Archive for the ‘asian cinema’ category

Bollywood Bard: Macbeth in the Mumbai Mafia

August 5, 2009

The Bard Goes Global takes Shakespeare to India with Vishal Bharadwaj’s Maqbool, an innovative rendition of Macbeth that reveals the riveting and unlikely connections between the dramatic traditions of one culture and another. The classic elements of Indian cinema – surges of emotional music, dialogue laden with drama, sweeping musical numbers – lend themselves with a natural ease in Bharadwaj’s hands to Shakespeare’s tragedy.

The tale moves from the hills of Scotland to the gritty and ubiquitous underworld of contemporary Mumbai, where the hierarchy of power is not that of kings but a complex chain of command based on sustained loyalty, crime, and legacies of bloodshed.  Irfan Khan (The Namesake) plays the brooding Miyan Maqbool, an orphan adopted by the powerful Don Abba Ji (Pankaj Kapoor) toward whom he feels unflinching love and loyalty. Abba Ji’s mistress, Nimmi, played by the ever-elegant Tabu (Also The Namesake, as well as countless other Indian films), takes the place of Lady Macbeth, seducing Maqbool and convincing him to murder Abba Ji and take his place as Don in order to stop hiding their illicit affair.

The Elizabethan concern with fate and the stars is mirrored by the Hindu astrological charts drawn by corrupt, guffawing police inspectors (Naseruddin Shah, Om Puri) who spell Maqbool’s fate for him as the next in the line of power, foreshadowing treacherous ambitions planted by Nimmi. Religion and crime interplay as the increasingly violent state of affairs volley us between dargahs, weddings, and funerals.

As the terrible string of murders escalates into a harrowing bloodbath, the relationships, sullied and turned ,are surprisingly nuanced, most striking in the scene that reveals the budding of Maqbool and Nimmi’s love affair where he attempts to wipe her tears with the lip of a gun over a moving musical overture. The gradual overtaking of evil in the otherwise steadfast Maqbool incites a similar foreboding in the viewer, particularly when guilt first begins to infect the tragic hero as he continues to see pools of fresh blood spread over the floors after a ritualistic slaughter, long after it is swept away.

Almost more poetic than Bharadwaj’s imaginative power were the career performances elicited from his actors. Irfan Khan’s haunted countenance beautifully reflected his doom. Naseruddin Shah and Om Puri’s performances as darkly funny, cackling lackies flood each scene with ominous intention.

Most strikingly, Tabu gives a characteristically brilliant performance as a deeply sensual temptress with a taste for dangerous games. The mischief in the character and the fear she elicits makes Nimmi, like Lady Macbeth, the most sinister character, but it is Tabu’s performance of her tumble into insanity that ultimately highlights the complex matrices of emotion, born of games of love and war. Her fall is most striking as she pulls herself from the bed of her and Maqbool’s love nest in a post-partum craze, attempting to wash from the walls of the blood she is unable to rid from her hands.

Maqbool accepts his fate sitting, beaten by the stars, against the wall of his bedroom holding his dying wife in his arms. Striken by their crimes, Nimmi asks, “Was our love, at least, not pure?” With this masterful film, Bharadwaj portrays the fragility of the complicated networks of power and the extremes people are willing to go for greed and desire as they exist in Shakespearean tragedy, as also in Mumbai noir, by painting a world where life is cheap, blood is cheaper, and love can only be the seed for evil, let alone a match for it.

-Ashna Ali


THIS MONDAY! Film Comment Selects Director Park Chan-wook’s THIRST

July 17, 2009


Model Catholic priest Sang-hyun (Song Kong-ho, The Host (2006)) has a calling to serve those teetering on the edge: dying hospital patients, the suicidal. Restless, powerless to strike back against death, Sang-hyun signs up for a high-risk vaccine trial meant to combat a deadly virus. As the doctor who receives him at the clinic explains, to exhibit symptoms is to die. The doctor asks the priest why he has come: Sang-hyun answers, “I want to save people.”

And yet despite his faith, the disease takes Sang-hyun. While performing a Bach cantata — Cantata BWV 82, one ending with the aria “Ich freue mich auf meinen Tod” (“I look forward to death”)) — a firehose of blood flutes from the wooden recorder. Drained of blood, at the edge of death, Sang-hyun receives a transfusion shortly before coding in the clinic’s ICU. But then comes the miracle: from beneath the sheet issues Sang-hyun’s voice with a bizarre inversion of the Leper’s Prayer translating as something like “Make everyone avoid me as a leper whose skin rots;/ Make me immobile like a person whose limbs have been amputated.” Out of 500 volunteer test subjects, only Sang-hyun survives.

But back in Korea, abnormalities to his startling recovery begin to surface for Sang-hyun. There are those who embraces him as a saint and beg him to pray for them. But what can explain his sudden sensitivity to sunlight, and his gnawing craving for human blood?

Director Park Chan-wook‘s Thirst speculates: what if the priest doesn’t survive the disease because of faith, or because of the vaccine trial? What if instead of a cure, he receives another, far stranger disease? What if the transfusion of blood in the clinic carries within it … vampire blood?


Park Chan-wook is a highly-regarded, mid-career film director in Korea who in the past decade has gained a massive international reputation due to his stylish “Vengeance Trilogy”, particularly festival/cult film favorite Oldboy (2003). (My pick of trilogy: Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002).) It is significant that Oldboy, though an adaptation of a popular Japanese manga title, gains a great deal of its icky, disturbing power directly from Park’s own preoccupations as a re-interpreter of the work — for example: the (in)famous twist at the end of the film. (Expect that the upcoming Will Smith adaptation will chicken out and source the less provocative manga instead.) While there exist fans who enjoy Oldboy solely for the extremity of its style and violence, I believe  situating it within the context of Park’s work as a whole, the film is much more critical of the impotence of violence/revenge than a celebration of it. (Provocative article here!)

From powerful political thriller J.S.A. (2000) to unfairly neglected I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK (2006), Park leverages his high-concept-crossbred-with-adaptation plots to examine human behavior and the effect of man’s actions on others, tracing a line from characters’ well-meaning initial intentions all the way to (often horrifying) unintended consequences. As with I’m a Cyborg, Thirst doesn’t exist solely to resolve its conceptual premise, but continues to deepen and complicate all the way into the final minutes of the film. Thirst both is and isn’t a vampire film; while Park draws metaphoric strength from the vampire tale, the power of the film lies with the human personalities trapped within it.


Thirst is also an adaptation of Zola’s Thérèse Raquin, the novel/play that through grim, gritty, “scientifically detached” portraiture of its haunted, murderer protagonists, introduced the style of “Naturalism” to the Western world. While vampirism is something that “happened” to Sang-hyun, how he chooses to respond to the new conditions of his life takes shape after he encounters his childhood acquaintance, Kang-woo (Park regular Shin Ha-kyun) and his once-adopted-sister-now-wife, Tae-ju (the lovely Kim Ok-vin). Tae-ju comes to Sang-hyun for help, seeking an escape from her mother-in-law and sickly, needy husband. And she offers Sang-hyun help in return. (“I wish to help the needy,” she tells him. “And you are a single, needy man.”) And as anyone familiar with Thérèse Raquin expects, their plans to save each other at the cost of those “deserving” revenge will not proceed smoothly, trapping them more tightening clutches of their predicament.

Matthew Griffin

Monday, July 20, 2009 at 7:30pm Buy tickets

The Asian American International Film Festival Returns in Fine Form

July 16, 2009

This year the AAIFF ’09 is leaner and more focused as a condition of our new economic reality. However, it is also an experiment on the viability of a community-minded event—spread by word of mouth and quality selections rather than by star filled premieres or flashy, usually forgettable, narrative bombs. The showcase will include 14 feature films and 50 short films during the weekend of July 23 – 26, 2009. Opening night of the festival starts with Ivy Ho’s reverse chronological narrative, Claustrophobia. Ho is a veteran Hong Kong screenwriter whose directorial debut trowels in the turmoil created by a clandestine work affair. Following is the much ballyhooed Sundance premierer, Paper Heart. Charlyne Yi, of Knocked Up notoriety, steers this faux documentary in a search for true love. Michael Cera also shows up as …himself?

Claustrophobia, Directed by Ivy Ho, 2008

The first full day of programming places displacement on center stage. One of the standouts is Hubad. Based on the play by the same name, Mark Gary and Denisa Reyes have aggressively adapted it for the screen. On first glance it is an all too familiar work of meta-fiction about the play rehearsals and the parodic explorations of sex from which the play draws its comedy. However, as the layers of pretense are peeled away, we are slowly exposed to the sexual repression supposedly endemic to Filipino society.

Hubad, Directed by Mark Gary and Denisa Reyes, 2008

The lead characters, Carmen and Delfino, inhabit their characters wholly and the line between fiction and reality never materializes. At moments, the film hazily drifts into documentary, as though the audience is witnessing real people slowly self-destruct. Once they start a poorly concealed affair, the actors brazenly jeopardize their perfectly curated existences. Ironically, the play becomes the only space of solace as their significant others begin to reject them. The third night is the presentation of the centerpiece film, Children of Invention, which has been handily racking up awards and praise on the indie festival circuit for most of this year. No small part of this is due to its timeliness. The impasse that separates an immigrant mother from her two young children is a classic pyramid scheme. The director, Tze Chun, expresses some disdain over these get rich schemes, but also recognizes them as a part of the defective American Dream.

Children of Invention, Directed by Tze Chun, 2008

I can’t say that watching this film was an enjoyable experience, but it was a poignant one. Following the two young children Raymond and Tina as they roam around Boston is as close to cinematic purity as one is likely to see this year. The two young leads are free of the common child actor tics like cloying sentimentality or broad over-acting. Drawn faces and slumped shoulders tell a story much more nuanced than dialogue could ever approximate. Chris Teague’s cinematography is deceptively simple. Moments like the realization of the “Sold” sign on the lawn of their old house or a slice of pepperoni pizza being eaten on the street resonate as seminal moments in the lives of these youngsters. The framing captures the intimacy of their cut-out existence, cut–out from society, from normality, from reality. They will never forget this time, and nor will we.

The final night of the festival is a celebration. The closing film this year is Fruit Fly. It is unlike anything else you will see in a theater I guarantee. Here are just a few reasons why: insanely catchy pop tunes that will swim in your head relentlessly for days after viewing; dazzling, funny special effects that re-imagine the San Francisco skyline as an electronic game board, Asian characters devoid of clichéd stereotypes, and an infectious sense of freedom which enlivens everything from the dialogue to the title sequence.

Fruit Fly, Directed by H.P. Mendoza, 2008

H.P. Mendoza has crafted a pitch perfect (literally) homage to post-college bravura. The lead, a Filipino-American named Bethesda (L.A. Renigen) is on a sojourn to finish her one-woman play about the search for her biological parents. En route she realizes that she is a fag hag, criminally horny, and a pretty vulnerable performer. Watch this film with a big group. It has that sort of energy that can only be dissipated by bantering back and forth and talking to the screen. You will leave just a little lighter on your feet.

– Wayne Lorenzo Titus

Tickets for the festival can be purchased here. And a longer version of this report is available on the Cinemism blog.

NYAFF FESTIVAL DISPATCH #3: Sion Sono’s Gleefully Sacrilegious Four-hour “Love Exposure” (Japan, 2008)

July 9, 2009

Each year, the last week of the New York Asian Film Festival shifts uptown to Japan Society where programming overlaps with the first week of co-presenter sister fest Japan Cuts: Festival of New Japanese Film. This year I caught of number of my NYAFF’09 favorites here (Vacation, All Around Us, and unexpectedly delightful Magic Hour), as well as picking up a handful of tickets to Japan Cuts.

I’d challenge viewers seeing any pairing of these films to come up with a “Japanese contemporary film is [x]”: the range of themes, topics, and styles ever tacks “Japan” to the top of my national-cinemas-to-watch list. But as has happened to award-winners at NYAFF the past few years, some of the more unusual, passionate work will never get US theatrical distribution (Sad Vacation, Funky Forest, Princess Raccoon, etc.). But if you hunt far and wide (and graymarket), DVDs at least may be obtained.

LOVE EXPOSURE (Japan, 2008)

I am going to have a difficult time speaking about Sion Sono’s gleefully sacrilegious four-hour Love Exposure without resorting to extremes. This partially due to the film’s intentionally tripelbock hot-button content, but mostly because (for all of its pile-it-on plot hijinks) this was my favorite experience of the festival.

Yu (Takahiro Nishijima) is a quiet, dutiful son born unto zealous Catholics. One of the last thing Yu’s mother tells her son before she dies of illness: she hopes Yu will someday meet his very own Mary. Yu’s father enters the priesthood in the wake of his wife’s death. Haunted by a disastrous love affair, he forces his goody-goody son to make daily confession to him, berating his son for insisting, timidly, that he hasn’t sinned that day.

Yu responds as any quiet, dutiful son placed in this position must: he makes confession. After getting caught out for his initial, awkward fabrications (“I didn’t help an old lady cross the street” when in fact he did) he commits himself wholeheartedly to true sin. The worse the sin, the more his father revert from his priestly deportment to Yu’s red-in-the-face, screaming dad. So in a sequence evoking Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959), Yu transforms himself from altar boy into the King of Perverts: a blackbelt upskirt panty photographer. (Asked about research for this work in the q&a, Sono talked about getting arrested a few times when going out shooting with his photographer consultant.)

On the other side of the story, swaggers tough-as-titanium Yoko (Hikari Mitsushima). Raised by an abusive, ceaselessly philandering father, she achieves an epiphany looking around her bedroom at posters of female pop culture icons: she resolves to hate men and love women. She runs away from home with her father’s latest ex-lover (also the object of Yu’s father’s disastrous affair) determined to invent a new life for herself, not as a daughter but as the ex-lover’s peer.

And then comes The Miracle (anticipated by a series of countdown title cards):  the collision of Yu with Yoko in a city park — while the two of them face off against a gang of scores of male thugs. Preparing to fight the entire world single-handedly, or die trying, Yoko draws a gauzy scarf down around her face and steadies herself — evoking for Yu his mother’s demand to meet his own “Mary.” (Yu: “Who is this woman!”) However, Yu joins the fray dressed in drag as the costumed exploitation hero “Lady Scorpion” (his fighting skills honed by hard training as a committed sinner) having earlier that day lost a game of upskirt-photo high-card with his friends. (Between punches, Yoko asks herself: “Who is this woman!”) Love at first fight.

This inciting incident, one hour into the film, is followed by the film’s opening title sequence. (Greeted with cheers at the screening I attended.) Much of the rest of the film backs into this sequence and the consequences that follow, to reveal the Miracle not as an act of God, but as the master manipulation of giggly, white-clad schoolgirl Koike (Sakura Ando), a Zero Church capo, in the service of a deep dark religious cult purpose (inflected by her own personal craving for sadism, mayhem, and destruction).

–Matt Griffin

NYAFF Festival Dispatch #2 – For Better Summer Fun, Grab Blockbusters from Elsewhere

July 2, 2009

It’s summer, yay! You could be watching Transformers 2, but you would be better entertained catching the spirited critical lambast hoisted at it (especially here and here).

Thankfully, There are other options: I’ve been attending Subway Cinema’s New York Asian Film Festival at the IFC Center. Here’s another tasting menu of mini-reviews from the festival bringing to New York City some of the most interesting contemporary Asian cinema you have never seen before.


20th CENTURY BOYS, Chapter One / 20th CENTURY BOYS, Chapter Two: The Last Hope (2008)

Do you remember inventing stories about the future with your grade school friends? What secrets would adulthood hold for you, your friends, your playground enemies? Naoki Urasawa‘s manga epic — manga’s The Watchmen — considers: “what if you were confronted with your childhood playground fantasies as an adult?” Not the fluffy talking bunny pal or the castle-fort in a local park, but the scariest nightmare that you and your little friends came up with: the villain mastermind your gang would band together to overcome. Would the pushing forty adult-you be up to the challenge of saving the world, the task you assigned yourself as a child?

Director Yukihiko Tsutsumi’s three-film epic treatment of this epic subject offers audiences a remarkably close adaptation — in terms of narrative, casting, and even camera framing — of the original manga. While this film might be poppier fare than Shūsuke Kaneko’s mature, challenging Death Note adaptations from NYAFF ’07, and less crowd-pleasing than Shimako Sato’s K-20, Tsutsumi’s summer blockbuster-scale production nonetheless brings to the subversive, culturally critical source material compelling performances and memorable images unlike any $800 million dollar blockbuster you will ever see again. Confronted with the challenge of compressing 4k manga-pages into even a generous 5 hours, Tsutsumi reorders the narrative to deliver jaw-dropping, paradigm-switching end-sequences for the climax of both Chapter One and Chapter Two. An improvement over occasional meandering “why is this story not over?” feeling of the original.


K-20: LEGEND OF THE MASK (Japan, 2008)

Drawing from a number of masked man action/adventure references, from Fantomas to Zorro, director Shimako Sato compiles a new blockbuster franchise from the character “K-20: the Fiend with Twenty Faces.” In an alternative universe 1949 (in which World War II never took place), Tesla has survived to invent his electrical energy broadcast technology, and the division between the Japanese aristocracy and the disenfranchised poor resembles, well, contemporary America. A new loud-cackling villain is on the loose: a man assuming perfect false identities in order to steal precious objects and technology from the aristocratic and scientific community. Because no one knows what K-20 looks like, the naive wrong-place-wrong-time circus acrobat Hekichi Endo (Takeshi Kaneshiro) gets fingered as the bad guy. His efforts to escape and redeem himself lead him to train in the very skills the real K-20 mastered. Sato’s film is a surprisingly successful crowd-pleaser, a Speilberg-at-his-prime steampunk adventure film.



Milkyway veteran director Law Wing-cheong‘s feature joins other broadcast and theatrical films created with the same team of actors and creative staff over the past few years in the wake of  Johnnie To’s successful Hong Kong police franchise PTU (2003). Comrades in Arms follows two infighting factions of a Hong Kong PTU assigned to pursue armed bank robbers into the mountains. While in many ways this film is simply the latest pressing of a well-respected, well-oiled creative team, the performances and solid filmmaking effortlessly set this film above Hollywood police action fare, and I admire the piece enough to track down To and Law’s other Milky Way “Tactical Unit” pictures.


EYE IN THE SKY (Hong Kong, 2008)

Another police procedural offering from Hong Kong-based Milkyway. This debut film directed by veteran screenwriter Yau Nai-hoi (wr. Election (2005), The Mission (1999)) leverages its subject matter, the Hong Kong Police Department SU (surveillance unit), to permit a compelling (if frenzied) camera-and-cutting style that distinguishes it from the PTU series and any other police/crime films in the NYAFF series. Locating itself in style and content somewhere between the unspeakably dangerous (Bond-free) UK contemporary espionage/counter-terrorism series Spooks/MI5 and Greengrass’s overdriven, grab-at-a-glance Bourne Ultimatum, Yau’s film manages to turn the media-as-metaphor suggested by surveillance footage into an engaging, accomplished feature that I continue to recommend.

-Matthew Griffin

Beyond Bollywood: The New India at MOMA

July 1, 2009


Perceptions of India volley between the extremes of luxurious wealth portrayed in commercial Bollywood flicks and the news beat struggle the forty percent of the nation’s population living in poverty. The latter is a hairy picture for a Western public, to which the outrage over Slumdog Millionaire can attest. With every portrait of a country with enormous divides between class, caste, culture, language and religion, the question must be asked, “Is this the real India? Is this the India that Indians want the world to see?” To its credit, the Museum of Modern Art’s The New India series, sixteen films screened from June 5th through June 18th included thought-provoking documentaries about the reality of rural villages, including Megan Mylan’s film Smile Pinki, and Sourav Sarangi’s Bilal against large-scale Bollywood features like Luck by Chance by Zoya Akhtar, and subtler portrayals, like Buddhadev Dasgupta’s The Voyeurs that raise questions as much about the rise of India in the global eye and portrayals of poverty.

The line between an honest portrayal of rural life and “poverty porn” is fine and often blurry. Smile Pinki, directed by Megan Mylan stays beautifully clear of dangerous territory, recounting the story of poverty-stricken children with cleft lips and their magical transformation upon receiving free surgeries from a charity organization, The Smile Train. The film pivots around the vitality of the patients, a young girl in particular whose courage comes as a unnerving reminder of the astounding resilience of children. Sourav Sarangi’s Bilal is a far more complicated, ambivalent affair, following a young boy living in poverty with blind parents, unsure of itself as a documentary or a more stylistic narrative. Sarangi often films at Bilal’s eye-level, seeing the world from his perspective picks fights with peers and roosters outside of the 8×10 foot partitioned room he shares with his blind parents and little brother. Life is hard, as the parents are led around infamous Calcutta streets and struggle with debt, abortion, and violence portrayed matter-of-factly. Moments of hardship are obviously downplayed and others are not, muddying the line between slum exotica and a tale of real hardship and strength.

India cannot be seen without the role of fantasy and escapism provided by cinema’s ubiquitous cultural presence. Zoya Akhtar’s Luck by Chance transitions from the aesthetic world of glossy Bollywood parties to the humble lives of struggling artists, to the sets gaudy day-time soap operas. The deliberate moves between the glamorous celebrity-studded dream and the reality of an industry run on nepotism and corruption a simultaneous self-consciousness and great love for the industry the film criticizes and participates in. While revealing an industry that thrives on its incestuous breeding of star cache, Zoya Akhtar never loses sight of the impact of this world on the quotidian reality of Indian life across social stratum.

Buddhadev Dasgupta’s The Voyeurs, zooms in a little closer, painting a poetically stylized portrait of contemporary urban Calcutta, telling the sad tale of two young men and the effect of technology and popular culture on their lives in a modern environment run on traditional values. Much of the film is delightfully acted in the saccharine style of old Bengali comedies, the dialogue sing-song theatrical. Old Indian cinema plays a significant role in the film as the two protagonists’ small, circumscribed lives are rendered less lonely by their admiration for a picture of Madhubala, a beauty from 1940s Indian cinema over whom they rhapsodize, sharing woes – another manifestation of the emotional role of Indian film in the lives of Indians across the socio-economic board.

Shaik Nasir’s short brings role of film in the Indian consciousness most emphatically to the fore in Superman of Malegaon which follows the making of Malegaon-ka Superman, a regional parody of Superman whose production is a comedy of errors, the final product is a hilarious mash up, YouTube style. The importance of such a small production in the lives of the desperately underprivileged speaks to the changing nature of film in India and the growing interest in using the medium for poetic statements about Indian life – without compromising the tremendous need for escape that Bollywood provides. In a much needed attempt to offer a deeper look, the series offers a largely textured and broad, if not complete, view of a growing, changing Indian film industry, and in the best testament to the nature of the country, leaves one with a sense of paradox and questioning of perception of the diversity and portrayal of Indian life and cinema.

-Ashna Ali

Delayed Despair: The Philosophy of Zhang Lu

May 19, 2009


“If the world is going to get better, it is not going to get much better. If it is going to get worse, it is going to get a lot worse.”

In a Q and A following the screening of his latest feature, Iri (which screened as part of On the Edge: New Independent Film from China, April 24-26 at the Walter Reade Theater), Zhang Lu uses this self-made axiom to explain the despair that supersaturates his films. His words hit me at an oblique angle – unlike everyone else in the audience, I have to wait for them to be translated into English. Lu’s sweetly demure manner of standing and speaking doesn’t help this thirty-second delay in comprehension. I won’t realize how much sense Lu’s grim words make for about another week.

At first I don’t know if it is the gap between our cultures or simply Lu’s natural hand that causes his film to hit me in the same oblique way.  Lu was asked to make a movie about the as of yet unexplained train explosion that took place in Iri, South Korea in 1977. Rather than making a film about the explosion as it took place, Lu sets the movie 31 years after the fact. Our flailing heroine is Jinseo, a woman shaken by the explosion while still in her mother’s womb, and as a result born retarded and motherless.

Just like his treatment of the explosion, Lu’s treatment of the hardships that result from Jinseo’s illness is somehow poignantly indirect. Because Jinseo lacks the IQ or the courage to object, she becomes the victim of constant exploitation. Her boss doesn’t pay her, and the men that surround her molest her wordlessly. Jinseo’s life is unspeakably tragic, but every shot depicting it is perfectly framed. In scenes that foreshadow or even depict rape and suicide, I find myself distracted by some beautiful object focused in the foreground – an elegant doorframe or a teapot from which steam slowly rises. The camera never stays on an assault for more than a second or so – it tilts to some other part of the room while we continue to hear the struggle.

This approach to potent expression may seem paradoxical, but Lu’s slower-acting elixirs probably last longer than the standard drugs.  I might be focused on the red teapot in the foreground while I’m watching an ominous scene, but teapots everywhere for weeks will recall to me what happened in the background.

-Morgan H. Green