March 20, 2006

YOKAI DAISENSO (2005) - Takashi Miike's Great Goblin War

Hong Kong NTSC Region 3 DVD boxset

I've been waiting for this one for over a year and it's finally out, with english subtitles, on DVD in Hong Kong. I got the 2-disc set (pictured) but there's also a single-disc HK release available.

Ever since I saw photographs from the 1960's Yokai Monsters trilogy I'd wanted to see them (
see the pics here...) - luckily all three movies were released on DVD in the US recently (as 100 Monsters, Spook Warfare, Along With Ghosts). Now one of Japan's top directors has (sort of) remade Spook Warfare, giving us a unique epic monsterfest - but you might want to do a little homework before seeing it...

Tadashi, a 12 year old boy has moved to the countryside away from his home in Tokyo. He starts seeing mischievous demons in a nearby forest. They've been stirred up by a powerful spirit who's preparing to go to war with the human race... first stop, Tokyo.

The cast are spectacular, particularly the young lead, Ryunosuke Kamiki, who's convincing but never cute, in a very tough and physical role as the young hero Tadashi. The baddies Sada and Agi, look stylish and dangerous. Agi is the formidable looking but almost unrecognisable Chiaki Kuriyama, here landing her best role ever as a demon terminatrix. She gets great duels, great make-up, great dresses, great scenes. She's finally matured from her endless schoolgirl roles, wonderful though they were (scene-stealing in Battle Royale, and Kill Bill Vol. 1 in particular).

The actors, together with excellent make-up effects, bring the central band of Yokai to life. The water spirit, Kappa, is particularly endearing as played by Sadao Abe (unrecognisable from his school bully role in Uzumaki). Many venerable actors who don't normally do this sort of thing have been enticed into working with Miike, and also through their own childhood memories of Yokai.

The CGI look of the battle scenes and metal demons is no more annoying than the Harry Potters or Narnia FX. A conscious decision has been made to produce a uniquely Japanese fantasy epic of the same calibre as Hollywood, but without bowing to international tastes.

The main influence on Yokai Daisenso is more Shigeru Mizuki than director, Takashi Miike. Indeed according to the supplemental interviews, Miike was hired as a director after all the main Yokai characters had been picked! Many of the cast and crew name Mizuki as a part of their childhood - his Yokai books, manga, TV series and encyclopedia make up a formidable body of work.

Besides chronicling the historical Japanese tales of ghosts, spirits and demons (some of them inherited from Chinese folkore), Mizuki has single-handedly kept the subject alive by placing the characters in modern settings, for instance through the stories of Kitaro, the ghost boy. I'll be talking more about the Gegege No Kitarou series and movies in another entry - needless to say, after 40 years of manga and anime, with a new yokai every episode, there are an awful lot of demons that the Japanese are familiar with that we've never seen before. We're in danger of missing out on the fun when each Yokai appears in the new movie: there are references, in-jokes and the fun of recognising your favourite monsters. Imagine if Pokemon had been a smash hit for 40 years - how many adults would have it as part of their childhood?

My own favourite is the Rokurokubi, the snake-necked maid. Her main scene in Yokai Daisenso is spectacular and funny... I'll say no more. Miike suceeds in showcasing dozens of major Yokai characters. But there are rather a lot of Yokai to fit in... one scene was shot with a crowd of 500 extras dressed as different monsters, another scene features 20 million CGI monsters!!!

As you can tell, the extras DVD in this set has been subtitled in English - the documentaries and interviews are valuable in understanding the ambitions of the Producers and the Yokai phenomenon. Sometimes though the translations go slightly awry - (unlike the movie subtitles which are very good) - at one point it says that Shigeru Mizuki is 73, when in fact he's 83 - he lost an arm serving in WW2. But, it's wonderful to hear from him and the other members of the cast, like Chiaki Kuriyama. Also, you don't see many press conferences that are punctuated by an earthquake - but it's Japan, they just carry on regardless!

For a complete breakdown of the DVD extras, see the great review at DVD Times, but watch out for the spoilers... DVD Times DVD review

So, overall it's a very, very richly detailed movie. A huge creative effort from everyone involved, including Takashi Miike, who normally knocks out several films a year, here devoted over a year to one film. While it's not as consistent as his recent Zebraman, it's certainly an epic monster rally for fans to treasure.

March 19, 2006

JIGOKU - Visions of bloody HELL

Cinematic depictions of Hell - a starter guide

I've always been fascinated with visions of the afterlife. Having seen some mysterious and spectacular stills, I first sought out the Hollywood versions of Dante's Inferno. Both the 1924 silent movie and the 1935 Spencer Tracy vehicle included tours of the seven levels of Hell according to Dante, visually lead by the intricate engravings of Gustav Dore (whose engravings lent themselves perfectly to black and white cinematic recreation). The 1935 version is worth seeking out for the five minute descent into hell - envisioned using large sets, cavernous models, matte paintings and dozens of half-naked extras.
Incidentally, a new Hollywood remake of Dante's Inferno is about to be unleashed - but this time it's a comedy... It stars Dermot Mulroney as Dante and James Cromwell as his guide, Virgil.

I've searched for films which attempt to depict a different kind of Hell... this time according to Buddha. Three of them Japanese, called Jigoku, only 2 of which I've seen, and a recent Thai remake, called Narok, which also translates literally as Hell...

JIGOKU (1960, Japan)

This is a classic Japanese drama that is practically an arthouse classic, due to its expressionistic underworld sets and earnest acting talent. The first hour sets up a dozen sinners in a rural town, specifically a young man being lead into temptation by an old school friend.

The second hour demonstrates how each sin will be punished in the afterlife - a guided tour is provided by the ruler, Lord Enma. The various areas of Hell are depicted by large apparently wall-less sets (the edges disappear into darkness) and dozens of extras playing the doomed. The strictest of punishments involve being sawn in half while laying face down, or worse still, being flayed alive all the way down to the bone. These bloody make-up effects would have been very strong stuff for 1960, especially since they're in colour.

One scene shows dozens of people buried up to their necks, leaving only a garden of heads visible - this reminded me very much of a similar Hell tableau in What Dreams May Come. I'd highly recommend this 1994 Vincent Ward film for its strong story, as well as it's spectacular visions of Hell, and rare visions of Heaven too.

The 1960 Jigoku is interesting for seeing the differences and similarities in cultures, but is less compelling as a dramatic storyline. Despite its excesses, Hell here is merely stressful rather than frightening.

UPDATE 3rd March 2007 - SciFiJapan has an extensive review, posters and screengrabs from the 2006 Criterion Collection DVD release of this version of Jigoku.

JIGOKU (1999, Japan)

I've not seen the 1979 Japanese remake, but I suspect that the 1960 one was the best, and had the biggest budget. The 1999 Jigoku verges on trashy. Directed by the late Teruo Ishii (Horror of Malformed Men, 1969), it primarily deals with the perpetrators of the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway. We see the cultists plotting and executing the attack, then suffering for their deeds by various punishments, including the customary flaying.

The film is held together by Lord Enma (here played by an actress) approaching a young cultist in Shinjuku and warning her of what could happen to her. Unlike in 1960, we quickly move to Hell early in the film - but it's a tiny set with painted walls, a handful of extras, and only a few demons with inexpressive masks on - the monsters look more like 1960's Ultraman cast-offs. Also the gore looks unconvincing and home-made. The film seems more preoccupied in showing topless girls and unconvincing sex scenes. It also looks like a sly way of restaging and exploiting the sarin gas attack story without identifying the film as such.

For me, it didn't feel like Hell at all, and if you want to learn more about the gas attack, there was a good Channel 5 documentary on recently whose reconstructions were far more convincing - they also talked to survivors of the incident and related why and how it happened.

HELL (2005, Thailand, titled Narok) -
Thai Region 3 PAL DVD

Thankfully, the story has been taken more seriously by a new film from Thailand (a remake of the Japanese Jigoku) and is out now on DVD. Obviously it's an ambitious project and no budget can do Hell full justice, but it's certainly closer to depicting somewhere you really don't want to go - and that, I thought, was the whole point.

Here, a minibus crash sends a group of friends into the afterlife. Through flashbacks we see what sins they've committed, then we see how they are to be punished. Again, Thailand is a sincerely Buddhist nation, so off we go again to Buddhist Hell...

This initially looks like a wasteland of torture - endless bodies being physically set upon by barbaric demons armed with a variety of simple weapons. Again there's the sawing in half, but here the flaying looks almost real... people being bludgeoned with large wooden mallets, stabbed with spears... the punishments seem to be everywhere. Is there no escape?

Instead of sets, outdoor locations are used, but with digitally altered skies to notify that we're seeing a different world. This is a less subterranean vision than the other films, but it's still claustrophobic, because the pain is everywhere - even when the group try to escape they only encounter other tortures.

The demons who police the suffering are almost-human barbarians. They look convincing and obviously enjoy their work. The special make up effects are successfully gory and mostly work, except for a couple of digital dismemberments. Other SFX like the "dimension gates" - huge tornadoes that carry people from one plane of existence to the next - look digital and fakey, but are spectacularly imagined.

All in all, I found this Thai Hell the most compelling. The tone was consistently grim (reminding me somewhat of Cannibal Holocaust - there too, the characters were documentary makers) until a little unwelcome comedy relief breaks the mood halfway through the film. The ending feels a little rushed and, obviously, some of the sins don't seem to warrant the outrageous tortures meted out later. But this film fits nicely into the new wave of slasher films from Thailand (like Scared and Art of the Devil) as well as the new brutality of Hollywood horrors like Saw, Wrong Turn and The Hills Have Eyes.

At present the film is only available on DVD and VCD from Thailand, but without english subtitles. The 16:9 anamorphic widescreen picture is a slightly cramped representation of the original 1.85 cinema aspect. This PAL region 3 DVD (pictured) has a trailer and a brief behind the scenes package included, as well as poster and design art. But, I'm sure the online publicity photographs alone will get this film a wider release soon.

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March 15, 2006

JOYUREI / GHOST ACTRESS / DON'T LOOK UP (1996) from Hideo Nakata

GHOST ACTRESS aka DON'T LOOK UP (1996, Japan, titled JOYUREI)
Directed by Hideo Nakata
Film review

White dress, black hair, haunted film - Hideo Nakata directing ghosts before RING

Ring (or Ringu) launched Japanese horror movies across the globe, based on Koji Suzuki's novels about Sadako wreaking her psychic revenge through cursed videotapes. Despite the fact there had already been a Japanese TV movie in 1995 (Ringu: Kanzen-ban), it was Hideo Nakata who directed the successful movie version - and he probably got the job because he had already made Ghost Actress.

The film centres around the making of a wartime drama at an old movie studio. The director starts running into trouble when the ghost of a young woman starts appearing in the rafters above the movie set, as well as on the filmed rushes. As the cast and begin to get spooked, accidents start to happen on set...

Ring wasn't just effortlessly scary - it didn't come out of nowhere. Hideo Nakata had already been trying out how to scare audiences with a ghost girl all the way through Ghost Actress, which makes it an interesting watch. Strangely, the ghost is seen many more times than in Ring - here she's more active, more vocal and more hands on!

There are a few more parallels, besides the appearence of the ghost - it's mentioned that the very celluloid itself might be haunted. Also, the basic structure of a story within a story is similar to that of Ring 0: Birthday - the 3rd Japanese Ring movie - where a play is in production.

Ghost Actress, is very well-acted, atmospheric, occasionally creepy, but a little too brief at 73 minutes - you're left wanting more story, including a better reason for the haunting. But it's a lively precursor to the terrifying Ring-cycle, and I'm surprised it's not been released properly on DVD - I can only find it on Korean release at the moment, and that's without english subtitles.

Lastly, a special mention of the leading actor playing the movie director - Yƻrei Yanagi went on to play the pivotal role of the reporter in Ring and Ring 2, as well as the unlucky schoolteacher in the original 2 v-cinema movies of Ju-on: The Grudge. That must make him one of the most scared actors in Japan! Perhaps in Ghost Actress we're witnessing him originate the falling-over-backwards-to-the-ground-cos-he's-so-scared manoeuvre! He's soon to be seen in the awesome- looking vision of hell, Kidan (check out Twitch film for a trailer), which should hopefully be available in english in the coming months.

If you want to go to the Twitch film site, or learn more about scary Ring movies - check the links on the sidebar to the right.


SF Episode One - SAMURAI FICTION (1998) - DVD Review

SF Episode One - SAMURAI FICTION (1998, Japan)
Korean DVD (NTSC, All Region, Garam Net)

Charming, funky, homage to old-school samurai films - from the director of RED SHADOW

Impressive for its wealth of memorable characters, Samurai Fiction is an ideal companion to Takeshi Kitano's Zatoichi remake, with its fresh and humorous approach. While it's essentially a traditional tale of samurai honour, SF appeals with its progressive ideals, modern soundtrack, and young cast.

This film shows the director's enthusiasm for the samurai movie genre. He based his Stereo Future (2001) around the making of a fictional samurai movie. In the same year, he made the big budget, techno-scored, remake of Red Shadow (or Akakage), which is in the same vein of comedy, action and drama - highly recommended.

Story-wise, SF tells of a headstrong but inexperienced samurai, Heishiro, trying to retrieve his clans' ceremonial sword from a renegade swordsman, Kazamatsuri. When Heishiro is injured in a duel, Hanbei, a local retired swordsman, tries to persuade him to take a different approach from revenge.

While the story is essentially a drama, the cast is made up of expert comedians who make the most of their characters. Heishiro is a fairly good swordsman, but completely inexperienced with women. His long-suffering father, trying to cover up the sword's disappearence, relies on an ageing ninja bodyguard, who refuses to use doors through force of habit (the wobbly ninja is a gag that the director will use again in Red Shadow). Cocky renegade Kazamatsuri disrespects one gang of attacking samurai turning his back on them and taking a leak, a long leak.

Heishiro is impressively played by Mitsuru Fukikoshi, who later played other samurai roles in Red Shadow, and the deadly serious Twilight Samurai. He also played the geeky boyfriend in the superb kaiju movie Gamera 2 - Attack of Legion.

The baddie, Kazamatsuri, is famously played by Tomoyasu Hotei, who also composed the soundtrack. Later, the storming track "Battle Without Honor or Humanity" would make his music internationally famous when it was used in Tarantino's Kill Bill: Vol 1. He briefly reprised his samurai character in Red Shadow.

Morio Kazama deserves a special mention as the level-headed Hanbei, and also Tamaki Ogawa as his radiantly cute daughter.

As a homage to old samurai films, SF stays mostly in black and white, but the little flashes of colour gives away the fact that this must have been shot in colour, then desaturated. This means that some scenes lack the contrast of actual black-and-white film stock. Also, the glimpses of colour make you wonder what the film could have looked like.

Apart from that, SF - Samurai Fiction instantly became one of my favourite Japanese films.

It's well-represented on the Korean DVD (pictured above) on the Garam Net label. The english subtitles are well-translated, inobtrusive and removiable. The aspect ratio is anamorphic and there's a 5.1 Japanese mix option. There's also a trailer and some ageing ninja outtakes.


March 14, 2006

INITIAL D (2005) - Region 3 HK - DVD review

INITIAL D (2005, live action, Hong Kong)
2-DVD DTS Region 3 HK boxset (Megastar Video release)

FILM REVIEW (no spoilers):
A young petrol station cleaner with a drunken dad, is secretly the fastest thing on four wheels in the local street-racing community.

This film is all about driving. Impossibly slick driving. I thought the only way they could drive cars the way they do in the anime version, was to use computer effects. I was wrong - they just recruited real-life "drift-racers" - drivers who can go round twisty mountain roads skidding sideways all the way! The behind-the-scenes video footage shows how they didn't need to fake it.

A likeable cast, a little gritty drama, some unchallenging characters (visually faithful to the manga), and some rather more scuzzy behaviour than one sees in the average Japanese movie. That's because this famous Japanese anime has been adapted as a live-action film by a Hong Kong cast and crew. The best character in INITIAL D is played by the most recognisable actor, Anthony Wong Chau-Sang (also seen in INFERNAL AFFAIRS, THE HEROIC TRIO and as the serial killer in the exceptionally gruesome THE UNTOLD STORY).

Other plus-points for the cinematography, which is beautiful (some great shots of hillsides with distant trees being illuminated by car headlights). Athletic, state of the art camerawork is supplemented by some impossible CG-assisted moves (there's a great transition from a shot of a car in a rear-view mirror). Some flashy split-screen editing helps you tell the various races apart. It's not so much 'cutting edge' as stylishly done.

I was disappointed that the music wasn't as J-Pop as the anime series. It was mostly uninspiring rap in english. I was also disappointed that all the races in the movie took place on the same mountain road.

If this movie was made in England it would probably be called BOY RACERS. It's like THE FAST AND FURIOUS but with no sex, violence, or car crashes! Just lots of racing around winding mountain roads - but I guess that's what INITIAL D is all about - the driving. FAST AND FURIOUS 3 is set in Tokyo - the street settings are going to provide very exciting backdrops, but I doubt that tofu, or many other facets of Japanese culture, will figure heavily in the plot.

The movie is presented 2.35 anamorphic (a 2.35 letterbox within an anamorphic 16:9 frame) with optional DTS 5.1 audio and well-translated optional english subtitles.

The picture was not very crisp in places, suffering some compression problems. The DTS audio was very directional, crisp dialogue (though most of it sounded post-synched) and full bass response.

The second DVD contains a dozen making of featurettes, a promotional racetrack display of stunt driving, cast interviews, out-takes and deleted scenes. The behind the scenes footage shows that the astonishing driving in the film wasn't faked, they really do can take corners like that! Some of the ingenious state-of-the-art camera rigs are shown too - one miniature crane is attached to the lead car and has it's (bright yellow) rigging removed digitally afterwards - giving the impression that a floating camera has somehow been locked floating over the car! No english subs on the second disc though.

As this may be getting a cinema release in the UK (news from Hong Kong Legends and 24framespersecond), I'm reposting this review here.


March 12, 2006

TABOO (1999) - Brokeback samurai

TABOO (1999, Japan, titled "Gohatto")
Directed by Nagisa Oshima
US DVD Review

From the director of Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence comes the samurai version of Brokeback Mountain

The story concerns an attractive new arrival at a samurai school in Kyoto in Shogun-era 1865. Kano is young, pretty and already dedicated to swordsmanship. Many other samurai become infatuated with him and deadly complications arise, but is Kano blameless for all the trouble?

OK, so yesterday I watched Kariyushi In August and was reminded that the leading actor, Ryuhei Matsuda, had earlier been the star of Taboo when he was only 16 years old. Not an easy debut - he has numerous kendo duels and a couple of gay love scenes. The duels, and the love scenes for that matter, are always shot wide, without any chance of using a stunt double.

Kano's character seems to wear make-up, accentuating his features as feminine. It's unclear though if he's making himself up as attractive as possible, or whether the film-makers overdid the face powder, mascara and lipstick. For me, one of things that doesn't make sense about the plot is that the other samurai only fall for Kano and not each other. Why does he have to look feminine to be sexually attractive to men?

Anyway, despite the numerous samurai swordfights, let it be known that this is more of a drama than an action picture. Also, director Nagisa Oshima has made an old-school film with lots of dialogue, which is overlong even by Japanese standards. Despite the controversial subject, the issue is constantly dodged. The lovers rarely talk about how they feel, rather it's the people around them that talk about what they think is going on and what they think about it. The viewer also has to sift through the gossip and rumours to decide what is actually going on amongst the men.

Here, a society is portrayed where many samurai acknowledged that gay relationships were relatively commonplace, but few were actively disproving. They just make it clear that it's not for them. However, when the relationships start affecting discipline and local law and order, they deal with it severely - it's a rather similar policy that's ruled in the UK and USA armed forces until recently - but without the swords. It's also a similar plot to Another Country (1984), where Rupert Everett plays a schoolboy whose numerous boyfriends threaten the reputation of a Public School in 1930's England.

My first Oshima film was Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (aka Furyo) - in fact that was one of my first Japanese films. There also, the film skirted around the central themes to the point of where I missed the dramatic point of many of the scenes. Taboo in fact closely resembles the pace and tone of Brokeback Mountain. A slowly told story about a typically macho setting, disrupted by a gay relationship to the point of tragedy. At least Brokeback has a less judgemental ending.

Japanese phenomenon Takeshi Kitano stars in Taboo as the samurai school's Captain, left in charge to try and keep order. Here Kitano is reunited with director Oshima, who first cast him in 1983 in Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence .

Also in the cast are Tadanobu Asano from Ichi The Killer, playing one of the lovers. He later played a samurai in Zatoichi, also with Kitano. We've yet to see his latest films, the irreverent Tokyo Zombie and the already heralded thriller Invisible Waves.

Lastly, Shinji Takeda makes an impression with his handsome and confident presence - he was also in the awesomely creepy Pulse (aka Kairo), which is firmly in my top ten Japanese horrors.


March 11, 2006

KARIYUSHI IN AUGUST (2003) starring Ryuhei Matsuda

KARIYUSHI IN AUGUST (2003, Japan, titled "Hachigatsu no Kariyushi") Directed by Iwao Takahashi
Japanese Region 2 NTSC DVD review

Gentle ghost story shot on location in Okinawa and starring the leading man from Gohatto

The main reason I'm including this film is because there's so little written about it in english, anywhere on the net. It's not even on IMDB.

Kariyushi In August has a very slight plot, but is a nicely observed story of a young man visiting relatives in southern Japan on the island of Okinawa. As he meanders around, visiting old haunts and hearing local music, old memories return of his childhood there and he uncovers a terrible old family secret...

Shot on location, the film gives a very different view of Japan that we normally see. This is a hot, lush location by the sea, far away from the big cities. Time has moved on slowly here, and memories of the war are not as faint.

The main interest here is the leading actor, Ryuhei Matsuda, aged only 20. His career in acting started with the brave leading role in Gohatto (a.k.a. Taboo), a period film about a gay samurai. More recently he's appeared in 9 Souls, Nana, Rampo Jigoku, Otakus In Love, and Takashi Miike's Izo. His mother, Miyuki Matsuda, is also an actor and she appeared in Miike's infamous Audition. His father was a famous actor, Yusaku Matsuda, whose last film was Ridley Scott's Black Rain.

The Japanese DVD unfortunately has no english subtitles, but has a trailer and a making of programme included. Beind-the-scenes footage indicate that the feature was made on High Definition video, but I hadn't guessed that from seeing the film.

March 08, 2006

ART OF THE DEVIL (2004) Thailand horror movie DVD

ART OF THE DEVIL (2004, Thailand, titled "Khon len khong")
Thailand PAL DVD

Another horror film from Thailand not living up to its poster art. But gorehounds may be amused.

Again, spectacular poster artwork interested me in this one, and Art of the Devil is getting a certain reputation for its level of gore. Like Scared, the film doesn't live up to the posters promise of 'gothic nightmare', and the scenes depicted in the artwork (like the poster below) don't quite appear in the film. But it certainly is bloody...

The story concerns a young woman used and abused by her rich boyfriend - he pays her off but refuses to leave his family for her. After she is gang-raped by his friends, she takes her revenge on him and his family, by using a Thai black magic ritual called 'the art of the devil'. It looks a lot like voodoo, involving straw mannikins and corpses... The family members start dying by vomiting up sharp objects that spontaneously appear inside them...

The film is efficiently made, but lacks the edge needed to generate suspense or any real shocks. The ingredients are all there - a story with this many murders and ghosts of the undead should have been far more creepy. It certainly manages to be repulsive in several sequences, and there is a unique scene with the heroine flailing about in a roomful of eels. A lot of eels. In fact in the making-of programme, we see some behind-the-scenes shots and, pity the actress, there's no CGI (like in the similar scene in The Craft), just bucketloads of large eels. After the filming, she's clearly not happy, in fact, very upset. But the result is very successful.

So, it's memorable, in places - the cast, locations, budget, FX are all amply sufficient, but the film doesn't quite work for me. I applaud any country's film industry that's so committed to a flourishing output of horror films, I'm just having trouble finding any of the same high calibre as Shutter.

The PAL Thai DVD (pictured top left) has no english subtitles on it, but includes the trailer and a half-hour Thai programme (Scoop) which interviews the director and leading actresses and shows some good behind the scenes footage.

There are english subtitles on the Region 1 NTSC DVD currently out in the USA.

A sequel, Art of the Devil 2 has just appeared at the Bangkok International Film Festival. It's been heralded with more fantastic promotional posters - already they're beckoning me to investigate if the sequel surpasses the original...


March 05, 2006

THE BULLET TRAIN (1975) R2 DVD review

THE BULLET TRAIN (1975, Japan, titled "Shinkansen daibakuha")
DVD review (Region 2 PAL UK, Optimum Asia)

Sonny Chiba wasted as a train driver aboard a seventies disaster movie from Japan

Japanese bullet trains are very long and very fast. The Japanese movie BULLET TRAIN is very long but very slow.

The story starts off briskly enough, with a bomb planted on a long distance bullet train journey, set to detonate if the speed drops below 80 k.p.h. On board are a pop group, a fugitive in police custody, and an expectant mother (of course). As the police scramble to find the bomber, the passengers realise something is wrong when the train misses its scheduled stops and panic breaks out...

Considering the bullet train has 1500 passengers and the control room is teeming with personnel, it's strange that we never get to know anyone in this film, except the bomber himself, played by Ken Takakura, who we spend the most time with. This tips the film in his favour as we end up more worried about his problems and whether he'll get away with it - I'm sure our sympathies aren't intended be with the criminal, but that's how it plays.

With a running time of 150 minutes (!) and a cast of Japanese acting heavyweights (in bit parts), there's too little plot and too little logic (especially in the police's actions) to sustain it. Considering Sonny Chiba is in the film, there's too little action either.

The UK region 2 release from Optimum Asia (pictured above) is apparently much better-looking than the US DVD. There's a lovely anamorphic widescreen presentation of this 2.35 movie, with optional english subtitles. It's the original Japanese version, and not the cut-down American release, though I imagine that the english-dubbed seventies dialogue could have been entertaining. There are also trailers for the Japanese release of bullet train ("a coffin on wheels") and 8 other Sonny Chiba films, which certainly look fun.


GEMINI (1999, Japan) R3 DVD

GEMINI (1999, Japan, titled "Soseiji")
DVD review (Region 3, Hong Kong, from Golden Scene)

Wonderfully surreal, period horror from the director of TETSUO: IRON MAN

After having my senses seriously mauled by TETSUO - IRON MAN, I'd sworn never to watch anything by this director again. Unwittingly, I'd got GEMINI not knowing anything more about it than it had interesting reviews. Little did I know it was also directed by Shinya Tsukamoto...

As a young doctor is just getting married, his mother then his father die in mysterious circumstances. Have their deaths anything to do with his new wife, after all, she has no memory of her past before she met the doctor...

As the film started I had an initial problem with the athletic use of the handheld camerawork, juxtaposed with the unusual and intrusive soundtrack. It was supposed to be a turn of the century rural setting!

Anyhow, I was soon rewarded by the impressive performances of Masahiro Motoki as the doctor and Ryu (ALIVE, AZUMI) as his wife - two unusual looking but elegant actors, asked to perform almost dance-like, very physical acting. Together with the slightly surreal make-up and hairstyles, the over-the-top drama almost toppled over into comedy. But I soon got into the stylised performances as I started to find my bearings. The expertness of the handheld camera was frenetic but carefully controlled - delivering some terrific shocks.

According to the Twitch Film website (there's a link in the sidebar at right), GEMINI is due for a Region 1 DVD release in May.

The Region 3 Hong Kong DVD that I watched (pictured above) had well-translated subtitles, but they were non-removable, and also had the chinese in vision as well, meaning that there were sometimes 3 rows of subtitles obscuring the picture!


March 04, 2006

SCARED (2005) Thai slasher movie DVD review

(2005, Thailand)
Thailand all-region PAL DVD release

Cross Friday the 13th with a Battle Royale body count and you get the Thailand horror film Scared

A busload of impossibly pretty schoolkids on a school trip deep in a Thai rainforest. Stranded by an accident, the survivors are picked off one by one in increasingly gruesome ways. But who is murdering them and why?

There are so many teenagers on the bus, that there is never really a chance to work out the relationships between any of the kids or even enough who the characters are. Just when you think you are getting to know them a little, they’re dead!

After some feeble initial 'shocks', the death scenes get more unexpected - the variable special effects are rather gory and occasionally digitally aided. Just like Friday the 13th, the death scenes are the most entertaining thing in this film - the same murder weapon is never used twice, there's a lot of kids on the bus, and there's some neat new agricultural implements we haven't seen before...

But there’s very little plot and the music (usually the backbone of atmosphere and suspense) is thin, inconsistent and uninvolving. I was disappointed to notice a boom microphone ducking into the image a couple of times in an early scene - haven't seen that sort of error for a while - Shutter this isn't. Not is it Scream. The staging of much of the action makes the characters seem stupid, as they ignore many of the basic Scream rules of horror films. If only they’d all calmed down and stuck together…

But I don't want to be too hard on Scared. As the film opens, you get a unique look at some of the end of year Thai school festivities and there's a beautifully staged scene in the school hall, which promises a film of Thai traditions. But instead it soon descends into a rip of western slasher films – no logic, lots of blood and screaming and a rather high body count.

German DVD release

The main disappointment is that the film doesn’t look nearly as moody as the fantastic posters, nor do any of the events in the posters accurately appear in the film.

It's entertaining though. The photography is nicely done, on what looks like high definition video cameras almost looking as good as film. The locations are unusual, particularly the early rainforest scenes, making it vaguely reminiscent of Cannibal Holocaust, especially with loads of stakes sticking out of the ground.

This is certainly a spirited effort that may please gorehounds and collectors of horror cliches, but not fans of originality and clever plotting.

The Thai DVD has no English subtitles, but once the film gets going, there's not a lot of dialogue anyway. In the extras, there's a trailer, TV spots, a brief behind-the-scenes segment, some wallpapers and a commentary in Thai. The image is 16:9 anamorphic, the audio is a clear 5.1 mix, and even legitimate Thailand DVDs are very reasonably priced.

Again, great posters...

- - - - - - -

March 02, 2006

DORM (2006) A new ghost story from Thailand

DORM (Thailand, 2006)
A movie review all the way from Bangkok

This was released in February in Thailand and also played at the Bangkok Film Festival. It's been a box office hit there and I'm sure it will travel well internationally, if marketed carefully.

Because of the poster and the initial premise, I was prepared for a full-on horror film, but Dorm is a well-rounded ghost story that's almost family fare in Thailand. However, it contains elements that may not be considered suitable for younger viewers everywhere.

I've been disappointed by several horror films from Thailand in recent years, the amateurish acting in Snaker, 999-9999 and Garuda had made me very wary of films that were made there. Then along came Shutter, a slick, creepy horror film loaded with shock moments - finally a Thai movie that I could whole-heartedly recommend. But I needed proof that Shutter wan't a one-off fluke.

I was recently on holiday in Thailand and wanted to go to a cinema in Bangkok. I was pleasantly surprised to find a film that I wanted to see had just opened, and that half of the performances had english subtitles! Thailand (and Thai DVD for that matter) is quite easy for those who speak English. I'd say that about half of the DVD releases there have english subtitles on them. Travelling around Thailand, many signs and menus were in English, and many people spoke a little English, enough to accommodate tourists needing taxis, food, shopping etc.

In the cinema, before the film started, I was caught out by the audience all suddenly standing up for the National Anthem and a montage of photographs of their beloved King playing on the big screen. We don't do that in England! But back to Dorm...

The film opens with a young boy being sent far away from home, to a boarding school in the country. He's very angry at his father, and his life is made more miserable because he's joining the school halfway through a term. All the boys sleep in one huge dormitory. A gang of four misfits decide to pick on the new kid by telling him ghost stories on his first night, giving him as much to worry about his new surroundings as possible. They tell him that the school, the dorm, the teacher that's looking after him, even the very bed he's sleeping in all have a strange history. The boy, Chatree (played by Charlie Trairat), gets very scared and wets the bed. But during the weeks that follow, he discovers that some of the ghost stories might actually be true, and even linked together...

Dorm is half family drama, half supernatural drama, but despite the young lead, the shocks and scares may be too effective for an audience as young as the central character - but maybe I'm being over-protective. I'll also warn you that there's a lot of urinating in the film! Close ups of kids wetting themselves, boys peeing in bushes, lots of scenes in toilets - you don't get this in Harry Potter. In terms of tone, the best comparison I can think of is the marvellous Stand By Me.

Dorm is beautifully shot, with fantastic performances, and it's a film that works on all levels. It's scary, but also funny, dramatic, sad... just all-round entertaining. I wish it every success all over the world!

Now I've got to trawl through Thailand's other recent horror films to make sure I'm not missing any other gems...