The 36th Chamber of Shaolin

Format: DVD

Release date: 23 February 2009

Distributor: Momentum Pictures

Director: Liu Chia-liang

Writer: Ni Kuang

Original title: Shao Lin san shi liu fang

Cast: Gordon Liu (aka Liu Chia-hui), Lo Lieh

Hong Kong 1978

115 mins

The majority of martial arts flicks that came to Western shores during the 70s and 80s were brutally kung fu chopped and edited to within an inch of their lives. Audiences wanted a load of punches and kicks for their buck, and that’s exactly what they got. When it was released in 1978, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin was one of the lucky few that slipped through the cracks, presenting a more accurate portrayal of the various traditions behind king fu combat. But many years and plenty of bootleg versions (in all their pan and scan glory) undermined the unique qualities of the Shaw Brothers’ martial arts classic. After such ruthless treatment the film has now been given a much deserved restoration.

On quick examination, you would be forgiven for thinking you had seen this film before: an oppressed village ruled by a tyrannical regime, a young man (played by 23-year-old Gordon Liu) who escapes with the intention of eventually returning to rid it of its evil rulers… The archetypical revenge plot is in full motion until Liu’s character reaches the Shaolin Temple to practise the ancient techniques of Shaolin kung fu. There he is renamed ‘San Te’ and learns that the art is not taught as a tool of vengeance.

Where many kung fu films feature a few obligatory scenes of schooling, The 36th Chamber evades the usual genre trappings. By dedicating the whole of the second part to the training San Te endures at the varying chambers, it forges a new template in which there is a greater reflection on the honing of all skills, from the physical to the intellectual and spiritual. Through the series of trials San Te undergoes a rebirth and refinement of the soul, rather than becoming the kind of barbaric assassin that the inappropriate American title Master Killer suggested.

Under the direction of Liu Chia-liang (aka Lau Kar-Leung, an expert martial artist himself), a potentially tedious second act instead highlights the artistry of kung fu. Using wide shots for the fight scenes and with a refreshing lack of quick cuts, the film constructs a faithful representation of kung fu, including the culture that surrounds it. Filming primarily on the Shaw Brothers’ soundstage, Liu captures a real sense of authenticity unrivalled by other productions of the time. The restored print reveals a surprisingly beautiful and detailed film that was hiding behind years of neglect, a grand vision inspired by Hollywood film design of the 40s and 50s.

The restoration gives The 36th Chamber a new lease of life. But this writer couldn’t help feeling a certain nostalgia for the familiar deterioration of the footage that made each shot different from the last, and for the scenes that started somewhere in the middle, adding to the confusion caused by the already incomprehensible plot. These flaws have been ironed out, and with them some of the joys of bunging a beat up video cassette into your VCR and asking for nothing more than to see some random, kick-ass kung fu fight scenes. To get some of this back, forget about your cinephile principles and switch on the English language option. The kung fu dub transports you to a time when these films were like nothing you had ever seen before: a true culture clash.

Alexander Godfrey

Also available on DVD on 23 February 2009: King Boxer (1972). The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and King Boxer are both drawn from the catalogue of Hong Kong’s legendary producers the Shaw Brothers. They are the first two releases on Dragon Dynasty, the DVD label founded (at the suggestion of Quentin Tarantino) by Bob and Harvey Weinstein specifically to release the very best of Asian cinema and newly launched in the UK by Momentum Pictures.

The Good, The Bad, The Weird

The Good the Bad the Weird
The Good, The Bad, The Weird

Format: Cinema

Release date: 6 February 2009

Distributor: Icon

Director: Kim Jee-woon

Writers: Kim Jee-woon, Kim Min-suk

Cast: Song Kang-ho, Lee Byung-hun, Jung Woo-sung

Original title: Joheunnom nabbeunnom isanghannom

South Korea 2008

120 minutes

There is a little ominous talk of a map, cutting to a bird of prey hovering, then swooping down to snatch carrion from the tracks of an oncoming train, which the camera flies through in a dazzling tracking shot as the Spanish guitars kick in on the soundtrack, following a bustling figure closely through the busy carriages until he suddenly pulls out a gun and you realise you haven’t breathed for two minutes. Welcome to Kim Jee-woon‘s insanely enjoyable ‘oriental Western’ The Good, The Bad, The Weird, in which three great Korean actors (Lee Byung-hun, Jung Woo-sung and the godlike Song Kang-ho) chase each other, fight each other, then chase and fight some more as they scramble after some kind of treasure map in 1930s Manchuria.

I suspect that if you know your oriental history there will be a little more going on; Korea is referred to throughout as a stolen country, the Japanese are clearly the bastards du jour, and there is a running theme that if you don’t have a country any more then money will have to do. But this is first and foremost a film about sound and vision, of body language and colour. It’s just about puddle deep, has no female characters worth a damn, and is blatantly cobbled together from other sources, but who cares? It grabs the audience from the start with the dizzying train robbery/ bandit attack / bounty hunter shootout sequence and then doesn’t really let go for another couple of hours, culminating in a jaw-dropping motorbike vs cavalry vs entire Japanese army at 80 miles an hour sequence that had my inner 12-year-old grinning like a crazy bastard. It’s got a wonderful percussive score, it looks fantastic, the three leads are great and it keeps the CGI to a minimum. I have a problem with the ending, but you don’t need to know that.

‘Life is about chasing and being chased’, Song Kang-ho states in one of the few placid moments, well… no, but this film is. It’s a blast. Go see.

Mark Stafford


Three Monkeys

Format: Cinema

Release date: 13 February 2009

Venue: Apollo Piccadilly Circus, BFI Southbank, Renoir (London) and key cities

Distributor: New Wave Films

Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Writer: Ebru Ceylan, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Ercan Kesal

Original title: í¼í§ maymun

Cast: Yavuz Bingol, Hatice Aslan, Rifat Aslan

Turkey 2008

109 mins

In just five films, Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan has become one of the most intensely discussed directors and every new work he brings out sparks debate as to whether he excessively favours style over substance. Even though his 1997 debut The Small Town and the follow-up Clouds of May (1999) were for a long time unavailable to UK audiences (in addition to his 2006 film Climates, Artificial Eye released a double-disc set of Ceylan’s early work on DVD in May 2007), his third, award-winning feature Uzak (2002) propelled Ceylan to fame beyond the international film festival circuit. An individual stylist determined to make a mark on the viewer’s consciousness, he composes avowedly personal and sombre meditations on human alienation and the fragile temporal nature of even the most intimate relationships. However, as is often the case when a work is so stylistically distinctive, Uzak and his fourth feature Climates (2006) divided the audience into those who were seduced by the poetry and artistry of the imagery and those who were left cold and unsatisfied by it.

With Three Monkeys, Ceylan takes things a step further, pushing forward into much darker, more expressionistic territory in an intoxicating tale of bad faith, deceit, murder and simmering fears and desires. He maintains an orchestration of motion and stillness that feels more claustrophobic than in his previous films although here again, suspense is mainly built upon the character’s inability to communicate in moments of visual ecstasy that come close to repealing the cinematic laws of gravity.

Three Monkeys is much more obviously dramatic than Ceylan’s preceding works: the story starts with driver Eyí¼p (played by Turkish singer Yavuz Bingí¶l) being asked by his boss, a local politician facing elections, to take the rap for the killing of a pedestrian who was run over by his car one night. Eyí¼p agrees to go to prison for a brief period of time in exchange for a pay-off to his wife Hacer and his only son ísmail. During the hot summer of Eyí¼p’s incarceration, Ismail drifts into dubious friendships while Hacer strays into an affair with the politician after requesting more money from him. Although ísmail discovers his mother’s betrayal he is unable to act, but when Eyí¼p returns tension erupts, revealing an almost unbearable lack of understanding between the three tortured souls who have never been entirely comfortable in their roles within the family.

Seemingly intent on reviving the spirit and film language of the ‘greats’ such as Tarkovsky, Antonioni or Ozu for the 21st century, Ceylan’s work has always been remarkable for its sheer ambition and cinematographic proficiency. His win of best director award for Three Monkeys at the Cannes Film Festival last year is entirely justified for this angst-ridden drama is perhaps his most accessible as well as most consistent film, revealing an impressive maturity and a rigorous visual sense to match it. Three Monkeys is not without certain melodramatic flaws, but they are absorbed by the film’s stylistic plausibility, by the way the framing and the stunning use of digital photography creates its own sort of psychological reality. It is in the long pauses between words that the film creates tension, in the anxious, sorrowful glances subtly reinforced by the irruption of the ever-present soundscape that mixes thunder, train signals and cell-phone ring tones. Those who go beyond the film’s imperfections will find an exquisitely composed cinematic experience that offers as many wonders as subjects for debate.

Pamela Jahn


Sukiyaki Western Django

Format: DVD

Release date: 2 February 2009

Distributor: Contender Home Entertainment

Director: Takashi Miike

Writers: Takashi Miike, Masa Nakamura

Cast: Hideaki Ito, Koichi Sato, Yusuke Iseya, Kaori Momoi, Quentin Tarantino

Japan 2007

98 mins

Quentin Tarantino introduces this… wait, come back! OK, Tarantino may not have a great track record when it comes to acting but Miike’s offbeat Western is the perfect place for QT’s heavy-handed style. In fact, it’s a film that celebrates it. What will irritate/delight audiences first is that the Japanese cast also speak English, or at least attempt to. They gurn, lisp and sneer but it’s all part of Miike’s in-joke about Italian spaghetti Westerns, themselves always dubbed after filming – particularly badly in the English version of Sergio Corbucci’s Django (1966).

That the dialogue is largely incomprehensible is of little consequence. Characters deadpan the usual ‘a man’s gotta do’ clichés but Westerns aren’t about meaningful declamations, actions speak louder than words. The basic plot is Sergio Leone’s Fistful of Dollars (1964), Miike making a point of reclaiming Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) for Japan: a lone nameless Gunman (Hideaki Ito) drifts into town in the middle of a war between two clans, the white-clad Genjis led by sword-wielding Yoshitsune (Yusuke Iseya) and the red-wearing Heikes under paranoid Kiyomori (Koichi Sato). Inevitably, much brawlin’ and shootin’ ensues but the fun’s to be had in Miike’s warped use of the genre’s iconography.

It’s a prequel of sorts to Django, and in a nod to the original film, the destructive Gatling gun that’s put to good use in the second half of the film is housed in a coffin. In the first part, which is somewhat mired by lengthy flashbacks explaining the town’s sorry state, the Gunman helps a mute boy whose father was murdered during the feud. Meanwhile, Kiyomori decides he should be addressed as Henry in tribute to Shakespeare and Yoshitsune dismisses the way of the samurai for a life of dirty combat. Throw in a schizophrenic sheriff who is hopeless at choosing sides and Kaori Momoi’s croaking old lady who transforms into a ruthless gunslinger – possibly the most bad-ass grandmother put to film – and you’ve got Miike’s usual brand of self-indulgent strangeness.

Viewers after more straightforward fun may prefer the old-fashioned sense of adventure and clearer archetypes of South Korea’s The Good, the Bad and the Weird (also released this month), but Miike isn’t interested in straightforward fun. Like Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Sukiyaki Western Django is about a fusion of styles, the mix of Wild West frontier law with Eastern historical traditions and interest in the natural cycle. The DVD has subtitles to aid comprehension of the story but viewers should watch the film as it is to take in the contrast of colours, the dirty, mud-caked town and the change of seasons that ends with a bleak, wintry finale.

Sukiyaki is a beef dish that represents a foreign influence on Japanese culture as this meat was not common in the country before its introduction. Sukiyaki Western Django is Miike’s demonstration of the many cultural boundaries film has crossed and re-crossed and how this has blurred any clear, predetermined notions of genre and national identity. At times it’s a challenging, impenetrable film, and Tarantino’s Grindhouse may be responsible for Miike’s sometimes misjudged ‘coolness’; yet, there’s no denying that it pushes genre conventions as far as they will go in this unique blend of surrealist cartoon and adult violence.

Richard Badley

View the trailer



Format: Cinema

Release date: 27 February 2009

Venue: London and key cities

Distributor: Contender Films

Director: Gerald McMorrow

Writer: Gerald McMorrow

Cast: Ryan Phillippe, Eva Green, Sam Riley

France/UK 2008

95 mins

Young British director Gerald McMorrow’s debut feature certainly does not lack ambition, with an intricate plot that mixes a fantasy world with the multi-stranded reality of modern London. Franklyn opens as Preest, a mysterious masked vigilante, is searching for his nemesis amongst the seedy bars and dark, neo-Gothic streets of a sprawling cyber-metropolis called ‘Meanwhile City’, which is run by an í¼ber-religious/totalitarian state. These ‘future’ fantasy sequences are inserted into a realistic story involving three present-day characters; Esser, who is looking for his missing son amongst the homeless of London; Milo, a heartbroken, idealistic young man who is searching for his one true love, and Emilia, a nihilistic artist whose masochistic and extreme ‘art installations’ involve multiple, failed suicide attempts.

These two parallel strands/universes are meant to mirror and affect each other in a variety of ways, but it is only in the last quarter of the film, and with the final twist that concludes the story, that we begin to ascertain what has actually been going on. This is a major problem with Franklyn: it is too fashionably, willfully obscure throughout most of its running time and it flaunts its over-stylised Gothic renderings – in the future sequences – too obviously; these reminded me of other, slightly pretentious and flawed cyber-noirs like Brazil and Dark City. Franklyn is undeniably original, thanks to an experimental narrative that (albeit unsuccessfully) blends four separate plots and characters together, the most powerful and affecting of which involves the luminescent but neurotic Emilia (Eva Green) and her bizarre suicide rituals. The other characters just don’t pass muster though, and you never feel any empathy for what are, essentially, cyphers for the writer-director’s cod-philosophical musings.

The fantasy scenes appear to be a slightly camp pastiche of film noir, with a grizzled, over-emphatic voice-over spoken by Preest, immediately recalling the Chandler-esque private investigators of the 40s and 50s (or indeed the inferior, ‘studio-cut’ version of Blade Runner). It is not made clear – until the very end – that this self-consciously narrated segment is meant to be clichéd, ironic and flimsy – and because of this, we don’t take the realistic, present-day sections of the film seriously; the ‘Preest’ sequences don’t add resonance to the other integrated plot-strands, they just bleed incredulity into them. It would have helped the overall suspension of disbelief if this conceit had been more clearly signified earlier on in the film.

Perhaps Franklyn deserves – and needs – to be seen more than once, to glean something deeper from its many facets. At least, it tries to be inventive and to do something different, fusing fantasy elements with current social concerns such as schizophrenia, depression, suicide, post-traumatic stress, homelessness and the striving for love. Rarely do British films attempt to mix genres in this way, and for this Franklyn should be applauded, even if ultimately, it just tries to hard. Here’s to hoping that this promising writer-director will mature and fine-tune his vision for his next venture.

James DC


Divorce Iranian Style

Format: DVD

Release date: 26 January 2009

Distributor: Second Run

Directors: Kim Longinotto, Ziba Mir-Hosseini

Writer: Ziba Mir-Hosseini

Iran/UK 1998

80 mins

Also on this DVD: Runaway

Directors: Kim Longinotto, Ziba Mir-Hosseini

Writers: Kim Longinotto, Ziba Mir-Hosseini

UK 2001

87 mins

For the last 15 years, British documentarian Kim Longinotto’s work has focused on controversial issues concerning women from around world – from female circumcision in Kenya in The Day I Will Never Forget (2003) to cross-dressing in Japan in Shinjuku Boys (1995). Divorce Iranian Style was co-directed with ‘twice-divorced’ Iranian anthropologist Ziba Mir-Hosseini. Filmed inside an Iranian divorce court – after an 18-month wait to obtain permission – the film explores five cases and five fascinating and strong but very different women.

Rather than the exposé of ‘barbaric’ Iranian law the title seems to promise, we get a film that attempts to show the reality of how the legal system affects people’s lives. We meet Judge Deldar (which means ‘sweetheart’), a cleric and expert in Islamic law, who gradually becomes the film’s human centre. Delivering such hilarious statements (to Western ears) as ‘You must make yourself attractive so that he returns to your marriage’, he also displays endless patience in dealing with the near-hysterical Maryam who is fighting to keep her children. We see him sometimes torn but more often treading carefully between the written law and its practical implications.

Although the law seems hopelessly biased towards men we see how women use the few grounds for divorce they are allowed, such as insanity or impotence, to extricate themselves from unhappy marriages. Sixteen-year-old Ziba (not Mir-Hosseini) demands a sanity test for her husband although she also rails against his more prosaic faults – ‘everything stinks of cigarettes’ – at the same time openly bargaining with him to agree to a divorce by mutual consent – ‘for God’s sake, agree, then I’ll withdraw the complaint’, she whispers. However, in most cases it is the legal requirement that a man pays compensation to the wife he is divorcing that seems to be at the centre of all negotiations.

At times, the warring families seem like guests from Jerry Springer – perhaps this is evidence of how universal these issues are. But this is as far from reality TV as it is from the ‘documentarian-as-star’ films of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock. This, like all Longinotto’s films, harks back to an earlier, less compromised era of documentary filmmaking, to films such as the Maysles Brothers’ Salesman (1969) – which give a greater understanding of their subjects by allowing them to show their humanity.

In interviews, Albert Maysles is consistently adamant that he was recording something very close to objective reality in his films – the presence of the camera and film crew was quickly ignored by the subjects, he argues. It seems to be the case here too: the protagonists are certainly more interested in the legal proceedings, and if they are ‘performing’ in any way, it’s in an attempt to influence the judge. But there are also great moments when this appearance of objectivity breaks down. At one point Maryam, who is denying tearing up a court order, asks the ‘film women’ to corroborate her story. A voice, presumably Mir-Hosseini’s, bends the truth very slightly by only stating what she saw and not what she knows. Despite the objectivity of the camera the filmmakers are clear in their sympathies – at one point a voice from behind the camera says to a dismayed husband: ‘It serves you right for marrying a 14-year-old girl.’ A great natural moment occurs when, with court room empty, the secretary’s seven-year-old daughter Paniz takes the judge’s seat and starts admonishing an imaginary husband. The result is something possibly more honest than the Maysles’s ‘fly-on-the-wall’; it should perhaps simply be called ‘camera-in-the-room’.

With the minimal voice-over stating facts rather than passing judgements, the film is something of an antidote to the ‘fanatical angry culture’ prevalent in news films. But perhaps most importantly, it refuses to show Middle-Eastern women as subservient and powerless. The strength of character of all five women are unmatched by their male counterparts. Massi’s calm determination in the face of court bureaucracy (they lose her file) and her humiliated husband crying, ‘Sir, I can’t live like this’ is contrasted with Ziba’s mixture of emotional tears and whispered deal-making. Saddest of all is Maryam, who, in a desperate bid to keep her children, tries bargaining (‘can I just keep one’), crying and openly lying. For all this, Divorce Iranian Style is an honest, truthful and most importantly human film.

Paul Huckerby


The President's Last Bang

Format: DVD

Release date: 23 February 2009

Distributor: Third Window Films

Director: Im Sang-soo

Writer: Im Sang-soo

Cast: Song Jae-ho, Han Suk-kyu, Baek Yun-shik, Jeong Won-jung

South Korea 2005

102 mins

‘When the film was distributed in Korea it caused massive controversy, similar to the effects of a bomb within the Korean community. It was because the central figure in this movie was untouchable’, said writer/director Im Sang-soo on the occasion of a screening of his 2005 film The President’s Last Bang at the Tiger Film Festival in June 2008. Im is no stranger to controversy, his previous films Girl’s Night Out (1998) and A Good Lawyer’s Wife (2003) having received their fair share of criticism because of their frank sexuality, but in The President’s Last Bang he bravely takes on the revered South Korean president Park Chung-hee.

During the 60s and 70s, Park’s dictatorship modernised the country, but his methods were authoritarian and liberal ideals were brutally suppressed by his KCIA. His 18-year rule came to a bloody end in 1979 when he was assassinated and it’s that night that is the focus of Im’s film. The director is the first one to admit that the film is largely made up of material that comes from his own research and from his imagination, but the courts didn’t want their great leader tainted, so they censored the use of several minutes of documentary footage of Park’s funeral. However, international audiences can see the film uncut, with Im’s biting satire of the president alongside the emotional public outpouring that followed his death.

The film sees KCIA Director Kim (Baek Yun-shik) growing as tired of Park’s orders to get tough on student protestors as of the president’s decadent parties. It’s at one of these get-togethers that Kim decides enough is enough and he conspires with Chief Ju (Han Suk-kyu’s nonchalant, gum-chewing agent) to kill Park and his cronies. The impulsive deed itself is chaotic, Kim’s attempt to make it look like a terrorist attack is almost an afterthought, and it’s in the blind panic of the aftermath that Im really shines. As ministers run around like headless chickens and bicker about what to do next, Im uses darkly comic touches to mock the ineffectuality of the government. In the dead of night, as cut off from society as the leaders in Dr Strangelove‘s infamous war room, they’re exposed as a collection of competing egos and fragile, frightened ones at that. Im isn’t out to cause controversy in South Korea only but in any country where power is abused, admitting global powers like the US were a target too.

There’s a richness to Im’s devilish style that owes much to Coppola’s epic Godfather movies but there’s also something much edgier. Perhaps it has something to do with his tribute to Scorcese’s Taxi Driver in the scene where the camera floats slowly across the bloodbath at the president’s palace; but mainly it’s Im’s fusion of Korea’s sly humour with international politics that will earn him global attention. He won’t be content with being labelled merely a ‘Korean director’, and The President’s Last Bang demonstrates that he has the guts and talent to make it on the world stage, where he’ll no doubt soon rattle a few more cages.

Richard Badley