Three (2002)

Three (Saam Gaang, 2002)This anthology of Asian horror stories (known as Saam Gaang in the East) was retitled THREE EXTREMES II for U.S. home video, which is doubly misleading: THREE precedes 2004’s THREE EXTREMES by two years, and it is far less extreme in terms of violence and perversity, instead offering moderately interesting variations on the traditional tropes of Asian horror films as established in 1998’s RING. Typical of anthologies, the results are uneven, with two decent episodes and one dud. Fans of the formula, who were put off by THREE EXTREMES, will find THREE closer to their hearts, and at the very least, it represents a considerable improvement upon the other relatively well known Asian Anthology, BANGKOK HAUNTED (2001).
There is no linking device or thematic connection between the three episodes, each of which was made by a completely different team: one from South Korea, one from Thailand, and one from China.
First up is “Memories,” from South Korean writer-director Kim Ji-woon, who would go on to wow critics with his subsequent TALE OF TWO SISTERS (Janghwa Hongryeon, 2003). “Memories” utilizes similar strategies, mixing the supernatural with the psychological. The story features a husband suffering from visions of his missing wife (who appears to him as the traditional Asian ghost girl, with long black hair obscuring his face); his psychiatrist suggests the visions are sympoms of the husband’s repressed memories about why his wife left him. Meanwhile, the wife awakens on a distant street, apparently suffering from amnesia, and struggles to find her way back home.

Kim Ji-woon's episode "Memories"
Kim Ji-woon's episode "Memories"

The greatest strength of “Memories” is its cool, sharp visuals. K-Horror films (as opposed to their J-Horror counterpart) tend to be more colorful, capturing the modern world in glistening precise images that make the intrusion of the horror all the more uncanny. Kim Ji-woon’s use of this approach pays off here, holding attention even if the story turns out to be relatively simple. Intercutting the two narrative threads maintains an aura of mystery, which is enhanced by some suggestive and possibly ironic hints about what is happening (the episode is set in a new housing development that claims to be a place where dreams come true). Unfortunately, the resolution is neither particularly astounding nor comletely satisfying.

Far more disappointing is THREE’s Thai episode “The Wheel,” a period piece set in a small village where a puppet master dies. Opening narration informs us that these puppets are imbued with the spirit of their creator, who is the only one who may own them; anyone else will fall under the curse. Needless to say, someone lays claims to the puppets, and the curse begins to works its evil magic – not that you will care.
For a short subject, “The Wheel” is amazingly listless; you would think the limited running time would force a certain amount of narrative comprehsion, but no, the story wanders from character to character, never settling on a central protagonist or clarifying why we should worry about what happens to any of them. Adding insult to injury, there is an “It was only a premonition” twist ending, suggesting that a character has seen the future that will result from taking the puppets – and then he goes ahead and ignores the warning. Smart move, moron!
THREE improves considerably with its final episode, “Going Home” directed by Peter Chan (who produced the Pang Brothers’ THE EYE and THE EYE 2). The story follows a single cop named Wai and his son, who move into a nearly deserted apartment building, with only one neighbor. Wai’s son is disturbed by the mysterious appearance of a little girl, along with strange phenomena, such as all the doors of the vacant apartments being inexplicably open. When Wai’s son disappears, the cop questions the neighbor, Yu, stumbling upon an extremely strange situation: Yu has preserved the body of his dead wife, Hai’er, in the hope that daily regimen of Chinese medicine (as opposed to Western medicine) will resurrect her.

Yu's devotion to his dead wife earns sympathy.
Yu's devotion to his dead wife earns sympathy.

Although it’s story is simple, “Going Home” is relatively sophisticated. Yu appears at first to be a lunatic villain, who knocks out Wai and ties him up in order to avoid having his secret revealed. But as time goes by, we begin to see his sympathetic side, as he describes the devotion he has showered on his wife for the last three years (the resurrection process is not a fast one). By the time Wai’s cop friends come looking for him, we no longer want to see Yu come to a bad end.
As engrossing as it is, “Going Home” suffers from some obvious flaws. The mysterious little girl seems shoe-horned into the film in order to justify including this episode in an anthology of ghost stories. She is just a plot device, luring Wai’s son away so that Wai will have a motivation to question his neighbor and stumble upon his secret. Once Wai has been detained by Yu, the missing son is virtually forgotten (except for one or two brief moments of lip service) as the focus shifts to Yu.
[SPOILER ALERT] The surprise ending is also slightly muddled: We are led to believe that Yu’s wife previously resurrected him, using the same Chinese medicine that he is now using on her. Why, then, does his wife does not return fully to life? Are we to believe that a police autopsy killed her upon the point of resurrection? But why would a doctor perform an autopsy  whose twitching fingers and flickering eyelids are already displaying signs of life? [END SPOILERS].
The nagging questions raised by the twist ending are not enough to ruin the overall impact of “Going Home,” but they do suggest that the story might have benefitted from a more fully thought-out treatment that did not involve the irrelevant supernatural elements.
At 140 minutes, THREE outstays its welcome, and  the episodes do not enhance each other in a way that would tie the three parts into a satisfying whole. Fortuntately, this disjointed nature makes it easy enough to view the episodes one at a time, fast-forwarding through (or skipping entirely) “The Wheel.” Both “Memories” and “Going Home” offer something of interest to fans of Asian horror; although each uses the cliches of the genre, neither one is simply a genre piece. Instead, they display little sparks of original vision that make THREE interesting if not esseential viewing.
THREE (Saam Gaang, a.k.a. “Three Extremes 2,” 2002).

  • “Memories” written and directed by Kim Ji-Woon. Cast: Kim Hye-su , Jeong Bo-seok, Choi Jeong-won, Jang Jung-Won, Sung-Keun Jee.
  • “The Wheel” directed by Nonzee Nimibutr. Written by Nitas Singhamat from a story by Ek Lemchuen and Nonzee Nimibutr. Cast: Suwinit Panjamawat, Kanyavae Chatiawaipreacha, Pornchai Chuvanon, Anusak Intasorn, Pattama Jangjarut.
  • “Going Home” directed by Peter Chan. Written by Matt Chowand Jo Jo Yuet-chun Hui from a story by Teddy Chan and Chao Bin Su. Cast: Leon Lai, Eric Tsang, Eugenia Yuan, Ting-Fung Li, Tsz-Wing Lau.

Hero – Blu-ray Review

Zhang Yimou’s HERO (2002) is the centerpiece of Miramax’s new Ultimate Force of Four martial arts Blu-Ray box set (which also includes the American re-edit of DRUNKEN MASTER II, IRON MONKEY, and Takeshi Kitano’s remake of ZATOICHI) and is probably the best known of the films to Western audiences. The internationally acclaimed film was famously saved from the ignominy of the Weinstein’s vault by fan Quentin Tarantino, who helped secure a successful North American release of the uncut print in its original language (a fate not shared by many Hong Kong martial arts films in the States.) The historical epic (whose surreal stylization and fanciful martial arts action pushes it into Fant-Asia territory) broke box office records when it was released in China in 2002, where its none-too-thinly veiled support of a unified China (filming began only 4 years after the British handover in 1997) struck a patriotic chord with audiences.
Hero is structured around a meeting between a warrior known only as “Nameless” (Jet Li, demonstrating a vitality and strength at nearly 40 that most never see at less than half that age) and the King of the Qin territory(Daoming Chen) in the years before the birth of Christ, when modern China was composed of several large (and frequently warring) states. Nameless is being rewarded for killing several assassins from the enemy state of Zhao that have plagued the King for years. The King invites Nameless to tell him stories of how he overcame these mighty warriors, allowing the warrior to move closer to the throne with each story. Nameless first tells him of defeating Long Sky (Iron Monkey’s Donnie Chen, reunited with Li after many years) in a Weiqi parlor, then bringing the tip of his broken lance to a calligraphy school in Zhao, where he uses it as a means of driving a wedge of jealously between lovers Flying Snow (Maggie Chung, of Irma Vep and as Jackie Chan’s long suffering girlfriend May in the Police Story series) and Broken Sword (one of Hong Kong’s biggest stars, Tony Leung, from John Woo’s Hard-Boiled and Red Cliff and the Infernal Affairs series that was later remade in the US as The Departed) and tricking them into fighting each other, with Nameless ready to dispatch the loser. At this point the King interrupts Nameless’ tale and questions its validity; the King himself had once faced these warriors in battle and doesn’t believe that they would be duped so easily. Is Nameless really the heroic Qin warrior that he claims to be, or has the King allowed an assassin close enough to kill him?
It’s no surprise that Quentin Tarantino became an outspoken fan of Hero; however much his impish geek routine frays even our resolute nerves, his adoration of certain genres of film is infectious, and without his sway at Miramax, Hero might even today have been rotting in the company’s 2002 film festival swag bag. The fragmented storytelling style closely resembles Tarantino’s own, particularly when certain scenes are replayed to suit the duplicitous needs of the storyteller.
Director Yimou began his Hong Kong career as a cinematographer, and his directorial debut, 1987’s Red Sorghum made startling use of color to convey story and emotion. Hero’s palate is nothing short of spectacular, with scene after scene bathed in deep, rich primary colors. Watch closely a scene between Broken Sword, Flying Snow, and Nameless in the calligraphy school. We actually see two versions played out in the film – to explain exactly why would constitute a mean-spirited spoiler – first in a vivid red and then again in a pale blue (or green, depending on how well calibrated your monitor is) and we marvel each time we see it at how much the alteration of the color scheme changes our perception.
It’s great to see Maggie Chung and Tony Leung reunited 2 years after appearing in Wong Kar-wai’s haunting In the Mood for Love, and their character’s relationship gives this very formally structured film an emotional heart that resonates. And we loved hearing that Jet Li personally intervened with Yimou to have Donnie Yen cast in the smaller role of Long Sky; of all the main actors, Chen is likely to be least familiar with American audiences. Yen’s career recently got a huge boost with the release of Ip Man, a critical and commercial smash about the Wing Chung master who taught Bruce Lee (sadly, still no information about a North American release).
But Hero rises and falls on the presence of Jet Li, the only Hong Kong martial arts star other than Jackie Chan to cast a large shadow over the American box office. From the late ’90s onward, Li had been dividing his time between mostly forgettable US fare, including Cradle 2 the Grave and The One and a final burst of excellent Hong Kong pictures like Ronny Yu’s 2006 Fearless, likely to be Li’s last true martial arts epic. Li doesn’t have the acting chops of co-stars like Tony Leung, but his Nameless character – though nominally the protagonist – steps aside for large sections of the film, allowing his strong co-stars to take center stage. Stoic expressions aside, Li has tremendous charisma which plays off beautifully in the film’s final moments.
Hero’s martial arts sequences divide many fans of the genre; they are breathtakingly photographed and impeccably choreographed, but are heavily weighed down with digital effects. Some are subtle, as with the removal of wires (the film is heavily dependent on wire work in the action sequences – a long tradition in Hong Kong films, but a harder sell in America outside of art house darlings like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) but other large scale sequences – like the arrow attack on the calligraphy school – suffer a bit from their overuse. Fortunately, the action sequences grow organically from the story, and the occasional dodgy effects are never too troublesome.
Hero’s Blu-Ray transfer is pleasing – certainly the best the film has looked on home video – and it is currently the only HD offering of the title. Color and detail are thankfully quite strong, making their counterparts on Miramax’s standard def DVD look pale by comparison.
At the urging of Tarantino, Hero was released theatrically without the all-too typical edits and English dub track to which most Hong Kong films are subjected when they come under the corporate wing – that’s the good news. The bad news is that, on Blu-ray, the powerful lossless DTS audio is only available for the English-dubbed track; thankfully, the Mandarin audio sounds just fine, but this decision demonstrates the studio’s bewildering and habitual mishandling of these films.
All extras from the standard DVD release have been ported over, including the EPK making-of documentary Hero Defined, while the interesting Inside the Action: A Conversation with Quentin Tarantino and Jet Li is filmed in such a distractingly jittery way that even the participants don’t seem to know where to look most of the time.
New to Blu-Ray is Close-Up of a Fight Scene, which is actually culled from the same interview and behind-the-scenes footage from which the documentary is made – not worth an upgrade on its own.
All extras are in standard definition and the package also included a digital copy of the film.
Click below to read reviews of the three other films from the set at the Blood-Spattered Scribe:

[serialposts]

Ice Age (2002) & Ice Age: The Meltdown (2006) – Retrospective Animated Film Reviews

The ICE AGE films represent 20th Century Fox’s attempt to cash in on the lucrative computer-animated family fantasy film market. As such, they are reasonably successful in terms of box office, if occasionally problematic in terms of storytelling, relying on CGI sight gags and the voice cast to pull the movies over any narrative humps.
ICE AGE tells the story of an unlikely “herd” — a group of mismatched animals that band together and bond for the common good. The simple story runs a predictable course (even the savage saber-toothed tiger has a change of heart and turns into a good guy by the conclusion), but the film feels stitched together from separate bits and pieces (no surprise when you consider the number of writers who worked on the project).
In fact, the film feels as if it was made by people who excelled at short subjects but did not have a grasp of quite how to tell a feature-length story. Sometimes, the scenes feel like isolated set pieces used to show off the computer imagery, which isn’t always as stunning as intended.
Fortunately, the characters are reasonably endearing, and the gags are funny. For brief moments, the film even works up some real feeling, as when the film’s mammoth, Manny (Roy Romano), who is perhaps the last of his species, contemplates some glyphs that remind him of the death of his family at the hands of human hunters.
Not surprisingly, the highlight of the film turns out to be the character least integral to the “plot” — that is, Scrat, the inarticulate squirrel rat (whose grunts are vocalized by co-director Chris Wedge). After accidentally precipitating the titular ice age, the creature’s apparently eternal quest for a beloved chestnut, which is intercut throughout the movie, plays like a series of classic cartoon short subjects, the brief interludes generating as much laughter as the entire remainder of the film.
ICE AGE: THE MELTDOWN is a considerable improvement over its predecessor. With the back story already established, and the herd of characters firmly in place, the script is unburdened with the baggage that weighed down ICE AGE and free to launch into a new story. As the title suggests, the problem is prehistoric global warming which threatens to flood that land when the ice melts. The story thus becomes a trek to safety — a safe linear narrative line that allows for the introduction of new characters and the occasional jaunt down some tangent for the sake of a good joke.
This time, Manny meets a female mammoth (voiced by Queen Latifah), who thinks she is a possum. A pair of water-dwelling predators replace Diego the saber-tooth as the continuing threat (one of these has a head that suspiciously resembles the pet crocodiles from Disney’s THE RESCUERS). And Sid the lisping sloth meets up with some others who worship him as a god — before trying to sacrifice him into a volcano!
Less episodic than ICE AGE, the sequel moves along more smoothly, and the new characters fit in well, including a rude pair of real possums who manage to shift from annoying to endearing without any hokey sentiment.
As before, the formula includes lots of anachronistic jokes (i.e., giving us an ice-age version of sights and sounds familiar to 21st century viewers), and there is an over-reliance on slapstick: the main storyline works best when the humor is verbal and character-oriented; the cartoony physical comedy should be reserved for Scat’s sequences.
The CGI is variable. Some scenes and backgrounds are astounding; at other times a flatness creeps in, betraying the computer origins. The animation sometimes comes up short when the characters are expected to emote — Diego, in particular, seems stiff and robotic whenever he’s not leaping or running. Fortunately, this is balanced by some good action. The predator attacks have nice JAWS-y feel to them, and there is wonderful underwater sequence near the end, with Manny trying to free his trapped girlfriend and fend off carnivorous attackers.
As before, Scat (again voiced by Chris Wedge, who this time did not direct) steals the show. Not only does he again precipitate the problem afflicting the rest of the cast (his quest for the acorn causes the first leak in the melting ice flow), he also undergoes a near-death experience that leads to his version of heaven, which (you guessed it) is filled with nuts. His quest — and his ingenuity and perseverance in the face of so many obstacles — is the stuff of great screen comedy, and it’s nice to see it sandwiched smoothly into the film as a whole. But one also wishes that the filmmakers would give the character more of a chance to stand on his own. He probably could not carry a feature film on his scrawny shoulders, but his scenes her prove once again that he could sustain a series of short subjects (such as the one that preceded 2004’s ROBOTS).
ICE AGE(2002). Directed by Chiris Wedge, Carlos Saldanha. Written by Michael Berg and Michale J. Wilson and Peter Ackerman, from a story by Wilson; additional story by James Bresnahan, Galen T. Chu, Doug Compton, Xeth Feinberg; Jeff Siergey, Mike Thurmeier. Voices: Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, Denis Leary, Goran Fisnjic, Jack Black, Cedric the Entertainer, Stephen Root
ICE AGE: THE MELTDOWN(2006). Directed by Carlos Saldanha. Written by Peter Gaulke and Gerry Swallow. Voices: Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, Denis Leary, Seann William Scott, Josh Peck, Queen Latifah, Will Arnett, Jay Leno

Star Trek: Nemesis (2002) – Retrospective Science Fiction Film Review

Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)The tenth STAR TREK feature film is not the worst of the bunch – in fact, with the exception of STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT it is probably the best to deploy the cast of STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION – but there is a sense that, by this time, the anti-matter had been drained out of the dilithium crystals. The cast and crew strive honorably to recharge the batteries, but the effect is just enough to jump-start one final adventure before sending the Starship Enterprise back to dry dock. As usual for the franchise, STAR TREK: NEMESIS be judged only by other STAR TREK films: fans may or may not like it, depending on whether they feel it stays true to the series; either way, it has little life as a stand-alone feature film.
Actually, screenwriter John Logan (GLADIATOR) makes a decent effort at crafting a dramatic story with some interesting ideas, and director Stuart Baird strives to impose a threatening sense of intimidation, bordering on outright doom, into STAR TREK: NEMESIS. This is not a bright and shiny science fiction film but a dark and brooding drama, and the shift in tone is a welcome one.
Unfortunately, the plot is based on a premise that requires an extremely contrived back story, one so unlikely that viewers simply have to shake their heads and say, “It’s only a movie.” Not only does the android Data’s duplicate show up; Captain Picard meets a Romulan enemy, who turns out to be his “clone.” (How did the Romulans come by Picard’s genetic material? Don’t ask – please!)
If you forgive the frankly incredible set-up, STAR TREK: NEMESIS is not bad, and Baird manages to make it feel less like a made-for-television movie that the previous NEXT GENERATION features. Nevertheless, the film continues the unfortunate penchant for short-changing the cast in favor of focusing on Picard and Data. The female characters, as usual, are the worst victims. The best that the script can think of for Counselor Troi is to have her raped (psychically, not physically, but the implication is clear enough), setting up a last-reel retribution.
As ever THE NEXT GENERATION wears its inferiority complex to the original TAR TREK on its sleeve. In an attempt to create a thrilling, tear-jerking conclusion, STAR TREK: NEMESIS shamelessly cops the conclusion of STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN (the Enterprise is unable to outrun a catastrophic weapon until someone sacrifices himself), with Data standing in for Spock. If you overlook the plagiarism, the sequence is effective enough, but you wish the films could take us “where no one has gone before” instead of revisiting the same space quadrants over and over.
STAR TREK: NEMESIS was a box office disappointment that resulted in putting the film on hiatus until 2009’s revitalized STAR TREK, which saw the return of the classic cast of characters, played by new, younger actors.
STAR TREK: NEMESIS(2002). Directed by Stuart Baird. Screenplay by John Logan; story by Logan & Rick Berman & Brent Spiner. Cast: Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, LeVar Burton, Michael Dorn, marina Sirtis, Gates McFadden, Tom Hardy, Ron Perlman, Shannon Cochran, Dina Meyer, Jude Ciccolella, alan Dale, John Berg, Michael Owen, Kate Mulgrew, Will Wheaton, Majel Barrett.

Amelie (2002) – Fantasy Film Review

amelie_poster.jpgAMELIE, the delightful French romantic comedy that became a hit on the U.S. art house circuit in 2002, weaves several threads into a single story. Amelie (Audrey Tautou) is a young waitress who has grown emotionally distant because of her childhood, withdrawing into her own imagination. She starts to come out of her shell after the accidental discovery of a childhood cache of mementos in her apartment, presumably left behind by a previous tenant. She resolves to reunite the objects with their owner, but without revealing herself. Her success leads to a series of attempts to intervene in other people’s lives (including that of her widowed father, whose garden gnome she sends on a trip around the world, as a way of goading him into traveling himself), but she avoids taking credit for her successes.
In short, Amelie is a neurotic, living out an extremely complex life involving intricate plans that conform to her inner life, instead of taking the simple, obvious path that would occur to anyone else. (The film’s full French title, which translates roughly as ‘The Fabulous Destiny of Amelie Poulain,’ suggests the character’s world view better than the pithier Americanized version.) This way of life, turning every step into an adventure, is what makes her interesting as a character, but we can also see how it is interfering with her own life. Fortunately, her path crosses with a young man (Matthieu Kassovitz), who has a strange obsession of his own: collecting discarded snapshots form public photo booths and reassembling them for his scrapbook. It’s obvious from the first that these two are meant for each other, but the question is how will they ever get together? Amelie embarks on a series of stratagems that make her seem intriguing by keeping herself at a distance, briefly glimpsed at a distance or heard over the telephone, but always delaying a close-up meeting. It’s as if she’s afraid that the reality will not live up to expectations, and the question is whether she is really in control of the situation, or is the situation controlling her? All her strategy seems designed to arouse her would-be lover’s attention, but at the same time she seems incapable of breaking out of her habitual behavior in order to finally meet the man of her dreams.
Since this is a comedy, we know things will work out in the end. The joy of the film is in seeing how Amelie’s intricate plans will play out — and also in seeing whether she will be able to drop those plans, which are really a shield she keeps between herself and the world. If all this makes the film sound like psychotherapy, truthfully it is anything but. The visual style is light and filled with fun, and several comic interludes keep us amused while we wait to see how the love story turns out. (Especially funny is Amelie’s secret tormenting of a cruel grocer, who picks on his slow-witted employee: Amelie sneaks into the man’s apartment and switches doorknobs and slipper sizes, so that the man starts to think he’s going crazy, the familiar items of his home suddenly — ever so slightly — different from what he remembers.)
There is something about foreign language films that has always turned off American audiences. (What? Are we so illiterate that we can’t stand to read subtitles?) When the film in question is a French love story, the aversion seems to increase exponentially. Yet, AMELIE is a genuine pleasure, a film filled with clever wit and amazing visuals. It’s a fantasy of falling in love, air-brushed with all the cinematic technique you can imagine, including computer-generated special effects that make Paris look like some kind of idealized nirvana. What?s amazing is the way the love story lends some much-needed heart and soul to all the visual touches. The result is a perfect synthesis: every emotion in the screenplay is illustrated with a memorable image, and every memorable image is underlined with genuine emotion. It is entirely appropriate that the film would be nominated in the obvious visually-oriented Oscar categories (Art Direction, Cinematography) and for its wonderful screenplay. In short, this is a film that women will love, but that shouldn’t stop the guys from seeing it either. If you simply love good film-making, you?ll love this film.
NOTE: The film was nominated in five categories by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, including Best Foreign Language Film. The other nominations were for Art Direction, Cinematography, Sound, and Screenplay. Unfortunately, there was no acknowledgment for Jean-Pierre Jeunet as director, but he shared a nomination with Guillaume Laurant for the script.
AMELIE (a.k.a. Le Faubuleux Destin D’Amelie Poulain, 2002). Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Screenplay & Dialogue by Guillaume Laurant, from a story by Laurant & Jeunet. Starring: Audrey Tatou, Mathieu Kassovit, Yalande Moreau, Artus de Penguern
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Hero (2002) – Fant-Asia Film Review

HERO is one of the best films of its kind and one of the most beautiful films ever made. A martial arts Fant-Asia costume epic, the film’s storyline edges closer to legend than history, and its displays of impossible fighting skill (swordsmen running on water, bouncing off treetops, floating through the air) pushes it into outright fantasy territory. The closest point of comparison for most American audiences will, of course, be Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but HERO may be an even finer achievement. Its plot may not have the same broad appeal (although it too includes a love story), but HERO director Zhang Yimou stages every scene with a grandeur and beauty beyond the relatively mild approach of Ang Lee.
Set in pre-unified China, at a time when a king’s armies have been conquering local provinces and bringing them under his rule, the story uses a RASHOMON-type narrative device of having its events narrated by a nameless hero (played by Jet Li, he is literally called “Nameless”), who is invited to the royal castle after slaying three assassins who had dedicated themselves to killing the king. For this, he is rewarded with gold, land, and the privilege of sitting within ten paces of the king. Nameless explains how he defeated the assassins Sky (Donnie Yen), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung), and Broken Sword (Tony Leung), but the story does not add up for the king, who offers a different version: the assassins sacrificed themselves, allowing Nameless to kill them so that he would win the privilege of getting within ten paces of the king—close enough to assassinate him. The king may be correct, but Nameless hesitates to take advantage of his opportunity. Instead, he tells a third version of events, in which Broken Sword, who has attained a kind of enlightenment through years of dedication to calligraphy, advises him to assassination attempt.
Initially, the story-telling device seems like an excuse to string together several fight scenes, and Nameless polishes off the three assassins so quickly that you wonder how the filmmakers will stretch their tale to feature length. Once the alternate versions of events emerge, however, the complications serve to deepen and enrich the story. What started out looking like a simple action flick turns into a wonderful drama, with characters acting out of complex, contradictory motives. Much of the conflict emerges from the love affair between Broken Sword and Flying Snow, the latter of whom remains dedicated to revenging herself upon the king for the death of her father even after her lover has renounced the mission. This love story is not as central to the film as the one in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but it goes a long way toward investing the events with operatic-style melodramatic emotions, in keeping with the virtuoso displays of visual style.
This is a film in which every fight is layered beneath falling rain, wind-blown flower petals, or whirling curtains—a colorful feast for the eyes that should appeal even to those who do not appreciate martial arts films in general. By now, it’s become a cliché to say that Chinese actions scenes are staged like a well-choreographed ballet, but this is a film that lives up to that description and then some. Unlike the action in the KILL BILL films, the floating wire-work and slow-motion stunts are not just visceral display of action prowess; they create a hypnotic dance in which every move expresses some part of each character’s soul, revealing as much about them as any intimate dialogue ever could. This is a film that wants you to cry, not cheer, when a fatal blow is struck, and it succeeds.
If there is a flaw in the film, it is that the narrative structure, showing multiple versions of past events, grows slightly repetitious. By the time the film abandons this story-telling device and wraps up its loose threads, showing us the actual conclusion of events, the story almost feels as if it is extending itself one or two scenes too far: When we see the final battle between Broken Sword and Flying Snow, still quarreling over the mission to kill the king, it’s almost a replay of the imagined confrontations shown before—and that’s still not the end of the movie, with yet another scene detailing the fate of the film’s Nameless Hero.
Even here, however, the film manages a heartfelt, tragic conclusion that resonates deeply with the viewer, redeeming any narrative weakness. HERO is an action film, but it is much more, attaining a kind of grandeur that Troy wanted but only partially achieved. Even if you’re not interested in fancy swordplay, the bold colors and big emotions will win you over.

TRIVIA

The film created a small controversy when it was released, based on the accusations by some that it conveyed a pro-communist message. Read more here.
Yimou Zhang followed up HERO with the even better HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS.
HERO (a.k.a. Ying Xiong, 2002). Directed by Yimou Zhang. Written by Feng Li, Bin Wang, Yimou Zhang. Cast: Jet Li, Tony Leung, Chiu Wai, Maggie Cheung, Ziyi Zhang, Daoming Chen, Donnie Yen.
[serialposts]

Dog Soldiers (2002) – Film Review

Excellent werewolf pic was “too British” to get a U.S. theatrical release

By Steve Biodrowski

With Neil Marshall’s DOOMSDAY scheduled for release on March 14, now seems an appropriate time to take a look back at his feature film debut, one of the best all-out, no-apologies, hell-bent-for-leather horror films to emerge from the beginning of the 21st century—a modestly-budgeted, action-packed effort that pits British soldiers against local werewolves with a taste for human flesh. DOG SOLDIERS is derivative of any number of previous films (reduced to its essence, one might call it a hybrid of THE HOWLING and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD), but it works on its own tongue-in-cheek terms, fillings its dialogue with references to its antecedents. Read More

The Eye (2002) – DVD Review

This is one of the best Asian ghost movies to emerge in the wake of 1998’s RING, the Japanese hit that launched the J-Horror wave. A co-production between Singapore and Hong Kong, THE EYE looks somewhat superficially similar to RING in terms of plot (it is also about a young woman searching for a solution to a haunting) and style (the ghostly manifestations convey an effective sense of the uncanny), but closer examination reveals that the two films are quite different. Camera angles, editing, and special effects are more flamboyant, offering a few more large-scale thrills, but the story-telling is less assured, stringing together some great set pieces without building up the looming sense of dread that made RING such an effective scare show even though very little overt horror was on display. Fortunately, the dramatic shortcomings are balanced not only by the scare tactics but also by a subtle emotional poignancy that elicits almost as many tears as screams. To resort to a cliche, this is one of those films that works because you care about the characters.
The story follows Mun (Angelica Lee, a.k.a. Lee Sin-Je), a blind violinist In Hong Kong who undergoes a corneal transplant to regain her sight. While adjusting to her new vision, she has trouble accounting for some of the things she sees; her doctors dismiss this as a transitional period while her brain learns to process input from her eyes, but we son realize that Mun is seeing ghosts. And not only ghosts – she also sees strange, black shrouded figures who arrive to transport the souls of the newly dead, including (in one heart-breaking scene) a young girl suffering from brain cancer. Mun’s visions eventually include glimpses of another residence superimposed on her own room, and when she fails to recognize a photograph of herself, she realizes that the reflection she sees in a mirror is not herself but the dead cornea donor, Ling (Chutcha Rujinanon). Mun tracks down Ling’s mother in Thailand and learns that the local residents considered Ling a witch because she could see the future. After her attempts to warn villagers of a lethal fire went unheeded, Ling committed suicide, for which her mother has never forgiven her. Mun affects a reconciliation between mother and daughter, so that Ling’s restless spirit may move on. Returning home, Mun encounters a traffic jam. Frightened by the appearance of hundreds of dark shrouded figures, Mun  hurries to warn the drivers of an impending explosion. But will her warnings be taken any more seriously than Ling’s…?
The great coup of THE EYE resides in the in wonderfully eerie premise: a woman sees dead people, but she does not know what she is seeing, because vision is new to her. This puts a slightly different spin on the usual skepticism expressed by the doctors around Mun, who attribute her visions not to mental illness but to her unfamiliarity with being able to see.
The screenplay does a fine job of setting up the story and introducing us to the main character, who then holds our attention for the rest of the film (thanks in large part to a sympathetic performance from Angelica Lee). The first-person approach (keeping Mun at center stage and revealing the action through her eyes, if you will) helps hold the set pieces together. More than that, it creates a powerful audience identifation bound, so that the emotional impact of events on Mun is strongly felt, whether they be the appearnces of ghosts or the death of another patient in the hospital.
Directing brothers Danny and Oxide Pang (who also edited the film) do a wonderful job of presenting the supernatural in a credible manner. (An encounter with a dead man in an elevator – his feet floating inches above the floor – ranks as one of the absolutely most terrifying scenes ever captured on film.) They use lots of stylistic flash, but it is usually orchestrated to achieve emotional effects, either scary or sentimental. Occasionally, the montage editing (e.g., Mun’s glimpses of Ling’s past life) goes on too long, but film seldom if ever seems to be hitting you over the head; it simply makes each point with maximum effectiveness, and then moves on.
The plot follows somewhat conventional form (there is a trouble ghost who needs to be put to rest), but our identification with Mun carries us along, eager to see what will happen to her. Unfortunately, the climax focuses more on spectacle than dramatic resolution. The conflagration is rendered in horrifying detail (offering explosive thrills of a kind not seen in most ghost stories), but its plot function is slightly contrived: with Mun’s actions clearing echoing Ling’s, we are supposed to feel that the story is somehow coming full circle, but the point, if any, remains unclear. This may be simply a case of the filmmakers imposing an arbitrary circular structure because they could not come up with a dramatically satisfying resolution.
The back-where-we-started denouement may be thematically cryptic, and the pacing may sometimes be too slow (because the film feels comfortable building carefully to its effects), but there is no denying the film’s overall effectiveness THE EYE offers an intriguing look into the world of supernatural horror, one filled with shadowy figures glimpsed at the edge of sight and with more clearly visible souls of the dead intruding upon every day spaces, leaving no room for comfort. In the end, there seems to be little or no deliberate menace from the departed, but THE EYE shows that the mere perception of the presence is enough to unnerve, to disquiet, to delight with fright.

 DVD DETAILS

The DVD release of THE EYE presents the film in a wiedescreen transfer with Dolby sound. The soundtrack is in Cantonese and Thai with English subtitles. (NOTE: when Mun goes to Thailand, American viewers may be confused to hear her and her doctor-boyfriend suddenly speaking English; the idea is that, not speaking Thai, they use English as a common language to communicate with the locals.)
Bonus features include a trailer, cast and crew information (in text form), and a featurette about the making of the film. To some extent, the featurette is a standard promotional piece, with the producer, actors, and direcotrs providing interviews intercut with footage from the film.
Fortunately, there are some interesting behind-the-scenes details. Producer Lawrence Cheng talks about his efforts to organize co-productions between various Asian countries (THE EYE features cast and crew from Malaysia, China, Singapore, and Thailand.) The Pang Brothers reveal that their inspiration came from reading a story about a girl who committed suicide after receiving a cornea transplant, and the mention that the explosive finale during the traffic jam was based on a real incident. Perhaps most amusingly, there are brief soundbites from people who allegedly experienced the sort supernatural encounters scene in the film, implying that these, too, are based on real incidents.

One of the film's highlights: Mun finds herself trapped in an elevator with a ghostly old man

THE EYE (“Gin Gwai,” 2002). Directed by Oxide Pang & Danny Pang. Written by Jojo Hui and Danny Pang & Oxide Pang. Cast: Lee Sin-Je, Lawerence Chou, Chutcha Rujinanaon, Yut Lai So, Candy Lo, Yin Ping Ko, Pierre Png, Edmund Chen, Wai-Ho Yung, Wilson Yip.
FILM AND DVD REVIEW: The Eye 2 – The Eye 10 The Eye (remake)

One Missed Call – Film & DVD Review

This rather blatant rip-off of RING (1998) manages to stand on its own by virtue of its satirical approach. Taking the familiar clichés and pushing them as far as they will go, ONE MISSED CALL borders on parody; the intent seems to be to drive a stake through the heart of the J-Horror genre, leaving behind nothing but a desiccated corpse from which all vitality has been sapped. The result is reasonably effective as a horror film, but the quirkiness of the approach – rather than the genre trappings – are the real appeal.
The premise is lifted from RING, which contained dialogue references to a supernatural phone call warning of impending death but ultimately settled on a videotape as the icon of horror. Dropping the videotape, ONE MISSED CALL features a series of victims who receive messages on their cell phones: the gimmick is that the calls Read More