Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance

Dir: Chan-wook Park, 2002. Starring: Kang-ho Song, Ha-kyun Shin, Doona Bae. Asian Cinema.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is perhaps one of the best anti-hero films I have ever seen, based on concept alone. Chan-wook Park's Vengeance Trilogy is unlike most others because the plot, actors, and characters are all in no way linked or the same, but each film circulates around revenge. Ryu (Ha-kyun Shin) is a young deaf-mute who lives with his sister in a seedy apartment complex. His ambition was formerly focused on art school until his sister fell ill and needed a kidney transplant. He quit school and began working as a manual laborer in a factory in order to save up for her operation. Unable to give her one of his own kidneys because their blood types don't match, Ryu takes a chance and, using all the money that he has saved, tries to purchase a kidney from an illegal organ supply group which offers to give him the kidney he needs in exchange for one of his and 10 million won. But after waking up from the operation, he finds that the group has split with his clothes, money, and kidney.

Disheartened and furious about yet another streak of bad luck in his life, he vows to kill the people who wronged him. While visiting the medial center he frequents to find a donor, he receives the great news that they found a proper donor, which is hard to do in such a sort amount of time. The only problem is that Ryu has just been fired from his job and the operation costs 10 million won. Together, he and his girlfriend Cha-Yeong-mi (Doona Bae) decide to kill two birds with one stone by seeking vengeance on the illegal group and kidnapping his former employer's daughter for ransom in order to pay for his sister's operation.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Jun 21, 2010 4:02pm

Paradise Now

Dir: Hany Abu-Assad, 2005. Starring: Kais Nashif, Ali Suliman, Lubna Azabal, Amer Hlehel. Asian Cinema.

The marriage between religion and politics has no known date. To explore this link with films is to visually investigate the times and reasons for which people intertwine the two in order to make sense of their disrupted lives and societies. Hany Abu-Assad's Paradise Now is the story of two friends whose lives have been torn apart by institutional violence and injustice. At first glance, they appear to be unaffected by their environment until a commitment made years before manifests the horrific day when they are called upon to become martyrs for a cause that they don't fully understand.

The story takes place in modern times with the Muslim dominated Palestine being in a constant state of war with the Zionist/Jewish society of Israel. Said (Kais Nashif) and Khaled (Ali Suliman) are two childhood friends who agreed as teenagers to carry out a suicide bombing together for an organization which has been plotting its next attack for over two years. Each man, now in their early twenties, is visited separately by their messenger Jamal (Amer Hlehel) and told that the bombing will happen in less than 24 hours. The two begin saying goodbye to their families in order to prepare for their brief training.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Jun 15, 2010 4:03pm

The King of Masks

Dir: Tian-Ming Wu, 1996. Starring: Xu Zhu, Renying Zhou, Zhigang Zhao. Chinese. Asian Cinema.

To be honest, the number of modern or even present Chinese films that I have seen is very little, which is a shame to say the least. And while I don’t have much to compare this film to, I would still argue that based on it, one could conclude that China varies in extremes, in terms of artistic expression and tradition, compared to other East Asian cultures. But when I stumbled upon The King of Masks, a new aspect of Chinese culture was introduced: the traditional and male dominated performing arts.

The film is about a lonely performer named Master Bianlian Wang (Xu Zhu), who has a very unique and superbly rare talent of performing Sichuan Change Art, a form of magic involving elaborate handmade masks being changed upon one’s face fast enough to create the illusion of a transformation without any noticeable interruption. As a performer of the art, which is passed down only in families and only to males, Wang worries that his dying art will become extinct because he does not have a son to pass it onto. He is given offers by highly popular Master Liang (Zhigang Zhao), a leader of the Sichuan Opera and also praised as "The Living Bodhisattva," to join the Opera, but he remains true to his desire to stay solo.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
May 17, 2010 4:23pm

All About Lily Chou-Chou

Dir: Shunji Iwai, 2001. Starring: Hayato Ichihara, Shûgo Oshinara and Ayumi Ito, Japanese/Asian Cinema.

The youth of many nations, especially industrial ones, are full not only of angst but of a yearning to fit in and be understood. For Yûichi and a group of followers just like him, the "ethereal" music of Lily Chou-Chou has become the center of their world, both in cyberspace and reality. Yûichi is the fan site manager under the code name "philla," where he reviews and praises her music with a sense of enlightenment and desperation. Like today’s youth, only anonymous and without photos, these young people drift online in order to connect and rave about the things they find most interesting, which for this group is Lily. But underneath the melodies and enchantment, Yûichi and other fans are still just homeless souls looking for adventure. Though Yûichi is really just looking for an escape, his reality grants him the total opposite. He and his actual friends occupy themselves with petty theft, a mysterious summer vacation, and several humiliating pranks that go terribly wrong. His world shifts into a tumult of despair and unkindness in what he calls "the age of gray," where all the color bleeds dry from the world. His only solace is a lush and isolated rice field where he goes to be alone and listen to Lily.

This advancement of newfound responsibility and savage energy reminds me of what it is like to become an adult. When you’re young, you almost worship your music idols and look to their sound for understanding and piece of mind. But for Yûichi and others, the pressure to find that same balance in reality becomes nearly impossible after you reach a certain age. Not that some can’t or others never did, but for him there is no turning back or resolution.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Mar 31, 2010 6:32pm

Woman in the Dunes

Dir: Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1964. Starring: Eiji Okada and Kyôko Kishida. Japanese. Asian Cinema.

Metaphors are perhaps the greatest and most poetic way to express a concept or condition without heavy exposition in dialog. A good poem, for example, should never be clear in words alone, but with a trained eye, one should and hopefully can decipher what the work is getting at. When I first saw Woman in the Dunes, while watching it and after finishing it, I interpreted it as having many metaphors, one being commitment and the surrender that comes to people in terms of settling down. Also, it places the main character into an alien existence that is far removed from his conventional and vanity-filled comfort zones. The sand in this film also presents a metaphor of its own, but I’ll leave that for you to conclude.

Early Japanese cinema is a leader in this kind of poetic and classic storytelling. Also shot in black and white, films like Double Suicide and Akira Kurosawa’s Rashômon incorporate centuries' worth of idealism and culture into an hour and a half’s worth of wonder.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Mar 29, 2010 5:53pm

A Chinese Odyssey Part One - Pandora's Box

Dir: Lan Chun Wai, 1994. Starring: Stephen Chow, Athena Chu. Asian Cinema

Not too long ago the DVDs for A Chinese Odyssey Parts One and Two came into Amoeba. From the brief once-over I gave the boxes, they looked like they might be interesting and worth checking out. Both starred Stephen Chow, they are Hong Kong fantasy films, and they were only $4.99 each. I wanted to do a little more research to see if they were worth my time and money and quickly made my way to the internets to see if I could find a trailer. Which of course I did. The trailer for Part One has fleeting glimpses of a half man/half monkey as well as a half man/half pig. People were flying across the sky, women were turning into spiders, and I think I even saw a giant bull. As I was watching this my reaction was a quiet, “Oh, this looks pretty good.”

…NO! What is wrong with me!? A movie about a half man/half monkey and his pig friend flying and fighting and doing magic cannot be described as looking "pretty good." It looks absolutely crazy is what it looks like! And this was the moment that I realized that I have truly gone off the cinematic deep end. Because I love Kung Fu movies. And I watch a lot of them. So much so that my brain can no longer recognize something like this as silly but instead as totally awesome…which it is.

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Posted by:
Eric Branscum
Mar 8, 2010 12:09pm

Uzak (Distant)

Dir: Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2002. Starring: Muzaffer Özdemir, Emin Toprak. Foreign/Asian Cinema.

Everyone’s paying homage to Tarkovsky nowadays, it seems, albeit often losing something in the translation. Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan is among the few directors (along with Mauritanian Abderrahmane Sissako, Malian Souleymane Cissé and Iranian Abbas Kiarostami) who thankfully picks up not only on Tarkovsky’s aesthetic, but also his humanism and subtle humor.

Ceylan makes no attempts to hide his most obvious cinematic inspiration; using Bach in a library scene, referring to the Soviet director in a speech among artists, and in one scene even using one of the master’s films to bore his unsophisticated house guest into going to bed so that his host can watch porn in peace. In the special features, Ceylan also professes a debt, not surprisingly, to Anton Chekov and Yasujirō Ozu. A short film included on the DVD, Koza, is even more overt in its aspirations to reflect Tarkovsky.

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Posted by:
Eric Brightwell
Feb 23, 2010 2:32pm

Turtles Can Fly

Dir: Bahman Ghobadi, 2005. Starring: S. Ebrahim, A. Latif, S. H. Feysal, H. F. Rahman. Kurdish. Asian/Drama/War.

Bahman Ghobadi, an Iranian director, is one who chooses to make a film about a subject matter that is not quite openly discussed today – in Turtles Can Fly, his impressive second directorial feature, he weaves a youthful tale set along the border between Iraq and Turkey.

The story follows a young boy, Satellite, nicknamed for installing television receivers in his minefield town of makeshift tents and tanks. He is part of a group of refugee children who expectantly await the war. This group of kids was placed in this area by Saddam Hussein and they find ways to work through Satellite’s leadership. In the midst of his tragedy, Satellite occupies himself with other duties – calling meetings, arranging work – essentially becoming the ringleader of the children. Among the children are the Boy With No Arms, and teenage girl Agrin, who accompanies a younger blind boy. The children’s fate, warranted by the end of the story, is a grim look at Kurdish experiences during the Iraq war and a collective of memories that don’t necessarily make any sense.

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Posted by:
Tiffany Huang
Apr 8, 2009 1:36pm

Beshkempir

Dir: Aktan Abdykalykov. 1998. Starring: Mirlan Abdykalykov , Adir Abilkassimov, Mirlan Cinkozoev. Kyrgyz. Asian Cinema/Foreign.

Beshkempir is a simple entwicklungsroman set in Bar-Boulak, Krygyzstan in 1960. It begins with a scene in which an infant is passed between women over a colorful rug. The women ritualistically intone, "This is not my son, this is not my son, but may his path in life be full of joy!" He is swaddled and placed into a cradle alongside a wooden bowl and a set of asiks (dice made from the knee bones of a lamb). They name him Beshkempir and he is taken in by a childless couple. From here on, we witness a world dominated by women and focused on children. The possible implication is that many of the Kyrgyz men died fighting for the Soviet Union in World War II. What few men are present usually are engaged in solitary activities like fishing or drinking vodka. The different generations of women seem to preserve the link to both the past and the future.

The film then jumps ahead 12 years to Beshkempir’s onset of puberty and is from here on is mostly shot in stark, poetic black & white. Beshkempir’s adoptive parents are strangely distant and reserved. Only his grandmother is openly affectionate. As a young man, Beshkempir’s attention is now divided between work, his friends and a burgeoning interest in the opposite sex. He and his friends eagerly spy on a woman bathing. Beshkempir and his best friend become interested in their neighbor, Aynura. Tempers flare and during a fight Beshkempir learns that he’s adopted. His father hits him for his role in the embarrassing situation and the boy runs away. He returns following a death in the family and is thrust further into adulthood as he is put in the position of settling the deceased’s earthly affairs.

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Posted by:
Eric Brightwell
Jul 7, 2008 3:37pm

Dolls

Dir: Takeshi Kitano. 2002. Starring: H. Nishijima, M. Kanno, K. Fukada, T. Mihashi, C. Matsubara. Japanese. Asian Cinema/Foreign

Takeshi Kitano’s directorial works are often separated into two strains where the considerable overlap is conveniently ignored in favor of an artificial dichotomy. On the one hand we have the explosively violent yet introspective crime dramas like Sonatine (ソナチネ), Hana-bi (花-火), and Boiling Point (3-4X10月). Less widely seen (and therefore wrongly characterized) are his quiet, contemplative mood-pieces like A Scene at the Sea (あの夏、いちばん静かな海), Kikujirō no Natsu (菊次郎の夏) and Kids Return (キッズ・リターン). Dolls is usually placed in the latter camp or as an anomaly as its mixture of familiar ingredients (watching the ocean, yakuza, explosive violence, stoic acceptance of tragedy) from both strains is impossible to ignore.

In the first story, Matsumoto spurns his girlfriend Sawako to marry another woman, at his parents’ insistence. Sawako loses both her mind and ability to take care of herself as a result. Matsumoto attempts to fix things by binding himself to her with a red cord. Together they wordlessly wander through stunning, artificial landscapes of amazing beauty steeped with sadness.

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Posted by:
Eric Brightwell
Jul 7, 2008 3:16pm
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