On the sofa: No blood no tears

One of the best kept secrets in London is the free sessions put on by the Korean Cultural Centre just off Trafalgar Square. I caught the last film of the year to be shown at the centre. No blood No tears is a Korean heist story. Gyung-Sun is a former safe-cracker who has reformed and become a taxi driver.

Her husband is in the wind and left behind a lot of gambling debts that local loan sharks try to collect on. She doesn’t know where her child is and to cap it all Gyung-Sun has a difficult relationship with the police and her short temper.

A chance car accident brings her into contact with a petty gangsters moll and a plot ensues to rob the dog fighting arena where illegal gambling takes place. What ensues is a film that is part comedy, part Thelma & Louise and a healthy dose of ultra-violence that would be familiar to Hong Kong cinema and Tarantino fans.

Over the next few weeks I will be getting my fix of Korean cinema at the London Korean Film Festival. I can recommend from personal experience:

  • Raging Currents
  • The Man From Nowhere
  • The Classified File

On the sofa: The Raid 2

Coming back to the UK reminded me of how much Hong Kong is a cinema-centric culture despite the technology, mobile devices and amazing restaurants. Going to the cinema there was literally half the price of London, which means that I am much more critical of the entertainment shown. The first film I have seen that was actually worth it’s ticket price since I have got back is The Raid 2.

The Raid put the Indonesian martial arts scene on the map with a highly kinetic film that owed much of its visual intensity to computer games. The Raid 2 follows on just hours from the first film; but is an entirely different beast.  As you can see from the trailer, there is still lashings of Indonesian-style ultra-violence

But the film’s pace ebbs and flows in order to tell a more detailed story this time around, which feels very much like an early John Woo, pre-Hollywood. There is a nod to Quentin Tarantino with some of the gimmicky characters such as Hammer Girl.

On the sofa: Safe House

When I see that name Ryan Reynolds on a poster I cringe. Reynolds has appeared in a number of unintentionally comic roles from the Green Lantern to Blade Trinity; or the Marks & Spencers marketing campaign.  So I had my expectations set pretty low for Safe House.

Safe House is a beautifully shot film based in modern-day South Africa; a paranoia-driven thriller a la 3 Days of The Condor, but for the war on terror rather than the cold war. Reynolds does a pretty good job of playing a convincing scared novice CIA officer. What brings it is the ensemble cast around him like Brendan Gleeson who recently stared in The Guard.

The story ends in a bloody Reservoir Dogs-esque climax, whilst there are no surprises the film takes the audience along for an enjoyable ride.

The trailer is on Tudou so may need some patience whilst it loads.

On the sofa: Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol

I realise that this is a belated take on the film, but I was laid up ill over Christmas so only got see it recently. I am not a Tom Cruise fan and didn’t have high hopes for the film so I wasn’t disappointed. It has the same kind of action set-pieces that one has grown to expect from the franchise. I have a little more time for it than most of its ilk as John Woo directed the second film in the franchise – not the greatest of his works, but if he can see something in the franchise, I’ll sit through the films. The film opens with a prison break with a fight sequence that was like a poor imitation of the Bourne movies.

The film had a great ensemble of actors including Michael Nyqvist (who would be familiar to those who have seen The Girl trilogy of Swedish films) as the villain of the piece in a role that was only slightly understated compared to Alan Rickman in the original Die Hard.

The action does have peaks and troughs so it doesn’t feel quite as unrelenting as say a Transformers film. The shots based in Dubai make good use of the city state’s sky line, though in reality the cast would have been killed on the country’s notoriously dangerous roads if they had attempted a tenth of what they did in the film.

Product placement

As with previous Mission Impossible films, product placement featured quite heavily in the film. BMW supplied its Vision Efficientdynamics Concept car; a plug in hybrid that looks like the love child of a BMW M1 and a Tron light bike. It was interesting that extensive use was also made of a Land Rover defender, a BMW 1 series and what looked like a 6-series convertible.

it was interesting to see that an effort was made to tone down Apple’s product placement: whilst there were a number of iPhones, iPads and a MacBook Air on view; the MacBook Air came with a cover to subdue the illuminated logo on the back of the case. This is in sharp contrast to competitors like Nokia on Tron or The Dark Knight which amped up the on screen brand imagery of their products as well as the form factor.

Visual lanaguage

Interesting to note that in general anything that had a blue aura around it, was supposed to be high technology from server rooms to gizmos that got the cast in and out of sticky situations. Technology gets pimped (as in Pimp My Ride) with blue LEDs and cold tubes hidden around the case.

On the sofa: Love And Other Drugs | 电影审查

I got to see Love And Other Drugs which was a surprisingly adult (for Hollywood anyway) romantic comedy with a good ensemble of actors.  Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway give great performances but the real joy is supporting characters played by Hank Azaria as a corrupt doctor, Lilly Pharmaceuticals super-salesman Gabriel Macht and Oliver Plat as Gyllenhaal’s boss and mentor.

The sub-plot of the romance is set in the pharmaceutical sales environment of the US in the late 1990s and does for the the pharmaceutical industry what Glengarry Glen Ross did for the housing sector.

The film prominently features Pfizer and Lilly as an central part of the story in a way that I am sure they wouldn’t want to be portrayed including hard-ball pharmaceutical sales tactics and a Viagra-induced medical emergency.

I am not a rom-com watcher, but I would quite happily watch this film on DVD again.

On the sofa: Sex In The City 2

For those people that believe in karma and reincarnation I must have been very bad in a former life because I sat through Sex In The City 2. I delayed posting this as I wanted develop my thoughts on the film, rather than tearing off into a rant.

In advance of the film, I got a quick brain dump on the main protagonists so had a moderately good idea of what to expect from the characters.

The film started well with an MGM-esque gay wedding with Liza Minelli belting out Beyoncé’s ‘Single Ladies‘ but then went downhill. At first it was just minor actors had cod Oirrish accents and then production item things started to bug me like the fact Sarah Jessica Parker’s character Carrie had an apartment that felt as personal as a hotel room. This all meant that the suspension of disbelief necessary to follow the plot was shattered.

The Middle Eastern plot line played to many American stereotypes of the region that felt more Carry On Up The Khyber than a modern drama should. This film does for Abu Dhabi what Sasha Baron Cohen’s Borat did for Kazakhstan. Arab societal conservatism is mocked and violated by Samantha (played by Kim Cattrall).

I was really surprised that for a show which had a decade or so to develop the characters, everything felt so two-dimensional.  The whole film felt like the cynical abuse of presumably had been a powerful franchise.

On the sofa: Confucius

I was curious to see this film after Chow Yun Fat claimed that the film would be likely to gross as much if not more in the Chinese box office as Avatar. The local reaction to Avatar has been phenomenal, so what chance does Confucius have?

Firstly, The Independent reported that Confucius was replacing screenings of Avatar at many Chinese cinemas, though the one I went to in Shenzhen was running the two side-by-side.

Distribution aside, Confucius serves up a quality-biopic of the famous philosopher which is grand in both its vision and in its cinematography. Its soundtrack features a well-known Chinese singer who was tempted back into recording for the film and a great cast to support Mr Fat’s efforts. It moves him away from being an action star to a character actor and will hopefully open a different set of doors for him in Hollywood in the future.

If you like Chinese epics like Red Cliff or the House of Flying Daggers then this is a good film for you to watch. I don’t think that it will excite western audiences like Avatar did, but that is less to do with the quality of the film and more to do with the audience’s cultural receptivity to it.  It will be interesting to see how the domestic audience here in China receives it.

On the sofa: Natural City

Natural City is an interesting science fiction film from the prolific and talented Korean film industry. The story has hints of Bladerunner as deviant cyborgs run amok and are combated by teams of military police reminiscent of of a SWAT unit. The film is also a police procedural with a tangled plot; an area that Koreans have exceled in producing over the past view years like the Public Enemy series.

There is a recursive nature to this film’s relationship with Bladerunner. Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner played at being Asian with its Japanese soundtrack and synthesis of a Kowloon night market.

It is interesting to see how the Koreans reinvented these concepts for Natural City. One thing I really like is the way they merge the old and the new in the film, giving an amazingly rich experience for a film that couldn’t have been made on a Hollywood budget.

On the sofa: MÄR volume 1 (episodes 1 – 13)

MÄR is a modern computer-produced anime series with the bold bright feel that matches its story. The hero is a school boy called Ginta, who enters into a magical world called MÄR Heaven through a portal (think The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe). In school, he is a nerdy daydreamer, in the magical world he is a fearless athlete.

Ginta quickly gets a travelling companion, a magical talking cup and ball game / weapon called Babbo. Unfortunately Babbo, is also coveted by the powers that be and a lot of the adventures that Ginta has is to do with this continual tug-of-war over the possession of Babbo.

If you like your anime rich and adult orientated like Akira or Ghost in the Shell, this isn’t for you. If you like the high production quality of Studio Ghibli, you may find MÄR too bold, brash and crudely executed. However MÄR, does compare very well to the likes Dragonball Z or Bleach (but without the gore factor). Happy anime couch surfing.

Milk – a biopic

Having visited San Francisco, it is really hard for me to imagine San Francisco as anything other than a bastion of liberalism. Ok, I know that San Francisco doesn’t allow same-sex marriages, but that is a statewide law, but it is hard to imagine the city without The Castro district. However up until at least the late 1970s there was a substantial bias against the LBGT communities in the city.

Milk tells the story of Harvey Milk, which is also the story of the gay community in San Francisco to be treated the same as everyone else. Penn sympathetically portrays Milk as a dreamer with a mission to secure public office. The film is a beautifully shot period piece.

Milk was eventually killed alongside San Francisco mayor George Moscone (the famous Moscone convention centre was named after the mayor) by conservative political rival Dan White.

On the sofa: Triangle

What do you get when you put Ringo Lam, Johhny To and Tsui Hark in command of a robbery film?

This is not a joke but the premise of Triangle. The name mirrors the three central characters and the three film directors who created this film. All of these directors names on their own is enough to carry a heavyweight Hong Kong film, I was afraid that it may be a case of too many cooks in the kitchen but my fears were unfounded.

Instead you get a complex drama that interplays the relationships and trials of three friends, local gangsters, corrupt police officers (which is ironic given that Hong Kong has one of the cleanest police forces in the world after a painful clean-up under Governor MacLehose and Commissioner Sutcliffe’s ICAC), a robbery, adultery and a spaghetti western-esque shootout with a dollop of comic timing.

To say any more would give the game away, just watch it.

On the sofa: Ghost In The Shell

I remember seeing Ghost In The Shell at the cinema in the 051 centre in Liverpool. The 051 Centre was more famous for the club nights ran there by Dave Graham at a time when he ran Groove Records in the city centre. Anyway the cinema had a reputation for showing world and art house films (I saw Akira, The Dollars Trilogy and The Seventh Seal there over the years) and was part of a rich audio visual arts community that existed in Liverpool during the early and mid 1990s. Watching it over a decade later on the small screen, didn’t disappoint, it was as rich and wonderful as I remembered it.

Watching it over again, a few things struck me:

  • The Matrix owes it a huge stylistic debt in terms of the real-world style, character motion and even the green character title sequence at the introduction film credits
  • The film was quite prescient is its perception of technology. The idea that our ideas and memories would be super-connected to each other is already happening with social software and services from Facebook to Flickr and Delicious. The three-dimensional visualisation of data isn’t that far from systems being demonstrated at the moment, if you think about Jeff Han’s touchscreen work at New York University’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences and Perceptive Pixel, the Apple iPhone and Microsoft’s Surface project
  • The films cultural references see Asia Pacific (lots of visual references to Hong Kong) as being foremost in future technology. This may seem far-fetched at first, given the world’s largest and most successful software companies are American (Apple, Google, IBM, Microsoft, Oracle and Sun Microsystems); but when you look at the level of engagement by Joe Public in Asian markets for social and mobile software services and cultural attitudes to new technology in general the geographic status quo is unlikely to be maintained over the longer term

On The Sofa: Monocle Video Podcasts

Monocle magazine also publishes a regular Monocle podcast series. My favourite episode to date was the Bangkok community radio station where listeners provide real-time advice and try to help during a range of incidients whether it is a snake catcher or calling for assistance around a car accident. Behind this community spirit is an altruism due to the Buddhist belief in trying to gain merit in this life, which could also be responsible for the success of knowledge search / Q&A services in  the likes of Korea and Taiwan compared to western countries.

On the sofa: La Antena

La Antena is set in a city lives without a voice, its words appearing as visual speech bubbles. The one person who as a voice called ‘The Voice’ has no visible face. The city consumes media (the main food seems to be cookies which mirror the spiral logo of the and is controlled by its megalomaniac owner.

The media owner Mr TV has a secret plan to subjugate the citizens forever. Its up to a little girl and her family to stop his evil man from robbing the city of its words with the help of a radio transmitter and the blind boy next door. Stylistically La Antena borrows extensively from the golden age of cinema, I noticed visual cues from Metropolis, Things to Come and Nosferatu.

The film has a lush indie Hollywood film like Sin City, but was in fact made on a preverbial shoe string in Argentina.  It is the most entertaining world cinema film I have seen since Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046 (admittedly La Antena doesn’t have actors with the presence of Maggie Cheung, Gong Li or Tony Leung).