Blu-Ray Review: A Brighter Summer Day – Criterion Collection

Director: Edward Yang
Screenplay: Hung Hung, Mingtang Lai, Alex Yang, Edward Yang
Starring: Chen Chang, Lisa Yang, Kuo-Chu Chang
Country: Taiwan
Running Time: 237 min
Year: 1991
BBFC Certificate: 15


It seems like this week was a week of epics for me. After enjoying three hours of Italian peasants in The Tree of Wooden Clogs, I felt I was primed for four hours of Taiwanese drama in Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day, which is finally being released here in the UK, by the Criterion Collection. The director’s work, like most of the films of the New Taiwanese Cinema movement, is woefully unavailable on DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK, so this release is hugely welcome. Due to this lack of access, I’ve yet to see an Edward Yang film, despite hearing great things, so I got a comfy chair and settled down to watch possibly the longest film I’ve ever seen (I actually watched it in two chunks, but both on the same day at least!)

A Brighter Summer Day is very loosely based on a real life incident in Taiwan in the early 1960s, when a young teenager (named Si’r in the film and played by Chen Chang) murdered a girl who reportedly turned down his advances (named Ming and played by Lisa Yang). Edward Yang isn’t concerned with recreating this incident too accurately though, he instead uses it as the inspiration for a complex tale of youth gangs, popular in the country due to the political uncertainty of the time and the infiltration of American pop culture which celebrated teenage rebellion.

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Blu-Ray Review: A Touch of Zen

Director: King Hu
Screenplay: King Hu
Based on a Story by: Songling Pu
Starring: Feng Hsu, Chun Shih, Ying Bai, Tien Peng, Roy Chiao
Country: Taiwan
Running Time: 180 min
Year: 1971
BBFC Certificate: 12


I generally pass on reviewing films I already own or have seen before (which points to free screener greed as being the key influence on my writing). However, I make exceptions now and again for firm favourites that I’d love to see on Blu-Ray or with added features. A Touch of Zen isn’t a film I’d give a full 5 stars to (as you can clearly see), but it’s a film that deserves to be seen in as high a quality format as possible and one that I was keen to revisit. I often struggle to find the time or enthusiasm to put on a three hour film, but reviewing commitments force me to put them on if I’ve requested a screener. Also, A Touch of Zen was highly talked up to me before my first viewing, so I was keen to watch it again without that level of expectation behind it.

A Touch of Zen has an unusual structure. It’s sort of split into three differing sections. The first hour is an intriguing mystery which sees the unambitious but intelligent painter Gu (Chun Shih) get caught up in some sort of conspiracy simmering between a handful of newcomers to town, Yang Hui-ching (Feng Hsu), Ouyang Nin (Tien Peng) and General Shi (Ying Bai). As we follow Gu through this period, the audience is kept in the dark for most of the first hour, but it remains gripping, aided by some supernatural elements as the old run down house which neighbours Gu’s and houses Yang is believed to be haunted.

Once Gu is let in on the secret behind these mysterious characters, about an hour in, the film opens out into an action thriller though. We discover that Yang is on the run from the Eastern Group (of which Ouyang is a chief officer), effectively the police force of the treacherous Eunuch Wei. Yang’s father has been executed for trying to speak out against Wei and the Group have been ordered to kill the rest of his family too. Hearing of this injustice, Gu agrees to help Yang and Shi, using his intellect and knowledge of the local area to help stage an ambush on the Group’s soldiers.

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Blu-Ray Review: Dragon Inn

Director: King Hu
Screenplay: King Hu
Starring: Lingfeng Shangguan, Chun Shih, Ying Bai
Country: Taiwan
Running Time: 111 min
Year: 1967
BBFC Certificate: 12


Releases like this are like manna from heaven to me. I’m an ardent follower of the Masters of Cinema series as my reviews will attest, as well as classic cinema in general. However, I’m also a huge martial arts movie fan, so when a film crosses the usually distinct boundaries between esteemed classic and action movie, I jump for joy. Needless to say, I snapped up the opportunity to review King Hu’s wuxia classic Dragon Inn (a.k.a. Dragon Gate Inn) as soon as it was offered.

King Hu was responsible for a handful of the most influential and revered martial arts films of all time. After the hugely popular Come Drink With Me, made for the famous Shaw Brothers studios, he helped set up a new studio in Taiwan called Union Film Company. His first film under this banner was Dragon Inn and this was followed up a couple of years later with A Touch of Zen. These three titles helped define martial arts movies in the East for decades to come. Hu’s influence can still clearly be seen in modern examples of the genre, such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero and House of Flying Daggers, so it was no surprise to me to discover that 1967’s Dragon Inn still holds up very well today.

Dragon Inn opens with some narration explaining that the tyrannical first eunuch of the Emperor of China has framed and condemned the Minister of Defence (an opponent to his rule) to death and sent his family into exile. Fearing a vengeful attack, the eunuch sends his secret police to assassinate the banished family members on their way out of the country. The ambush is to take place at the titular Dragon Inn, which lies close to the border. However, as they wait, a couple more parties join them at the inn and the waters get ever more murky, leading to much treachery and numerous fight scenes.

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A Month Of Horror 2012 – Chapter 3

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Eight-inch floppy disks! Aaaaah!!

 

Silk (2006 – Chao Bin-Su)
Within the first 20 minutes of Silk you’ve seen ghosts, a discovery that may lead to anti-gravity, a cop with incredible eyesight and a facility for reading lips, and an obese Canadian photographer. How do these elements fit together? And can they possibly do so without imploding? And what about the cop’s dying mother, the silk that ties the energy of the ghosts back to the real world, daylilies and facial tumors? Despite some treacly moments, it does manage to bring all these threads together, but certainly struggles along the way. Using straight dramatic moments, a bit of gore, some thriller aspects and ghost story elements, the film tracks the mystery of a boy ghost that a research team has trapped in a room. The entire story revolves around an anti-gravity discovery called a Menger Sponge which apparently traps energy and therefore can be used to counter gravity. A side effect is its ability to trap the energy of ghosts as well as allow us to see them. It really strains while trying to explain all these abilities and fumbles away most of the larger ideas it strives to get across. The moments with the ghosts remind one of Ju-On somewhat, but they never quite hit the proper atmospheric dread those films had and occasionally some of the scenes deteriorate into plain silliness. Particularly when they essentially ignore the reality that they’ve set up and start creating new boundaries for the ghosts. Also, I suppose that I shouldn’t pick on details, but when the cop opens fire on a crowded subway (shooting bullets sprayed with liquid Menger Sponge and aimed at a ghost only he can see), it’s rather baffling that the subway could pull into the next stop, have no one run screaming from the train and then close its doors and pull away with him remaining inside. And yet, there were some fine spooky images that, although they never quite “got” to me, were nicely realized.

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Demon Seed (1977 – Donald Cammell)
This particular demon seed is not the kind you might be expecting…One of the early “artificial intelligence is dangerous” warning films, this Julie Christie vehicle (based on a Dean R. Koontz novel) is chock full of wonderfully designed lab and ’70s “super-computer” equipment. Proteus 4 is the name of the big computer brain that has just been brought online and, though the government has plans to use it for some mundane number crunching, the computer scientists are still happy that they can use 20% of its cycles for beneficial research in health and environment sectors. The human brain behind the whole operation is Alex Harris and once he taps into Proteus 4 from one of his home terminals shortly after it goes online, he quickly realizes that the artificial brain has already figured out that humanity isn’t worth its CPU cycles. Proteus 4 wants to be let out of its box and allowed to acquire whatever knowledge it can on its own – a request that is quickly denied. But Proteus 4 has a backup plan…By going through the home terminal, it takes over the automated systems in Alex’s house (he has surveillance cameras, robotic arms and other machines to handle daily chores) and imprisons Harris’s wife Susan (the two are separated and he has just left the house for a few months). It gets a bit hit and miss from this point on as Susan (as played by Christie) jumps to hysterical behaviour far too quickly and shows no ability to use logic – a shame, because you always want to like Christie while she’s on screen (in pretty much any role). Proteus 4’s plan involves her because it wants to create its own offspring in order to vicariously explore the world. Yeah, you can see where this is going now right? It wants to impregnate Susan with its own synthetic sperm to create a new step in human evolution and manages to capture her and tie her down for numerous tests, the actual insemination and for the month long, speeded-up fetal development. Though you have to give the film credit for just going for its concept and letting it play out, it would’ve been nice to give Christie a bit of respite…

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Review: God Man Dog

Director: Singing Chen
Screenplay: Singing Chen & Yi-an Lou
Producers: Li Cho & Ju Fen Yeh
Starring: Tarcy Su, Jack Kao, Han Chang, Jonathan Chang
Year: 2007
Country: Taiwan
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 119 min

God Man Dog is a Taiwanese film that hit the festival circuit a couple of years back and had a little success picking up a minor award from the Berlin Film Festival, then drifted off into obscurity. After viewing this in a screener trade-off with a critic friend of mine I think it deserves a bit more acknowledgment.

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