly theatrical and the surrounding story mostly banal, but even these slower moments are directed with a close attention to keeping things moving along. It might all be overblown and exaggerated, but it's high-energy stuff that has aged well and still delivers the goods.
Entertainment: 6/10

Silmido (South Korean - 2003)
Starring: Sol Kyung-gu, Chung Jae-young, Ahn Sung-ki
Director: Kang Woo-suk
Plot: In the late 60's, a group of Korean low-life criminals are forced to join a secret army unit on a deserted island training camp to prepare them for an operation to assassinate North Korean dictator Kim Il-sung.
Review: A monster hit in local markets, Silmido is an epic-styled war movie that compares well to any blockbuster Hollywood offering, from its high production values to its bombastic direction by veteran director Kang Woo-suk. Though its premise might remind one of The Dirty Dozen, what is shocking is that much of the tale is fact, from the controversial government project, the training, to the tragic ending. Though the story's main is based on real events in Korea's history, the film takes quite a bit of artistic license to focus more on its character dynamics and on macho, male-oriented take on themes of honor and sacrifice than on the political and social implications of events. Emotionally and thematically it owes much to another successful take on the subject of North and South tensions, Joint Security Area, and some scenes are truly visceral. Yet in its urge to show off its commercial leanings it tends more towards the easy (and sometimes downright jingoistic) sentiments, devolving at times into standard melodrama. From the grand set-up, the cinematic sequences of physical torture and brutal training, the clichéd "bonding" rituals between the convicts, and the well-handled military-styled action it's clear that this is meant as an entertainment vehicle more than a historical reenaction. The surprisingly strong cast helps deflect the fact that these are all stock characters, and raises the issue of the sacrifice of individuals for a Civil War that has scarred Korean society. Note that those unfamiliar with the real story will find an unexpected twist in the last act that might be a let-down for some expecting a commando mission after such a build-up and getting one altogether different. While the tale, patriotic fervor and emotional impact will be much more pertinent to a Korean audience who has had to live with these events, Silmido still has all the right ingredients for an above-average war movie with a fresh take.
Entertainment / Drama: 7/10

Other reviewed films that played at the FantAsia 2005 Festival:

3 Extremes Night Watch One Nite in Mongkok

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