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Archive for October, 2011

The Golden Rock at the 2011 Hong Kong Asian Film Festival - Day 9

Tried to catch up, but only have energy to do one day:

The Yellow Sea (South Korea, 2010, Dir: Na Hong-Jin)

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Director Na Hong-Jin’s much-criticized follow-up to THE CHASER starts out as a compelling crime thriller. Filled with tension and led by a great physical performance by Asian Film Awards Best Actor Ha Jung Woo, the first hour of THE YELLOW SEA is easily as good as THE CHASER. While the setup is fresh (Koreans living in China committing crimes in South Korea), it then turns into a typical man-on-the-run story that spirals into a crazy, violent free-for-all with plenty of stabbings, impaling, and running.

The more intense Na tries to make the film, the more it spirals out of control, with the extreme violence becoming as liberal as the use of fake shaky-cam. Soon, Na loses sight on his story just as he loses restraint, unleashing one last mean-spirited moment to show how much he hates all of his characters after 135 long minutes. One wonders how Na initially pitched his film at the HAF, and how much of his final product matched his vision.

Note:  The version viewed is the 140-minute cut that Na took to Cannes (and reportedly his “director’s cut”, as opposed to the 156-minute theatrical cut).

Kaidan Horror Classics - The Nose (Japan, 2010, Dir: Lee Sang-Il)

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Four renowned Japanese directors each adapt a short story from a Japanese literary master (Yes, I can use this sentence because I wrote it for the festival catalog). HULA GIRL and VILLAIN director Lee Sang-Il chose Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s THE NOSE, about a priest with a disfigured nose who kills a child out of anger. The priest is essentiallly consumed by visions of the boy, whom he brings back from the dead to please the boy’s mother.

Lee’s direction is safe and even a little cold. Here, Lee fails to let us connecct to the characters, which is especially disappointing since that was the strength of his two previous award-winning films. In addition to the chilling score, which is essentially responsible for generating almost all the tension in the film, the most effective moment is the final moment of realization by the priest. Too bad the 30 minutes before that is a bit of a slog.

Kaidan Horror Classics - The Days After (Japan, 2010, Dir: Hirokazu Kore-eda)

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Kore-eda’s installment, adapting a story by Saisei Muro, has zero tension and zero horror. Instead, it’s a quiet story about pining and loss that’s sparsely written, but meticulously directed - almost like a kaidan film as imagined by Yasujiro Ozu. Familiar Kore-eda style framing can be seen throughout. It’s slow, but one can see that Kore-eda doesn’t let one single shot go to waste, as every cut reveals new information. It’s a brilliant exercise that should be used in film school classes to show how to tell a story visually, and the bittersweeet story is simple, but heartbreaking. One of the best things I’ve seen all year. 

Out of energy today. Tomorrow: Indian education, prostitutes in the third world, another Giddens movie, some Taiwanese epic, and a movie about a raid

The Golden Rock at the 2011 Hong Kong Asian Film Festival - Day 7 + 8

Back at the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival after two nights away, and because of some time miscalculation, the next two entries will serve up two days’ worth of reviews!

Smuggler (2011, Japan. Dir: Katsuhito Ishii)

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Don’t let his indie cred fool you: Katsuhito Ishii’s latest is brought to you by a committee of television stations and media companies that also fund big commercial films, AND it’s distributed by Warner Bros. Japan. It doesn’t play like a commercial film, but it is packed with reputable actors, special effects, and even a theme song by pop-rock band Superfly (tagged on like the committee demanded it).

While my own description for the film in the festival catalog sold it as a wild action-comedy, SMUGGLER is really a surreal crime drama with bits of inspired dry humor and action scenes. It was also far more violent than I had expected, with lots of blood, broken bones, and a good bit of torture porn (though the details are off-screen likely to avoid censorship) just to make it that much more unpleasant.

Adapting a manga series, the film version also seem to skip the second act of the story, going from a basic setup straight to the climax. I can’t say that SMUGGLER was a completely enjoyable ride, but a game cast of over-the-top characters (especially Masanobu Ando as a Chinese-speaking assassin) and the Ishii brand of surreal humor meant that I didn’t regret watching the film.

Jump Ashin (2011, Taiwan, Dir: Lin Yu-Hsien)

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Lin Yu-Hsien, whose breakthrough film was JUMP BOYS, a documentary that featured his gymnast older brother, dramatizes that life story in this uncomfortable mix of underdog sports story and a coming-of-age gangster story. Eddie Peng gives an excellent physical performance as the titular character, going through an intense physical training regiment to play the gymnast-turn-gangster-turn-gymnast. Equally good is Lawrence Ko as Ashin’s best friend Pickle. Both are deservedly nominated for Golden Horse Awards this year.

Thanks to Lin’s assured direction, the film is an entertaining, seemingly matter-of-fact telling of a true story. However, the script takes a few implausible turns too many, especially towards the third act, making us wonder whether there’s an alternate ending that tells us everything in the third act is just a dream. While the gangster drama and the gymnast drama are fine as their own films, respectively, they don’t gel comfortably here, as one section undermines the efforts the actors put in the other section. While JUMP ASHIN is well-meaning and even sometimes engaging entertainment, it’s far from perfect.

Bloody Fight in Iron-Rock Valley (South Korea, 2011, Dir: Ji Ha Jean)

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This low-budget indie revenge film brings together the plot of a Spaghetti Western and the violence aesthetics of a Korean revenge thriller. It copies the plot elements of the former just right - the hero with no name, the theme of violence in the name of development, there’s even a knife duel in the end. However, it’s lack of polish ultimately hurts the final product, as the film lacks the technical achievements that make westerns so powerful. ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST isn’t powerful because of its story (because really, if it was just about the story, does it really need to be nearly three hours?); it’s because of how it tells its story.

The problem is that Ji is copying the story elements directly from films like ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST and offers absolutely no surprise. Everything that happens in the story seem to be happening because the genre demands it, not because it’s where the story ought to be heading. Even good spoof films would take plots and twist it for comedic purposes. Here, it’s just rehashing.

That, along with lackluster post-production (sound mix!), less-than-great acting, and some dubious indie style direction send this genre exercise crashing down. It’s an interesting experiment, but one that the filmmakers obviously couldn’t afford to do properly.  Just because you can copy a genre doesn’t mean you’ve made a good film. Obsessed film buffs only.

Next time: Korean stabbings, Japanese gothic tales, plus four additional movies. We’re killing ourselves over here.

The Golden Rock at the 2011 Hong Kong Asian Film Festival - Day 6

Had tickets to two films at the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival today, but I decided to push back THE RAID to watch the 10th anniversary digital remastered version of Pang Ho-Cheung’s YOU SHOOT I SHOOT instead. So, this is the only film watched on Day 6:

Himizu (2011, Japan, Dir: Sion Sono)

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In the middle of the screening, I had to take a bathroom break and missed about 5 minutes of the film. However, I’m actually thankful that I had to take the break, because watching the film in one sitting is an extremely draining experience. From the extreme displays of emotions to the bombastic sound design, Sion Sono takes everything to the extreme in this drama about two tortured youths in post-earthquake Japan. At 129 minutes, HIMIZU is never boring, and it’s often compelling. However, it also feels like it’s about three hours long.

With that said, you’ll either be totally immersed into Sono’s storytelling style or feel completely alienated. I was the former, absorbed from the very first shot of the film, which shows lone figures wandering in the midst of the destruction caused by the earthquake and tsunami that destroyed a good part of northeastern Japan in March 2011. Many will be disturbed by the amount of smacking the lead actors take throughout the film, and you will have to be in tune with Sono’s very dark sense of humor to ride along with it as well. Those who do will be rewarded by this bleak, but engaging coming-of-age tale.

It’ll be interesting to see how Japanese audiences respond to the film come January, as it deals directly with how Japanese people are coming to grips (or not) with the devastating disasters. Some will be disgusted by how Sono portrays Japanese society, and some may admire him for the absurd, over-the-top social critique. Either way, it shows that just because Sion Sono is adapting existing work for the first time, he hasn’t lost his edge as a rebel working in the Japanese film industry. A brave piece of work, but I wouldn’t blame you if you have to wait for video.

Skipping two days due to a detour to the China Film Panorama and a night of rest. But next time: A tattooed assassin and a Taiwanese gymnast.

The Golden Rock at the 2011 Hong Kong Asian Film Festival - Day 5

I originally had three films scheduled for today: India’s THE KITE, plus the two I watched. However, an eye exam (plus the subsequent visit to the optical store) caused me to miss the film. So, day five featured only two films, both from Japan:

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Tokyo Koen (2011, Japan, Dir: Shinji Aoyama)

I have three cities around the world that I consider home: Hong Kong, San Francisco, and Tokyo. As a result, I tend to be easier on films that can represent these three cities well. That may be why I found the latest Shinji Aoyama film to be more engaging that i had expected it to be. On the surface, the lighthearted drama is about the three women in the life of an aspiring photographer. However, in Aoyama’s hands, TOKYO KOEN breaks through simple Japanese indie aesthetics with its picturesque journey through Tokyo’s parks and an odd sense of humor that only Aoyama can pull off.

While Nana Eikura plays the impossibly cute, perky film buff (LIPSTICK reference!), it’s Manami Konishi that surprised me as the hero’s step-sister. Usually playing withdrawn, quiet characters, Konishi exudes a sexy, seductive vibe that I’d never seen before from her. The film’s too light to attract any attention for her performance, but TOKYO KOEN may be my favorite Konishi performance yet.

On a more personal note, the film has also inspired me to take a journey of my own on my next trip to Tokyo. While going around all of Tokyo’s parks may be a bit much, it would be nice to see parts of the city I’ve never been to. Aoyama’s version of Tokyo is one that overseas viewers rarely see - one with little sense of urbanization and technology (the hero insists on using an old film camera). Tokyo’s parks is as big a character as the four human characters in the film, and I would argue that it’s the most beautiful one.

 

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Karate Robo-Zaborgar (2011, Japan, Dir: Noboru Iguchi)

Nikkatsu’s Sushi Typhoon has mostly been specializing in exporting blood, guts, and projectiles shooting from human bodies from Japan to the world - which means they’ve pretty much been making films for foreigners. However, KARATE ROBO-ZABORGAR finally feels like a Sushi Typhoon film for the Japanese audience, even if it’s a very small amount that can appreciate modern throwbacks to cheesy 70’s superhero shows.

The best way I can describe KARATE ROBO-ZABORGAR is a low-budget version of YATTERMAN - a live-action fantasy superhero adaptation that both recreates and parodies its genre. If you look for video of the original ZABORGAR show (or just watch the credits), you’ll see how hard director Noboru Iguchi (MACHINE GIRL) worked to get the film right. However, when he gets to the second half of the film, which jumps 25 years to present day, into the portion of the story not based on the original show, Noboru struggles to keep the energy up as it starts to overstay its welcome.

Still, KARATE ROBO-ZABORGAR is great, irreverent fun at the movies, except when Noboru had to do his Sushi Typhoon duty by throwing in girls in bikinis, blood spraying, and projectiles shooting out of strange places. The rest of the film is so inspired as parody that I wish it left the Sushi Typhoon label so it wouldn’t have had to give any fan service. But I suppose the film wouldn’t have been made without Sushi Typhoon, so KARATE ROBO-ZABORGAR is what it is.

Tomorrow: Sion Sono looks at post-earthquake Japan.

The Golden Rock at the 2011 Hong Kong Asian Film Festival - Day 4

I didn’t actually attend any screenings on night four of the 2011 Hong Kong Asian Film Festival. However, I did pop in my 2010 Fresh Wave DVD for a short film that did screen at the festival that night:

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The Decisive Moment (2010, Hong Kong, Dir: Wong Wai Kit)

FULL DISCLOSURE: I was an assistant director on a film that competed alongside this film at the 2010 Fresh Wave Festival.

The winner of Best Cinematography at the open competition section of the 2010 Fresh Wave Film Festival (independent short films funded by the HK Art Development Council) has more than just good cinematography going for it. After opening with a shocker of a sequence, the mockumentary-style drama  tells the story of a young news photographer who has to team up with a veteran photographer traumatized by a past event. Wong Wai-Kit’s script carries plenty on its plate, dealing with the bond between the old and the young, the old photographer’s guilt, and even a small course on journalism ethics. In fact, it has so much on in its 35-minute running time that the film felt like a digest of a better feature-length film. The bond isn’t as affecting as it should’ve been, and a deeper insight into commercial interest vs. professional ethics would’ve benefited the film greatly.

Nevertheless, what’s here is very impressive for a Hong Kong independent film. The cinematography award is well-earned thanks to the advent of DSLR, and it is a very compelling film for anyone with a remote interest in the media. The acting in the “documentary” sections isn’t natural enough to make it convincing, which means it might’ve been better if it was just chucked out, but the two leads are actually quite good.

The Fresh Wave Film Festival is an emerging organization of the Hong Kong film industry worth looking at. In a world where Hong Kong commercial filmmakers are constrained by Chinese censorship, Fresh Wave gives aspiring filmmakers in Hong Kong the chance to express themselves without fear of censorship by directly funding their films. Many of the young filmmakers at the festival even take the opportunity to explore social and political issues that are too sensitive or too uncommercial for mainstream cinema. Festival head Johnnie To has even reportedly recruited festival contestants to work at Milkyway. While the quality of the films are hit-and-miss, THE DECISIVE MOMENT (as well as Grand Prize winner/indie breakout 1+1) is definitely one worth checking out.

Also screening along with THE DECISIVE MOMENT in the same program is:

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Devil Nail Clippers (2010, China, Dir: Jimmy Wan/Derek Tsang)

DEVIL NAIL CLIPPERS is actually the first film of Pang Ho-Cheung’s “4+1″ project, which involves four short films (produced by Pang) and one feature-length film. The four short films - invested by Samsung and Sina (watch for the shameless product placements!) - are available online for free, which is why I already saw the film earlier in the year. Like the print at the HKAFF, the internet version only has Chinese subtitles.

While the basic premise is based on an installment in Pang’s TRIVIAL MATTERS short story anthology, the short story simply makes up the opening scene of the film, about a girl (Zhou Xun) confessing to her boyfriend (Lawrence Chou) that she’s “nail clipper demon”, which means she only eats nail clippers (NOT nail clippings) to stay alive. What follows is a dry-as-sandpaper dark comedy with a devilish twist that kicks off second half of the 45-minute short film.

Since this is an internet-based short film, I assume that Pang and co. are able to go around stringent Mainland censorship (correct me if I’m wrong). While DEVIL NAIL CLIPPER doesn’t have much objectionable content, it is a surprisingly cynical little film that would not have made it through SARFT. Like Wan and Tsang’s LOVER’S DISCOURSE, DEVIL NAIL CLIPPER is not for everyone, but those who enjoy’s Pang’s sly sense of humor should find something rewarding here.

You can watch DEVIL NAIL CLIPPER (in two parts) -and other 4+1 Project films -  here. DEVIL NAIL CLIPPERS already has 10 million views. Yes, it’s perfectly legal.

Coming up on day 5: A park in Tokyo, and a robot that does karate.

The Golden Rock at the 2011 Hong Kong Asian Film Festival - Day 3

This is the quiet beginning before HKAFF goes into full swing, so only one film once again today:

 

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Tatsumi (Singapore, 2011, Dir: Eric Khoo)

Singaporean director Eric Khoo pays a sentimental tribute to Japanese comic artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi, who led the way for adult-oriented comics, or “gekiga”. In addition to adapting his autobiographical graphic novel DRIFTING LIFE, TATSUMI also adapts five of the artist’s short stories. Some of them - the twisted noir piece HELL and the darkly comedic JUST A MAN - are delightfully twisted works filled with haunting imagery. However, some jarring editing and a lack of real insight into Tatsumi’s storytelling style make this sentimental tribute just a tribute more than a real attempt to understand the artist.

TATSUMI is clearly made by a fan, an admirer who doesn’t dare deviate much from what he loves about his idol. I came out having a generally positive impression of Tatsumi’s works, but I’m not sure if the film compelled me to look for more of them. Without that real insight into Tatsumi’s world (his life story - as narrated by Tatsumi himself - is straightforward with just one moment of the surrealism one would see in his work), TATSUMI is a sometimes beautiful piece of work that some may find difficult to connect to emotionally.

Tomorrow: DECISIVE MOMENT, and bonus track: DEVIL NAIL CLIPPER

The Golden Rock at the 2011 Hong Kong Asian Film Festival - Day 2

Day 2 at the 2011 Hong Kong Asian Film Festival featured only one film:

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Cut (2011, Japan, Dir: Amir Naderi)

With Japanese filmmakers like Shinji Aoyama and Kiyoshi Kurosawa attached, CUT fortunately doesn’t fall into the foreign filmmaker in Japan syndrome that sees directors misrepresenting Japan and its cultura. Instead, CUT sees Naderi flaunting his love for the art of cinema via an obsessed cinephile who spends his days screaming about the nature of “pure cinema” and holding rooftop screenings of classic films. Forced to take on the 12 million yen debt his yakuza brother left behind, the cinephile becomes a human punching bag for yakuza thugs for money with the help of a bar girl and an elder gang member.

There’s little doubt that those who aren’t arthouse film buffs will find CUT wildly self-indulgent. The abuse the man takes can be an allegory for the indignation passionate filmmakers take for the sake of their art, but even those that understand that metaphor will find it difficult to identify with Naderi’s manic cinema addiction. Essentially, this is the kind of film that an arrogant film school student might make given the resources Naderi has.

In addition to its artistic ambitions, CUT also suffers from a loose narrative that becomes redundant after the intriguing 45-minute setup. At 132 minutes, CUT doesn’t do enough with its central idea to earn the running time, making it a bit of a slog to sit through. It’s not a particularly violent film (lots of punches and lots of bruises, but very little blood), but seeing star Hidetoshi Nijishima getting punched repeatedly for an hour and a half can get a little uncomfortable to watch.

With that said, CUT is sometimes involving, and cinephiles (especially film school graduates) will identify with its obsession with its love of cinema. However, it still suffers from the problem that films about filmmakers suffer from: It assumes that the plight of a filmmaker is interesting even to those not interested in films.

It isn’t, and I’m a film school graduate.

Day 3: Tatsumi.

The Golden Rock at the 2011 Hong Kong Asian Film Festival - Day 1

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Autumn and Chinese pollution are in the air, which means it’s time for another edition of the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival! Asian cinema and assigned seating being my favorite things in the world, Broadway Cinematheque’s Hong Kong Asian Film Festival is the annual event I look forward to the most each year. This year, I’ve picked 29 films to take in theatrically over the three-week period, plus several others I will catch through other means. I will try to cover as many of them here as possible, and the best way to do that is through daily entries!

Films I’m looking forward to this year include the four-hour version of SEEDIQ BALE, the Chinese road film KORA, the Taiwan-shot/China-funded STARRY STARRY NIGHT, Hong Kong indie BIG BLUE LAKE, Korean actioner THE YELLOW SEA, and Korean animated film GREEN DAYS.

But first, I watched the opening film, Johnnie To’s LIFE WITHOUT PRINCIPLE. Many of my thoughts for the film have been covered in my Twitter and the East Screen/West Screen podcast, but I will cover them again here:

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LIFE WITHOUT PRINCIPLE (2011, Hong Kong, Dir: Johnnie To)

LIFE WITHOUT PRINCIPLE doesn’t have a lesson, and it’s not a morality tale (unlike many social issue films tend to become). It’s Johnnie To’s observational piece about Hong Kongers’ desire to get rich quick and how that can affect their and others’ lives. Despite being shot on-and-off over the course of three years, To and his ace editing team manage to weave a well-structured ensemble piece of three interconnected stories featuring characters all driven by greed.

To flashes a mirror at his home audience, using elements inspired by stories ripped from the headlines to show what Hong Kong society has become. He literally equates the financial market to a casino, where higher risks not only means bigger wins, but also more devastating losses. Despite being To’s quietest and dryest film since ELECTION 2 (no human meat grinding here, either), it’s an absorbing drama that takes its time to draw you into its world. The payoff yields some surprising dark comedy (To’s brand of absurdity remains), and it leaves plenty of room for you to rethink how you perceive characters that initially appear to be heroes.

I’ve seen the film twice now, and while the surprises in the final third don’t play as well the second time, the first hour is still as involving on repeat viewings. It moves slowly, but To assures you that you’re in good hands. While it’s not the most cinematically satisfying Hong Kong film of the year (that still goes to WU XIA, in my opinion), the fact that Hong Kong finally now has a good film that’s really trying to speak to the Hong Kong people makes LIFE WITHOUT PRINCIPLE the best Hong Kong film of 2011 so far for me.  What a great start to the festival.

Coming up on day 2: Amir Naderi’s CUT.

The Golden Rock - Squattertown Blu-ray Edition

 

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Thanks to Marco Sparmberg, I recently got my hands on the Blu-ray of SQUATTERTOWN, his independent web series.

What is SQUATTERTOWN, you ask. I’ll just let Marco do the talking:

Squattertown is a trans media production centering around a mini web series. Sole crowdfunded via 35 backers from 7 countries around the world Squattertown is an interactive web based project on a global scale. Created as first Dim Sum Western, this web series tells the grim story of “a dystopian parallel universe in which Hong Kong’s wealth gap has grown to the point where a vast underclass is forced to live in a parallel city that exists above the heads of the affluent.”

Why is SQUATTERTOWN important? 1) It’s one of the most ambitious ideas I’ve heard of for a Hong Kong indie. It actually tries to do something different with the Hong Kong cityscape on a indie budget (and it manages to pull it off) 2) It’s a successful example of crowdfunding, which involves relying on contributors from around the world to make up a budget for a film. It tests a filmmakers’ ability to pitch the project to the world, not just a boardroom of rich men.

The series is web-based (link at the end of the entry), and it can be viewed for free. But since I’m one of those contributors (LoveHKFilm is also credited in the Special Thanks section), Mr. Sparmberg was kind enough to give me the Blu-ray version of his film.

 

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The disc includes not only the entire first season of the series, it also includes a surprising amount of featurettes, covering various stages of its production (including the world premiere!). Obviously, the blu-ray disc won’t be of demo quality, and it’s not readily available, so I won’t be going into the audio and video quality of the disc.

 

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It doesn’t matter whether you understand the story of SQUATTERTOWN or not (and you’re more likely to not anyway). It’s all about experimenting with genres, specifically a mix of Hong Kong cinema and Spaghetti Westerns. Using a gritty Hong Kong cinema aesthetic (mainly a gray palette and lots of handheld camerawork), Sparmberg slowly brings two stories together into one (their connection isn’t even revealed until the third episode), but he doesn’t offer much clues nor clear answers about his characters or their motivations. You won’t understand SQUATTERTOWN, but it might not even really matter by the end.

Hong Kong independent cinema isn’t known for its ambitions, which is why it’s impressive to see visuals like these in the series:

 

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Yes, it looks better when the shot is moving

 

 Mostly shot on location on Hong Kong’s rooftops, SQUATTERTOWN really does feel like it lives in its own world. Considering that many of these locations are being torn down by redevelopers, the series also serves as a record that these old buildings really did once exist, and you don’t have to wait for the future to find people living in these rooftop housing.

 

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In addition to the four-episode series, the SQUATTERTOWN blu-ray also includes a whole lot of special features. Marco captured practically every stage of production, including the teaser he made to gather funding (trust me, it looks VERY different from the final product) and footage from each of the real rooftop he shot at. It’s pretty much a step-to-step guide that shows how he managed to put this thing together with himself and the hard work of a few others.

Where can you get the blu-ray, you ask? Well, you can’t, unless you contact Marco directly. However, you can check out the entire series (HD available) and these making ofs on the series’ Youtube channel or links to the series on other video sites on the official website.

 

 
 
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