Tag Archives: Asian cinema



Format: Cinema

Release date: 15 April 2011

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: Terracotta Distribution

Director: Johnnie To

Writers: Kin Chun Chan, Chi Keung Fung

Original title: Man jeuk

Cast: Simon Yam, Kelly Lin, Law Wing Cheong, Ka Tung Lam

UK 2008

87 mins

It’s clear from the opening scene of Sparrow that this isn’t a typical Johnnie To film. Simon Yam gets dressed in his tailored suit amid the impossibly chic retro furniture of his Technicolor apartment when a sparrow flits in through the open window. You half-expect Yam to start whistling Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah. It’s a world away from the gritty gangster lands of To’s Election or Exiled, but then, as shown by the bonkers Mad Detective, To isn’t one for playing it safe.

Sparrow is all about lightness of touch and easy charm. So it’s fitting that Yam plays a quick-fingered pickpocket named Kei who, along with his three brothers, gads about old Hong Kong making an easy buck before riding about on his bike and taking photos with his cool antique camera. Yam takes to the playboy persona with ease, in a role akin to Cary Grant’s in Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, and, inevitably, it’s a striking woman who knocks him off balance.

The brothers all have a chance meeting with the beautiful Chung Chun Lei (Kelly Lin), who’s desperate to escape the clutches of a rival pickpocket, the cigar-chomping Mr Fu (Hoi-Pang Lo). What ensues is a breezy collection of pickpocket ‘showdowns’ that test the various skills of the players. There’s little substance to these episodes, but To’s worked hard on some deft camera movements to capture the balletic nature of the pickpocket at work. It’s all highly romanticised, as if the protagonists were in a make-believe 60s Paris where such a crime is seen as an art form, but it’s a joy to watch thanks to the vintage cinematography and jazzy soundtrack.

There’s an element of screwball comedy to the proceedings, with To relying on slapstick comedy and visuals to move the story on, as if he was worried that any heavy expositional dialogue might stop it dead. And it largely works; the brothers don’t really talk to each other but their actions drive things forward. At first, they try to help Chung Chun Lei without Kei but end up in hot water, so they turn to their leader to sort things out. Things culminate in a largely wordless stand-off involving umbrellas and rain that To draws out with the confidence and flair he has become famous for.

While Sparrow has done without the realism and darkness of To’s previous movies, it still excites and engages in different ways. It’s something unique, a fusion of styles and cultures that you rarely find in cinema. Luckily there’s directors like To out there, who experiment with the different filmic languages they’ve been exposed to, and with Sparrow he’s put together a marvellous blend of hip European cool and offbeat Asian storytelling.

Richard Badley

The Detective

The Detective

Format: DVD

Release date: 11 April 2011

Distributor: Terracotta Distribution

Director: Oxide Pang Chun

Writers: Oxide Pang Chun, Thomas Pang

Original title: C+ jing taam

Cast: Aaron Kwok, Kai Chi Liu and Tak-bun Wong

UK 2007

109 mins

As the Pang Brothers, Oxide and Danny have been frustrating filmmakers. For every Bangkok Dangerous or The Eye, there’s been a silly Bangkok Dangerous Nic Cage remake or The Eye: Infinity. So it’s refreshing to see Oxide go it alone and taking on a more adult, complex genre in this downbeat tale of a lonely gumshoe on the trail of a missing girl through the sweaty streets of Bangkok’s Chinatown.

Kwok plays the detective-for-hire Tam, not the smartest tool in the box (in fact, the film’s original title grades him as C+ Detective), but an enthusiastic character who hopes to get by with just a notepad and a camera phone. His case leads him stumbling blindly into apparent suicides that he quickly claims to be murders, much to the annoyance of his weary policeman buddy Chak (Kai Chi Liu).

The story is nothing new; as expected, Tam gets drawn deeper into a tangle of money and betrayal, but Kwok’s charisma pulls you along. He gives Tam a boyishness, a taste for adventure, that leads him down some dark alleyways as he struggles to crack the case despite his own shortcomings. This is where Pang really nails the genre; being a detective isn’t all guns and dames, but constantly going over the scant evidence until something clicks, or you get beaten up.

For Pang, the film is an exercise in evocative visuals combined with sticky tension, punctuated with the odd car chase or surreal comedic moment. Tam even gets a jaunty ‘theme song’ during the opening scenes. Although it goes down the supernatural route during the second half, the focus is always on the detective story, which plays out to a satisfying, if over-explained, conclusion. Thankfully, Pang has resisted breaking out the jump cuts and easy scares and has started an engrossing, mature franchise. In the forthcoming sequel, Tam is even promoted to B+.

Richard Badley



Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 28 February 2011

Distributor: Optimum Releasing

Director: Yang Chul-soo

Writer: Choi Kwang-young

Original title: Kim Bok-nam salinsageonui jeonmal

Cast: Seo Yeong-hie, Ji Seong-won, Hwang Min-ho

South Korea 2010

115 mins

A beautiful but unkind young professional from Seoul goes back to the remote island where she grew up for a break. There she is reunited with her sweet-natured childhood friend Bok-nam, married to a violent man and badly mistreated by his family. Bok-nam bears the beatings and indignities she is subjected to for the sake of her daughter, but one day, a tragic event tips her over the edge and she turns from subservient wife into violent avenger.

Directed by Yang Chul-soo, this South Korean feature debut has the feel of a folk or fairy tale. Denouncing the oppression of women in Korean society, it tells a compelling story, but the characterisation is two-dimensional and it comes across as very heavy-handed. That said, it is interesting to note that the film shares similarities with another South Korean film released the same year. Im Sang-soo’s The Housemaid was another slow-burn Korean film about the exploitation of a lower-class woman that culminated in a stunningly extravagant, violent dénouement. Considering also Yang Ik-joon’s Breathless (2009), it seems that what may come across as excessive to Western audiences is in fact a strong response to an acutely unfair and brutal state of affairs in Korean society. For further explanation of the context and the real events that inspired the film, see an extract from a promotional interview with Yang Chul-soo below.

Both Bedevilled and The Housemaid follow a similarly unusual structure, proceeding at a slow pace for most of the film until the abuse of the central character erupts into a spectacularly violent ending. In Bedevilled, the sudden change of tone makes the blood-splattered finale all the more shocking. Although flawed, Bedevilled paints an intriguing portrait of a woman faced with the most extreme injustice and creates an original and engaging horror heroine in Bok-nam.

Virginie Sélavy


To what extent is Bedevilled inspired by real events?

Yang Chul-soo: There were three shocking cases that shook Korean society, which had given me inspiration. First was the KIM Boo-nam case in 1991 when KIM, a 30-year-old woman, murdered a man who used to be her next-door neighbour and raped her when she was 9 years old. Second was the KIM Bo-eun/KIM Jin-gwan case in 1992 when KIM Bo-eun, with the help of her boyfriend KIM Jin-gwan, murdered her stepfather who had abused her sexually for 10 years. And the last was a case where a large group of high school boys had sexually abused two junior high school girls, who were sisters, in Milyang for over a year. Out of around 40, only three assaulters had received a mere 10 months’ sentence, and the police mishandled the case, one officer implying it was the girls’ fault. All three cases had extreme results because the bystanders showed no concern.

Why have you decided to tackle Korean women’s social status in your first feature film?

Women in Korean society are the weak, but they are not the weak kind. Women are discriminated against and have obligations under the feudalistic customs, but Korean society has in fact been maintaining itself as it is and developing because there are mothers who strived to protect their families. In reality, women and mothers are mostly given supporting roles, so I wanted to have a woman as the main lead in my film. The film is a personal dedication to my own mother and all the mothers in Korea.

Can you say some words about the gender politics of the movie?

I’m not sure how to describe this but although the film deals with gender issues, I had not considered politics in it. I only mirrored out the general relationships between Korean men and women that I had noticed, but without any political views. The film shows a complex aspect of the men oppressing the women, the suppressed women putting the men on a pedestal while oppressing another woman, and that woman to take revenge against those women and men. I believe this sort of evil circle happens because humans, regardless of their sexes, are weak beings.

Dream Home

Dream Home

Format: Cinema

Release date:19 November 2010

Venues: Cineworld Shaftsbury Avenue, Showcase Newham, Vue Shepherds Bush (London) and key cities

Distributor: Network Releasing

Director: Pang Ho-Cheung

Writers: Pang Ho-Cheung, Tsang Kwok Cheung, Wan Chi-Man

Original title: War dor lei ah yut ho

Cast: Josie Ho, Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, Eason Chan, Michelle Ye

Hong Kong 2010

96 mins

A young woman takes the problem of Hong Kong’s corrupt property developers and sky-rocketing rents into her own hands in this vicious black comedy.

In a series of rather mawkish flashbacks seen through the eyes of a child, the working-class, long-time residents of Hong Kong’s harbour-side apartment blocks are driven out of their homes by triad gangs working on behalf of ruthless developers after the 1997 handover. Twenty years later, these same locations are now far out of the reach of ordinary Hong Kongers and instead house adulterous, golf-playing yuppies, nihilistic, hedonistic teenagers and other caricatures of modern, moneyed China.

Enter Cheng Lai-sheung (played by rising megastar Josie Ho), a hard-working former inhabitant of a harbour-side block, who dreams of looking out over the same view that she grew up with. To live her dream, she becomes as cold-blooded as the water snake placed through her best friend’s door when she was a child, hacking and slashing her way through the new block’s inhabitants until the asking price on her future home finally takes a tumble.

It’s an engaging premise and in a manner that should be familiar to anyone well-versed in contemporary Hong Kong or South Korean genre cinema, Dream Home lurches from moments of blood-curdling tweeness to some outrageously gory and sadistic set-pieces that steer the film and Josie Ho’s character into the deeper waters of refreshing moral ambiguity - or is that total insanity?

Whether Dream Home is a slasher film with a strong vein of socio-economic commentary running through its core, or a political satire with a slasher film trying to hack its way out from the inside is ultimately hard to decide. I’d also wonder if there are deeper levels of Hong Kong references and in-jokes that will be lost on Western audiences. Even without such inside knowledge, however, this is an undeniably enjoyable, if at times emotionally unstable, film, which reminds us that however imbalanced the housing situation over here, it can always be a lot worse.

Don’t be surprised to see a heavily toned-down US remake, perhaps starring Kristen Stewart, looming, like a shiny new Hong Kong skyscraper, just over the horizon.

Mark Pilkington

Watch a clip from Dream Home:



Format: DVD

Date: 4 October 2010

Distributor: Park Circus

Director: Takeshi Kitano

Writer: Takeshi Kitano

Cast: Takeshi Kitano, Omar Epps, Claude Maki

USA/UK/Japan 2000

109 mins

In his native Japan, Takeshi Kitano has always been revered. As a comedian, TV personality, actor, director, even a game show host, he’s not a man in need of more exposure. Back in 2000, he featured in the cult horror Battle Royale, a film that helped put Japanese cinema on the radar of hip young geeks in the West. In the same year, Kitano also directed and starred in Brother, his first and only (to date) film shot outside Japan and an intriguing attempt at transporting his hard-boiled yakuza persona into an American setting.

Producers expecting Kitano to land in Los Angeles and make a slick gangster movie must have been very disappointed. It’s obvious from Brother that Kitano was never really bothered about breaking into Hollywood; he barely speaks any English in the film and rarely reaches for the tenderness of his previous masterpieces like Sonatine and Hana-Bi. Instead he comes off as nonchalant and uncompromising, trying to wrestle with an unfamiliar language that refuses to fit his style, and the result is sometimes stilted and disengaging. But Kitano’s recurring themes are still apparent and Brother has plenty to say about the fraternity of the gang world, and the hollowness at its centre.

Brother‘s strength is that it refuses to conform to the Hollywood portrayal of gangsters as glamorous icons who lead a life of danger and excitement. Kitano plays a yakuza, Yamamoto, forced to leave Japan and head to LA to see his half-brother Ken (Claude Maki), who is a low-level drug dealer with his buddy Denny (Omar Epps). Yamamoto is soon killing off the competition and taking Ken and his gang of posers and wannabes to the top of the food chain. A director like Scorsese would have had a field day but for Kitano, being a gangsta is a mundane job with little benefits and a short life expectancy - the view from the top isn’t much different as the view from the bottom, you’re just more likely to get killed.

Kitano’s main target is the empty morals of American society, with LA just a hunk of land to be fought over by those with enough greed, ambition and firepower to be the last man standing. Kitano is keen to highlight the mundanity of it all with the boys left to sit around in their absurdly grand office playing basketball while Yamamoto starts to feel an affinity with Denny as they play stupid betting games with each other. Their relationship is supposed to be at the heart of the story but rarely is there any depth, leaving the final scene largely redundant.

The film is violent, but not in a chic Tarantino way. Kitano’s style is matter-of-fact, long takes punctuated with something extreme - a finger being chopped off, chopsticks blasted up some poor guy’s nose - while shoot-outs are kept off-screen. This isn’t a film about how cool it is to be a gangster, it’s about going through the motions until, inevitably, someone bigger and better - in this case the Mafia - comes along to dump you in a shallow grave in the desert. Kitano’s done this sort of thing better of course; you’ll just have to put up with subtitles to get the full Kitano experience.

Richard Badley

Asyl: Park and Love Hotel

Asyl: Park and Love Hotel

Format: Cinema

Release date: 9 February-21 March 2010

Venue: Various venues around the UK

Part of the Japan Foundation touring programme: Girls on Film

Director: Izuru Kumasaka

Writer: Izuru Kumasaka

Original title: Pí¢ku ando rabuhoteru

Cast: Chiharu, Sachi Jinno, Hikari Kajiwara, Lily

Japan 2007

111 mins

With its moody charm and pale, grainy look, Asyl: Park and Love Hotel (Pí¢ku ando rabuhoteru) offers a marked contrast to the recent wave of ravishing pop films by Tetsuya Nakashima (Kamikaze Girls, Memories of Matsuko) or Mika Ninagawa’s gorgeous Sakuran. Set in the Tokyo suburbs, with most of its sparse action taking place at a shabby ‘love hotel’, Asyl is a slow-burning but ultimately life-affirming debut by Izuru Kumasaka, filmed with a discreet intensity and a feeling of lingering, subtle oddity. Much in the same way as the film’s title plays with the double meaning of ‘asylum’ - as a sanctuary and a madhouse - Izuru attempts to infuse the episodic narrative, which follows four women of different ages struggling with isolation, loss, tedium and the trouble of everyday life, with a sense of purpose that is both enchanting and disturbing.

Asyl: Park and Love Hotel is screening at the ICA from 9-17 February as part of the Girls on Film: Females in Contemporary Japanese Cinema season presented by the Japan Foundation.

The main character in Asyl is the grouchy and strict hotel manager, Tsuyako (played by singer-turned-actress Lily) who has been running the unusual love hotel - it has a public park on its rooftop - by herself since her husband disappeared years earlier. However, Tsuyako’s world expands when Mika (Hikari Kajiwara), a 13-year-old runaway with silver bleached hair, enters the free oasis in the city. Guided by the feeling that she has no place else to go after seeing her father with his new family, Mika seeks shelter overnight with Tsuyako. This is the prelude to further encounters between them and two other women at the hotel: Tsuki, a housewife whose daily fitness walk has taken her past the hotel for years until her routine is dramatically altered, and 17-year-old Marika, the hotel’s only regular guest, who actually uses the establishment for its intended purpose, regularly popping in with a different man in tow.

Programme advisor Jasper Sharp will give an introductory talk about this year’s programme on February 4 at the Japan Foundation, London. Free event but booking is essential: email event@jpf.org.uk.

Although the fantastical rooftop location, complete with swings, benches and toys, would provide a suitable playground for an urban fairy tale, Asyl is far from fantasy, as Izuru’s main concern lies in credibly exploring his characters’ motivations. The frequent use of close-ups strikes a fine balance between empathy and observation, without flaunting the women’s emotions or sentimentalising their struggles. In the absence of much dialogue and backstory, Izuru creates a potent degree of sensitivity in his warm, insightful yet sometimes detached depiction of his characters’ actions and reactions.

All this may not sound exciting on paper, and Asyl certainly has its flaws: it feels overly long and the pace occasionally flags, while its desire to avoid too much dramatic tension makes it difficult to fully engage with the story. Yet, it is a gentle film, with some wonderful low-key performances and beautifully crafted moments that mark Kumasaka out as a talent to watch. After all, Asyl demonstrates that it is still possible to craft an affecting, unpretentious and quietly entertaining film outside the framework of the pop genre.

Pamela Jahn

Asyl: Park and Love Hotel is also screening in Sheffield (22-Feb-4 March), Belfast (5-9 March), Edinburgh (10-14 March) and Bristol (13-21 March). More details on the from 9-17 February as part of the Japan Foundation website.

Comic Strip Review: Asian Horror: The Essential Collection

Asian Horror: The Essential Collection brings together three acclaimed Asian horror films, featuring Takashi Miike’s Audition (1999), the Pang brothers’ The Eye (2002) and Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water (2002).

Comic Review by Dan Lester -
Asian Horror - The Essential Collection
Asian Horror: The Essential Collection was released in the UK by Palisades Tartan on 26 October 2009. For more information on Dan Lester, go to monkeysmightpuke.com.