Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Enter the Kitty

Today I bought a cat! It’s a girl. Within fifteen minutes I became immediately at risk of turning into one of those guys who dedicates an entire blog to their cat and obsessively photographs its every misdeed. Most people do this under some misguided notion that their feline is the cutest or the most mischievous or the most curious or the most energetic, etc.

I laugh, for unbeknownst to them I have acquired the real cutest, most mischievous, most curious and most energetic kitty. However, their benevolent delusions are perhaps a blessing, since it will prevent them from busting into my home and taking my precious kitty.

Currently my girlfriend and I have yet to name her. She has a beautiful mottled coat of several colors and can jump super high and often. It purrs (at the slightest touch) like a motorcycle gang at a red light. For the last twenty minutes it has been exploring the house starting with the areas where it could cause the most trouble and frolicking outward. She loves toys and has already nearly devoured one.

There will be future updates and more pictures, but I will try to keep it under restraint. I’ve been trying to photograph it for the past half hour but it doesn’t stop moving long enough not to blur the shot.

Review of A Chinese Ghost Story

Fans of Hong Kong cinema often hail “A Chinese Ghost Story” (1987) as the pinnacle of horror movies. While I was initially skeptical, I can definitely see where they are coming from. “A Chinese Ghost Story” is absolutely a product of the 1980’s, but in the best possible way: it blends goofball physical comedy, high-flying action, dazzling (by HK standards) special effects, a synth music soundtrack and a beautiful young starlet (Joey Wang). The film was directed by Siu-Tung Ching and produced by Tsui Hark. It spawned a wealth of sequels and knock-offs.

The film opens on a bumbling, hard-up tax collector named Ling Choi Sin (Leslie Cheung) hiking laboriously towards a new town. His job makes him immediately unpopular and he ends up sleeping in a haunted temple on the outside of town. There he meets a Taoist swordfighter/monk, Yin Chek Hsia, who doesn’t quite fit in with the living or the dead. He’s a benevolent social outcast warring against the spirits of the temple and surrounding forest. His competency and fighting prowess are in sharp contrast to Ling.

Soon Ling runs into Lit Sin Seen (Joey Wang), with whom he is immediately smitten. This ends up being a problem since she is a ghost who seduces travelers and then feeds them to her hermaphroditic tree-spirit master. However, even Lit is drawn in by Ling’s pathetic ineptitude and their romance blossoms. There isn’t much time for swooning, since the couple must then contend with Lit’s evil sisters, the tree-spirit’s enormous writhing tongues, Yin’s determined ghost-busting intrusions and an undead samurai army led by Lord Black (to whom Lit has been forcibly betrothed).

The premise ends up being quite original and fun, with the supernatural elements being especially fresh for those unfamiliar with Chinese lore. Though “A Chinese Ghost Story” came out amidst the “hopping vampire” craze in Hong Kong (Chinese vampires don’t drink blood and have to hop since rigor mortis prevents regular walking), the film relies neither on ghosts or vampires for it’s villains. The evil gender-ambiguous tree spirit provides a wickedly enjoyable new foe that horrifies and disgusts (in grand 80’s style) with its enormous slimy tentacle-tongues.

Initially the tree spirit’s attacks are filmed in “Evil Dead” style sped-up camera rushes terminating in humorous screaming close-ups on the victim (one even goes into the mouth and down the throat of the poor fellow). The majority of the effects in the first half of the film are springboard-assisted fight scenes where the combatants spend the vast majority of the time in the air. These quick-cut, confusing wuxia battles are the antithesis of the clarity and realism in HK action that I usually prefer, but they are redeemed by their sense of airborne agility and entertaining absurdity.

[Image: Get use to these blurry images of people jumping over the camera.]

The first half of the film also has an extended series of stop motion animations (!) featuring shriveled corpses that are trying to kill the hero as he stays in the temple ruins. Through a series of comedic mishaps and coincidences Ling remains blissfully unaware of the zombies and unknowingly foils their every move, eventually killing them with sunlight without ever noticing their presence. This combination of scares, tension, humor and irony (totally unrelated to the main story) gives a good sense of how the film operates.

The director holds back on the revealing the full glory of his special effects until the second half of the film. Never fear, for we are soon to be given an exciting and memorable series of imaginative tricks.

An enormous tongues seizing the protagonist!

The monk draws a yin-yang in blood on his palm and uses it to fire explosives!

Lord Black opens his cape to reveal a body of disembodied heads that fly out shrieking and biting!

Strangely, most of these semi-random events feel entirely natural within the context of the film. Siu-Tung Ching establishes a fast-pace, engrossing rhythm that energizes the film all the way through and allows even the most unpredictable events to occur without missing a beat. Even a narrative-halting music video with the dancing swordfighter/monk comes off as a logical extension of the 80’s-tastic excess.

Excess is definitely the over-arching philosophy of the visual design. Day and night are cast in artificially over-emphasized orange and blue hues, with the scale tipped towards night-time and the fog machine set to “cumulus.” One of Siu-Tung Ching favorite tricks for adding additional interest to shots is to cant the camera at a 45 degree angle. In some cases (I’m thinking of Tony Scott in “Domino” (2006)) this type of stylistic outpouring could drown the movie, but it fits the tone and serves to propel the plot and create the proper atmosphere and emotions.

[Image: In addition to being a great composition, this diagonal shot amplifies the off-kilter high-strung weirdness and makes it look like Lit is climbing up a slope to escape the tree spirit’s whip.]

One thing that Siu-Tung Ching uses for setting an ephemeral, graceful mood is the constant presence silky drapes. I can understand why Lit wears them, since it gives her a ghostly, enrobed beauty and adds a tactile association to her allure. Where it starts to get out of hand is when they show up as backgrounds, weapons and even roads.

[Images: Silky Drape Madness™ allows you to defend your home with ribbon-dancing techniques and guides you safely through tangled haunted forests.]

The film is geared more towards action, effects and style than towards character development and stellar writing (it is a Hong Kong movie after all), but the ensemble deserves credit for giving the film an emotional core and lovable caricatures. Leslie Cheung, as Ling, is charmingly likable in the sort of Hugh Grant way where he wins us over even as we hate his films. Joey Wang earned hordes of adoring fans in an endearing role that has the requisite amount of sexiness and vulnerability to meet horror film standards and enough depth and range to create actual romantic chemistry. The swordfighter/monk, tree spirit, Lord Black and the rest of the cast fulfill their jobs with great vigor if not psychological insight or realistic dialogue. I especially enjoyed the local police, who obsessively and aggressively accost everyone with such unwarranted passion that it bordered on surrealism.

Walrus Rating: 8.5

Monday, May 28, 2007

Review of The Power of the Kangwon Province

Several months after watching Hong Sang-soo’s “Turning Gate” (2002) I find myself returning to try another one of his films. This time around, it’s “The Power of the Kangwon Province” (1998), Hong’s sophomore film. Much like his “Turning Gate” and “The Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors” (2000), the film is divided strictly into two halves and filmed in long, static takes with impeccable framing.

In the first half, Ji-sook and her two friends take a vacation from their schoolwork and the bustle of Seoul in the Kangwon Province. The girls meander through the pleasant region, offer prayers at a nearby temple and meet a friendly police officer. The next day they head up through some beautiful mountain trails and in the evening they get drunk. Several weeks after the vacation, Ji-sook returns for a date with the police officer. In the evening she gets drunk. In the morning she leaves. On the outbound train, she cries.

The second half begins without any obvious transition and focuses on Sang-kwon, a married professor who has recently ended an affair with a student and is currently drifting on low ambitions. His friend invites him on a vacation to the Kangwon Province and they enjoy the mountain hikes and grand views. Along the way Sang-kwon pursues a cultured young woman, but backs off after finding out that she’s married. Before returning home he spends the night with a prostitute and visits the local temple. Several weeks later he runs into his mistress and tries to reignite the affair, but she can’t have sex due to a difficult abortion. The couple parts once again and Sang-kwon returns to his office to stare at his lonely goldfish. Roll credits.

Outwardly, this plot summary sounds like a transcript of a pair of rather average, even boring, South Koreans over the course of several uneventful weeks. The downside (in the minds of most) to “The Power of the Kangwon Province” is that you are watching a film whose external-most layer is unremarkable realism. The upside is that woven into the apparently casual foreground is a background of almost mystical connections, coincidences and symbols.

Did I mention that Sang-kwon’s former mistress was Ji-sook? The film doesn’t state this until they meet again in the last ten minutes. So was Ji-sook pregnant with Sang-kwon’s child? No, it was the police officer’s, but Ji-sook never told him. That’s probably why she was crying as she left Kangwon, but we never find out for sure. The audience doesn’t even find out she’s pregnant until Sang-kwon does, also in the last ten minutes. Did I mention that Ji-sook and Sang-kwon were at Kangwon at the same time, but always just barely failed to encounter each other? Did I forget to bring up that the cultured woman Sang-kwon hit on was probably murdered off-screen?

Much like “Turning Gate,” a lot of the seemingly minor or inconsequential details in the film form the bulk of its power and meaning. Hong Sang-soo’s narrative style will likely frustrate the inattentive and impatient, especially since there is no telling which of the subtle touches, the quotidian moments or the brief encounters with strangers will later be important. However, the film will cast a strangely effective trance over those who begin to mentally assemble the cosmic overtones and emotional undertones that hardly materialize on the screen itself.

The unanswered questions may carrry more ambiguity than most filmgoers can bear, but they are ultimately the most interesting aspects of the movie. Whether we are trying to solve a murder mystery only barely hinted at or attempting to figure out why Sang-kwon is so deeply unsatisfied with his life or contemplating what Hong’s purpose is in having the two separated lovers share a vacation without ever meeting, there is always some nuance to be puzzled over.

[Images: The openings shot (top) and one much later (bottom) showing that Ji-sook (the girl with the scrunchi) and Sang-kwon (his friend has the blue and red sleeves) took the same train to Kangwon.]

The film shows its low budget in its unadorned realist approach and naturalistic characters and environments. Hong works hard to keep his imagery interesting by choosing meticulous frames (many with beautiful asymmetries or distant backgrounds more interesting than the “relevant” foregrounds) within which to watch the minimal action. The editing is leisurely, and there are rarely any two shots that are immediately consecutive in time. Generally there is anywhere between a couple of minutes to a couple of weeks that disappear, almost incidentally, between the cuts. The effect forces the audience to realize that no matter how intimate the glimpses into the lives of the characters, we can never really know what goes on inside and around them. The hints, however, wet the appetite.

The strange similarities between the two halves could occupy an entire essay, but I’d prefer to withhold proposing any single explanation. There is no simple message about the universality of petty arguments, awkward meals and unfulfilled expectations nor is there any implication that the couple has some unique mysterious fate as inevitable lovers or unrequited dreamers. Perhaps my favorite connection is the image of a lone fish. Ji-sook finds one flopping around, far from water, on a mountain trail. With a pang of misplaced pity and distress she buries it alive. Sang-kwon, in the film’s melancholic final scene, returns to his office in a renewed bout of depression and stares at the only goldfish to survive his absence.
While I find Hong Sang-soo’s work to be important and interesting, I will say that he is a difficult director to get into. Even now that I have begun to steadily appreciate his work, I am irked by the redundancy and repetition in his style and themes. “The Power of the Kangwon Province” has all of Hong’s trademarks: the binary split, the easy-going pacing, the static long takes, the criss-crossing connections, the drunken emotional escapes, the uncomfortable sex scenes, the unglamorous alienation and the collapsing relationships. Hong is a distinct director, but his films are beginning to feel indistinct from each other.

Walrus Rating: 6.5

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Review of Martin

Is Martin just a troubled, emotionally stunted teenager or a blood-sucking monster? When we see him staring at a woman, is it with the frustration of adolescent longing or the hunger of a dangerous beast? Is Martin’s disturbing compulsion to kill motivated by a psychological imbalance or a mystical curse? Could Martin be… a vampire?

These are some of the questions asked in George A. Romero’s “Martin” (1978). Although better known for his “____ of the Dead” series, Romero always considered “Martin” his favorite work. The low-budget, humanitarian biography about a boy who may or may not be a vampire is certainly an overlooked gem.

When we first join Martin (John Amplas), it’s on a train ride to Braddock, a suburb in Pittsburg. In the nearly dialogue-free opening, we see Martin attack a girl with a needle, attempting to soothe her as she falls asleep by saying that he’s “very careful with needles.” When she has passed out, he rapes her and then cuts open her wrists to drink her blood. Afterwards, he abandons the corpse. Given how terribly disturbing this sequence is it’s impressive that Martin still becomes such a sympathetic anti-hero. It’s also interesting that though the opening is grainy, confusing and poorly shot, the rest of the film ultimately comes together quite well.

When Martin gets off the train, he’s met by his uncle Tada Cuda (Lincoln Maazel). Cuda brings Martin into his home, but says that he only plans to keep him there until his soul can be saved before destroying him. Cuda decries Martin as Nosferatu (the vampire of legend) and order him not to speak to his granddaughter, Christine. His most strict order is to seek no victims within the city, or else Cuda will destroy him without salvation. Immediately after the speech, the silent Martin chases Tada Cuda down the stairs, bypassing the garlic and crucifixes that Cuda has set up. With the audience expecting another violent outburst, Martin takes a bite from a garlic clove and rubs the crucifix over his face repeating, “I’m your cousin, Martin. There is no magic.”

Flashbacks inform us that Martin has had issues in his past and his adjustment to the new town only makes life more difficult. He does deliveries for Tada Cuda’s humble grocery store and gradually becomes friendly with Christine and Abby Santini, a sexually-starved customer. Christine thinks that Martin should be in a mental hospital where he can receive proper care, but she knows that Tada Cuda is perhaps the craziest of all and she shares none of his mystic beliefs. As Martin’s life begins to change, he also becomes a regular caller known only as “the Count” on an all-night radio show.

This was the first collaboration between Romero and special effects designer Tom Savini. The gore and sadism of the film is often played up in other reviews, but I feel that these elements are fairly extraneous and sort of miss the point. Besides, there are only a handful of scenes with any violence to speak of. The meat of “Martin” lies almost entirely in John Amplas’s superb performance and Romero’s polished minimal script, both of which bring Martin to life in an excruciatingly honest and deeply psychological fashion.

We never find out one way or another whether Martin is what his uncle believes him to be, but it hardly matters. Even if he is nothing but a misguided teen, after years of receiving only revulsion, fear and wrath from his closest family members and suffering from a compulsion for blood that alienates him from society, Martin himself has internalized the belief that he is a vampire. When he starts to call in to the late-night radio show (a plot device smartly introduced as a confessional narration before we realize it’s a real phone call), he tries to correct the popular misconceptions about being a vampire. The radio host clearly exploits Martin as a pitiable freak and it’s tough not to feel sorry for him as he describes his sexual anxieties (he can only do “the sexy stuff” with drugged victims) to the amusement of the host and listeners.

Romero is also wise enough not to get sentimental or preachy. Martin is a problematic character to say the least, and at many times his actions are cruel, unstable or criminal. One can easily understand why Martin would taunt and scare his uncle, given that Tada Cuda essentially forces him into the role of villain. However, when Martin breaks into a home and prepares a syringe to take another victim (a scene infinitely superior to the attack on the train), it is difficult to feel anything except horror.
The film is shot on grainy 16mm and has the look and feel of any of the endless tide of 1970’s independent horror films. While many such low-budget films from this era fall very flat for me, even certain highly-regarded early films by Wes Craven and John Carpenter, “Martin” uses its gritty, documentary look as a chance to explore the realism and ordinariness of a rundown steel town and the harsh personal alienation of one its lonely denizens. Romero uses crisp B/W cinematography for the flashbacks, that lend a high-contrast tone of gothic legacy and German expression (reminiscent of the original “Nosferatu” (1921) and “Dracula” (1931) movies). It is tough to tell how much of these surreal flashbacks are real memories of past traumas or the imaginative dream-images of a constructed delusion.

“Martin” succeeds as a deeply personal and stunningly heartfelt take on the vampire mythos. The inevitably tragic ending unfolds with rapid precision, blending Greek irony with Brechtian anti-climax. The credits play over an audio montage which capture the void left in Martin’s wake, an implication that the boy’s personal story may have universal appeal.

Walrus Rating: 8.0

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Review of The Killer Must Kill Again

Given that Luigi Cozzi has a reputation as one of the world’s worst directors (see “Starcrash”), it was with pleasant surprise that “The Killer Must Kill Again” (1975) turned out to be so good. Granted, “good” is fairly relative, and viewers weaned exclusively on slick Hollywood thrillers will probably have trouble appreciating this low-budget, dated giallo. Nonetheless, Cozzi outdid himself by his own standards and creates an interesting and thoughtful little film that shows signs of a higher pedigree than the schlock he is more famous for.

Giorgio Mainardi (George Hilton) plays a greedy, scheming husband who has been looking around for a good way to knock off his rich wife given that she’s on to his philandering ways and about to deprive him of his cash flow. One night, while making a clandestine call to his mistress from a secluded phone booth, Giorgio espies a man (Antoine Saint-John) loading a corpse into a car and pushing it into a reservoir. Rather than report the incident, Giorgio makes his presence known and threatens to expose the nameless man unless he kills Giorgio’s wife. Thus the killer must kill again, not due to a psychotic compulsion, but to avoid blackmail.

The killer successfully insinuates himself into the wife’s swanky art-deco home and strangles the woman to death. He loads the body into his car trunk under cover of night and returns inside to shut off the lights. When he comes out again the car is gone! A pair of joyriding young lovers (named Luca and Laura) have made off with the vehicle and are heading to an abandoned beach house for some hedonistic fun, completely oblivious to their corporal cargo. The killer hotwires a nearby car and gives pursuit.

Cozzi’s premise, while not a mystery, is compelling enough to kickstart the movie. Unfortunately the twenty minute car chase and the drawn out conclusion at the beach house hold far less narrative punch. Cozzi pours some low-budget tricks into the driving sequence to milk it for what he can, but there is only so much you can do with lens flare and fake-out scares. I was surprised to see a pair of camera iris shots, although whether I should read them as desperate filler or brilliant creativity, I’m not entirely sure.

It tends to be Antoine Saint-John, as the icy cool, resourceful killer that carries the dry spells. Identified only by a lighter with the letters “D.A.” (a reference to Dario Argento), the killer steals the film out from under George Hilton (whom we initially presume to be the lead). Saint-John looks the part: an angular lanky man who exudes intelligence as much as creepy malevolence. We never find out his name or much about his past (nothing is said about the background of the murder that led to the first body dumping), but he occupies the majority of the screen-time and gives a believable performance. He speaks rarely, but when he does, he delivers quick-woven lies in an authoritative deadpan, creating a menacing snake quite capable of slithering his way in and out of any situation.

The rest of the cast is rather more forgettable. Italian erotic comedy queen Femi Benussi has a minor role near the end of the film (credited as “Dizzy Blonde”) and serves as the worst example of utilitarian casting: she shows up looking for roadside assistance and within minutes is having sex with Luca. The whole encounter seems to be designed to add some fresh titillation and to get Luca out of the way so that the killer can catch up with Laura.

As this cameo suggests, one can feel the producer leaning on Cozzi’s shoulder to add as much sex into the film as possible. There is no question about the film’s core misogyny (every male is devoid of noble instincts and every woman is featured within a sexual context), yet Cozzi’s attention seems to be fixed elsewhere. He puts a great deal of attention into the camerawork and makes as many stabs at thematic weight as his characters do into flesh.

Even an uncomfortable dialogue between the husband and killer at an ice rink, that initially manages to make an elegant figure skating routine into a sleazy exercise in male gaze (the camera spends a suspicious amount of time on the legs and hips), is partially redeemed by Cozzi’s ingenuity. The sequence reveals an underlying friction between cold, upper-class, high-art aesthetics and the pleasures and thrills of uncultured, low-brow indulgence. The conflict is punctuated in the final shot of the sequence, where the camera slides gracefully backwards along the ice as the disembodied pair of skates gracefully weaves towards it. Is Cozzi asking us to admire the skater’s legs or footwork? Probably both.

In fact, though the film contains three sex scenes (two of them wholly unnecessary), there’s a sense that Cozzi is more interested in finding a way of filming them artistically than luridly. The first uses a kaleidoscope lens and the second (never fully consummated) is shot in a single continuous (and disorientating) rotation shot.

[Image: The kaleidoscope lens either amplifies the 70’s era ecstasy or hints at the fragmented marriage and forthcoming murder.]

The final sex scene complicates the usual horror movie theme of “no sexual pleasure goes unpunished,” by intercutting the killer raping Laura in the rundown beach house and Luca having sex with the “dizzy blonde” in an idyllic little glen. Far from just being a mere psychedelic accompaniment (a possible reading of the first two cases), this technique creates the impression that we are seeing two sides of the same act: Luca’s perspective of sex as a pleasurable pastime without consequence and Laura’s perspective of sex as a momentous and even a fearful/traumatic experience. Unwilling to complete the act with each other, the two youths split up, only to be reunited and sexually consummated by Cozzi’s editing, only now polarized into absolute extremes.

The intercutting also overtly situates all male “conquest” as aggressive acts. When Luca had earlier attempted to seduce Laura, she revealed that she was a virgin waiting for “someone special.” Cozzi’s cruel irony situates the killer as the special, albeit horrific, someone. The intercutting dissolves the line between Luca’s forceful pleading and the killer’s violent rape, implying the Luca is fundamentally as immoral as the killer. Here, as with the husband and wife, violent crime is linked directly with a sexual affair, not as a punishment for the transgressors, but as an extension from immorality to illegality. The fallout from the disturbing rape scene eventually emerges in typical 70’s horror film fashion with film-land justice more conventionally doled out.

Another noticeable comparison between the husband/wife and Luca/Laura pairings is the use of sets. The film is divided by location into three consecutive parts: Giorgio’s house, the car chase and the beach house. The first set is an amazing parody of ugly urban sterility parading as a trendy middle-upper-class apartment. Its yellow interior, vertical lights and hip furniture lacks any hospitality or humanity.

Best of all is the outrageous artwork. Stamped boldly with the name “lisa,” I can’t help but take this as a humorous reference to Leonardo da Vinci’s 16th century idealized beauty now made over for the consumption of over-stimulated 1970’s males (complete with blonde hair, bikini and gun).

[Images: Art comparison of two very different Lisas.]

In comparison, the beach house is modest and decorated with aging sailing relics. The stone walls are crumbled in places and the wood is sagging and covered in grit. While Giorgio’s antiseptic display of wealth and “taste” turns out to be a breeding ground for corruption, the humble beach house provides a chance for revenge and redemption. Giorgio, Luca and the killer, as immoral male figures, all get their comeuppances in manners befitting their respective social classes, but only the pure-hearted lower-class Laura, of the three female characters, can transcend her victim role.

Perhaps I was just surprised to find things like class conflict and sexual politics in a Luigi Cozzi giallo, but I think “The Killer Must Kill Again” (1975) is a worthwhile film. The premise, Antoine Saint-John’s performance and the generally adept camerawork (the placement and framing are excellent, but the focus is often off and rarely crisp) come together nicely. The self-conscious interplay with horror film and giallo tropes, sometimes relying on the established system and sometimes breaking into new territory, helps seal the deal. As an added bonus, for which I offer no warranty, is the erratic, borderline-insane music that amused me several times.

Walrus Rating: 6.5