Films Retrospective 2003 / Top 10 Favourite films poll ( not in any order of merit )

For complete list of films watched, please click on the comments box.

1)The Pianist ( Roman Polanski )

2)Tasogarei Seibei ( Yoji Yamada )

3)Lord Of The Rings The Return of the King ( Peter Jackson )

4)Matchstick Men ( Ridley Scott )

5)Tale of 2 Sisters ( Kim Ji-Wun )

6)Hero ( Zhang Yimou )

7)City of God ( Fernando Meirelles )

8)The Hulk ( Lee Ang )

9)Finding Nemo ( Andrew Stanton )

x)Swimming Pool / Bon Voyage ( Francoiz Ozon/Jean Paul Rappaneau )

A bountiful year for the cinema, having watched about a hundred films altogether, give or take a few that I’ve missed the ticket stubs. This year especially we saw the closure of 3 trilogies, Hollywood behemoths The Matrix series, Lord of the Rings and our asian Infernal Affairs, some more palatable than others, but all highly anticipated. The Singapore Film Festival still proves a valuable event for catching good foreign films, although often with clashes in schedules.

Notable misses include Chen Kaige’s Together, and a few films from the recent German Film Festival, but I believe we still have a chance to catch Goodbye Lenin. With outstanding films like Korea’s Memories of Murder failing to show up in theatres ( hitherto at least ), it proves more so that outsourcing non hollywood fare on magazines and websites are imperative if we want to catch them, on dvd at least. ( David Cronenberg’s Spider, Shunji Iwai’s All About Lili Chou Chou, Intacto, just to name a few. )The rest of the local population at least, will never know what they are missing.

Dec 29th 2003
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It is my policy to never purchase dvds of films that I’ve not seen at the theatres online, a rather bizzare and perhaps antiquated school of thought seeing the cinematic experience as a rite of passage, a self imposed vetting process before the film can be canonized, elevated to dvd-worthy status. However, because of inherent market forces at work that favours the mainstream blockbusters releases rather than your occasional arthouse film, a considerable number of excellent foreign films ( read non hollywood ) slips past our theatres without ever been noticed, save for some limited screenings at our annual Singapore Film Festival packed into 2 short, hectic weeks.

Now this is when the exception to the rule appears. Sometimes the obssessed film purist, having done some homework and research, will take the plung, calculated risks to import contraband, films that have yet gone through artistic apotheosis. So far there’s been a fair share of hits and misses, with films like I.G’s lacklustre anime Blood, and highly accomplished Korean film Take Care of My Cat, which I had missed at the film festival.

This time round, I struck cinematic gold.

Between the years of 1986 and 1991, a small village in Korea’s Gyeonggi Province was witness to the rape and murder of 10 women, all in the same groteque and brutal manner. Korea had never before experienced serial murders of this kind, and an intense media frenzy and police investigation followed. As the murders continued to take place over the years, investigators grew more desperate, at one point even consulting a shaman who advised them to move the gate of the police station to a more favorable location (which they did, to no avail). Ultimately all their efforts would be in vain, and to this day nobody knows who the murderer was or whether he is still alive.

In 1996, the poignant memories of this incident were reshaped into a successful stage play directed by Kim Kwang-rim. The dramatic intensity of the story attracted the interest of several filmmakers who wished to make a film of the material, but ultimately it would be Bong Joon-ho, the talented director who debuted in 2000 with Barking Dogs Never Bite, who would be charged with the task. Bong took the stage play and, consulting historical documents, wrote a screenplay focusing on two of the police investigators. Bong’s primary addition to the material was to highlight the era in which the murders took place — a time in which the Korean populace was struggling to shake off its authoritarian and militaristic past.

The end result is perhaps Korea’s biggest event film since Joint Security Area, a masterfully directed, superbly acted film which is at turns blackly humorous, thought-provoking, and horrifying. The film stars top actor Song Kang-ho (JSA) and Kim Sang-kyung (Turning Gate) as two investigators, the former a local policeman and the latter a detective who comes from Seoul to assist in the case. The first part of the film focuses on the two men’s characters and the rivalry that builds between them. As time passes, however, the narrative becomes more complex, as our leads begin to transform under pressure and as we see references to the social situation in Korea at the time, when the government was too busy suppressing its own citizens to put resources into a proper investigation.

Although this movie features one of the best performances ever from Song Kang-ho, one of Korea’s most talented actors, the film’s amazing ensemble cast almost succeeds in stealing his spotlight. Minor characters such as the old police chief (played by Byun Hee-bong), the slightly retarded Baek Kwang-ho (played by theatre actor Park No-shik, who now has his own fan club), violent investigator Yong-gu (Kim Rae-ha, in his most prominent role to date), Song Kang-ho’s girlfriend Sul-young (played by Jeon Mi-seon, who was Han Suk-kyu’s old flame in Christmas in August) and the new police chief (Song Jae-ho, also in Double Agent) are only a few of the memorable characters created by this skilled cast. Park Hae-il from Jealousy Is My Middle Name also takes a role towards the end of the film that is sure to stay in the memory of viewers.

Another impressive aspect of this film are its visuals. The production set a record for using the most locations in any Korean film to date, in an effort to recreate the underdeveloped rural landscape of the mid-80s. Director of photography Kim Hyung-gu (who also shot Musa, One Fine Spring Day and Chen Kaige’s Together) creates striking images out of ordinary objects, with earthy browns and yellows painting an unforgettable portrait of small town life.

Recently, many critics have begun saying that Korean audiences no longer appreciate good films, that they prefer instead the light comedies that have dominated the box-office over the past couple years. The smashing popular success of Memories of Murder now acts as a counterweight to that argument, signalling that ambitious, serious, well-made productions in Korea still have potential if they can capture the imaginations of ordinary viewers. ( Review by Darcy Parquet, english subtitler for Memories of Murder )

Point in note : Music for this film was written by Taro Ishiwaro, a prolific composer who has done other outstanding music for films by Shohei Imamura, as well as the more familiar Japanese serial The Inanimate World, starring Nanako Matsuhimoto.

Easily one of the best movies I’ve seen this year, though sadly not in a theatre, where the emotional impact would have been exponential.

Dec 21st 2003

Over the last weekend right up till Monday morning I was involved in a 16mm short film production, my boss, having been the DOP of the shoot, have had me taking up the post of 1st camera assistant. Although I was rarely, if ever behind the viewfinder I must still say it has been an enriching experience learning the ins and outs of a film production, where my job scope was a multitude of varied tasks including prepping the SteadiCam for my boss, checking zoom and focus distance, as well as the dolly operator ( well, the guy that pulls the trolley lah ). Man I tell you that is tough. You have to be sure to keep a constant speed at all times to achieve a smooth dolly, something which the very experienced bunch of gaffers and grips have told me, requires a considerable amount of “feeling”. Just pushing a goddamned trolley right, what’s so hard ? My foot. I make it a point to be more appreciative of all the steadiCam and dolly shots in future films that I watch.

Watch out for the screening of the short film on Arts Central soon.

Nov 20th 2003
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Watching 2 ultra violent films back to back was not the easiest way to spend a peaceful, idyllic Sunday, but they were films that I had already planned to watch beforehand. Descriptive words like “empty”, “void” and physical, frenzied parodying of the “human blood fountains” were attributed to the movie Kill Bill by one of my friends. ( whose taste in film happens to be slightly different from mine ), However, he remained solemn and relatively quiet after the Japanese film Brother, whose stark and realistic portrayal of bloodied gunfights and Yakuza honour, as well as pathos ending the night with an air of eerie stillness. Violence can see so many different forms.

Oct 20th 2003
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First day of work, Wizards of Light. Its a photography studio covering commercial photo work, running the gamut from product to fashion shoots. Today the term desk bound job ceases meaning for me ( yes, I still have a desk, albeit spending less than five minutes at it for the entire day ), with 2 fashion shoots packed back to back, in between buying Milo “bing” and Marlboro Menthol Light for my lead photographer and the clients, I must say its quite a change for a job.

Not that I’m complaining though, learned quite a few things today, tons more to pickup, but we’ll see if this photographic passion of mine will stand the test of time.

Oct 15th 2003
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Watching Len Wiseman’s UnderWorld, then Yoji Yamada’s Twilight Samurai in one evening was a jarring, cinematic dichotomic trip. These are the last 2 films that anyone should be comparing by virtue of their vastly different, intrinsic genres but it was interesting to note.

1) UnderWorld is Len Wiseman’s directorial debut, uninspiring start; Twilight Samurai auteur filmmaker Yoji Yamada’s no 77th ( I’m not sure if I’ve even watched 77 Japanese films hitherto ) film, a masterful piece.

2) Where the latter was a film graced by its use of quiet, cinematic sublety ( in a scene where a simple holding of hands was sufficent to create an intense carthasis and emotional emancipation ), the former is sucked void of any, ( a supposed romantic kiss exchanged between the 2 protaganists had about the same blandness if one were swallowing chalk. )

In this respect as least, less is certainly more. Glad I watched it in the right order, or it would’ve been a bad evening all the way.

Oct 5th 2003
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Korean director Kim Ji-Wun’s beautifully shot horror film A Tale of 2 Sisters is a compelling, albeit somewhat confusing tale of a dysfunctional family dealing with the return of 2 sisters upon recovering from a rare and unknown illness. The presence of any supernatural forces is quickly played down here, rather employing more implicit methods of intimidation that are by far the more scary and effective.

Whilst we seldom associate beauty with horror, the latter preferring subjects of grotesqueness and fear as bedfellas, A Tale of 2 Sisters succeeds in the cinematic marriage of the 2 with its elegantly staged camera work; often indulging in long, aptly paced shots of the largely vacant household interior as it takes relish in plunging the viewer headlong into the suffocating reek of the morbid tension, until the silence finally claws and screams for a release. The informed colour palette adds further strength to the mood and visual style with saturation jacked up to almost superfluous levels; blacks in the film are graded so intense they threaten to suck you into an endless, horrifying void, whilst the reds and ochre so vivid you can almost lean forward and smell the coppery reek of blood. At the end, the images will leave you fairly disturbed, but its intrinsic beauty will beckon for your attention more.

Certainly one of the more classy and calculated horror flicks I’ve watched of late, once again vindicating Korea as a filmmaking powerhouse.

Aug 26th 2003

The Medallion Sucks.

I haven’t seen such hogwash in a long long time. Now there was this HK movie couple years back starring Leon Lai called Bullets of Love that came close, but The Medallion sets a whole new record for traumatic cinematic experience.

This is so bad, its not funny.

Aug 21st 2003
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“Marriage is a Crazy Thing” is one interesting movie. There’s just something indescribably honest and introspective about Korean arthouse films ( notable are 2 other films, “One Fine Spring Day” and “Take Care of my Cat” ) that I am unable to describe lucidly with my limited vocabulary and lexicon but which I shall dub as the “korean aesthetic” for easier referencing in the future. Only this time, it takes on a more adult theme with some fairly explicit love scenes, but that hardly gets in the way of good storytelling.

Here’s an illuminating review : http://www.koreanfilm.org/kfilm02.html#marriage

and ditto : http://www.asiandb.com/browse/movie_detail.pfm?code=5293&mode=review&num=475

Go watch it before its gone.

Jul 27th 2003
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As much as I enjoyed Ang Lee’s treatment of the story and the movie itself, let’s leave the debate on the merit of the show and talk just about Mr Green himself.

ILM’s rendition of the Hulk has been nothing short of breathtaking. ( One writer in a local newspaper passed him off as been “rubbery”, and I’ve since dispatched David Banner’s mutant mouse after her, god bless. ) For the uninitiated, computer graphics are terribly afraid of a few things : close ups ( and we’re talking full, cinema resolution ), water/wet skin, green or not, and notably, bright scenes with lots of sunshine and daylight, because its excruciatingly hard to blend CG and make it believable in such conditions. But here, the Hulk is just flaunting it, plain. In the scene where he bursts out of the containment chamber, water spewing and hands raised in rage, I might as well have believed that he was a living, breathing Hulk. Let’s not even get started on the desert scenes.

Realism aside, my favourite scene has to be the electrifying shot of father and son, rocketing through the sky, their silhouettes etched onto passing clouds like giant impressionist paintings, coupled nicely with Elfman’s dramatic score.

Jun 22nd 2003
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I’m not entirely sure how the makers of the Japanese horror film Ju-on decided on the peerless tagline “The scariest movie ever made”; painfully it is anything but. Gimmicky publicity notwithstanding, no one still has the foggiest idea why folks are willing to spend good money to get spooked, myself a guilty party, albeit a terrible choice this time.

The premise and plot of the entire story, juxtaposed on a nonlinear timeline, escapes me completely so let’s just move on to the scare-o-meter. Woefully, this one barely registers a single hit, resorting so blantantly to cinematic devices already seen in more original films like Ringu and Dark Water, bordering on absolute banality and triteness. Developed photos getting wracked, ghastly figures peering into lifts, did I mention something wierd on TV ? In one particular memorable scene where the protaganist of the moment gets hunted down by her 3 dead friends, I was quite convinced that the filmmakers were on to a parody from Night of the Living Dead or the more recent Resident Evil, whichever one better.

“The scariest movie ever made ?” NOT ! Mr Nakata please, we’re still waiting anxiously.

Jun 16th 2003
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Pixar has outdone themselves once again with Finding Nemo, an animation feature so rich with overwhelming tapestries of colour and vibrancy its hard to appreciate with only one viewing, and where the words “computer generated imagery or CGI” seem to lose coherence with what the eyes actually see on screen. As animators ourselves, me and my friends have expressed both awe and disbelief at the level of complexity and depth of the character animation, which is only achievable by a marriage of immaculate animation techniques and self acting on the part of the animator to immerse himself/herself into the role. And of course, we were more than happy to see David Tart’s name ( http://www.tartamation.com/tartamation/ ) as the credits rolled, an animator from Pixar that taught us for 3 days during a short program back in school. Yes, Pixar ok, don’t play play.

Jun 1st 2003
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