2012 Reviews

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Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below (Japan - 2011)
Voices: Hisako Kanemoto, Kazuhiko Inoue, Miyu Irino
Director: Makoto Shinkai
Plot: Searching for the source of a mysterious song heard through a crystal ham radio, a young school girl ends up in an adventure of discovery underneath the Earth to find a lost civilization that could bring back the dead.
Review: A pretty coming-of-age story that mingles ancient elemental gods, military conspiracies and a search to bring back loved ones from the after-life, Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below is nothing if not ambitious in scope. Animator / director Shinkai has created a sumptuous looking, imaginative affair incredibly reminiscent of the collective works by legendary creator Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli, the famed production company that's been behind such anime classics as Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. He's used those influences well: though the character design is typically simple, the classic cel-animation provides lush visuals and some fine details to the landscape; the characters are strong and likable; there's an immersive fantasy world populated by both mythical creatures; and there are poetic touches throughout. There is some action and violence to be had, for sure, but the real focus is on portraying a sense of idyllic wonder, of discovery, the deliberate pace allowing for reflection on its central moral dilemma, where courage and determination can get you to your goal, and - more importantly - back out again. For the most part, all of this is engaging and enchanting, with the only low point being the sagging narrative mid-way through before picking up again. As it stands, Children Who Chase Lost Voices is a wonderful movie to look at, and one with a strong moral fiber, but also one that ultimately can't quite reach the Ghibli-level of entertainment it tries to attain, though not for lack of trying.
Entertainment: 7/10

Cold Steel (China - 2011)
Starring: Peter Ho, Tony Leung Ka Fai, Wilson Chu
Director: David Wu
Plot: Proving his mettle against Japanese soldiers, a 19-year-old orphan is forcibly recruited into an elite Chinese sniper unit where he takes part in assassination missions against the invaders.
Review: Reminiscent of many other action war movies from Enemy at the Gates to The Dirty Dozen, Cold Steel is another able Chinese blockbuster. If the wartime trappings and melodrama are familiar, it still has all the elements required for the genre: lots of Hong Kong-inspired gun battles, daring missions and big explosions all delivered in a visually polished manner. A collaborator of John Woo during his golden period, having worked on A Better Tomorrow and Hard Boiled, Wu seems to have taken his mentor's approach in many regards (not a bad thing) yet proves a capable director in his own right. The movie's four main action sequences are as thrilling, suspenseful and well executed as you could possible ask for, choreographed, shot and edited to make even the patient art of sniping exciting. The pacing - for the most part - keeps things rolling along, the film only stumbling during the love scenes where our young hero gets involved with an older woman; perhaps intended to add some emotional heft to the proceedings it just slows things down, especially in the second Act. If the young Thai actor-singer Peter Ho doesn't quite come off as either convincing or sympathetic enough as the illiterate sharp-shooter, it's not for lack of trying; thankfully, he's surrounded by a good cast, including veteran Hong Kong leading man Leung as his mentor and Chu as a sadistic Japanese general who - surprise! - just happens to be a sharp-shooter as well. It's all set up for a final confrontation between the two adversaries as Japanese bombers get ready to decimate the town. A sprawling action flick with solid production values, Cold Steel has enough going for it to rival Hollywood fare as entertaining popcorn filmmaking.
Entertainment: 6/10

Gyo: Tokyo Fish Attack (Japan - 2012)
Voices: Mirai Kataoka, Takuma Negishi, Ami Taniguchi
Director: Takayuki Hirao
Plot: On vacation in a sea resort, three teenage friends must suddenly fight for their lives - and their sanity - when the village is overrun by mysterious walking fish, an infestation that quickly manifests itself all over Japan.
Review: A bizarre, gruesome and quickly-paced horror anime, Gyo: Tokyo Fish Attack is as weird a tale as you'd come to expect from Junji Ito, the manga creator of such tales as Uzumaki (itself a great live-action film). The end of the world scenario, inspired by H.P. Lovecraft and other Japanese adults-only flicks, throws in biological monsters and other atrocities amid a sometimes exciting slew of genre clichés and engaging killer action. The movie starts off with familiar genre tropes, but from there the actual horror that gets released on this coastal community, then moving to Tokyo, is completely over-the-top ridiculous, ludicrous, and - admittedly - original. I mean, where else but from Japan can you get the idea of fart-gas powered mechanical contraptions? As silly as the image of giant underwater predators attached to insect-like mechanical legs running around the city might be, it's only the start of what is a really crazy and involving affair. For one, the transformations of human beings to bloated green messes is as disgusting and disturbing as anything you would see in a zombie film. And the lingering question as to what is behind it all - hinting only at a cool alien angle - is never clear, and that's a good thing. As for the animation, it's rather minimalist throughout, but it is straightforward and provides the right visual approach to get its story across. At barely an hour, the movie never over stays it's welcome, and the bizarre elements and ideas come fast and furious. Themes of humanity, of otherness and survival all peer through, but it's clear that it wasn't the most important focus - what's intended is twisted sci-fi / horror tale big on Z-movie exploitation, with the expected teen horror staples of sex, nudity, gross out sequences and violence, and in that it delivers. A perfect film for Toronto's Midnight Madness festival...
Entertainment: 5/10

Headshot (Thailand - 2011)
Starring: Nopachai Chaiyanam, Sirin Horwang, Chanokporn Sayoungkul
Director: Pen-Ek Ratanaruang
Plot: An ex-cop gets recruited as a hitman by a secret organisation that gets rid of crooked politicians, but after surviving a bullet to the head he wakes up from a coma seeing everything upside down and vows to find out who double-crossed him.
Review: Based on Win Lyovarin’s novel Rain Falling Up the Sky, writer / director Ratanaruang (Last Life in the Universe) returns to the genre with Headshot, a "Buddhist film noir" that defies expectations. Aptly described as "part indictment of corruption in the Thai police institution, part action-packed philosophical journey", it's a film that tries to turn the typical crime flick on its head - sometimes literally, as the camera gives us the occasional upside-down viewpoint of our protagonist. What could pass for a visual gimmick is meant to help viewers see the world differently, a world where there is no right and wrong, just shades of grey. In fact, this is just one example of Ratanaruang trying to take the typical mainstream action-thriller premise and giving it the Art-house treatment. The narrative, going back and forth as it does in numerous flashbacks, can get somewhat confusing, but even if the timeline isn't quite clear, it doesn't spoil the enjoyment of the tale. Kudos, too, for attempting to create a well-formed character portrait of a man struggling with moral dilemmas who finally can't escape his past as he journeys to enlightenment; lead Chaiyanam actually manages a well-nuanced performance when it counts. Fans of Asian crime flicks will get their fill in some regard: there's lots of familiar tropes, too, from femme fatale, to conspiracies, to savage gun battles, but the slow, deliberate pacing makes Headshot squarely aimed at a more discerning crowd.
Entertainment / Drama: 7/10

Juan of the Dead (Cuba / Spain - 2011)
Starring: Alexis Díaz de Villegas, Jorge Molina, Andrea Duro
Director: Alejandro Brugués
Plot: Two Cuban layabouts and their grown kids find a way survive and make money dispatching zombies as the undead take over their island country.
Review: Obviously an homage to Shaun of the Dead, Juan of the Dead is a hilarious, irreverent and impressive B-movie feature. Blending undead horror with comedy and more than a zest of local color, this is the most entertaining and mainstream Cuban export of recent years. At their best, zombie movies are a critique of social inequities loaded with political sub-text, and filmmaker Alejandro Brugues (an Argentinean who studied in Cuba) makes certain to deliver loads of barbs regarding the Castro-led socialist regime under the auspices of light-hearted (and gore-ridden) humor. As delivered by a terrific, eclectic cast, the sharp dialogue and melodrama helps create a real sense of community held together despite their hardships. If that sounds too high-brow, don't worry - playing with the many genre conventions and clichés, the film delivers action-packed sequences, slapstick and visual gags, winks to other movies and gleeful zombie-smashing in spades. It's all part of an immensely fun package that's intent more on tickling your funny bone than grossing you out or giving you a history lesson. It's also a great example of inventive moviemaking, as an obvious small budget did not deter them from making a great little film that feels large in scope. The most fun I've had watching a zombie movie in ages. Highly recommended.
Entertainment: 8/10

Ronal the Barbarian (Denmark - 2011)
Voices: Anders Juul, Hadi Ka-Koush, Lærke Winther Andersen
Directors: Thorbjørn Christoffersen, Kresten Vestbjerg Andersen, Philippe Einstein Lipski
Plot: A weakling living in the shadow of his peers gets to test his mettle when his entire village of powerful warriors get imprisoned by an evil black knight and his demonic hordes and only he - accompanied by a traveling bard - can save them.
Review: A computer animated feature from Europe is a rare breed indeed. Ronal the Barbarian is such an animal, a parody and a pastiche of 1980s warriors-and-wizards fantasy adventure films such as Conan the Barbarian and its many B-movie imitators. Taking a few pages from the more successful (and more family friendly) How to Train Your Dragon, the hero is likable enough in his desperation and naive bravery. The filmmakers, however, aren't looking to make a family-friendly feature: this is more of a teen-spirited affair (particularly boys), an action-adventure farce that plays with the clichés and generally tries sending up the exploitation aspects of the genre, from the muscle-bound barbarians with big swords and vile villains to the big-breasted, scantily-clad vixen. Filled as it is to the brim with sex and penis jokes, the juvenile humor gets tiring and the vapid plot about Ronald and his band of misfits saving the world doesn't help. Still, the filmmakers' energy and eagerness to please is clear, even if the film doesn't have any original ideas of its own. The animation itself, if not to the bar that has been set by American production companies, is still adequate for the tale and the action bits keep it from ever being boring. The ending-credits track by a local heavy metal band, complete with singing skulls, is probably the most fun of the whole movie, so stay for that. Not for the kids, really, but not really for discerning adults either.
Entertainment: 4/10

Wu Xia (Dragon) (China - 2011)
Starring: Donnie Yen, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Wei Tang
Director: Peter Chan
Plot: After miraculously killing two bandits in self defense in 1917 China, a quiet, unassuming villager attracts the attention of a local detective who is hell-bent on discovering his true identity.
Review: A gripping, sober martial arts drama, Wu Xia proves there's more life in the Asian martial arts category. By its very title, director Chan (The Warlords, Comrades: Almost a Love Story) obviously wants to put the familiar costume martial arts story (a genre typically called "wu xia" or "epic swordplay" films) on its head. With strong production values and some visual flourishes akin to Gut Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes, this homage to the 1967 kung fu flick One-Armed Swordsman is clearly meant for modern-day audiences. With more than a passing resemblance to Cronenberg's A History of Violence, the story starts off at a deliberate pace, slowly builds up tension and suspicions as the mysterious past of our protagonist is revealed and then explodes into violence. And when that violence comes, in a handful of potent action sequences choreographed by Yen, they're fast and furious and all the more important because we're engaged in the character. But the real heart of the film is the moral torment of its main characters, a story that is poignant and emotionally-charged despite the lapses into melodrama. Veteran leading man Donnie Yen, clearly Hong Kong's number one martial-action star of the 2000's, shows a bit more dramatic range as the family man trying to escape his previous sins, and is definitely in his element when the swords and kicks start flying. On his trail, Japanese actor Kaneshiro plays the Chinese Sherlock Holmes of the tale, an otherwise compassionate man whose obsession is the law for its own sake. One of the best Asian films of 2011.
Entertainment / Drama: 8/10

Zarafa (France - 2011)
Voices: Max Renaudin Pratt, Simon Abkarian, François-Xavier Demaison 
Directors: Rémi Bezançon, Jean-Christophe Lie
Plot: An escaped young slave bonds with an orphaned giraffe, captured by a kind bedouin, and follows her across the long trek from Africa to France, where she is destined to be a gift to the king Charles X.
Review: An epic 2D animated tale that takes us from 19th century Sudan, to the Turkish siege of Alexandria and finally to Paris and back again, Zarafa is, unconditionally, a family-centered adventure. A completely invented, Jules Verne-inspired account of the travails prior to the arrival of the first giraffe in Paris in 1827, the tale includes pirates, a balloon, an evil slaver and his dog, and lots of other colorful characters, exotic settings and daring-do. As is wont in such fare, there is a strong sentimental current throughout, the real anchor being the bond between giraffe and boy and the frienship (bordering on fatherly) with the loyal, strong-willed Bedouin. Yet the real surprise are the darker undertones, critiques of colonialism, of the mistreatment of animals, a stark reminder of past slavery practices and other stabs at European culture and morals within its familiar family-oriented framework. Kids need not worry, though: at only 80 minutes, things move fast enough to ensure that even the youngest ones are kept entertained. As for the animation - supervised by The Triplets of Belleville animator Jean-Christophe Lie - it is deft and fluid, and if it's not as impressive as the latest computer generated creations, it does remind one of some of the better Disney / DreamWorks cel-based animations of the 1990's. A strong entry for the French filmmakers and one that is as sentimental, and as heartwarming, as family movies should be.
Entertainment: 7/10

Other reviewed films that played at the FantAsia 2012 Festival:

Painted Skin: Resurrection Space Battleship Yamato The Viral Factor

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