Tag Archives: Asian Cinema

A Company Man (2012)

I’ve mentioned before how Korean revenge movies start blending together in my mind after seeing so many of them. Another type of movie that start blending in my mind are the contracted killers disobeying orders from their boss, falling in love with their target or a woman/man, and the contracted killer getting hunted down. That’s a broad outline I know, but ever since viewing A Bittersweet Life (2005) for the first time this year I keep associating that premise with it. However, the way A Bittersweet Life (2005) told that story mesmerized me to the point I just can’t help think of it every time I see something similar. Forever ensuring it’ll standout in my mind no matter how many similar films I see. A Company Man (2012) won’t enjoy that same luxury, but it’ll go down as a good action flick that didn’t quite live up to its potential in my mind.

b0036937_507ac8e1ac8f8
Another day at the office training the new contract killers.

A Company Man is about Ji Hyeong-Do (So Ji-Sub), a contract killer operating in a modern day corporate structure. Before getting into the movie itself I have to compare this to the 2005 South Korean film A Bittersweet Life. Both A Bittersweet Life, and A Company Man tell very a similar story, and play out nearly the same. Having their loner leads start out emotionless, meeting a woman who is involved with music makes that they fall for, both protagonists become disgruntled with their everyday job, both leads are chased down by their bosses after disobeying orders, a climatic action sequence occurs at both leads former workplace, and both reflect how it all came down to this once the violence dies down. However, A Bittersweet Life is a half an hour longer helping it flesh out it characters, and themes that in A Company Man aren’t as fleshed out. In A Bittersweet Life there’s more presented to provide emotional investment that A Company Man lacks.

A Bittersweet Life isn’t the first, nor the last time a story about a contract killer disobeying order, and being hunted down is ever going to get told. For this instance, it was important to bring up because writer/director Lim Sang-Yoon is heavily inspired by A Bittersweet Life. Provided you seen A Bittersweet Life comparison to A Company Man are unavoidable while viewing it. Despite his ambitious to create a parallel between contract killers, and corporate office job equally dehumanizing it workers. Lim Sang-yoon can’t avoid the label of basically making an inferior version of A Bittersweet Life.

123862-3028597
Unlike in A Bittersweet Life, Hyeong-do at least got a promotion for his work.

Diving into A Company Man itself the execution is decently done. The portrayal of contract hitman working in office type jobs is interesting to view. Making you want to learn more on how exactly this company functions, but never does. Then there’s also Ji Hyeong-do, our protagonist who starts the movie out wanting to quit his job. This decision does bring in the issue that it spends no time in showing Hyeong-do positive views on his workplace. Undermining a key trait of his character which is properly getting across how difficult it is for Hyeong-do to leave his job, and how betrayed he feels under this company.

While the nitty gritty of office work contract killers isn’t as fleshed as one would hope the conflicts are on the other hand. It might drop the ball on Hyeong-do attachment to his job, but witnessing the ugly side of it is shown. This is accomplished by having Hyeong-Do talk to two different individuals, and their different standing with the company. It’s through these scenes that Hyeong-Do slowly start to question what he’s doing with his life. Seeing the horrors his future might entails if he stays there longer. Allowing him to reflect on his life, and the offering the audience breathing room in understanding what kind man Hyeong-Do actually is.

When not about killing people, and retiring from that line of work. Hyeong-Do is soaking in a normal life. These scenes do their best in fleshing out the characters, but is hampered by the romance. Much in line with everything else in the story it’s a good idea that doesn’t quite reach the quality it should. Mainly using flashback to develop the romance Hyeong-Do has with a singer he was infatuated with in his youth. It’s a detail that contributes little in the long run. Especially when compared to the few times Hyeong-Do past is shown to the viewer. There’s also a young man whom Hyeong-Do sees himself in, but the sentiment of the idea will be more appreciated than the actual execution.

f0171186_507fa4454cfac
Here’s a rare sight. So Ji-sub showing emotions

So Ji-sub take charge in the leading role. Reserve in his emotional expression he brings nuance needed for this portrayal. Coming off as discontent on the inside, and fitting into the role of a your average office worker. This works wonder for the film’s narrative since So Ji-Sub goes out of his way to come across as ordinary as possible. In the action sequences it’s a different story as So Ji-Sub comes across as a badass. If there’s a fault with Ji-Sub acting it would be during the last twenty minutes. Retaining his cold, introverted persona So Ji-Sub refuses to bring more emotion into his character is his most emotionally vulnerable in the final act. 

The supporting cast do a solid job in their role. Only Kim Dong-Joon who plays a temp is given any ranged with his material. He’s basically a more expressive So Ji-sub bringing in partial emotional engagement that So Ji-sub failed to capture. Everyone else play their role in a by the number fashion. Kwak Do-Won is the one who comes to mind since he’s just grumpy looking in nearly every scene he’s in. Only being outmatched by the almost equally angry Jeon Kuk-Hwan who is more believable in his delivery. Then there’s Lee Mi-Yeon who plays a love interest of sorts. Other than looking pretty, she isn’t given much to work with like the rest of the supporting cast. It’s a film primarily carried by So Ji-sub with the supporting cast doing whatever they can with the limited material handed to them.

giphy1
That’s one hell of a way to quit your job.

The worst edited action sequence comes when actor So Ji-sub has to fight against Yoo Ha-Bok in a small apartment. Attempting to make the sequence appear to be done in a single take, but coming off as choppily put together. Making it noticeable when both actors are inches apart from each other in every cut when a specific hit is thrown. It’s ambitious to make a action scene appear to have been done all done in a single take, but probably not something you should attempt to do in your directorial debut.

My favorite action scene is a fight sequence on a freeway that starts out inside a car, and eventually goes outside. The fight sequence is brief, but make use of the small interior of the car for some tight choreography. Getting surprisingly creative changing up shots without being overly edited. It’s easy to follow, and goes by pretty quickly. There’s also another fight sequence the occurs during the climax which makes use of more props. This particular fight is also brief, but is another good fight scene nonetheless.

giphy
So Ji-Sub is a complete badass when the action hits

The two shootouts on the other hand lack the polish that the fight scenes contain. One of them suffers from being shot in a confined space, and being cut too quickly to properly tell what’s going on. There’s this shootout in a office that’s pretty cool, but sloppy cinematography makes you wonder about the placement of certain actors. It’s a confined place the film attempts mask the unlikelihood that So Ji-Sub would survive. By not showing what’s directly in front of him when he’s attempting to open a door the action sequence isn’t tense. Another issue is the slick production disappears during this sequence, and there’s a notable drop in film quality. Despite this, it’s the standout sequence in the film for a reason. There’s plenty of environmental destruction, and the staging makes it stand out among your average gunfight.

A Company Man is unlikely to ever receive the same adoration that Kim Jee-Woon’s A Bittersweet Life has gained. By wearing that inspiration to the forefront A Company Man will inevitably stay in the shadow of what inspired it. However, by itself it’s a decently put together action movie elevated from some good action set pieces, and a great performance from So Ji-sub. It doesn’t reach greatness, but what is does accomplished is more than enough to pull it through to the end.

Rating: 7/10

Broken (2014)

Plenty of Korean movies I’ve seen just so happen to deal with revenge, and after a while they start blending together. In the same way Hong Kong heroic bloodshed action movies typically tackle brotherhood. Korean revenge movies try to delve into the psychology into those who feel wronged, and deserve to take justice into their own hands. Other Korean revenge movies will indulge the viewers in the fantasy of it. Either method works for me. Broken tries to be a more thoughtful take while providing the thrills, but ends up doing neither successfully.

Initially the movie makes a good impression bypassing the predictable to quickly setup the story of single father Lee Sang-hyeon (Jung Jae-young) wanting to take revenge on the teenagers that raped, and killed his daughter. Broken ends up going downhill after that setup is done. Forgetting to show the gradual change in Lee before he snaps into killing. It just happens without proper build up removing another piece of characterization. As the film progresses, Lee remains a husk of a character with only the fact he’s a father to have you sympathize for him. This is fine until the movie attempts to tackle subject matters without giving them the proper time to be explored. Slowing the film down when touching on delinquency, and the flawed justice system preventing building tension. As a commentary on these things it acknowledges these are a thing in society, it’s unfair, and that’s as far as it goes.

mv5bmtc1ntmzndywmv5bml5banbnxkftztgwmtmymjeymje-_v1_sy1000_sx1500_al_
Lee got the bad news. He’s no longer human.

As a drama it fails to be captivating in the way it wants to be. Lee I already mentioned is a husk of a character. So when it tries to delve into the morality of his actions it falls flat. There’s hardly any scenes showing Lee spend time with his daughter to make it feel justify. A trait that is brought up, but isn’t use to explore any kind of regret in Lee. It’s simply makes him sad leaving there, and moving on.

When the film isn’t focus on Lee the attention is given to Detective Eok-Gwan (Lee Sung Min) who is tasked to find both Lee daughter killers, and Lee himself. His contribution to the story is very minimal using him, and his partner to talk on the injustice of South Korea justice system. Simply stating that the kids will get a slap on the wrist isn’t good enough to count as meaningful commentary on this subject. Significantly less so when it tries to humanize the murderers, and rapists of the movie. By doing so, the greyish morality presented further shines a negative light on the lack of depth, and detracts from the few thrills it has to offer.

kmn_broekn_02
However, it will have actor Jung Jae-young open mouth a plenty.

Padding becomes more common in the second half. Dragging out out the running time by showing the actors walk through snow for minutes. Sometime it serves a point, and other times it’s just plodding along. The second half feels unorganized compare to the first half. There’s no structure in how information is presented, it’s a lot less eventful, and the pacing becomes slower then usual. What’s not preferable to that is the climax where characters do dumb things out of character. Coming off as contrived instead of organic to the story.

The ending wanted to be heartbreaking during its climax. Falling flat for two significant reasons; first one being Lee easily goes from your average, overworked father to a man on a mission for vengeance. So determine to the point Lee survives a hellish snowstorm despite being immensely exhausted from his journey, and with a broken leg. Second reason being the shotgun Lee carries for just over half of its runtime. Typically the rule of writing is if you have something like a shotgun, or anything established in the story it should be used later on. In the climax, the shotgun is used, but not the way you would expect it. If there was more to Lee’s character the outcome of the climax would be justifiable, but instead comes of as tacky. When I don’t care about the shallow main character of the movie why the movie thinks I would care about it’s equally shallow supporting cast is baffling.

mv5bmtgznza0nta2m15bml5banbnxkftztgwntmymjeymje-_v1_sy1000_sx1500_al_
The rain can’t heal the hole in Jung Jae-young heart.

Acting in general is fine without much standing out. Jung Jae-young I feel suffered the most from the screenplay. Almost all of his most potent bits of acting is at the beginning of the film. He goes through a wide arrange of emotion in the first half hour from being remorseful, to angry, and to confusion. It gives him great freedom to portray things about Lee that the screenplay doesn’t provide. Afterwards he becomes stiff being stuck to having his mouth open, and shaking in the cold for a performance. Jung Jae-young just can’t do much with this character coming off as wooden in portraying his tortured soul. Everything else from cinematography to music is fine, but doesn’t do much in service of the movie.

Writer/Director Jeong-ho Lee I would put the blame on for virtually all the film’s problems. Half an hour could have been cut from the movie which instead of using it to develop characters, or further explore it themes just has it actors walk around in the snow. Resulting in a movie that feel padded when it shouldn’t be. A few more touch up to the story would have helped Broken stand out among the mountains of Korean revenge movies. Instead, it’ll just blend in with the crowd without anything to distinguish it in the back of my mind.

Rating: 3/10

Cinema-Maniac: Doppelganger (2003)

Doppelganger follows research scientist Hayasaki (Koji Yakusho) encountering an exact double whose true intention he’s uncertain off. A title like Doppelganger leaves little to the imagination if this was a horror movie. Doing things you would expect a horror movie to do like setting up the rumor if you see a your doppelganger you’ll die, and the doppelganger having devious intentions. Having the classical scenes where the doppelganger causes trouble, and the original taking the blame for his double misdeeds. Such scenes are typical for stories of this nature before revealing it’s true intention to use doppelganger as a metaphor. Using the doppelganger to have characters do some soul searching over building up scares. Opting more for a psychological, and black comedy approach turning a otherwise mundane story into a more interesting, but very messy movie.

vlcsnap-2018-08-16-17h17m11s376
Very classy Yakusho.

One twist to the doppelganger concept is bluntly stating that people who see their doppleganger regularly kill themselves being unable to accept a physical manestification of everything they wish to be. There’s Yuka (Hiromi Nagasaku) who expresses a dislike for her brother doppelganger despite him being everything she wanted her brother to be. Instead of building the movie around these kind of ideas they just remain interesting points to think about. Missing out on the opportunity to create more dynamic characters than just our protagonist. Hayasaki, and his doppelganger regularly bicker with each other revealing bits about Hayasaki as a person. There’s nothing subtle about what you’re meant to take away from the conversations when things are bluntly laid out. For instance, Hayasaki doppelganger telling Hayasaki his flaws, and how he should simply embrace his darker aspect. Leaving little to imagination to work out it themes.

Same thing applies with characters in the movie. Hayasaki assistants in the first half get replace by new characters he barely meets in the second half. A pointless choice since these new characters in the second half basically act the same as Hayasaki assistants in the first half. Their roles are simple from being the love interest to the greedy assistant who wants more recognition, and profit. The third act in particular goes from subtle character development into being more blunt caricatures of their personalities. While the transformation of the main characters are subtle what is not laid out as subtly is how they changed, especially when some dialogue just plainly explain a lesson they learned.

vlcsnap-2018-08-16-17h20m10s982
Surprise! How’d you like your office now!

As for the doppelgangers the film is not interested in discussing their origin. As mentioned before they’re simply use as a metaphor. Much like the invention of the Artificial Body (more accurately mechanical chair with arms) Hayasaki must accept, and move on from his own limitations. There conversations about hinting at the group, or the machine oppressing the individual, but these ideas aren’t fleshed out as clearly. Hayasaki spends over half of the movie away from any oppressing outside force. By removing his own shackles the outside forces don’t bother him until the third act. The company Hayasaki formerly worked for just lets him be with basically no qualms about their professional relationship. Making any commentary it has to say about the shackles in society just seem vaguely there, but not realized.

On the comedy side of things it’s hit or miss. The humor is typically deadpan with jokes spread out sparsely throughout the movie. Like a moment where Hayasaki is trying to get his Artificial Body, an assistant asks if she could help him, Hayasaki says yes she can, and lets her do all the work. Generally I ended up wondering if something was meant to be a joke, or taken seriously since both type of scenes are given the same treatment. The final act of the movie is where it takes a turn for the ridiculous. For instance, Hayasaki, and Yuka being able to keep up pace with speeding van that gets stolen from them. Another goofy moment is Hayasaki somehow surviving getting run over by a van. This is also where most of the lingering plot points are finally resolved, and sadly it’s also in the most spoonfed way it could think off. Once it finally gets to the ending the whole journey feels oddly satisfying despite the occasional clumsiness.

The main reason I checked out this movie is none other than the man himself Koji Yakusho. His performance in Doppelganger proves to me once again he’s true talent to keep an eye out for. Playing two different characters with different personality is not a difficult task. What is difficult is portraying a subtle change in those two characters in a way where it confuses the viewer on whether or not they’re following Hayasaki, or the double. By slowly changing the direction of both the characters he portrayed he’s able to send the viewer for a loop. Most of the film he’s mostly subdue in his shyness, and on the other hand also confident, and free spirited. Further making it difficult to distinguish who he’s portraying exactly in any given scene, and in a positive way no less.

vlcsnap-2018-08-16-17h23m16s728
Do not worry miss! I will kill your brother. (paraphrasing actual dialogue in this scene)

With two Koji Yakusho on screen the trickery to getting this done is pretty simple. Through the uses of green screen, CGI, and body double this task is accomplished. Given it’s relatively low budget it’s odd thinking a film that’s very simplistic required a lot of special effect work for around half of it. There’s nothing impressive about the special effects work in the movie, but considering I was surprise to learn it even had any special effect work done means it’ll probably unnoticed for other who see it. Kiyoshi Kurosawa writer/director attempts to give the film style in a few scenes. Most of the time it’s simply a wide shot of actors talking, but whenever there’s two Koji Yakusho on screen he’ll use a split screen effect to throw viewer off on who is who. This split screen effect it the most visually interesting it gets since it’s the only times Kurosawa tries to be visually bold in any form.

The other actors in the movie do fine in their roles. Hiromi Nagasaki gets a decent size role without complexity in her character. She’s unsure for half of the movie, and the other half she remains optimistic. Akira Emoto who doesn’t appear much in the movie playing Yakusho best friend provides Yakusho best onscreen chemistry. Whenever Emoto, and Yakusho share a scene a lot of their characters history gets vividly just through their performance. Yusuke Santamaria plays his part like a slacker until the final act where his performance is mildly crazy. Becoming more eccentric in his delivery resulting to a silly character being made. As for the rest of the small cast, that’s about it since actors in the first half are forgotten about. With this small cast it’s a good thing they’re good actors because they help make even the uneventful portions feel important.

Doppelganger is an odd film with interesting ideas, hit or miss humor, and a messy execution. All the ideas are here to create something with more depth than it ended up doing. Thankfully, Koji Yakusho performance makes the writing shortcomings easier to forgive thanks to his subtle performance in changing his persona is done flawlessly. It won’t leave you pondering on its themes, and ideas as much as writer/director Kiyoshi Kurosawa would like, but if you’re looking for a different take on the doppelganger types of story this one will entertain, and provide some mild intrigue in it themes.

Rating: 7/10

Cinema-Maniac: Merantau (2009)

I have a spot for Merantau since it was one of the first movies I’ve ever reviewed. It’s an odd feeling for me to check out some of my old stuff from seven years ago, and seeing what changed over the years. In some areas I felt I got better, like better explaining positives, and drawbacks when it comes to a film’s writing. Other areas I can see what part of myself got lost over the years. The biggest one to me easily being how my offline activities affected my personality in my writing. Rarely doing the offshoot reviews where I simply poke fun of something while providing actual criticism in a entertaining manner. Reviews which actually got me to know some readers on a more personal level. What has remained through seven years of writing about movies on, and off again is my admiration for martial art movies has not changed.

giphy1
Impressive. Four kicks in four seconds

Merantau centers around a young idealistic man named Yuda (Iko Uwais) from the countryside trying to survive in a big city. The opening sequence further provides details on the importance of Yuda’s journey called Merantau; essentially a rite of passage where a young man leaves one’s place of origin, and find their place in the world. Trying to be like a coming of age story Merantau sounds like a guaranteed great story until you see the actual film. Very little is talked about on the philosophy of silat making the spiritual journey of Yuda get lost in translation. This is sloppily elaborated on through the character of Eric (Yayan Ruhian) implying his merantau changed him into a worse person. Eric hardly appears on screen, added with the absent of philosophy discussed in silat teachings all you have left is making ambiguous connection on Yuda not using silat to kill people.

Paired up with the simplistic storyline, and character arcs you’ll have the groundwork of a great story that never comes into fullizitation. Usually having three type of scenes for its heroes; the introduction, the conflict, and the eventual resolution they’ve worked for. Opting to incorporate as many fight sequences as possible you’ll get the bare minimum require for a story like this to work fine. The good guys are good guys, and the bad guys are bad guys. Streamlined to the point where even if you’re not paying attention you’ll know everything that’s going on. On the downside, the movie does try to generate some sympathy for it heroes. Little time is spend on fleshing them out beyond one scene so that part of the story’s writing falls flat.

One element I can be positive about is the film’s ending. Building on the opening scene the significance of merantau to Yuda’s homeland is also established early on. Spending a brief time touching on Yuda’s brother who failed merantau, and the social impact it had on him in the community. By getting across these simple things the ending actually provides something worth reflecting on. Being conflicting in a positive way since Yuda is doing his best to uphold his tradition while the environment endangers his life. Overcoming Yuda lack of depth as a character by inadvertently adding meaning to the journey makes a story that works fine end on a good note.

giphy2
To be honest, this movie is a good excuse for me to show some fighting gifs.

Iko Uwais in his first leading role has a natural screen presence about him. Before the movie gets to any fighting, Iko holds himself decently in the acting department. The role doesn’t require Iko Uwais to speak for long stretches cleverly hiding Iko lack of acting experience. Requiring for half of the movie for Iko to simply provide the appropriate facial expressions in a given scene before getting into fighting. Once Iko does get into the fighting he impresses with his athleticism, and graceful skill in performing his fight sequences. Another plus to Iko is him doing his own stunts, even if they aren’t that dangerous compare to other martial art movies.

Iko other co-stars despite having more experience than himself they do fine. Actors like Christine Hakim, and Donny Alamsyah only appear in the beginning of the movie, and than are gone until they appear again in the ending. There’s also Chika Jessica, and Yusuf Aulia simply acting as the poor child later gets written out of the movie for a large portion of it. Chika is simply in the movie to appear as sympathetic as possible. She only gets one scene to deliver a dramatically heavy scene, and after that just becomes a damsel in distress. There’s also Alex Abbad (who surprisingly plays the main villain in The Raid 2) essentially playing a punching bag. His line delivery in English is really slow, but when speaking in his native language he sounds natural, though doesn’t do anything to stand out in his portrayal.

giphy3
Their acting won’t impress, but their fighting skills will.

With the actors getting shoved in the background brings us to the martial artists. One of them being Yayan Ruhian who yes has a fight with Iko Uwais in a elevator. Luckily the little dialogue Yayan has is delivered well, but doesn’t have much screen time in the movie. Then we get to the villains Mads Koudal, and Laurent Buson whom are the weakest actors in the movie. Despite Laurent being French, and Koudal being Danish both sound come off stilted everytime they talk. Thankfully both Koudal, and Buson perform in a 2 on 1 fight against Iko that makes putting up with their bad acting worth it to some degree.

Gareth H. Evans in first martial art movie showed a lot potential to help craft great action sequences. Something that’s apparent throughout the movie in spite of it budgetary shortcomings Evans tries to add some visual flairs. Some of these are simple like a tracking shot following Iko from a telephone booth; the camera goes over the telephone booth, and then proceeds to follow Iko into an alley. To more complex shots like multiple single takes during fight sequences almost all requiring Iko to fight against multiple people. A nice touch in the movie is Evan usage of music to help elevate sequences to make them more exciting. Knowing exactly when music should start, and stop playing in creating a mood. Something he would later on perfect in The Raid.

giphy4
Of course, one last awesome fight gif

The fight sequences are nicely choreographed, well shot, and edited to flow nicely. With as minimum cuts as possible Evan fight scenes never feel overly edited. With this being Gareth Evans, and Iko Uwais first martial art film the fight sequences performance varies with some parts of a fight being performed more slowly than others. There’s also spots within the fight scenes where an actor has to stay, or go in place before the fight could progress. An example of this is when Iko throws a bottle at a fighter face, the fighter has his face cover for seconds, and stays like that before Iko gets close enough to pick him up, and toss him through a table. Instances like this are thankfully rare throughout. Offering plenty of good fight scenes also helps alleviate the problem.

Merantau is simplistic on the story front, but decides to make up for its shortcoming by including as many fight sequences as it possibly can. Once you get the first serious fight scene in the movie you’ll never have to wait too long for the next one to pop on. It’s missed the opportunity to make it’s story feel grander than it actually is, but any fan of martial arts movies will definitely leave entertained.

Rating: 8/10

Cinema-Manaic: Voice Without a Shadow (1958)

Regardless of the medium, mystery/pot boilers centered stories I don’t check out frequently. When I think of a mystery story I think about someone trying to solve a crime, or find answer to an unexplained incident. For me, they all feel like they play out the same in the general way; main characters attempt to look for answers, eventually hit a dead end until finding the one clue that brings everything together, and finally explaining to the viewer how it worked out. Usually having me forget about its characters the next day.  Movies like these I get the appeal, but if I’m not going to get engaging characters than everything else surrounding them has to make up for it. Voice Without A Shadow does exactly that, even if it’s nothing outstanding by the end of it.

Still 06
Reporter Notes: There was a murder at the crime scene, and someone is responsible.

Voice Without A Shadow starts out unconventional before becoming formulaic with its storytelling. You’re introduce to Asako Takahashi (Yoko Minamida), a telephone operator who who dials the wrong number one night, and hears the voice of a murderer. You would be wrong to assume that Asako would be the focus, and the rest of the movie would be her trying to help the police find the killer with her unmatched hearing. Stated in the movie to be able to differentiate, and recognize hundreds of different voices like no other person. The initial setup is fascinating using sound in a technical aspect to enhance put us in the same position as Asako. Making certain everyday activity sound louder to Asako, and in turn the audience watching. Unfortunately there is a time skip to three years later where we’re told the case has gone cold. This occurs in the first few minutes where it eventually takes another turn to where Asako does little in the effort to prove her husband’s innocence in a murder that transpired.

 

Within the first act of the movie, twice it does away with the initial setup before falling in the familiar territory of a pot boiler mystery. Towards the end of the first act newspaper journalist Hiroshi Ishikawa (Hideaki Nitani) who might as well be a detective since that his purpose in the movie. Putting the actual police force to shame when he’s able to put clues together that the police force overlooked. Something as simple like a bag being dry on the day it was found when the day before it was raining is one of many simple details the police force don’t think about. There is one detail in particular that is outrageous that the police force didn’t even considered. Without spoiling the actual movie, it would basically be the equivalent of someone filming a murder scene, and the police having to be told by someone outside the force the camera can record things, and therefore must have recorded the murder. This movie does the Japanese police force no favors in making them out to look incompetent at their jobs.

Shifting the focus to Ishikawa means you get the familiar routine of him interviewing people on the night of the crime, being at his wits end trying to solve the murder, having a near death encounter the closer he gets to solving the crime, and getting the one clue he needs to piece everything together. When in this state the movie plays out mechanically safe to fall into your expectations. Doing so by sharing a understanding why a familiar formula is so effective even after hundreds of usage. It’s biggest bright spot in this routine are the dead ends Ishikawa comes across during the case. They’re presented in a logical way with some detail that makes the case itself more complicated than it appears. Every time Ishikawa believes he got a lead there’s something that pushes him back further from finding any answers. Leading to many good head scratcher moments when attempting to solve the case alongside Ishikawa.

Still 01
Even in a still image, Jo Shishido character is still hateable

My biggest issue with the movie is the lack of depth to the characters. They’re treated more like plot devices which means generally delivering expository dialogue after expository dialogue. Showing very little personality in its writing. At it best, the character writing is great when characters are talking about their past, and the rare comments about love. Ishikawa is the most interesting of the cast of characters with a colleague of his wondering why he’s solving a mystery for woman he knows won’t love him back. These moments when the characters don’t talk about the murder case are a highlight since they don’t happen often. Ishikawa gets delved into a fair amount showing his dedication to journalism, and seeking the truth. Being the only one in the cast to come out unscathed from the writing other issues.

 

There’s a good attempt to present some complexity to some of the suspects, but it sadly goes into the “we’re bad” category of writing eventually. A shame too since the movie does a good job not making the suspects obvious to Ishikawa even though the audience knows a bit more than he does. Asako side of the story attempts to create some paranoia through the usage of sound whenever she’s relevant. It doesn’t quite work like the writing intended because at random points it’ll switch characters perspective. Leaving little time for any paranoia to creep in. Once it finally comes together at the end the viewing experience is made worthwhile. What few character arcs it actually have reach satisfying conclusions. The answers to the mystery itself are mostly logical, and seeing the case itself being solved it a high point itself. Executing the familiar elements of a mystery just right to leave a positive impression.

Still 03
(Not) Very subtle with the devil mask

Taking the charge for most of the movie is Hideaki Nitani. His biggest hurdle is the dialogue he’s given. Being unable to make it sound natural, but he does a decent delivery job delivering it. Nitani best moments of acting are surprisingly the sparse instances where the camera closes up on his face, and is able to express an array of emotions within his character. These more quieter moments displays greater potential in his acting abilities. Yoko Minamida is the standout in the cast. Despite the film minimizing her role the longer it goes she elevates whatever scene she’s in. Perfectly getting across the fear, and turmoil her character struggles through. Jo Shishido makes an appearance in a small role as a sleazy businessman. Give whatever character you want to Jo Shishido, and he’ll find a way to play the character naturally. Suitably obnoxious, and hateable he eases his way in a simple role. He ain’t in the film for much of it, but he will leave an impression. Toshio Takahara is mostly made out to be pathetic, but sympathetic at the same time. Sadly, he’s not given much to do beside look worried. The actors who play the suspects are good in their small roles with some able to make an impression.

 

Director Seijun Suzuki doesn’t spice things up in terms of writing, but on the technical side shows restraint in his style, and eagerness to make the most out of a scene visuals. One of these includes having an entire flashback sequence being entirely filmed in dutch angles. Creating a distorted look to the film in this sequence. Another stylistic choice are involves moments when it’s in first person, and appearing as if the characters are talking directly into the camera. It also briefly uses some tracking shots as well to set the mood accordingly. In one scene, Suzuki faintly has a shot of Yoko Minamida trying to sleep, and faintly faded visuals of her co-stars playing mahjong in the scene, and playing around with the audio to make the noticeable noise of mahjong moving around be become loud. Stylistic choices like these prevent the movie from being visually mundane.  Music is fine, but nothing memorable. It sounds like a dozen other pot boiler mystery movie score.

Voice Without A Shadow represents the general appeal of a pot boiler mystery, and also the lack of investment towards the characters involved. It might play things safe for a majority of its run time, but there is effort to make something good out of it. It succeeds more than it fails playing into your expectations. 

Rating: 7/10

Cinema-Maniac: The Merciless (2017)

The Merciless tells the crime genre age old tale of young, and spirited undercover cop, in this case being Hyun-soo (Im Siwan) infiltrating a criminal organization to take down Jae-Ho (Sol Kyung-Gu), and his boss empire. It sounds by the number, but when it comes to execution it delivers a pleasant surprise, and only for the first half. I can’t name you another movie in general that opened up with two criminals talking about eating raw fish, and killing people. This unusual opening show traits of the film capabilities to make something fresh out of a generic concept. For half of the movie, it does that perfectly fine. It does the usual plot points of showing the undercover cop infiltrating the prison, the preparation before the operation, and information regarding the criminals the officers are attempting to capture. Moving along in the prison where it also contain scenes you would expect; the undercover cop gaining the powerful criminal trust, rescuing powerful criminal from death, capturing the top criminal attention in a prison brawl, and eventually bonding. Familiarity easily could have been this film biggest enemy, but it turns it around, add its own spin on things, and feels fresh.

For about an hour, it does a superb job sprinkling plot points that could eventually become rewarding the more the film progresses. Showing early on shades of grey on both the officers Hyun-soo works for, and the criminal he’s infiltrating. All the while balancing Hyun-soo ever growing bond with the target, what it does to him mentally, and showing how his loyalty wavered. Another nice approach to the matter is taking a setup that is usually played dead serious, and adding much needed levity to make it stand apart. Giving the prison portion of the movie more charm than one would expect. Providing a host of laughs without tonal whiplash when it goes back to being serious. The fun nature become part of the characters we follow, and makes them likable. While in prison, the story doesn’t forget to thicken the story by providing Jae-Ho his own conflicts. Ensuring even if Hyun-soo isn’t on screen something significant does feel like is happening. It’s unfortunate that once both characters make their eventual exit from prison it’s all a series of bad choices.

c8oah8gxcaemgx4
Criminals always have to look professional when cracking skulls

A slight twist to liven up a generic set up is the film antagonist knows our protagonist is an undercover cop for half of the movie. This makes the dynamic far more interesting by avoiding the usual pitfall of “the lier reveal” climax movies of this nature tend to heavily rely on. It’s a shame the film decides to do very little with this twist. Hyun-soo plays both sides conflicted about where he belongs, and goes in the direction you expect it too. The police officers begin to doubt his loyalty, and so do some of the criminals. It never becomes a greater of two evil since the decides to remove the shades of grey it set up early on. A singular plot point derails the shades of grey undoing its own fresh take on a generic story.

Another aspect where the film falls apart is the police chief. This character is just here just because the film needs a stubborn chief to keep the undercover cop in check. There’s nothing done with her whereas Jae-Ho is meant to be a surrogate father to our protagonist. With this major flaw it’s impossible for the film to make a good case for why Hyun-soo loyalty should be solely with the law when the film frequently shows Hyun-soo getting berating, and the police chief mistreating him constantly for a job he didn’t want. Jae-Ho on the other hand also suffers from the lone fact him, and Hyun-soo relationship isn’t shown enough on a personal level. When it comes to them doing their criminal deeds there’s no expense of those scenes to find, but showing them interact in non job related activities is virtually absent. Doing a disservice to the viewer for detailing the growth of Hyun-soo, and Jae-Ho relationship.

What The Merciless was trying to go for is also questionable. The first half of the movie attempts to be a crowd pleaser while the second half takes a more arthouse approach both of which aren’t balanced. Instead of weaving a story that handle both style of cinema it went the easy route, and simply separating two vastly different style instead of combining them together. The second half attempts to make the viewer think on the story, and what it’s protagonist has to live with. Problem is, what the viewer is meant to take away from the story largely is unknown. It has a bleak ending, and that doesn’t means much when characters lose their appeal overtime the longer it goes on. Once outside of prison, the movie fails to further develop it leads in engaging ways. Reiterating traits about them already established. If it was trying to be a tragedy than it didn’t provides the characters needed to be worth caring about. Failing as a crowd pleaser since it goes from a fun, and occasionally grim undercover cop movie to a contemplated piece about human nature, and loyalty. It’s a messy movie with clear potential, and it dropped the ball.

d9dj4n
Story is a mess, but Sung-hyun Byun eye for visual is perfect

On the acting, and technical side of things it’s well rounded. When it comes to style director Sung-hyun Byun gives the film a sleek, and cinematic look to it. Always finding creative ways to shoot on paper would be mundane scenes. For example, when Sol Kyung-Gu is getting beaten by police officers outside of an office. Byun shows the sequence play out from the inside of the office out the window, and follows it to be more visually interesting. The film biggest set piece in the middle portion of the movie has a huge between two gangs. He doesn’t simply keep the camera in place with a wide view to make everything visible. A few time during this sequence he’ll have a take go on longer than expected to show the chaotic fighting, have the camera follow actor Siwan as he gets tossed across the room, and in a instance he rotates the camera full circle during the brawl. A rotation shot that could been seen as self indulgent, and distracting, but works thanks to his excellent eye for detail.

Im Si-wan falls into the category of what some viewers familiar with Asian movies would call a pretty boy. Typically this is an in-circle phrase for Asian cinema insistence to cast “pretty boys”, typically pop stars, in leading roles they shouldn’t be in from gangsters, to criminals, serial killers, and so forth that would make it difficult to accept them as the character. Asian cinema isn’t the only film industry guilty of this so I typically pay it no attention. Especially here since the physical appearance of Im Si-wan works in his favor. It’s easy to buy from him that he gets drawn to the allure of the criminal world. He plays his role exceptionally well, especially during his dramatic turns as some of his work in this movie. Combining a certain level of vulnerability, or arrogance within his performance.

7lmzpa
Another one of Byun creativity behind the camera coming through

Sol Kyung-Gu is another standout. His role is more complicated to decipher. He’s able to demonstrate a more caring side within his portrayal despite him playing a character aiming to be number one through any means. Expressing his character enjoyment in his dangerous business weather it be beating up criminals, or climbing up the ranks. Displaying a ruthless within him, even when coming off as playful. Yet, he never loses his darker side whenever on screen with Im Si-wan. When together, they both bounce of each other naturally. The only other actor with a noteworthy performance is Kim Hee-Won. A more playful performance to counteract Sol Kyung-Gu subtle performance. Kim Hee-Won gets most of the film jokes, and delivers them perfectly thanks to his comedic timing. Despite being the most lighthearted among the cast, he too is able to dramatic pick up the slack when it comes time to it. Other actors do just as well in their more straight laced role. Jeon Hye-Jin who plays the police chief, and Lee Kyoung-Young who plays the criminal boss play them straight. Despite that, both are given enough time to leave an impression.

The Merciless was a tough watch for the sole reason it’s the kind of movie that could have been more, but didn’t know how to. It’s unfortunate because you have half of a good movie, and the other half that derails it with a misguided direction in writing. It wants to be a movie that appeals to the general crowd, and cinephiles alike, but just end disappointing both. Lavish production values, good performances, and very little, but decently action sequences barely helps it raise above the mediocrity of similar movies. However, when the writing unwillingness to commit to taking risks, and gamble big prevented The Merciless from possibly being another classic piece of crime cinema.

Rating: 6/10

Cinema-Maniac: The Brink (2017)

Jin Zhang, or Max Zhang as he’s sometime is credited shares career similarities with director Jonathan Li. Both of these men before The Brink have worked their way up in the Hong Kong film industry. Jonathan Li starting out behind the camera as a third assistant director on Infernal Affairs 3 (2003), and Max Zhang starting out as a stunt double in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Over a decade later of work both managed to garner some level of recognition. Max Zhang is easily more prolific with supporting roles in The Grandmaster (2013), Ip Man 3 (2015), and SPL 2: A Time for Consequences (2015). Garnering Max Zhang a well earned fanbase for not just his incredible athleticism in his fight sequences, but his on screen presence displaying good acting abilities. Surprisingly, The Brink doesn’t just mark Max Zhang first time headlining a major movie as the lead star, and also marks the first time Jonathan Li take the helm as a director after over a decade working mostly as a assistant director. Both have something to prove in this film that is steps away from greatness, but accomplish the feat of proving they can handle bigger roles.

tumblr_p5j3uvu1ql1wstc5to2_400
A snippet of Max Zhang impressive skills in his fight sequences

On the story front The Brink is above average. Telling the classic story of a reckless Hong Kong officer, in this case being Sai Gau (Max Zhang), attempting to put an end on a criminal gold smuggling scheme. Anyone with experience in Hong Kong cinema will know what to expect from the story, minus the goods this time not being drugs. Some of the characters are also what you would expect them to be; best friend Zhi-Di (Wu Yue) so close to retiring getting pulled back into action, the chief coming down Sai Gau neck for operations gone wrong, a low ranked criminal villain in Jiang (Shawn Yue) with big ambitions, the daughter of a criminal reminding Sai Gau of his sense of duty, Jiang boss who plans to give his business to his son seeks to get rid of him, and that basically covers it. There are other minor characters, but they don’t contribute much in the grand scheme of things. It’s lacking in creativity, but when it comes execution writer Li Chun Fai knows how to play around with these familiar characters, and plot point in a successful way.

For starter, the pacing of the film is just right never lingering too much on unnecessary details, and evolving the main storyline in a organic way. Being able to escalate stakes within a reasonable scope. It has a certain number of main characters, and knows their influence with those around them. Hardly going overboard in favors of anyone to show more, or less an even playing field. Another positive in the writing is the whole cat, and mouse writing it takes for it central conflict. Both Sai Gau, and Jiang come face to face several times throughout the  movie. With Jiang just barely being able to get the advantage over Sai Gau in his attempts to arrest him. Further adding to the intrigue is Jiang seeking vengeance on those who betrayed him making proceeding events for him more difficult to come out on top. Seeing the many ways Jiang gets out of his situations is quite fun to witness.

the-brink-1.png
Prison changed me man. I’m a blonde now. Don’t ask.

Other area of the writing comes with mixed results. Characters are simplistic, and clear cut in their motivations. In its effort to be more than a good cop capturing evil doer it leaves many aspects half baked. The most prominent one being a insignificant plot point on Zhi-Di owing an off screen gang money. This clumsily justifies Zhi-Di motives in the later half of the movie, but with it being the only mention it just goes nowhere. While the writing attempts to make things different shades of grey it ultimately just boils down to good guy versus bad guy. Characters are defined, but they switch motivation, or personality at a moment notice to serve the writers needs since Li Chun Fai couldn’t figure out how its character would get from point a to point b with how they were established. If Li Chun Fai didn’t rewrite established characters consistently he would have been able to create more complex characters in favor of the film.

Where the writing falter plenty is with the character of Ke-Yan (Cecilia So) whose name I don’t believe is actually ever said in the movie itself. The only way I was able to find out her name was looking for it in the closing credits. If that alone doesn’t get across how this character is just put into the movie for no narrative reason than maybe the fact she contributes nothing in the overarching story will. Her scenes amount to nothing, but just providing a little characterization for Sai Gau, and even less for Ke-Yan. Her subplot of being a daughter tied to a criminal Sai Gau accidentally killed isn’t explored. It’s brushed aside quickly, and feels like Ke-Yan is only here to provide a pro-life message that is shoehorned in. If Ke-Yan was going to be in the last shot of the movie than you know, doing something significant storywise with her would have made it more impactful. Lastly, why does Sai Gau go into prison for a couple a months with dark hair, but then when released has blonde hair. Not that it’s of any importance, but it’s a noticeable change that comes out of nowhere.

large-screenshot1
Shawn Yue (left) has the look of a trustworthy person.

Max Zhang for the first time in his career carries the mantle of a leading man, and he does quite well for himself. He doesn’t attempt to oversell his character through his acting, but rather tries to keep his portrayal restraint when not fighting. Providing more subtle delivery in some of his sentimental scenes preventing them from being sappy. There are glimmer of range within him that the film sadly doesn’t utilize more frequently. Of course, when it comes to Max Zhang in the fight sequences he’s still just as impressive, and quick as he ever been.

Opposite of Max Zhang is Shawn Yue playing the cold hearted villain. Nailing the portrayal of his character personality, but unable to overcome the occasional stoic delivery of dialogue. Sounding disinterested half the time, and the other half sounding detached like he should. Yue acting won’t impress, but one where he’s meant to mourn over a lost is handle well by Yue without him breaking character. Wu Yue whenever on screen typically takes the spotlight from Zhang. Giving life to a archetype character being capable to generate sympathy for his character in spite of the above average writing. When it comes to his fight sequences he’s just as impressive as Max Zhang. There’s some noteworthy name in the supporting cast like Janice Man, Derek Tsang, Gordon Lam, and Tai Po, but the supporting cast tends to be one note. Eventually being indistinguishable from one another performances.

blmxrj
My favorite fight in The Brink.

First time director Jonathan Li with the helps of cinematographer Kenny Tse captures a aquatic, moody feel to the film. Showing a more grimy side of Hong Kong through his usage of location. If it’s related to the ocean he’ll use from a crowded indoor fish market, to a fishing trawler in the middle of a storm, gloomy ports, and even going underwater to film a action sequence which in spite of being performed slowly is still entertaining to witness. His directing of action sequences stands out more than his narrative storytelling. Mostly because when it comes to action he allows for long takes, and if needed will get inventive with his shots to make his fight scenes pop out. Being able to avoid the pitfall of showing background actors doing nothing in his fight sequences. With tight editing, and great composition his eye for action sequences raises the film quality whenever onscreen. Heck, he’s able to make an action sequence underwater feel eventful. There might be only a handful of them spread throughout, but they are worth waiting for. His music choices are mixed. Some of it works like during the action sequences to add excitement, but sometime it comes off overblown like towards the end of the movie using choir like music.

Action choreography is handle by Chung Chi Li, and much like his action choreography in Extraordinary Mission (2017), Li goes for a more grounded approach. Having very limited usage of wires, most of which are sprinkle in the climax. Chi Li emphasizes Max Zhang speed in the only one versus many brawl that has Max Zhang fighting in a alley. Alongside Wu Yue who also participate in the one versus many brawl on his own, Max Zhang is able to make it look convincing he’s able to beat up a dozen men rapid swings of his flashlights. However, my personal favorite fight in a parking lot with Max Zhang going one on one with a masked assailant. Creatively using the parked cars environment to have its actors use to avoid hits from the other fighter. Both men are able to keep up with each other performing their moves quickly resulting in some impressive long takes in the fight. Lastly, the climax which involve Max Zhang fighting against Wu Yue, and Shawn Yue on a fishing ship during a storm is the centerpiece action sequence. It’s an exciting climatic fight with plenty happening in the background as it shakes throwing all participants off. The choreography here in particular takes into account the rocking ship putting the advantage of the fight to whoever it wants. It’s quite a sight to witness, and what’s also vastly enjoyable to witness is how epicly presented the final punch between Max Zhang, and Wu Yue is filmed.

The Brink doesn’t break any grounds in any area of filmmaking, but is overall a success thanks to it crew overcoming several weaknesses. In particular, the wonderfully done action sequences elevating above everything else to be the one area it shines the best. Jonathan Li proves he can handle his own in the forefront as a director thanks largely to his strong direction which is felt throughout the movie. Of course, Max Zhang himself continues to prove why his raise to fame isn’t a fluke. Being just capable in his acting as he is in his fight scenes will eventually garner him more leading roles in his career. Regardless of your familiarity with anyone in the film, or Hong Kong action cinema The Brink is a good way to spend your time.

Rating 7/10

Cinema-Maniac: Blood Heat (2002)

From my little experience in Japanese cinema away from their Samurai, and Yakuza movies. Japan film industry gives a general impression they have a disinterest in producing action movies. The closest Japan gets to producing their equivalent to action blockbuster is either a live action anime/manga adaptation, or their monster/Kaiju movies. I don’t know the reasoning behind this, but I do know for certain that Blood Heat (aka Muscle Heat US Title) wanted to hang with the best in the action genre, and be influential in its country. Obviously that didn’t happen because it barely left a mark even as a footnote in action cinema history.

4rrygk
Left kick missed!

Blood Heat is set in the futuristic year of 2009 following court martial ex-Navy Seal Joe Jinno (Kane Kosugi) in his assignment to put an end to the circulation of super steroid drug Blood Heat. When the movie started I was mostly on board with the story. Things were to easy follow, and were developing nicely. It was focus, and contained itself in it simplicity for thirty minutes. After those first thirty minutes the film issues of convoluted plot points, thin characters, and by the number storytelling deteriorate a passable action movie into a chore. Choosing to grasp more than it can actually achieve burying anything it actually does well in terms of writing. This is primarily due to the fact that it sets up  plot points, but doesn’t expand on them. Plot points like Joe protecting a little girl, the underground people calling themselves “sewer rats” starting a revolution, and Joe seeking vengeance remain flat in the overarching story. This wouldn’t be an issue if Joe Jinno desire to take vengeance was fleshed out at all. Joe gets the entirety of one scene showing Joe, and his partner bond before Joe’s partner bites the dust. Before that, the only scene Joe, and his partner share is Joe getting recruited into his current assignment. Just simply stating through dialogue Joe, and his partner have become good friends won’t generate investment like the movie think it will.

The drug itself, Blood Heat, main function is basically acting like a super steroid. Established in a newsreel it is revealed Blood Heat can increase the physical capacity of the user five times over the normal limit, and the user becomes depended on it after a single dose. You might think that user would be able to punch a hole in a person face with that much boost in physical strength, but it doesn’t. Blood Heat, the drug, is mostly used for blood combat in the Muscle Dome (a death combat arena), and its effects are pretty lame when in sight. This also creates a numerous amount of logical gap within the film establish universe; like why doesn’t the film villain provide Blood Heat for all his henchman if it can enhance their physical abilities. Since the film doesn’t clearly get across much negative side effects in using Blood Heat it’s questionable why the villain doesn’t do this. Another issue would be the lack of impact the drug is shown to have in civilians. It’s stated that Blood Heat is spreading rapidly, but hardly shown being consumed when the film’s villain isn’t around.

vlcsnap-2018-06-11-21h45m29s389
So this is how a Japan in over two decades of depression looks like. Kinda nice.

Biggest faults of the writing comes from director Ten Shimoyama inability to hide his budgetary shortcomings. It’s established in the first five minutes that Japan had been in a depression for over two decades, yet decides to show aerial shot of a nice looking Japan. Adding to the disservice he does to the writing is not displaying a more economically broken Japan. in its set designs There’s not much dirt on the actors playing the Sewer Rats gangs, and is too nice looking in the environments to visually get across a economically depressed Japan. Simply making the background a little ugly, or filled a little trash isn’t too much to get the setting correct. There’s also his overblown direction at times to scenes that don’t need it. When actor Kane Kusogi sees his partner getting killed, instead of letting the sight of Kane Kusogi being depressed in the rain do its job. Here comes Ten Shimoyama choosing to insert a cheesy Spanish guitar, and violins instrumental to the sequence. A simple moment of seeing Kane Kusogi down in the rain is made cheesy by the inclusion of music. Creating a unintentional cheesy nature during the film’s most serious moments. Especially the crucifixion of actor Show Aikawa was pretty heavy handed in the many contrived monologues trying to make itself appear deeper than it actually is.  Adding onto the list of issue is Shimoyama pacing. Portions of the movie felt longer than they actually were, while portions that should have been longer feel to short. Resulting in a movie, and story that feels underwhelming on all front. There’s no raising action in narrative to make things feel like they’re escalating, and without engaging characters you’re left with what eventually becomes a chore to watch after the first thirty minutes. 

The biggest surprise in the movie is a good chunk of the dialogue in Blood Heat is spoken in English, Japanese, Cantonese, and a little bit of Korean in the film just for added measure. More surprising is the acting in the movie is pretty solid. Kane Kosugi is the film leading action star. Doing all his own stunt he more than has the physical abilities to carry a movie. Looking proficient in his fight sequences, and being able to perform his fight scenes with ease like many famous onscreen martial artists. His commitment on the action makes it a shame he hasn’t gotten many opportunities to take the leading role. Although, that could be do to his middling acting abilities. He’s able to make awkwardly written English dialogue sound when he delivers it, and his Japanese dialogue he’s able to put a bit anger in his delivery. He simply lacks range in his acting ability always looking angry in nearly all of his scene. Kane Kusogi also lacks charisma explaining his lack of comedy scene, or long takes during dramatic portions past a certain point in the movie.

Most disappointing performance is easily from Show Aikawa who can’t do anything in his role because of his limited time. Best he could provide for his character is simply putting on sunglasses, and looking cool. Caring about him, or his character he’s unable to do anything on that front. Same with Misato Tachibana who who plays Show Aikawa sister isn’t in the film much either. Both of these actors lack of screen time make is made very evident in sequence that meant to be the dramatic height of those two character arcs, but nothing emotion is gained from it. Masaya Kato is enjoyable over the top as the film’s main villain. His line delivery are simply blissful when spouting out ridiculous English dialogue you simply can’t take him seriously. When speaking in their native language the Japanese actors are okay to mediocre, but when speaking English it’s pretty rough at times. Although, some of it is to blame on the awkward, and at times grammatically incorrect English dialogue.

qyedr7
Not even the glass is spared in this fight sequence.

The fight choreography is handled by Jackie Chan’s stunt team regular Ming-Sing Wong. Creating Hong Kong style action with the look of Japanese cinema. For the first half of the movie, the action sequences are on par with Hong Kong action cinema. Choreography is creative in its limited setting, typically in tight corridors with little room for error. Kane Kusogi fighting a dozen men in a hallway is the obvious highlight with slight usage of wire work. This fight sequence is tight being able to actors in the background waiting for their que to attack. Hiding the background actors expertly as the choreography has Kane tossing henchman like rag dolls to the people in the hallways. When someone attacks Kane, the cinematography keeps anyone in the background out of frame placing the focus on Kane, and the single person he’s fighting in that moment. This is one smooth, and seamless looking action sequence.

Making it a shame the remainder of the action sequences are lame. The cinematography isn’t as tight with Kane fight against Joe Lee is the sleepiest fight in the movie. Having some sparse shots where contact isn’t made when trading blows. Joe, and Kane Kusogi fight in the Muscle Dome suffers from one sided nature. At first Kane Kusogi is pummeling Joe Lee, but than the reverse happens once Blood Heat kicks than Kane Kusogi gets beaten without using any counter maneuvers. This is a boring fight since both actors are clearly capable of doing complex choreography, but the baffling decision to not show Joe Lee, and Kane Kusogi on some kind of even ground makes the long fight sequence dull. Then comes the climax which is also disappointing, and the slowest fight sequence in the movie. All to this point all the previous action sequences had actors performing them at normal speed. In the climax, Kane Kusogi, and actor Masaya Kato fight with sledgehammer, and it’s slow moving. Revealing the setback of having two actors fight with sledgehammer as both simply trade blows, and dodge without doing anything impressive in the matter. Once both actors drop the sledgehammers, both knee cap each other before throwing a single flying kick ending the fight. You don’t get to see the final blow in the fight as it cuts to black! Talk about anti-climatic.

vpdlpz
And one last gif of Kane Kosugi doing something cool. His own stunts.

Blood Heat is the definition of brainless action cinema, and on some level it can be enjoyable on that front. It’s tries it hardest to be a Hollywood level action blockbuster, but without the budget it falls more in line of B-movie with some competent production values, some competent action sequences, and a competent enough lead in Kane Kusogi to carry the film. Bad aspects are obviously the poor writing unable to develop anything engaging, and bad direction that’s unable to visually tell its story, nor pace it properly. If you’re ever in the mood for brainless entertainment that’s somewhat watchable Blood Heat is not a bad choice, but otherwise you ain’t missing much in this little film that couldn’t cut it for the big leagues.

Rating: 4/10

Cinema-Maniac: China White (1989)

I’ve seen many films, and been disappointed plenty of times even with reasonable expectations. Once you’ve seen the many noteworthy films in the action genre the more obscure titles you’ll have to take a gamble on. Granted, I haven’t written anything about a good portion of those noteworthy action movies, but sometimes the prospect of tackling something not widely discussed intrigues me more over something that is well praised, and regarded. Having a huge respect for action cinema than probably your average blogger/reviewer who writes about action cinema. Movies like China White further hammer in the point why action cinema is frequently criticize for their bad stories, and bad acting.

rrwod6
In 10 seconds, Russell Wong avoids getting killed three times

China White follow brothers Bobby Chow (Russell Wong) and Danny Chow (Steven Vincent Leigh) want control of Amsterdam’s Chinatown for their drug trade in the midst of an escalating between the Italian, and Chinese mafia. Now, that sounds like a blast of an Hong Kong style action in a U.K. setting you might be thinking. The final product falls significantly short of its somewhat interesting setup due to its inability to focus on a single point. For starter, the character of Bobby Chow, and Danny Chow are developed decently in the story. However, the film isn’t interested in showing these two blood brother bond, and the struggles they must overcome in the violent criminal world they are a part of. Bobby, and Danny spend around half of the movie together, and then the other half both are separated from each other with the viewer only seeing Bobby side of events. When it wants to show some kind of drift between Bobby, and Danny it’s quickly brushed aside. Considering the movie spends a good chunk of the first half developing these two characters it’s misdirection in how it uses them effects the impact it desires to have.

While not required it does have a romantic subplot which yes litters action cinema in drove, even if the film could be stronger without such a thing. In the case of China White it got it partially correct. Bobby first interactions with Anne (Lisa Schrage) aren’t ones filled with romantic intentions. Starting off on the right foot in getting them to start out as friends. However (again), once Anne gets rescue in the film the relationship between Bobby, and Anne quickly takes a more romantic turn, and it’s unconvincing because it’s rushed. After Anne gets rescued there’s no recovery phase for her to get over her near death experience. It’s just brushed over like the development of Anne, and Bobby relationship. It practically goes from Bobby, and Anne having sex to the next important scene they are planning a trip to Paris before something tears them apart.

Another part of its grand story is the initial storyline of Bobby Chow, Danny Chow, and their comrades taking vengeance on the criminal boss who took out their father figure. This part of the story is pretty thin in actual value, but simply having them be themselves makes a thin idea work well. It easily gets across these people respect their father figure, and establishing a good sense of gratitude towards him. It’s unfortunate that after a flashback sequence which yes brings the movie to a halt that it is unable to expand on the idea. This is to blame on the romantic subplot, and also the subplot of the police officers trying to capture our main criminal characters. It’s unable to juggle all of it pieces into a coherent narrative easily  making things get lost in the shuffle. Meaning you have aspects of the story that start out initially working well, but deteriorate in quality as they go on.

China White 01
No one in the background looks suspicious at all

Lastly, the biggest downfall of the film’s story is the uneven pacing. The film’s act is paced well setting up the characters, and small bits of an overarching story in good fashion. Sure some of the dialogue is unnatural, though it has little hiccups in actually telling a story. Act one only big drawback is a flashback that’s bring the movie to a halt to provide some backstory. It’s well intended, but since the film is all over the place the flashback unintentionally harms the overall quality in the long run. There’s a lack of raising action due to the fact Bobby, and the gang easily obtain resources to launch their big plan for vengeance which skips plenty of steps. The final act is where the film suffers the most from rush pacing. Whereas the first hour of the film did somewhat well in holding itself together. It’s the remainder forty minutes where it all comes crashing down.

Plot points that were meant to resonate fall flat from glossing over character building rendering significant characters death lackluster. Raising action is absent spending an uneven amount of time between the main conflict, and the conflicts in its subplots which aren’t granted enough time to be properly fleshed out. Leading to resolutions to storylines that will make you feel nothing in the journey. There’s also the ending text crawl saying this movie was based around true events, even though it has cheesy elements ripe in the action genre like going oversea (half the time it’s Thailand) to expands drug trade, main villain having evil henchman doing their every bidding, villains & heroes being able to kill people in public (sometime in broad daylight) without long term repercussion, the protagonist love interest getting pregnant, and the police letting a criminal get away with a murder once against someone they hate to name a few.

I wrote earlier before the film’s does a somewhat decent job developing its leading characters, but its actors are plain wooden. Our lead is Russell Wong, and he is incapable being charming, and showing many range of emotions. His biggest issue is he’s mostly stoic in his facial expression, and there’s hardly a change in his tone of voice when delivery dialogue. When’s he meant to be tough he doesn’t come across as tough. If Wong is meant to be charming his wooden delivery, and stoic expression will make you question how he manage to get a woman with a lack of personality. The only time he’s somewhat convincing is during his action sequences because he has no lines to speak, and even those get ruined by some awkward choices. Also, he sounds really unnatural when speaking English dialogue. Almost robotic in delivery simple sentences. Russell Wong other co-stars fare about the same also sharing Russell Wong lack of range. Steven Vincent Leigh doesn’t come across much of a gangster, but since he’s given as much wide ranging material he fares better. He’s typically has to look upset, or tough in his scene. The only one in the supporting cast was Victor Hon as One Hand, and that was because he was at least trying to do his best in his limited role. The Chinese actors are largely speaking in their native language are fine, but sadly the stars speak English in a unconvincing manner making the bad performances stand out more.

xvwxpe
Even in bad movies, I do appreciate stunt work

Surprisingly, the film has superstar Andy Lau, Alex Man, and a surprise appearance by Fui-On Shing who just keeps popping up in a number of obscure Kong Hong movies I keep checking out. Despite appearing only in the ten minute flashback sequence Andy Lau doesn’t fare much better. He simply looks like he wants to exit the production. Allegedly, Andy Lau, and Alex Man were abducted by force by the triads to be in the film. I say allegedly because apparently a lot of sources claim this is real, but I’m unable to find the blog post by Manfred Wong who confirms this on the internet. As for Fui-On Shing he’s the typical baddie, and that what he so well at playing. He’s a highlight in the movie, along with a lackluster Andy Lau who is still more engaging to see than his other prominent co-stars.

The western cast of the film fare slightly better. Out of the entire cast Billy Drago comes out the best as the film’s villain. He’s one note in his performance, but it’s that one note he’s able to nail by hamming it up. Instead of portraying his character in a realistic manner Billy Drago simply revel in his evil nature. Lisa Schrage does okay with her haphazard material. She isn’t allowed any opportunity to transition from one aspect of her character into another. However, she’s able to pull off her none-serious scenes well. Frank Sheppard plays a cop name Rasta (I’m not kidding), and it’s a stereotype performance. Providing a Jamaican accent while throwing the occasional “I told ya man” whenever on screen. It’s passable at best. Saskia van Rijswijk plays the classic silent henchwoman who doesn’t appear much in the movie, and aside from one fight sequence she doesn’t get any scene to stand out.

mqn4la
When mixed together, Chinese, and Italian gangsters are very explosive

Ronny Yu direction is one without confidence. He’s unable to make an assure experience being just as lost in juggling the film story just as much as the script. He’s also unable to overcome his actors weaknesses having long takes of his actors giving one bad performance after another. Where he partially does well is during the action sequences. The choreography in them is nothing special, but liven them up a bit. They would be exciting if it wasn’t for two things; Ronny Yu unnecessary use of slow motion, and his inability to show a connection between the camera & action choreography. For example, there’s a small skirmish between two criminals, and one of them pulls the pin of a grenade. The grenade isn’t seen with the only indication of a grenade pin being pulled being a sound effect. That’s not good action design. What’s also not good action design is some of the sloppy timing in the editing. There are a few instances where someone is shot, and takes seconds before the actor is shown reacting to getting shot. Sometime in slow motion!

When it infrequently comes together there’s nothing impressive about the action sequences. Gunfights are strictly of the cover, and shoot variety with little to visually make them interesting. Suffering from the cinematography not establishing the location, and what’s where. Not even the huge amount of sparks when bullets make impact liven things up. The brief instances of a choreograph fight are as good as it get because Ronny Yu tries to show them in a interesting way. Further hurting the movie is the film doesn’t know how to space out scenes evenly. The first half is evenly spaced out, but the second half saves it’s nearly absent until getting closer to the credits. When it gets to the climax, the action sequence is not worth the wait.

China White offers what you expect from a bad action movie from the rush writing in places, and the general bad acting from its cast. Feeling like the filmmakers weren’t yet ready to tackle a story with such big ambitions, and it shows throughout in the final product. Even action junkies won’t find much to enjoy in this mess of a movie.

Rating: 3/10

Cinema-Maniac: A Bittersweet Life (2005)

You normally wouldn’t be able to tell from the movies I regularly write about, but I’m actually a big fan of slow pace, character driven movies. Movies on the level of Blade Runner (1982), and its sequel Blade Runner: 2049 (2017) are movies that I am more than happy to just eat up. A strong character will always stay with me, even if I forget certain details about the story being told. In the case of the Blade Runner franchise, it’s biggest draw to me is that it never forgets the people, and their struggle in its story set among the bigger scope of events in them. The character driven films that stick in my mind, and remain is something I can never predict. It’s just something that happens either during the viewing of something, or overtime a character becomes further to my liking. It’s the latter example that happened with A Bittersweet Life; during my viewing experience I was engrossed with the movie, and it’s beautiful mixture of multiple genres. Once the closing credits started rolling did it dawn on me weeks later how much I enjoyed how its protagonist was handle among other things.

a-bittersweet-life-03a
Insert famous Godfather line “I’ll make an offer he can’t refuse” here

A Bittersweet Life follows high ranking mobster Sun-woo (Byung-Hun Lee) spying on his boss’s girlfriend while he’s away on a business trip. I know the synopsis doesn’t sound particularly interesting, but the less revealed about the specifics of where the movie goes the better the experience will be. This is a deliberately pace film; being film noir for the first hour before changing gear into a revenge, crime action film for the remainder of its run. It has the writing style of a art house movie in terms of progression, character growth, and exploring themes, but streamlined in a more simplistic manner. In its root, it tells a simple story that’s easy to understand. The most complex it gets story wise is how ambiguous, and generalize certain aspects of Sun-woo is, but never to the point where it just seems its vagueness is use to cover up weak writing.

What’s not cut, and dry is the lead character himself Sun-woo. Being character driven, Sun-woo is only taken out off screen when needed too. These Sun-woo-less scenes typically deliver exposition, but on some occasion reveal more about the kind of person Sun-woo is, and what people think about him. Very little shown about Sun-woo past from his perspective with most of what the viewer learning about Sun-woo coming from secondary sources. The few things that Sun-woo indirectly tells the audience about himself are generalize. For instinct, the first lines in the movie tells the viewer a young Sun-woo is crying because he a had a dream that can’t be true. Exactly how this works in the Korean mobsters underworld in its favor is part of its majesty. Much like the whole ordeal of dreams being unable to come true, most of Sun-woo feelings is shown externally hardly expressing himself with words. This especially applies in the first half portraying Sun-woo as a loyal, and obedient mobster to his boss. Using the simplicity of Sun-woo interaction to convey broad ideas.

a-bittersweet-life-furyosa
Insert “What in the box?” reference from Seven here.

Sun-woo walks a thin line between being a one dimensional character, or a husk of a character to tackle broad themes. Thankfully, what prevents Sun-woo from being a bad character is it somewhat ambiguous nature. Due to its using broad ideas like dreams, beauty, and love for it themes it never dares to confirm anything for the viewer. However, because of how it structure in the first half the viewer is extensively shown Sun-woo reaction towards everything. It through this first half that establishes the dark reality that Sun-woo lives in, pent up frustration he must release, and starting to question the orders he’s given for the first time in life. Seeing what kind of world he lives in, and slowly revealing who Sun-woo truly is. 

This all eventually culminates in the second half of the film following the guidelines of what you would expect from a revenge, crime action film. You’ll get the eventual short bursts of violence, and bloodshed in the finale when Sun-woo finally seeks revenge. Surprisingly, it also shares a dark sense of humor. My personal favorite comedic bit involves Sun-woo meeting up two gun dealers for a deal, and end up with the two gun dealers arguing so much they end up crashing their car. When the ending finally comes nothing about what the story, or what it was all intended to be about becomes any clearer to the viewer. Allowing the viewer to figure out what the specifics from the pieces it scatter around, and best part of all it earned a up to interpretation ending with the groundwork it laid out. One thing that is unquestionable about its story is that it definitely lives up to its title.

Lee Byung-hun is a scene stealer in a reserve, and personal performance. It’s a physically subdue performance spending the first half being quiet. Resulting in many scenes where the camera will simply focus on Lee Byung-hun reaction to things around him. His mannerism is well fitted for his character giving a professional aura around him with some hidden secrets. Providing a sense of a lost soul, and someone with pent up frustration. Masterfully transitioning into the second half where Lee Byung-hun receives more physically demanding scenes. In particular, an action sequence that requires him to make a messy escape from an abandoned building surrounded by people wanting to kill him. Doing his action scenes, Lee Byung-hun makes the impossibility of a lone person taking on a dozen men look convincing. Even in the first half which has two fight scenes, Lee Byung-hun is so good one can be fooled into thinking he’s some kind of martial artist. He’s gives it his all in his performance, and it’s worth the price of admission alone.

pzqjoy
Lee Byung-hun being a badass

Supporting cast gets overshadow by Lee Byung-hun impressive performance, but they also get to shine whenever on screen. Shin Min-ah gives the most vulnerable performance in the cast. Unlike her male co stars, she doesn’t play a character within the criminal world. Allowing her to be more lively compare to her co-stars, and allowing her to build her performance around being ordinary. Kim Yeoung-cheol who plays the crime boss is excellently cold in his portrayal. Coming across as ruthless, and understanding simultaneously. It’s certainly his more control angered scenes that allows him to display his influence over Lee Byung-hun. There’s also Hwang Jung-min who does well playing the arrogant, and ruthless son of a rival family. Holding nothing back in his portrayal.

Lastly, Kim Jee-woon who directed, and wrote the movie did an outstanding job. He treats every tool at his disposal to tell his story equally. Be it his carefully chosen music featuring Spanish-inspired guitar pieces, techno, pseudo classical violin pieces, and jazzy/salsa influenced guitar riffs that perfectly coincide with the ever changing moods. The cinematography that is intimate during it dramatic portions, sweeping during it action sequences to see masterful action choreography very clearly, and simply moody & dreamlike with its lighting to create a noir atmosphere. The editing is seamless, especially during the fantastic action sequences were it all flows naturally. Finally, his best trait in this movie is his restraint to go too much into any genre convention, and his trust on the audience to embrace his deliberate storytelling.

A Bittersweet Life combines elements of film noir, art house cinema, action, black comedy, and gangster film into one beautiful package. Offering enough of each genre it blends together to satisfy both casual viewers, and movie enthusiasts of all kind. It’s the type of movie that is engrossing in several different way, and exceeding expectations in area you wouldn’t expect from it. Pulling of what art house cinema is best at, but with the streamlined execution of a mainstream movie that can appeal to anyone when accomplished this perfectly. 

Rating: 10/10