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Tuesday, Jun 19, 2007

Little Big Shots: Melbourne’s International Film Festival for Kids
June 6-11 2007
ACMI Cinemas, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia



It was the first day of the festival, first morning, first film, and Marcella Bidinost was standing in a spotlight asking if anyone here understood Hebrew. Yes! shouted part of her audience. Woo! Yeah! We do! The boys who were shouting looked about fourteen years old. Some of them—the ones whose hair I could see in the light from the screen—were wearing teased mullets. You knew they were from well-off families, middle class at least, because no one, no matter how hard they banter and snicker, can look seriously tough in a teased mullet.


What had their teachers brought them to see, these students from Bialik College in Melbourne’s east? They were here to watch a movie called Little Heroes. “One of Israel’s first feature films for kids,” explained the programme. Little Heroes is the story of a telepathic migrant girl, a half-orphan boy, a genially retarded teenager, and a squinting kibbutz kid who looks like Rick Moranis at the age of six. The children are independent and strong, fine-feeling without being saintly (although the girl comes close—many shots of her staring into the distance, eyes pale with contemplation), and they neither reject the adults nor lean on them excessively. There is comedy and danger. There are ostriches and a car crash. This is an adventure film with a good sense of balance. It didn’t make a bad start to a festival.

Little Big Shots runs annually for six days, three for schools, three for the wider public. It’s the largest international film festival for kids in Australia. Melbourne has had a film festival for adults since 1951, but prior to 2005 there had never really been one dedicated to those among us whose parents don’t want them watching nudity, gore, and Lars von Trier comedies. Brief seasons of independent family films were sometimes screened during the holidays (I remember a friend’s father taking us all to see one of them on a summer’s day in a cellar-like cinema, somewhere at the bottom of a government building where there was a lot of concrete slab) but nothing as organised, official and regular as this. Nothing with a programme quite as glossy, or sponsors quite so joyfully prominent or cinemas quite so large and undungeonlike, as this.


Almost half of the films are Australian premiers, two have been nominated for Oscars, and 25 of them are made by children themselves. This is important. One of the festival’s aims—stated in the publicity, and again when you talk to the people who are running it—is to show children that they can make movies themselves, that they can do more than gawk tamely at the screen, that they can be the grown-up filmmakers of the future. Being Australian they’ll make one film here and then hive off to Hollywood and direct Legally Blonde but we don’t tell them that yet. For now, they are our filmmakers. 


The festival travels. This year it’s going around Australia and then to Singapore. Marcella will go with it. Little Big Shots is partly her brain-child. She stands at the front of each session, she welcomes everyone. She is the festival’s face.


She also chooses the films. Her favourite this year is Renuka Jeyapalan’s Big Girl, a deft Canadian short about a girl who challenges her mother’s new boyfriend. “Bartender,” she grumbles at him crankily. “Loser.” There is a twist at the end. It’s a perfectly shaped short story, and one of several films here that would fit equally well into a festival aimed at adults. In 2005 the Toronto Film Festival judged it their Best Canadian Short Film; in 2006 the Children’s Jury at the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival put it in second place behind Nils Mooij’s Fried Rice. Fried Rice screened here at the end of a session that included Small Ant Syndrome (Australian, funny) and Drive (live action from a North American teenager named Joseph Procopio who, going by his festival appearances, seems to be one of the world’s most prolific quality filmmakers under the age of 15).

It’s a festival free of breathless interviews and high-profile names, unless you count Disney, whose Little Match Girl left people sniffling as the lead perished in the deathly blue Russian snow, or Nickelodeon, a primary sponsor. The filmmakers who turned up for question time were all Australian. No one, it transpires, is going to fly umpteen thousand miles around the earth to discuss Het Monsterlijk Toilet, or The Monsterous Toilet, a handsome fourteen-minute Dutch short in which a girl eats a table-load of cakes and chocolates and then has to confront a cistern that growls at her.


These local filmmakers were shy, some seemed nonplussed—they had little instinct for self-promotion. The animator of Big Cat Zoo came down the front with his two co-creators, his children, both of whom were under the age of ten. Was it difficult to make the film? the audience asked.


Nah, not really, he said diffidently. The kids did most of the work. He put one hand lightly on his son’s head.


Marisa Lai was more forthcoming. She was 14, with two films in the festival. One of Marisa’s films was titled Talk to the Toys; the other was Military Sandwich. In Military Sandwich there is a funny moment with the lettuce, which I’ll leave you to discover if you ever get a chance to see it.


Why did she decide to animate talking toys? the audience asked.


Marisa said that she liked Creature Comforts and wanted to do a similar thing, but with toys. The decision made sense—animals were already taken. She grinned and brushed her hair off her cheek. The spotlight was on her and she handled it well.


Five of Little Big Shots’ child-made films came from Croatia’s Škola Animiranog Filma, an animation workshop run specifically for children. Wonderful things are done there. Their films were part-surreal without being incoherent. One of them, Rose, was entirely the work of a 13-year-old boy named Toni Zadravec, whose Water appeared in the festival last year. “He draws above his age group,” Marcella said before the screening, and it’s true, he does.


Storytelling and jokes are not the preserve of adults. Nor are they the preserve of countries with an excess of money. The film that got the biggest laugh was a computer animation from Zimbabwe, Moondance, while the United States’ Camp Lazlo: Treehugger was received with plain stares. Lazlo was flip, smart, noisy, and graphically stylised, with a pedigree that stretched backwards through Ren and Stimpy to Roger Ramjet and the UPA. Moondance was a series of simple visual jokes built around a giraffe. After sitting in on Little Big Shots, I wonder if marketers who say that kids won’t watch anything unless it’s edgy and hip aren’t thinking more wishfully than realistically. Funny animals tripping over themselves seem to do the job just as well.


Sad films work too. People were attentive during The Little Match Girl and quiet for Big Girl‘s poignant finale. Come to think of it, girls turned up a lot in these films. Girls brandished plungers at toilets, girls poked dangerous suitcases (Miriam Plays Hide and Seek), girls befriended girls who were different (Sirah), girls conducted interviews with other girls (Children of Nomads), girls survived natural disasters (Ayla the Tsunami Girl), girls built aeroplanes (Lolly’s Box), and, in Marta and her Flying Grandfather, a girl stubbornly tried to cure her grandfather’s Alzheimer’s. (Lovely Marta manages to make the grandfather likeable even after we’ve seen him throw a senile fit, very frightening and inexplicable to his granddaughter, with whom we are asked to identify. At the end of the film all of the bad adults turn over a new leaf and become good. I saw a wonderful Tempest once; it ended like that too).



There were plenty of boys (Wander, The Big Race, Frankie’s Story, Drive, Dobli, etc) but the resilience of the girls was more noticeable, perhaps because it doesn’t always carry through to adult productions. If you’re sick of watching films in which every female character is scripted and cast with the male audience in mind then you should try a children’s movie. It might cheer you up. Try The Time-Out Chair, possibly the neatest little fuck-you to authority ever filmed. The lead character is a silent girl with long brown hair.  Nobody gets hurt; nobody needs to, and the ending is funny.


The other thing I’ve realised, after listening to audiences of adults and children, is just how much rubbish the grown-ups talk. “This film comes from Zimbabwe,” a mother told her daughter next to me, but the film came from Madagascar. A father, trying to figure out the nationality of Marta and her Flying Grandfather, saw a .de at the end of a web address in the credits and said that it must be Danish. Oh kids, kids. Don’t be fooled by our size, our bossiness, the mysterious languages we confidently pretend to recognise. If only you knew how little we know, you’d never trust us again.

Talk to the Toys, by Marisa Lai (Australia, 2006)


Wander, by Joshua Clark (USA 2006)


Small Ant Syndrome, by Anne-Marie Denham (Australia, 2004)


The Lollipop Tree Wish, by Olivia Allen-Wickler (USA, 2006)
Lollipop Tree Wish



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Monday, Jun 18, 2007


This is clearly a week to thank your favorite higher power of choice for the existence of a company called Criterion. If you had to rely on the standard studio DVD decision makers, you’d get nothing but second tier theatrical titles and usually unnecessary ‘special edition’ cash grabs. Since their inception almost two decades ago, the cinematic artform’s number one advocate has been doing its best to preserve important films while introducing unknown and forgotten movies to the post-modern audience. More importantly, they understand the value of context and do their best to fill out their packages with as many explanatory extras as possible. On 19 June, this dynamic distributor will deliver three prime examples of their production policy. One is a renowned work of ‘60s social commentary. The other two introduce a new voice to the ever increasing motion picture mix. In all cases, the results defy standard digital convention and provide an approach to film rarely seen in your standard release.


If…- The Criterion Collection


The English boarding school system is a setting ripe for motion picture allegory. Therefore it’s no surprise that Lindsay Anderson’s class conscious metaphor of youthful rebellion taken to extremes remains a strong socio-political statement. In fact, it more or less fell out of circulation once the awful events of Colombine suggested a vague, virtually indirect connection. But no matter the pundits’ position, this is one incredibly strong motion picture. Trading on star Malcolm McDowell’s inherent wickedness (it was something that moved Stanley Kubrick to cast him in A Clockwork Orange) and the closed knit, good old boy network nature of British education, Anderson argued that the sins of the father – or in this case, the Establishment – will always come back to revisit him/them. It also complains that pain, not power, is the instigator for most violence. Thanks to Criterion’s insight-heavy treatment, the real intention of the film can be debated for decades to come.

Other Titles of Interest


Bridge to Terabithia


Disney, ever desperate to jumpstart their waning live action fortunes, teamed up with former animation giant Gabor Csupo (Rugrats, The Wild Thornberrys) for this mostly successful adaptation of Katherine Paterson’s award winning children’s book. It’s not just the fantasy sequences that work here – and they’re indeed magical. This is the rare family film that has both heart and head to spare, resulting in a richly rewarding experience for young and old alike.

Miss Potter


When did Renée Zellweger become the mock Brit du jour? Granted, her work in the Bridget Jones films proves she can pull off the proper UK accent, but do the English really appreciate a born and bred Texan taking over their favorite female leads. Case in point – this rather syrupy story of Beatrix Potter, famed author of the Peter Rabbit books. Thankfully, Chris Babe Noonan makes it all go down with minimal schmaltz. 

Reno 911 – Miami


The list of successful small screen (TV) to big screen (film) translations is minute, to say the least. In the case of this Comedy Central COPS parody, the jury is still out. True fans will enjoy seeing their favorite characters cavorting in and around the South Florida setting, unencumbered by the burden of basic cable censorship. Others will wonder why efforts that manage to perfectly conform to one medium try to broach another. 

Sweet Movie – The Criterion Collection


Those preservationist experts at Criterion are apparently desperate to introduce the work of Yugoslavian surrealist Dusan Makavejev to the uninformed segment of world cinephiles. In one of two releases available, we are drawn into his world of weird juxtapositions, interpersonal propaganda, and outrageous irrelevance. Be prepared for hardcore imagery, narrative indecipherability, and self-important postulating. Clearly, these will be ‘love it or hate it’ offerings, even for the most adventurous film fan.

W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism – The Criterion Collection


It’s supposedly about sex. It also claims to be about politics and imperialism as well. Somewhere inside Dusan Makavejev’s half fact/half fiction take on female genitalia and fascism is a really evocative take on how we allow ideology – personal and political – to thwart our basic humanity. Or it could all be just some elaborate in-joke on the part of the director. Perhaps Criterion can clear it all up. Or perhaps not.


And Now for Something Completely Different
The Abandoned


To call the 8 Films to Die For After Dark Horrorfest a hit or miss affair is to state the stunningly obvious. At least four of the films were outright rejects (Wicked Little Things, Dark Ride, Unrest, and Penny Dreadful) while the other four offered varying levels of cinematic success. This visually dazzling offering from Spanish wunderkind Nacho Cerdà (famed for his necrophilia short Aftermath) may not be the best (that right is reserved for Grudge helmer Takashi Shimizu’s Reincarnation), but it definitely builds on the basic delights of The Gravedancers and The Hamiltons. In this tale of an American movie producer haunted by her past, we get mountains of atmosphere and dread. Too bad then that the story is little more than a movie macabre molehill. What could have been epic ends up simply eerie. However, in a genre desperate for anything remotely terrifying, Cerdà’s semi-success is greatly appreciated.

 


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Sunday, Jun 17, 2007


Get ready. It’s coming. And it’s gonna be LOUD! You think the outrage caused by Fahrenheit 9/11 was bad? You think the pro-NRA responses to Bowling for Columbine were bad. Well, fellow citizens, it’s safe to say that you ain’t seen nothing yet. Michael Moore is back, and with a little less than two weeks before his latest example of “docu-ganda” (as his critics would call it) hits theaters, the groundswell of hyperactive handwringing is already in full flummox mode. For those who are unaware of the filmmaker’s latest screed, SiCKO tells the woeful tale of America’s medical insurance crisis. Not from the perspective of those without coverage. No, they’re the real lost causes. Moore isn’t after the easy target this time. Instead, he has taken aim at the bloated bureaucracy surrounding the nation’s numerous health care and pharmaceutical companies, and how it harms – and even kills – many of its supposedly indemnified customers.


As a result, pundit power is already working overtime debunking the film. Of course, that’s kind of tough to do when it’s yet to see a wide theatrical release (you had to go to Cannes to see the most recent screening). But in what many are calling a grandiose publicity ploy on the behalf of Lionsgate, the full length feature somehow was ‘leaked’ to Internet file sharing sites (or P2P protocols as they are known), giving anyone with a bitTorrent program and a relatively fast DSL line the opportunity to bootleg it. Add this to the already tenuous position taken by the Federal Government over the filmmaker’s last act trip to Guantanamo Bay and other points inside Castro’s Cuba, and you’ve got a mole hill waiting for the prerequisite media dung to help fertilize it into an untenable mountain. It won’t be long before the apologists and the activists get their prostylitizing panties in a nice big wad over the many inaccuracies, half-truths, and gross overgeneralizations the director determines are necessary to make his point.


Unfortunately, their fuel comes to an already raging inferno. Moore’s work post-Roger and Me is already a sideshow. Though many could have anticipated the carnival barker approach to its marketing, no one could have accurately predicted the unprecedented preparations to tear this man a new bash-hole. Naturally, it’s a division drawn down ideological lines (Conservative vs. Liberal, patriot vs. provocateur) and very much founded in a previous film that divided a nation. Fahrenheit 9/11 took on an incredibly popular President, argued against the leaders ‘security through force” scare tactics, and complained that America shouldn’t be invading a country that had no real designs on destroying us. Many called it treasonous and demoralizing to our fighting men and women. Even with the critical community under its belt, there were those who couldn’t cotton to Moore’s refusal to conform. What a difference three years makes.


Now, the focus is far narrower and more easily delineated. SiCKO centers its story on how the development of the HMO’s, and the privatization of medical care, created a crisis in coverage which literally destroys the lives of the very people it’s supposed to support. Horror stories of denied claims and wild, worst case scenarios are piled on top of already obvious dicta (insurance companies are in the business of making money) and governmental boot licking, resulting in a chaotic, corrupt system so steadfastly self-debasing that it really doesn’t need Moore’s help making it look bad. Indeed, what the filmmaker does here is basically call out the cads and have them readily admit their graft. The kicker is in the afterthought. It’s not that these companies commit these immoral crimes against human health. It’s that they do so with absolute – and in some case, law protected – impunity.


The second half of the film is a stroll through three competing socialized systems – Canada, England and France. Each one is presented like paradise on Earth, a place where no myocardial infarction goes untreated, where no late night fever lacks a free and easy cure. In the next few months, expect to hear citizens of these noteworthy nations debunking Moore’s many declarations. The Canadians are already up in arms (if ever so slightly) while Parisians in particular do not like the filmmakers definition of “average” (it’s in connection with a supposedly ‘middle class’ couple). By the time the Fall begins its annual blitzkrieg of cold and flu remedy commercials, the rest of the Westernized world will offer their two cents about universal health care and its many diverse elements.


But that’s not really the point with this latest round of rebuking. Moore, like outspoken auteur Oliver Stone, is a man better at the big picture than the multiple minutia that accompanies concepts such as facts and accuracy. No one is questioning the need to overhaul what is becoming a major financial, social, and emotional albatross around the neck of the world’s remaining Superpower. But because Moore makes his films out of theories first and statistics second, many like to undermine his truths without beginning to broach the core conceits. They somehow believe that if you can disprove some percentage of the veracity in Moore’s claims, the overall idea is invalid. Naturally, that’s bunk. The sky may not be purely blue (in fact, it is made up of many colors refracted and refocused by the moisture in the atmosphere – the tendency toward blue is the result of said reflecting), but calling it so is not a crime…at least, not inherently.


It’s like quarreling over semantics. Is France’s health care 100% free? Probably not. Do Canadians really have the wonderful, problem free universal coverage as claimed in the film? Most assuredly No. Is either system, from a purely fiscal approach to the patient, better than America’s cash machine mandate of money based acceptance/denial of coverage? Without a doubt. So why argue the potential faulty finer points? If you can agree on the foundation, do all the bricks have to be faultless as well? It may make for better debate, but since the opposition (the health care industry, the lobbyists, and politicians who kowtow to them) won’t be forthcoming with all their facts either, it seems only far to fight liar with liar. Yet it’s unreasonable to call Moore a fraud. In a country where expression is paramount among our rights, he is completely free to speak his mind. Equally, he must be open to those who will criticize and condemn his efforts, even when those assessments are more assertion than argument.


The current preemptive take on SiCKO is obviously a tactic taken from the unbelievable backlash experienced on Fahrenheit 9/11. In the case of the Republican Party, there was a need to protect a sitting president running for re-election. It was part of a strategy that guaranteed that no issue would set the campaign agenda unless the GOP were in complete control of it. In a far more damning documentary, Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern’s …So Goes the Nation, we learn that in the political trenches of each candidate, it’s war almost every second of every day. Anything and everything is fodder for advantage and opponent undermining. If, somehow, Moore had managed to gain enough credibility to sway the election, he’d have achieved a monumental democratic goal. Thanks to the massive machine in place, however, the movie had to settle for winning an international cinematic award. Toppling a soon to be unpopular war mongering President just wasn’t in the cards.


This time around, it’s all about money. Moore is doing to Aetna and Kaiser Permanente what he did to General Motors, except he doesn’t have to confront a bunch of CEOs to do so. He has hundreds of willing whistleblowers eager to expose the demoralizing practices they were part of just to earn a paycheck.  In this case, the effect is more obvious and potentially potent. We see bleary eyed citizens crying, good and decent men and women whose lives have been inexplicably altered by the big bad robber baron of the 21st century – the insurance company. It’s the motion picture equivalent of shooting puppies. It may be manipulative, but it’s effective as all Hell. And better yet, it’s the perfect visual soundbite for a nation that needs its problems pitched at a text-messaging level of meaningful or they fail to register. SiCKO is a striking, nauseating, heart-wrenching, reactionary masterwork. That can’t be good news for the people over at Pfizer.


That’s why the repercussions have been so immediate and incremental. SiCKO is going to stir some response. It’s going to solidify the many grass roots consumer groups into one big voice of the people. It will more than likely be a topic on the tip of every candidates tongue as we enter 2008 and prepare for another pointless changing of the Executive Branch guard. On the other side, there will be those so lost in the jingoistic stance of the last seven years that they’ll be unable to tolerate the constant mocking of the US system (those pesky foreigners, they just love to hate us for our many liberties). They’ll milk the complicit media for as much screed time as possible, and Moore will have to appear on various chat fests to defend himself and his artistic choices. This won’t stop the conspiracy theorists for blaming each other over the film’s web appearance, nor will it defuse those already waiting for the 29 June play date to pounce.


While the leak does go to a wholly different issue regarding piracy, copyright, and Hollywood’s hopelessly outdated moviemaking model (which technology still trumps, damn those scientists), in this case, it also stokes the raging coals surrounding Moore’s most effective film to date. If the government was wise, it would back down from the bully pulpit and let the filmmaker have his medical days in the Cuban sun. In addition, the capitalistic cranks should also tone down the rebuttal rhetoric. It’s not like the multi-billion dollar health care industry needs their defending. Its got the money, and the connections, to secure its position. No, what everyone should be concerned about is the power inherent within the moving image. SiCKO may start a real people rebellion that could wrest this issue out of the hands of special interests once and for all. It may only be a movie, but it’s already having an impact. Just wait until it’s actually released. 


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Saturday, Jun 16, 2007


There are basically two kinds of martial arts movie fans. The first is the most common. They are the aficionado who grew up loving the format’s freak show leanings, the combination of physical grace and personal goofiness (usually accented by badly dubbed English voices) all wrapped up in eccentric traditions and mind blowing mythos of the Asian culture. For them, the outlandish sound effects and insane fighting styles (mad monkey kung fu) were part of an overall desire by the filmmakers to entertain at any costs. But for anyone lucky enough to catch these films uncut and uncensored, presented in their original aspect ratio and native language, the experience was far more revelatory. To them, they were art. In the mind of these outright obsessives, Westernization of the genre diluted its power, turning it into something cloying and kitsch, when the opposite was clearly the case. Hoping to keep both sides happy, Genius Products and The Weinstein Group have founded Dragon Dynasty, a DVD label with the intention of reviving the lagging fortunes of old school chop socky with the digital format’s newfound ability to act as motion picture preservationist. It’s been a godsend for both the casual and critical enthusiast. 


Representing titles 11 through 14 in the label’s ongoing release schedule of classic and contemporary Asian cinema, the latest Dynasty offerings represent a veritable history lesson of the Hong Kong kung fu film. Again drawing from the amazing vaults of the seminal Shaw Brothers, we are treated to the rising in popularity of the martial arts movie (1967’s The One-Armed Swordsman), the internationalization of the genre (1972’s King Boxer - Five Fingers of Death), perhaps the quintessential example of the category’s cinematic approach (1978’s The 36th Chamber of Shaolin), and the moment when many fans feel that comedy began to dilute the overall potency of the artform (1981’s My Young Auntie). More fascinating than the fight choreography or historical codes of ethics and honor are the motion picture grandeur and filmic scope these productions provide. Many dismiss these movies as examples of fisticuffs over finesse, but the truth is, each one is a major accomplishment of acting, scripting, art design, and direction. The stuntwork is equally important, but not the only reason to respond to these films.



Take The One-Armed Swordsman, for example. Following a tradition of swordplay storylines, Shaw Brother’s in house auteur Cheh Chang decided to mesh some well known literary motifs into these movies, resulting in narratives that are powerful in their emotional as well as athletic pull. Our hero, Fang Gang, feels unappreciated and picked on at his teacher’s martial arts academy – and with good reason. The son of a servant who laid down his life for the noble Master, the other students undermine him mercilessly. When one of their pranks goes horribly wrong, Fang Gang is left disfigured and desperate. He meets up with noble country girl Hsiao Man, and after nursing him back to health, she hopes the two of them will start a quiet life together. But Fang Gang is constantly pulled back in to the life of a vigilante. First, he defends a local festival from a group of thugs under the tutelage of the repugnant criminal Smiling Tiger. But when the mobster’s older brother, Long-Armed Devil, decides to unseat Fang’s former teacher (with the help of a new weapon), our hero must protect his mentor’s honor.


Scattered throughout this amazing movie are sequences seemingly ripped right out of an old fashioned Hollywood melodrama. When Fang is injured and falls into Hsiao Man’s tiny boat, the Shaw soundstage is decked out in a riverside set so delightfully detailed that you can literally sense the snowflakes falling along the frost-covered landscape. Similarly, several showdowns between Smiling Tiger and the disciples of Fang’s teacher Qi Rufeng take place in a wooded wilderness stolen from MGM’s Wizard of Oz backdrop. This highly stylized approach – matching much of the ancient chest pounding and sense of duty – helps alleviate some of the celluloid stress these films induce. Since this is a civilization far removed from ours, one seemingly steeped in traditions so deep that no one can circumvent their import, such fanciful elements help jumpstart our suspension of disbelief. It also helps us accept the almost invincible technique our hero has with only one arm and half a sword.


The One Armed Swordsman is also a great beginning point for any newcomer’s journey in the ‘60s/’70s concept of martial arts moviemaking. Again, they are more films than fight clubs, and there are long passages where our characters converse instead of trying to carve each other up. The plots can also get very intricate and involved. Surely, there are moments that seem purposefully placed within the tale to take us away from the drama and back to the action (a proposed kidnapping of Qi’s daughter, a last act battle between Fang and Smiling Tiger on a deserted bridge), but the balance between exposition and ass-kicking is nicely maintained. And since the sequences of swordplay and martial artistry are so well done (thanks in part to Cheh Chang’s excellent work behind the lens) we don’t feel the burden of all that inter-institutional intrigue. Bloody, bombastic, and quite beautiful at times, The One Armed Swordsman proves that there was always more to this genre than round house kicks and throwing stars.



Of course, King Boxer took it all another sensational step in 1972. Cited as the film that revolutionized the acceptability of kung fu films in the West (it came out two months before Enter the Dragon, and was a solid hit for American studio Warner Brothers), its battle royale narrative hid a far more forceful tale of power and betrayal. With an all important martial arts competition set to start in a few months, the instructor at Chao Chi-Hao’s school decides to send him away. It’s not because the pupil has no skills. On the contrary, the old man believes he can’t properly train the boy to be the champion he’s capable of becoming. Arriving at his new academy, Chi-Hao is immediately caught up in some inter-familial issues. The son of his new master is jealous, and wants to ruin his rival’s chances of making the competition. Even worse, a competing school is so desperate to win that they hire a hit man from Japan who, along with his samurai sword wielding bodyguards, begins eliminating the other contestants. After suffering a devastating setback, Chi-Hao masters the deadly “Iron Palm” technique, and seeks revenge on the corrupt instructor and all who have wronged him.


Playing like a Sino-Spaghetti Western (complete with bountiful bloodshed and gore), King Boxer is a remarkable movie. It gives us a soft spoken, almost passive hero who allows many horrible things to happen to him over the course of 90 minute, only to turn into a hands-on version of the Terminator towards the end. As he learns the value of his five fingers of death technique, and draws the connections between the adversarial school and its seemingly endless collection of crazed henchmen, director Chang-hwa Jeong persistently pushes the pace into overdrive. If we’re not experiencing another inventive fight sequence, we’re witnessing potboiler plotting amongst a cartoon character collection of creeps. One of the highlights of this bright spot laden effort is the number of times our hero can be humiliated by various villainous foes and still come back swinging. This is especially true after an attack which sees his hands beaten mercilessly. There are moments when we wish Chi-Hao wasn’t such a lethargic lox (it takes him awhile to get his retribution groove on), but thanks to the filmmaking employed, we never grow bored.


Indeed, King Boxer is best when it’s thwarting convention. Toward the end, when the major third act competition is about to begin, we are startled by a particularly nasty fight between Chi-Hao’s old master and the Japanese hit men. Then said shock is repeated when the jealous brother takes on the corrupt instructor and his thugs. While it takes away from the final contest showdown, that’s apparently part of the plan. Indeed, once a winner is determined, we get more double crossing, another few deaths, and a sensational confrontation in a locked, dimly lit room. The stylistic flourishes employed – shadows crossing faces, jump cuts confusing the logistics of the fighters to increase the suspense – really sell us on this film’s artistry. But more than that, the bucking of narrative convention keeps us on our toes, and allows us to become much more involved with the characters. Along with the next film in the series, King Boxer argues for how fully formed and complete these efforts really were.



Perhaps the pinnacle of everything the Shaw Brothers was striving for in their kung fu epics, The 36th Chambers of Shaolin remains, even by modern standards, a solid masterwork. While the story may be familiar to any fan of the genre – pacifist student seeks out the help of the Shaolin, those monk masters of the martial arts, to teach him to fight to defend his family’s honor and his village – the approach is breathtaking in its depth and scope. Our hero, San Te (a stunning turn by Chia Hui “Gordon” Liu) is a reluctant rebel, a student helping his instructor defeat the totalitarian forces of local General Tien, When their efforts are discovered, a bloodbath occurs. Left for dead, Te heads to the Shaolin temple, where he hopes to learn the secrets of self-defense in order to take on the onerous oppressors. But he soon discovers there is more to martial arts than learning how to fight. There is discipline, mental clarity, a discarding of self, and of course, lots and lots of training. After completing his courses, he recruits a group of followers. It’s not long before honor is being avenged and General Tien’s troops are destroyed, one by one.


Beginning with a remarkable sequence where Liu, decked out in nothing more than a black pair of pants and several weighted metallic arm bands battles such odd elements as rain and a waterfall, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin represents a directorial tour de force for the star’s brother (by adoption), Chia-Liang Liu. It’s a sumptuous film to look at, a movie that takes its varying fight facets very seriously. The training, in particular, is flawlessly executed, using a combination of cinematic methods (slow motion, close-ups, quick cuts) to amplify the aesthetic qualities. Of course, a lot of this is the result of Liu’s performance. Note for note one of the best acting jobs you will EVER see in a Hong Kong kung fu film, the intensity and drive that San Te shows is a direct reflection of his creator’s personal passion. During one incredibly effective sequence, our hero has to learn how to circumvent a water hazard that leads to the monastery dining room. Failure to do so will result in humiliation – and hunger. Watching Liu literally throw himself into the test is heart-stopping. His determination is like a laser leaping off the screen.

Thanks to his sibling’s work in the director’s chair, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is as much spectacle as sport, a movie that really celebrates the excesses of the artform with sweat, blood, and lots of well choreographed resolve. The bad guys are unbelievably evil, the confrontations violent and purposeful. Even the finale, when Te must face his adversary alone on a vast remote vista, crackles with the kind of energy that makes these films instantly addictive. Indeed, the difference between the Asian action movie and the American version is a question of outward attitude. No matter how hard they try, a Western fist fight just can’t match the seismic shockwaves generated when two Hong Kong pros go head to head. It’s more than just the choreography. Because the skill is founded on attack and counterattack, defensiveness as important as offense, there is never a dull moments in the melee. Every warrior is working to both strike and protect, win and avoid losing. This is especially true of Gordon Liu. Like a skilled chess player, you can literally see him plotting out his next move. It’s written all over his matinée idol face.



Of course, not every actor in the Shaw stable was as visually viable as Liu. Similarly, the explosion in popularity (thanks to the new international appreciation of the genre) led the company to try different dynamics within the films. A few went overboard into historic period and accuracy, while others went directly for the comical and crazy. You can see the shift inside My Young Auntie. Exploiting his power as a director, Chia-Liang Liu decided to create a showcase for his girlfriend (star Kara Hui) and mesh as many cinematic styles as he could into a simple story of a adolescent widow sent to deliver her late husband’s estate to the rightful heir. Of course, there is a bastard brother who should rightfully gain the inheritance, but is being left out of the will because of his criminal ways. A capable kung fu expert, our villain decides to steal the probate papers, and this leads his minions in direct conflict with the gal, her elderly nephew, and his college aged son. Wildly inventive and lovingly languid in its pace, Liu’s clash of cultures (country vs. city) and clans (good vs. evil), is like a compendium of every manner of moviemaking thrown together. 


My Young Auntie is actually divided into two distinct acts. The first focuses on the arrival of the main character at the home of her elderly nephew. The confusion her appearance causes, and the effect she has on her kin (especially the kooky college age grand nephew who is instantly smitten) drives a great deal of the narrative. We witness battles over honor, misidentification, and oddly enough, the juxtaposition between the old world and modernization. After an hour, we wonder if the filmmakers have remembered that this is a kung fu film. Then Liu kicks into overdrive with a signature sequence that instigates the almost hour long finale. At a costume party, rival forces from the disinherited elder appear, and soon, the dance floor is awash with combative kick turns and high flying swordplay. The moves are so intricate and expertly timed that you frequently feel you are watching an actual musical number, not a life or death struggle for familial supremacy. It’s at this point where the comedy tends to trickle away as well. There are more jokes to be found – especially when our young hero battles a muscleman whose entire body is impervious to pain – but the second half of the film is all vendetta and violence.


It has to be said though that Liu really does push the envelope in My Young Auntie, challenging what makes up a standard chop-socky spectacle. There are many convention breaking conceits, including the lack of onscreen deaths (the defeated are shamed instead of bled), the placement of Hui as the most confident fighter, and the overall cartoonish tone. Unlike the previous films discussed here, the fisticuffs are played for both their power as fighting, and their outrageous, hyper-stylized mannerism. It was a switch in the presentation of this material that would alter the next two decades of martial arts movies. Previously, audiences responded to the strength and dexterity. After Auntie (and the similar movies before and directly after), kung fu was pitched like silent film comedy. It became centered around elaborate set-ups, multi-faceted payoffs, and inhuman levels of endurance and physical tolerance. When critics complain about the sudden shift in Hong Kong action films, it’s this exaggerated aspect that gives them the biggest issue. On the other hand, fans who’ve only seen the pan and scan, poorly dubbed versions of these titles may not notice the tonal twists.


When taken together, there are several reasons to celebrate these DVDs. First and foremost, they rescue these films from the ridicule they typically experience from purists and cinephiles. Since the Shaw Brothers catalog was basically unavailable on home video until the late ‘90s/early ‘00s, viewers had to suffer through n’th generation copies, incorrect aspect ratios, editorial inconsistencies, and horrendous English language tracks. It’s what elevated many of these otherwise well meaning films to the level of ludicrousness and camp that has been both a benefit (commercially) and detriment (artistically) to the genre. With such pristine presentations now available, the films regain their status as cinema. The second reason is the addition of an incredible amount of context. Each disc here offers commentary (including passionate takes by critic Elvis Mitchell and true fan Quentin Tarantino), interviews with the important actors and crew members, and various gallery presentations that help us understand the amount of effort that went into these films. Finally, Dragon Dynasty wants to open up the appreciation of these efforts beyond a few noted offerings. By rescuing the catalog of the Shaws and others, they help instill a sense of integrity that other packages fail to proffer.


As an excellent introduction into the world of Hong Kong moviemaking, as a quartet of important titles that illustrate the industry’s beginning, mainstreaming and commercialization, you can’t do better. The One Armed Swordsman, King Boxer, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, and My Young Auntie are the perfect primers for learning what made the Shaw Brothers so important in their native land, as well as among film fans worldwide. Each one holds its own unique treasures, but together they suggest that there are dozens of differing layers to the kung fu/martial arts movie. While they may not make the artform more popular, they will definitely redefine the scholarly take on such supposedly silly fare. Indeed, it’s time to put the ridicule away. Respect is what these fascinating films truly deserve.


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Friday, Jun 15, 2007


The ‘50s were so filled with fears – fear of Communism, fear of nuclear annihilation, fear of minorities – why not add zombies to the mix. After all, the living dead have come to symbolize so much in our current cinematic zeitgeist that allowing the undead to combine all the Eisenhower Era horrors into one flesh eating fiend seems like a pretty smart idea. A pretty funny one as well. Conceived as a combination satire and scary film, Fido is a surreal surprise, a genuinely touching tale of tolerance and totalitarianism reminiscent of Bob Balaban’s equally brilliant suburban frightmare of conformity Parents. Canadian filmmaker Andrew Currie has taken the standard iconography of the era – the freshly manicured lawns, the cocktail dress and pearls housewives, the sleek Detroit automobiles – and perverted them, ever so slightly, into a commentary about race, relationships and reality.


After a radioactive cloud blankets the Earth, the dead come back to life. The government responds to the cannibal crisis by launching all an out war. Things do not go well at first. Thanks to the efforts of Dr. Hrothgar Geiger, however, the zombies are contained and controlled. He comes up with the ‘head wound’ theory, and the collar that domesticates the creatures. Soon, all suburban households have zombie servants, while the corpses do most of the menial chores and jobs around town. Naturally, there are accidents, but the corporate security forces of multinational ZomCom Industries keep everyone – living AND undead – in check. When the Robinson family gets its first rotting man-monster, it causes a split among the members. Dad hates it. Mom is intrigued. And little Timmy? He names it “Fido” and adopts it as his ‘pet’. Soon, the two are inseparable. 


At first, it’s rather hard to see the parody present. Because of his attention to period detail and desire to make his characters more than just silly symbols, Currie stays subtle – maybe even too much so. Even the black and white ‘educational’ film shown at the beginning of the movie (a nice way to introduce us to this particular take on the zombie’s origins) feels too ‘real’ to be overtly ridiculous. No, it takes a while before the script starts slipping up, tossing in little baneful beauties about “wild zones”, protective barriers, and citizen ‘re-education’ procedures. By this time, we get the idea – the gated community with its internal security and demanding deed restrictions is the ultimate example of ‘white flight’ illustrated and acted upon. And the reanimated corpses carousing around the perimeter? They’re the undesirables (racial or social) that the scrubbed Caucasian citizenry is desperate to avoid. 


Yet there is much more to Fido’s narrative than ‘us vs. them’. There’s a murder mystery thread running through all the stories, hints at aberrant sexuality (thanks to an odd duck neighbor who treats his knock-out zombie servant just a tad too friendly), notions of growing martial unrest, and the erratic beginnings of the freedom and liberation that would come to define the revolutionary nature of the next decade. In between, we have the Conservative Establishment trying to moderate the primal, uncontrollable ‘counterculture’, along with a fatalism that suggests the battle may be already lost. Throughout, Currie paints pictures with a pulsing primary color patina. Everything looks bright and shiny and crazily kitsch. It’s only when we see the rotting facades of the dead-eyed zombies that we recognize how phony this entire world really is.


If one wanted to be cynical, they could argue that Currie is making a comment about traditionalism – and it’s a criticism that cuts both ways. For the Robinsons – Bill (Dylan Baker), Helen (Carrie-Ann Moss) and son Timmy (the excellent K’Sun Ray) – a zombie represents status and standing. Helen even argues that they need this one. After all, there neighbors already have six! Bill’s reactions are more distant. He has bad memories of the initial undead outbreak, and can’t stand being around this constant reminder. Like an episode of Lassie gone loopy, Timmy decides that ‘Fido” would make a good friend. He benefits from his ghoulish presence, but also learns how ill-prepared he is for the responsibility. Still, they want to be part of the planned community, a place that ZomCom runs with a slightly sinister set of kid gloves.


But the undead don’t get off so easily. Because he casts them as maniacal flesh eating fiends, Currie can countermand the nuclear family with its own parallel plight. The zombies are definitely supposed to be seen as the harsh underbelly of humanity that we try to keep in check – our unhinged hunger, our predominant pituitary evil. When you think about it, it’s a fairly potent metaphor. It draws directly into the allegorical nature of the genre, and it provides a portal for many of the movie’s more intriguing ideas. The whole whodunit angle, for example, is hinged on the fact that the undead are ‘automatically’ considered the criminals, and while cinematic statistics bear this out, Fido suggests the protector may be more corrupt than the provocateur. Additionally, this is perhaps the first film (after Scott Phillips’ fascinating Stink of Flesh) that actually broaches the subject of sex. After all, if you can get a compliant corpse to do anything, like mow the lawn or take out the trash…ummm…


Naturally, a great deal of the movie’s success rests on the tone taken by the actors. One wink at the audience too many, or a few too many tongues planted openly in cheeks and the whimsy wears off. Luckily, Currie rounded up a cast so sensational that they occasionally feel like subjects in a deranged documentary, not a group of fictional creations. It has to be said that Billy Connolly, the mad Scottish comic, is lost inside Fido’s fright mask make-up, his expressive eyes all that’s left of his standard Glasgow façade. But his performance is exceptional, always suggesting something more complex and compelling behind his rigor mortis movements. Similarly, Carrie-Ann Moss makes frustrated ‘50s housefraus seem like the sexiest soon to be bohemians in the bridge club. Released from her Matrix-imposed S&M ambivalence, she’s down to earth and very endearing. Tim Blake Nelson certainly delivers on his naughty nebbish demeanor, while Dylan Baker remains an actor unstuck in time. He can play both contemporary and Cold War with unimaginable ease.


As for Currie, his lack of outlandishness may put off some macabre fans. After all, he treats his zombie kills in an almost comic book manner, offering them on camera but blotted out by an amazing full moon or a park draped in deep shadows. And still, his undead register real fear – both to the characters and to the audience. It’s the concept of unpredictability that makes them so suspicious. Fido himself seems to be capable of controls that his fellow fiends can barely contain. Still, he happily feasts away when need be. Perhaps the most compelling element of this fully realized film is its ending. Laced with irony and some unsettling comeuppance, it sets the stage for the next ‘evolution’ in the human/zombie order – and the inevitable question of where society goes when intolerance no longer owns its purpose.


For all its grandiose implications and subtle social skewering, Fido remains a wildly entertaining comedy. It has as much humor as horror, and a wonderfully wonky way of making its many cogent social critiques. A few may scoff at a deeper meaning, reducing Currie to a comic resorting to gimmickry to produce his gags. And unlike Shaun of the Dead, this is not a movie macabre homage. Nor is it a 28 Days/Weeks reinvention. No, Fido is a wholly original take on a very familiar film foundation. Ever since DVD destroyed the creepshow category, mainstream moviemakers have been looking for a way to reclaim their rotting corpses. According to Fido, you’ll never beat them, and you really can’t join them. Better to accept them and move on with life. It’s how you finally defeat fear once and for all.


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