Tuesday, February 23

Blue Gate Crossing (Taiwan, 2002)

Park Jin-Young or JYP is to be blamed for the inescapable "Nobody" by the Wonder Girls, and 2PM's brooding pop hit, "Again & Again." Actually it was Felice Tusi, a fellow contributor to allmusicjunkies.com, who brought my attention to JYP's secret to writing a string of hits.


Nobody, nobody but you. Again and again and again and again. Like a broken record that's record-breaking. If it weren't for the catchy hooks, it wouldn't be different from frustrated begging for belief. For loyalty.

Yee Chin-Yen's Blue Gate Crossing is brimming with questions repeated over and over by Zhang Shihao, a teenage boy (Wilson Chen/Chen Bo-Lin), but the answers are never kind. Confusion in love has never been this gorgeously realized, with all its awkward and clumsy interrogation. If I could, I would, question and question again and again. What is
childish comes across as frantic desperation. So what does it mean? What does it mean? What does it mean?

There's rhythm in the words. There is dance in the gestures. Zhang Shihao wants to keep in beat with Ming Kerou (Kwai Lunmei) whether it's dancing, stomping on a note, or arguing. In his head, it's about timing. Moving as one to be one. Ming Kerou, on the other hand, wants to keep in step with someone else.

The film is busy with silence. The side glances and long last looks fill the space of a sparse script, but the silence is never languid. It oftentimes feels like Yee Chin-Yen is writing the perfect pop song. There's a hummable beat to Blue Gates Crossing's pacing, fluidly going through the motions of love and heartbreak. There is a pop hook to the words, which stick and stay with you. There is that butterfly-in-the-stomach warmth, that lingering last note as Ming Kerou watches Zhang Shihao's back, that killer lyric as the strings soar: I can't see myself, but I can always see you.

Nobody, nobody but you. *****

The Region 3 DVD has several extras including a Making-Of, Wilson Chen's trip to Hong Kong to promote the movie and interviews with the cast and director. No english subtitles on all the extras though.

Tuesday, February 16

20th Century Boys Part 2 (Japan, 2009)

It's you and me against the world, baby.

The middle child of the most ambitious film trilogy in recent years---there's no use arguing with me on this one---moves so briskly that oftentimes I felt the need to come up for air, but I loved every stubbornly dense moment of it.

No, I haven't finished the manga because, for this one, I wanted to experience the head rush and the nitpicking of puzzle pieces. (If LOST is your thing and haven't given up on the parallel time-line mindfuck, then you'll have a hoot with this one.)

It's years after the New Year's Eve attack of 2000, and it's the kids' turn to figure out how to strike back against Friend and his creepily smiling followers. Time lines and lives intersect, what Donkey saw in the science lab is revealed, and a messiah rises from the dead. Reviews keep mentioning how the uninitiated will find it difficult to wade through layers of subplots and time jumps. I'm not filing this under For Manga Readers Only and won't stereotype a fantastic plot as convoluted or impossible to follow.

Some parts, I admit, are just too unbelievable. But the Pope's speech aside, 20th Century Boys is similar in texture, in whiffs of melancholia, to Stephen King's novel IT. There's something about the journey from childhood to adulthood that bites with bittersweet pangs. Contrasts become warm and fuzzy memories, and along with the memories come the longing. I began to wonder whatever happened to the kids I used to spend afternoons with playing until my knees were bruised and bleeding. Are they doing well and living comfortably? Have they turned into monsters? Fighters? And where is that kid now, the six year-old Thor who told stories to his friends everyday but now barely has time to write down his own thoughts? ****

Wednesday, February 10

Phobia 2 (Thailand, 2009)

The sequel curse plagues Phobia 2 (ห้าแพร่ง/Ha Prang), not so much in direction as it does in composition, in the gaping silence between screams. A shame really because this is more surefooted than the original, driven by the horrors of road accidents and lurking mysteries that seduce and terrorize.

Seductive, that dark charm that lures us in, 4bia had plenty of. From the longing to connect in Ngao/Loneliness to the deliciously creepy miss en scene of a corpse in an empty plane in Teaw Bin 244/Flight 244, 4bia tickled and chewed on our imagination. Phobia 2, in keeping with the theme maybe, lost the ability to seduce with frights that drive by in a flash, as opposed to building up the creepy. Novice seems to be the most balanced in storytelling, with a weighty reveal that jolts. That last bit in the woods was difficult to watch---I knew how painful it would get but I couldn't help but watch it. This push and pull of terror and curiosity, though not as overwhelming as Loneliness, saves Novice from its "fantastic" end, (Geek Hint: Terry Brook's Sword of Shannara).

Ward has an interesting premise but falls short of actual surprise, with nothing much more to offer if you've seen the trailer.

Backpackers. Now, I'm a Songyos Sugmakanan fan and this man can do wonders with characterization, and can twist emotions as well as plots, but Backpackers is just…okay. He doesn't really add much to the zombie genre and the camera work is 28 Days Later familiar.

Salvage doesn't make much sense; the retribution was a little too much for just being a bitch. The scares are as obvious as the danger music, and I felt that the lead didn't really deliver. This could've been a great acting piece, but the lack of connection, of escalating desperation has made this difficult to get into.

In the End, I gather from the other reviews I've read, has become this installment's favorite segment. It is quite clever, and the four guys from 4bia's In the Middle, are still delivering the funnies. Marsha Wattanapanich is totally game playing herself---but not really her self---but the end feels forced, just so it could fit into the theme.

In the end, Phobia 2 does feel like driving past a car crash. Curiosity turns to fear. Fear turns to pity. And then you move to wherever you were headed to, driving away and forgetting. **

Tuesday, February 2

The Way We Are (Hong Kong, 2008)

Tin Shui Wai. The City of Sadness. Towering housing projects rising like deadly spikes have replaced old fish ponds in the 1990s. And along with the Hong Kong workers that relocated to the city for the promise of jobs that never materialized due to poor city planning, come the continuing reports of unemployment, suicides, and gang wars among others.

The Way We Are, in contrast to whatever you may have read about Tin Shui Wai, is devastatingly boring.

The film revolves around the quiet, robotic lives of Mrs. Cheung (Bau Hei-Jing) and her teenage son Ka-On (Juno Leung). Ann Hui's steady eye sharply captures the daily routine of the mother as she works in the supermarket unpacking, weighing and packing durian fruits, then coming home to cook dinner and read the newspaper afterwards. The daily grind, routine upon routine, but without melodrama or even a hint of manipulated emotion. Since Mrs. Cheung only knows work (she has been working since 12 years old), there is no hatred over their status, which I was expecting.

At its heart, The Way We Are defies expectations by being involving in its objective simplicity. When Mrs. Cheung meets a new neighbor, an old lady who cooks, waits for the day to become night, then cooks again, the kindness Mrs. Cheung shows evolves from politeness to concern as their lives fall into a syncopated working-class rhythm.

There's an overwhelming feeling that something will go wrong but nothing ever does, and not in the way you expect it. Ka-On, who seems at the start to be lazy and useless, is simply just a good kid. Now, he's about to drug deal, no, he's about to bash some Christian kid's face in, hmm, maybe later. And the one dramatic high point, the one where the screaming and sobbing should be exploding, was dealt with humming subtlety: two friends on a bus silently weeping.

Hui once in awhile cuts the narrative to pictures of old Hong Kong. The way they were, with just a hint of nostalgia. People in Tin Shui Wai don't have the luxury of reminiscing, by choice it seems like it. It's just the way they are.

I've been so used to watching Johnnie To films shot in Hong Kong that the experience of watching The Way We Are was both unsettling and refreshing. The documentary-drama is naked of pretensions and surefooted in its narrative. I keep going back to that Juliana Hatfield lyric which perfectly captures the film's afterglow: Nothing's good and nothing's bad. Everything's just kind of sad. ****

Region 0 NTSC, DVD. HK$ 85 in HMV.