May 31, 2006

RING - THE FINAL CHAPTER (1999) Sadako on TV again

(1999, Japanese TV series, IMDB title - Ringu: Saishusho)

All-region DVD (HK Video)

Long-winded TV series adaption of the Japanese horror classic

The solitary stone well, sitting in a clearing at the edge of the woods, in the movie version of Ring inspired me to seek out more horror films from the east. The TV series wouldn't have.

I finally finished watching this 12-episode live-action TV series. I was prompted to persevere by the observations of Denis Meikle in his substantial book on the subject - THE RING COMPANION. In it, he not only examines all the adaptions of the Ring books as films and TV shows, but also looks at the roots of Koji Suzuki's novels, in the tradition of Japanese horror stories and earlier ghost films.

He notes that the TV series Ring: The Final Chapter takes Suzuki's first 2 books (Ring and Spiral) as source material (after both books had already been turned into films), blending the video curse with a biological origin. Admittedly the script has to pad out 11 x 45-minute episodes and a 75-minute finale.

Once again there's a journalist investigating a number of heart-attack victims who all died simultaneously. A cursed videotape seems to be involved, but he watches it before learning that it has the power to kill. He's helped by two women, one a reporter, the other a friend who just happens to be a professor in a medical university. He only has 13 days to unravel the mystery of the video before his time is up.

The scriptwriters manage to mangle all sorts of mad theories together, insistent that every element of the curse can be explained scientifically. This makes a lot of the plot sound like a stretch, and demystifies the supernatural element, making it ludicrous rather than frightening.

They add numerous new plotlines and characters, and rewrite Sadako's backstory (once more), but still include her joining a theatre group - a scenario that was filmed again in the film Ring 0: Birthday (2000).

The only familiar face in the cast is Hitomi Kuroki, playing Rieko, the scientist. She starred in the original Dark Water, as well as appearing in Senrigan and Haunted School 3.

Even as television drama, it's hard to get involved because of the production values - this Japanese TV series is shot on video (which is very apt considering the central premise). But this is a 'look' that went out with the 80's. Most western drama is shot on film, with only soap operas shooting on video. This could distance the audience, or at least make them think the production is a lot older than it is.

Despite the running time, there are relatively few locations and only occasional action. It works well dramatically, most of the cliffhangers may make you come back for more, but the main problem is that it's rarely scary - another example of how the film trilogy got it right, while using the same source material.

Another annoying sign of the tight budget is the music, many of the cues being reused endlessly, even within an episode.

The DVDs (pictured above) squeeze all 12 episodes onto 2 discs, the picture looking a little soft, but it hardly matters. The English subtitles are removable and well-translated. There are a few newspaper headlines and signs that aren't translated and there's occasional spelling mistakes, but they don't spoil your understanding.

But I'd only really recommend this series to Ring completists who insist on seeing every incarnation of Sadako (who actually hardly appears here) and want to take another yet trip down that well...

If you'd like to learn more about the many other films, books, manga and TV that make up the world of the Ring, then go to
The Ringworld. It's a very helpful and expansive website that I find myself constantly refering to, as I try and track down every last version of this modern legend.

May 17, 2006

KAMIKAZE GIRLS (2004) - HK DVD review

KAMIKAZE GIRLS (Japan, 2004)
HK region 3 NTSC DVD (released by Widesight)

Truly bonkers, both visually and plotwise, this Japanese comedy crosses Clueless with The Odd Couple

I say Clueless because the central character pretty much puts style and decorum over anything else - Momoko is an offbeat 20 year old who dresses 'Lolita-style' in frilly dresses befitting a six-year old's party outfit. Due to her hopeless father's defection from the lowest echelon of the yakuza, she lives a good 2-hour journey away from her favourite dress shop in Tokyo. In order to fuel her outrageous outfit habit, Momoko decides to sell off some of her Dad's old fake designer wear. Enter prospective buyer, Ichigo, a trashy biker chick (well, she's more of a scooter chick, really) who's happy enough wearing clothes from the (gasp!) supermarket. An unlikely friendship begins, resulting in a series of off-beat adventures.

It's a frothy comedy, but with headbutting. It's very Japanese but you don't need to know that much about Japan - gangsters, track-suits and stupid haircuts are surprisingly universal themes! Unlike American teen-comedies, there are few references to sex, despite the characters both being 20 - the humour is so polite that there's not even any lesbian jokes aimed at the biker chicks. It's still sufficiently bizarre and violent to engage, though.

Although it looks like it's shot on video (my guess is High Definition), Kamikaze Girls belongs in the cinema, with its flamboyant visual style constantly flashing back to the characters' pasts. Eye-popping animation also tones down the violent excesses of the biker gangs, punctuating the film in much the same way Tank Girl did, if you'll excuse the comparison.

Kyoko Fukada nails the part of Momoko perfectly and ably carries the movie, making asides to the camera when people around her break her rules of etiquette. I look forward to rewatching the Japanese Ring 2 to see her in something different. Newcomer Anna Tsuchiya rises to the challenge of playing bad girl Ichigo, but while she may be extremely rude for a Japanese audience, she doesn't fully convince that she's really that tough. Her character is still an awful lot of fun, and I look forward to seeing the actress in her following film, the cult classic A Taste of Tea.

Comedian Hiroyuki Miyasako plays Momoko's useless father - the following year he landed the pivotal role (as Sada the reporter) in Yokai Daisenso (2005). Sadao Abe starred in the same film (as the marvellous Kappa) but here plays the ludicrous love interest with a D.A. haircut that could take your eye out. Boy, does he think he's cool. Abe is a creative chameleon of an actor who seems to maximize the potential of any of the surreal roles he's given. He keeps turning up in my favourite Japanese films, Uzumaki being the first I saw him in.

Anyhow, this DVD from Hong Kong (pictured top left) has a great set of removable English subtitles, that ably capture the humour of the dialogue. The Japanese audio is optionally presented in DTS, and the picture is anamorphic, for those of you with widescreen TVs. Strangely, the DVD is no-frills, which is ironic considering the frilly nature of the film.

Mark H

May 16, 2006

ZEE-OUI (2004) - Thai DVD horror review

ZEE-OUI (Thailand, 2004, aka THE MAN EATER)
Region 3 PAL Thai DVD

A famous serial-murder case gets a bloody re-telling

Li Hui, a Chinese farmer, arrives in Thailand in 1946 and gets renamed 'Zee-Oui' by a short-tempered immigration official. His uncle finds him a job, but the new name has to stick because it matches his work visa. Zee-Oui soon discovers that being a foreigner means getting bullied by everyone, even children. He works hard, but suffers poor health - a constant cough that he thinks is asthma. After much bad luck with his jobs, and as we learn more of his harrowing life in China, he takes to murder.

The subject matter here is problematic to say the least - a serial child-murderer who eats the hearts of his victims! It's especially tricky for western audiences to enter the fray with this particular version of an infamous true-life murder case. It's apparently been portrayed many times before in Thailand, but this time we're getting a revisionist version of the events, showing the murderer in a more sympathetic light.

Zee Oui, you see, is apparently a boogey man in Thailand - his trademark cough and cannibalistic traits make him a monstrous figure to threaten naughty kids with. It's also a justification for xenophobes to fear foreigners. Presumably, the two directors were trying to redress the balance.

As a viewer completely unfamiliar with the case, the film's opening scene gives away the conclusion to the story, before telling the whole tale in flashback. Without a good grasp of local history (the war between China and Thailand) and Thai geography, I was at a disadvantage in following the fractured timeline of the plot - not always realising when the story had shifted backwards in time. But this is something that other films manage successfully, despite cultural differences (I'm thinking of the backwards-and-forwards structure of the Japanese JU-ON films, for example).

Crucially, a brilliant scene where bullies cause Zee-Oui to visibly 'crack' is positioned after we've already seen murder victims. Whether I misunderstood the order of events, or whether the directors were saying that he was being blamed for murders he did not commit, I'm still not certain.

Another handicap to the structure of the story is the inclusion of several scenes interspersed among the end credits, that crucially fill us in with more details of Li Hui's upbringing. To introduce this information, after the film has finished, further hampers our understanding of the film's message.

Lead actor, Long Duan, almost succeeds in an impossible role, to make us sympathise for this man, but we're obviously constantly distanced from him by the brutality of his onscreen crimes. The directors intend for us to better understand his motivations - but besides listing the possible causes of his serial killings, many other political points are clumsily made about racism, sexism and government cover-ups. Overall, the naive script and convoluted timeline undermine most points they wanted to make.

While this may be award-winning material in Thailand, it's a difficult film to recommend to an international audience. The tone veers between over-the-top depictions of child murder and simplistic drama. The performances are sincere enough, but are undermined by sloppy plotting. Shortcuts taken by the script keep the story moving by using unbelievable coincidences. Moving the detective story along a little slower could have made for more intrigue and suspense, which are lacking.

So, without a strong story, and with glimpses of gore at the murder scenes, this can only be placed in horror film section. Presumably on a shelf with the other real-life murder cases that were turned into crass horror films.

Even so, despite the sensationalist subject, I didn't find the film nearly as shocking as it should have been. The crimes in The Untold Story (Hong Kong, 1993) also managed to produce sympathy for a cannibalistic child-murderer, but were far more effectively portrayed, and with a much lower budget. I guess, though, that Thai audiences may be more horrified by the desecration of holy sites and even a Buddhist shrine.

Technically, the film looks very good, with a large scale that convinces us of the many locations and periods depicted. If anything, the film looks too good - for instance Li Hui's early job slaughtering chickens takes place in a beautifully lit, colourful backyard, sending out mixed messages about what's occurring - is he in a good or a bad place? If it's such a nasty job, why does the place look so picturesque?

The Thai DVD (pictured above) has a sharp anamorphic transfer that shows off the film's crisp and colourful cinematography. There's a solid 5.1 audio track in the original Thai language, with optional English subtitles (that are well-translated and only occasionally misspelled).

There are some brief extras, a trailer, a teaser and two short 'Scoop' items (presumably prepared for TV publicity) - these include extra shots that aren't in the film, and some grainy, but grisly real-life photos of the original case. However this material is all untranslated.

Zee-Oui is an interesting film, entertaining even, it's certainly not dull. Technically it's one of the best movies I've seen from Thailand, and certainly isn't aiming for an obvious 'horror film' formula like many other Thai films. But it doesn't succeed as a drama or a reliable vers
ion of what really happened. I'd hesitate to recommend it to fans of Asian cinema or Asian horror - it's too gory to be taken seriously, but not horrific enough to be frightening.

Mark H

May 06, 2006

DINOCROC and THE BRUTAL RIVER - A couple of huge crocs!

THE BRUTAL RIVER (2005, Thailand)

2 recent films with monster CGI crocodiles on the loose

I enjoy monster movies, and I want more than anything to tell you about two exciting, action-packed movies with marvellous monsters in them - movies that deliver what their promotional artwork promises...

Instead, this is yet another warning to the curious...


Evil scientists mucking around with accelerated growth drugs and inadequate containment procedures, loose DINOCROC on the world. It's a monster crocodile spliced with a two-legged dinosaur. It swims, it runs, it kills a few people. In between meals we get a turgid love story and some inept scientists trying to work out what the evil scientists are up to.

It's a rip on the plot of PIRANHA, but fails to rip the wit, the gore and the suspense of that 1978 classic, which was itself a Roger Corman produced Jaws-rip, directed with gusto by Joe Dante and written by John Sayles.

Nowadays the name, Roger Corman, above the title is alas not a seal of quality. But still DINOCROC suckered me in - if only the monster looked as good on the DVD cover as it did in the film. Admittedly, it's sort of convincing in the many night-time scenes, but it's back legs look a little too weedy to support its monster body. The attack scenes are mildly engaging, but never convincingly gory.

To be fair, DINOCROC has serviceable direction, a mixed ability cast, and a reasonable soundtrack, but I can't see this will ever be remembered for anything more than the snappy name (ouch). With PIRANHA, Corman attracted a talented team and created something special on a low budget.

Occasional moments of tongue-in-cheek black humour break up the lack of action in the first half of the film. The low-rent action races the second half to a logical if unexciting finale. There's a couple of rule-breaking plot twists, a little satire, but nothing to raise this above the level of an afternoon cable channel time-killer.

I watched the Thai DVD (pictured above) - which is a cheap way to watch a cheap film - but it's only a 4:3 pan-and-scan release. You'll have to get the Region 1 US DVD to see DINOCROC in 16:9 widescreen.


Meanwhile, in Thailand, they're still trying to rip off JAWS. New Asian film news website 24FRAMESPERSECOND alerted me to this one. This new movie supposedly tells the story of a monster croc that went on a killing spree in the sixties. First picking on a few isolated villagers deep in the rainforest, the croc went on to defy the best efforts of both holy men and the police force.

Great posters, but... It may be a good idea to make a low-budget monster movie to cut your movie-making teeth on - just don't let anybody see it until you've got something good. This is nicely shot, but completely lacking in suspense or excitement. Even during the 'action' scenes, there's a feeling that the story is treading water. For example, a man gets bitten by the croc - he thrashes around, people look horrified, he thrashes some more, no-one does anything, he keeps thrashing... The scene doesn't develop. Cross-cutting between victim and croc isn't telling a story, it's more like watching ping pong.

Also, the characters and story are really basic (how to establish a love story? - let's have a love song!). The actors only need to look scared, look horrified, or scream in agony (at something offscreen). Okay, there's a little gore, lots of dodgy computer generated monster croc, and no plot twists. I dare anyone to watch this without skipping forwards.

If anything, this is an excellent lesson in how not to make a monster movie. A few shots swiped from JAWS only reminded me that I really should watch JAWS again.

So please, if you think you'll like either of these 'crocs', please watch JAWS, JAWS 2, GRIZZLY, ALLIGATOR and PIRANHA first. If you want to see good CGI monsters, watch any JURASSIC PARK 1, 2 or 3, or even GODZILLA (1998). Then and only then, watch DINOCROC or BRUTAL RIVER.

Mark H