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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)


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)


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)


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.

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