Thursday, April 4, 2013

From the Vault: The Weekend in Movies

(This is an updated and modified post from March 2004 off of my previous blog. ENJOY!)

On Friday, I half watched The Storm Riders (1998, HK), starring Aaron Kwok and Ekin Cheng. I say half because I was doing other things, and I've already seen the movie a dozen times or so. In the movie, two young men, Wind and Cloud, are raised by Conqueror (the great Sonny Chiba), the man who killed each of their fathers during his ongoing struggle to rule the world. Unfortunately for Conqueror, the Mud Budha has prophecied that Conqueror will be invincible for the first half of this life, but in the second half, Wind and Cloud will be his undoing. Naturally, Conqueror doesn't believe it, and fate takes care of the rest.

Believe me, despite that literally being the story and literally how they talk about it in the dialogue, it's not as silly somehow while watching it. If you've never seen it, I don't necessarily recommend rushing out to grab it now. The special effects, at the time for Hong Kong, were strong and inventive, but were still behind Hollywood and now behind for both. I can handle movies that have cheeseball effects or that look dated, but I know that a lot of folks just can't. I do, however, harbor a soft spot for it. It's a pretty strongly realized fantasy martial arts film that tells a far more developed story than most.

On Saturday night, I talked several friends into rewatching Hero (2002, China, d. Zhang Yimou). Hero concerns a county official who is brought before the emperor after vanquishing three of his most dreaded foes. Through the emperor's close cross examination of his savior's tale, the true story slowly emerges.

Like so many movies based on fragmented narratives or dissenting perspectives, Hero certainly owes a debt to Rashomon in its style of storytelling. But, Rashomon is based on three different people's understanding of the same story. Hero, however, is based on a lie, and the combing over of the story elements slowly unravels the various tendrils of fabrication. This film has a breathtaking production design and a skillful use of vibrant color and texture. At the same time, it's painterly tendencies to maintain style sometimes leaves it a little cold and distancing.

Miramax is supposed to release Hero in the U.S., but don't be surprised if it is chopped up and dubbed. In fine Hollywood form, they are apparently suing a man for supplying links to websites carrying original versions of these foreign films. There's a weird conundrum to the whole thing: The majority of people who see these movies are hardcore movie people who want the original version, but the studio butchers them for a broad audience that likely won't go see them anyway. Go figure. (ed. note: Luckily, perhaps having learned a lesson from Shaolin Soccer, Hero was released in its original form in Mandarin.)

Spread between Sunday morning and Sunday evening in two viewings was Battle Royale II (2003, Japan). (Am I pushing it with the Asian cinema?) Boy oh boy...whoa nelly...and by golly. This movie seemed like it wanted to say a hundred things at the same time, and didn't say any of them well. A modern day techno-version of Lord of the Flies, the first Battle Royale was the story of a near future law that tries to reign in rioting children by picking a random class of ninth graders and flying them to a remote spot where they are forced to eliminate one another. Battle Royale II revolves around the terrorist movement created by the survivors of the first movie in an effort to free the children of the world from adult oppression. The tie-in is a new game which sends the random class of 9th graders to the terrorist base where they must infiltrate and kill the terrorist leader.

The most basic failure was really managing to drum up sympathy for any of the characters. The first movie almost suffered from this problem, but two things almost consistently worked for it: early victims got a sympathy vote for looking like helpless children before being killed in nasty ways, while the later victims had some character defining action or backstory to flesh them out during the course of the game. The second film had little to give the new kids or the terrorist children other than a horrific death that because of their anonymity failed to drum up much emotion. This isn't to say the movie was without emotion. Depending on your political leanings, there are certain things in this film that I would hope would speak to anyone, but the whole movie keeps picking up and falling apart around them.

I can't really go through the other problems in the film without doing a point by point breakdown, which would be a lot like the second half of the film: endless.  After long jags of scattershot pacing, the film kept gearing up to end and would then keep going (I almost felt like I was watching AI again. The horror. The horror.). Most of this I ascribe to the directionlessness (that has to be a word if it isn't) of the whole thing. If you don't know where you're going, how do you know that you're there? It should be said that the director Kinji Fukasaku passed away during the film's making, and so it was passed on to his son, Kenta. From that vantage, dissection of what made it to the screen becomes a battle of what if's concerning Kenta's capabilities, or whether Kinji would have held the project together better.

The movie's in the can. It just happens to be a thoughtful mess in a can.

The final viewing which took place late Friday night, and finished early on Saturday was Sergio Corbucci's second western, Minnesota Clay (1965, Italy). Minnesota Clay is the story of gunslinger who escapes from prison in order to save his town and his daughter from rival gangs, one of which is led by the man who could prove his innoncence. Clay's primary difficulty is that his skills with a pistol are being lost to the blindness taking over his eyes.

Not bad, not bad at all. The quality of the DVD was surpisingly good. Corbucci, of course, didn't hit stride with westerns until Django, a spaghetti masterpiece. (I think Corbucci was truly the master of what is thought of as the spaghetti western. Leone's films were in a whole other bigger ball park . They just happened to be Euro-westerns.) Minnesota Clay is definitely of that early mold of spaghetti where they conformed highly to Hollywood standards and stories, but it isn't bad in terms of either. Cameron Mitchel is well cast as the aging and ailing gunslinger who's still got more than enough steely-eyed vengeance in him. My primary complaint, as with many of these films, some of the dubbed dialogue (and all of them were, whether in Italian or not) gets laughable just to make sure the character says something when his mouth is open.

Anyhow, not my favorite spaghetti, but a worthy entry into the genre.