What the hell happened to American movies? Did I miss a meeting or something where the powers that be in Hollywood agreed that almost everything they released here forth from 1997 or so was supposed to suck a*s? What is there to watch anymore? Summer movies are about as exciting as a seminar on agriculture. Dramas aren’t very dramatic; comedies are squirm inducing while horror movies make you laugh.
A long time ago men like Scorcese, Coppolla, Spielberg, Lucas, and Carpenter saved it from itself. They gave it a fresh voice, gave it a way out of the dull doldrums of sandal epics and beach movies.
However, the revolution has long passed and we’ve entered the new age of drudgery with Hollywood adopting a faux hip urban style to try and appeal to “the young folk,” committing the same sins of the people they replaced forty years ago. Movies like “You Got Served” are about as representative of Black America today as the Gidget films of the 60s were of L.A. teens.
So where does one turn in this never ending age of high flash boredom? To a place where films are still greenlit on the strength of their stories and not their marketing potential. A place like Japan, Hong Kong, Korea or Thailand where the writers and directors and actors are the ones who forge a movie, not the ad executives.
Asian films have been growing in popularity in the last few years as evidenced by the mainstream acceptance of John Woo and the pillaging of the bigger eastern moneymakers for American remakes.
Maybe it’s our unfamiliarity with the people. Maybe it’s the fact that subtitled films, needing to be read, always partially feel like literature. No matter how silly the original dialogue might seem to the native speaker. I don’t really know. But the fact is that Asian films work in ways that American films don’t anymore.
Endings, for example: In Asian cinema the last few minutes of a movie rarely follow the conventions found in American film. In Hollywood, a movie will almost always end on a high note no matter how unlikely that could be. Asians are not so optimistic and the films often end in the only way they can logically do so.
There is also an enthusiasm with the medium. Something that has long left our own dream factories. People like Michael Bay slog through clichéd scripts with all the spunk of a dying Dodo Bird while guys like Takashi Miike impart such vicious energy in their work that we wonder about their mental health.
Fantasia was founded in 1996, around the same time that Asian cinema was starting to creep into the public consciousness. The festival was the perfect antidote to Hollywood’s business-as-usual style of filmmaking. It was a place to escape the growing blandness of the local Cineplex. Proof of the growing dissatisfaction with modern entertainment can be found in its success. It’s now the second biggest festival in all of Montreal with people lining up around the block for hours in wait to see a film.
The whole Hollywood-remake-of-successful-European/Asian-films craze can be traced to the international premiere of “Ringu” at Fantasia in 1999; which led to it being acquired by DreamWorks and remade into “The Ring” with Naomi Watts. So in a way, Fantasia not only offers respite for the weary, but it also influenced Hollywood to create some its best work in almost a decade.
Well, the festival has been going on for almost two weeks now. My first impression was that it’s quite well run and the selection of films is top notch. Mariko McDonald and her fiancé BJ, who were there with me for the first week, pretty much echoed my conclusion. The whole thing is getting bigger every year; they sold twice the amount of tickets on opening day from 2003.
Met a lot of nice Fantasia people like Mitch Davis, Sara Duda and Mi-Jeong Lee. Also met Adele Hartley from the Dead By Dawn festival in Scotland. Hi Adele! Adele’s a great lady who shares my fist-shaking disdain of mainstream cinema. Met Michael Gingold of Fangoria, a super nice guy who seemed quite amused that I not only have one, but two copies of Fangoria #9. Of course I can’t forget to mention either Mariko or BJ, my Film Threat comrades, they were great people.
Up to now my favorites have been:
PING PONG: No if, ands or buts, an absolute masterpiece! When the credits rolled, me, Mariko and BJ all looked at each other with goofy smiles and went “Whoa!”. I never expected to like this film so much, but it’s quite simply one of the greatest movies of all time.
Poco and Smile are two childhood friends who play Ping Pong for their school team. Poco is an aggressive player who loves the game, especially when he plays for money. Smile, on the other hand, doesn’t like the game but plays because he likes Poco. Only thing is, Smile has a secret. He’s much much better than Poco, he’s that fabled “best” player that we see in all sports movies. The only reason Poco wins is that Smile lets him. He’s unable to accept winning if it means hurting someone else’s feelings. However, there’s a national championship coming up. Will Smile stop holding back his shots?
I make this sound cliché don’t I? It’s not.
It’s about friendship and the love of the game. It’s about being able to accept winning and being able to accept losing. Not one scene rings false and the story never veers into the melodramatic. It’s an incredibly upbeat, funny, touching and beautiful movie that everyone should see. What’s sad is that it’s being marketed as a kind of “Shaolin Soccer” with paddles, but that’s so far from the truth as to be ridiculous. This movie has more in common with the spiritual “Field of Dreams” than it does with something as high energy as “Shaolin Soccer”.
GOZU: See my review. A masterpiece of a different sort. Takashi Miike’s version of Lynch. When Yakuza thug Ozaki goes completely off the deep end and starts seeing Yakuza Attack Dogs and Yakuza Attack Cars everywhere, his brother Minami is enlisted by their mob Boss to take Ozaki to the town of Nagoya. There Minami is supposed to kill his brother and have the body disposed of at the local dump.
What starts off as a simple mission, soon degenerates in a mad quest to find Ozaki’s body. The details of which are best left for the viewer to discover. Trust me, you won’t believe what you’re seeing.
LAST LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE: A sad, touching love story of the kind you’ll never see in Hollywood. At its core lies an oppressive never ending loneliness. Kenji, a meek, obsessive-compulsive librarian with a death wish, has been living in Thailand for a while. We’re not told how long, but whatever length of time he’s been there, it’s too long. He yearns to escape his predicament and the only reason we suspect he doesn’t go through with suicide is that he’s too weary to do it right.
One day, as he’s about to leap off a bridge, an accident occurs nearby and a young girl is killed. What follows is a quiet, tentative friendship between Kenji and the dead girl’s sister, named Noi. Both of them are damaged in their own ways and neither really understands themselves. She’s messy, disorganized and her house looks like it’s seen one too many parties.
Too tentative to be called a romance, neither Noi nor Kenji is really capable of going through the symbolic courting rituals that we see detailed in Harlequin novels, the film never feels anything less than real and the ending is perfectly in tone with the rest of the film. A masterpiece.
MEMORIES OF MURDER: An excellent Korean murder mystery with a powerful ending. This is what Macabre Case of Prompiram should have been. In 1986, a series of grisly rape/murders haunts a small community. When the bumbling local authorities make no progress a cop from Seoul is called in to try and solve the case. Soon we discover that the murder wasn’t the first; that the killer only strikes women in red clothing when it rains, and that a certain song was played on a local radio station every night that a woman was killed. It does the almost impossible and mixes comedy with serious drama, with neither the drama negating the comedy nor the comedy negating the drama. Truly a great film.
Movies I’m looking forward to and will review in the coming week:
DARK WATER: Made by essentially the same writing/directing team that brought us “Ringu”, this should be a real scream. A woman moves into a dilapidated apartment building with her daughter. Soon, water begins dripping from the ceiling and a child’s ghost appears. Can’t wait to see it!
NOTHING: A suggestion from Mariko. Two guys hate the world so much that they literally make it go away. Sounds like my kind of fun.
SHAUN OF THE DEAD: What can I say about this that hasn’t been said? Zombies, romance and comedy in equal doses. The trailer looks awesome and of the four films mentioned, this is the one I’m most looking forward to.
ONE MISSED CALL: Takashi Miike does horror. How can it possibly go wrong? A group of college kids in Japan are all getting “missed calls” on their cell phones…from three days in the future! When they play back the message, it’s their own voice screaming. Three days after the calls they all begin to die one at a time. Definitely inspired by “Ringu”, this film nevertheless is a Takashi Miike movie which means be prepared for something original.
Stay tuned for more reviews from FantAsia 2004!