Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 21, 2009

7 movies from the NY Asian Film Festival 2009

Filed under: Asia,Film — louisproyect @ 5:31 pm

This is a follow-up to my initial post on the New York Asian Film Festival, which included a review of a pre-festival screening of “High Noon”, a Hong Kong movie about disaffected teenagers. The festival began officially last night and I strongly urge people in the Greater New York area to try to make it as many screenings as possible since on the evidence of the 7 movies below you will simply not find anything better—starting with Woody Allen’s latest flop.

Unfortunately, only three of the movies discussed below have youtube clips with English subtitles. I do include still photos for the others to convey some sense of what these altogether marvelous films are about. I should add that if you do want to see the youtube clips sans subtitles, you can. All are available through youtube searches.

1. “When the Full Moon Rises” (Kala Malam Bulan Mengambang, Malaysia, 2008)

Remember “Kolchak: The Night Stalker”, the TV show from the mid-70s that featured Darren McGavin as a reporter for a National Enquirer type tabloid? In each episode McGavin as Carl Kolchak tracked down one mysterious killing or another, inevitably involving some supernatural creature or another—from an abominable snowman to vampires. By many accounts, this show was the inspiration for “X Files”.

This Malaysian flick (the first I have ever seen) was directed by Mamat Khalid and stars Rosyam Nor as Saleh, a reporter in the Kolchak mold. But rather than playing it straight, Khalid made a movie that borrows liberally from Leslie Nielsen movies like “The Naked Gun”. Nor bumbles from one scene to another, having little clue about what is going on about him.

Set in 1956, on the eve of Malaysian independence, Saleh stumbles into a vast conspiracy of Communists who seem to style themselves as Nazis, ghosts, were-tigers, vampires and midget gangsters. The plot is almost incidental to the movie, which is much more about genre-subversion. Mamat Khalid is a huge fan of cheesy 1950s movies in Malaysia (apparently it was a thriving industry) and has created a pastiche that both honors and pokes fun at the past. The movie’s style is one part Tim Burton and one part Charles Ludlum’s Theater of the Ridiculous. Any attempt on my part to analyze the movie would prove futile, except to say that it is a pie in the face to conventional nationalist mythology.

2. Dachimawa Lee (South Korea, 2008)

This is very much in the spirit of the flick above. Dachimawa Lee is a comic version of the Korean version of James Bond anti-Communist movies of the 70s and 80s. Like Saleh the reporter and Inspector Clouseau, superspy Dachimawa Lee often creates havoc no matter his best intentions. The plot revolves around Lee tracking down Japanese spies who have stolen a Golden Buddha. But as was the case with “When the Full Moon Rises”, the real purpose of the movie is to set up one comic scene after another and to mock nationalist mythology, all of which involve a running sight gag—namely lead actor Lim Won-Hie’s baby face. It is rather like casting Lou Costello as James Bond.

3. Breathless (Ddongpari, South Korea, 2009)

This is a powerful study of a loan shark enforcer who despite his sadism and his misogyny emerges in the end as a sympathetic character, at least within the context of a society that accepts such behavior as normal.

Yang Ik-June, who directed, wrote and played the thuggish anti-hero Sang-Hoon, touches raw nerves in this his debut film. As a young boy, Sang-Hoon witnessed the killing of his mother by his father who has just been released from prison after 16 years.. This brutal act has done nothing except make Sang-Hoon eager to brutalize the rest of the world, including his father. In the very first scene, a man is beating his girlfriend on the street. Without a word, Sang-Hoon drags the man away and beats him to a bloody pulp. When he is finished, he begins slapping the woman around. Clearly, social improvement was not on his mind when he stepped in.

A day later he crosses path with a high school girl who calls him to order for spitting on the ground, a little too close to her feet. This prompts Sang-Hoon to punch her in the face. Yeon-Hee (Kim Gol-Bi) is no pushover and demands restitution from Sang-Hoon, who lives by his own warped code. Her insistence, however, impresses him and the two rapidly become companions even if much of their conversation consists of him calling her a cunt and her calling him a gangster scumbag.

Yeon-Hee developed her own callousness living with an abusive brother who aspires to be a gangster himself. As it turns out, he eventually lands a job as Sang-Hoon’s trainee and puts up with daily beatings for not being tough enough with the hapless souls from whom they extract repayment.

As is the case with the best Korean movies, the personal becomes the political. Sang-Hoon’s is the prototypical Korean male, even though his toughness is exaggerated for effect. Director/writer Yang Ik-June is really interested in diagnosing a deep-seated malaise through the film medium. Unlike “The Raging Bull”, which this film bears some resemblance to in its relentless brutality, this is more than just the portrait of an individual. In an interview with Twitch magazine, Yang tried to put the domestic violence that occurs throughout the film in a broader context:

As for domestic violence, the ones who commit that are always the fathers, as you can see in the movie. And there is a reason for that: in the past Korea was colonized very often, it was also invaded very often, so the economic situation in Korea was very hard, very difficult. And so the fathers, who were responsible for the family, they did not have an attitude of good behavior or love towards the family. What they were thinking was: “I need to earn money, so that my family can live good”. So there is a difference between that. Instead of love for the family they want to earn money. Because they are so obsessed with earning money they drag their family with violence towards that goal, instead of going there together. And that is where all that domestic violence comes from.

4. Equation of Love and Death (Li Mi de caixiang, China, 2008)

This movie should appeal to the audiences who go for the “coincidence” movies like “Amores Perros”, “Crash”, “Babel”, et al. As is the case in this genre that has gone viral in international film circles, the major characters bump into each other to life-altering effect. And as is the case with the rise of China economically, this particular film not only competes with the Western product but also exceeds them handsomely.

The main character is Zhou Xun, a young female cabdriver whose boyfriend disappeared years earlier and whose memory still haunts her. In the beginning of the movie, she runs into two poor and desperate peasants trying to make their way home. They are not above robbing her to pay for their airfare back to the rural village that they have not seen in practically as many years as she has been separated from her boyfriend.

In a scene that evokes the crashes in Paul Haggis’s dreadful movie “Crash”, Zhou Xun and the two desperados come together in a highway accident that sets the gears of the movie into motion.

What makes Equation of Love and Death far more interesting than its Hollywood counterparts is its relentless energy and brilliant acting. Of particular note is the performance of the two captors played by Wang Baoqiang and Wang Hanyui, who effectively stand in for the hundreds of millions of farmers and temporary workers screwed over by the Chinese capitalist system. Wang Baoqiang might be familiar to those who have seen “Blind Shaft”, another Chinese movie about super-exploited workers in the coalfields. Wang Baoqiang plays a hapless peasant desperate for work that is victimized by a couple of con artists promising work. He is outstanding in both films.

5. Plastic City (Dangkou, Hong Kong, 2008)

This has a most unusual setting for a Hong Kong crime movie, namely São Paulo, Brazil. This joint Hong Kong-Brazil production tells the story of a crime boss involved in counterfeit goods trafficking, a far cry from the drugs or professional assassination angle these movies rely on so often. It is also a male bonding movie with the older crime boss Yuda (Anthony Wong) relying on a young and handsome Japanese man named Kirin (Joe Odagiri). Their relationship is like father and son, but has homoerotic overtones as well.

Yuda and Kirin have rivals in the counterfeit goods business, as might be expected. They are also pressured and extorted simultaneously by crooked cops. Although I expected the movie to unfold according to the conventions of Hong Kong crime movies, it took on the character of a magical realist novel before long including a confrontation with an albino tiger in the rainforest.

6. Ip Man (Hong Kong, 2008)

An “old school” martial arts movie based loosely (very) on the life of  Ip Man, who trained Bruce Lee in Kung Fu. As might be expected, the movie involves one choreographed fight scene between Ip Man (Donny Yen) and the bad guys after another. In keeping with the proud traditions of both Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, the fighting is pretty close to the real thing.

As it happens, the bad guys are Japanese soldiers who are occupying China during WWII. The movie makes no attempt to render them as complex characters and they serve mainly as punching bags for Ip Man, who seems capable of ridding China of its occupiers all on his own.

If you are looking for shaded characterization and subtle dialog, look elsewhere. But if you are looking for the exciting, kinetic action that put Hong Kong cinema on the map, this is a must-see.

7. Warlords (Tau ming chong, Hong Kong, 2007)

This is a historical drama based loosely (very, once again) on the Taiping Rebellion with superstars Jet Li, Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro in the leading roles. As the movie begins, General Pang Qingyun (Jet Li) finds himself the sole and bloodied survivor of a battle between the Taiping rebels (who had been led by a man claiming to be related to Jesus Christ) and the Qing army that Pang served in.

After being nursed to health by Lian (Jinglei Xu), a peasant girl that he becomes intimate with, Pang moves on to a nearby village where he tries to blend in with the local population that is being victimized by a bandit gang led by Zhao Er-Hu (Andy Lau) and Zhang Wen-Xiang (Takeshi Kaneshiro). Drawing upon his tested combat skills, Pang confronts Er-Hu and spares his life just when he has his sword at the bandit’s throat. Impressed with Pang’s prowess, Er-Hu invites him to join his gang. In no time at all, Pang becomes co-equal with the two bandit leaders as the three embark on a series of confrontations with the imperial army.

Showing his strategic acumen, Pang suggest to his two comrades that they enter the imperial army as a group so they can get their hands on rifles, which were essential to further success. In those days, soldiers were often rewarded with spoils of a vanquished city rather than wages so being properly equipped was a sine qua non.

As the three warlords become ever more powerful, Pang succumbs to hubris and begins to identify more and more with the royal family. When it becomes necessary to slaughter 4000 soldiers who have surrendered, Pang does not hesitate. This act of cruelty costs him the friendship of Er-Hu and Wen-Xiang who had long given up their bandit ways under Pang’s guidance. When they remind him of how he has forsaken his principles, he replies that the ends justify the means which for him is defeating the enemies of the throne.

Although the movie is first-rate entertainment, I was disappointed in its utter lack of interest in the historical context and which even the usually sagacious Subway Cinema, the organizers of the film festival, refer to as “an insane putsch led by a warlord claiming to be Jesus’ younger brother and it resulted in 20 million deaths.”

Despite the strange religious beliefs of the top Taiping rebel, farmlands under his control were seized from the feudal overlords and distributed to the peasants. He also banned foot binding and declared equality of the sexes. It also sought to eliminate class distinctions and in so doing was hailed by Mao Zedung as a forerunner to the revolution he led.

One of these days, a movie might be made that is sympathetic to the Taiping rebellion (if one has not been made already.) Now that’s one I’d pay good money for!


  1. Sorry Louis, just a couple of corrections – the film you were thinking of was “Amoros Perros”. The director of that terrible film “Crash” was Paul Haggis, who made the equally bad “In the Valley of Elah”

    Comment by Dan — June 21, 2009 @ 7:56 pm

  2. I saw Ip Man and Warlords thanks to my Chinese in-laws. Both movies reminded me of Hollywood productions.

    I would say that Ip Man is basically the Chinese version of Rocky IV. The patriotic hero faces adversity and a stronger, foreign enemy with a final showdown at the climax. The martial arts were exciting.

    I thought that Warlords had state-of-the-art production values, which is rare for the Chinese films that I see. The script was also above-average, with a Shakespearean story arc. People who like Hollywood war movies would not be disappointed with Warlords. Available at pirate Chinese DVD shops everywhere!

    Comment by Mark — June 22, 2009 @ 1:45 pm

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