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Musings from the Edge of Forever

Note: This blog expresses only the opinions of the blog owner,
and does not represent the opinion of any organization or blog
that is associated with RONIN ON EMPTY.

Archive for October, 2010

My Life as a Gangster-turned-Orphanage Director

Yakuza 01

Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead 2: Okinawa Drift

Note: I know this is very, very, very old news, but I was looking at some rough drafts of unfinished posts I’d started awhile back and figured I’d put my two cents in about the game anyway, as it’s Asia-related and even spawned a feature film directed by Takashi Miike.

Yakuza 3 — aka Ryu ka gokuto 3/Like a Dragon 3 — came out on American shores on March 9, 2010. Rather than purchase God of War III or Heavy Rain, two well-reviewed games which were both released around the same time, I decided to plunk my hard-earned money down for the third installment in Sega’s “popular only in Japan” gangster series. Why?

Well, I became a fan of the franchise when I bought Yakuza 2 for the PS2  based on positive word of mouth. I ended up loving it, as its addictive gameplay provided a welcome respite from the doldrums of preparing for my PhD qualifying exams. After I completed the game and passed my exams, I searched out and found a used copy of the original game at a local Gamestop. Featuring a “name” English voice cast that includes Mark Hamill, Michael Madsen, Rachael Leigh Cook, Eliza Dushku, Dwight “Howling Mad Murdock” Schultz, and Alan Dale (LOST’s Charles Widmore), the game is quite good as well, although the controls are predictably less advanced than its predecessor. It also didn’t help that the plot of the entire game was already spoiled for me by very cool cutscene “movie” available in Yakuza 2 that provides all the relevant backstory. My enthusiasm for the series even motivated me to track down the Takashi Miike movie Like a Dragon, which adapts the events of the first game with, I’m sorry to say, very mixed results.

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Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems

Overheard

Lau Ching-Wan and Daniel Wu in Overheard

Overheard starts out so deceptively low key that I was just about ready to write off this 2009 Alan Mak/Felix Chong film within the first fifteen minutes. Sure, the stars are in place early on — Lau Ching-Wan, Louis Koo, and Daniel Wu — but none of their onscreen actions really resonate in any palpable way. The film just seems so damn cold and clinical. But then, things start to evolve slowly and meticulously, as you find yourself gradually involved in each characters’ personal dramas — ranging from petty to life-changing to dire. And that’s when the plot kicks into motion.

In the film, Lau Ching-Wan, Louis Koo, and Daniel Wu play cops who do high tech surveillance work for the Commercial Crime Bureau. One day, Gene (Koo) and Max (Wu) capitalize on an  illegal insider stock tip they overhear during a night of eavesdropping. Max erases the tape, but their team leader Johnny (Lau) figures their plan out and tries to bust them. But through a series of events, Johnny is pulled into their little gambit, which eventually pays off lucrative dividends. Unfortunately, the three of them are going to have to outwit both the cops and the crooks if their going to make out with their sizable little “heist.” Somehow, a delightfully out-of-place Michael Wong figures into the story as a nefarious gangster/businessman/philanthropist (!).

The film is engaging from the moment the protagonists make their move on the insider stock tip right up until the last ten minutes of the film when the unthinkable happens. How can this possibly proceed as a Michael Wong film? Well, it does, amounting to a largely satisfying conclusion.

I’m not going to pretend that I understood even half of the stock market jargon in the film, but it’s a credit to filmmakers Mak and Chong for making me feel like it doesn’t really matter. The film moves at a swift pace once the ball starts rolling plot-wise, and it has a lot of interesting things to say about the law, surveillance, and trust.

In baseball parlance, Overheard isn’t an out-of-the-park home run, but it’s a solid double. For a more detailed critique, take a look at Kozo’s review on the main site.

 

Initial D Encounter

Hachi Roku 01

Back in 2005, I took a trip to Singapore to attend an academic conference and visit my relatives on my Mom’s side of the family. During the visit, I took the MRT to the IMM Building at Jurong East and got a nice surprise. There, sitting in the lobby was Takumi Fujiwara’s Toyota Trueno AE86. If that doesn’t mean anything to you then you’re probably not familiar with Initial D, a Japanese manga and anime series, which was turned into a 2005 Hong Kong film, starring Jay Chou as the tofu delivery boy-turned-God of Racing, Takumi Fujiwara. Never mind that Jay’s not Japanese.

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Retro Review: SWORDSMAN II (1992)

Jet Li Swordsman 2

Today’s retro review is one my favorite Hong Kong films of all-time — the Tsui Hark-produced, Ching Siu-Tung-directed Swordsman II (1992). Although I’m quite fond of the first film, this winning sequel improves on its predecessor considerably, largely due to a compelling story, great action, and the (mostly) all-new cast. The film stars my favorite actor of the 1990s, Jet Li (replacing Sam Hui), Rosamund Kwan (replacing Cheung Man), and Michelle Reis (replacing Cecillia Yip). By far the biggest addition to the cast is the singular Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia, who takes on the challenging role of  Asia the Invincible, a character who is quite possibly the most memorable villain of 1990s Hong Kong cinemaspawning a sequel of “his” own and a handful of parodies, too.

For me, this is a movie of introductions. Not only was Swordsman II the very first wuxia film I ever saw, but it was also the first film I’d ever seen to feature a transgendered character. What stands out now nearly twenty years(!) later is the portrayal of Asia, who while remaining a “villain” in the traditional sense is also very human and sympathetic. He/she also happens to possess superhuman powers, badass martial arts skills, and Brigitte Lin’s striking good looks — all qualities that have helped insure the character’s cinematic immortality for some time now.

Swordsman II was an early review of mine for LoveHKFilm.com; whatever I lacked in skill or style, I hopefully made up with humor and enthusiasm. Funnily enough, Swordsman II was the first review I ever wrote to get quoted on a DVD; in this case, Optimum Asia’s UK DVD. At the very least, my parents seemed to get a kick out of it.

Anyway, for Hong Kong cinema fans, this is another must-see flick.

 

Oh, Witch-ay Woman!

Witchy Woman

When it comes to anime, I am by no means an expert. There have only been a handful of shows that I’ve seen in their entirety: Cowboy Bebop (1988), Samurai Champloo (2004-05), Initial D (except 4th Stage & beyond), Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex Season 1 (2002-03), and Kaze no Yojimbo (2001-02). Then there are those series that I’ve started and someday plan to finish (BECK: Mongolian Chop Squad, Monster) and those that I enjoyed, but probably will never finish (Ergo Proxy, Black Lagoon, and Cromartie High School). And then there’s Witch Hunter Robin.

Witchy Woman 02

I get all my back-to-school clothes at Hot Topic!

While rifling through my collection of unwatched DVDs the other day, I stumbled upon Witch Hunter Robin, Vol 4 — Fugitive. Why did I have a) only one entry in the series and b) the fourth installment rather than the first? Well, I purchased the disc at the Dollar General years ago when I saw a much-needed copy of Kaze No Yojimbo there for the low, low price of $5. Figuring I’d give another series a try, I snapped this one up as well, but never got around to watching the actual show until recently. Here is the premise, culled from Wikipedia:

It follows the STN-J, the Japanese branch of a secret global organization called “SOLOMON” or the “Solomon Toukatsu Nin’idantai” (roughly “Solomon Executive Organization”), abbreviated as “STN”.Solomon fights the harmful use of witchcraft using a database of witches, those who have obtained the power of witchcraft through genetics, and those who carry the gene called “seeds” in order to arrest or eliminate them should their powers “awaken”. The series focuses on one of the STN-J’s members, Robin Sena.

Aside from the overly technological gobbledygook, the idea of specifically hunting down witches (rather than vampires a la Buffy or all of the supernatural a la the Winchester Brothers) seemed compelling enough. Unfortunately, the episodes themselves were less than stellar. The one thing I love about Cowboy Bebop, Ghost in the Shell, and Samurai Champloo is that you can jump in on pretty much any episode and it’s still fun to watch, even if you aren’t aware of how certain events featured in the episode tie into the show’s larger mythology/season arc. The same cannot be said of Witch Hunter Robin.

Not only does the story seem largely incomprehensible to the unitiated, but there’s absolute zero atmosphere in terms of setting and tone. To make matters worse, the character designs and personalities for the supporting players are probably the blandest I’ve seen in a major anime production. And guess what? The main players aren’t that interesting either. Robin Sena is the confused, female lead who’s trying to figure why she’s attracted to some brooding, dark-haired, and pale-faced guy named Amon. Believe me, watching Twilight is more enjoyable than three episodes of this. And I am no fan of Twilight. This picture represents my thoughts on the direction THAT teenybopper series should go.

Blade IV: Twilight of the Vampires

Blade IV: Twilight of the Vampires

But I digress.

I hate to slam something I’ve only watched three episodes of, but in my opinion, three episodes is probably enough. Here’s a sample line of dialogue that pretty much summarizes the overall quality of these three eps:

ROBIN SENA (breathy tones):

I don’t really know…for sure…but on the other hand…I do.

As the ladies said in the Eighties, “Ugh, gag me with a spoon.”

If you’re new to anime or looking for another series to watch, do yourself a favor and avoid this one. Or, to be fair, at least start with Volume 1; it probably makes more sense.

Thank You

LoveHKBear

I want to take this opportunity to thank everyone who sent their positive thoughts, well-wishes, and prayers for my Dad. He’s been out of the hospital for a little while now and doing much better.

I just wanted to say that it’s been incredibly touching to see the love and support emerging from our family members, friends, colleagues, and the like, and I’m especially thankful for those of you who took the time to reach out to us in whatever way you could. As this is a situation that is ongoing, it is difficult to know the proper venue, if any, to express these thoughts. Since I have this blog, I thought I would do it here.

As to the LoveHKFilm.com readers who have sent their well-wishes via blog comments or e-mail,  I am very grateful for your kind words. In addition, I’d like to thank Kozo for allowing me to share this deeply personal situation on this otherwise fun-loving blog and, more generally, for providing me with such an excellent venue to talk about the wild world of Asian-related cinema and entertainment news. My apologies to anyone who had their comments deleted in the last month or so, as all our blogs have been inundated with spam. As a result, sometimes — quite unfortunately — a legitimate comment unintentionally gets the axe.

In any event, I just wanted to take time out to thank you folks for your support and concern. Much obliged.

That’s Life, My Love

C’est La Vie 01

Lau Ching-Wan and Anita Yuen in C’est La Vie, Mon Cheri

With a few exceptions, it’s somewhat difficult to conceive of a scenario in which a person sees the absolute wrong movie at the wrong time in his or her lifetime. But conversely, it is wholly possible to pinpoint a moment in one’s life when the right film was seen at the right time — a movie that was not only good, but spoke to the viewer personally, perhaps even in reference to something that happened in their own lives sometime in the past or may have been happening at that very moment.

I’ve written previously on this site about how some of Wong Kar-Wai’s films have had just such an effect on me. While I’ve asserted that Wong Kar-Wai has his finger on the collective pulse of disaffected twenty/thirtysomethings everywhere, I also feel strongly that his films often prove to be particularly moving if seen at the right moment in one’s life — especially at a moment of transition or loss. But this is not a trait solely reserved for the cinema of WKW; I find this true of other films from other filmmakers as well. Despite differences in language, nationality, geography, and/or epoch, movies can be transcendent viewing experiences. Not to sound pretentious or sappy, but to me, this speaks to the very power of cinema, of literature, and of art — the power to move people.

Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to watch Derek Yee’s 1993 film, C’est La Vie, Mon Cheri. I have been a fan of Yee’s directorial work for quite some time now, but this film — I’m embarrassed to say — was one of those movies that simply got away from me. Unless you’re just plain awesome like Kozo, there are very few people in this world who have seen every Hong Kong film that’s ever come out since the early 1980s. Whether we’re talking about movies or books or music, there are gaps in everyone’s knowledge, as “expert” as we might claim to be at times. I have no problem admitting that. Whether it’s missing out on Moby Dick or  Bob Dylan or this award-winning Derek Yee film, we only have so much time to go around, so it’s bound to happen. But still, we persevere.

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