Author Archive for Jason Powell


Review: The Descent


American horror flicks have been in a real rut of late. From the wave of watered down Japanese horror, to the Saws and Hostels that confuse stomach-churning with thought-provoking—hell, even the pairing of genre titans in Freddy vs Jason was a fairly bland affair. Judging by Neil Marshall’s The Descent, it takes a Brit to remind us how it’s supposed to be done. Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) and her female friends are established as a rugged, outdoorsy bunch in the opening scene of whitewater rafting. But after tragedy strikes Sarah’s family, her buddies decide the best therapy is…spelunking? Meeting up with their American friend Juno (Natalie Mendoza), who incidentally may or may not have been sleeping with Sarah’s husband, they venture into an unexplored Appalachian cave system where they find themselves very unwelcome guests. Without giving away too much about just what these plucky spelunkers encounter, picture a blind, even paler Gollum with anger management issues and a taste for human flesh. But thankfully we live in a post-Buffy world, which means that beautiful girls in danger don’t simply whimper and run—they roll up their sleeves and commence to kicking ass, transforming from J. Crew-modelesque milquetoasts into badass battle babes along the way. Cinematographer Sam McCurdy visually strands the viewer right alongside the protagonists in impossibly narrow, barely lit passages. Often two thirds of the screen is pitch black, a lone flashlight beam providing the only illumination and the chiaroscuro effect heightening the sense of claustrophobia. Marshall’s script has a recurring theme of rebirth, and viewers obsessed with reading every film as a subversive political metaphor should have a field day with the charismatic American who lies to her UK allies, eventually embroiling them in a bloody, complicated war. Sure the film has cheesy dialogue (After a cave-in blocks their escape route: “This is not good, guys.”), and plot holes a mile wide (why wouldn’t a blind predator rely on a heightened sense of smell?), but it also contains tight pacing, numerous expertly timed “boo!” scares, and a generous helping of unapologetic gore that’s been missing from the glut of PG-13 “horror” movies currently plaguing American screens. The Descent brings the pain in more ways than one, and reminds us yanks we need to step up our guignol game.


This Just In: Thirst Promo Shots


Okay, it’s beginning to seem like Park Chan-wook’s upcoming priest-turned-vampire film Thirst is the only movie I’m writing about here, but after all it is the new film from the director of the Vengeance Trilogy, it does star one of Korea’s best actors (Song Kang-ho), and it could very possibly be a breakthrough role for Dasepo Naughty Girls starlet Kim Ok-bin. So every new bit of info on this film is a huge point of interest to me (and hopefully, you too if you’re still reading), including these new promo shots which will run in the Korean editions of Vogue and Cosmopolitan leading up to next week’s theatrical release.  You can peep the full set here.


Trailer: Full Thirst Trailer With English Subtitles

Click the image to watch the subtitled trailer.

Click the image to watch the subtitled trailer.

After being leaked and pulled, here’s the brand new full-length trailer for Park Chan-wook’s newest film Thirst. (The subs weren’t coming through in the embedded YT clip, so click above to watch). It stars the amazing Song Kang-ho as a priest who becomes a vampire after a blood transfusion, and Kim Ok-bin as his neighbor’s wife and the object of his obsession. Also worth a look is the film’s official site. There’s quite a bit of content, including a star-studded behind-the-scenes featurette with everyone from directors Lee Chang-dong and Bong Joon-ho, to actresses Lee Young-ae and Jeon Do-yeon visiting the set of Thirst, and Focus Features CEO James Schamus raving about director Park. The film opens in Korea on April 30, and with Universal backing the film (and Schamus’ unbridled enthusiasm), we should hopefully see a US release later this year. (Thanks to Antony and Yumann for help with the translation of the trailer.)


Trailer: Mother from Bong Joon-ho

Less than two weeks ago came a tiny bit of promotional material for director Bong Joon-ho’s latest film Mother, but it was really just a few seconds of footage from the film and some talking head-style interview clips with director Bong. Now there’s an official site up with a streaming version of the trailer which gives more a sense of the story and characters. Won Bin (Taegukgi) plays a mentally challenged young man who is wrongly accused of murder by the local police, and television actress Kim Hye-ja plays his mother, who sets out alone to prove his innocence. Reader skyccm recently read a Korean-language interview in which Bong discusses Mother, and was nice enough to summarize and provide a rough translation:

Bong wanted to show a different side of Kim Hye-ja, who is affectionately known as Korea’s “national mother” from her many similar roles on television dramas. Bong said the process of this film began with nothing more than a desire to work with Kim, and that he then wrote the script with her in mind as the lead. When The Host was released in 2003, Bong mentioned in several interviews that Kim Hye-jin was the actor he most wanted to work with for his next film, and that he had been a big fan of her work since 1992. Bong was finally able to meet Kim in 2004, and they began talks for her to appear in the film.

As I mentioned before, Bong has quite a fine touch with human drama—whether it’s set against the backdrop of a dark comedy like Barking Dogs Never Bite or a monster movie like The Host—so it should be quite interesting to see what looks to be a highly charged drama which he wrote from the beginning for a specific actor as the emotional core of the story. No word on a release date in Korea or abroad, but Bong’s profile has been rising quite a lot lately, especially with the release of the omnibus film Tokyo! (which screens in DC beginning this Friday), so expect to see this one in the States at some point. (Big thanks to skyccm for the translation help!)


First Look: Official Site for Johnnie To’s Vengeance


The official site for Vengeance, the newest film from Johnnie To and screenwriter Wai Ka-fai and featuring French icon Johnny Hallyday, has just been launched. While the site is mainly geared toward the audience for the film’s French release on May 20, there is also an English language option on the front page as well. Inside you’ll find the previously released trailer, and some snazzy film stills. There is a radio interview with Monsieur Hallyday, but it’s conducted in French, naturally. Keep checking back though, as sections for production notes and interviews look to be added soon, and may well feature English subs. (Thanks to Frederic for the scoop!)


Review: Typhoon


With Hong Kong’s quality film output having taken a dip recently, and the Japanese horror craze dead in the water, South Korea has quietly stepped into the spotlight of Asian cinema (Thailand: you’re on in five). From Kim Ki-duk’s brutal psychological investigations to Park Chan-wook’s pulpy vengeance trilogy and beyond, the past few years have seen a steady stream of entertaining, challenging, and wholly original fare coming out of Chungmuro. So it’s something of a shame to see director Kwak Kyung-taek imitating lame American thrillers in his bombastic new film Typhoon. Korean megastar Jang Dong-gun plays Sin, a scraggly refugee-turned-terrorist intent on righting a misperceived wrong from his past, who plans to take out his anger on the whole of South Korea via dirty bomb. Standing in his way is Lee Jung-jae as the ultrapatriotic supercop hot on his trail. It’s a simple enough premise, but with a J.J. Abramsesque cat-and-mouse game spanning multiple countries and languages (five, with Jang surprisingly delivering the bulk of his dialogue in Thai), the story can’t help but be convoluted. Kwak also delves into Michael Bay territory, cramming the frame with car chases, explosions, and nausea-inducing handheld camerawork. Kwak previously directed Jang in the Korean blockbuster Chingu (Friend), a sort of testosterone-addled take on the chick-flick, albeit with the emphasis on male bonding and fighting. But while that film had a strong (if, by Western standards, sappy and maudlin) emotional core, Typhoon is all fight or flight, never stopping to take a breath. The best we get is a flashback interrupting what little narrative flow exists to illustrate Sin’s plight as a North Korean refugee and explain his misplaced hatred of South Korea, but sandwiched into the tumult as it is, it hurts more than helps the story. On the plus side, when the action does let up, Kwak’s recurring cinematographer Hong Kyeong-pyo uses an abundance of natural light, giving even the omnipresent overcast skies an ethereal beauty, and Jang has the feral, occasionally hammy intensity of a young Toshiro Mifune, somehow managing to elicit sympathy for his single-minded, megalomaniacal villain. Speaking of megalomania, there’s a third-act terrorist plot that even a Bond villain would find ludicrous, and a climactic battle that contains all the clichés: dangling chains, dripping water, walls of fire, a phallic knife fight, and the ubiquitous action flick line “You and I…we’re the same.” If Kwak really wanted to nail the American action flick vibe, he should have pared Typhoon down to a lean 90 minutes, as the film feels bloated at almost two hours. But if he wanted to nail the current zeitgeist of Korean cinema, he should have trusted himself to create something uniquely his (and his country’s) own.


Mark Your Calendar: NYAFF 2009


The New York Asian Film Festival has just announced the first half of their lineup for this summer, and it’s already shaping up to be amazing. There’s the blockbuster live action adaptation of smash-hit manga 20th Century Boys and its sequel, 20th Century Boys Chapter Two: The Last Hope. There’s Korean director Kim Ki-duk’s surreal new film Dream, starring the so-called “Asian Johnny Depp” Jo Odagiri and Lee Na-young, in a role that will no doubt be miles away from her cutesy star turn in Please Teach Me English. Then there’s the new one from bizarro comedy maestro Minoru Kawasaki, who makes films just as crazy as their names imply (Calamari Wrestler, Execeutive Koala). He’ll be serving up an old-school Japanese monster movie with extra cheese in Monster X Strikes Back: Attack the G8 Summit. Since the NYAFF’s site hasn’t been updated yet I’m posting the entire press release below (thanks to Twitch for the scooop). I know Grady Hendrix and the rest of the NYAFF crew are hard at work pinning down the second half of the fest, so keep watching there (and here) for updates as they become available.

June 19 ­ July 5, 2009
from June 19 to July 2 at the IFC Center
(323 Sixth Avenue, at West 4th Street)
from July 1 ­ 5 at Japan Society
(333 East 47th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenues)

Look out! It’s the first half of the line-up for the New York Asian Film Festival 2009. We’ve still got between 10 and 20 more movies to announce, lots (we mean LOTS) of special guests and some movies that are going to blow your mind to come. But for now, here’re the first 19 films in this year’s line-up.
Keep your eyes on for full details.
THE EQUATION OF LOVE AND DEATH (China, 2008, Cao Baoping) ­ a twisty Chinese thriller anchored by an award-winning performance from Zhou Xun as a chain-smoking, obsessive-compulsive cab driver desperate to find her missing boyfriend.

OLD FISH (China, 2007, Gao Qunshu) ­ call this one an anti-thriller. A long-in-the-tooth member of Harbin’s bomb squad takes on a mad bomber who’s leaving diabolical homemade explosives all over the city. Written and acted mostly by actual cops and bomb squad officers, the movie belongs to real life ex-cop and non-actor Ma Guowei, who plays the titular old fish in this gripping, ultra-realistic look at China’s bomb disposal procedures, which apparently include putting a ticking explosive device in your bicycle basket and pedaling like hell for the river.

IF YOU ARE THE ONE (China, 2008, Feng Xiaogang) ­ it shouldn’t work, but it does. This is the romantic comedy to end all romantic comedies: a gorgeous, heartfelt, sharply-written romance between Shu Qi and Ge You, directed by China’s master of the blockbuster, Feng Xiaogang (ASSEMBLY). The second-highest grossing movie EVER released in China, it’s like something from MGM in the 1930’s, a throwback to a time when romances made you wish you could get up out of your seat and walk through the screen and into a better, funnier and far more romantic world.

THE FORBIDDEN DOOR (Indonesia, 2009, Joko Anwar) ­ the director of last year’s festival favorite, KALA, is back and boy is this one twisted. Like a 19th century gothic novel adapted by Alfred Hitchcock and directed by David Lynch, this movie about a sculptor and the horrible things he does to become successful is one of the sickest, kinkiest movies we’ve ever screened. Graceful, gliding and with a Bernard Herrmann-esque score we feel confident when we say you’ve never seen evil look quite so beguiling.

20TH CENTURY BOYS (Japan, 2008, Yukihiko Tsutsumi)
Tsutsumi) ­ as revered as the DEATH NOTE series, 20TH CENTURY BOYS (named after the T. Rex song) is an epic manga story that has finally become three much-anticipated movies, with the third, concluding installment coming out in August 2009. When they were kids, a neighborhood gang of buddies wrote an illustrated ³Book of Prophecy² about a group of bad guys who destroyed the planet with viruses and giant robots. Now they’ve grown up into hard luck, broken down adults and the events from their homemade comic book are coming true and they’re the only people who can stop it. This hard-charging narrative races ahead full speed, packed with destroyed cities, death cults, funeral banquets, old friends, broken dreams and invincible assassins. The kind of thing to make you laugh and give you goosebumps all at the same time, it’s a boys’ adventure tale for the 21st century. (The 20th Century Boys manga is currently being released in America by Viz)

ALL AROUND US (Japan, 2008, Ryosuke Hashiguchi) ­ after a seven-year break, director Ryosuke Hashiguchi is back and the results are shattering. This movie observes eight years of a marriage, marking the passage of time with famous Japanese murder trials covered by the husband who is a courtroom sketch artist. As his wife wrestles with depression and the two of them try to hold on to each other the movie becomes scalding water thrown on all of your emotional weak points. Actress Tae Kimura won ³Best Actress² for her performance as the wife at the Japanese Academy Awards and she deserves it for her work in this amazing, sensitive film that speaks quietly but will make everyone in the audience sit up and listen.

CHILDREN OF THE DARK (Japan, 2008, Junji Sakamoto) ­ a Japanese movie shot in Thailand about the child trafficking business (both for sex and for
organs) sounds awful, but this movie blew us away with its unblinking, hard-nosed attitude. Full of more horrible sights per second than any other movie made this year, and with a minimum of preaching, the awful truth of this film (which was banned in Thailand) is that all of us are guilty of the exploitation of children, whether we’re the ones actually stealing their kidneys or not. This is an urgent scream for action, and a movie you’ll have a hard time forgetting.

CLIMBER’S HIGH (Japan, 2008, Masato Harada) – Masato Harada, director of last year’s SHADOW SPIRIT, gets his Howard Hawks on again with this gripping ensemble drama about a group of newspapermen covering the real-life tragedy of a 1985 plane crash in the mountains of central Japan. Headlined by Shinichi Tsutsumi from the ALWAYS movies, who plays a mountaineer-turned-reporter, the story concentrates less on the disaster and more on the moral responsibility of the men assigned to tell the story of the tragedy, and how the event nearly destroyed their lives and relationships.

THE CLONE RETURNS HOME (Japan, 2008, Kanji Nakajima) ­ it’s been compared to Tarkovsky’s SOLARIS, and they ain’t all wrong. Debuting at the Sundance Film Festival this quietly shimmering science fiction movie starts as hard sci fi and then morphs into a surreal space opera set on earth. An astronaut dies in an accident while in orbit, but surprise! The Japanese Space Agency cloned him before he went up into space and so now his wife gets the clone as a consolation prize. But life can be hard when you’re the clone of a dead man, and soon this photocopied human is lost in the labyrinth of his own artificial memories.

K-20: LEGEND OF THE MASK (Japan, 2008, Shimako Sato) In a fictional past where Japan never participated in World War II and wealthy aristocrats rule the capital city, a mysterious thief named “K-20” steals from the rich and has become a folk hero to the poor. A master of disguise, no one has ever seen K-20’s true face, and when a poor circus acrobat (played by the dreamy Takeshi Kaneshiro) is framed as the master criminal, he must seek the help of a rich princess to clear his name and bring the real K-20 to the authorities. One of the biggest Japanese productions of recent years, and featuring special effects by the team behind the ALWAYS movies, K-20 is an old-school, running-and-jumping, steampunk action adventure in the grand tradition of silent serials and swashbuckling Errol Flynn movies. And, oddly enough for a Japanese film, it’s got a female director at the helm.

LOVE EXPOSURE (Japan, 2008, Sion Sono) ­ the director of EXTE and NORIKO’S DINNER TABLE returns with one of the most amazing cinematic achievements of the year. A four-hour epic about pornography, Catholicism, families, fathers, true love, cross-dressing, kung fu, cults and mental illness this movie has been rejected by every single US distributor, which is their loss. The redemptive powers of God, sex and true love unite in a holy trinity of motion picture catharsis that will send you out of the theater cleansed of sin, and horny as hell. This is your only chance to see it, and if you ever loved movies you cannot afford to miss it.

MONSTER X STRIKES BACK: ATTACK THE G8 SUMMIT (Japan, 2008, Minoru Kawasaki) Preceded by – GEHARA: THE LONG-HAIRED GIANT MONSTER (Japan, 2009, Kiyotaka Taguchi, short film) ­ preceded by a lovingly made short film about giant monsters, MONSTER X is from Minoru Kawasaki (CALAMARI WRESTLER and EXECUTIVE
KOALA) and it’s a remake/sequel to 1967’s THE X FROM OUTER SPACE featuring the hideous space chicken, Guilala. Here, in a tribute to classic giant monster films, Kawasaki turns the ³stupid² dial up to 11 and loads the film with old school special effects as Guilala attacks the G-8 summit and the world’s leaders have to kick its kaiju butt. Also featuring: Takeshi Kitano as ³Takemajin² the savior of Japan. Between these two films you’ll get more monster love than you’ve had all year.

SNAKES AND EARRINGS (Japan, 2008, Yukio Ninagawa) ­ based on the best-selling novel about a woman who decides that her goal in life is to have her tongue split, this is the body modification opus you’ve been waiting for. Bored of her daily life, she starts with tattoos, moves on to piercing, and finally wants the full bifurcated tongue. Yuriko Yoshitaka gives an incredibly raw, totally exposed performance that’s cleaning up the awards and its the anchor of this sensitive, emotional, erotic, disturing and beautiful movie for anyone who ever looked at a pierced tongue and thought, ³Well, maybe…²

WHEN THE FULL MOON RISES (Malaysia, 2008, Mamat Khalid) ­ the best way to describe this movie is Guy Maddin taking on the history of Malaysian cinema. Most of the older Malaysian movies have been destroyed by the ravages of time, so director Mamat Khalid makes a ³lost² black-and-white thriller from the 60’s, that’s part loving homage and part sharp-eyed send-up. Full of secret communist cults, werewolves, were-tigers, ghosts, private eyes, midgets and eerie secrets it’s so deadpan you don’t know if you should be laughing or crying. An epic homemade achievement of brain-boiling strangeness and charm.

BREATHLESS (South Korea, 2009, Lee Hwan & Yang Ik-june) ­ winner of the top award at this year’s Rotterdam Film Festival this movie is labor of love by Yang Ik-Joon who wrote, directed and stars. Playing one of the most unrepentant thugs ever to grace the silver screen, he’s a debt collector who’s in it purely for the violence. But when he meets a high school girl who’s as unrelenting and tough as he is he begins to come unraveled and soon the movie’s less about his behavior, than the behavior of men everywhere who would rather punch a woman in the face than expose their feelings. From its first shouted obscenity to its last bloody beat-down this is an uncompromising dissection of male violence that’ll leave you bruised and violated.

DACHIMAWA LEE (South Korea, 2008, Ryu Seung-wan) ­ Ryu Seung-Wan (CITY OF
VIOLENCE) makes this pitch perfect send-up of Korean spy cinema of the 70’s and 80’s that stands alone as a gut-busting comedy, a breathtaking action flick and a satire of Korea’s motion picture past. Korea in the 70’s was turning out cut rate anti-communist and anti-Japanese spy films by the truckload and they’re being rediscovered now with all their glorious wooden dialogue, ridiculous plots and hard-hitting action. Ryu, Korea’s king of action movies, directs this flick like an unholy blend of Stephen Chow and Jackie Chan, full of elaborate set pieces and ridiculous contrivances, sending up Korea’s anti-communist hysteria while serving up some ace martial arts.

DREAM (South Korea, 2008, Kim Ki-duk) ­ from Korea’s number one cinematic transgressor comes this surreal, dark fantasy about two people who find that their dreams are connected. Being a Kim Ki-Duk film this leads to all kinds of emotional outrageousness. Starring Japan’s Joe Odagiri and Korea’s Lee Na-Young, it’s the best film from director Kim in years, full of in-your-face physicality and scenes that don’t just go over the line but set the line on fire. Ultimately Kim Ki-Duk is chasing bigger philosophical fish, however, wondering if dreams are a product of reality or if reality is a product of our dreams. It’s a return to form by a master director.

ROUGH CUT (South Korea, 2008, Jang Hun) ­ a high concept action comedy given an intimate, arthouse flavor by the director’s intense focus on his two main characters. A spoiled, pampered and destructive actor known for playing gangsters winds up starring in his latest movie with a real life gangster, hired at the last minute. Plenty of fights and action if you’re here for that sort of thing, but of far more interest is the slowly evolving, ever-unfolding nature of the two lead actors whose journey from star to wreck and from gangster to diva are chronicled in intense close-up. This is one of those movies that under-promises and over-delivers.

CAPE NO. 7 (Taiwan, 2008, Wei Te-sheng) ­ the highest grossing movie ever released in Taiwan, CAPE NO. 7 is less of a movie than a phenomenon.  Things kick off when a pop star decides to hold a concert in a tiny seaside town and the civic booster mayor vows to form a local band to be the opening act as an act of self-promotion. Think of it as THE FULL MONTY only with Mando-pop instead of stripping and you’ve got the idea. The director mortgaged his house and borrowed money from friends to make this film and it’s so carefully observed, seamless and crowd-pleasing that it’s amazing that it’s his first film to get a theatrical release.