Friday, May 28, 2010

You got sand all over my Persian!

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
My rating:

Apologies if you've been breathlessly awaiting my Kidnapper review - I scored last-minute tickets to a preview screening of this movie, and I couldn't pass it up. It's one of the year's big summer blockbusters after all, which is totally my kinda movie; yeah yeah, I'm a pleb, so sue me. It's also the first big studio adaptation of a video game (unless you count Silent Hill, which I don't), which is of interest to me as a (lapsed) gamer. (I only played the first two 8-bit and 16-bit DOS-era installments of the series. Retro gaming FTW!) Considering the huge marketing push Walt Disney Pictures is giving to it, this looks like it could be the first truly successful video game movie.

Frankly, in my book, it isn't. But I wouldn't mind if the box office proves me wrong.

King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup) rules the Persian Empire wisely, aided by his brother Nizam (Ben Kingsley) and his three sons Tus (Richard Coyle), Garsiv (Toby Kebbell) and Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal), a former street urchin whom he adopted. The princes are deceived into invading the city of Alamut, believing it to be supplying weapons to their enemies; in fact, it is part of a plot to obtain Alamut's greatest treasure - the mystical Dagger of Time, guarded by Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton). The Dagger has the ability to turn back time, and it falls into Dastan's hands; he is then framed for murdering the King, and he flees with both the Dagger and Tamina. They must now prove Dastan's innocence, expose the conspirators, and keep the Dagger out of the hands of those who may inadvertently use it to destroy the world.

Holy God, the editing on this is terrible! This is the second movie in a row that was clearly badly chopped up in post. (Do these things always happen in twos?) The whole movie feels like it's racing pell-mell to get to the end, making time only for the action scenes - which, similarly, are so badly cut that they're virtually incoherent. What's worst about the editing is that the story has no time to breathe. This film is partly a family drama, and there's some juicy emotional stuff going on here. A beloved father tragically dies before his sons' eyes. Brothers bicker, turn against each other, then attempt to reconcile. Betrayals amongst family members abound. The film just glosses over all this, impatiently moving on to the next plot point and/or action scene. Any potential for genuine human drama is completely undercut by the breakneck editing.

And no, I don't for one second believe that genuine human drama does not belong in a summer blockbuster fantasy action film adapted from a video game. Dastan's older brothers do not start out hating the peasant boy whom their father plucked off the streets. Nizam does not start out as the evil vizier, already plotting to wrest the throne for himself. The Persian royal family is a genuine family, who are warm and loving to each other; even Garsiv being quite a dick to Dastan seems like typical brotherly rivalry. There are real familial relationships between these characters, which should make it all the more impactful when the inevitable betrayals occur - if it weren't for the stupid editing. (And yes, I was somewhat unnecessarily coy in my plot synopsis; Nizam is played by Ben Kingsley, so obviously he's the bad guy behind it all. Not smart of the movie to spend its first half pretending he isn't.)

It doesn't help that, for a film based on a video game with a rewinding-time mechanic, there are precious few cool uses of the Dagger's powers; in fact, it wastes one of them on a meaningless (and lengthy) scene in which Dastan demonstrates its time-traveling abilities to someone... who then gets killed, without helping in the slightest. In a nod to the game's nature as a 3D platformer, Dastan performs plenty of acrobatics, running and climbing and leaping across medieval rooftops - but, y'know, we've seen parkour chase scenes before. Admittedly, the action sequences are quite well-staged - not well-edited, but well-staged. At one point Nizam engages the Hassansin (the what?) to hunt down Dastan, and they have some cool weapons, but the fight scenes are so choppy and spastic that you can barely even make out what those weapons are.

And it doesn't help that the dialogue is often cheesy, nor that most of the cast aren't talented enough to deliver it with any conviction. Jake Gyllenhaal tries, and he makes a great action hero at least - and I'm sure the ladies will cuci mata on his buff bod. Gemma Arterton is also better here than anything else I've seen her in, and she does generate some sparks with Gyllenhaal, despite the script's lame attempts at flirty dialogue. Alfred Molina plays a Sheikh Amar, the comic relief of the film, which means he gets all the funny lines; he also has a henchman named Seso (Steve Toussaint) who gets a cool fight scene all to himself, which would've been cooler if his character had been developed better. And Ben Kingsley is one of those veteran actors who can deliver cheesy dialogue with conviction. Though I find it interesting that they gave their villain the perfectly common Muslim name of Nizam, apparently because it starts with "n" and has a scarily exotic "z" in it. (Names that start with "d" on the other hand are just good ol' boys.)

The friend I watched this with, who also got me into the preview screening (thanks Viv!), offered this verdict: "Two stars would be generous." But I'm giving it three. It's a mess, but an entertaining mess. It's just about okay as a summer blockbuster; it delivers on the promised thrills and eye-candy, and I'd love to see Gyllenhaal get more A-list matinee idol roles. I wouldn't even mind if it makes lots of money and we get a (hopefully better) sequel. It's just that it could've been much better, and that it was clearly and badly marred by a lot of lunkheaded decisions the producers made. One of which - and this is something that occurred during its opening minutes, and possibly prejudiced me against the movie from the outset - was a mention that the mythology of this world involves "the gods". The gods? Of Persia??

NEXT REVIEW: Kidnapper
Expectations: let's see how hard they try

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Happy (belated) 1st Anniversary to TMBF!

Yes, it was 1 year ago this month when I started my career hobby as an amateur film critic. (And this post really should've been up 3 weeks ago, but then again my Robin Hood review was also almost a week late, so... yeah.) I've heard it said that when a hobby becomes a chore, it's time to take a break from it and come back to it later - and sometimes, the motivation to take it up again just never comes. As my frequent delays in updating will indicate, writing reviews does sometimes get kinda chore-ish... but not to worry. I ain't quitting.

'Cos frankly, I'm having loads of fun doing this. I love having a blog. I love seeing my hits steadily increase, even though it's currently still nowhere near as high as the "popular" bloggers out there (my readership is quality over quantity, yo). I love getting comments on my reviews and replying to them. I love making it a regular topic of conversation whenever I meet up with friends. (Y'all still like hearing me talk about my blog, right? Right?) I love making plans to catch a movie on such-and-such a day, spend the next day writing the review, and have it posted in time to catch the next movie; I wonder now what I did with myself on weekends before I started this. I love having something to do on weekends and in my spare time; I spend them making something, and it's something that gives me satisfaction.

Most of all, I love that satisfaction this blog gives me. Writing is one of the few things I can confidently say I'm good at, which is why I chose a day job career that involves it. But being a wage slave means that personal satisfaction - being able to truly take pride in something I wrote - is rare and fragile. So this here thing is my thing, subject to no one's standards (or deadlines) but my own, which is a privilege I wouldn't give up for the world. Sometimes I'm asked why I don't write for newspapers or magazines; it's because if I did, I'd have an editor, I'd have length constraints, I'd have a house style to conform to, and I'd be beholden to advertisers and stakeholders and purse-string-holders. Screw all that.

(Although frankly, I would love, love, looooove to be able to do this full-time. But not if I have to sell out. 'Cos then it wouldn't be satisfying, wuddit?)

I also love the fact that watching so many films has exposed me to so many new filmic experiences. I am referring, of course, to my penchant for reviewing made-in-Malaysia movies. Yes, the vast majority of them suck, and yes, some of them suck so bad they're positively painful to watch. But I'm still watching 'em and reviewing 'em and I ain't stopping. They're a whole fascinating world of cinema to me, at once familiar and new, and I love exploring it. I love having discovered fellow film critics like Bin Filem and Fadz and Ajami Hashim and (on occasion) Obefiend. I love hanging out in this little corner of Facebook, which is now more about local films in general and not just those directed by one guy. And I love practicing my long-underused Malay in my Malay movie reviews - 'cos I'm an Anak Malaysia yo, and I be down wit da Bahasa Kebangsaan.

So yeah, I'm lovin' this - and I hope at least some of my enjoyment rubs off on you, dear reader. Because as much as I'm all "I gotta be me", in no way do I wish to be a syok sendiri blogger. I'm writing for an audience. My much-valued freedom to write what I want, when I want, is tempered by the fact that I have an audience that expects things of me. (E.g. regular updates.) I am beholden to no editor or advertiser, but I am beholden to my readers. That's one obligation I am glad to bear.

Thanks for being my readers, is what I'm trying to say. Thanks for coming along for the ride. Hope you've been having fun. The ride's still going on. Do stick around.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Robin who?

Robin Hood
My rating:

Remember Kingdom of Heaven, from 2005? That was the Ridley Scott historical epic that opened to tepid reviews and even tepider box-office. What you may not know is that the director's cut, released later that year on DVD, is widely regarded as a much better film and possibly one of Scott's best. It's also bloody hard to find here in Malaysia, but I have no interest in watching the hacked-up theatrical version. It boggles my mind that a film - even one as long as 3 hours and 15 minutes - could have 45 minutes chopped out of it and still make sense.

It happened again. Maybe.

Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe) is an archer in King Richard's (Danny Huston) army, making its way home from the Crusades through France. When Richard is killed raiding a French castle, Robin and his friends - Will Scarlet (Scott Grimes), Allan A'Dayle (Alan Doyle) and Little John (Kevin Durand) - desert to return to England. However, Richard's death means the foolish and arrogant Prince John (Oscar Isaac) will take the throne, which is good news to no one - except Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong), who is secretly working for King Philip of France to sow chaos in England and prime it for a French invasion. Meanwhile, Robin arrives in Nottingham on an errand for a dying knight, Sir Robert Loxley; there, he meets the knight's father Sir Walter (Max von Sydow), and his widow Lady Marion (Cate Blanchett). Sir Walter persuades Robin to take on the identity of Robert to keep the family lands from being seized by the Sheriff of Nottingham (Matthew Macfadyen), and soon Robin falls in love with his new home - and Marion. But Godfrey is leading a troop of French soldiers, raiding and pillaging the northern baronies in John's name, and Nottingham is next.

There's a number of reasons why Robin Hood isn't a very good movie, and getting edited down from a longer (and most likely better) cut is only one of them. It originated as a screenplay titled Nottingham by Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris, which was a revisionist take on the Robin Hood myth featuring a sympathetic Sheriff of Nottingham. (Whom Russell Crowe was supposed to play.) I remember reading about this project and wondering, who wants to see Robin Hood as the villain? - but now I'm wondering who wants to see yet another straight portrayal of Robin Hood, which is what Nottingham has turned into via a strange and convoluted process Hollywood calls "development".

Well, okay, it's not a straight portrayal of Robin Hood. It is in fact a prequel-cum-origin story, all about what happened before he and his Merry Men holed up in Sherwood Forest, stole from the rich to give to the poor, shacked up with Marion, etc... and I'm still wondering who wants to see this, or why this is a story that needed to be told. It's not in the least historically accurate, for one; Philip Augustus of France never launched an invasion of England. There's a half-hearted attempt at a "Say No to Absolute Monarchical Power" theme via a half-assed attempt to cast Robin as one of the early proponents of Magna Carta and none of this adds anything to the Robin Hood mythos. They're all just weird tangents that make you wonder what they're doing in a movie called Robin Hood. This is a film that singularly fails to justify its own existence.

So okay, what if we were to just take the movie on its own merits? Well, then we'd have to admit that the plot makes no sense. Godfrey has already successfully hoodwinked John into letting him raid the countryside, and we specifically heard him ask for men and get the nod. So why does he need to bring in French troops to pose as King John's men? And they don't even bother to hide the fact that they're speaking French, so why are the barons so dumb as to fall for their ruse? This is just one of many clues that point to a huge chunk of movie that got edited out. There's even a subplot about a band of orphaned Nottingham children who've gone feral and live in the forest, and clearly there's a lot more to them than what made it into the final cut.

But it's still a Ridley Scott movie, which means there's a shiny sheen of well-made-ness to it all that just might distract you from its flaws. The production design is fantastic, for one; this is a flawlessly realized 12th-century England, from the clothes through the props to the sets. Scott is too good a director not to ensure that every individual scene works the way it's intended (even though they don't all connect into a coherent movie), from the rousing battle scenes to the quiet character moments. The acting is terrific all around, as can be expected from Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett; but Oscar Isaac stands out as the truly hateable King John. And finally, I'm quite glad that archers shoot their arrows at the order of "release!" - instead of "fire!", which is inaccurate as well as just plain stupid.

Still, you really do expect more from Ridley Scott - the man who directed Alien and Blade Runner, two bona fide film classics. You'd certainly expect him to be more discerning with his projects than to pick one that was just ill-conceived from the start. Now, it's possible that he'll release Robin Hood: Director's Cut later this year, and it may possibly be a much better movie - but y'know, somehow I doubt it. Here's another possible reason why this movie isn't very good. James Cameron has said that he invited Scott to the set of Avatar, to show off the new technology he pioneered for his sci-fi epic. And according to Cameron, Scott's reaction was, "Why am I doing this Robin Hood? I should be doing science fiction!" Yes, Mr. Scott, you should - and you probably should never have made this one at all.

NEXT REVIEW: Kidnapper
Expectations: my first S'porean film, no idea what to expect

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Lost in the jungle

My rating:

I had somewhat high hopes for this one. Its crew, which includes writer-director Jason Chong and fledgling prodco Preston Zaidan, is pretty new and fresh in the local film industry - or at least, fresher than the usual Metrowealth/Grand Brilliance/KRU Studios gang of idiots. Early promos pegged it as a noir thriller, which certainly isn't a genre you see local filmmakers tackle much. And it features the debut lead performance of Daphne Iking, who is unconscionably hawt and whom I dearly hope will turn out to be a solid actress. Y'see, as much as I am (and have been - often) unashamedly pervy, I would be bitterly disappointed if an actress I find attractive turns out be a lousy actress, so... yeah. High hopes.

Gladly I can report that she is good. Sadly, the movie is not.

Eva (Daphne Iking) is a con artist working for Kota Kinabalu's biggest gang boss TKO (Chew Kin Wah) - and Nick (Bront Palarae) is the insurance investigator assigned to catch her in the act. He goes undercover as a tour guide, but soon finds himself falling for her and losing sight of his duty. Ignoring the warnings of Zailan (Danny Anwa), another investigator who had previously went up against her and failed, Nick gets involved in her ploy along with her two co-conspirators (Md. Eyzendy and Azwan Kombos) to con an insurance company out of RM12 million and frame TKO for it. But there's more than one con being worked, and those who think themselves the hustler may well turn out to be the mark.

Body Heat is a 1981 film, written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan, that I just watched about a year ago. I kept comparing Belukar to it, which may not be entirely fair - but it sure did seem to be a noir thriller like Body Heat, which is a pretty good model to follow if you're making a noir thriller. Unfortunately, this movie didn't follow it at all. The relationship between Nick and Eva is presented very poorly, and whatever feelings are growing between them never come across, despite Iking's and Bront Palarae's valiant attempts. Body Heat had an obsessive, sexually-charged affair between its two leads, and conveyed it through some pretty explicit sex scenes; Nick and Eva are perfectly chaste. Of course, we can't have explicit sex scenes in a Malaysian movie, but there's hardly even any passion between them - and you'd need that, I should think, if your story involves a similarly obsessive, all-consuming love that can make a man willingly ruin his life.

But whoops! Turns out this is not, in fact, a noir thriller - or at least, not just one. It's also a caper film, a somewhat similar genre that's different largely in terms of tone; noir thrillers are darker, caper films are more light-hearted and its characters more likable. Does this mean I misjudged the movie, that it's actually good? Frankly, no - because its tone is all over the place. Throughout the film, I kept wondering why in the world would a noir thriller have slapsticky jokes, cheesy fight scenes, and a ridiculously over-the-top villain with three henchpeople comprising a dude in guyliner (Ray Redzuan), a goth dominatrix (Linora Low), and an Ah Beng (Fong U-Shin Xavier) with the endearing habit of snapping his teeth at people like a dog. The (probable) answer is that this stuff is meant to be funny - but it isn't. Chong's direction is incredibly tone-deaf; practically all his attempts at humour, suspense, romance et al simply don't work.

But whoops again! How 'bout that twist ending, eh? A typical one for caper films, the kind that reveals that what you've been seeing all along isn't what was really going on. The film would have you believe that that ending explains everything, especially in regards to the nature of Nick's and Eva's relationship. Frankly, no it doesn't - because the twist is another thing that simply doesn't work. Twist endings need to play fair; if there's anything from early in the movie that's inconsistent with the ending, that's cheating. Chong's screenplay doesn't just cheat, it bribes the teacher for an A and does it in front of the whole class. The entire first half of the film makes no sense given what the ending reveals. The misdirection and attention to detail required to make plot twists like this work are clearly beyond Chong's writing skills. And the big money shot? The crucial scene in which the twist is revealed? You botched it, Mr. Chong. You didn't even shoot it right.

I said before that both Iking and Palarae were good, and they were. Iking claims she isn't an actress, but she was natural and self-assured as Eva. You are a good actress, Ms. Iking, and you should definitely make more movies. Palarae too was equally good, and if they failed to generate any real chemistry I'll chalk it up to Chong's script and direction rather than their acting, which is really one of the only two reasons to watch this movie. On the other hand, Chew Kin Wah was terrible. I normally like watching him, and I think he's one of our best character actors; but what he did in the role of the aforementioned ridiculously over-the-top TKO was just grating. He seemed to be doing a redux of his Piranha Lim character in Setem, but that was a broad comedy. This is...

...honestly, I don't know what kind of movie this is, and I don't think Chong knows either. It tries to be both broadly comic yet serious, darkly obsessive yet romantic, deceptive and surprising - and ultimately ends up none of these things. The only apt description I can give to Belukar is that it's a noir thriller-caper film, and the only other reason to watch it is to see a Malaysian film make an attempt at this genre. And it's a brave effort, Mr. Chong, it really is, and I'm quite sad to hear that it's flopping at the box-office. (I watched it in a cinema hall with precisely two other people.) But sorry, you can't blame it on "filem genre sebegini masih lagi tidak dapat diterima masyarakat kita." We can terima it just fine if it were good.

Expectations: Ridley Scott yay, Robin Hood yawn

Monday, May 10, 2010

It's pandering, man!

Ip Man 2
My rating:

I did a very foolish thing just before I watched this film - I went and got into a flamewar on about it. It annoyed me how so many people were buying into the all-foreigners-want-to-bully-the-Chinese theme of it and its predecessor without realizing how insecure it makes them out to be. The reason why this was a foolish thing to do - besides the inherent stupidity of internet pissing contests - is that I hadn't even watched the sequel yet, and getting my e-penis involved would probably only bias me against the movie.

Well, colour me biased then. Ip Man 2 - at least in its second half - is shockingly bad.

It is now 1949, and Ip Man (Donnie Yen) has fled Foshan for Hong Kong with his wife (Xiong Dai-lin) and family. He starts a Wing Chun kungfu school, and while business is slow at first, he gradually finds students - starting with Wong Leung (Huang Xiaoming) - and makes a name for himself. However, this runs him afoul of Hong Kong's community of martial artists, over which Master Hung (Sammo Hung) rules like a gang boss; Hung sends his students to harass Ip's, demands protection money, challenges Ip to a duel, and generally makes life difficult for him. But soon they must come together at a boxing tournament organised by corrupt police superintendent Wallace (Charlie Mayer), during which arrogant boxer Twister (Darren Shahlavi) insults Chinese kungfu.

I swear, it's like there are two diametrically opposing creative visions at work here, in both the Ip Man films. The first half of Ip Man 2 is pretty compelling stuff; the formerly idle rich Ip is still struggling to make a living, and it's easy to sympathize with him when a neighbour asks if he's found any students yet and all he can do is smile sheepishly. What's really interesting about this part is how it contrasts with the early portion of the first Ip Man. The various schools of Foshan's "kungfu street" treated each other as friends and fellow pursuers of the art; the martial artists of Hong Kong are little more than thugs and gangsters. They kidnap Wong Leung and demand ransom for his release, they lay claim to gang turf, they threaten Ip and his students, and they subject him to various "rules" that mostly involve lining their own pockets. It almost seems to be making the (pretty daring) point that the woes faced by Ip and the ordinary folk of Hong Kong are due to Chinese preying on their fellow Chinese.

Then the gweilos come in. And this is the point where my palm owes an apology to my face for slapping it so hard. It is the year of our Lord 2010, and Hong Kong is still making movies featuring Caucasian characters spouting idiotic English dialogue and played by really, really bad actors. Darren Shahlavi and Charlie Mayer are awful. They're supposed to be British but hardly even bother to do the accent, they are so ridiculously and unbelievably evil that it becomes downright annoying, but it's not even their fault because that's how their characters are written. Wallace is a police chief tasked by his superiors to organise a boxing tournament (huh? Since when is this part of the police's duties?), and not only does he extort money from Hung, he shafts Hung out of the tournament's proceeds, beats up a Chinese newspaper editor (Pierre Ngo), and takes delight in egging Twister on to beat up Chinese martial artists. Because British colonials have nothing better to do than to seek to prove the inferiority of Chinese kungfu.

This. Is. Stupid. It's blatant manipulation on the part of the filmmakers, with zero regard for realism or common sense. I can't believe the two halves are actually the same film; I've never seen a movie fall apart so fast since True Legend. When Twister takes on Hung, the audience of upper-class British expats cheer him on as he beats an old man to death. Later, during his climactic duel with Ip, he throws a punch at Ip after the bell has rung - and not only is he not penalized for it, the judges decide to penalize Ip by disallowing him from using kicks. And finally Ip gives a Kum Ba Yah speech exhorting British and Chinese to respect one another, and that's when I silently mouthed "oh, screw you!" to director Wilson Yip and screenwriter Edmund Kong. For them to end the movie on this, when they just went to such massive lengths to demonize gweilos, is sheer hypocrisy.

I think I'm being incredibly generous by awarding it two and a half stars; it's the first half that earns it, as well as the fight scenes. Because that's what most people are going to this movie for, and for the most part it delivers. Wing Chun is still a terrifically cool kungfu style, and Donnie Yen's centrepiece duel with Sammo Hung is given the appropriate momentousness. Hung's fight scenes suffer a little from too-quick editing, which may have been to hide his poor health during filming, but I'm willing to cut him slack for his stature as a legend of kungfu cinema. The Ip-vs.-Twister fight is, despite the facepalmery surrounding it, pretty exciting too; the boxer's sheer weight and power are just the things to counter Wing Chun's speed and agility, and if Ip emerged pretty much unscathed from all his fights in the first movie, that certainly isn't the case here.

Yen turns in the same classy performance he gave two years ago, and it really deserves to be in a better movie. There are several returning characters, including the now-happily-married northerner Jin (Fan Siu-wong), the now-brain-damaged Quan (Simon Yam) and his son Kong-yiu (Calvin Cheng), and they're all little more than needless cameos; even Xiong Dai-lin has less to do this time around. And then there's Fatso (Kent Cheng), an officer and collaborator with the British police - why yes, there's another collaborator character in this one, but he's nowhere near as interesting or well-developed as Li from the first film. More than one review of this sequel has accused it of recycling its predecessor's plot, and it certainly deserves the charge; me, I'm just appalled at how much worse it is.

And what appalls me the most is how easily Chinese audiences take to this kind of pandering manipulation. I got into that flamewar because the forum was full of comments about how this movie made them "proud to be Chinese". How about being proud of your race for its actual accomplishments, rather than a fictional victory over yet another manufactured foreign bogeyman? When are we going to start earning the rest of the world's respect, instead of always imagining that they're disrespecting us? There's no getting around it; Ip Man 2 is not a film, it's a diatribe, and a hypocritically racist one at that. Wanna know what really shames the Chinese in the eyes of the world? Movies like this.

Expectations: Daphne Iking, don't let me down

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Who da man? Donnie Yen da man

Ip Man (2008)
My rating:

Yes, I have only just watched it. I'd somehow missed out on it two years ago, and seeing as its sequel is now that other highly-anticipated blockbuster movie that starts with "I" and ends with "Man 2", it's high time I gave it a watch and a review. Honestly, I am a stickler for always starting a series from the beginning, and twice before I have gone back and caught up on previous installments before reviewing the latest. (Although I don't always.) So yes, I have finally watched The Film Everybody Mispronounces As Eye Pee Man, in preparation for The Film Everybody Mispronounces As Eye Pee Man Too.

I liked it, but I liked the movie it could've been a lot more.

It is the 1930s, and the city of Foshan is renowned for its many kungfu schools. The greatest among them is the Wing Chun master Ip Man (Donnie Yen), renowned for his gentlemanly conduct as well as his superlative skills; it is he who is called upon to defend Foshan's honour when the northerner Jin (Fan Siu-wong) challenges and beats up every other kungfu master. But in 1937, the Sino-Japanese War breaks out, and Foshan becomes Japanese-occupied territory; Ip, and his wife Cheng (Xiong Dai-lin) and son Chun (Li Chak), suffer under their yoke along with every other Chinese. When General Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi) sends translator/collaborator Li (Lam Ka-tung) to invite Chinese martial artists to matches against Japanese, Ip reluctantly takes part - and this brings him the unwanted attention of the Japanese authorities. Further complicating matters is Ip's friend Quan (Simon Yam), who runs a cotton mill, asking Ip to teach kungfu to his mill workers, which makes it even harder for him to lay low.

Once again, LoveHKFilm's review nails it - it's a good kungfu action flick, but it ain't that hot as a biopic. A good biopic offers insights into its subject, turning a dry historical figure into a three-dimensional character who did the things he did for reasons we can understand. The Ip Man of Ip Man is practically a Mary Sue; Foshan may have many kungfu masters, but Ip is universally revered as the best among them, even though he doesn't even have his own school. (You know why? Because according to Wing Chun tradition, a master takes only one student at a time. So when Ip breaks that tradition by training Quan's millworkers, it should be significant, dammit!) His duel with Jin is a humiliating smackdown in which he schools the northerner with a feather duster. And he's also the perfect Chinese gentleman, modest and humble to a fault - which is really just another flavour of Mary Sue-ism.

And then the Japanese invade Foshan - and suddenly, watching Ip struggle to maintain his dignity amidst abject poverty becomes compelling viewing. Here's something new to the typical Chinese-honour-vs.-Insert-Evil-Foreign-Nationality-Here movie - a depiction of what it's like to live, utterly defeated, under the Japanese occupation. Racial and cultural pride is no defence against an overwhelmingly superior enemy, nor does it feed your family when food is painfully scarce. Particularly interesting is its portrayal of Li the collaborator, who in another film - Bruce Lee's Fist of Fury comes to mind - would've been an egregiously evil traitor to his race, but here turns out to be a surprisingly decent fellow.

In one scene, Ip as much as admits that all his Wing Chun skills are useless at a time like this - which I thought was pretty daring for a movie of this kind. But here's the thing: he says this right after an epic fight scene in which he delivers the whoopass onto ten gi-clad Japanese dudes. What's interesting about this scene is that the moves he uses here are the same ones we saw in the friendly, gentlemanly sparring sessions Ip had with his fellow masters before the war - back when Foshan was a community of mutually respectful martial artists, who could fight duels and still remain cordial with one another - and you can bet this was a deliberate callback. Now, what are we to make of this? Is Ip at heart a gentle man, forced by circumstances to turn his graceful art into savagery and brutality? Is this scene of a Chinese kungfu master beating up Japanese a tragedy?

I wish it were. It would've been daring and original, not to mention it would've made the film a genuine biopic. Sadly, the rest of it goes back to pandering to the usual Chinese insecurity against foreign devils and their never-ending crusade to humiliate the Chinese race. General Miura seems to almost be an honourable adversary, in the vein of Tanaka from Jet Li's Fearless, but he's just kinda neither here nor there - and there's also a Colonel Sato (Shibuya Tenma) who's just over-the-top despicable, just in case we start mistaking this movie for having a balanced viewpoint. And speaking of Jet Li movies, Fist of Legend did a much better job at it, even if its final boss Japanese general was unrepentantly evil. But that just proves you don't have to sacrifice kungfu action for a mature story.

But the neat thing about it is that Donnie Yen plays Ip as if he were a gentle man horrified by his own violence, even as director Wilson Yip turns on the hero-worship and the Chinese racial jingoism. Yen has never been the most subtle actor, and in truth he's a little rough around the edges here, but he deserves kudos for finding the right interpretation of the character and sticking to it. Ip may be a Mary Sue, but Yen never plays him as a Mary Sue, and this alone may make this his most accomplished role yet. The rest of the acting is decent, but marred by some terrible dubbing; the pan-Chinese (i.e. inclusive of China and Taiwan) nature of Hong Kong filmmaking nowadays means Mandarin-speaking actors are almost always dubbed into Cantonese, which distracts from Xiong Dai-Lin's and Xing Yu's (who plays a kungfu enthusiast and friend of Ip's) performances. At least the Japanese speak Japanese.

I fear I'm getting too nitpicky for my own good; I'm nearing the end of this review and I've barely even mentioned the fight scenes. Suffice to say that they are terrifically kickass. Even if Ip barely breaks sweat in any of them, they're still pretty damn thrilling; Wing Chun, the style that specialises in lightning-fast blocks and punches, is just that cool to watch. It's a film that does a few fresh and interesting things with the period kungfu genre, but never really goes far enough with them, and falls back onto a very tired and borderline xenophobic cliche. Most of what I've said is about what I wanted it to be; I especially wanted it to be a depiction of martial arts as an art, a pursuit of perfection for perfection's sake, instead of a means to beat people up. But Ip Man is what it is: a kungfu action flick in which a righteous Chinese hero kicks evil Japanese ass. And it works fine for what it is. It's just that I think it's about time we had enough of it.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Majulah feminisme untuk industri filem negara

My rating:

I've been trying to find out what, if any, connection there is between the makers of this movie and Red Films, the production company behind Gol & Gincu and last year's Pisau Cukur. I'm surprised there isn't; Hooperz is a girl-power comedy-drama that fits right in amongst those two. It's no surprise that Red Films - who also produces the women's-issues TV magazine programme 3R - makes movies with strong female empowerment messages, but the fact that there are other Malaysian filmmakers who do... wow. Considering how ridiculously sexist (and often downright misogynist) Malay movies can get, this is very good news indeed.

Especially since Hooperz, like Pisau Cukur, is leaps and bounds better than the average Malay movie.

The Hooperz are a college netball team with a major teamwork problem; namely, they don't have any. They comprise Atylia (Intan Nor Saina), whose deformed hand just happens to make her a great shooter; Wan Zulaikha (Melissa Maureen), the team captain whose straight-A grades still aren't good enough for her over-achieving family; Sue Lin (Dawn Jeremiah) the perpetual klutz; AJ (Zazleen Zulkafli), who makes up for her lack of good looks with sass; Azwar (Akma Abdullah), who is frequented by hallucinations of a dancing baby; Saidatul (Anita Baharom), the spoiled rich girl, who with her best friend Nino (Juliana Evans) are constantly feuding with the others on the team. Coach Q (Amy Mastura) is at wits end with these girls, so she brings in a new Coach D (Adibah Noor) to whip them into shape. But even as they finally start winning matches, the revelation of certain ugly secrets will test their friendships - particularly those revolving around Nik (Remy Ishak), Atylia's childhood crush, who is involved with more than one member of the Hooperz.

Wan Hasliza and Rosihan Zain, you guys are awesome. Together you wrote the wittiest, cleverest, and downright funniest screenplay for a Malay movie since Setem. This movie is funny in dozens of uniquely Malaysian ways; for instance, Wan Zulaikha's prim and proper family who speak in grammatically-perfect Bahasa Baku. I'm almost certain they're an extended (and much deserved) pisstake on Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka and their moronic dictates on the Malay language. The flashbacks of all the Hooperz girls' backstories are hilarious - in particular, the one where Sue Wei's family takes her to three different medicine men, all played by Khir Rahman (who looked like he adlibbed his scenes - and if he did, dude, lu terer lah). Even the bit where Coach D scolds the team "Permainan kamu macam taik!" and Azwar mutters a scandalized "astaghfirullah" got a huge laugh out of the audience, whom I bet were starved of genuinely witty observations of Malay and Malaysian behaviour.

What's impressive also is how well-drawn the characters are. Each member of its ensemble has a distinct personality, and the aforementioned flashbacks do a great job of explaining their family backgrounds and how they turned out the way they are. This makes all of them a terrifically appealing bunch of girls; even Saidatul, who is the ostensible Libby of the story, is fun to watch without becoming a hissable villain. Of course, the trajectory of the story is that the Hooperz will band together in time to become both a formidable team and fast friends, because this is after all a "girls rock!" movie. Now, TMBF is an avowed sympathizer of the feminist cause, so perhaps I'm biased... actually, naah. It really is good. The storyline is quite daring in how it touches on issues such as teen pregnancy and sexual harassment; it's refreshingly aware, compared to how far the vast majority of Malay movies have their heads jammed up their asses, not just over gender issues but about reality as a whole.

Sadly, a few things hold it back from being truly great. One is that the netball scenes are pretty lackluster. Sports scenes are to a sports movie what action scenes are to an action movie - they provide tension, thrills, and plot momentum. A sports movie should make its sport exciting even to audience members unfamiliar with it, but co-directors Rosihan and Sheikh Munasar couldn't manage that - there's no ebb and flow and no tactics during the netball matches, even after an animated interlude of Coach D's lecture on the strategies of Hannibal of Carthage. (In a Malay movie! Sofistikated giler!!) And there's a distinct lack of technical polish to the whole film, particularly in the audio and editing departments. I'm normally quite harsh on local films that are technically deficient, since most of the time it indicates a half-assed attitude on the part of its makers - but Hooperz is clearly made with love and care, and I'm guessing it just fell victim to a rushed production schedule.

But its biggest weakness is that, for all that its clever and witty writing - and don't get me wrong, that's a pretty big achievement - it never develops any real comic momentum. A good comedy needs plenty of jokes to earn chuckles from the audience, but it also needs one or two big comic setpieces to draw the LOLs. The lack of any, plus the fact that the second half is more dramatic - and plus the dull netball scenes - means the movie gets progressively less funny. If the humour level had been kept up, it could've weathered any number of other flaws - occasional bad acting, weak conclusions to a few subplots, slack editing, and an ending that cried for a proper denouement. I could feel the audience's interest level flagging towards the end, and I just wanted to scream "No! Don't feel bored! This is a good movie! Appreciate it! Tell your friends!"

So it's far from perfect, but it's good in so many surprising ways that I really want it to do well at the box-office - and I really hope its cast gets some well-deserved attention too. The great thing about these girl-power films is that (like Pisau Cukur before it) everyone seems to be having a great time playing these characters; their performances are more enthusiastic than polished, but their enthusiasm is infectious. The film also features a number of cameos including Yasmin Yusoff, Mustapha Kamal, Rashidi Ishak and Othman Hafsham (remember him?), and they're all good in their bit parts; even the child actresses who play Young Atylia and Young Saidatul are impressive. Now, ahem, before going in I expected to drool over Juliana Evans, who, yes, is indeed drool-worthy, although her character Nino doesn't get much screentime - but good goddamn, I am now crushing big time over Dawn Jeremiah. Where has she been all my life?? Please make more movies Ms. Jeremiah squeeeee!!

Okay yes, it has plenty of cuci mata value, if my mentioning that will sell more tickets. (Yes, that's it. I'm not perving, I'm helping to promote the movie. Ya rly.) But seriously, go watch it if you have any interest at all in Malaysian films. Everyone involved deserves more chances to make more movies, especially Wan Hasliza, Rosihan Zain and Sheikh Munasar (and Dawn Jeremiah XDDDDD okay I'll stop now). Also, here's a shoutout to art director Ujang, who designed the enjoyably flamboyant netball players' costumes. Hooperz isn't actually a feminist film per se - it's just a film that respects, understands, and has boundless affection for its female characters. Does that have any connection to it also being so much sharper, smarter, wittier and more imaginative than the average Malay movie? I like to think so. I should think there is indeed a strong correlation between respecting women and having a brain.

Expectations: doubtful