Friday, September 30, 2011

Geung si sin Sang (Mr. Vampire) (1985)
HONG KONG --- horror

Dir: Ricky Lau

Yet another Chinese horror comedy. I know, I know. This one is actually pretty good though. The reason being, it gets a lot more into the Chinese rituals and checks and balances of those rituals. So first let's get a little schooled into what just what's in store in this film, specifically the issue with "hopping vampires". They are technically called gyonshi or jiang shi. These vampires, however, are not quite what we expect from our western vampires. They are quite considerably different, and are more like the "George Romero" zombie than the Bram Stoker blood-suckers who follow a strict list of rules. Having said that, they do have some rules that apply of course. They usually stab their victims with very long fingernails, they're blind and can only find victims through the sense of smell, and are defeated with black magic and a healthy serving of good old kung fu. As I mentioned once before about vampire films, each film can have certain rules that exist only in the universe of the film you're watching.

So, with that said, this film follows a unibrowed mortician/ Taoist priest named Master Kau (played by Lam Ching Ying, who appears in the gyonshi sub genre multiple times throughout his career) and his bumbling assistants named Man Choi (played by veteran comedic relief Ricky Hui) and Chou (played by martial artists Chin Siu-ho, and yet another vet of this sub genre). Master Kau is hired to overlook and perform a reburial ceremony for the father of a wealthy businessman named Mr. Yam. He and Man Choi meet up with Yam and his niece Ting Ting for tea. Yam, on the advice of a so-called fortune teller, believes his father is to be buried vertically. When they dig him up, they realize he may have to be cremated so as to no longer leave his soul in unrest. His body, also begins to look somewhat revitalized and after twenty years, this is clearly a bad omen to Master Kau. So he orders his assistants to place incense around the graves of the cemetary, possibly to keep them at rest, that is until Chou hears the voice of woman of the dead; a ghost.

Back at the mortuary, Master Kau orders them to spiritually tie up the coffin as he performs a ritual to on some twine and they mark the coffin to keep the body dormant. Unfortunately, it doesn't work as the body begins to break out of the coffin. So Mr. Yam's own grandfather kills him later that night. Unfortunately, Yam's relative, a Barney Fife-esque local police officer blames Master Kau when he notices (thanks to Kau himself trying to alert him of a hopping vampire) his long finger nails and the puncture wounds in his Uncle Yam. Kau is arrested and as he sends Man Choi and Chou out to get ingredients for his ritual potions to stop not only the vampire on the loose, but Mr. Yam himself. Chou delivers the goods to the jail house to Master Kau as the have to battle Mr. Yam. No sooner than defeating him, Man Choi must defend Ting Ting from her grandfather and in the porcess is infected by the corpse until Kau and Chou come to the rescue. Kau wisely realizes the town is in danger and sends Chou to get more sticky rice; a prime ingredient to fighting off hopping vampires.

However, Chou, runs into an enchanting female ghost in the next village. Chou is bewitched by her beauty and literally under her spell, he narrowly escapes her grasp. Just as soon as he returns, Kau can see he has been "haunted" by a ghost. Under her spell, Master Kau bounds Chou to a chair to keep the ghost from snatching him away. In probably the best scene of the film, Master Kau battles against the love-hungry ghost and the blood-thirsty Man Choi at the same time. A testament to the genre itself and to the actors martial arts choreography. Soon they must eventually deal with a horde of hopping vampires and one that comes out of nowhere that gives the trio their greatest challenge.

"Mr. Vampire" isn't a horror film that sets out to scare its audience. While producer Sammo Hung spent most of the early 80's attempting to make a successful horror comedy to appease Hong Kong audiences, it wasn't until "Mr. Vampire" came on the scene where he had a hit. The film is definitely a classic in the Hong Kong horror (specifically the hopping vampire subgenre) comedy genre, spawning many sequels. As where "Spooky Encounters" laid the foundation, "Mr. Vampire" is the cornerstone which eventually took over the entire sub genre of films for many years to follow. My personal issues with the film is the niece character, Ting Ting, is reduced to a girl servant halfway through the film and all but disappears. It would have been interesting to see her fight for the affections of Chou against the female ghost. Anyways, as I mentioned in my review for "Spooky Encounters", Western filmmakers were not blind to these films, particularly with the cult classic John Carpenter film "Big Trouble in Little China" which features many tropes from this sub genre of film. Sam Raimi also borrowed alot for his "Evil Dead" films. The legacy of films like "Mr. Vampire" continues on into today, even with so many sequels and spinoffs of this very film alone.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Secret of Kells (2009)
IRELAND/ FRANCE/ BELGIUM --- animation/ fantasy

Dir: Tomm Moore

A group of talented animators presented this Oscar nominated animated fantasy film from Ireland, spotlighting the creation of the Book of Kells. The "Book of Kells" is basically an illustrated interrpretation (Insular Art) of the Four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and St. John) from the Christian Bible. They are very old, dating back to the 8th century, and were painstakingly designed with various forms of ink, precious stones, and gold.

Though fictionalized, the film tells the story fairly close to the historical legend, being set in middle ages of Ireland, as our young protagonist, Brendan, is an apprentice in an Abbey. The monks regale young Brendan with tales of the "magical" book of Iona, as he wishes himself to be an illuminator. As the multi cultural group of monks await the arrival of a brother Aidan of the island Iona. He is an illuminator, who has constructed a book of kells called "The Book of Iona". When the island of Iona was attacked by a band of ravaging vikings, Aidan had to protect the book from being destroyed, and fled the island with his white cat Pangur Bán. Meanwhile, Brendan's uncle, Abbott Cellach, has put all effort into the building of a wall to protect the Kells from the inevitable invasion of the vikings. If you want to see a truly graphic form of these kinds of invasions, watch Andrei Tarkovsky's film "Andrei Rublev".

Upon Aidan's arrival (who looks like a cross between Willie Nelson and George Carlin), Brendan inquires him of the book of Iona. When Abbott Cellach spirits Aidan away to work on the wall, he's tasked with feeding Pangur Bán. Brendan, however, accidentally overhears Cellach and Aidan in a heated discussion about the wall, in which Aidan admits the best solution when the Vikings get there, is to run. Abbott Cellach is determined to stand by the fortified Kells, and leaves Aidan to his illuminating. When Aidan returns to the scriptorium, he tasks Brendan with finding gall nuts for ink in the wilderness. Brendan gladly takes Pangur Bán along on his search.

Arriving alone in the woods, he finds himself surrounded by wolves, and is soon rescued by a forest spirit. She appears first as a white wolf, then as young girl named Aisling (or Ashley). Brendan tells her he's only there to find these gall nuts for ink, and she makes a deal to show him where to find them if he promises to never return. He agrees, and she guides him to what he needs. Before leaving, he encounters the Celtic pagan deity Crom Cruach, which puts fear into even Aisling. When he returns to the scriptorium with brother Aidan, he finds that Abbott Cellach has learned of his disappearing into the forest and forbids him from leaving the confines of Abbey Kells. Even still, Aidan teaches Brendan illumination, and they continue to work on the book until they come to the Chi-Rho page. Aidan confides in Brendan he needs his help in doing this page as he's getting too old to construct it himself, and it can only be done through the use of a crystal.

He also tells him that the crystal was the eye of a pagan deity found in one of their caves. Brendan, having already found Crom Cruach assures Aidan he can get another crystal. In the meantime, we see that the vikings are certainly on their way. That night, Brendan sneaks out of the Abbey again, and meets Aisling in the forest. She pleads with him not to confront the deity, and reveals that it was Crom Cruach who destroyed her people. Brendan goes forth anyway, in what appears to be more of a spiritual battle against the deity for the crystal. This time when he returns to the Abbey, Abbott Cellach has locks Brendan up in a dungeon, and only Aisling can help him escape before the immenent vikings invade.

"The Secret of the Kells" is a visually arresting film, but the story leaves you with much to be desired. Gotta admit the animators missed the mark with the blatant Negro cariacture of one of the monks. I will give them a very slight advocation by the possibility they were simply ignorant of what offense this would take in other countries. I also note that in the special features, they show an early version of the character which is less abrasive, but whatever. The film is certainly not perfect. The direction wasn't the greatest, as the characters actions didn't always seem to match the vocal performance. Also, I'm still unsure how Brendan could tell Aisling that Crom Cruach was an imaginary pagan diety, but yet he claims she is one as well earlier.

Steeped in a profound religious tradition, but bathed in stunning visual delights, "The Secret of Kells" weaves a tale of both faith and Celtic mythology. Aidan's white cat with one eye green and the other blue is based on a real life cat named Pangur Bán (which is translated "whiter than white"; a Christian reference), of which a poem was written by an anonymous monk in the 9th century. Aisling and Crom Cruach are loosely based on Celtic mythological deities. Aisling is based on Tuatha Dé Danann translated as "peoples of the goddess Danu". The film is an interesting tame children's story, but lacks the deep insight or storytelling to keep the interest of the adult audience. I felt the ending left me hanging somewhat.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Delicatessen (1991)
FRANCE --- science fiction

Dir: Marc Caro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Quirky as quirky gets. This is the debut film for two very interesting French directors Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Who, together, made some visually stunning science fiction and fantasy films, which eventually lead to their collaboration on the follow-up "La Cité des Enfants Perdus" (City of Lost Children). Having said that, it all began here with this black comedy full of whimsy, cartoonish verve, and a matter-of-fact macabre pessimism peppered throughout. Even that description is unable to do the film justice.

Taking place in an undisclosed post-apocalyptic future where the currency is divided among seeds, grain, and other food, the tale properly begins with a man named Louison (director pet Dominique Pinon) being dropped off in front of an isolated rundown tenement. He inquires about an ad looking for a building handyman with the owner and manager, a butcher of the delicatessen named Clapet. He is quickly blown off. However, Clapet, quickly changes his mind and takes on Louison anyway. From the opening we see that the butcher gets his meat from people, yet interestingly enough, no one seems to notice or ask questions in this dim future world. It's possible everyone (the few tenants left) is just turning a blind eye.

The tenants consist of two guys who make those cow-mooing noisemaker cans, a suicidal wife who devises who believes she is hearing ghosts, the beautiful Ms. Plusse who happens to to be the mistress of Clapet, a married couple with children who the father makes condoms, and a man who has his apartment halfway a swamp complete with frogs and snails. While Louison works, he runs into a neighbor, the unassumingly beautiful daughter of the butcher, Julie Clapet. Louison is also hiding a slight secret about himself. He was apparently a well-known clown who performed with a monkey. In the meantime, a group of covert troglodytes, who in an almost cartoon-like manner, are running around in greasy wet suits through the sewers in search of food.

The film is a basic love story between Louison and Clapet's daughter Julie. Throughout the film, we peek into the lives of the strange tenants of the building, while Louison goes to war with Clapet over his daughter. desI won't go into detail about the plot into this film, because I feel it will kinda ruin the fun little moments that make up the sum of its parts. I will say see this innovative sci-fi French film, and judge for yourself. For me, though, the film kinda comes off with a tinge of Popeye sentiment with Louison standing in for Popeye (Doesn't he look like Robin Williams a little), for Olive Oyl, and her brute butcher father for Bluto. The post-apocalyptic setting is so strange and credible, that you feel a little desensitized to the random bits of violence and threat that come upon the denizens.

"Delicatessen" is a somewhat delightful though quirky film to watch. I have enjoyed Jean-Pierre Jeunet's films so far, and it's always an interesting study to return to the fast and loose early days of his cinematic resume. This film in particular floats through a whimsical Bernard Hermann-esque score and a myriad collection of funny noises and music from that joyous kind of circus music to the a classic scene with bed springs in tune to Hawaiian ukulele music. I would also note that this film has a sense of inspiration from a classic Hong Kong film called "House of 72 Tenants", with a similar story set in contemporary times, but no sci-fi elements at all.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Sakebi (Retribution) (2006)
JAPAN --- horror

Dir: Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Some ghost stories are based on an relentless revenge from beyond the grave. Some are symbolic psychological character studies. Then others are meant to be a cautionary tale and a warning about mistakes done in life, and the idea that you may escape the past, but the past will not escape you. This kind of film is a well-beaten path for director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and he's proven he knows how to make a thought-provoking horror film that doesn't just follow the traditional tropes.

In the opening, we see a man forcefully drowning a woman dressed in red, face down in a shallow puddle in the midst of an empty lot. Police detective Yoshioka (played by Kiyoshi Kurosawa director pet Kôji Yakusho) and his girlfriend Harue wake up to a quick earthquake. Yoshioka is sent to a crime scene in an empty lot with a woman in red drowned face first in a puddle of salt water, also in an empty lot. when Yoshioka finds a button from a coat that may or may not personally belong to him at the crime scene, he begins to suspect himself. Even still, he turns the button in as evidence, and later the forensic team finds his fingerprints all over the woman's body.

The next scene has teenager begging his father doctor Sakuma, for syringes, so he can get some money. The dad takes his son to a deserted industrial area, drugs him, and drowns the boy face first in a bucket of water. When the forensics team find evidence of the first victim having been bound in yellow cord, Yoshioka returns to the original crime scene. There he runs into Dr. Sakuma standing by smoking. Yoshioka chases him down and accuses Sakuma of somehow framing him. Yoshioka's partner, however, becomes increasingly aware that there are too many ties binding him to the murder of the unknown woman. Yoshioka interrogates Sakuma, but finds the doctor has become mentally unstable, as he clearly has outbursts of seeing the ghost of his son and running from him.Yoshioka begins to realize he is the prime suspect in the unidentified woman's murder. It's after this, that he has an encounter with the ghost of the woman in red, interestingly enough during another short earthquake. The woman has a nightmarish scream and coerces Yoshioka to continue looking for her killer.

The next scene brings us to yet another person, where an executive confides in his office mistress that he has divorced his wife and plans to marry her. She soon withdraws herself and goes to the river to draw buckets of water. Later at home, she fills the bathtub full of the salt water, and bludgeons her boyfriend, of course, drowning him in the water. The police find him and for Yoshioka, the murder becomes something of a burden to both he and his partner who practically accuses him straight out as being the suspect. That is until, they find that the parents of the unknown woman has identified her. They head out to meet the mother of the woman, where they discover she has been dealing with an bully of an old boyfriend of their daughter's. When they chase him down, they eventually get a confession out of him, and the murder of the woman in red is solved. The problem is, detective Yoshioka's truth has just begun, as he links all the suspects, including himself to a certain abandoned insane asylum on the route of a ferry. The ghost also has not left, as they have unfinished business.

"Sakebi" is a twisty horror film to say the least. Kurosawa's style is effective throughout with his insightful use of visual and audible motifs in the film's overall theme. Let me just say, Kiyoshi Kurosawa is probably one of my favorite Japanese directors. His style feels somewhat reminiscent of what I fell in love with in John Carpenter. Though I haven't seen all of his films, this one is one of his best. This film feels like what Carpenter may have made had he were trying to do a Hitchcockian noir. However, this ghost story has its roots in Japanese horror cinema as well. For anyone interested in its predecessors seek out "Kwaidan" (1964) which features a similar segment called "The Black Hair" and "Ugetsu Monogatari" (1953) which I already reviewed on this site. Apparently, this film is supposed to be considered the fourth part in the J horror theater series, but it is not official. If it is, I consider it the best entry of the series yet. Regardless, this film is highly evocative thriller, and shouldn't even be lumped into the category of J-horror. Do yourself a favor and check it out.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Něco z Alenky (Alice/ Something From Alice) (1988)

Dir: Jan Švankmajer

Yet another take on the timeless story of "Alice in Wonderland". Lewis Carroll's 1865 children's novel, "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland", was an advanced fairy tale written for children and adults alike. This one is a mix of both stop-motion animation and live action. Alice in this one is played by a true curious little girl (the only human being in the film), who goes through the typical Alice routine of shrinking and growing while chasing the white rabbit. The director turns the rabbit hole into a desk drawer as well as transforming her into a doll in some scenes and has made the other characters highly abstract through very practical depictions. For instance the white rabbit and other characters almost come off as taxidermy looking, while others are simply socks like the caterpillar and dolls and puppets like the March Hare, even the Mad Hatter is a marionette.

This being a very low budget film, the director seemed to take advantage of the idea that this entire film is happening from the perspective of Alice's own imagination. It feels like a very rudimentary home movie peaking into a girls bedroom as she plays tea with her dolls. The fact that Alice speaks all the lines in the film, with inter cut closeup shots of her lips speaking, cements the theme that this is all one very long and strange dream. However, having the actress speak the lines of all the characters ends up allowing Carroll's strange dialogue to lose its punch.

Jan Švankmajer had previously mastered a series of short films done in the same style with stop-motion effects. Taking this simplistic and familiar story and setting it on its head with highly stylized shots from a child's perspective is an interesting vision of the the tale that has never been done before. He also uses no music whatsoever, but completely ADR pronounced sound effects, which gives the film a kinda quiet eeriness. All the while, the director keeps the Lewis Carroll's often strange but dark vision intact. One thing I found odd, even though she's age appropriate, the Alice in this story isn't even wearing the typical Disney-fied blue dress; but that's a matter of choice opinion I guess. True to the book, the film is chock full of phallic imagery and strange dialogue.The film has to be seen, but it of course isn't the greatest adaptation of the story.