Tsui Hark's Detective Dee – trailer

Coming attractions for the latest Fant-Asia effort from Tsui Hark, the man behind such classics of the form as A CHINESE GHOST STORY and the SWORDSMAN trilogy. The film is also known as D-PROJECT and DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME.

Sense of Wonder: Shedding a Tear for the Death of the Bad Guy

Twister (1996)
Dr. Jonas Miller (Cary Elwes) meets his fate in TWISTER

In horror, fantasy, and science fiction, even the worst of the worst sometimes garner a moment of deathbed sympathy.

Arbogast, the mystery man behind the excellent Arbogast on Film blog, recently revived his “One You Might Have Saved” blog-a-thon, which originated two years ago with a post about an unfortunate character in Joe D’Amato’s horror film BUIO OMEGO (“Beyond Darkness”), whose death resonated far more deeply that than of the usual disposable victim. The concept is for bloggers to articulate a personal moment when their audience identification with an on-screen victim reached the critical mass that engendered the irrational desire to break the fourth wall and offer assistance. The result has been an impressive series of posts that offer a startling picture of empathy not normally associated with horror fans, acting as a corrective to the mainstream mis-perception of the genre as doing nothing more than feeding the bloodlust of alienated outsiders.
I made my contribution to the effort back in May of 2008, but the project’s renewel has inspired me to dust off a slighlty similar idea that has been resting on the catafalque for quite a while; my version shifts the focus from victim to villain. If the majority of victims in horror films are anonymous bodies whose death serves up little more than a  visceral thrill, the villains tend to be sacrificial strawmen, set up just so we can enjoy seeing them knocked down. This may be true in most genres, but it is especially true in horror, fantasy, and science fiction, where evil is often spelled with a capital “E,” and the stakes range from your immortal soul to global extinction. Characters who perpetrate this much pain and suffering are supposed to get it – and get it good – for the cathartic satisfaction of the audience, who are encouraged to applaud the demise, preferably of a magnitude that will settle the huge karmic debt.
However, upon rare occasions, filmmakers will throw an unexpected curve ball. I’m not talking about the bogus redemption of Darth Vader in RETURN OF THE JEDI, Pinhead in HELLRAISER II, or Jaws in MOONRAKER, all of whom suddenly become “good guys” (at least the last one was treated as a joke). No, I mean bad guys who remain bad – and yet display a sudden, startling flash of humanity, a mere minute spark of soulfulness that seems to blaze all the brighter because it contrasts so astoundingly with the surrounding darkness.
In order to narrow my list down, I will avoid including characters whose villainous status is ambivalent. We may shed a tear for King Kong when he plunges off the Empire State Building, but we have had reason to root for the big ape long before then; monster though he may be, he risked his life to save his beloved little blond girlfriend. I will also exclude characters when it is not clear to me that the filmmakers intend sympathy; for instance, Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and his Japanese counterpart, Godzilla, may have died painful deaths in 1954, but I’m not sure the filmmakers wanted me to feel sorry for them.
This, then, is my list of villains for whom I have shed a tear…

Turner in WOMAN IN THE MOON (1929)

The cold lunar surface will become Turner's final resting place.
The cold lunar surface will become Turner's final resting place.

This insidious representative for powerful interests uses criminal methods, including threats of violence, to force his way onto a trip to the moon along with the film’s heroes. Turner is a rather unctuous character, and something of a mystery; as played by Fritz Rasp, he evokes extreme confidence in his endeavors, and he suggests a threat of continuous danger, even when he is observing formal rules of decorum.
Unfortunately for him, he meets his demise on the moon. There is a certain poetic justice in this, which should give reason for the audience to rejoice, and yet director Fritz Lang refuses to play the scene for the obvious emotion. Instead, as Turner lies dying in the arms of his reluctant travelling companions, the other characters ask whether there is anyone back on Earth to whom they should deliver a message. Turner looks deep into the spectre of death approaching him and says, “No one.” And then expires.
You were a creepy despicable little man Turner, but the loneliness of your death disturbs. Okay, technically, you were not alone, but the emptiness of your final words suggests a deep loneliness of soul: no family, no friends, no one at all. I can’t say you deserved a better final resting place than the cold lunar surface, but I should have revelled in your death, and now I can’t.

Marlin Arlington in TARZAN AND HIS MATE (1934)

When we first meet Arlington (Paul Cavanagh), he is disembarking  a boat to Africa, upon which it is abundantly clear that he has just had an affair with a married woman. This is merely our introduction to the perfidy of the man, who later shoots Tarzan in the back and leaves him for dead. Viewers can be forgiven for expecting that the plot will contrive a final-reel confrontation between the Lord of the Jungle and this scheming villain, but fate intervenes in the form of a pack of hungry lions that systematically begins devouring the members of a team that includes Arlington and Jane. With only the two of them left, and no sign of rescue arriving in time, Arlington – the so-far soulless bastard – reveals a starling concern for Jane’s welfare, declaring: “When the end came, I never thought it would matter, but it does – because of you!” And then he throws himself to the lions, his death delaying their attack upon Jane for a few moments – long enough for Tarzan to arrive and save her.
Arlington, you were an adulterer and a would-be murderer, and probably many other things besides, but at the end you did a far, far better thing than you had ever done before.
Batman Returns (1992)

The Penguin in BATMAN RETURNS (1992)

This comic book villain (portrayed by Danny Devito) is a rather repulsive freak. Resentful that his parents abandoned him and that his unsightly appearance has made him a perpetual outsider, he seeks not acceptance – but vengeance upon the denizens of Gotham city. His goal is not to prove his underlying humanity; rather, it is to become a “respectable” monster (like the film’s Max Shrek, a businessman every bit as nefarious as the Penguin, who passes as a pillar of the community). The Penguin’s understandable resentment over the cruel hand that fate has dealt him lights a small spark of sympathy, and yet he works overtime to extinguish it, even going so far as to plot the death of every first-born child in Gotham. By the end, he is declaring, in a deliberate ironic evocation of the Elephant Man, “I am not a human being; I am an animal!” When he finally meets his demise, we should be glad to see him go; even at the point of death, he is still fixated on killing Batman, reaching for an umbrella that he expects is a disguised weapon, only making the mistake of grabbing a joke one instead (it opens witha  flag that says “Bang” instead of firing a real bullet).
But then, as life fades, he suddenly distracted from his homicidal intent by a desire for a nice, refreshing drink of ice water. It’s a thirst that is never quenched, his body giving out and falling flat. The simple human desire to enjoy a simple pleasure recalls the lost humanity hidden inside his mis-shapen form. The effect is underlined by his funeral procession, as the real penguins that have been his companion since childhood, guide his body into the water, rather like a Viking being sent to sea for one final voyage. Ultimately, Oswald Cobblepot, your unfortunate appearance – and the reactions it provoked in others – was not enough to justify your villainy, but at the end, it is sad to see you go.

Chi Wu-Shuang in THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR (1993)

bridewithwhitehair03Ranking amongst the most bizarre villains in cinematic history are the Siamese twins in this Hong Kong period fantasy – they’re over-the-top even by the exaggerated standards of Fant-Asia films. Played by Francis Ng and Elaine Lui, this male and female set of Siamese twins (!) are joined at the back, forever forced to sleep on their sides, never enjoying a comfortable night’s sleep lying face up. I’m not sure whether this is supposed to be what hardened their hearts and turned them into evil schemers, but they ruthlessly destroy the Romeo-and-Juliet romance between the two leads (warriors from rival factions who fall in love despite their family enmity). The heroine has trust issues – she doesn’t want her lover ever to doubt her – and the viscious twins kill off hero’s clan in such a way as to implicate the heroine, who goes mad with rage, her hair literally turning white when the hero suspects her of the murder. The ruse may have worked, but it backfires when the titular Bride with White Hair kills the twins by splitting them in half.
It should be a moment of triumph – and it is to a certain extent – but it is marked by an unexpected grace note: as Francis Ng’s half of the evil duo lies dying, staring face up into the camera, he gasps out, “So this is what it’s like to lie on your back. It’s wonderful!” I can’t forgive the damage these two have done, but I feel that little moment of blessed respite flashing through Ng’s eyes in his final moment upon this Earth.

Dr. Jonas Miller in TWISTER (1996)

Twister (1996)Working at a high-class (i.e., snooty) outfit like Cinefantastique, I know I am supposed to regard this special effects laden blockbuster with utter contempt, and yet I enjoy its mindless orchestration of destruction. And I think it deserves credit for one unexpected moment of humanity. Dr. Miller (Cary Elwes) is set up as a man you love to hate, a scientific rival against our heroes, who is only in the tornado-chasing game for the glory, not the science. In this kind of movie, you just know he’s going to buy the farm – it’s absolutely obligatory – but you also expect the film to revel in his death,chortling in silent complicity with the audience, “Well, he got what he deserved.”
And yet, when the all-too-predictable moment comes, there is no joy in it, only fear. Yeah, the guy was a pompous dick – so arrogant that he ignored the warning that could have saved his life – but even so, he didn’t deserve this. Kudos go to Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton for their thunderstruck reaction to the horrible event. They didn’t like the guy one bit, but even though his death clears the way for them to succeed where he failed, their faces express only stunned horror over Miller’s death. It is a horror that we in the audience, quite unexpectedly, share. Yes, Dr. Miller, we knew you had to go, and we were expecting to cheer, but in the end, we don’t.

Nabel/Macanudo in SPACE TRUCKERS (1996)

Space Truckers (1996)This bad guy (played by Charles Dance) meets what should have been an unfortunate demise fairly early on, only to reappear later in cyborg form. His brush with mortality hasn’t taught him any sympathy for the rest of the human race; if anything, he’s worse than before; trying to coerce the film’s heroine into bed against her will, he’s actually loathsome even when his semi-mechanical existence makes us almost want to feel sorry for him. When death finally does come definitely knocking on his door, he doesn’t exactly have a change of heart, but his pathetic condition (“I’d shit myself…if I had an anus”) cannot help evoking some sympathy, especially as he displays what might be taken for a rudimentary form of dignity in his final moments. Not enough to redeem his previous bad actions, but even our hero John Canyon (Dennis Hopper) has to admit, “You know, for a son-of-a-bitch, gimp rapist murderer… he died ok!”

J.T. in DEAD GIRL (2008)

Dead Girl (2008)About the only good thing you can say for this scumbag (brilliantly embodied by Noah Segan) is that he was too young and stupid – too lacking in the moral guidance that might have pointed him in a better direction – to be fully responsible for his heinous behavior. We dont’ know much about J.T.’s background – we’re told that no one cares about him except maybe his grandma – but this consideration is hardly enough to excuse him. Faced with a discovery of a living-dead girl, chained helplessly in the bowells of an abandoned hospital, J.T. gets the bright idea to use her body for his own sexual pleasure – and to pimp her out to the rest of his high school’s male population. Then, when the titular Dead Girl’s decomposition becomes a turn off, he hits on the bright idea of obtaining a fresher specimen – i.e., murdering an innocent female and turning her into his new zombie sex slave. Unfortunately, he selects the object of desire of his best friend, leading to a chaotic confrontation that leaves J.T. mortally wounded while the Dead Girl escapes.
Bleeding out, knowing the end is near, this thoroughly selfish prick looks into his best friend’s eyes and shocks the cinematic audience into sadness by saying, “Don’t tell my grandma, okay?” J.T., you were one messed up mother-f*cker, and I was rooting throughout the whole film for the tables to turn against you. Then, when they finally did, you robbed me of the joy of your demise by revealing this sudden, pathetic concern for the one person in life who cared about you. You did what you did, and probably told yourself there was nothing wrong with it, but in the end, past the point when the revelation could have hurt you, you wanted to avoid hurting your grandmother’s feelings with the awful truth about yourself. For that, I salute you.
And shed a tear.

If any other bloggers out there have similar reactions to the demise of the bad guys, I would love to hear them.


The Last Airbender now playing

The Last Airbender (2010)Paramount Picutres releases writer-director M. Night Shymalan’s live-action feature-film adaptation of the Emmy-winning animated series AVATAR (no, it has nothing to do with the James Cameron film). Planned as the opening chapter in a trilogy, THE LAST AIRBENDER, focuses on Aang (Noah Ringer), the titular “last airbender,” who can control one of the four natural elements (Earth, Air, Fire, and Water). He is also the “Avatar,” who embodies the world, making him capable of controlling all of the elements, in the service of bringing about world harmony. Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone co-star; the latter must be having the biggest weekend of his career, with THE TWLIGHT SAGA: ECLIPSE opening on the same day.
Release date: Announced for Friday, July 2, but began early with midnight screenings on Wednesday night (technically Thursday morning).

Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li (2009)

For those of you who came in late, powerful forces are converging on the streets of Bangkok in preparation for the ultimate battle, a war between terror and beauty, light versus dark, yin versus yang, and good versus evil.   The terror, the dark yang side, is led by Bison (Neal McDonough), who is not a fading animal on the American wild west plains but an ever present crime boss with endless power, whose past holds a shocking secret.  Bison’s syndicate, Shadaloo, is taking over the slums of the Thai capital, a task overseen by Balrog (Michael Clarke Duncan), a massively built enforcer and killer whom no one in his right mind would walk a green mile with.  Bison also has his horns and hide hoofed in with the voraciously vicious Vega (musician Taboo), a masked, talon-wielding assassin; part Wolverine and part the inscrutable Han man from ENTER THE DRAGON (1973), Vega’s weapon is tailor-made for slashing and stabbing attacks.  However, those of you who lived during the 1970s may remember that the Vega was a tin-can built car barely more powerful than a Ford Pinto.  The only difference is that a Pinto could explode, and Vega, like his car namesake, does not explode on screen – dud.
Anyway, as Bison instigates a wave of violence in the slum districts, grabbing power and land no matter what the cost to its residents, a champion emerges.  Chun-Li (Kristin Kreuk) is a half-Caucasian, half-Asian beauty, who is on a path of vengeance because Bison kidnapped her father.  Yet for her final chapter of revenge, she too has a secret weapon on her side: her kung fu master, Gen, who in the film is not a play on the official language of Togo but a once feared criminal who now fights for the forces of good because of the resulting trauma he inflicted on Chun-Li when he assassinated someone before her eyes.  So rising up out of the ashes of video game time is not a phoenix, but a new-look Robin (Shou, that is), a veritable shoe-in for an actor attuned into the real martial world and the unreal martial gaming world.
Robin Shou as Gen in Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-liOne of the smartest things the filmmakers of STREET FIGHTER: THE LEGEND OF CHUN-LI did was at the 11th hour cast the ruggedly muscular Robin Shou over Collin Chou and Kane Kosugi to replace Rick Yune as Gen, the former vicious killer turned kung fu master. This decision should have set the film up for a grand high noon spectacle far superior to the franchise’s earlier showdown, STREET FIGHTER (1994), which starred the late Raul Julia and the late-to-the-creative-choreography sweepstakes Jean-Claude Van Damme, who sadly made the film as exciting as an afternoon nap.
Unfortunately, this brings us to one of the most insipid things the filmmakers of STREET FIGHTER: THE LEGEND OF CHUN-LI did during the 12th through umpteenth hour: they did not use the talent of the only legitimate martial artist and kung fu star in the film.  In a twist of ironic coincidence without coincidence, Shou had actually worked for the enemy; I am of course referring to his first major Hollywood role in MORTAL KOMBAT (1995), more than a decade ago, when the Mortal Kombat and the Street Fighter video game franchises were the two most popular games of their time, vying for superiority.  After the MORTAL KOMBAT film pummeled and trounced STREET FIGHTER into the ground, in terms of both box office and cinematic kung fu choreography (MORTAL KOMBAT went on to become one of the highest-earning independent films of that time),  it led to the Mortal Kombat video game enjoying victorious sales.   After this defeat, it was not until 2009 that the other video game franchise stepped up to the camera again, and this time it was really personal as they snatched away KOMBAT’s golden boy and infused STREET FIGHTER: THE LEGEND OF CHUN-LI with one of the last few remaining legitimate legendary martial arts stars of yore. 
Too bad it didn’t pay off. Someone should have said to director Andrezj Bartkowiak, “Yore approach is wrong.” The filmmakers disconnected their hard drive from the video game mythos and tried their hand at creating new legends. But to paraphrase Brad Pitt’s 1995 film, STREET FIGHTER: THE LEGEND OF CHUN-LI was more like LEGENDS OF THE FAIL, as it not only lacked punches but it also lacked punch.
Regardless of what critics say about martial arts film – whether it’s CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (2000) or the best kung fu film ever made LEGENDARY WEAPONS OF CHINA (1982) – the ultimate reason anyone really watches is for the action.  With Shou’s extensive experience in Hong Kong film, and with fight choreographer Dion Lam’s resume (the MATRIX films, 1998’s THE STORM RIDERS), the martial arts in STREET FIGHTER: THE LEGEND OF CHUN-LI should have been fantastic.  Instead, we see the worst either of these Hong Kong action veterans have ever done.
The fight choreography creativity is as weak as a squashed ant buried under two tons of rock.  Adding to the fights ineffectiveness was the almost whistling-like sound effects used during many of the wire-fu gags, stunts that made the actors look airy-fairy rather than loaded with magical martial arts skills.  Again, the travesty is that the only cast member who could have made the fights look as damaging as the video game was Shou.  Instead, the film uses actors and actresses who punch and kick with noodle-like arms and feet, while trying to cover up the inadequacy of their ability by using wire gimmickry and too many close shots during the fights.  If the sound editors had at least employed those over-the-top sound effects heard in early Shaw Brothers kung fu films, they might have sold the power of the techniques or at leasted created audio distractions from the flimsy martial arts maneuvers.
However, a wee bravo should go out to the filmmakers for casting Cheng Pei-pei (the original choice for The Oracle in THE MATRIX RELOADED), in a cameo as the mysterious shopkeeper Zhilan, the character who points Chun-li down the path to Gen. But “a-gen” it was not enough.
Rumor has it that a third MORTAL KOMBAT film is in the making.  Let’s hope they are intelligent enough to cast Shou as the rustic, ancient warrior Liu Kang who with age, humility and wisdom can lead his fellow fighters to take on Outworld in a new Inworld.

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Does Downey hit a “Holmes” run as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective?

A Barrage of Baritsu
A Barrage of Baritsu

Growing up in England and reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories of Sherlock Holmes, scanning 1960s English comic books featuring Holmes-influenced characters, and watching the eloquently shrouded Holmes in umpteen TV shows and films, one can become attached to the Holmes that was. Comparing the original Victorian Holmes with the new DARK KNIGHT-inspired Holmes portrayed by Robert Downey Jr. in the SHERLOCK HOLMES is like contrasting the early Dr. Who portrayals by William Hartnell and Tom Baker (1963-1981) to the subsequent new millennium Dr. Who incarnations embodied by Christopher Eccleston, David Tenant, and now Matt Smith. As a traditionalist, I lean toward the originals, because those visions reflect an honesty of creation and character over glitz and glamour, without appeasing the convictions of the self and bowing to the weakness of ego.
Part of this contemporary shtick – a  Holmes wrapped in scruff, filth, and addiction – consists of suggesting that Holmes and Watson are more than mere flatmates: their relationship includes hints of homosexuality – the cinematic clues are hidden within the riddled words of the gypsy soothsayer who ruminates to Watson and Holmes in a desolate back street of London.
SHERLOCK HOLMES opens with a display of somewhat macabre sensibility: as denizen of the dark arts Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) is about to perform the last of a series of ritualistic murders, Holmes and Watson (Jude Law) burst in to rescue the latest victim and defeat the black magic master. As Blackwood is about to bow to the broken neck fate of the hangman’s gallows, he warns Holmes that he welcomes death as part of his new life. In fact, Blackwood’s day of execution will further darken the soot-laden skies of 1890 London, which is just recovering from the ominous cloud created by another evil criminal, Jack the Ripper. When Blackwood seemingly makes good on his promise, his apparent resurrection panics London and confounds Scotland Yard (so named because it was built on land owned by Scottish Kings). In keeping with contemporary banter, the Yard calls in their, “Holmie.”
Although the look of SHERLOCK HOLMES captures the grittiness of 1890 London, Downey’s new fangled portrayal of the great detective abandons the traditiona, Victorian-English aspects of Holmes in favor of a brazen, impertinent and abrasively jealous take on the character. Also missing is Holmes’s signature quote, “Elementary my dear Watson.” At least Downey’s English accent was far superior to Kevin Kostner’s Robin Hood Nottingham lilt in ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES (1991).
However, there is an interestingly novel element of SHERLOCK HOLMES that does derive from the literature but has rarely been fleshed out on screen. Besides being a habitual cocaine user, Conan Doyle’s Holmes was a practitioner of a mystical fighting art that was introduced in “The Adventure of the Empty House,” in which Holmes returns, apparently from the dead, and reveals that he did not go over the Reichenbach Falls with Professor Moriarty at the end of “The Final Problem.” Instead, Holmes escaped the death grip of his arch nemesis by using a self-defense system known as baritsu. It is interesting how veins of Fant-Asia have circulated into something that is seemingly non-Asian.
In case it may have slipped anyone’s mind, Fant-Asia was the term coined in the early 1990s to describe the genre of Hong Kong martial arts films made during the 1980s up to the mid-‘90s, which uniquely combined elements of sex, fantasy, sci-fi, and horror with high-flying wire work and over-the-top martial arts choreography. Since then, the term has grown to include just about any Asian genre film that has one or more of the aforementioned elements, whether or not it includes martial arts. To paraphrash one of Holmes’ famous sayings, “What is afoot here?” In other words, what is Asian about SHERLOCK HOLMES?
After the fall of the Tokugawa Shogun, Emperor Meiji opened Japan’s door to Western science, technology and military weapons during a period of Japan’s history known as the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912). Baritsu is a martial art created in 1898 by Edward William Barton-Wright, a British engineer who lived in Japan for three years during the Meiji Restoration. Barton-Wright studied jujitsu and upon his return to England presented his knowledge as a new self defense system named partially after his Barton namesake and partially after jujitsu, thus “bartitsu,” later shortened in the press to baritsu by way of a reporter’s misspelling of the art. Apparently, Conan Doyle was so enamored of the fighting art, that he made Holmes a practitioner. Thus, in a sense, very British Holmes contains an element of Asian influence.
Conan-Doyle also subliminally included something rather Asian in his original conception of Holmes, something that could be seen as the foundation for the characteristic calm of the detective’s demeanor. It is rooted and hidden in Conan Doyle’s interest in the mysticism of India, specifically the meditative sound of “ohm.” The Cockney accent of East London would pronounce “Holmes” without the “H,” thereby calling the centered detective “Olmes.” How incredible it is it that Fant-Asia has been alive and well and lurking beneath the facade of Victorian England’s most famous detective since 1887, the year the first Sherlock story A Study in Scarlet was published.
Happy New Year everybody, a new decade of Fant-Asia is arriving. 

2009 San Diego Asian Film Festival – Fant-Asia & Asian Extreme – Freakeh

Talk about being disarmed
Talk about being disarmed

With this past year’s economic climate, most of America’s major Asian Film Festivals in the United States have drastically cut their programs, showcase fewer films and run for fewer days. The New York Asian Film Festival, which has been around for almost 30 years scaled back their program from last year’s eight days, to this year’s two and a half days. Even the powerhouse Los Angeles Asian Film Festival had major cutbacks. But the only Asian Film Festival in the country to go beyond the call of cinematic duty to support Asian made films and Asian filmmakers is the San Diego Asian Film Festival (SDAFF), which started in San Diego, CA, October 15th, and still has one more week of fantastically far-out and freaky frightening Fant-Asia films to go. So essentially, this festival is running for a whopping 14 days and is featuring 200+ films from 20 countries. This says a lot about the organizers and their passion to not bow to the economy but to put themselves out there to show the world that Asian film is worth the time and effort.
A new program added this year is the SDAFF Extreme series, four fantastically far-out and freaky frightening films (not a typo folks, but a wee bit of déjà vu) that is worth getting out here just for this quartet that will be music to the ears for Fant-Asia film fans. First off there’s the “What? Are you kidding me?” Japanese ALF meets HELLO KITTY, an a-mews-ing feature NEKO RAMEN TAISHO (aka PUSSY SOUP). If you’ve heard of the 1960s FELIX THE CAT cartoon, then please sing the following to the same cadence of the famous TV animated series. “Taisho the cat, the wonderful, wonderful, cat, whenever he gets in a fix he reaches into his ramen bowl of trix. Taisho the cat, the wonderful, wonderful cat, you’ll watch the noodle contest, your eyes will freak, your mind will squint with “huh?”, watching Taisho fall in love with a…cat?” The Taisho cat puppet living in the real human universe is so pathetically bad, up there with the pets.com dog puppet, that it’s really just rip-roaring to watch.
Part blaxploitation, part spaghetti Western and part chambara (samurai sword fighting film), AFRO SAMURAI: RESURRECTION is all Japanese anime as Afro Samurai and his mudslide brother Ninja Ninja (both voiced by Samuel L. Jackson) are en route to find the holder of the second head band. In the wacky samurai world of Afro, whoever owns the second headband can challenge the holder of the first headband, and not before. The holder of the first headband is Sio (voice of Luck Liu), a deranged, sexy femme fatale trying to resurrect Afro’s dead father and use the father to kill Afro. What is engaging about the film is picking out the various Japanese samurai films that have perhaps influenced AFRO SAMURAI. Parallels from the LONE WOLF AND CUB, WICKED PRIEST and HANZO THE RAZOR series came to mind. But the one that even the director Leo Chu and producer Eric Garcia did not see, was that Ninja Ninja sounded like Donkey from the SHREK cartoons. Jackson undoubtedly “burro-ed” the voice to prod at Eddy Murphy’s Donkey character but did so without being an ass.
DETROIT METAL CITY, is Japan’s interpretation of over the top Fant-Asia ecstasy of action milieued into a surreal social environment of death metal and head bangers as Soichi (Ken’ichi Matsuyaama) accidentally goes into a music audition to sing songs about pop tarts and rainbows and get challenged by Gene Simmons to hell-spawn himself into dark music to destroy all bands. Will it be the KISS of death or the kiss of success?
The final SDAFF Extreme is for “surreal” a blood-gore fest for a feast at the festival full of frenetic and frantically fearful feeding frenzies as the title says it all, VAMPIRE GIRL VS. FRANKENSTEIN GIRL. Filled with blood-lusting sucking vampires, a frazzled and freaky Frankenstein girl, hip hopping homicidal nurses, insanely insane mad scientists, and new and improved Japanese ways to disembowel and dismember puny humans, it’s just a simple but crazzzzy love story gone awry.
Lee Ann Kim, a first generation Korean American and the executive director of the San Diego Film Foundation, which she founded in 2000 with the Asian American Journalists Association of San Diego, talks about the challenges of doing the banner year 10th anniversary and why during such difficult economic times it was decided to go all out when film festivals globally are cutting back. “At the beginning of the year we had to make a decision,” Kim shares, “Doing a 10th anniversary with so many films and with the economy being so hard, we had to decide on whether we keep it small or go all out, balls to the wall. Although all the other festivals scaled back big time, we have a reputation and because this is our milestone year, the 10th year, we decided to go two weeks.”
Besides the SDAFF Extreme program what other ways are there to indulge yourself with the latest and coolest Asian cinemateque creations in horror, anime and more, at San Diego’s hippest film festival? If you thirst for more femme fatale vampire there is THIRST, a South Korean dark comedy about a priest turned vampire. Zatoichi returns to the big screen, or should I say Zatoichi-ette in the form of ICHI, an ERA (equal right amendment) version of the classic Japanese chambara film series Zatoichi. But instead of burning her bra like the women in the 1970s ERA movement, Ichi will be burning her opponents with some slice and dice, human vegematic swordswoman ship.
Oh yeah, beware of STRANGE BREW. Although it is the title of a very famous song, one of the Cream of the crop from the 70s, this is a collection of twisted tales from the cream of the crop shorts submitted to the festival. There’s also the southern California premiere of K-20, a Japanese fantasy actioner with a $20 million price tag that stars Takeshi Kaneshiro as Hikichi Endo who is approached by the mysterious K-20 to do a job that puts him in harms way where he must hunt down K-20, before the police gun down Hikichi. MUSHI-SHI is about a “bugcatcher” who heals victims of supernatural creatures, a character who could have been useful to the astronaut who discovers the truth about clones in the Japanese futuristic angst driven story THE CLONE RETURNS HOME.
Although the SDAFF is an international film festival with a yearly increase in non-Asian audiences, they have held on to their identity as an Asian Film Festival rather than switch their name as Kim offers a few parting words. “For me,” she beams with glee, “I really appreciate it when I walk into a film and see lot of non-Asians watching the films. Many people have asked me change the name of the festival, saying you can’t grow if you don’t change it to the International Film Festival. They feel that this is just for Asians, and I say not. I feel if I change the name we are giving in to what they want us to do. What is wrong with it being Asian? Asian encompasses such a vast amount of the world. I feel it is our purpose to open ourselves up to the largest community possible, because our mission is to connect them to a human experience, regardless of who you are or where you are from.”
For information in regard to the films, dates and times, how to get to the Ultrastar Cinemas Mission Valley Hazard Center where the films are being shown, and other cool stuff about the SDAFF please visit www.sdaff.org
Furthermore, for those who can’t get out to the festival, many of these Fant-Asia films are available for purchase at www.hkflix.com, as well are many of the martial arts films that are also being featured at the festival such as Donnie Yen’s YIP MAN and John Woo’s RED CLIFF, both films having their West Coast Premiere at the festival.  (Check out the Film Festival program guide for the complete martial arts film listing.) 
 Three final cool notes about the festival that are totally impressive: Perhaps a small thing, but I’ve noticed over the years that audiences often bring their own kinds of snacks into the films, now that is something you never see in movie theaters; this year the festival offers for the first time an interactive booth, where filmgoers can get a free “Qi Reading” for their health and well being; and a final important thing, each year the SDAFF raises awareness and supports worthy causes during the films’ screening, this year their causes being Water Conservation and the Fold a Prayer Cancer Awareness Campaign. Bravo, bravo and bravo.

Dragonball: Evolution – DVD Review

This film offers further proof, as if any were needed, that Western filmmakers cannot do justice to their Easter counterparts when it comes to retooling anime and/or Fant-Asia for Occidental consumption. DRAGONBALL EVOLUTION is loaded with special effects and stunts that look good in the trailer, but when stitched together they do not add up to much of a movie, and anyone unfamiliar with the DRAGONBALL Z franchise is like to come away shaking their heads and wondering how there could be a fan-base for this kind of thing.
The basic problem is blandness that leaves DRAGONBALL EVOLUTION about as zesty as leftover tapioca – not bad, exactly, but lacking any real zing. This manifests most obviously in the character of Goku (Justin Chatwin). We are supposed to witness his growth into the familiar hero of the anime franchise, but for some reason, these family-friendly fantasies equate “heroic” with “boring.” (Check out THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM for another example.) 
The rest of the cast does little better, although Jamie Chung (in the thankless role of the girlfriend, Chic Chi) shows a flash of talent. Chow Yun-Fat shows up eventually, making us wonder why Hollywood cannot find something better to do with one of this generation’s greatest movie stars.
There are some virtues on display. The cinematography is gorgeous, and an occasional scene fires on all cylinders. Although most of the martial arts work is by-the-numbers (competent but not inspired), there is at least one great non-fight, wherein Goku, who has promised not to fight, outmaneuvers two bullies by dodging all their blows, humiliating them without every raising his own fist in retaliation.
There is also a brief, cute moment when Goku sits in his classroom, fantasizing about Chi Chi: the special effects melt away the wall behind her, revealing a field full of blossoms, evoking a touching sense of spring romance. Unfortunately, director James Wong allows the scene to go on too long, until it starts to feel like a bad perfume commercial. (Is this really Goku’s idea of a romantic fantasy?)
Wong brings little life to the rest of DRAGONBALL EVOLUTION; he tells the simply story competently enough, but the requisite Sense of Wonder is sadly missing. Wong is one half of the team, along with Glen Morgan, who wrote and produced some of the best X-FILES episodes. Unfortunately, between the two of them, they are amassing a rather dispiriting filmography, including BLACK CHRISTMAS (2006), WILLARD, THE ONE.


The DVD release presents DRAGONBALL EVOLUTION in a lovely widescreen transfer with audio tracks in English 5.1 Dolby Surround, Spanish Dolby Surround, French Dolby Surround, and Portuguese Dolby Surround; there are subtitle options for English, Portugues, and Spanish.
Special features consist of Deleted Scenes; Goku’s Workout; a Brian Anthony music video titled “All Worked Up;” a Gag Reel; “Making a Scene,” a Fox Movie Channel featurette; and “Life After Film School,” a Fox Movie Channel interview with actor Justin Chatwin.
The Deleted Scenes are more like extended scenes, with additional snippets added to sequences that made it into the final cut.
“Goku’s Workout” consist of a couple of stunt men running through some movies in front of an intentionally phone backdrop, intercut with footage from the film, allegedly to humorous effect.
The music video features Brian Anthony dancing around while scenes from DRAGONBALL EVOLUTION are cut in seemingly at random.
The Gag Reel contains few gags and barely any flubs, but there is something sweet about seeing Jamie Chung’s nervousness about performing an on-camera kiss.
“Making a Scene” depicts the challenge of staging and choreographing the sequence in which Jamie Chung’s Chi Chi confronts and fights her evil doppelganger. The behind-the-scenes details are interesting, but more interesting is the extent to which director James Wong seems unaware that the set-piece is plopped into the middle of the film without any impact. (Having gone to such lengths to establish Chi Chi as a formidable fighter, the film leaves her on the sidelines for the climax.)
 “Life After Film School” gives three students a chance to interview Justin Chatwin about his career in general and DRAGONBALL EVOLUTION in particular. It is a friendly, informative conversation of most interest to aspiring filmmakers. It is also worth noting that, in person, Chatwin displays much more humor and personality than he was allowed to show in his role as Goku.
DRAGONBALL: EVOLUTION (2009). Directed by James Wong. Screenplay by Ben Ramsey, based on the novel by Akira Toriyama. Cast: Justin Chatwin, Chow Yun-Fat, Emmy Rossum, Jamie Chung, James Marsters, Joon Park, Eriko Tamura, Ernie Hudson, Eriko Tamura, Randall Duk Kim, Megumi Seki.

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: