Wednesday, August 23, 2006


Title: Offside
Cast:Sima Mobarak-Shahi, Shayesteh Irani, Ayda Sadeqi, Golnaz Farmani, Mahnaz Zabihi, Nazanin Sediq-zadeh, Melika Shafahi, Safdar Samandar, Mohammad Kheir-abadi, Masoud Kheymeh-kabood
Director:Jafar Panahi

In Iran women are not allowed to attend football games. An arena full of men cursing and swearing is deemed to be an inappropriate place for women to be. And given that they can get away with it men luxuriate in the ability to behave riotously, to shout, to tell racy jokes. But some women are still determined to get in and see football matches for themselves. Though if they are caught they will be arrested.

Offside is the story of a group of women who try to get into the match between Iran and Bahrain, a qualifying match for the 2006 World Cup. The film starts with a man stopping a bus, he has heard his daughter has gone to the game and he is determined to stop her from disgracing the family. That bus passes another bus, on which a young man observes another young football fan. Hey, he says to his friend, that’s a girl, his friend says of course it is, and he should ignore her if he doesn’t want to ruin her plan. To the friend it is obvious that this is the first time this girl has tried to get into a game, she is behaving all wrong. He points out the first bus, two people hang out the back window waving flags, those are girls also he says.

The girl arrives at the match and is nervous. She makes an attempt to get in, but as the guy pointed out, this is her first time, and she really doesn’t know how to go about getting in. With the realisation that the army are searching people as they go in to the ground she panics, if they search her they will know she is a girl. But in the process she gives herself away by trying to get out of being searched, so she is dragged round to a fenced off area along the wall of the stadium. There she will be detained with other girls until the police arrive to take them away.

The remainder of the film we watch the group of girls detained here as they agonise over being able to hear the game but not see the game. They make attempts to get away, they argue with the soldiers guarding them, they discuss their love of football. As the film progresses we go through the passion for the game. The arguments for why Iran’s practice of banning women is silly, the most telling example being how Japanese women were allowed in when Japan played Iran, but that was okay because they don’t understand the language. The lead soldier despairs, what did he do to deserve this – only a few months of service left, and he should have been on leave instead of here. The film is downbeat and gentle and infectious. By turns amusing and touching, as the film reaches its conclusion I couldn’t help but be affected by the enthusiasm and emotion involved. A wonderfully surprising piece.


Title: Angel-A
Cast: Jamel Debbouze, Rie Rasmussen
Director: Luc Besson

André is a liar and a gambler, who just had his luck run out. He owes a handful of people a whole lot of money and they all just decided to collect on the same day. He has till midnight. Or else. André does what he does best, tries to lie and bluff his way out of it, but it is doing him no good and things just keep getting worse. Attempting to hide from people he thinks are after him he finds himself hanging off a bridge, there he realises that he has hit bottom and decides enough is enough. He will kill himself.

About to jump he suddenly notices a 6-foot tall blonde in a barely there dress who is also about to jump. Instead of killing himself, he swims to her rescue when she throws herself from the bridge. The girl is determine to kill herself though, and André is left with the question of how to make sure she doesn’t. Eventually he suggests that she should find something better to do, like perhaps help him out, after all she owes him her life. Not entirely convinced, she grudgingly agrees to help him, and introduces herself as Angela. The unlikely pair then set about sorting André’s life out. But this girl who describes herself as a 6-foot slut turns out to be some kind of saviour for André.

Angel-A is the first film to be written and directed by Luc Besson in some time. Not produced by or from the mind of, or any of that stuff like Transporter or District 13 or Unleashed. Instead this is a proper fully committed Besson film, and the results of this black and white Parisian fable are certainly up to his standards. A contemporary Wonderful Life, Angel-A is charming modern myth with a grubby veneer of urban undertone. Delving into the heart of a broken man to offer him hope, and taking us on the journey that rebuilds him. At times touching and amusing, and overall wonderfully shot and entirely memorable.


Title: Madeinusa
Cast: Magaly Solier, Carlos de la Torre, Yiliana Chong, Ubaldo Huamán, Melvin Quijada
Director:Claudia Llosa

Madeinusa is a young Peruvian girl living in a remote village, who dreams of following her mother to the capital city Lima. Coming up for Holy Time, Made is selected as the prettiest girl in the village, and thereby this year’s Little Virgin. Of course being the mayor’s daughter may also have influenced that selection. As the Little Virgin Made is key to the upcoming festivities – she will lower Christ from his cross, wipe away the blood and then blindfold him. God is dead, and during this time he will see no sin. On Sunday coming though he will be reborn, so in the meantime the villagers celebrate by sinning. A series of parties, parades, and the mayor sleeping with the Little Virgin, his daughter.

Into this a young mining engineer from Lima arrives. Abandoned in the village when the road onward is cut off by flooding. His arrival makes the villagers uneasy. Holy Time is not a good time to have strangers around. One of his first encounters on arriving in the village is with the Virgin to be in full get up. Quickly he decides that this is a strange town, especially when they lock him up initially – for his own good, apparently. But things get chaotic with the enthusiastic partying and he is left to his own devices, wandering the periphery of events.

Abandoned by her mother, abused by her father, tormented by her sister, Made wants out. This man from Lima could be her escape route, she hopes. Made is a dreamer, dreams of escape, of shiny things, of a better life. Her sister is different, she has had her hopes dashed and realises that wishing for anything is a waste of time, you won’t get it, and you’d better just get on with life anyway. Though of course with Made getting attention from the father and the stranger tensions increase.

Madeinusa showed in Edinburgh as part of the 60th Edinburgh International Film Festival. A curious Peruvian/Spanish production, that didn’t quite live up to a description that suggested that the story of the Virgin and the Miner, would have elements of magic realism. The potential is certainly there – that first meeting, Made running around in her Virgin outfits presents a striking figure, one whom you could readily believe capable of leaving little miracles in her wake. Certainly, as the miner observes, this is a strange town, where every year instead of mourning god’s death they celebrate it – though I guess he died for their sins, so they had better get on with committing some. Fireworks, animal masks, ceremony and raucous partying – all combine in a heady mix, so that the film is charged and there is a real sense that anything could happen.

Monday, August 14, 2006


Title: The Roaches Have No King
Author: Daniel Evan Weiss
Publisher: Sceptre

Numbers is a young cockroach. Part of a generation of roaches in Ira's flat that was born in easy times. His mother gave birth to him and his fellows in the bookcase, so that they could sup upon the fine cream of book paste. Numbers devoured the bible, taking in what it had to say about man as he ate. However the good times are not forever, and when Ira gets a new girlfriend he makes some changes to the flat. The new kitchen and new cleanliness suddenly make living hard.

While the rest of the roach colony is content to live from scrap to scrap, Numbers is determined to see a return to yesterday's paradise. The best way to do that he feels is to break Ira and his girlfriend up. Thus strange things happen around Ira's flat - things are moved to provoke fights; situations are contrived to drive Ira towards his neighbour's wife; Numbers even goes in search of Ira's wild ex in the hope that she would leave his new girlfriend in the dust.

Published originally in 1994, one has to assume that The Roaches Have No King had some kind of influence on the film Joe's Apartment, which also had the interaction of roaches and man in a New York apartment. The novel is darkly funny in places, the world seen from a roach's viewpoint, the lengths that Numbers goes to have his way. On the other hand it is also a little gruesome, some of the places that the roaches get to and the way they invade human space has to make the human reader squirm a little.


Title: Hard Candy
Cast: Patrick Wilson, Ellen Page, Sandra Oh
Director: David Slade

Hayley (Ellen Page) and Jeff (Patrick Wilson) have been chatting online and have eventually arranged to meet. However Hayley is a 14-year-old girl and Jeff is a man in his 30s. Hayley is trying desperately to appear older and more interesting than she is, though as far as Jeff is concerned she can do no wrong, and he appears to hang on her every word. Desperate to hear a bootleg of a gig that Jeff was at, Halyey manages to persuade him to take her home, though he appears a little reluctant.

However. The next thing Jeff knows is he is waking up from having been drugged. He is tied to a chair in his house and Hayley is waving a knife around in a threatening manner. Hayley insists that Jeff is a paedophile, that he grooms young girls like her and then does bad things to them. Isn't it more than a coincidence that a missing girl was last seen in the same place they met? Hayley is going to take Jeff's house apart until she finds proof, and then she is going to castrate him. Jeff, of course, insists that he is innocent and that she is crazy.

Hard Candy is a psychological thriller where the tables have been turned. The prey has become the predator, and with the roles the way they are your sympathies actually tend to be with the one carrying the knife. Though as the film goes on, and Hayley shows a bloody-minded determination and Jeff becomes increasingly desperate in his protestations, you do have that slight niggle - is he innocent?

Hard Candy is a tense but understated. There aren't gallons of blood, or lots of shocks. But the male portion of the audience are likely to start squirming the closer that Hayley gets to performing the promised castration. Though by contrast, there were several women in the audience in the showing I saw who were quite vocal in cheering Hayley on. More evidence of how this film turns the tables, which is one of the most interesting things about it.

Sandra Oh is cast pointlessly as Jeff's next-door neighbour, but she has such a brief part you wonder why they bothered casting a known actress at all. For the most part this is Patrick Wilson and Ellen Page's film, almost reducing to a 2 person play, with the bulk of the film set inside Jeff's flat. The performances are pretty strong, particularly Page's who goes from flirtatious jail bait to threatening to afraid as the film rolls along - I did over hear some people criticising her performance afterwards, suggesting that she was inconsistent, but for me she was on form as the scene required.

Hard Candy - a film of entrapment, turning the tables to deliver revenge and the question of who is grooming whom.


Title: Fearless [Huo Yuan Jia]
Cast: Jet Li, Collin Chou, Anthony De Longis, Masato Harada, Nathan Jones, Mike Leeder, Jean Claude Leuyer, Shido Nakamura
Director: Ronny Yu

Jet Li plays Huo Yuan Jia, the man who formed a national school of martial arts, uniting Chinese martial arts at a time of foreign infiltration. Using propaganda Westerners and the Japanese are trying to undermine China's confidence, make them feel weak, worthless, make them want to just surrender to incoming wealth and influence. Huo Yuan Jia though cannot let this happen and takes steps to restore China's confidence. One of the key steps is a fight, where Huo yuan Jia will take on four fighters from the interlopers, and defeat them all. This is how the film starts, a series of fights, flashing back to the beginning of his life before the event reaches its culmination.

As a child Huo Yuan Jia looked up to his father, a champion fighter, and desperately wanted to emulate his success. But while his father did love him, he refused to teach him how to fight - concerned for the health of young asthmatic son. With new medicine however he soon catches up, but in doing so he is keen to prove himself. Quickly Huo Yuan Jia becomes a formidable fighter, but an arrogant one. One who courts popularity and attention, one who quickly accrues debt as he constantly buys wannabe disciples and admirers drink. Despite repeated warnings from his friends, it is clear that Huo Yuan Jia is going to come a bad end. Catastrophe comes soon enough, and as result of his own foolish pride. He casts himself out, nearly dies in the process. But salvation comes, giving him hope, making him see the error of his ways, and bringing him back to the start of the film.

Fearless is promoted as Jet Li's last martial arts film. Less flashy than the likes of Hero or even Unleashed, his last couple of films. More in keeping with his roots, with films like Once Upon A Time In China that would show on TV late Friday nights and share him with the world. The production values have changed, as have the general approach to making this kind of film - at times feeling as though they have gone too far, as though Li is no longer as convincing as he once was. On the other hand, he is getting older, and it's understandable that they would use more effects than before. Li is well cast in this role, likeable enough to be the well meaning but naively arrogant young man, and even more so when we start rooting for him on his recovery.


Title: Bad Guy [Nabbeun Namja]
Cast: Jae-hyeon Jo, Won Seo, Yun-tae Kim, Duek-mun Choi, Yoon-young Choi, Yoo-jin Shin, Jung-young Kim
Director: Ki-duk Kim

A young gangster approaches an attractive young woman. He crosses the line; she tries to drive him away. The police get involved. She spits in his face. He plots her downfall. The bad guy finds out about the girl, has people check her out, then sets her up. A wallet comes into her hands. She is caught with it, and a hole is dug that she can't get out of. Before she knows it, she has sold herself into a whorehouse to sell off her debt. Dazed and confused by events she really doesn't know what just happened, really doesn't want to be there, but there is a clear threat to prevent her from leaving. The whorehouse is run by the bad guy, who sits behind a one-way mirror and watches while men degrade her.

As the film progresses the characters struggle and resist, but gradually form a strange relationship. Punctuated by violence and damage, and yet the pair eventually cling to each other. Bad Guy showed as part of the first Tartan Asia Extreme cinema festival, though at the time I managed to miss it. Now, later, catching it on DVD, I have the extra option of reading the film expert's notes that come with the film. In those notes, the expert suggests that feminists will hate Bad Guy, because of the way girl comes to love being a whore, how she relishes it. Watching the film, that comes across as being a somewhat delusional thing to say, more stereotypical male fantasy than credible thinking.

At the time I watched Bad Guy I had been reading Tricia Sullivan's Someone To Watch Over Me, in which there is a scene where characters are watching King Kong, and there is a suggestion of it being a rape fantasy, a process of shamanic empowerment - where the girl is only brought alive by the primal male force. From that point of view the idea of the girl's transformation by the practically mute bad guy seems more credible. Though in the end, it seems simplest and most straightforward to say that the girl is traumatised, torn down, and damaged, to the point where she clings to her captor, in the same way as any hostage would to a kidnapper.

The role of the silent lead is a common one in the films by Korean director Kim Ki-Duk's film, to the point after having seen a couple you start to measure the film. How long will it be before someone talks? Will the leads talk at all, while those around them babble on? To a degree that does raise his bad guy to a mythic, primal level, and to a degree similar can be said of the girl. It is over half way through the film before the bad guy says a single word.

Like Kim Ki-Duk's other films, Bad Guy is uneasy. Dropped in the Asia Extreme category there is something extreme about this film, and much of his other work - but its an unsettling extreme, something that puts you on edge. There are certainly scenes that are extreme - the man killed by a sheet of paper in Bad Guy counts for one - but he doesn't tend to go for the crawling dead or gore. With the relationship between the bad guy and the girl made whore, Bad Guy probably is his most ambiguous work - what is he trying to say? How are we supposed to react?


Title: The Bodyguard [Wong Kom]
Cast: Piphat Apiraktanakorn, Tony Jaa, Apaporn Nakornsawan, Aranya Namwong, Petchtai Wongkamlao, Pumwaree Yodkamol
Director: Panna Rittikrai & Petchtai Wongkamlao

The Bodyguard is a Thai film that went straight to DVD, unlike the recent run of martial arts films like Ong-Bak, Born To Fight and Warrior King. The sleeve for the DVD describes it as the triumphant return of Ong Bak's Tony Jaa, which it is, if you count the blink and you'll miss it cameo 3/4 of the way through the film. But hey - all hail marketing and the suckers who fall for it!

Instead Petchtai Wongkamlao is the star of The Bodyguard, as well as co-director. Petchtai Wongkamlao is apparently a well-known Thai comedian, and played Jaa's cousin and sidekick in Ong-Bak. The girl who in turn played his sidekick in Ong-Bak is also in The Bodyguard and in fact has a bigger part than Jaa. With Wongkamlao in charge of this piece, The Bodyguard is more of (an intentional) comedy - though initially on watching it I did have my doubts. Strangely it's during a funeral early on that I actually started to find the film funny!

Wongkamlao is the titular bodyguard to a prominent businessman - the head of a corporate empire. There are gangsters and hostile board members, all keen to try and attack his position. An elaborate hit is made, overwhelming the bodyguard's best efforts to protect his boss. So the boss is killed and the son takes power, and the bodyguard is disgraced. The son's rejection of the hapless bodyguard means that he isn't in a position to protect him when an attempt is made to kidnap him. The spoiled brat son ends up hiding out in a poor village where he is forced to re-evaluate his approach to life. In the meantime he meets a young woman who works as a paramedic and for the good of her community, while the bodyguard and gangsters are both keen to find the rich kid.

As the film progresses we work towards an all out parody, all the pieces are set for a final confrontation and Wongkamlao goes for full spoof. A series of increasingly more ridiculous and contrived fights with "master" combatants.

Given the somewhat poor production values of some of these Thai films, The Bodyguard is slicker and more solid than one might expect. And once it gets going it is a pretty decent comedy.

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