AFFD Report - Finishing the Game, Dorm, Battle of Wits, Heavenly Kings
While Dallas bad boy number one was declaring the Internet dead, the other two bad boys of Dallas (me and Peter Martin; we are both internationally known to rock a house party or chase away monkeys) were out at opening night of the 6th Annual Asian Film Festival of Dallas (www.affd.org). The 6th Annual Film Festival of Dallas runs from now until next Thursday and Dallas movie lovers can soak in a rare treat of current Asian cinema on the big screen. Outside of the year they screened "Tell Me Something" I personally think this is the strongest programming lineup they have ever had. I want to note for audiences seeing "Dorm" at midnight tonight to please keep in mind going into it that it’s more of a coming of age drama with some horror elements than a straight up Fangoria friendly horror film. Just don’t go in expecting to see people swirling in hot tubs like "Madman Marz" or "Evil Dead" type horror frights.
Chiho and her merry band of AFFD-ers have really outdid themselves for opening night. Outside of some nights at BIFFF this had to be the most fun I’ve had a film festival this year. "Finishing the Game" was a perfect opening night film and the Q&A after was so entertaining it could have lasted all night and rarely skipped a beat. As Peter mentioned and I can agree on completely Roger Fan needs his own show. Between asking Chiho to marry him, wondering where the house parties were, serenading the audience with Chili songs and recounting Hollywood stories - he brought the house down! He had so much energy I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had busted out into a full rendition song and dance of “Lay Your Hands on Me” by the Thompson Twins.
The eight-minute documentary that preceded the film was really illuminating and quite revealing into the mindset and depths Justin Lin and his casts and crews have had to go through in making independent films from "Better Luck Tomorrow" to "Finishing the Game." One of the highlights of this was seeing Roger Ebert stand up and stick up for Better Luck when one audience member at Sundance calling it blasphemy that Justin Lin would make an amoral film about Asian Americans.
As for the film I really enjoyed it. I had context of 70’s TV shows, Bruce Lee and Bruce Li films and the sub genre of inside Hollywood films that really enhanced my experience with it. I love 70’s TV shows like Banyon, love Bruce Lee films, Bruce Li in particular of all the assorted post-Lee wannabes really has some entertaining films and I’m a huge fan of inside Hollywood films (like "Bad and the Beautiful"). So in this light and fusion that Justin Lin provides, I really responded to the film and also got caught up in the personal stories going on in the film that seemed to wax on heartbreak, bonds of friendship and filmmaking struggles. And I must say the Wes Anderson homage was spot on hilarious and an absolutely surprising touch.
The film in brief deals with a Hollywood studio struggling to cast the role of Bruce Lee in his last film "Game of Death." Mr. Lee has suddenly died leaving a finished film with a big gaping hole to fill. Hollywood being Hollywood they still think they have gold and just need to find someone that can be good enough so they can still package it to make money. We get to see first hand this casting process and in the process take a tour through the landscape of 70’s TV and filmmaking through an Asian American point of view.
Justin Lin is one of the most promising directors working today. I still remember seeing "Better Luck Tomorrow" for the first time. I can’t say it’s a classic but I certainly appreciated and liked it. When I originally saw it their was a storm that pounded the movie theatre with such strong winds and hellacious hail that several audience members fled in fear they might be blown away soon like Dorothy. I stuck it out hoping the theatre wouldn’t recreate a famous event that happened at the early years of the Cannes Film Festival.
P.T. Anderson had his nod to 70’s cinema in "Boogie Nights" and here in "Finishing the Game" filmmaker Justin Lin provides his own nod to it. I find it really interesting in cinema right now with so many filmmakers being very referential to 70’s cinema while at the same time weaving in their own very personal stories. This trend of filmmakers playing homage to this period is certainly welcome by me and I really hope it continues. If these films were nothing more than a long homage, I don’t think any would work. Beneath the obvious layers of most of these films I’ve found many personal stories woven in throughout so they actually have a unified voice versus being chockfull of non-connecting nods.
The casting of the film is really genius, not only does it feature MC Hammer and James Franco (one of the few actors to ever pull of the role of James Dean) but it puts Roger Fan and Sung Kang into shining starring roles. The energy of the cast, filmmaker and crew bounces through each and every scene. There is even at one point where the cinematographer zooms in for what normally would be a emotional reveal only to discover there is none and slowly back tracks as if it had made a mistake (which admittedly is a very inside filmmaking type joke that will be lost on many. Sung Kang nails many moments perfectly. What I’m really starting to like with his work are the added dimensions he seems to effortlessly bring out in his characters. I like how he constructs his characters archetype with resonating emotional touches while at the same time seeming to be open to spontaneous interplay (versus sticking to the script and marks in each scene). Roger Tan really came on my radar for the first time in this film. I’ve seen him in other films but as Breeze Loo he steals the entire movie. With one indie film he has shown he could well go on his way to being one of Hollywood’s funniest and liveliest working film comedians.
Mr. Lin has made an indie film more entertaining than all the Hollywood summer blockbusters combined with "Finishing the Game." He certainly has paid attention to kung fu films with choreographed fight scenes that mimic down to the trademark upper back punch to high flying kick moments of good guys taking out armies of bad guys. Not only that the recreation of 70’s TV shows was completely spot on. The highlight of the film action wise comes with a fight sequence where they had to use a back up of a back up of a back up of seemingly three different stuntmen (I lost track how many back ups they had to use in this sequence). The movie gods interfered with this sequence with the injury to several that were to perform in it and thus gave it a comedic edge that hits my funny bone like few film moments have this year (up there with the Peckinpah-esque shoot out in "Hot Fuzz").
As for Roger Fan and Sung Kang, seriously put these two in their own vehicles. I want to see more from both of them in starring roles. Any films I see their names on or Mr. Lin’s is an instant must see and I hope I get to see more from them all very soon. Roger Fan, Sung Kang and Just Lin – mark their names down now in your Blackberry, notepad or even whisper their names into a secret hole like Tony Leung in a Wong Kar-wai film. They’re not only bringing sexy back, they’re bringing back entertaining Hollywood & US indie cinema (10 credit cards at a time).
Who knows, maybe with his next Hollywood film Mr. Lin will remake "Kramer vs Kramer" to give Cate Blanchett a chance to prove not only can she be Bob Dylan but she can out Kramer the Kramer kid to prove she can overcome any acting hurdle thrown her way.
For the record I thought Tiger should have won the Bruce Lee contest.
“Dorm” aka “Dek hor” is one of my favorite films this year. When I originally saw it I woke up after a fairly late night at Udine 9 to drag myself in to the first morning screening. I should really note in all honesty that I’ve been really burnt out by all the mutations in different countries and markets of what seems to be the same J-horror ghost script and sudden shallow loud scare tactics. I can watch the first 5 to 10 minutes and already know where the movie is going in these types of deals. The next hour then for me feels like I’m watching "Steel Magnolias 2."
“Dorm” thankfully was an exception to all the ghost films I’ve seen of late. Each of its three acts are carefully constructed as a drama first and not a film revolving around cheap thrills or sudden LOUD noises. It really immerses itself into an enthralling coming of age story with organically included horror elements. The arc of the main characters transformation and how it gets you to emotionally dig into it really sets this apart from the rest. I really can easily see this film being in my top 5 at the end of the year. Consider this a little film that could. Just don't expect this movie to be "Final Exam."
A shame there is so little buzz about this film out there but really want to put it on the movie map this year as a must see film! You don’t have to be a horror fan or a j-horror fan or any of that to appreciate this film. “Dorm” hits you right at the core of what makes you a movie lover.
A special note of the film print of “Dorm” being screened, it is the Hong Kong print of it that deviates from the print I saw at Udine. In this version the climax of the film gets chopped up and taken out of rhythm. I prefer the longer cut I saw at Udine by far. The only analogy I could use is just imagine “Shawshank Redemption” if Michael Bay edited the final sequence with Red’s journey. Still an enjoyable and resonating film with the print AFFD has but not quite the same.
Andy Lau is back. No I mean Andy Lau is really finally back after most memorably starring as the good guy/bad guy in the "Infernal Affairs" trilogy. He walks around in this movie possessed with raw energy and conviction. I almost felt like he had either walked out of a Nine Inch Nails concert before making this movie or had just endured the break up of his life. This is just one of those passionate legendary performances that generations to come will still be marveling at.
"Battle of Wits" is a brilliantly executed war strategy movie. It shows more concern in being a cerebral thinking persons film than a popcorn action movie for the masses. This is one of the better unsung films of 2007, just don’t expect a ton of action.
Outside of a ridiculously silly sequence towards the end I thought the movie really played strong. There are moments where you see budget shortcuts as well but neither really derailed the movie for me. Throughout watching it I kept cringing thinking they were going to put in some “hey I’m cute pin up calendar” moments for Mr. Lau but thankfully he plays his part scruffy and as a scruffy loving bad ass versus a pretty boy gone to war. Can't say any more than this without giving away too much. So if you get a chance it certainly is worthwhile and most definitely a film best experienced on the big screen!
A mostly silly played for laughs Hong Kong boy band mockumentary from star Daniel Wu. I’m a huge fan of Mr. Wu’s work in “One Nite in Mongkok.” As a first time director in "Heavenly Kings" he shows some promise.. if he has a script to work with.
The one derailing thing about this film is its reliance on forced conflict between band members. We know that musicians in bands fight with each other but in the context of this mockumentary it feels so heavy handed and forced it stalls the rest of the film. I think he could have showed that band members fight in less plot integral ways that would have kept the film moving. We don’t need an entire section of the film that plays into its climax to be all about band members fighting. It seems like such an unnecessary diversion more akin to being one long deleted scene on a DVD. I really do like everything else about this film except when it makes this turn. Just imagine watching a “Rocky” film and suddenly halfway through Rocky starts taking ballet lessons and for the next 30-45 minutes we have to deal with Rocky prancing around in tights and then finally in the last 10 minutes we see him return to take on Apollo in the ring. Having conflict just for the sake of conflict rarely works in films that have a thread of a story as it is, there has to be an emphasis context and a clear arc behind moving it along.
The strong points of the film are every scene that doesn’t feature artificial conflict. The scenes where the story is sure of itself really leap off the page and work wonderfully. The dance number in particular really is laugh out loud and there is some nice intercut scenes from Hong Kong film/music stars talking about the state of the Hong Kong music industry. Take away all the unnecessary conflict and add on a provocative third act and this might have been one of the sleepers of the year. As it stands it still should be enjoyable for fans of Hong Kong boy bands and female fans of Mr. Wu.
Lastly, too bad there are no underwater musical numbers to be found in its running time.
COMING SOON TO AFFD – I will be out again at AFFD tonight in tow with my eye melting bright neon green Udine Film Festival hat. If you spot me be sure and wear sunglasses before looking directly at it.
Ps – Totally unrelated I would like to make my prediction now that Kanye West will outsell 50 Cent next month.