Thursday, January 29, 2009

Wa Pei (Painted Skin) (2008)
HONG KONG/CHINA --- horror

Dir: Gordon Chan

Well, to celebrate Chinese New Year, I thought I'd review a recent viewing of a Chinese film. Now before Japan was making the dark-haired woman ghost stories and spooky films involving technology, Asia in general always had animal spirit tales. Apparently the tradition goes back to the silent film era. The tale of this particular film, Wa Pei derives from a classic 18th century Chinese novel by Pu Songling, titled "Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio".

Wa Pei (Painted Skin) is one of these films at it's best. The story involves an army general named Wang Sheng who rescues a beautiful young woman from a bandit campsite. They have no idea that Xiao Wei (played by Xun Zhou) is in actuality a demonic Fox Spirit posing as a human. In Chinese belief, they are always believed to take form of a beautiful human. Once Wang Sheng takes her under his care, his wife Pei Rong (played by Wei Zhao) soon suspects something amiss about the beguiling young woman, and follows her own inquiries such as consorting the help of a taoist priest, who mysteriously ends up dead the following day. All of her subjects and soldiers have taking a liking to Xiao Wei, which leads Pei Rong to be convinced she is what she believes.

It isn't until prodigal ex-general Pang Yong (played by Donnie Yen) falls on his Brother's doorstep, that help arrives. Once awake he's off once again, but stops at an eatery where he runs into a tomboy who ups him on food and drink and so joins him for a meal. The plot thickens as a mysterious assassin, who in actuality is an assistant demon Lizard Spirit, working with Xiao Wei, has been ripping out the hearts of people around town. Pei Rong meets secretly with Pang Yong, desperately seeking his help in finding out if Xiao Wei is indeed a demon in disguise. He commits to her plan, and assist the help of the young stranger, Xia-Bing (played by newcomer Betty Sun) he's just been eating with.

Xia-Bing reveals herself to be of perfect assistance, as she's from a long line of Demon Busters, and has a history with this particular demon and the tools to destroy her. The following is more dramatic than anything, as the film reveals its love triangle tendencies. Xiao Wei wishes to become Wang Sheng's concubine, and begs of Pei Rong for this to happen. In the meantime, Pang Yong and Xia-Bing try to track down the Lizard Spirit and find proof of Xiao Wei's true demoniac nature.

For me, Wa Pei (Painted Skin), harkens back to such 90's fare as "The Bride with White Hair", "Green Snake", and the classic "A Chinese Ghost Story". Director Gordon Chan (of Fist of Legend fame), blends action, romance, and horror perfectly in this film. It's important to note that this story has been brought to screen before by director King Hu in 1993 and starred Joey Wong and action master Sammo Hung. I have to admit, the one thing I quite like about this one is the score, which at times sounds like "Nightmare on Elm Street" and then like Ennio Morricone's "Once Upon A Time in The West". This is going to be a classic for any Chinese horror movie fan.

Monday, January 19, 2009

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
UK /USA --- science fiction

Dir: Stanley Kubrick

This is one of the seminal films of science fiction upon which all sci-fi films we have now are based upon or at the very least been highly influenced by. It began with Metropolis (1927), then (in my opinion) came The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), Star Wars (1977), then Blade Runner (1982), and most recent The Matrix (1999). The 60's brought 2001: A Space Odyssey. Already a decade that started out with swinging campiness, then toward the end was replete with darker desolate times, yet some films concentrated on the survival of hope.

Stanley Kubrick's film begins with the "Dawn of Man", a very Darwin-esque inspired theory of early ape-like man on earth. They live in somewhat harmony with creatures that look like tapirs as they attempt to compete for food and water with these lower form of beasts. Help is soon to come, in the form of a mysterious black monolith that may or may not represent god, or some form of alien intelligence. One thing for certain, the monolith has a clear affect on the minds of early man, as they soon enact Darwin's theory of survival of the fittest; Man - 1 Tapir - 0.

Fast forward to 2001, as Dr. Heywood Floyd is traveling Pan Am to a space shuttle for a covert conference about a mysterious unearthed object on the moon. Here we get the closest glimpses of the changes of mankind, without actually going to earth. We get the future as imagined through the eye of the 60's. Much like Star Trek, they could not foretell certain things like dyes with new colors in clothing and furniture. Also, they could not foretell Pan Am would go out of business or that we would have portable cellphones, however we have yet to master the videophone as of yet.

Dr. Floyd's conference on the secrecy of the object on the moon, is soon revealed to be the very same object that helped "push" the minds of early man. What it is never even nearly explained or hypothesized. We soon fast forwarded 18 months later, on board the Discovery One for the "Jupiter Mission" with astronauts David Bowman, Frank Poole, and the sentient computer intelligence HAL 9000 with three more astronauts in hibernation. They are to also find out what the monolith's message means. It can be believed that HAL 9000 is "pushed" to sabotage the mission, as it "malfunctions", it disconnects the lifesupport for the three hibernating astronauts, strands Frank Poole in the vastness of space, and locks out David Bowman from returning onboard the ship. Bowman, finds a way to break into the ship and dismantles the HAL 9000, even as it pleads for him to not do so. Im my belief, it shows that even the higher form of artificial intelligence could be controlled by whatever the monolith is.

The final sequence, "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite" involves David Bowman as he attempts to enter the stargate, and displays Douglas Trumbull's excellent and revolutionary special effects. This sequence is one of the reasons the film has gone above and beyond excellent in craft. Bowman finally ends up in a victorian yet modern room where he sees versions of himself at different stages of life, ultimately on his death bed and being confronted with the monolith, in which it is assumed he achieves the next and true form of life as the "Starchild"; a fetus-like being encapsuled in a floating transparent bubble.

In my opinion, 2001: A Space Odyssey cannot truly be reviewed, it is just to be seen and to make one make their own assumptions. Kubrick and sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke, based the film on his short story "The Sentinel" in which the middle part of the film takes place. I also believe this show cannot truly be appreciated on television or even in a theater as we're used to, but on a giant 70mm screen. 2001 has since come and gone, and the innovations in this film, have somewhat been surpassed, but the optimism of the film has not fallen on blind eyes.