2003 Milk Plus Droogies

Best Picture
Kill Bill Vol. I

Best Director
Quentin Tarantino, Kill Bill Vol. I

Best Actor (tie)
Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean

Best Actor (tie)
Bill Murray, Lost in Translation

Best Actress
Uma Thurman, Kill Bill Vol. I

Best Supporting Actor
David Hyde Pierce, Down With Love

Best Supporting Actress
Miranda Richardson, Spider

Best Screenplay
Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation

Best Foreign Film

Best Cinematography
Harris Savides, Gerry

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The Blog:
Tuesday, December 16, 2003
What's left of a month in film, condensed version

Well, with lots of work and a nasty flu I was out of order for some time, so here's what I remember from a month or so of filmwatching: The new cut of Vincent Gallo's The Brown Bunny holds up on second viewing; in some ways I liked the much-maligned, but actually pretty terrific Cannes version better (more driving scenes, giving an almost Warhol-Bennig-feel to the lengthy proceedings before the sole story set-piece actually starts and reatroactively makes the "movie"); still, it probably was not the worst choice to remove the original ending, however demented-daring-silly it may have been (don't worry, I'm not talking about the fellatio, that's thankfully intact, also very Warhol, very Fuck, but with Gallo-only psychodramatics). The new cut establishes pretty much that TBB is best approached like a singer-songwriter album (it even touches all the great themes of the dark side of country music: the devils booze, drugs, gangbang and suffocating on your own vomit), since it's leaning more towards the Two-Lane Blacktop side with its haunted, ragged landscapes and melancholia, not to mention an overwhelming sense of futility and the sparse musicality. In fact, now that I've examined the background, the four music pieces (Ted Curson's mournful jazz ballad "Tears for Dolby", a warbling Gordon Lightfoot lovesong, a haunting lament by tragic folk-legend Jackson C. Frank and a tune from a Twilight Zone episode whose plot has uncanny mirror effects with TBB) actually do give away the whole story while you're watching it, you're just not clued into that yet. Probably among my two or three favorite films of the year.

Some mostly minor Shaw Brothers stuff also left a few impressions: Let's begin with the biggest letdown: I was pretty hyped about The Siamese Twins (1984), a Category III horror film despite some previously encountered negative rections; I figured that it was more of a psycho-thrller than horror and the gorehounds had been disappointed by lack of their favorite ooze; plus it was shot by Angela Mak, one of the few female directors involved with the watershed HK new wave of the early 80s and I was curious how she'd approach a big budget studio film. Turns out, she actually goes for psycho-thriller, but with late-nate-cable aesthetics, ludicrous scenes, subpar dialogue and worse acting. Storyline: A siamese twin discovers that her parents had to decide which of the two small children should survive and chose her; as she (sloowly) finds that out some 20 years later cue possessions by the vengeful phantom of her hintherto-unbeknownst dead sibling. Acceptable probably drunk at 4 a.m., the first hour is mainly wasted, though it does pick up a bit for the finale after the ghost discovers that by fucking (which also explains the III rating, I guess) she can gain mind control over people and things go plain weirdo. Somewhat better: Two Champions of Shaolin (1980), pretty much a demonstration object of the kind of mostly enjoyable filler work Chang Cheh relied on to bolster his 100+-probably-film-career: Revenge martial arts, often sloppily directed character-development- and story-wise, but with some intense fights and the increased ouch-factor that is typical for much of Chang's later work; don't get me started on the guy that surprisingly gets ripped off his crotch during an energetic attack attempt. And that's only 30 minutes in. The Condemned (1976), an ever-so-slightly socially oriented action-drama by and with a frequent Chang protagonist, David Chiang, packs more of a punch, especially in its first half, essentially a tight psychological two-hander set in a prison cell. The second half is well-done escape and mayhem-on-demand antics; interestingly, Chiang casts himself as kung-fu inept (until, miraculously, near the end... uh, you guessed). Also quite engrossing: a gambling double feature consisting of Mahjong Heroes (1983) and - maybe the film that started it all - King Gambler (1976). Both share the obligatory storyline: gambling (family) clan joins to destroy evil gambling master and suceeds after much (and much fun) mutual bluffing. The newer film is more run-of-the-mill and suffers a bit from the bland 80s Shaw design (you can see in many films from the time that they'd switch to mere TV production soon; house-hack this time around: Li Pei Chuan aka Lee Pooi Kuen), but its focus on the games themselves is fascinating (even if you don't know the exact rules, it's thrilling to watch), as I've never encountered that in HK gambling movies to such a degree. King Gambler is more The Sting-like in its concentration on elaborate cons (not necessarily confined to the gambling table) and its episodic nature. Director Cheng Gang (in Mandarin: Ching Gong) shows his usual flair for eloquent widescreen framing and a not so-usual tight grip on the material. But you know you're in a HK-only movie when you're getting to the scene with the gambling dynasty's founder aprrovingly watching his grandson tricking other tots in a pissing contest while his wife runs about screaming embarassedly. At least until Adam Sandler buys the remake rights. Another double feature, probably the most interesting here: two films directed by Japanese directors - some were occasionally hired by the Shaws for short stints; up to then only films by regular Inoue Umetsugu were released and they all elude the same plastic taste of psychedelia-meets-Elvis, i.e., there's nothing much Japanese about them. Quite differently so with The Lady Professional (1971) by Akiniro Matsuo (or, in Shaw-Land: Mak Chi Woh), a relatively tight female-hitman thriller starring the indispensible Lily Li and chock-full with typical 60s yakuza stylo excesses: weird angles, decentered compositions, ritualistic color-coding and a dry, economical relationship to violence (sometimes undercut by the mystifying decision to crank up the speed). It also contains one extended martial arts set-piece in an abandoned factory that's so out of tune with teh rest of the film's style that I immediately presumed somebody else shot them. Indeed, HKMDB lists Kuei Chih-hung (more on him later) as co-director. The Diary of a Lady-Killer (1969), directed by Nakahiro Ko (or, as Shaw would have it: Yeung Shu Hei), along with Masamura often cited as a main precurosor of he Japanese New Wave, was quite fluffy in comparison: a by-the-numbers crime riddle with not enough outlandish ideas or humour to make you forget that Tashlin had already parodied the genre to death in The Alphabet Murders; there seem to be a few personal touches amongst the commercial mumbo-jumbo, but probably not enough. And yeah, for Kuei Chih-hung (Gui Zhihong in Cantonese) - finally his notorious The Bamboo House of Doll (1973) arrived; its reputation is rather exaggerated, though, it can't hold a candle, just for instance, to the director's own sinister The Killer Snakes or The Delinquent (co-directed by Chang Che, but it bears Kuei's stamp almost all over) from the same time period. Mostly the usual sadistic routines (nurses in Japanese "concentration camp" during WWII, some historical quasitaboo broken there at least, I guess) and tit-gazing, enlivened by some Lo Lieh angriness and Kuei's original ways of widescreen framing, but the compositions alternate with utterly carelessly shot scenes. Takes a turn to action-adventure in the second half with an interesting act of subverting expectations (though, I'm afraid, not enough to ever put in question the crass exploitation it's founded on) and quite a downbeat finale.

Still Shaw, but somehow this emerges as part of a Lau Kar Leung (Mandarin: Liu Chia Liang) double feature: The Shadow Boxing aka The Spiritual Boxer II, the follow-up to his debut. An early hopping vampire comedy, it's not as hilarious as Sammo Hung's deminal genre revitalisation Mr. Vampire from the mid-80s, but it's consistently amusing and very well-paced (except for the even-more-than-usual-abrupt-with-Shaw-finale which is like, under a minute tacked-on or so, might just be demolished by language barrier, though) and shows the strengths of the director, also on ample display in his famed 36th Chamber films: His intriguing mixture of comedy and action was quite a departure for the martial arts genre then dominated by Chang-nihilism and Chu Yuan-Borges-labyrinths. (If not necessarily for the hopping vampire genre, I presume.) As it befits the family business, Chambers star Gordon Liu, sadly wasted in Kill Bill (so far), has the coolest role of 'em all as an unruly dead person. Tiger on Beat, a Chow Yun-Fat vehicle from 1988, is somewhat less accomplished, but still good-natured madcap HK farce, with Chow sparkling (especially in the opening scenes where he is almost discovered by his one-night stand's husband, then surprises in a cafe by drinking a glass with 9 eggs - "Bruce Lee passed it on to Jackie Chan, Jackie Chan to Sylvester Stallone and Sylvester Stallone to me" and wets his pants at gunpoint a few moments later). Clearly a less tasteful, but only slightly less fun cash-in on Chan's Police Story, this features lots of low-brow comedy, a log that's worthy of Dolph Lundgren as Chow's partner, and some reliably staged action scenes, culminating in a chainsaw mano-mano between log and - you guessed it - Gordon Liu.

As for epics, I was predictably bored during most of The Return of the King (why is it that each of thos movies contains just one scene that's really interesting to me as there's a flash of the old, inventive Jackson and not some Hobbit-crazy ye-Tolkien-faithful-director; the spider bit this time), but Kazuhiko Hasegawa's 2 1/2 hour -epic The Man Who Stole the Sun must be amongst the greatest genre films ever made: The second effort of the "Japanese Malick" shows that the comparison is more about the (phantom) influence than about the aesthetics (his first masterpiece, Young Murderer was in some ways close to Badlands, but also to early Ferrara; a thrid film about the Japanese Red army a taboo subject for the left over there, is reportedly in production) - it's a full-scale action-thriller, though much of its first half consists of a science teacher meticulously building an atomic bomb at home after he has stolen Plutonium in an almost Jetee-ish freeze frame sequence. Before that was some heavy bus hijacking stuff and it goes through all the motions of a cat-and-mouse-thriller (Bunta Sugawara as cop antagonist, angrier here than in his Fukasaku roles) as the teacher demands , well, whatever comes to his mind right at the monet, it seems, before reaching an apocalyptic finale that's very presumably left a deep mark on Takashi Miike who has yet to make a film half as brilliant as this. Combining fantastic suspense with political-philospohical satire and a dazzling, nervous-but-still-calm style, it's probably Japanese cinema's The Manchurian Candidate, even if there are no surface similarities. It's only available on a DVD with often ridiculous subtitles (the police use an "anti-searching" device to track down the teacher when he phones, the hijacker wants to "talk to the king") and the transfer is abominable, but as with the almost similarly despicable DVD of Ashes of Time it seems the only possiibilty to get hold of a masterpiece easily. I watched it twice within a week. So far.