January 28, 2007

BEAUTIFUL BOXER (2003) serious transsexual kickboxing

BEAUTIFUL BOXER (2003, Thailand)
Hong Kong region 3 NTSC special edition (Panasia)

Based on a true story...

The spectacular sport of kickboxing is usually elevated to all-action plots like Tony Jaa in Ong Bak or even the Jean-Claude Van Damme series, but it could easily be the basis of a more serious study. Beautiful Boxer is certainly serious, but highlights the plight of Thai transsexuals more than the sport.

With an American character leading us into the story, and English narration throughout, this seemed to be aimed at an international market, with an admirable budget to match.

A reporter tracks down 'Nong Toom' in Bangkok, who proceeds to tell us the story of her life. In a movie-length flashback, we see how the young boy is attracted to cross-dressing, to the annoyance of his father, and despite a period as a Buddhist monk, finds that his kickboxing skills could support his poverty-stricken family and maybe even finance a sex-change operation...

This is a lavish production, with locations all over Thailand and even a trip to Tokyo, where kickboxing is also popular.

The story is a straightforward one, making Nong Toom's journey look rather easy - he seems to get lucky in every situation: his priest is supportive, his trainer is supportive, his family, his promoter - there never seem to be any major barriers. We rarely see him getting bullied, even at kickboxing school, where he begins wearing make-up publicly. He also seems to have little problem winning his fights and gaining national recognition.

It's a rather earnest film, hoping to earn sympathy from the audience through an emotional plea, rather than explaining his case. Despite the apparent paradox of his character, we crucially don't see him transform from his fey everyday persona into the aggressive fighting machine. The movie also dodges the controversial issue of who he is sexually attracted to, making this suitable for a family audience.

The kickboxing bouts are brief and often bloody - the sport is all the more dangerous because, despite the gloves, contact can be made with knees, feet and, deadliest of all, elbows. I was more impressed with the 'Muay Thai' side of the movie. Certainly it demonstrates how transvestites and transsexuals can positively channel their oppression! I'd still love to see a dramatic movie that concentrates on kickboxing itself, maybe Rocky-style. But this is an excellent introduction to the sport and the country.

There are better gay movies from Thailand, for instance Formula 17 confronts and celebrates the gay lifestyle in a relaxed and humorous way, certainly much better than the recent downbeat and simplistic Boys Love that's just come out in Japan.

There are of course many other 'ladyboy' movies from Thailand, mostly comedies, but while none are as well made as Beautiful Boxer, some are more fun. The Iron Ladies with its similar true-life story of a transvestite volleyball team was very low-budget, very frivolous, but fun. (There was also a pretty bad sequel). The zero-budget Miss Ladyboy, about the national cross-dressing competition is definitely worth a miss. Saving Private Tootsie starts funny but gets serious, and I'll watch it soon.

The Hong Kong DVD special edition of Beautiful Boxer has good subtitles on the main feature, but has a slightly soft picture throughout. There's a DTS soundtrack option.

The real Nong Toom together with actor Asanee Suwan

The disc of extras are mostly translated and give a fascinating look at the story of the actual 'Nong Toom', a nickname for Parinya Charoenphol, who advised and publicised the film. To play her, the director found Asanee Suwan, an actual kickboxer and veteran of over a hundred bouts, to bravely accept the challenging role. Suwan had also been born in Chiang Mai and met the real Nong Toom at one of his matches. The young kickboxer then had to learn how to walk convincingly like a woman, sing, dance and of course act! It's an impressive performance.

The film is also available in region 1 NTSC, and region 2 PAL editions.

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January 24, 2007

Live-action TINTIN movie at the NFT in March

Jean-Pierre Talbot as Tintin and Georges Wilson as Captain Haddock

A rare chance to see the English-language version of the spectacular live-action 1961 Tintin movie happens in March at London's National Film Theatre.

To launch The Flipside, a showcase of 'unlikely' cinema and associated short films and extras, there will be a 'Great Snakes Snowy, It's Tintin Night' at the NFT on March 5th at 6.30pm.

Included in the programme are rare short documentaries about Tintin's creator Herge, but the jewel of the evening is a screening of Tintin and the Golden Treasure, the English release title of Tintin et le Mystere de la Toison D'Or. I reviewed both Tintin movies (link here) when they were released on French DVD last year, but crucially without any subtitles. Golden Treasure must have been the version that I remembered seeing in English on British TV back in the 1970's.

In other news, BBC4 broadcast the excellent "Tintin and Me" (2003), an in-depth documentary about Tintin's Belgian creator Herge, based on a lengthy (taped) interview from 1971. Directed by Danish director Anders Ostergaard, the revelations about the creation of some of Tintin's original adventures are surprisingly controversial, written as they were during WW2 in Nazi-occupied Belgium.

The film-maker also unearthed rare interview footage and photographs and added new depth to some of the Tintin books' most famous illustrations, using computer animation.

For adult Tintin fans, this is a fascinating look at the character's roots and the life of his creator. As the conversation continues, the usually reserved and publicity-shy Herge opens up, as the interviewer increasingly feels he is being used as an analyst or a confessional.

The BBC broadcast version was under an hour, but the full-length film is available on DVD from
Anchor Bay UK, though I had no luck finding it on Amazon's websites.

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January 21, 2007

THE SUBMERSION OF JAPAN (1973) a disasters movie

(1973, Japan, Nippon Chinbotsu)
a.k.a. TIDAL WAVE (US version)

Region 3 Hong Kong NTSC DVD (CN Entertainment)

Tokyo is the first to go

A spectacular disaster movie that was made in Japan, before the disaster movie cycle was underway in the USA. This has several disasters in one: volcanoes, tidal waves, earthquakes, and a crack in the world that’s opening up beneath the entire country…

Based on a Japanese bestseller, this looks like a Godzilla movie, but without the giant monsters. There are many characters, many meetings, and plenty of modelwork to show the destruction of various cities around Japan.

It’s not influenced by the American disaster movies, and sets the tone for the sombre Japanese catastrophe cinema of the 1970's. The Last Days of Planet Earth (1974) envisaged the bleak, catastrophic prophecies of Nostradamus, and even a simple runaway train thriller like The Bullet Train (1975) became a long-winded and downbeat thriller.

Unlike the jaunty action-packed American disaster films Earthquake (1974) and The Towering Inferno (1974), there are too few characters 'on the receiving end' to identify with. The focus is mostly on the authorities and how they cope with the impending disaster. The
Prime Minister takes centre stage as he decides the fate of the Japanese race, aided by a stressed-out scientist Tadokoro (Keiju Kobayashi) and a young, daring oceanologist, Toshio (Hiroshi Fujioka).

The Japanese DVD cover for the 1973 version (no English subtitles)
shows Professor Tadokoro submerged in his work

Mind you, there are a few shots that look familiar – the Tokyo earthquake shows a woman with glass sticking out of her face, in a similar shot to one in Earthquake the following year.

But the disasters in this film happen to mostly faceless crowds of people who’ve not been introduced, making the action scenes uninvolving, and more like news footage.

The scenes are a mix of large-scale model work and real-life volcano footage. Occasionally it’s hard to tell the two apart. The FX team are challenged by having to show such large scale destruction, often from very high altitudes in order to show Japan’s changing geography! There are some FX stills here, together with the US poster (as Tidal Wave). There's also marvellous Japanese poster artwork here on Toho Kingdom.

The film takes a long while to get underway, with a long first act involving a science team snooping around in a research submarine, trying to figure out why a small island sank near the coast of Japan. This is followed by some geology lessons about plate tectonics that you really should already know if you’d attended your geography lessons. The movement of the Earth’s mantle, like the plot, is very, very slow. The action kicked in just before I (continentally) drifted off.

The cast keep the film afloat, with Tetsuro Tamba as the Prime Minister you’d want in charge on such a day. The scene where he is presented with the possible outcomes facing the Japanese people is done almost in one shot, and very emotionally. The veteran actor also appeared in the 2006 remake (based on the same book) shortly before he passed away.

Hiroshi Fujioka and Englebert Humperdinck

Though he doesn’t really have any action scenes, Hiroshi Fujioka is a dynamic presence, no doubt adrenalised by playing the first Kamen Rider in 1971 (Toei Studios' answer to Ultraman). With his wall to wall hair and mega sideburns, he looks like Japan’s answer to pop star Englebert Humperdinck. It’s no coincidence that the actor also appears in the 2006 Japanese genre spoof Everyone But Japan Sinks, (from the makers of The Calamari Wrestler). This is also available now on region 3 DVD.

A scene that's NOT in the Hong Kong DVD version

The Submersion of Japan DVD seems to be an international version aimed at the rest of the Asian market, and is shorter than the 143 minute Japanese original. It runs close to 110 minutes, whereas the rejigged USA cut (Tidal Wave) was only 82 minutes long, which also included extra scenes with Lorne Green as the US President. The tsunami is only a short sequence in the original, but I’ve not seen the US version.

Fans of Godzilla movie music may be familiar with the music of Masaru Satô. You can almost hear strains of
Ebirah - Horror of the Deep (1966) and Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974) in the soundtrack.

The region 3 DVD of this 1973 film (cover art at top) is 2.35 anamorphic widescreen, but the visual detail is quite soft. But the audio is the main drawback - the 5.1 and stereo Japanese audio tracks are prone to loud background hiss, which gets louder whenever there’s not much level. It sounds like an automatic gain keeps pushing up the sound of silence. This is annoying during the quieter early scenes. The English subtitles are well-translated and well-timed. The DVD has no extras on it.

A poster for the 2006 remake

Japan’s biggest film of Summer 2006 was called The Sinking of Japan and is out on region 3 DVD now. There’s also a very long TV series
available from CDJapan, (in a 9 DVD boxset) without subtitles. I thought the film was long, but 1226 minutes is ridiculous.

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January 14, 2007

MAIL (2004) cheap thrills with Chiaki Kuriyama

(2004, Japan)

Region 1 NTSC DVD (Genius Entertainment)

Manga artist/writer Housui Yamazaki has two manga being translated into English at the moment, Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service, and Mail. The latter has already had a low-budget live-action adaption in Japan.

MAIL is an almost zero-budget shot-on-video version of Constantine, as our hero, Private Investigator Reiji Akiba, vanquishes spirits with a bullet from his Holy Pistol! How does he know about the ghosts? Well people mail him about them! Catchy, eh!

The action starts immediately, but with some very poorly realised video FX and a silly Sadako-type ghost on the crawl. Akiba turns up in the nick of time, shoots the ghost, that's it – end of case. This ridiculously simple solution, together with the fact that he’s psychic enough to 'see dead people' is neither fresh nor gripping.

Things pick up as a schoolgirl is saved from the ghost in her painting, (a familiar subplot also seen in the recent series Garo and Portrait de Petit Cossette). She decides to join him as an assistant (another overused ploy to sneak a schoolgirl into the series, just like in the manga and anime Ghost Hunt).

Luckily for us it’s Chiaki Kuriyama, though she’s not in that many scenes, and only has a chirpy schoolgirl character – hardly a stretch for her or any other young Japanese actress.

After a daft segment about a haunted sat-nav (hopefully that idea won’t be reworked as a feature), the plot thickens as we learn more about Akiba’s first job and how he got into this line of work. This segment benefits from not having cheesy FX and works on the basis of the performances and moody lighting. Though the story is rather reminiscent of The Eye.

I warmed to this having persevered with the opening half hour. Even the FX got better (in a Charmed sort of way) and the story achieves a poignant sort of closure. It’s more spirits than scares, a supernatural drama, rather than horror. Highly derivative but earnestly done, and saved from total oblivion by Chiaki’s presence.

The US DVD (pictured at the top) has English subtitles and is widescreen but non-anamorphic. The widescreen aspect infers that it was a v-cinema project, but the episodic structure and onscreen chapter titles make it look more like a short TV series. The running time is actually 110 minutes and not 150 mins as listed in many of the online DVD stores (because of inaccurate info on the DVD back cover).

Strangely the Japanese release - on 2 DVDs (with no English on them) - add up to 160 minutes, so we've lost 40 minutes somewhere, but this is long enough already.

It’s yet another project only really worth watching for Chiaki Kuriyama. Why she isn’t getting a string of movie roles is beyond me. After her high-profile roles in Battle Royale and Kill Bill Volume 1, I thought the movie world would be at her feet. Instead, she’s done more TV than film, even in Japan. If anyone was suitable for YoYo Schoolgirl Cop, I'd have thought she’d be obvious, to further ensure international success.

There's a nifty trailer for Mail with lots of Chiaki in it here on YouTube.

For fans, here’s an interview with Chiaki that was done at the end of last year for TV in the UK. It's a segment from Japanorama, presented by Jonathan Ross - Britain's biggest cult movie buff and Japanophile. Here on YouTube.

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January 13, 2007

WHO CAN KILL A CHILD? (1975) powerful Spanish horror

(1976, Spain)


The lost boys... and girls...

DVD release
was my first chance to see the film in English. I'd recently watched a Spanish-only version just to be able to see it at all, and became very interested in this unique and powerful film.

I remembered the poster campaign in the UK in 1976 - a shocking photo of a man with a rifle, facing a gang of children - the title in this country was Would You Kill a Child? As you can see, it was of course given a certificate 'X'.

I didn't see the film at the time, but thought it was going to be realistic and shocking - it looked as seriously scary as the poster for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

The story cleverly mixes the premise of Hitchcock's The Birds and John Wyndham's book The Midwich Cuckoos (more birds!) adapted as the movies Village of the Damned (in 1960 and 1995). What if children turned around and rebelled violently against adults?

The original version of the film begins with a harrowing montage of war crimes, with footage focussing on the suffering of children.

This over-the-top barrage of images sets up the possible motive for why the children take revenge, but it plays as furious anti-war propaganda. It's very rare for real-life horrors to appear in a horror film. Boris Karloff used to make the distinction, the films he usually appeared in use terror, horror is what happens in real life.

The newsreels in the opening titles (and a news item on a tv early in the film, showing a Thai priest setting himself on fire) is the majority of the footage that was removed from the English-language version. In the US it was called Island of the Damned (a cheeky reference to earlier Village of the Damned and the 1963 sequel Children of the Damned).

The plot is simple and starts gently enough. A young English couple, Tom and Evelyn, want a quiet holiday and sail to a remote Spanish island which Tom had been to before. But when they arrive, they can't find anyone around.

The first person Yvonne sees is a young girl in a cafe, meanwhile Tom fails to discover the corpse of an adult left lying in a shop. We know they're in trouble. But it's not until later that they see another young girl kill an old man. Tom witnesses a gang of children playing with the corpse.

He quickly decides that they have to get off the island - but that's not going to be easy...

I first thought that Who Can Kill a Child? might be about a serial killer of children, but it's quite the opposite. It's a film that asks if you would defend yourself from young murderers. From the UK title I thought it would be an exploitation film with the accent on violence, but it's more sophisticated than that. The majority of the threat is implied, with a growing atmosphere of dread.

Shot on location under the fierce sunlight of the Spanish islands in the Mediterranean, it looks totally realistic. The children look like local non-professional recruits, but are carefully directed to appear menacing. They don't say much, but their eyes are full of hate and mistrust.

The two English actors carry the film and portray their ordeal very convincingly. Tom is played by Lewis Fiander, who played the salacious neighbour in Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (he was very interested in Sister Hyde, but not her 'brother'). The late Prunella Ransome succeeds in a tough role, convincing us that she's very pregnant and very hot.

The Spanish DVD release is uncut, but in Spanish only, which is ironic because the bulk of the cast's dialogue was spoken in English.

This first uncut DVD with English on it (pictured at top) has tried to present the film both ways. You can watch it with the original Spanish soundtrack, with English subtitles. Or listen to a mixture of English and Spanish audio - unfortunately, the English version was much shorter, so there isn't a full-length soundtrack available. The resulting patchwork has some loose synch, many noticeable audio edits and some repeated sections of audio, of varying quality and volume. It's good though to hear the leading actors voices, and see their lips finally synch with their dialogue.

If you must, see the cut US version, usually called Island of the Damned, it was available on VHS, but in a fuzzy full-frame transfer. It's a good option if you want to miss the truly horrifying newsreel footage though, or you're easily upset by close ups of wartime horrors.

As a reminder of how the film has been sold, there's another awful poster
here at the IMP poster site, that cheapens the film immeasurably, under the simple title Trapped - cheekily giving the children Village of the Damned glowing eyes.

Musically, apart from the cheesy happy holiday backing tracks early in the film, an impressively grand and melancholy theme dominates the prologue. As the horror of the situation grows, a more queasy, unsettling, atonal soundtrack takes over.

Incredibly the soundtrack is now on CD, available
here on the highly recommended Movie Grooves site.

Who Can Kill A Child? is obviously capturing new interest at the moment - it's about time it was rediscovered. The story on which it was based is even being remade. According to Twitch Film, this time it'll be set in Mexico and called In The Playground.

My subconscious 'monster from the Id' seems to be struggling to make my blogging more coherent. Without realising it, I had watched another film by the same director only last week. Serrador's The House That Screamed (La Residencia, 1969) is also a carefully made and interesting horror film that was ahead of its time. Link to more about La Residencia here.

UPDATE: The new region 1 Dark Sky DVD release of WHO CAN KILL A CHILD? is due out June 16th 2007, and may have both edits of the film on it. Cover art is pictured at the very top.


THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED (1969, Spain, La Residencia)
Region 0 Australian PAL DVD (Shoarma Digital)

Schoolgirls on the verge of a nervous breakdown

(This is a stylish and overlooked Spanish horror film, not to be confused with The House That Screamed (2000) from the US, starring Bob Dennis.)

The DVD (pictured above) is a welcome release for this rare film in 2.35 widescreen, though the quality of the packaging makes it look less than legitimate.

Directed by Narciso Ibanez Serrador, this almost looks like a dry run for Dario Argento's Suspiria (and predates it by 7 years) which also had a mystery serial killer at large in a girls' boarding school.

As new recruit Theresa arrives (Christine Galbo, star of awesome Italian zombie shocker Livng Dead at the Manchester Morgue), she soon learns that despite an all female staff, the girls still manage to cultivate their sex lives (the delivery man is very popular).

Also, when disobedient student Irene (Mary Maude of Crucible of Terror) is severely punished in a locked room with a cat o' nine tails, we know it's no ordinary school.

With punishments way beyond strict and trapped in a building that's almost impossible to escape from, they're "girls on the verge of a nervous breakdown" (an actual quote from the film).

Things get nastier when a bloody murder also worthy of Dario Argento, surprises us with disorientingly edited multiple crossfades, all in slow motion.

Unlike the more surreal Suspiria, this story has a more sexual angle than a supernatural one. For instance, the Governess is keen to supervise the girls' communal shower. This scene has a camera move very similar to the one in De Palma's Carrie (1976).

The film works well as a gothic murder mystery, but also as a dramatic hotbed of tension, though not as exploitatitvely as Euro-horror soon became. It's also in complete contrast to the director's other horror film, the shocking Who Can Kill A Child? (1976), which is shot present-day and all on location. I previously had no idea that the two films were directed by the same man.

Lilli Palmer plays the Governess, (a similar role to her lesbian teacher in the 1958 German remake of Madchen in Uniform). UK TV fans may recognise her as one of The Zoo Gang (which boasted a theme tune by Wings), or from one of her last roles in The Boys from Brazil. With a film career that lasted fifty years, Palmer proves that she can easily hold a film together single-handedly, and inject menace or compassion into a scene with a subtlety missing from many horror films of the period.

Another recognisable face is a very young John Moulder-Brown (Deep End, Vampire Circus) playing the young son of the Governess.

This release is the best available at the moment, and looks good, despite being non-anamorphic. The audio is in English language, but suffers from slightly loose lip-synch throughout the film, and the music suffers from noticable distortion in places.

But until something better comes along, we're lucky to have this at all. Which is a pity, because it's better than many of the Italian horror films that are much better known.

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January 11, 2007

PRISONER CELL BLOCK H (1979) Biggest box set ever!

Streuth! In July 2007, an incredible 179-DVD box set will be released, containing all 692 episodes of the infamous Australian drama series, Prisoner - Cell Block H! All you'll need is $1600 Australian dollars (around $1250 US, or £650 UK).

At about 45 minutes per episode, you're advised to double-check that you're strong enough to lift it, and young enough still to watch it.

In the meantime, a series of (much) smaller 4-DVD sets will be released, building up to the big one.

Not the final box artwork, but mind-blowing nevertheless

The series ran 1979-1986 in Australia, and spasmodically around UK regional TV ever since, never getting a full run on network television. While initially intending to be a serious drama, the very low budget and increasingly wild plots made it appealling as a violent, black comedy soap opera - a genre all of its own.

With an entertaining roster of characters, both regular and incidental - my favourite was always "Vinegar" Vera, the malicious warder - I'd certainly watch this if it were repeated on TV now. But a box set of 179 DVDs? I'll have to think about that.

Vera and Meg always played bad warder, good warder

Do you want to know more?
More great colour stills and info about the series here.

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January 10, 2007

KAZUO UMEZU'S HORROR THEATER - VOLUME 3 (2005) The Present and Death Make

The Present and Death Make

Region 1 DVD (Tokyo Shock)

I watched the third and final volume of this series of adaptions of
Kazuo Umezu manga, (see also the reviews for one and two). While Volume Two could have been aimed at children (just like Umezu's manga), Volume Three is decidedly more adult, and very different from the original stories.

is almost a Japanese version of the Silent Night Deadly Night films, with a group of young people trapped in a hotel with a killer Santa Claus, or rather, what Kazz’s idea of who Santa is. The director and writer obviously enjoy slasher movies, making this tale so gory it’s almost out of place with the rest of the series.

It’s also unpredictable, despite the premise, and would have been totally successful if the central Santa character wasn’t so wooden. Despite some slasher figures in the past being famously played by stuntmen or non-actors picked for their stature, the western actor here doesn’t bring sufficient menace, despite his extremely bloody crimes. There’s a scene when he stares at a helpless victim and moves his head inquiringly, just like Leatherface – but he looks like he’s just following directions, rather than ‘in the moment’.

The cast of The Present regret being naughty not nice

Despite the fairly flat ‘video look’, the production team push the format to the limit with coloured lighting and dynamic angles, coming up with a memorable nightmare with some wildly gory imagery. Together with some experimental editing and black humour, this was the freshest episode in the series that actually delivered some horror.

Director Yudai Yamaguchi is better known for writing zombie/gangster classic Versus and directing the madcap Battlefield Baseball.

I’m not sure that this was the wisest thing to watch on Christmas Eve, though.

on the other hand, is a rather confusing mess. Kazz has updated an old story so much that it has transformed, not into something new, but into another old story of his - The Drifting Classroom (the movie version of which I really don’t recommend).

It starts off as a psychic ghost hunter TV show, a group of strangers locking themselves in an old warehouse at night. But so many different subplots emerge - with disappearing doors, characters manifesting their worst fears and supernatural insects appearing instead of ghosts (!), the plot of The Drifting Classroom seemed to be the only one that fit the bill, right down to giant crab monsters (which the video effects budget wasn’t quite up to).

I suppose that not knowing the original manga tale didn’t help. The subtitles were also running out of patience, there were many vague translations and even some spelling mistakes. Still, it’s better than many other Japanese shot-on-video Tales of Terror, in that at least these stories are original, and not dependent on other people’s films – their roots are in decades old stories by Kazz.

Finally, could somebody tell me what the title Death Make refers to. I have no idea.

The unusual star of the Cat-Eyed Boy

I’m optimistic that we will see better Umezu adaptions soon – such as God’s Left Hand, Devil's Right Hand (the link is for a trailer on Ryuganji) and Cat-Eyed Boy (Nekome Kozo) both of which could be on subtitled DVDs soon.

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January 05, 2007

DEATH NOTE (2006) the franchise

DEATH NOTE (2006, Japan, Desu Noto)

Death Note mania has been sweeping Japan – first the manga, then the anime series on TV, and two live-action movies, both released in 2006.

Death Note: The premise
Beings called death-gods mope around in a desolate underworld, and when they write down a human’s name in their special notebooks, known as Death-Notes, that person will die soon afterwards. Problems begin when a death-god drops a death-note book into the human world. ‘Light’ Yagami, a high school student, finds it and, aided by the instructions conveniently written inside the cover, realises its potential power and decides to try it out...

I was certainly intrigued by the premise, particularly because of the amount of publicity generated by the live-action version, starring Tatsuya Fujiwara (the lead in Battle Royale) as ‘Light’.

Death Note: The anime
The anime is still running on Japanese TV at the moment. It should run to about 36 episodes and begins well, with Light finding the book and trying it out. Unlike any other student, Light is a highly intelligent over-achiever who instantly seems to have a plan how to use the book – plotting on making society a better place by killing off the worst criminals in the country. It takes no time at all for him to consider whether capital punishment is an appropriate way forward, and make snap judgements over whose life he takes.

Light Katagari who uses the Death note, with Death God Ryuk

The sudden enormous increase in mysterious deaths among prisoners soon attracts the attention of the police, something Light didn’t foresee, no matter how clever he thought he was. The series then takes a rather dull turn as Light has to play a game of cat and mouse with the investigative task force. ‘L’ is the police’s ace detective, who is incredibly also a teenager – he’s also an offbeat genius who likes sweet desserts, siting on chairs with his knees under his chin, and holding mobile phones as if they were smelly socks.

'L' the creepy teen genius investigating the bizarre murders
From what could have been an awesome far-reaching story, instead becomes a one-on-one battle of wits between ‘L’ and Light. It could easily be adapted into a stage play, the settings are all so confined. It also resembles a bizarre update on Columbo, but with a premise that’s more far-fetched than supernatural and with a character that’s more silly-looking than imaginative.

At least the anime looks good, with dynamic dramatic angles and gloomy layouts. The death-god looks less out of place (in the movie he’s a CGI animation) and L looks suitably gothic and lugubrious.

Death Note: The movies
In the movie posters, you can see Light and L who appear in both Death Note and Death Note: The Last Name. L has proved so popular, that a new film is being planned for the character. Perhaps he could become a next generation Kindaichi. He's certainly more interesting than Fujiwara as Light - a meaty role thrown away by the actor who also failed to hold our attention in Battle Royale 2. I can see him playing vapid heroes convincingly, but not villains. Ironically the same character in the anime appears to have more depth.

Ryuk is the death-god who dropped the book and looks like a The Joker with a pair of bat-wings. Only Light can see him and at least it’s amusing to see him walking down the street, with Ryuk floating along beside him. Ryuk in the anime provides what little comic relief there is, which is sadly missing from the live action version, which is very dry indeed. The desolate domain of the death-gods isn't shown either.

It’s directed by Shusuke Kaneko, whose three Gamera films I greatly enjoyed, and Pyrokinesis and Azumi 2, which I’ve yet to watch. I’d like to have seen someone give such a gloomy tale a lighter touch. Some sort of relief is also needed from the endless mind games and battles of logic played by the two leads.

Surely Light could at least be a little more frivolous and knock off his least favourite chat show host. I mean, whose name would you write in the Death Note?

For potential fans, the wait is over, the first film will soon be available Region 3 from Hong Kong with English subtitles, the rights to the anime series have been purchased so expect the anime on DVD in English sometime soon, and several volumes of the translated manga are in the shops now!

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FORBIDDEN SIREN (2006) interminable mystery

FORBIDDEN SIREN (2006, Japan, Sairen)
Region 3 Singapore DVD (Innoform Media)

If you hear the siren, don't go outside...

Thanks to Twitch news signposting a new online DVD store for releases from Singapore, we now have another way of getting SE Asian releases with English subtitles on. I'd been waiting to see Forbidden Siren, having seen an interesting-looking trailer, also highlighted by Twitch.

Usually you see a trailer for a US film, and a couple of months later you get to see it. With Japanese films, the wait can be over a year, until a US or UK distributor picks up the title and releases a translated DVD. English subtitles are rare on Japanese releases, not everything gets released in Hong Kong or Korea, and only half of Thai DVDs has English subtitles on. So adding Singapore into the mix gives us our first opportunity to watch, and understand, Forbidden Siren and Dorm, for example.

Of course, after a long build up, it doesn't mean to say the film is going to be any good...

Japanese poster art

Forbidden Siren is based on the PS2 video game of the same name, that was released in 2003 and has already spawned a sequel game. You don't need to have played the game to watch the film, but if you have, I suspect the film won't have any further surprises in store.

The film opens promisingly enough, with a prologue alluding to sudden mass disappearances like on the Marie Celeste. We then see an atmospheric incident on 'Yamijima Island' in 1976, where rescuers cannot find any islanders to evacuate during a rainstorm.

Flash forward to modern day, where a small family is leaving Tokyo to come and stay on the island for health reasons. A widower and his teenage daughter and young son discover the island to be full of unfriendly locals, where the standard of living looks exceedingly like a boot sale. I mean, who buys Barbra Streisand on vinyl anymore?

As they explore the island, mysteries appear by the bucketload, a bizarre insect, a disappearing pet, locals warning about mermaids, sirens, danger in the forest and a mysterious figure clothed in red. The actual siren itself is atop a tower of steel pylons, swathed in rags - an ominous landmark of an almost Wicker Man stature.

All of this fired my imagination nicely, but the actual story turned out to be very disappointing and underwritten. I was expecting mermaids, or a supernatural solution to the Marie Celeste, all sorts of outcomes, but no.

The story wasn't helped by the director using tricksy speed-ups and slow-downs, making some sequences look more like a trailer for a US comedy.

Some imaginative and disorientating wide-angle shots were very welcome. But he was also fond of fast jump-cutting during some scenes. Why use one shot when you can use ten?

Things got worse by the climax where there's a good twenty minutes of lightning flashes to assault the eyes. You know when you're in a cinema watching a long night scene and it suddenly cuts to daytime? Your eyes are almost forced to close - well there's a long, long period where the inter-cutting between light and dark tries very hard to close your eyes.

The climax is preceded by a very long and stupid episode where someone is chased around a house by a man randomly waving a shovel. What would you do if you were in a house with a killer? Well, I'd leave, personally. It takes ages before the heroine figures it out. It's a very frustrating and pointless moment.

The climax is unexciting, confusing, drawn out, lacking in surprises and with a really feeble final payoff.

To cap it all, the horror and violence never cranks up beyond mild. It's so tame in fact, it could almost be a 12 certificate or even a PG. To succeed its promise, it should have aimed for far weightier scares.

At least the film doesn't fall back on a Sadako-type horror cliches, but instead uses a more recent cliche which is becoming over-familiar...

The music score was good, but became over-dramatic compared to the action onscreen. The cast were good but not sufficiently stretched.

I was surprised to see that director Yukihiko Tsutsumi had also made 2LDK (2002) - an amusing and bloody flatmate-from-hell movie. Shockingly, he's just had a big hit in Japan with Memories of Tomorrow (Ashita no kioku) that has actor Ken Watanabe struggling with a bad onset of Alzheimer's disease (this is not to be confused with a 2004 movie from New Zealand with the same name). I had been looking forward to it, but am now wary of films from the same director!

A scene from Memories of Tomorrow (2006)

Fans of the PS2 game may be curious about the film, but I can't honestly recommend it to horror fans, unless they want something to watch that a 12-year old can also endure.

The Japanese and Thai DVD releases have no English subtitles on them. But this Singapore release has well-translated well-timed English subs, clear multi-channel audio, a 16:9 anamorphic widescreen transfer, and three trailers too. Check out MovieXclusive for the other titles from Singapore that you can pick up, I'll certainly use them again.

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January 04, 2007

THE HIDDEN BLADE (2004) sublime samurai drama

(2004, Japan, IMDB: Kakushi ken oni no tsume)
Region 2 PAL DVD (Tartan Asia)

Like the director's previous film, The Twilight Samurai (2002), a drama unfolds that’s compelling enough to overlook that no swordfights take place until well into the film. But I was a little disappointed that a very similar plot point again happened towards the end of the film. Thankfully, this film ends quite differently. Despite both these being stories about samurai, they are dramas, not action films.

The Hidden Blade is impeccably made and performed, and beautifully shot. Despite the long running time (132 minutes), it feels like there is no slack anywhere in the film.

I can’t single out any one actor as they all seem perfectly cast. Masatoshi Nagase plays the lead, but it’s really an ensemble piece. The only actor I recognised was Ken Ogata, a veteran of Japanese cinema, who you may have seen as Mishima (1985) - Paul Schrader’s homage to Japanese cinema.

I find these two films far more engaging than Akira Kurosawa's classic period films. I feel that I get to know the characters better, and that the epic stories about changing societies don't necessarily need to be epic films.

Also, the story is very accessible, even though I knew next to nothing about the period it was set in. Presumably the films are aimed at the international audience and make an effort to be self-explanatory. Again this is a more satisfying experience than I had watching, for instance, Kurosawa's Kagemusha (1980) - where I was usually very lost as to the historical context and geography of onscreen events.

In The Hidden Blade, the class structure, as it was in the 19th century, is fascinating too – epitomised here in the structure of Katagiri’s family. I eventually realised that most of his small household was made up of a cook, a maid and the samurai’s servant, rather than actual family members.

The music is used sparingly, for most of the film. What little there is is beautiful. It’s good to hear Isao Tomita still making music – I first heard his wildly imaginative synthesiser cover versions of classical music back in the 1970's. I didn’t realise he’d been composing soundtracks since the 1950’s, using real instruments and orchestras. He composed the scores for this and The Twilight Samurai. Surprising also, that Tomita and director Yoji Yamada are now both in their seventies.

I look forward to Yamada's next film, Love and Honour (2006), also based on a samurai story.

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