1.26.2010

Merantau



Martial arts films have in the last couple of decades been largely dominated by Chinese style martial arts, namely some form of Kung Fu, either in theme, content, or just action choreography. As I have written before, Kung Fu photographs well, especially the very dramatic kicks and aerials that can be performed. It captures the audiences imagination, and delivers easy to comprehend impacts. This is due primarily to the popularity of Hong Kong films, with Bruce Lee at that popularity's vanguard. The problem is that there are as many types of martial arts as cultures. Does anyone remember what the karate film looks like? Can modern audiences even tell the difference any more? Muy Thai style boxing and mixed martial arts have started to become popular and films featuring these fighting styles, Ong Bak for example, are opening up the door for films utilizing something other than Kung Fu for their action.

Enter Merantau, a film produced and shot in Indonesia. In it, the main character, Yuda, is a practitioner of Silat Harimau, the regional martial art. Playing Yuda is Iko Uwais, a true Silat disciple and instructor. He was noticed by director Gareth Evans when making a documentary about Silat. Both agreed to produce a film that would elevate Silat to the world stage. The premise of the story is effectively basic. Yuda leaves his quiet village in the countryside as part of his "Merantau," a century's old rite-of-passage carried out by young men that aims to mature boys into men by setting them out to face challenges away from home. Yuda goes to the capital city of Jakarta where his idyllic sense of righteousness collides head on with the underbelly of the bustling metropolis. During the production, Evans, Uwais, and the stunt crew intentionally conceived of screen friendly fighting techniques and a shooting style that would enhance the onscreen dynamics of Silat apart from its real world application. If the trailer below is anything to go by, they have certainly succeeded:



Merantau has been making the festival rounds to very good reviews; it has been picked up in several territories. Be sure to keep your eyes on your local listings for the debut of a new martial art style to the cinematic vocabulary. You can find a link to the official site at the footer of this website.

1.20.2010

Sasori



This is one of those films that stayed under the radar for almost its entire production and release. News of a Hong Kong remake of the classic Female Prisoner #701 Scorpion starring the incomparable Kaji Meiko (the original Princess Snowblade on which Lucy Liu's Oren Oshii is modeled) leaked onto the internet quite a few years ago. One picture from the production managed to be released (the one above) and then silence. No one was sure whether the film got made or not. Then there was word that distributor Eastern Light, a division of Arclight Films, picked the film up, where it then languished unseen for sometime. The film finally was released in Japan last year to very little if any fanfare despite its pedigree and the talent behind it. The key role is played by Mizuno Miki to whom some will be familiar through the Bayside Takedown series. With a rather popular and reasonably accomplished leading woman, it makes the underwhelming way the film was supported even that more perplexing. Joining Mizuno are the likes of Simon Yam, Sam Lee, Lam Suet and other familiar faces across Asia—certainly not a "marketing nightmare."
Joe Ma's take adheres fairly closely to the original's basic foundation. The original series was one of the quintessential works in the "women in prison" films being made in Japan in the 60s & 70s, paralleling similar exploitation genres found in the U.S. and Europe. The central appeal to the Female Prisoner films is the sight of women in engaged in violence toward one another as well as seeking vengeance on the men who wronged them. Being a Hong Kong film, Sasori certainly does not shy away from the action. It helps that Mizuno is a trained martial artist and stunt woman who belongs to KURATA Yasuaki's (Fist of Legend) Kurata Action Club as she is able to convincingly give and take the punishment required by the genre, probably one of a very tiny few who could and still look alluring in the interim.
The trailer below is for the DVD release. As one can see, it promises nothing more than what it is selling: action and the darkest of man's (and woman's) instincts. One would think that the success of Kill Bill should have lent some momentum to Sasori in theatrical release, but be as it may, Tarantino's film is only being used in an associative--"the series that inspired..."--manner.



It can be said that timing is everything. Whatever delays or inside politics led to Sasori missing the Kill Bill boat not only hurt it, but perhaps similar projects as well. Let us hope that someone will have the courage and force of will to revisit this type of film, anything to ease the deluge of forlorn love films that have outworn their welcome.

1.04.2010

Avatar

If a director of unheradled success takes a nearly a decade off before his next offering, that offering has little choice than to be Avatar. Spectacle, epic, love story, parable, technological achievement, Avatar is all these things with not an apology in sight. It is what is in sight, the mind-numbing array of hyper-realized visuals and staccato surround-sound action, that makes the film memorable. You can't help it. You don't have to even like it, but Avatar is throwing things at your eyeballs that your brain barely has time to process, and aren't soon to forget.

As both director and storyteller, James Cameron gives us something wholly his own, under his direct command, for the first time in his career where there are no limits. This is where Avatar is above all things a Cameron film, the flora and fauna of Pandora his fictional stage upon which to set his (literal) star-crossed lovers and white knuckle action sequences. And each is done to exacting specification-- no stone un-rendered, no dramatic expense spared. The story of a crippled marine who's given a chance to see the world as an alien creature and experience its profoundly naturalistic culture... is there any question from the first minute what his destiny is? As such it is too easily dismissed as a plot point, which perhaps ironically is to Avatar's benefit.



What Avatar does not do is herald some new age of film, science fiction or not. The core audience is just too old, those who've likely seen hundreds if not thousands of movies. Every sci-fi trope is thrown at us with abandon, almost insistence, as if Cameron had a checklist he wanted to put out one more time. The script is rife with clich├ęd one-liners, the absolute minimal techno-babble, and overwrought with mother-earth preaching among zero-subtlety politics. But if one were to put cynicism aside, there still exists that magical time in a young person's life where they haven't "seen it all," and it is this narrow window that will captivate untold viewers like all of our favorite movies once did in the past. And it is that very same notion that Avatar will successfully tap into with everyone else, delivering each multi-genre example of itself with the precision of a sledgehammer. Be it geekery, romance, exploration, fantasy, or explosions, Avatar delivers each with enough blunt force to bring any audience into submission long enough for Cameron to see his story through. At times that story is just plain weird, for every visual "wow" moment there seems to be palpable "WTF?" story element. It's unknown wether to berate or smirk at these choices, but it doesn't matter since the film is constantly bombarding the viewer with all things fantastic to re-draw attention, likely by design.



Regardless of how well or haphazardly the above is delivered, what Avatar does do is present a fully realized fictional world unlike any before. Pandora cannot be denied in its visualization on screen, and the sheer scope of its screen time is staggering considering the endeavor involved in making it come to life. The technical achievement is arguably here and not with the blue, nine-foot feline humanoids that run through it. Every plant, leaf, rock, stream, insect-- you name it -- is there and it is alive. A mixture of fantasy ideals from both film and literature ride the line between wholly believable and somewhat plausible to outright dream imagery in motion. The culmination of this is seen in the night scenes of the bioluminescent forest, a dark-light mind-trip cradling the electric life force that is Pandora. Surely the impact and breadth of Pandora is a prominent, if subliminal, element for the audience to attach itself to, which makes its foreshadowed destruction all the harder to watch when the evils of mankind must rear its ugly head.



Mankind is at its ugliest in Avatar, opening Cameron's floodgates for that which he does best, balls-out action. In the battle between marines and aliens, there is no scenario Cameron leaves untouched in the ultimate game of, well, cowboys and indians. The Earth-sanctioned military employs massive drop shops and mech-warrior battle suits, the alien Navi hurl poison arrows and fly dragons. Soldiers plow down acres of forrest with round after round of heavy ammunition, only to be trampled by building-sized, prehistorically-styled rhinoceri. The dragon-like Banshee tear into VTOL copters, ripping engines apart like paper and flinging them into the floating cliffsides that each navigate with perilous speed. These sequences can barely contain description, at their breakneck pace and relentless onslaught of in-your-face hostility. To say Cameron is in his element here gleefully rides distinct understatement.



Amongst all the flight and fancy, the 3D experience is negligible for some, a necessity for others. For Avatar to be the "make or break" movie to bring the current technology to a mass audience, there simply isn't enough to set itself apart from the regular experience. Arrows flying at the audience have pretty much the same effect on Earth as they do on Pandora. Ultimately the audience will create itself out of moviegoers who genuinely enjoy the gimmick, because films of the budget, breadth, and balls of Avatar will be few and far between. As much talk as there was by theaters, technicians, and studios that would wager wether or not Avatar would re-define the moviegoing experiences of the future, how could any of each accommodate or even expect Avatar-level films on a basis regular enough to fulfill the prophecy? For the price of one Avatar, a dozen slasher or kiddie CG pics could be made and draw the same audience. And a small reminder on 3D box office receipts: 3D films average at a $14 ticket and up, way up for IMAX, which significantly tweaks audience/ticket sales reports.

Third dimension aside, Avatar puts itself forward and predominately succeeds in everything it claims to be. It needn't deliver on all counts no matter the effort employed to do so, for each part of the whole is at a level high enough to satisfy expectations low and high alike. For the seasoned cinema goer it holds an undeniable awe be it in genuine appreciation or sarcastic disbelief. Among the far more numerous popcorn chompers Avatar crowbars its uniqueness with no small amount of bravado. Any focused inspection could certainly begin to de-weave the haphazard series of events and CG magician-ship, but it would remain far beside the entertainment brought by the flamboyant pageantry. In Avatar's case it is more than enough.

1.02.2010

Battleships, Monkeys, & CG--oh my.



The first post of 2010 brings some potentially exciting news.

For anyone who grew up on animations of the late 70s and 80s, one should have memories of a series called Star Blazers, the Americanized version of a Japanese anime series "Uchuu Senkan Yamato (Space Battleship Yamato)." It was one of my first exposures to Japanese anime and I still have clear memories of the impact it had on me because of the grown-up nature of the story. It was far far different from "Tom & Jerry" or "Looney Toons." The series has a strong following to this day, especially among men in the late 30s and early 40s—an important demographic for the film industry.

When word broke that a film adaptation of the anime was in the works, I naturally had my misgivings. The story of the series is long and complex, yet its timely message of Earth at a environmental crisis with a group of people heading out to space in a last ditch effort to save it would make a natural draw to contemporary theater-goers. However, there are reasons why anime adaptations have always been difficult; how do you boil down a 24 episode or more storyline down to 2 to 2.5 hours? It is no easy task. What will the filmmakers keep? What will they cut out? What will they add? Peter Jackson proved that an adaptation can incorporate edited, added, and reorganized elements and still hold true to the original source, but he, Fran Walsh and Philipa Boyens spent countless hours writing and rewriting the script, and refining it during the production. This is a practice not found in Japan where the first draft is what usually goes in to production. If they were planning a trilogy of films, I could feel some sense of comfort, but as of this writing, Space Battleship Yamato is a standalone with sequel possibilities depending on box office. I believe this will ultimately affect the quality of the story.
However, some doubts were alleviated with the choice of director: YAMAZAKI Takashi, the man behind SF cult hits Juvenile & Returner as well as the Always: Sunset on Third Street period family drama series. Yamazaki is an expert at subtle uses of CG as a tool to bring the world of his films to life; he is the antithesis of KAZUAKI Kiriya. At least visually, the focus wouldn't be on the FX, but on how the characters live in a world brought to life by SFX. Over the weekend, the first preview CM (commercial) for the film aired:



The production design seems well done, possibly borrowing from the design philosophy of the "Battlestar Galactica" series in the practical realization of the technology. Then there is the CG. On Youtube, it might look fine, but on a 15 foot screen, there is the potential for this space adventure to look immensely artificial. Japan, despite all its technology, is not adept at CGI effects, mainly due to the lack of investment by production companies in the proper equipment and software or to set a portion of the budget to outsource CGI effects to internationally recognized effects houses. In order to save money, producers usually gather a staff using largely off the shelf equipment and software for the duration of the production. In the case of Yamazaki, his production company is also a CGI effects company so he has a slight advantage, but comparisons to even second-tier Hollywood effects houses are not even possible.

Recently, news on the Chinese film news site MonkeyPeaches.com, brought word of a project entitled Da Nao Tiao Gong (Uproar in Heaven), which will be a new live-action film based on the "Journey to the West" fantasy novels. The most important point in the press release is the decision by production company, Filmko Pictures, to contract Weta Digital to animate the Monkey King and deliver other CGI effects. Unlike their Japanese counterparts, Filmko Pictures recognizes Weta Digital's leadership in the type of CG that would be required to bring their film to reality and have decided to earmark a budget to add Weta's expertise to the team.

I have always been of the opinion that Japan could be a leader in CG effects and visualizations. Their long tradition of visualizing fantastic characters, situations, action and effects from manga would be greatly sought after by filmmakers around the world. Sadly, there is no one in Japan's film industry who has vision and courage to invest in creating the infrastructure, training, and environment for CGI effects services. To this day, there are no specialized effects houses in Japan's film industry. There are companies like Yamazaki's, a film production company with a CG department, but a Weta or ILM type company does not exist. This remains one of the Japanese film industry's wasted opportunities...