The Saddest Music In The World

by Guy Maddin (2003, Canada)

Not having been familiar with Guy Maddin’s previous work in a career that spans the last 15 years or so, I had no point of reference as the first black-and-white flickers of the reels began, and a vaseline-smeared camera crawled its way into a scene of a couple visiting a quite arresting figure, a fortune-teller in theatrical finery reading futures in a block of clear ice.

The couple turns out to be Chester Kent (Mark McKinney of Kids In The Hall fame) and his lover, the singly-named temptress Narcissa, ably played by Maria de Medeiros.  We find the two in Winnipeg, Canada, when they hear over the radio in a local pub the announcement of a contest sponsored by the Port-Huntley Brewery through the auspices of its owner, Lady Port-Huntley, a thrillingly bitter woman who is missing both legs.

The film’s visible plot, this contest to find “the saddest music in the world”, is little more than a farce and quickly becomes recognizable as the standard sports team plot, the home team winning its way through the crucial tournament.  However, the story is a clever one, commenting with admissibly sophomoric jabs on the commercial possibilities of emotion.

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A Man Who Went To Mars

by (2003, South Korea)

Just so you know, this film is not 174 minutes long, like it says on the DVD packaging (and HKFlix’ details page).  In fact, it only runs 105 minutes, well shy of being a 3 hour epic.  However, after watching the film, I sort of found myself wishing it had been 174 minutes long.  Not because I’m a huge fan of 3 hour epics, or a tremendously huge fan of sappy Korean melodrama (something this movie has in spades), but because I found myself thinking that, with a longer running time, perhaps something more substantial might have taken place.

Right from the start, the film’s premise is ripe for that sappy melodrama I mentioned earlier.  In a remote country town, Seung-Jae and So-Hee have been best friends, ever since So-Hee’s father died when she was a little girl.  Believing that her father is waiting for her on Mars, So-hee writes him constantly.  Feeling sorry for her, Seung-Jae convinces the local mailman to give him all of So-Hee’s letters so that he write back, pretending to be her dad.

While at first it seems like a cruel joke, it becomes obvious that Seung-Jae has a bit of a crush, always taking care of So-Hee and defending her.  But when So-Hee’s grandmother gets too old to take care of her, her aunt comes and takes her off to the big city, leaving Seung-Jae to pine away for her.

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The Work Of Director Michel Gondry

by Michel Gondry (2003, United States)

The timing couldn’t have been better.  Now that Michel Gondry has thoroughly floored audiences and critics alike with the surreal work of brilliance that is Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, it’s a perfect time for Directors Label to really push this disc.  People are obviously leaving the movie dazzled, and chances are more than a few of them are going to want to know where this Gondry cat came from, and what else he has done.

I first perused this DVD a few months ago, so I sort of knew what to expect going into Eternal Sunshine… (though to say Gondry exceeded my expectations is a gross understatement).  After being dazzled by the movie for a second time, I came home and popped in this DVD as a sort of refresher.  And I found it, in some ways, even more enjoyable the second time around.  The Work Of Director Michel Gondry, which pulls together a number of the man’s music videos, short films, and other assorted works, not only provides an incredibly indepth overview of the man’s portfolio, but also some great insight into his creative process and just what it is that fuels that process.

Even scanning just a small portion of this DVD’s content reveals a couple of things about Gondry’s work.  First of all, he loves toying with reality.  And not just the reality contained within the context of his videos, like the kaleidoscopic waking dream in The Chemical Brothers’ “Let Forever Be”, but also the viewer’s concept of reality.  There were several moments, such as Cibo Matto’s palindromic “Sugar Water” or Kylie Minogue’s “Come Into My World”, when I found myself scratching my head and rewinding, wondering if I’d really seen what I just saw.  Trying to wrap my head around what Gondry seems to pull off with such ease can often be quite a brainmelter.

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Last Life In The Universe

by (2003, Thailand)

Tadanobu Asano is Japan’s answer to Johnny Depp.  Like Depp, Asano is blessed (cursed?) with pop star good looks and could have easily lived out the teen idol fantasy doing pin-up spreads in Japan’s equivalent to Seventeen and Tiger Beat magazine.  But like Depp, Asano has chosen to turn his back on mainstream pop culture, instead starring in a series of cult films that has made him Japan’s reigning king of quirk cinema.  And again, like Depp, thanks to his continual reinvention of himself as a performer, Asano has become one of the most sought after Japanese stars, appearing in films from the likes of Takashi Miike, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and Takeshi Kitano.  Asano’s presence in a film is a nearly surefire mark of quality and it was purely on the basis of his presence that I sought out the just-released Thai film Last Life In The Universe.

Asano stars as Kenji, an isolated and obsessively neat Japanese man living on his own in Bangkok, living a quiet life as a librarian at the Japanese Cultural Center.  His apartment is a sterile, cold place, almost entirely devoid of any color with his possessions - mostly stacks upon stacks of books - fanatically organized by size, shape, color, etc.  Kenji is also suicidal, openly entertaining death fantasies and wondering what comes next - a topic he has evidently dwelt upon for quite some time.

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Ong-Bak

by Prachya Pinkaew (2003, Thailand)

The plot of Ong-Bak is about as simple as you can get, even for a martial arts film.  The welfare of a remote Thai village is protected by the Ong-Bak, an ancient statue of Buddha.  One night, a group of thugs come into the temple and take off the statue’s head, and as a result, a curse descends on the village, Temple Of Doom style.  Ting, an orphan who was raised in the temple, vows to find the head and return with it.  And so, with just the clothes on his back and a handful of cash, this bumpkin sets off for the big city.

Thankfully, however, Ting also happens to be a master of the brutal art of Muay Thai kickboxing.  Which, naturally, is going to come in very handy over the next 90 minutes or so for kicking epic proportions of ass.

When Ting arrives in the city, he hooks up with the estranged son of the village chief, a two-bit hustler whose name just so happens to be (I kid you not) Dirty Balls, and whose schemes (and name) provide much of the film’s comic relief.  Dirty Balls’ partner in crime, a scrappy young girl with one of the shrillest voices in the world, also tags along, having taken a shine to the strong, silent villager.

Over the course of the movie, the trio mixes it up with drug dealers, archaeological thieves, gangsters, illegal boxing matches, and all other manner of underhanded types.  Like I said, the movie’s plot is about as simple and predictable as it gets, serving only to provide a little breathing space between the fight scenes.  Of course, the fight scenes are the real reason why anyone watches martial arts movies (and anyone who tells you otherwise, myself included, is lying through their teeth), but that’s triply so with Ong-Bak.

At this point, I want you to pause and ask yourself how much cinematic ass-kicking you can handle.  Now be honest.  If your only experience comes from Jean Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal movies, or worse yet, Don “The Dragon” Wilson movies, you’re simply not ready for this one.  Trust me.Those movies have the appearance of action, but it’s all fancy editing and camera tricks.  Go rent a few Bruce Lee movies and then come back when you’re ready.  If you’ve made it through early Jackie Chan and Jet Li movies, like Drunken Master 2 and Fist Of Legend, you’re getting closer.  But even then, you’ll need to think long and hard before going into Ong-Bak.

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