Archive for September, 2013
The international film world is a trendy place, and programmers are constantly mining national cinemas for the next big thing. Among Asian countries, in recent years Hong Kong, South Korea, and Thailand have became the source for hot and happening directors such as Johnny To, Kim Ki-Duk, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and more, as film fests try to scoop the latest and hottest genre and arthouse directors to liven up their programming. This year’s flavor seems to be the Philippines, as four new Filipino films premiered at Cannes this year. I call it the “Brillante Mendoza effect,” since that director has had a run of movies screening at tony international film fests like Toronto, Hong Kong, and Cannes, where Kinatay famously and controversially won the Best Director prize, after which Roger Ebert declared it was “the worst film in the history of the Cannes Film Festival.” Filipino movies have started to get more respect in Asia as well where, interestingly enough, they are often disregarded or ignored by their more established cousin industries in Hong Kong, Japan, and China. Veteran actors Nora Aunor and Eddie Garcia both won acting awards at the 7th Asian Film Awards in Hong Kong this year, and also won big at the Asia Pacific Film Festival in Macau and the Asia Pacific Screen Awards in Brisbane, Australia. So much like sisig and adobo are the food truck flavors of the month, Filipino cinema has become the new darling of international film set.
Erik Matti’s On The Job was one of the Filipino Four that screened at the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes this year and in the past few years his work has been popping up at festivals in Europe, Asia, and the U.S. Unlike Mendoza, his arthouse countryman, Matti’s a longtime veteran of Filipino commercial film and television production, starting out directing adverts for Filipino TV and moving on to direct a slew of genre product including horror, crime, and comedies.
A gritty, entertaining crime thriller, On The Job was produced for commercial distribution in the Philippines, not for international arthouse audiences, but Matti’s confident control of the material elevates the film from a mainstream genre picture to something more.
The movie opens with a no-nonsense sequence showing Tatang and Daniel, a pair of sketchy dudes, shooting down a man execution-style in broad daylight in a crowded street. Despite their faces being fully exposed the two killers are fearless, seemingly unconcerned about witnesses or the possibility of arrest. It soon becomes clear why they can stroll the streets murdering people—right after they do the deed they’re taken off to prison, where they’ve been residing as convicts for years, hiding in plain sight while the police search fruitlessly for them.
On the case is Senior Detective Acosta, a veteran cop, paired up with Atty. Francis Coronel, an up-and-coming young federal investigator whose father-in-law is a big-time politician. Acosta and Coronel’s relationship parallels that of Tatang and Daniel, drawing classic genre connections between cops and criminals.
On The Job plays up the corruption of the PI police and politicians and their links to their shadow partners, the criminals doing the dirty work of assassinations. Matti’s film boasts a strong premise, hyperkinetic roving handheld camerawork, great sound design, and smoky filtered lighting, with bursts of violence punctuating the narrative. Matti draws out strong performances from his cast, which includes heartthrob Piolo Pascual as Coronel, the upstanding young federale who falls into a pit of corruption once he starts investigating the case. Despite being very pretty, Pascual is believable as a driven and determined investigator whose family connections are a dubious benefit. Anchoring the film is veteran Filipino actor Joel Torre as Tatang, the middle-aged convict/killer who’s hoping to escape his shitty life situation by taking on contract assassinations.
What’s missing is a sense of exactly why Daniel, the younger convict, would willingly become a coldblooded assassin. Tatang, the older of the pair of cons, has a full backstory complete with a two-timing wife and a daughter he’s putting through college, but Daniel’s life is a bit sketchy. It’s not until more than halfway into the movie that we see evidence of a girlfriend or any other positive interpersonal relationships besides his friendship with Tatang. I get that he’s in prison and this might be a way to gain his freedom, but he doesn’t seem to feel a lot of remorse for the ruthless murders he commits. The movie doesn’t effectively reveal how the Daniel started out or where he’s going, only where he is right in the moment. This robs the film of some emotional impact beyond the visceral repulsion of his violent killings. However, his relationship with Tatang, his mentor-in-crime, is strongly developed and its ultimate conclusion is powerful and unexpected, yet logical in the scheme of the characters’ dynamic.
On The Job opens this weekend across the U.S. and has a chance to be a breakout Asian film in both arthouse and mainstream cinemas. Because of the genre’s enduring popularity and accessibility, crime films like OTJ have become the lingua franca in the international film world, and Matti may be the latest Asian director to cash in on the ongoing crime film wave.
Opens September 27
AMC Metreon in San Francisco
Century Tanforan 20 in San Bruno
Milpitas Great Mall in Milpitas
Union City 25 in Union City
Century 14 in Vallejo
I almost never watch American television, though I occasionally look at reality shows like Project Runway or Chopped when my daughters are streaming it on my computer, but I really can’t remember the last time I watched a U.S. drama on a regular basis. I have a hard time paying attention to anything more than 90 minutes long unless it includes singing and dancing in Hindi, so investing weeks and weeks in a TV show, no matter how good, is just too much commitment for me. Also, as an unreconstructed experimental film geek I’m very visually oriented, so I prefer my media to be less dialog and character-driven than is most television.
I’m not one for Asian dramas, either—again, the weeks and weeks of watching are just too much for me to do, and I find plastic surgery and eyeliner on boys a little distracting. That said, this past year I’ve watched two Asian dramas, but only because they starred two of my favorite actors, Lee Byung-Hun and Francis Ng. Last spring I watched IRIS (아이리스, 2009), the South Korean espionage thriller that stars the insanely hot Lee Byung-Hun as a special ops agent involved in various crazy political plots. Although much of the story strains credulity, LBH is quite good in it and the ample explosions, gunfights, assassinations, betrayals, and love triangles keep the show movie along briskly. I felt like I’d eaten too much deep-fried food after sitting through its 40+ episodes but it was fun to spend all that time watching LBH do his thing.
More recently, I’ve been wallowing in Triumph In The Skies 2, the sequel to the hit Hong Kong drama that aired in 2003 on TVB that followed the lives and romances of a clutch of HK airline pilots. I watched TITS 1 on DVD long after it first came out, but with the advent of online streaming I’ve been able to see episodes of TITS 2 with English subtitles on a day-and-date schedule with its airing in Hong Kong. Like its prequel, the series has been quite a sensation since its premiere at the beginning of August, drawing high ratings and inspiring a wave of pilot-mania among Hong Kong’s citizenry. It was great to be able to watch Francis Ng as the lead character, Sam Tong, an upstanding and heroic airline pilot who is a much beloved character in Hong Kong. The show is nowhere near as hyperkinetic as IRIS, depending on romantic entanglements and other interpersonal relationships for its dramatic tension, but Francis, along with co-star Julian Cheng Chilam, made the show watchable. A bonus to watching it online is that I could fast-forward through the extraneous side-stories and go straight to the Francis plotlines. The drama is no great shakes and in fact is pretty mundane, with vast swaths of filler focusing on minor characters, flagrant product placement, and way too many subplots that are transparently designed to showcase TVB’s up-and-coming starlets. But TITS is one of TVB’s premium franchises and the station threw a lot of money at it, by Hong Kong television standards. There are many cute young guys looking suave in cadet pilot uniforms, including the sweet and dreamy Him Law, nice scenery in London, Taiwan, and Paris, and upscale Hong Kong characters with huge fantasy apartments and luxury cars.
However, although it was a high-end, much-hyped TVB series, the drama exhibited sloppy plotting and dialog, pacing and editing problems, sketchy and uneven acting, and way too many extraneous characters and storylines. There were huge, illogical jumps in the timeline (to accommodate a pregnant character) and one of the main characters, Captain Jayden Koo (Julian Cheung Chilam) inexplicably disappeared from the narrative for many episodes. Of course television dramas are built around people behaving stupidly and making poor life decisions and this show is no different, with characters displaying irritating obstinacy, irrational stubbornness, and poor communication skills, and making bad, impulsive decisions. I suppose their dramatic idiocy is meant to make the viewer feel better about their own lives, but there’s a limit to how much illogical behavior is plausible. TITS 2 also suffered by comparison to TITS 1. If a love triangle or two worked in TITS 1, why not three or four in TITS 2? How about a weirdly obsessive, terminally ill ingénue chasing after a reluctant mate? TITS 1 had the deliciously agonizing dilemma of Francis Ng’s character, Sam Tong, in love with his best friend’s wife, so that the love triangle was truly triangular, with the relationship between all three characters holding significance. In TITS 2, the Sam/Jayden/Holiday triangle had much less piquancy because there was no deep relationship between Sam and Jayden, unlike Sam and Vincent’s friendship in the original series. It didn’t help that Fala Chen’s acting as Holiday, the fulcrum of the love triangle, was wildly inconsistent, though by the end of the series she had settled down a bit.
For me, the main draw of course was Francis Ng, and he didn’t disappoint. Although TITS 2 was by no means high art (or even competent storytelling), as an opportunity to watch hours of Francis Ng every night for six weeks it was a quite a lovely indulgence and despite the drama’s general silliness, Francis absolutely killed in this show. Francis is an outstanding big-screen actor but he’s also an excellent small-screen actor, due to his mobile and subtly expressive face and his huge repertoire of physical expressions. The way he stands, the position of his arms, and his confident rolling swagger when he’s walking around the airport in his pilot drag like he owns the place all add up to a very satisfying viewing experience. His character was by turns depressed, repressed, anal retentive, or controlling, but Francis managed to make him sympathetic with just a well-placed flick of his eyebrows or a meaningful sigh, and he is the king of the single tear sliding down the cheek. In one scene, where he recalls his remorse at disappointing Zoe, his late wife, the range of emotions crossing his face was pretty amazing, demonstrating his impeccable mastery of non-verbal acting. Francis also gets bonus points for flaunting an array of beautifully cut Vivianne Westwood menswear (including a $250 hoodie with hand-painted stars on the sleeves and a gorgeous black velvet tux with a satin shawl collar) and looking ridiculously fit and charming for a man in his early fifties. Depending on the lighting and the skill of the makeup artists, Francis alternately looked pretty good for his age or like a star somewhat past his sell date. Some netizens were less than kind about Francis’ fifty-plus years, and it didn’t help that his main love interest was a woman in her early thirties, which often accentuated Francis’ age to his detriment. But the man can wear a tailored suit like nobody’s business and his signature “airplane head” pompadour was impeccably groomed throughout the entire series—there was literally not a hair out of place and the sculpted fade of his sideburns was immaculately trimmed to the exact same length for the entire show. Way to go, continuity department!
Julian Cheung’s new character, Jayden Koo, instantly became a fan favorite in the sequel, though to me the character was a narcissistic bore who thought he was the schiznit. In the first few eps Jayden’s popularity far outstripped that of Sam Tong, making the proposed Sam/Jayden/Holiday love triangle a non-starter. In order to appease the disgruntled Sam/Zoe shippers and to level the playing field for Sam vs. Jayden, Julian Cheung’s part was ruthlessly trimmed down in the middle episodes of the series and Francis and Fala’s budding romance instead took center stage. When Jayden finally reappeared some weeks down the line, after the show’s editing had tilted the audience in F&F’s favor, he seemed more like an obsessive stalker than a viable love interest. My conspiracy theory is that the producers realized that the audience wasn’t down with Francis + Fala and had to fatten up their relationship in order to make the love triangle plausible, at the expense of Julian Cheung’s screentime. That and the fact that the show’s ending had been spoiled even before the series aired took a lot of the dramatic tension out of the storyline. Through the magic of google chrome’s instantaneous (if garbled) web translations, it was also fun to follow the media frenzy in Hong Kong as the show aired. Apparently Sam/Zoe is one of the most revered pairings in TVB history and the way that Zoe was ruthlessly killed off between TITS 1 and TITS 2 (appearing only in flashbacks in TITS 2) really rankled the viewership. After the Sam/Zoe storyline was resolved in episode 23 some viewers swore off the show, though their defections didn’t seem to affect the ratings as TITS 2 ended up the highest rated show of the year as well as racking up many hundreds of millions of online views in Hong Kong and China.
It was also pretty humorous to observe the stars’ various spats with each other via the media. Early press reports stated that Francis Ng and Fala Chen didn’t get along, but as the series progressed the purported tensions were denied, with Fala Chen at one point claiming “(Francis) just looks really fierce because when he furrows his brow, he looks very serious.” It was also funny to note is that many online commentators had very little sense of Francis Ng’s work outside of Hong Kong television, apparently not realizing the fact that he’s won several Best Actor awards for his film work, or that he’s known outside of Hong Kong primarily for playing badass gangsters, not lovelorn pilots, or that, as he says, “the majority of my fans have tattoos.” Despite all of its shortcomings the drama was a huge hit, with excellent broadcast ratings in Hong Kong. There’s talk of a feature film version of the show and all involved are scrambling to capitalize on its popularity. Julian Cheung has taken advantage of his increased profile by changing agents, recording a cover of the theme song from the original series, and buying a new Mercedes. Francis Ng has inexplicably signed an agreement to produce a cooking show for TVB. And Fala Chen is being touted by Eric Tsang as “the new Maggie Cheung,” although she has none of Cheung Man-yuk acting skills, charisma, or talent. Considering how meteorically fortunes can rise and fall in Hong Kong show biz, it will be interesting to see the lasting effects, if any, of the recent success of TITS 2. Related Francis Ng news: It was just announced that Francis Ng is attached to Sha Po Lang 2, the sequel to the 2005 Wilson Yip-directed Donnie Yen action/MMA film revered by many Hong Kong movie fanboys. Yip had wanted Francis to star in the original SPL (the part eventually went to Simon Yam) but scheduling conflicts prevented this happening, so it’s great that Francis will be joining the cast for this one. This installment will be directed by Soi Cheang (Motorway; Accident), who most recently worked with Francis on the film adaptation of the the ultraviolent Japanese manga Shamo (2007). It will be nice to see Francis in a real Hong Kong crime film once again, as opposed to the soapy melodrama of TITS or the dreadful mainland shlock he’s been putting out lately. Can’t wait–
UPDATE: Although google is mangling the translation of this article, I think that it says that Francis Ng, Chilam Cheung, and Louis Koo are now confirmed for the movie version of the drama and that, due to her clashes with Francis and other cast members as well as her Marilyn Monroe-esque behavior on set (i.e., being late and not knowing her lines), Fala Chen has been dumped from said movie and replaced by Taiwanese star Lin Chi-Ling. What’s more interesting is that Benny Chan is now attached to direct and that the film supposedly will be an “action” movie. Chan is fresh from one of the top-grossing Hong Kong films of last year, The White Storm, which was a manly crime film starring Lau Ching-Wan, Louis Koo, and Nick Cheung. Having just watched Big Bullet again recently, I can only hope that news of Chan’s involvement is true and that the brave and handsome flight crew will face terrorists, bombs, and mayhem on the streets and in the skies of Hong Kong. I’d pay to see that–
UPDATE 2: After many casting and directing changes the movie version of Triumph In The Skies is about to be released, just in time for the Chinese New Year’s holiday on Feb. 20, 2015 with a day-and-date release in North America. The publicity machine has been in full force and the film is one of the favorites in the New Year’s slate, although it’s going up against a new Sandra Ng sex comedy, 12 Golden Ducks, and Chow Yun-Fat’s latest gambling movie, From Vegas To Macau 2, which also stars A-listers Nick Cheung, Carina Lau, and Shawn Yue. The new TITS movie, directed by Matt Chow and Wilson Yip, focuses on romance and relationships, as well as nice scenery and tailored clothes, with Francis Ng paired with Sammi Cheng, Louis Koo paired with Charmaine Sheh, and Chilam Cheung paired with Amber Kuo. Could be great, could be sucky, but I’m watching it either way.