俠女A Touch of Zen

Dir. King Hu. Starring: Hsu Feng, Shih Jun, Pai Ying, Roy Chao. Mandarin. Asian Cinema/Martial Arts/Fantasy.

A Touch of Zen is a 1971 wǔxiá film. Wǔxiá is a type of martial arts film from China which takes place in a mythical golden age or even parallel world (Jiang Hu) wherein fighters attained levels of skill never seen in our time; allowing them to run across water and trees as well as achieve near perfect aim and defensive moves. The plots concern warriors who live by codes of honor based on Buddhist principles which frequently place them at odds with the law enforced by corrupt authorities. The Communist government of China banned the genre in the 20th century, not having to strain hard to see how the genre could be used to attack them. During the reforms of the 1980s, the ban was finally lifted, resulting in more recent, Chinese-produced films wǔxiá films like Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers and Hero or Chen Kaige’s the Promise.

Filming for A Touch of Zen began in 1969 (during the Chinese ban) in Taiwan where, along with Hong Kong, wǔxiá flourished after beginning in silent era. Set in the 14th century, it’s seen through the eyes of Ku, an un-ambitious, nerdy painter who lives with his mother in a decaying, abandoned fort believed by the superstitious locals to be haunted. When the mysterious Yang Hui-Ching crosses his path, he’s immediately smitten with the icy stranger. To his surprise and delight, she beds him and then she fills him in on her background – she’s a fugitive being pursued by a Eunuch named Wei who murdered her father and is now seeking to obliterate her entire family. Ku’s eager to help and, combining his scholarly background and Yang’s out-of-this-world fighting ability, they route her pursuers.

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Posted by:
Eric Brightwell
Aug 22, 2008 9:46pm

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

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

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

Blind Beast

Dir: Yasuzo Masumura, 1969. Starring: Eiji Funakoshi, Mako Midori, Noriko Sengoku. Asian.

A blind masseuse turns to sculpture when the thrill of touch becomes so tormenting that he needs an outlet for his desires. For every woman who he's ever worked on, there is an oversized replica of her limbs protruding from the walls of his studio. Of all the female clients that he and co-workers have massaged, Aki (Mako Midori) has always been an exceptional study in beauty. As the current muse of an avant guard artist, she exists only to be admired. Her figure becomes a target for Michio (Eiji Funakoshi), the blind sculptor, and with the help of his mother (Noriko Sengoku) he kidnaps the model with the hope of being able to immortalize her body in clay.

Michio and his mother live in a secluded warehouse far from Tokyo, and Aki is locked into his studio and given an ultimatum. She can either willingly model for his sculpture in captivity and be released upon its completion, or she can succumb to being put unconscious for the work until he's finished. He explains that for a blind person life is agony. The joys of the remaining senses are absent; they function only as a means of nourishment and necessity. Of these remaining senses, touch has become something that Michio needs to flourish. He further explains that he wishes to pioneer the art of touch, claiming that the other senses, such as sound, have an art form to match. Unwilling to accept things such as music to add substance to his life, he's hellbent on making the physical discovery of the human body a branch of art.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Jun 6, 2011 8:41pm

Carnival in the Night (Yami no carnival)

Dir: Masashi Yamamoto, 1982. Starring: Kumiko Ota, Akemi Edo, Chika, Michiro Endo. Asian Cinema.

I'm starting to realize that, like certain record labels in music, film companies can also help steer you in the right direction when taking a chance on the unfamiliar. Besides the well-known Criterion restorations and releases of films held in high-esteem, Facets is another company that I'm beginning to see a great pattern with. I think it's safe to say that they deal with films that are a bit more obscure, which can sometimes mean taking a chance on something that you might hate. Carnival in the Night was not one of those cases.

Shot mostly in 16mm black and white with occasional transformations to color, the film is a visceral piece of art that should be applauded despite its subtle flaws. Using a documentary technique, director Masashi Yamamoto cast a small group of non-actors to more or less play themselves—each character linked to the sensational Kumi (Kumiki Ota). In the course of roughly 72 hours, you see the slums and residents of Shinjuku, Japan and Kumi's relation to them. Diving straight into the local punk scene, we see her band perform and you are immediately aware that this is a side of Japanese culture that you have never been exposed to.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Nov 11, 2010 12:47pm

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

Guilty of Romance

Dir: Shion Sono. Starring: Megumi Kagurazaka, Miki Mitzuno, Satoshi Nikaido, Makoto Togashi. Asian Cinema/Mystery-Thriller.

Whenever you find a film that is based on actual events or someone's life, with the exclusion of biopics, I highly recommend giving it your time. It's similar to the interest piqued from a movie based on a book you find yourself drawn to, but much more involving. This is perhaps due to - and heightened by - the interest from the director. To consider that there is someone's story out there that captivates a filmmaker to the point that they are willing to spend thousands, if not millions, of dollars funding a work that will tell this story the way they imagine it in their mind after (hopefully) researching the events leading to it is, in all seriousness, a wonderful thing. Of course, the director needs to be someone you trust to tell this story—and what better example than Shion Sono and the grizzly tale of a woman on the brink of sexual discovery in a repressed society that can and will eat the faint at heart for breakfast.

Opening with “On the eve of the 21st century...,” Guilty of Romance takes off at a hurried run as a detective (Miki Mitzuno) stumbles upon a bizarre crime that would rattle even the most experienced among her profession. The remains of a woman are found in various locations known for being the playground of anyone keen on prancing through the erotic underworld. The fact that a murder took place there isn't necessarily jarring. The fact that the remains were partial and attached to a mannequin dressed like a schoolgirl was.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Mar 11, 2014 2:42pm

House (Hausu)

Dir: Nobuhiko Ôbayashi, 1977. Starring: K. Ikegami, M. Jinbo, K. Ôba, A. Matsubara, M. Satô, E. Tanaka, M. Miyako. Asian Cinema.

Hausu is not for everyone, though, if you find anime films and series to be amusing and tasteful, you'll probably enjoy this quirky Japanese horror flick. The comparison to anime is based upon the shared characteristics that this film has with the genre. Aside from the dizzy colors and characters with zany nicknames, it also sports a team of girls who fight against a docile villain. It seems as though anime always has this creepy bad guy in the shadows who has a glossy stare and speaks like an intellectual zombie. Like anime, House also has no real plot; the meat and potatoes is in the action and the effects.

However, it would be unjust to say that this movie is simply a live-action anime. Besides being a unique horror film, it also comes off as a Japanese ghost story, except the phantom is symbolized by a mythical cat named Blanche, the reincarnation of some evil spirit. Nobuhiko Ôbayashi, the director, also added a personal touch by working in a bit of his own history to the film. As a former pianist and medical student turned experimental filmmaker, the movie features a menacing piano that dismembers a character, and plenty of animated limbs. Ôbayashi should not only be praised for the artistic direction here, but for the fact that, like Spike Jonze, feature films weren’t always a part of his craft. The director is most prominent in Japan for his experimental films and TV commercials, the latter casting several big American stars, such as Kirk Douglas and Charles Bronson. House is actually his directorial debut, so you can imagine the liberties taken when he didn't have to cram all of his ideas into a few minutes.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Jan 4, 2011 4:44pm

In the Realm of the Senses

Dir: Nagisa Ôshima, 1976. Starring: Tatsuya Fuji, Eiko Matsuda, Aoi Nakajima. Asian Cinema.

"The concept of 'obscenity' is tested when we dare to look at something that we desire to see but have forbidden ourselves to look at. When we feel that everything has been revealed, 'obscenity' disappears and there is a certain liberation. " --Nagisa Ôshima

The true story of Sada Abe has been interpreted into film several times, including Noboru Tanaka's film A Woman Called Sada Abe a year before this one, and Nobuhiko Obayashi's Sada in '98. Sada Abe was convicted in 1936 after killing her lover, Kichizo, while performing erotic asphyxiation. When arrested days later she was found calm, carrying his genitals in her handbag with a glowing smile on her face, claiming that she couldn’t take his body or head with her, so she decided to take the part of him that had the most vivid memories. In Oshima's interpretation of their story, which is still banned in its uncut form in Japan, the tale was given not only a fresh face, but a wholly realistic new perspective. In it, Sada (Eiko Matsuda) is, as in real life, an ex-prostitute who found work as a servant in the home of a seemingly upstanding couple. The master, Kichizo (Tatsuya Fuji), becomes interested in her sexually and the two begin an affair. In attempts to avoid suspicion from his wife, she leaves their employ and the two set up shop at a nearby inn. There they are consumed by their unabashed lovemaking until Sada's nymphomania turns into a quest for sadomasochism. As their love inflames them, so do the dangers of its nature. Pain and punishment ultimately become the source of their newfound pleasure, and arguably, self-hatred.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Feb 16, 2011 4:22pm
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