Saturday, November 24, 2007

I Am an S+M Writer

Futai no Kisetsu (2000)
Director: Ryuichi Hiroki
Cast: Ren Osagi, Yoko Hoshi, Jun Murakami, William Brian Churchill

Trying to broaden my horizons by watching some Japanese "pinku eiga" (softcore pornographic) films, I rented I Am an S+M Writer (Futai no Kisetsu, 2000) last night and was pleasantly surprised - especially for a genre that comes with more than its share of cultural baggage, commonly being associated with, in the words of critic Matthew Sanderson, "the sight of beautiful Japanese women suffering, and often subsequently enjoying, extreme bouts of sexual abuse at the hands of domineering male antagonists - violent partners, deranged kidnappers, maniacal rapists, and so forth."

To be sure, I Am an S+M Writer - which was based on a novel by Japan's most notorious author of "bound" literature, Oniroki Dan - contains overt erotic content and eyefulls of naked female flesh, but far from being just an exploitation film, this was an artful and humorous meditation on intimacy, marriage and Japanese sexuality. On the surface, it tells the story of the breakup of a marriage between an S&M porno writer (veteran actor Ren Osugi, best known stateside for his outstanding performances in Takeshi Kitano films - he's appeared in six so far, including Sonatine and Hani-Bi - and in Yoji Yamada's The Twilight Samurai) and his beautiful-but-neglected wife Shizuko (AV idol Yoko Hoshi). But it's really an examination between "false" over-intellectualized sexuality (the S&M writer's fetishistic/"perverse" literature which his wife dismisses as nothing more than "erotic nonsense") and "true," natural, physical passion.

Mr. & Mrs. K: Leads Ren Osagi and Yoko Hoshi

As Mr. Kurosaki, a successful writer of sadomasochistic novels, Ren Osagi is so determined to stay on top and be cutting edge in his craft, that he hires models/prostitutes to act out his fantasies in his house with his rope-tying assistant Kawada (Jun Murakami, who I had previously seen play a super-cool reporter in the live-action Cutie Honey). His wife Shizuko feels neglected, to say the least. She is much younger than her husband and drop-dead gorgeous, yet Kurosaki has neglected her, even admitting to his assistant that he hasn't slept with his wife in months. It gets to be too much for Mrs. Kurosaki when she witnesses a bound model being ravaged in her living room. Calling her husband a pervert, she makes him sleep in a separate room from that point on and takes up with a dim-witted blonde American hunk who she meets in her English class, Mac (played by the imaginatively named William Brian Churchill). Shizuko's flirting with a foreign gwailo ticks off not only Kurosaki, but his assistant Kawada, as well. But it isn't long before Shizuko tires of the American and sets her sights on seducing Kawada, the man who is adept at acting out the rope-tying-and-binding fantasies her husband writes about. At first merely curious about her husband's world, she soon finds herself falling in love with Kawada and their spontaneous love-making - which is everything her husband's writing is not. It is unscripted, spur of the moment - and hot!

Kurosaki finds out about his wife's infidelity with his assistant, but instead of becoming angry, he asks Kawada to detail every aspect of their affair so that he may use it as fodder for his novel. Meanwhile, with Kawada off dallying with Shizuko, Kurosaki tries to take over Kawada's rope-binding role with the hired models, to ill effect. Though excited, he is but an amateur at his very own game, unable to translate this titillation to fruition. As one model tells him, "you're a faker." Meaning, he can't walk it the way he talks it. It's still just an intellectual exercise to him and not true passion. One of the great ironies of the film is that his wife takes to S&M with a passion he can only dream of writing about and yet never the twain shall meet. The muse he was looking for was sleeping right next to him in his bed, living under the same roof, and yet he didn't see it.

Ultimately, Shizuko leaves her husband, but not for Mac or Kawada. They are merely studs with no intellectual depth, while her husband is all brains but no mojo. Shizuko has discovered her innermost sexuality and is the winner in the end, while the men are still grasping at straws - or rope bindings, as the case may be. Still, she gives herself to Kawada in a film-ending tryst that I will not soon forget, allowing Kawada one final act of supposed control and mastery, even though he doesn't know it is secretly a kiss-off. I'll never forget this final scene and her last words in the film. Bound and submissive on the bed (as pictured above left), she answers Kawada's query of what to do to her with the words, "Go anal." An act of seeming total submission is actually Shizuko in total control, for nothing is ever as it seems in this film. Roll credits. Wow!

Other than the initial seduction scene between Kawada and Shizuko in a cafe, which is filmed in real time with little dialog and seems to go on forever (easily 10 minutes - I was riding my exercise bike at the time and must have gone 5 miles during this stretch!), there is so much to rave about in this film. Like the great score (tango music put to very effective use, making the procedings play like comedy), the fantastic cinematography (the seaside images reminded me of Takeshi Kitano's Hana-Bi), and a great cast. In a 2004 interview with Midnight Eye, Hiroki cited the influence of John Cassavetes on working with his actors, saying "when we were making the film we spent a lot more time on the performances than for a normal pink film."

Yo, Yoko!
But for me the highlight was discovering my new favorite Japanese actress, AV idol Yoko Hoshi, who carries this film.

This Yoko's no Ono!: Yoko Hoshi, undulating

For example, as Kawada describes his sexual liasons with Shizuko to his sensai Mr. Kurosaki, director Hiroki's beautifully shot renditions are given their sexual charge by Yoko Hiroshi's spot-on interpretations. Whether slowly undulating in a bathtub or just sensuously sipping a glass of water while Kawada describes how exquistely Shizuko performed fellatio on him, the effect, highly erotic! Hiroki's technique in rendering these scenes by having his actress sip water or wash or even just slowly undress in her room is inspired and much more arousing than just cutting to the chase with exposed flesh.

Despite photos like this, Yoko Hoshi is a serious actor with an impressive body of work (I'm being serious!)

Yoko Hoshi hasn't done many films, but she should do many more. Searching the Internet I found lots of nudie cutie photos of her, but believe me, she is so much more. I think she's a fine actress and has a face and manner that has yet to be explored.

Continuing Education
My exploration of pinku eiga continues. I had read so much about how this naughty-but-nice (no genitalia please - we're Japanese!) film genre had provided a training ground for future "mainstream" auteurs like Hideo Nakata (Ringu) that I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I also rented Bastoni: The Stick Handlers (2002), a film promising an "intelligent look" into Japan's adult video (AV) industry by first-time director Kazuhiko Nakamura (a former AV assistant director) and Tattooed Flower Vase (Kashin no Irezumi: Ureta Tsubo, 1976) by rope-a-dope veteran Masuru Konuma (Wife To Be Sacrificed), who dedicated his life to Japanese pinku eiga (specializing in S&M), directing 47 films in more than three decades.

But I have to admit that I was disappointed. The former was pretty amusing (even including "simulations" of bukkake-style pop shots! - quite shocking for a mainstream indy release from the folks at tla releasing!) but had a lame, cop-out ending, and the latter - though visually interesting (especially the optical censoring and creative angles employed to shoot around the actors' "naughty bits"), had a jarring narrative style that was very hard to follow. Be that as it may, KIMSTIM (the world cinema company founded by Ian Stimler and Mika Kimoto in 1999) is releasing a lot of his work, and the work of other pinku directors, in an admirable collection of DVD releases under the "Kimstim Collection" imprimatur. I guess I'll check out his other works if only for their great titles - Erotic Diary of an Office Lady, Cloistered Nun: Runa's Confession - plus the fact that Hideo Nakata not only worked on some (Wife To be Sacrified), but even directed a documentary about Konoma-san, Sadistic and Masochistic (which is available only on Kimstim's Wife To Be Sacrificed DVD).

True Blue Ryu: Beyond the Pink
But Ryuichi Hiroki looks like the real deal, a promising auteur who looks ready to follow Nakata's lead in breaking away from his pinku past into mainstream success. In I Am an S+M Writer, he discovered that adding humor was the key to crossover acceptance, telling Midnight Eye, "I was aiming to make something that was like a pink film but that could be shown in mainstream theatres. It was amazingly popular. I really wanted to make a comedy film. I think comedy is really the flipside of serious sex. I wanted to make a film that people wouldn't necessarily approach as a pink film, because of these comedy elements. Most people can't go to pink theatres, for various reasons, so I wanted to do things the other way round - to bring pink film to the people!"

I think he succeeded, and I'm looking foward to checking out his Tokyo Trash Baby (Tokyo Gomi Onna) - his shot-on-digital video look at Japanese consumer society that was released the same day as I Am an S+M Writer - and the much-lauded Vibrator (another film featuring Jun Murakami) next.

Related Links:
Ryuichi Hiroki interview (Midnight Eye)
Ryuichi Hiroki Filmography (IMDB)
AV Idol Yoko Hoshi Nude Pictures
More Yoko Hoshi AV Pix
Yoko Hoshi Pix at Idol Cute
Yoko Hoshi Filmography (IMDB)
Pink Film (Wikipedia)

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Cinebeats & Let's Go J-Sound!

Websites of the Month (Nov. 2007)

Don't know how I stumbled across 'em, but these two sites are awesome and they just happen to be related:
"Adventures in Japanese Sound"
"Chronicling one woman's love affair with '60s & '70s cinema"

Call it a case of Hipster Boy meets Hipster Girl in San Francisco, where they share a love with all things related to Japanese film and music. Here's how the couple (pictured below) describe it on the Let's Go J-Sound website:

"In 1991 a guy (aka T3rtium Quid) and a girl (aka cinebeats) met and fell head-over-heels for each other. They spent much of their time from that day forward hanging out in San Francisco’s Japan Town and encouraging each other’s interest in things like Japanese music, movies, toys and food. This blog is a result of their 15 year relationship and their mutual love of music. You’ll find nothing but songs, videos and other various music related bits here. We hope you’ll enjoy exploring J-Sounds with a guy, his girl and their music collection."

Sounding Off
I knew I was in for something good when the first posting that greeted me on Let's Go J-Sound! was "The Face of Bibari Maeda." I had recently seen Hiroshi Teshigahara’s 1966 masterpiece Tanin no Kao (The Face of Another), which is part of Criterion's Three Films by Hiroshi Teshigahara DVD box set, and among the film's many weird scenes was a bar scene in which a Japanese woman sang a German drinking song. Well, it turns out this woman was none other than...Bibari Maeda (pictured at right)! And here was a whole article about her. She was apparently a halvsie - Japanese mother, American father - born in Canberra, Australia but raised in Kamakura, Japan. Though principally a singer, she had bit roles in films. Besides The Face of Another, she also appeared in Son of Godzilla (1967) and did voice work for the anime film Vampire Hunter D - Bloodlust.

J-Sounds Flickr Sets
But that's not all. Be sure to check out the Let's Go J-Sounds! Flickr link, too, because it's the best collection of '60s and '70s Japanese pop music pix you'll ever see, as witnessed in the sample below.

Sonny Chiba with The Peanuts

Beat Girl
Kimberly Lindbergs (below) is the auteur behind Cinebeats, "confessions of a cinephile."

For more on Ms. Kimberly, see the interview Detour Magazine conducted with her: "Meet and Greet: Cinebeats."

She told Detour Magazine that the name of her blog came about thusly: "The name Cinebeats sort of just came to me one night when I was watching Paul Naschy’s film Panic Beats. I love movies (Cine) and movie soundtracks (Beats), plus I’ve always liked old crime movies featuring wisecracking reporters who are “on the beat,” so I suppose I got some inspiration from old slang as well."

Her favorite films checklist includes Le Samourai (1967); Performance(1970); Contempt (1963); La Dolce Vita (1960); Hiroshima mon amour (1959); Blowup (1966); Danger Diabolik (1968); Modesty Blaise (1966); High and Low (1963); The Tenant (1976); The Innocents (1961); Youth of the Beast (1963); Blood and Roses (1960); The Brides of Dracula (1960); If…. (1968); 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968); Black Lizard (1968); The Face of Another (1966); The Collector (1965); The Italian Job (1969); Venus in Furs (1969); The 10th Victim (1965); The Misfits (1961); The Frightened Woman (1969); The Devils (1971); Jewel Thief (1967); and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966).

And she apparently loves Pizzicato Five (my fave Japanese group), so that makes her OK in my book - 'nuff said!

The first thing I saw on her site was her "DVD of the Week" review of the 1976 Japanese "roman porno" Tattooed Flower Vase, which I just seen on the shelves at Baltimore's best video store, Video Americain. This was a good sign, as it gave me all the info I needed to rent the film.

Cinebeats on Flickr
Be sure to check out the Cinebeats Flickr page, which has an impressive, high-res display of '60s and '70s movie posters, eiga, fashion, hairstyles, and Spanish macabro movie images.

And the Beat Goes On...
Kimberly also has a very snazzy looking MySpace page:

But there is so much more to be seen and heard and marveled at on these two sites than my prattling prose can convey. Like the beautiful images that accompany the informed text, the links to other cool film and music sites and blogs, etc. So stop reading this and go there. Now!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

You Can't Go Home Again

Jutai (Traffic Jam)
Japan, 1991, 108 minutes
in Japanese with English subtitles
Director: Mitsuo Kurotsuchi
Cast: Kenichi Hagiwara, Hitomi Kuroki, Eiji Okada

Digging through my Fibber McGee's Closet of unwatched videos, I came across this celluloid chestnut I picked up for $1.99 at Blockbusters but had never watched. It looked like a family-oriented commentary on modern Japanese life, one that I could give to my girlfriend's Japanese mother to watch over the holidays without worrying about disturbing scenes of bayoneting or sword-slashing, as featured in the bulk of my Asian film collection (needless to say I couldn't loan her T. F. Mou's gory Black Sun: The Nanking Massacre!) Fed up with all the Operation Orange Cone- and Department of Public Works-related street repairs that have torn up downtown Baltimore, I guess I wanted to see how the Japanese handled gridlock. Other than one of the worst soundtracks in history - featuring the blanched whitebread warblings of Kenny G. - I was not disappointed. In fact, I loved this bumpy road movie about the difficulties a salaryman's family encounters trying to make a 300-mile trek from Tokyo to a remote island in the Inland Sea in time to celebrate the New Year holiday with the salaryman's parents (whom he hasn't seen in five years) - and the sentimental ending had ole-softy-me near tears. But I didn't realise what a gem this film was until I started Googling and learned more about its stars.

The film stars Kenichi Hagiwara (pictured right), whose most famous film role was as Katsuyori Takeda
in Akira Kurosawa's Kagemusha (1980). According to Wikipedia, Hagiwara (real name: Keizo Hagiwara) was a 1960s pop singing star known to fans as Sho-Ken, the lead singer of "bad boy" group The Tempters. Sho-Ken apparently more than lived up to the Bad Boy image in his personal life. In 1983, he was found guilty of drug possession, in 1984 he was busted for drunk driving, and in 2004 he was convicted of attempted blackmail for making threatening phone calls to film producers about getting his fee. In other words, the perfect hothead to portray a cranky father/husband frustrated by traffic jams! (Click here to see a YouTube capsule of his career.)

But what else do we expect of rock stars than to be wild? Checking YouTube, I discovered a bunch of clips of The Tempters, who were purveyors of what the Japanese press called the '60s "Group Sound" or GS (a term allegedly coined for the genre by Blue Comets rocker Jackey Yoshikawa because of the difficulty his countrymen have pronouncing the R's in "Rock 'n' Roll"!) One reviewer compared them to The Left Banke, with "less melancholy and more hooks," while others called them the Japanese Rolling Stones. You'd never suspect Sho-Ken of being a bad boy by this promotional clip of the band:

And now I have to see this cool-looking movie that features The Tempters singing "Tell Me More"!:

Sho-Ken's wife in Jutai is portrayed by the lovely Hitomi Kuroki (real name: Shoko Ijichi, pictured at left), who may have the skinniest legs in the history of Japanese cinema (full disclosure: this is a turn-on, not a criticism!). I thought she looked familiar but couldn't place her until I checked the Internet Movie DataBase and discovered that she played the mother in Ringu director Hideo Nakata's Honogurai Mizu No Soko Kara (Dark Water, 2002). Nakata must like her because she's also in his newest film, Kaidan (2007), which looks to be a ghost story anthology in the style of Masaki Kobayashi's 1964 classic Kwaidan. Predominantly a TV actress, Miss Kuroki's filmography, though sparse, is impressive - especially in the horror genre. She appeared in the Japanese TV series Ringu: Saishusho (1999), as well as in Sada (1998), a film about the real-life geisha Sada Abe, who in 1936 strangled her lover and cut off his penis. Sada's story was previously filmed to notorious effect in Nagisa Oshima's controversial Ai No Corrida (In the Realm of the Senses, 1976) and Noboru Tanaka's "pinku eiga" version Jitsuroku Abe Sada (A Woman Called Sada Abe, 1975). These roles were, to say the least, the polar opposite of the meek, quiet, obedient Japanese wife and mother presented in Jutai. She also provided the voice of Helen Parr/Elastigirl/Mrs. Incredible in the Japanese dub of The Incredibles. But I don't think she's ready for voice-over work just yet; as the following pictures of her show, she still has leading lady looks at age 47:

Make up your mind: Hitomi still gorgeous? Yo!

Jutai: Film Reviews

Ok, about the film! Here's a review of this rarely screened (or written about) film from All Movie Guide's Jonathan Crow (full disclosure: Jonathan is no relation to Jim Crow):
During 1980s, at the height of Japan's economic power, the furasato (or hometown) boom struck. White-collar workers slaving for 12 hours a day only to face a two-hour commute began to fantasize of a simpler way of life in the rural countryside. Director Mitsuo Kurotsuchi parodies this phenomenon with Jutai. Former rock icon Kenichi Hagiwara plays service industry everyman who hawks expensive toys to yuppies in Akihabara, Tokyo's electronics district. Taking a vacation during the holidays, he piles his wife (Hitomi Kuroki) and two children in the car to visit his own furasato. Living in an idyllic little isle off of the southern island of Shikoku, Grandpa (Eiji Okada), who's half senile, and Grandma (Emiko Higashi), who's beyond chipper, eagerly await the arrival of their son and grandchildren. Unfortunately, between Tokyo and Shikoku is a traffic jam that would put the one in Jean-Luc Godard's Weekend to shame. Soon a five-day trip to a rural paradise turns into an epic journey into motorist hell, replete with a weak-bladdered child, hopelessly bad navigation skills, and a near head-on collision with a truck full of pigs.

And here a review from TV Guide online:
Despite a tendency to veer from its comedic points and idle along familiar stretches of plot, JUTAI is a bittersweet examination of family ties that bind but unravel due to distances both physical and emotional.

After slaving for his company, a husband (Kenichi Hagiwara) is rewarded with a few days' downtime. Packing up his devoted wife (Hitomi Kuroki), daughter (Ayako Takarada), and son (Shingo Yazawa), he heads for his island hometown and the elderly parents who eagerly await his return. Trying to economize by driving instead of flying, the beleaguered family are caught in a traffic tie-up of epic proportions. Nerves fray as hotel accommodations are non-existent on this holiday weekend. The family keenly feels each new unplanned-for set-back as lost time that could have been spent with the grandparents who have spared no expense in anticipation of their arrival. After being ripped off for a parking fee due to sleeping in their car overnight, the husband tears into his wife for inefficient map-reading that steers them off course. Several near-accidents later, the husband blows a fuse and walks out temporarily. More time is wasted as the son becomes ill. Despite the erosion of allotted trip time, the father decides to complete the abortive journey and enjoy at least a few hours with his disappointed parents. Although the vacation has been altered by unforeseen circumstances, the family still treasures their too-brief bonding with the husband's aged parents.

Ambitiously indicting both the lack of spontaneity in contemporary Japanese culture and its age-old patriarchal biases, JUTAI is alternately a comic odyssey about modern times and a melancholy flip through an album of family pictures. At times recalling TWO FOR THE ROAD (1967), this gentle dramedy also delves into the marital tensions that rise to the surface when everyone is at their worst behavior; every insult exchanged is really a payback for some repressed emotion the couple is afraid to handle directly. It seems ungenerous to carp about JUTAI's drawbacks given that the American equivalent would be a vulgar road flick like NATIONAL LAMPOON'S VACATION (1983), but the film does suffer from slack direction and repetition of incidents. If the filmmaker desired to set a rhythm with these variations on a theme, he doesn't fully succeed.

In place of the bigger laughs that sharper pacing might have ensured, JUTAI concentrates on character; its finest achievements lie in documenting how unfairly the husband blames his wife for each incident he can't control and in conveying the parents' unquenchable yearning to touch base with their distant son. Pointing a satiric finger at a universe rushing too fast to take stock of the tolls progress extracts, JUTAI explores the dissolution of the family unit. This is a deeply felt film about literal and figurative distances people must bridge; in a happy ending, not only do the relatives enjoy a reunion, but also the husband and wife symbolically find their way back home to each other.

Related Links:
Jutai - Internet Movie DataBase (Hitomi Kuroki's Japanese website)
The Tempters

Monday, November 19, 2007

Self-Help: By the Numbers

Redundant title?

I work in a library where people constantly come in looking for "self-help" books (aka self-improvement or self-actualization books), a catch-all for any type of self-guided improvement (economic, intellectual, or emotional), usually with a psychological or spiritual basis. The latest craze is Rhonda Byrne's The Secret, a get-enlightened-quick primer that, thanks to being hyped on Oprah, is insanely popular. (The "secret" is The Law of Attraction, which asserts that one's projected thoughts and feelings attract real events in the world into one's life. Various religions call this "prayer"; I call it total rubbish.)

It seems these books appeal to three basic types of people: the uneducated (who dream of getting rich/enlightened quick), the New Age-y (dilettantes who never tire of divining crystals/tea-leaves/runes or parroting the learned ways of ancient - and therefore "superior" - sandal-wearing cultures like India or China), and soul-less capitalists (Yuppies out to chase the filthy lucre). Personally, I find this genre to be nothing but a sham, offering easy solutions (in place of hard work or research) to life's problems with pseudo-scientific guidelines and pithy claptrap aphorisms. With a good press agent, Charles Manson himself could have become a best-selling self-help guru back in the day (Helter Skelter Freakonomics: Taking a Quick Stab at Success by Sticking It to the Man and the Brothers would not be an inconceivable title).

The phenomenon has long been the target of parodies, from Walker Percy's Lost in the Cosmos to W. R. Morton and Nathanial Whitten's Secrets of The Superoptimist. Wikipedia cites scholar Steve Salerno's assertion that the self-help movement (which Salerno refers to as SHAM, or "Self-Help and Actualization Movement") is not only ineffective in achieving its goals but also socially harmful because it emphasizes the individual rather than collective/societal solutions and acclimation.

One thing I've noticed is the popularity of numbers on the book titles, especially when outlining steps or referencing time - from the fast-track One-Minute Manager to that old rehab chestnut, The 12 Steps. I guess it's an old tradition, I mean Buddha had the 3-Fold Path to Enlightenment. And even Rhonda Byrnes' The Secret offers a 3-step program for fulfilling the Law of Attraction: "Ask, Believe, Receive." All you have to do to write a popular self-help book is break down any concept into easy-to-follow steps of numbers (five, seven, and 10 seem to be the most popular), and presto, you're a self-help guru.

Following is a random sampling of some popular self-help titles to be found on the shelves of your local library or bookstore. See what I mean?

The One-Minute Manager
Kennith H. Blanchard

Just One Thing:
Ten of the World’s Best Investors Reveal the One Strategy You Can’t Overlook

By John Mauldlin

The One Thing You Need to Know
By Marcus Buckingham

3D Negotiation
By David A. Lax

The 3 Day Energy Fast:
Cleanse Your Body, Clear Your Mind, and Claim Your Spirit

By Laura Lippman

The Three Pillars of Zen
By Roshi Phillip Kapleau

The 4 Disciplines of Execution
By Stephen R. Covey

Four Steps to Responsibility:
Techniques to Lead Children to Responsible Decision Making

By Jim Fay

The Five Lessons a Millionaire Taught Me About Life and Wealth
By Richard Paul Evans

The Five People You Meet in Heaven
By Mitch Albom

You Can Be Happy No Wonder What:
Five Principles Your Therapist Never Told You

By Richard Carlson

The Five Stages of the Soul
By Harry R. Moody

Six Promises for Emotional Well-Being
By Susan Forward

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
By Sean Covey

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families
By Sean Covey

The Seven Levels of Intimacy
By Matthew Kelly

The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Leadership
By Stephen R. Covey

The 10 Commandments of Pleasure
By Susan Block

10 Minutes to Relax
By Paul Overman

The 10 Natural Laws of Relaxation
By Hyrum W. Smith

Ten Stupid Things Men Do to Mess Up Their Lives
By Laura Schlessinger

Ten Stupid Things Women Do to Mess Up Their Lives
By Laura Schlessinger

21 Ways to Defuse Anger and Calm People Down
By Michael Staver

The 22 Biggest Mistakes Managers Make and How to Correct Them
James K. Van Fleet

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Guest Who's Coming To Dinner

TCM's Guest Programmer Month Marathon

Groening scores my top rating

This has been a great month for programming on Turner Classic Movies. Every weekday they're screening vintage film series like The Thin Man, The Saint, The Falcon, The Lone Wolf, Boston Blackie, Mexican Spitfire, Philo Vance, Dr. Kildare, The East End Kids/Bowery Boys, Booth Tarkington's Penrod and Sam, so on. And each weeknight starting at 8 p.m., they have a celebrity guest programmer who shows four of his or her favorite films as part of Guest Programmer Month.

Some have played it safe by selecting the obvious (for example, Donald Trump hedged his bets by picking the mainstream classics Citizen Kane, Gone with the Wind and The African Queen); some were very film school erudite (Gore Vidal's picks - Bette Davis in The Letter, the 1935 A Midsummer Night's Dream and That Hamilton Woman - were excellent, but TCM host Robert Osborne had to cut Vidal off when his comments veered towards giving a film seminar); some were surprising - Rose McGowen and Cybil Shephard's picks were unexpectedly great coming from actresses not known for being cineastes (though both married into film auteurism, McGowen via director Robert Rodriquez and Cybil via director Peter Bogdanovich), with Rose displaying a love of Robert Mitchum (Night of the Hunter, Out of the Past) and Cybil partial to Cary Grant (Notorious, His Girl Friday), Cybil even making the astute comment that "the back of Cary's head in Notorious is fabulous, even before you get to see that great face!"; and then there were the neglected gems uncovered by the oddball film fanatics whose tastes so closely mirror their personalities, from Neil LaBute's brooding cynicism (Ace in the Hole, This Sporting Life, The 400 Blows) to mystery author James Elroy's B-crime film noirs that time forgot (Stakeout on Dope Street, Murder By Contract, The Lineup, Armored Car Robbery). But the best of the programmers so far has been Matt Groening.

Matt Groening
Anyone who's seen The Simpsons' plethora of film references and spoofs or who's read his "Guilty Pleasures" article for Film Comment knows that Groening is a total film buff, a cineaste who as a kid would hang out all day in Portland's Broadway film district watching movies until his eyes were sore. He actually sat through three consecutive screenings of John Lennon's How I Won the War, which entailed suffering through its double-bill companion picture I Love You Alice B. Tolklas twice - now that's dedication!

For his November 14th night in the programmer's chair, Groening picked four goodies: Blues in the Night, Laurel and Hardy's Way Out West, Charlie Chaplin's overlooked The Circus and Paul Muni's classic I Was a Fugitive on a Chain Gang.

Blues in the Night
(Anatole Litvak, 1941, 88 minutes, b&w)
Doh! I should have taped this one because it's not commercially available on VHS or DVD. On paper it didn't look essential, but the minute I saw it featured Jack Carson - my all-time favorite character actor - I was hooked. But the best parts of this film were the crazily surreal montage sequences directed by Don Siegel, who would go on to direct gritty action films like Dirty Harry (1971). Groening commented that he first saw this film on TV at 2:30 a.m. one night, somewhere around the halfway point, in the middle of a montage sequence. Having no frame of reference as to what the film was about, he stuck with it. He told Robert Osborne that it's that kind of film" one you can tune in to at any point and find something of interest to make you stick with it.

Here's the trailer:

Leading man Richard Whorf, a kind of poor man's Robert Taylor, has one of the great character names: bandleader "Jigger Pine." Other cast notables include Ann Sheridan lookalike Betty Field as the femme fatale, perky Priscilla Lane as the equally greatly-named character "Character" Powell, and Dead End/East Side Kids regular Billy Halop - who surely possessed one of the most annoying voices in cinema history. Listening to him made me realize where Jerry Lewis got his annoyingly nasal retard voice. (Halop eventually ended his long career playing Burt Munson on All in the Family.) Director Elia Kazan also appears in this film as Nickie Haroyen, years before he became a writer-director-producer and Reds squealer of renown.

One IMDB usr commented "Everybody's heard of this movie because of the famous title song [composed by Harold Arlen with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, and winner of the 1941Academy Award for Best Original Song), but almost nobody's ever seen it." That's spot on; it's a definite one-of-a-kind that defies genre-typecasting, so if it comes on TV again, don't miss it!

Way Out West
(JamesW. Horne, 1937, 65 minutes, b&w)

Why this Laurel & Hardy out of all their canon? Because this was the one wherein Groening first heard "Doh!" - the frustrated groan that would later became synonymous with Homer Simpson. It was uttered a half-dozen times in Way Out West by character actor James Findlayson (pictured right) - and I think at least once by Oliver Hardy himself. Groening also credited Oliver Hardy's dainty finger mannerisms with being the source of Homer's similar fingerings and it's not too far of a stretch to see Hardy's influence on evil hand-twiddler Mr. Burns.

Added perks: Stan and Ollie perform a great soft-shoe shuffle dance...

...and the soundtrack includes musical numbers by the Avalon Boys, featuring Chill Wills as Stan's deep voice. Some of the incidental music was composed by Irving Berlin.

The Circus
(Charlie Chaplin, 1928, 69 minutes, silent, b&w)

Speaking of James Findlayson, I'm pretty sure I saw him make a cameo - with hair - as a sideshow extra in this underrated Chaplin film. The Mirror Maze scene is brilliant and anticipates a similar sequence in Orson Welles' The Lady from Shanghai (1947) by almost 20 years:

I couldn't stay up for Chain Gang, but it's a great one.

Staying Tuned...
Upcoming highlights include former Spy editor Graydon Carter presenting the film from whence his former magazine got its name, The Philadelphia Story (November 18), Tracey Ulman screening Britfilm curios Kes and Withnail and I - as well as comedic classics Born Yesterday and I'm All Right Jack on November 17, and former DEVO frontman Mark Mothersbaugh, who on November 29 will present Inherit the Wind, Elia Kazan's A Face in the Crowd, Fellini's Juliet of the Spirits and Hot Rods To Hell.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Once a Meat Head...

Always a Meat Head

This past Saturday I went to the Athenian Agora Greek Festival held at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation on Preston Street at Maryland Avenue and, after taking a tour of that amazing church, went downstairs to get something to eat in the building's basketball gymnasium-turned-cafeteria. As my GF grabbed a chicken breast the size of Dolly Parton's brassiere, I checked out the vegetarian options - having converted to vegetarianism almost a year ago. I settled on the Greek spinach-and-feta pie, or spanakopita.

Sitting down at a table with two young women, I noticed that one of the women had all veggie entrees, so we talked about Greek food options for vegetarians. This young woman attributed her avoidance of meat to her upbringing in the mostly vegetarian south of India and to her aversion to the smell of meat.

"So what made you convert to becoming a vegetarianism?" she asked.

I told her my decision was based strictly on the fact that my favorite Beatle, George Harrison, was one (I suspected that's why he always remained slender, even in the September of his years! Or maybe it was only because he smoked like a chimney stack!) and because another musical idol, Morrissey, had famously equated meat with murder.

She stared at me and blinked, then repied, "That's the lamest reason for vegetarianism I've ever heard."

"What can I say," I replied. "People always accuse me of being glib and shallow, so it makes sense that that's what brought me to the vegetarian table."

I guess I have to have a better cover story for the next time I'm asked to bare my meatless soul. Regardless, the spanakopita was delish.


Thursday, November 08, 2007

Ace in the Hole

A DVD Diamond in the Rough

I had forgotten how great this 1951 Billy Wilder film starring an over-the-top Kirk Douglas (as a cut-throat reporter milking the story of a trapped miner for his own ends) was until I saw it last night on Turner Classic Movies. It was one of guest programmer Neil LaBute's picks and if you've never seen it, do yourself a favor and check out the Criterion Collection DVD. Wilder not only directed the film but co-wrote the screenplay (which was nominated for an Academy Award) and, as a former reporter, he certainly knew his stuff. As one reviewer on YouTube put it, "The script is so good that you could actually taste and swallow the dialogue if that was possible." Douglas plays a down-on-his-luck New York reporter killing time at a small-time Albuquerque newspaper until a big story comes along that will earn him his ticket back to the big time on the East Coast. But he forgets the golden rule, "Tell the Truth," opting instead for faux sensationalism and personal glory. In this classic scene, he sells himself a job at a podunk paper:

Chuck Tatum, news-maker: "If there's no news, I'll go out and bite a dog."

I also love the speech Douglas gives at the end to the gathered media circus just after the trapped miner dies: "Go home. The circus is over."

The film also featured some cool cameos, like Jay Silverheels (Tonto of Lone Ranger fame) as a news room employee and Frank Cady (Sam Drucker from Green Acres!) as a Mobile Home tourist caught up in the media hype. In fact, Mr. Drucker provides one of the film's little in-jokes when he identifies himself as a salesman for Pacific All-Risk Insurance, a fictitious insurance company that Wilder featured in one of his previous films, Double Indemnity (1944).

And Jan Sterling as Lorraine Minosa, the cold-hearted platinum blonde wife of trapped miner Leo Minosa, is a Film Noir-ish femme fatale for the ages. As Douglas says to her at one point, "When they bleached your hair they must have bleached your brains as well!"

According to Wikipedia, the film was loosely based on the real-life events surrounding the 1925 entrapment and death of W. Floyd Collins in Sand Cave, Kentucky. "A Louisville newspaper, the Courier-Journal, jumped on the story of the imperiled Collins by dispatching a reporter named William Burke "Skeets" Miller to the scene. Miller's enterprising coverage turned the tragic episode into a national event and earned Miller a Pulitzer Prize. Floyd's name is also used in the movie as an example of a cave-in victim turned into a media sensation."

Related Links:

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Mondo Roto

A Rotoscope Animation Filmography

The rotoscope makeover

Synchronicity. Just after blogging about A-Ha's classic rotoscope animation music video "Take On Me," my animator friend Christine stopped by the library looking for movies using this increasingly sophisticated and popular animation technique that seems to be everywhere these days, from Richard Linkletter feature films (2001's Waking Life and 2006's A Scanner Darkly) to iPOD and Charles Schwab TV commercials (the "Talk to Chuck" ads created by Rotoshop software inventor Bob Sabiston).

A Scanner Darkly

As Wikipedia describes it, "Rotoscoping is an animation technique in which animators trace over live-action film movement, frame by frame, for use in animated films. Originally, pre-recorded live-action film images were projected onto a frosted glass panel and re-drawn by an animator. This projection equipment is called a rotoscope, although this device has been replaced by computers in recent years. More recently, the rotoscoping technique has been referred to as interpolated rotoscoping."

Rotoscoping was invented by Max Fleischer (that's his 1915 patent application picture above), who used it in his early "Out of the Inkwell" and Betty Boop cartoons before producing the feature-length Gulliver's Travels (1939) and then perfecting the technique in his Superman cartoons. Naturally, Walt Disney aped the technique pioneered by Fleischer, starting with 1937's Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and continuing with Cinderella (1950) and other feature films.

Koko goes roto in Fleischer's "Snow White" Betty Boop 'toon

Fleischer's technique involved setting up the rotoscope - a high-perched camera/projector combination - to look straight down at a flat work surface and then projecting scenes from a movie, frame by frame. On each frame, artists would then hand-trace the elements to be worked on, creating a series of cels used as guidelines to indicate where the special effects needed to go. This method was used virtually unchanged for some 75 years, up until the 1990s, when computer digitization sped the process up.

The Wan Brothers' "Princess Iron Fan" (1941)

According to Wikipedia, rotoscoping was far from unique to America, being used extensively in China's first animated feature film, 1941's Princess Iron Fan (aka, Uproar in Heaven: Princess Iron Fan), which was based on the popular Chinese folk tale A Journey West and directed by brothers Guchan and Laiming Wan. This film about a duel between a vengeful princess and the Monkey King, which clearly shows Fleischer's visual influence, was released under very difficult conditions during the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II. I'm pretty sure I saw a $1 DVD version of this film at WalMart, under a different title. Rotoscoping was also used extensively in the Soviet Union from the late 1930s to the 1950s when its use was enforced as a realization of "Socialist Realism" and the genre was known as "Éclair."

Rotoscoping became Hobbit-forming for Ralph Bakshi in the '70s

My first feature film exposure to rotoscoping was through Ralph Bakshi, who lead a resurgeance of the technique in the late '70s and early '80s with Wizards (1977), The Lord of the Rings (1978, which I fondly recall seeing as a Midnight Movie at the old Towson Theatre, now the collegiate rock emporium, The Recher Theatre), American Pop (1981) and Fire and Ice (1983).

Rotoscoping was even used throughout George Lucas' Star Wars film saga, first being employed to generate the glowing, diffused light of the lightsabers, and later being used to tweak the fighting sequences.

Wikipedia has a great List of Rotoscoped Works, including live-action films, music videos and TV shows that incorporate this technique. There are more than a few surprises in there - like rotoscoping turning up in the "Origin of O-Ren" animation segment in Kill Bill, Vol. 1, the title sequence from Sergio Leone's The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (come to think of it, Leone's titles gimmick was later lifted for use in the segues on the TV series The Wild, Wild West) and even Martin Scorcese's The Last Waltz - yes, rotoscoping was used in the latter to edit out a blob of cocaine dangling from Neil Young's nose!

Steve Barron's Music Videos

A friend recently mentioned how great the rotoscoped animation was in the music video "Take On Me" by A-Ha. This video was directed by Steve Barron, pop video auteur extraordinaire.

(Steve Barron, 1985, 3:47 minutes)

There's even a Chris Griffin FAMILY GUY parody of "Take On Me" (thanks for the tip, Laurence!).

When I Googled his name, I found out he did a lot of other cool music videos. Like Dire Straits' "Money for Nothing" and Thomas Dolby's "She Blinded Me with Science" ("Why, Miss Sakamoto, you're beautiful!"), as well as Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" and Human League's "Don't You Want Me?" That's quite a resume.

When I Googled his name, I came across this cool music viddy "Short Packed" for the band Deadly Fists of Kung Fu - but it turned out to be another Steve Barron:

(Steve Barron, 2006, 3:19 minutes)

Related Links:
Steve Barron - IMDB
Music Video Filmography

Monday, November 05, 2007

November 2007 Picks

An Audio-Visual Consumption Log

In the spirit of those MySpace updates on what its users moods and habits are, here's my Pop Culture report for the month of November. Like you care!


Divine B.B. - Brigitte Bardot

The music of Brigitte Bardot helped soundtrack the 1960s with its kitschy easy listening flavor, and pure pop melodies.

It's finally out, all the Brigitte Bardot music videos. The gem of this two-hour, 35-song collection from a Quebec, Canada subsidiary of Universal is the 1968 French television special Le Show Bardot, which includes her sexy duets with Serge Gainsbourg on "Comic Strip" and "Bonnie and Clyde" as well as the iconic "Harley Davidson" and the trippily futuristic "Contact." This special was previously available only as a Region 2 DVD import or bootleg tape. The DVD also includes three previously unreleased titles, "La Bis Aux Hippies," "Stanislas," and the instrumental "On The Sunny Side Of The Street," the latter featuring Brigitte strumming a guitar while dressed as a top hat-toting jazz dandy.

The quality isn't great, but it isn't bad either, and is probably as good as one can expect since the source material is PAL. According to's review, "Universal's DVD relies on the quality of the surviving material, which features some obvious film-related flaws. The 1967 special was shot on 16mm and edited roughly in a few spots, so the problems really couldn't be corrected without altering the entire texture of the piece. Colors look milder than they probably should, but the presentation still far outclasses any other out there." And while the setup menu offers English subtitles, I could only get them to work on "Faces of Paris," a 1968 documentary about the making of Le Show Bardot. Whatever. (Who listens to the Divine B.B.'s pop ditties for the lyrics, anyway?)

Bardot makes "Contact"

Bardot in "Comic Strip"

Serge smokes, B.B. smolders in "Bonnie and Clyde"

This is the Bardot collection to have because, other than Roger Vadim's Et Dieu...Crea la Femme (And God Created Woman) and Jean-Luc Godard's Le Mepris (Contempt) (notable for the gratuitous, tacked-on nudity in the opening scene), Bardot's movies are pretty crappy and this is the best way to enjoy her magic. That is, until they finally release her masterpieces, En Cas du Malheur (1958) or Clouzot's La Verite (1960) stateside.


Queen of Japanese Movie:
From Stray Cat Rock to Girl Boss Blues


Thanks to Bump Stadelman, I'm listening to this great companion CD to what looks to be a great book (which I didn't score from Mr. Stadelman) put out by Japan's Shinko Music/Ultra Vybe and distributed stateside by Hotwax and the fine folks at Dusty Groove America.

This has tracks from many of the Sukeban delinquent schoolgirl/"girl boss" films (aka Japanese Pinky Violence, a graphic sex and violence genre popular in Japan in the increasingly permissive 1970s that was itself an off-shoot of Japan's '60s "pinku" film style) such as Stray Cat Rock, Terrifying Girls' High School and Lady Boss Blues. These films, in the words of the blog Asian-Cinema, "wove together a lethal concoction of hip violence, pop music, sexual situations, in your face attitudes, mod fashions and some of the lovelier Japanese actresses in the business. The success of this genre only lasted a few years but in that time they produced some memorable films and images." In other words, stylish Tits and Kicks movies - though not without their share of legitimate social commentary. Some of the lovely Japanese actresses who made their mark in these films include Meiko Kaji (who got her start in the Stray Cat Rock series before achieving superstar status in the Female Prisoner/Scorpion films and Lady Snowblood), Miko Sugimoto and singing idol/actress Reiko Ike (who starred in five of Toei Studio's seven Sukeban films of the early 1970s). Many of these movies are being distributed for Western audiences by San Francisco's Panik House Entertainment, who recently released the Pinky Violence Collection, a 4-DVD box set that also includes an audio CD of Reiko Ike songs.

I really like the mix of styles featured on this disc. Though most of its 23 tracks sound like coked-up '70s Cop Show music that could easily fit into The A-Team, Queen of Japanese Movie also samples everything from Enka ballads to mod-a-go-go psychedelic rock, and from Spaghetti Western twangs to '50s Cool Jazz.

Since everything on this CD is in Japanese, I searched the 'net to find out more about it and came across this cool blog, Cho-Yablog, which is subtitled "Tokyo, Noise, Enka,Roman Porn, and more..." It's very informative and worth checking out.

Anyway, the song titles are as entertaining as the music on the CD. Not knowing Japanese myself, I asked my girlfriend's mom (who was born in Japan) and a Japanophile friend at work who speaks Japanese (and who owns every Godzilla movie for good measure!) to take a stab at some of these titles and they came up with such bon mots as "Fainting Classroom Girls from Fear," "Scared High School Animal Girls," and "Terrifying High School Gangster Room." While there was a '70s Japanese film series called Terrifying Girls' High School, I still think something is missing in the translation!


Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

I've been devouring Haruki Murakami books of late (After Dark, The Elephant Vanishes, Norwegian Wood, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, Wild Sheep Chase, etc.) and am reading this international prize winner now. It's involves libraries (as a card-carrying librarian this of course appeals to me!), oddly named characters, and talking cats (Murakami always seems to have cats in there somewhere!). Like most of his other works, it's compelling reading that is hard to put down. And speaking of things that are hard to put down, I've noticed his fascination with handjobs in his sex scenes. Has any living mainstream author been so obsessed with handjobs? Not since the "heavy petting" 1950s has The Handjob been so celebrated. It's a testament to Murakami's "oral" skills as a storyteller than he makes them seem so...exotic.

M. Sasek's "This is..." Books

The library where I toil recently discarded a bunch of its Miroslav Sasek "This is..." books, much to my joy (because I quickly snatched them up!). These were staples of my childhood and M. Sasak's unique drawing style always fascinated me - and educated me about different cultures of the world. Starting with 1959's This is Paris and continuing up to 1974's This is Historic Britain, the Czech-born illustrator (1916-1980) had 18 children's picture books published by W. H. Allen in the UK, Macmillan in the US and various other publishers worldwide. Each book looked at a different international city, giving an overview of its people, landmarks and culture. Below is a map of the lands and cities covered:

Long out of print, the books have recently come back into print. I especially liked Sasek's Beatnik study from This is Paris:

A Left Bank Beatnik at work: Crazy man!

And with my love of Asian culture, I naturally was attracted to This is Hong Kong, with its vivid street scenes and ornate decore. It was also one of Sasek's three favorite books (along with This is Venice and This is Edinburgh), the artist explaining the appeal as follows:
I loved This is Hong Kong because of Hong Kong. Hong Kong was a hard book to do because of the language problem. It took me hours and hours to draw the characters of the alphabet. I tried to use a camera but it didn't work. Sometimes I could have screamed! Three times, ten times, twelve times over it took me to perfect one picture! - Miroslav Sasek in Books are by people

Check out the official Sasek site: This is M. Sasek.

Also check out Anne's UK site I Like M. Sasek, which has seen keen insights into why this series was so smashing. To wit:
The books stick to the same format throughout the series, which is pretty good for 25 years worth of publishing. Most are oversize hardbacks with illustrated dust-jackets or pictorial covers. There is usually an illustration of (presumably) Sasek himself going to wherever the book is set on the bottom left inside cover and a similar illustration on the bottom right inside cover which shows him leaving with some kind of local adornment.

The title page is always in the same style, with "This is" in cursive writing and Sasek's printed signature, but little details are added for each destination. The highlights of each destination are presented in vivid colour through the rest of the book with an emphasis on tourist hotspots, local transport and national dress (particularly the different cultures that inhabit each place). I only have a few of the books but they are all superb. They are in a very 50s, Eastern European style, but are not dated at all. Most of the things that Sasek has picked out are still noteworthy today and his style has endured. They are true classics.

I recall seeing some Japanese pop music video that featured sets modeled after Sasek's post-modern style (Pizzicato Five? Fantastic Plastic Machine? I can't remember!). Anybody have a clue what I'm talking about?


Charmin Basic

Yes, it's back to basics with my toiletries this month. After venting at the disappearance of my beloved and much coveted one-ply Charmin toilet paper rolls in a previous blog ("The Great One-Ply Toilet Paper Conspiracy"), I recently spied Charmin Basic - the new middle ground compromise between Charmin's Ultra Strong and Ultra Soft extremist fringes - on the shelves of my Eddie's Market. Charmin Basic is softness, strength and value all rolled into one!

My ass sincerely thanks Mr. Whipple and Company and I look forward to many satisfying "mop-up" operations. Oh, and a heads-up to Murakami fans out there - Charmin Basic can probably meet your handjob clean-up needs as well!

Labels: , , , , ,

Sunday, November 04, 2007

All Asian Girl

My New Favorite YouTube Channel

All Asian Girls( is actually a guy and he's very open about his interests. He likes Asian women, especially Japanese women and specifically model Aiko Tanaka:

(To see a compilation of Aiko's TV work, which includes appearances on Howard Stern, Jay Leno, DisMissed and Soul Train, click here.)

He also collects videos of Asian girls kissing. These gals really know how to kiss. They could probably conduct seminar workshops. And I don't think any of them would have trouble tying a cherry stem in their mouths, a la Audrey Horne (Sheryl Lee) on Twin Peaks.

Here's his After School Special compilation:

And finally, here's his Three's Company Mono Mix:

This is like a 3-course meal, with finger and toe-sucking thrown in for good measure in a smorgasborg of skin and spittle.

On a similar note is Stadt Trossingen's Lesbian Kisses site:

Good night nurse!

Related Links:
StadtTrossingen's Lesbian Kisses Channel
Japanese Kiss (Instructional)

Saturday, November 03, 2007

1 Billion Indians Can't Be Wrong

Talegu Idol Presents: The Condom Song

"No need to be shy use one with a smile"

It may seem strange to see Indians singing the praises of condoms in a nation of over one billion people...but maybe that's the point! And you have to love the Bollywood musical treatment and Teletubbies colors. I like that Nirodh the "Condom Friend" takes on powers of a Hindu deity: "I am a shield, I will protect you" and "I save you and increase your longevity." And he's good-natured (a good quality in a condom!) and poetic ("You desire for sex with multiple partners" and "For momentary sexual pleasure you go to great lengths").

And, of course, I love the graphic cartoon depiction of gay sex (this from a land where kissing scenes in Bollywood movies are considered taboo!):

Instructional scene from Indian Condom Song

Thanks to Caprice for, as always, finding the weirdest videos on the 'net.

CONDOM SONG - TELEGU (6:58 minutes)

Related links:
Condoms a big problem for men in India

Thursday, November 01, 2007

The Good, The Bad & The Kimchi: Reflections On The New Korean Cinema

Giving My Undivided Attention to a Divided Nation's Cinema

I've been watching nothing but Korean movies of late, trying to make up for an unwitting blind spot in my Asian cinema filmography. Let me clarify that: I've been watching South Korean movies because North Korea produces arms, not films (at least not non-propaganda films). Pulgasari (1985), described as a "socialist Godzilla movie," is the only North Korean feature film that has gotten any international attention, and that only because the director and his wife were kidnapped from South Korea and the movie was executive-produced by Kim Jong-Il himself! But I digress...

It's been said that South Korean Cinema is the new Hong Kong and, as far as being a critical darling with Western audiences and critics, I'll buy that comparison. Let's face it, the films coming out of Seoul these days are hotter than any spicy squid dish at your local barbecue joint, making South Korea the top dragon in contemporary Asian Cinema, especially when it comes to horror films. Though most Americans wouldn't know director Park Chan-wook from Parks Sausages, they do know Oldboy is a great horror movie that can be found in any Best Buy or Blockbuster. (Never underestimate the appeal of violence to right-to-bear-arms Americans!)

Riding the Korean New Wave
It's rumored that the resurgeance in Korean cinema came about in the late '90s when someone pointed out to then President Young-sam that the profits from Spielberg's Jurassic Park were equal to the export of 60,000 Hyundais. Whatever the motivation, the watershed year for Korean cinema came in 1999, when the big production action film Shiri (aka Swiri or 쉬리) became known as "the little fish that sank Titanic," out-grossing James Cameron's blockbuster Hollywood import to become South Korea's all-time box office leader at that time. (About the metaphor: "Shiri" is a type of freshwater fish indigenous to the DMZ area between North and South Korea.)

(Shiri was subsequently out-grossed by 2001's Friend, while Titanic dropped to #7 in South Korean box office receipts after being topped by four other 2001 domestic films: #3 Joint Security Area, #4 My Wife Is a Gangster, #5 My Sassy Girl and #6 Kick the Moon).

By the way, the female assassin in Shiri was played by Yunjin Kim, best known to American audiences for her subsequent role as Sun-Hwa Kwon on the ABC television series Lost (2004-present).

As critic Anthony Leoung, author of Korean Cinema: The New Hong Kong, observed:
After spending many years taking a backseat to big-budget Hollywood imports, Korean filmmakers reclaimed the country's movie screens as nine homegrown productions earned a place in the box office top 20. South Korea's film industry no longer needed to rely solely on the country's quota system (where all cinemas are required show domestic films for 146 days of the year) for financial viability, as a 'New Wave' of filmmakers, schooled abroad in Europe and the United States, returned home to create commercially-viable films that appealed to domestic audiences.

So how did Korean cinema find its Seoul? Let's backtrack a bit.

On the Road To Hong Kong
I was a hardcore HK film fanatic back in the early 90s when this genre was still a relatively well-kept secret in Chinatown-deprived towns like Baltimore and can still recall making treks town to Po Tung Trading store on Park Avenue with my otaku pal Big Dave Cawley (King of Men) to buy VHS bootlegs of the latest Hong Kong laserdiscs and DVDs starring Jet Li, Jackie Chan, and Chow-Yun Fat or directed by Tsui Hark, John Woo or Ringo Lam. Now you can get any Chinese action or martial arts film in the world - including all the dire drek - from populist mall retail outlets like Suncoast Video.

Hong Kong? Phooey!
Let's face it, the Hong Kong film industry was aleady slouching toward mediocrity by the mid-'90s, and fell apart after the 1997 reunification with mainland China and the subsequent exodus of talent to The West (specifically Hollywood and Vancouver). Other than a few films from the Pang Brothers (who rejuvenated the HK horror genre with The Eye and The Eye 2 - though I found both to be terribly overrated, especially the "sequel" that squandered the talents of superbabe Qi Shu in a ludicrous plot), arthouse darling Wong Kar-Wai (In the Mood for Love, 2046), and the resurgeance of the action film thanks to the Infernal Affairs franchise (the inspiration for Scorcese's The Departed), the pickings out of HK have been pretty slim. For my money, they reached their nadir in 2004 with Jackie Chan's execrable New Police Story (Xin Jing Cha Gu Shi).

You Rang?
Then the rise of the Asian horror genre, first in Japan - thanks to Hideo Nakata's 1998 surprise hit Ringu, followed by his Ringu 2 and Dark Water (all remade in the West), Takeshi Miike's Audition and Ichi the Killer and Takashi Shimizu's (highly overrated) Ju-On series (also remade in the West as The Grudge and The Grudge 2) - shifted attention away from Southeast Asia to the Sea of Japan region where South Korea now reigns supreme.

That top dog status is mainly due to Park Chan-wook's Oldboy (올드보이) - the second entry in his "revenge trilogy" that also includes Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (복수는 나의 것 or Boksuneun Naui Geot, 2002) and Lady Vengeance (친절한 금자씨 or Chinjeolhan Geumjassi, 2005) - which took the horror film world by storm in 2003 and put South Korea on the international cinema map.

I first heard about Park Chan-wook via an intriguing article in the New York Times Magazine ("Mr. Vengeance," April 9, 2006) and was hooked thereafter. Before turning his attention to horror, Park had enjoyed success with his monster 2001 hit JSA: Joint Security Area, which dealt, like Shiri (Swiri) and so many Korean political films, with Reunification Blues. It certainly didn't hurt that Park's Oldboy protagonist was Min-sik Choi (whose breakthrough film was 1999's Shiri), arguably South Korea's most compelling screen presence and charismatic star. Physically he bears an uncanny resemblance to an Asian Charles Bronson, and like Il Bruto, has made his mark as a heavy in action films, despite his theatrical background.

Before that, I had only seen one Korean film even close to the horror genre, the 1967 Godzilla-wannabe Yongary, Monster from the Deep (Taekoesu Yonggary), which was directed by the "nice" Kim Ki-duk (not to be confused with the bad boy director of the same name responsible for The Isle, Bad Guy, and Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter). And the only other Korean video I had ever seen was the great live-action Korean TV knock-off of the Japanese video game Streetfighter, which I remember really liking - sample clip is shown below:

Korean Streetfighter: Who needs subtitles?

But the horror groundwork had already been set before Oldboy thanks to genre films like the Korean version of Ringu, Ring Virus (aka 링(링 바이러스), and the "horror high school" trilogy Whispering Corriders, Memento Mori and The Wishing Stairs. (This was actually a trilogy in name only, with different casts and directors, and was only considered a trilogy because the films took place at all-girl high schools).

Curiously, while South Korean cinema constantly looks to Hollywood and Tokyo horror movies for inspiration in its remakes - Tell Me Something parroting David Fincher's Seven, Ring Virus, Phone, Unborn But Forgotten and countless other haunted ghost knock-offs aping Ringu (the latter film also managing to imitate Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse (Kairo) and the US's - Hollywood has so far only considered two Korean movies worthy of a Western makeover and both are comedies: My Wife is a Gangster (Jopag manura, 2001) and My Sassy Girl (Yeopgijeogin geunyeo or 엽기적인 그녀, 2001). My, my, indeed. The American remake of My Sassy Girl, starring Jesse Bradford and Elisha Cuthbert, and directed by Yann Samuell is scheduled to be released in 2007 .

To understand South Korean cinema, you really only need to follow the work of a few major directors, among them Park Chan-wook, "Bad" Kim Ki-Duk (The Isle), Kim Ji-Woon (A Tale of Two Sisters, The Quiet Family, Brotherhood), Lee Chang-dong, and arthouse darling Hong Sang-soo (Woman Is the Future of Man, Turning Gate). And for my money, add Im Sang-soo (director of 2005's brilliant The President's Last Bang) to that list. Most of these directors belong to the "New Wave" generation who came to age in the late '90s. According to Darcy Paquet of, this new generation announced its arrival in 1996, years before 1999's Shiri made its big box office splash.

...beginning in 1996, a new generation of directors began to take over the industry. Arthouse master Hong Sang-soo made his debut with the award-winning The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well (1996), which weaves the experience of four characters into a single story. In this and his subsequent films, Hong built a reputation for his honest depiction of the cruelty and baseness of human relations. The year 1996 also saw the debut of controversial filmmaker Kim Ki-duk, known for his rough but visually striking film style (largely self-taught) and his tendency to shoot films very quickly on a shoestring budget. Unlike most other leading Korean directors, Kim's films such as The Isle (2000) were first championed internationally, rather than by local critics. Then in 1997, Lee Chang-dong made his debut with Green Fish. A former novelist, Lee would eventually win a Best Director award at Venice for Oasis (2002), and also served as Korea's Minister of Culture and Tourism from 2003-2004.

Lee Chong-dong is currently getting a lot of good press for his latest film, Secret Sunshine (밀양, 2007), which is making the rounds at Cannes and other film festivals.

Blind Leading the Blind
As a clueless Westerner to whom the Far East means Maryland's Eastern Shore, I was a Korean film tourist, walking in darkness, strictly on the outside looking in. Thankfully, I got a quick education thanks to recommendations from my friend Sook and the excellent Asian film section at Baltimore's best video store, Video Americain. My conclusions? There are a lot of great Korean films, mainly in the horror and independent/arthouse genres, a lot of drek (mainly cheesy comedies and attempts to imitate Hollywood and Japanese genre films), and some in-betweeners.

Following are trailers for the good Korean films I recommend seeing (after all, why bother listing the bad ones I've seen? Life is too short to waste it watching bad movies!)

South Korean Films You Need To See

Oldboy (Park Chan-wook, 2003)
Genre: Horror

Oldboy trailer:

What more need be said about this classic? It even got name-checked after that Virginia Tech student shooting spree, when it was mentioned that the killer was carrying a hammer a la protagonist Dae-su Oh (Min-suk Choi).

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (Park Chan-wook, 2002)
Genre: Drama

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance trailer:

IMDB plot summary: "This is the story of Ryu, a deaf man, and his sister, who requires a kidney transplant. Ryu's boss, Park, has just laid him off, and in order to afford the transplant, Ryu and his girlfriend develop a plan to kidnap Park's daughter. Things go horribly wrong, and the situation spirals rapidly into a cycle of violence and revenge." Shin Ha-kyun is terrific as deaf mute Ryu and Bae Du-nae is characteritically kooky as his crazy Marxist girlfriend Cha Yeoung-mi.

Lady Vengeance (aka Sympathy for Lady Vengeance) (Park Chan-wook, 2005)
Genre: Horror

Lady Vengeance is none other than Lee Yeong-ae, star of South Korea's insanely popular historical soap opera Dae Jang Geum (aka Jewel in the Palace, TV series 2003-2004) - a series whose fans include North Korean despot Kim Jong-Il! - as well as Park Chan-wook's earlier hit JSA: Joint Security Area (2000).

Lady Vengeance trailer:

IMDB summary: "After thirteen and half years in prison for kidnapping and murdering the boy Park Won-mo, Geum-ja Lee (Dae Jang-geum's Lee Yeoung-ae - reportedly Kim Jong-il's favorite actress) is released and tries to fix her life. She finds a job in a bakery; she orders the manufacturing of a special weapon; she reunites with her daughter, who was adopted by an Australian family; and she plots revenge against the real killer of Won-mo, the English teacher Mr. Baek. With the support of former inmates from prison, Geum-ja seeks an unattained redemption with her vengeance."

Dae Jang Geum
Genre: Historical Soap Opera, TV series

I haven't seen this historical soap opera depicting the hardships of a female cook in the royal palace during the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910), but it's widespread popularity - not just in South Korea but throughout Asia and Korean communities in the USA - would seem to qualify it as essential viewing. It's so popular that on a recent diplomatic visit to Pyongpang (10/3/2007), South Korea President Roh Moo-hyun offered DVDs of the series to North Korean leader (and film fanatic) Kim Jong-il, who is known to be a fan of Lee Young-ae, the star of the series.

The Host (Gwoemul) (Bong Joon-ho, 2006)
Genre: Sci-Fi/Horror

Great Korean monster movie with social and political twists (Westerners are evil, natch) and a great cast that includes the outstanding Song Kang-ho (JSA: Joint Security Area, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, The Foul King) and Bae Du-nae (Take Care of My Cat, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Ring Virus).

IMDB plot summary: "The film revolves around Park Hee-bong, a man in his late 60s. Park runs a small snack bar on the banks of the Han River and lives with his two sons, one daughter, and one granddaughter. The Parks seem to lead a quite ordinary and peaceful life, but maybe a bit poorer than the average Seoulite. Hee-bong's elder son Gang-du is an immature and incompetent man in his 40s, whose wife left home long ago. Nam-il is the youngest son, an unemployed grumbler, and daughter Nam-joo is an archery medalist and member of the national team. One day, an unidentified monster suddenly appears from the depths of the Han River and spreads panic and death, and Gang-du's daughter Hyun-seo is carried off by the monster and disappears. All the family members are in a great agony because they lost someone very dear to them. But when they find out she is still alive, they resolve to save her."

My Sassy Girl (Kwak Jae-yong, 2001)
Genre: Romantic Comedy

My Sassy Girl (엽기적인 그녀; literally, That Bizarre Girl) is a 2001 South Korean romantic comedy film partially based on the true story told in a series of love letters written by Kim Ho-sik, a man who posted them online. This film takes the (regurgitated) cake for most gratuitous vomiting scenes. I don't recall ever seeing a movie with more graphic vomiting in it - not even the Exorcist - all played to comic effect.

The film was extremely successful in South Korea. When My Sassy Girl was released throughout East Asia, it became a mega blockbuster hit in the entire region, from Japan, China, Taiwan, Philippines, Hong Kong, Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia, to the point where it was drawing comparisons to Titanic. Through positive word-of-mouth, the movie eventually became one of the most popular South Korean films among Asian Americans in the United States.

An American remake, starring Jesse Bradford and Elisha Cuthbert, and directed by Yann Samuell is scheduled to be released in 2007

My Sassy Girl English trailer:

My Sassy Girl Better Korean trailer:

The President's Last Bang (Geuddae Geusaramdeul) (Im Sang-soo, 2005)
Genre: Drama

See this movie that's been called the South Korean Dr. Stranglove! It's stylish and perhaps my favorite non-Horror genre Korean film. A look at the life of President Park Chung-hee and the events leading up to his real-life assassination.

Take Care of My Cat (Goyangireul Butakhae) (Jeong Jae-eun, 2001)
Genre: Drama

Take Care of My Cat is a coming-of-age film chronicling the lives of a group of five young women (Lee Yu-won, Ok Ji-young, Lee Eung-sil, Lee Eung-ju and my favorite Korean actress Bae Du-nae) one year after they graduate from high school, showing the heartbreaking changes and inspiring difficulties they face in both their friendships and the working world.

Wikipedia: "Though critically acclaimed in its native South Korea, the film's box office returns were not so great, prompting a "Save the Cat" movement involving film-industry professionals to try to increase viewership before its theatrical run would be cut short. The film went on to many international film festivals as well, where it received awards and special mentions.

The film is the debut work of director Jeong Jae-eun, who would later go on to direct the 2005 film The Aggressives."

The Isle (Seoum) (Kim Ki-Duk, 2000)
Genre: Psycho-sexual Drama

Mute Hee-Jin (played by the totally hot Jung Suh) is working as a clerk in a fishing resort in the Korean wilderness, selling baits, food and occiasionally her body to the fishing tourists. One day she falls for Hyun-Shik, who is on the run for the police and rescues him with a fish hook, when he tries to commit suicide. But that doesn't begin to describe the eerie kinkiness of this disturbing, yet fascinating film by Korean "bad boy" director Kim Ki-Duk. Maybe this picture will suffice; it's the equivalent of sexual "foreplay" in this movie:

And I love the isolated fishing posts visited by hot prostitutes subplot. Why couldn't this work at Maryland's Deep Creek or on the Eastern Shore? All we are asking is give (a) piece a try.

JSA: Joint Security Area (Park Chan-wook, 2000)
Genre: Action, Drama

IMDB summary: "In the DMZ separating North and South Korea, two North Korean soldiers have been killed, supposedly by one South Korean soldier. But the 11 bullets found in the bodies, together with the 5 remaining bullets in the assassin's magazine clip, amount to 16 bullets for a gun that should normally hold 15 bullets. The investigating Swiss/Swedish team from the neutral countries overseeing the DMZ suspects that another, unknown party was involved - all of which points to some sort of cover up. The truth is much simpler and much more tragic."

The Ghost (Ryeong) (Kim Tae-kyeong, 2004)
Genre: Horror

Ji-Won, a teenage girl suffering from amnesia, discovers that she is somehow connected to a group of people who are being killed off one by one by a vengeful ghost. The best water regurgitation horror film ever.

A Tale of Two Sisters (Kim Jee-woon)
Genre: Horror

A Tale of Two Sisters trailer:

I still don't understand the narrative exactly, but this film held my interest and was downright creepy. I still need to see Kim's The Foul King and The Quiet Family, which is supposedly his dark comedy masterpiece.

The "Ghost School" Trilogy
I would be remiss without mentioning this particularly popular South Korean girl's school horror trilogy:

Whispering Corridors (Yeogo Goedam) (Park Ki-hyeoung, 1998)

Momento Mori (Yeogo Goedam II) (Kim Tae-Yong, 1999)

Wishing Stairs (Yeogo Goedam 3: Yeowoo Gyedan) (Yun Jae-yeon, 2003)

A staircase leading to the dormitory of a remote boarding school usually has 28 stairs, but every so often there appears to be 29. When someone steps on the mysterious extra stair, the horror begins. First a teacher seemingly commits suicide, then other strange things start to happen. When in doubt, look for the ghost to be a vengeful girl student who committed suicide years ago.

Korean Cinema Books:
Korean Cinema: The New Hong Kong by Anthony Leong

Korean Cinema Articles:
Reunification Blues (Chuck Stephens, Village Voice)

Korean Cinema Links:
Han Cinema (Korean Movie and Drama Database)
Anthony Leong's Movie Reviews Archive (many Korean films reviewed)
An Intro to Korean Cinema (Peter Rist)
Dae Jang Geum/Jewel in the Palace official site

Labels: , ,