Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 01/08/2003.
All of these films are currently available on Tartan DVD in the UK, as predicted - except, curiously, for Fulltime Killer. They held another two Asia Extreme festivals in 2004 and 2005, each one slightly smaller and less well publicised than the previous one, and then they stopped. Shame.
Tartan Films went into administration in June 2008, so don't expect any more festivals like this one.
The first movie review I ever published on this site was of a Japanese film - Takeshi Kitano's Hana-Bi. Not terribly surprising, really: I've had a boner for Asian cinema for some considerable time now, probably dating back to the double bill of Kurosawa's Throne Of Blood and Seven Samurai which was my introduction to the world of non-English language film, over twenty years ago. The real turning point probably came about a decade later, when Hong Kong action flicks started showing on a regular basis at the Scala cinema, along with revivals of the old seventies kung-fu movies. As tatty VHS copies of Chow Yun-Fat films changed hands in the foyer, us fanboys felt we knew about a whole world of thrills that most people in the west could only dream of.
That's hardly the case now, of course. Even in the current unfavourable distribution climate, South East Asia still manages to get a fair amount of its product over here, albeit mainly via video and DVD. Labels such as Hong Kong Legends have been lovingly repackaging all those classics we were buying bootlegs of ten years ago, while Tartan Video have been giving cinema and video releases to the more outrageous and controversial films from the continent. Hence the Tartan Asia Extreme Festival, a programme of seven new films which toured UK cinemas in the summer of 2003.
The principle's very similar to that adopted by the Feature Film Company back in 1999, when they assembled half a dozen low-budget US films into a package called American Independence and sent it out on tour. It wasn't obvious when I was reviewing it, but in fact they were using this as sneaky advertising for the eventual release of all six films through their video label. And this is what Tartan have done: given a short cinema outing to seven films, so as to raise awareness of them prior to a video release. But the Tartan Asia Extreme Festival is a much braver deal. American Independence was an arthouse-based project, and the six films were crammed into a single week of screenings before the whole package moved on to the next town. Tartan, on the other hand, were playing their films in big commercial UGC multiplexes, and giving each one a full two weeks to attract an audience. Plus, there was a special cheapo ticket deal for anyone who was mental enough to commit themselves in advance to seeing all seven films.
You're ahead of me here, I can tell.
The seven films are an interesting spread of material from Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong. Of the Japanese films, we can skip over The Happiness Of The Katakuris, simply because Miike Takashi's horror musical has already been reviewed here twice - once unsubtitled in Japan, and then again with subs at Edinburgh. So you should know the story by now, about a family of four generations (headed by Kenji Sawada and Keiko Matsuzaka) and their adventures running the White Lovers Inn: adventures that primarily involve accidental violent death and musical production numbers. Actually, in between my second and third viewing, I managed to catch the original source of Katakuris: it's a remake of a South Korean comedy called The Quiet Family, made in 1998 by Kim Ji-Woon. The basic premise of the family, their hotel and their relentless bad luck is there in the original, but pretty much all the comedy comes from their increasing embarrassment at having to repeatedly bury their customers. Miike, as is his wont, uses the already outrageous situation as a springboard for his increasingly surreal digressions - the claymated uvula-eating sprite, the treasonous sub-plot involving the British Royal Family, and of course the songs. Anyone who came to the Asia Extreme Festival expecting depraved sex and violence, and got this film, must have been confused as hell. Which only makes it funnier.
The other Japanese film in the Festival, Shinya Tsukamoto's A Snake Of June, fits the Extreme tag a little more explicitly. Rinko (Asuka Kurosawa) works on a telephone helpline, talking people through their personal problems. Unfortunately, she's got problems of her own, notably a loveless marriage to salaryman Shigehiko (Yuji Kotari). She finds her own ways of getting through the day, until a series of blackmail photos appears in the mail showing her privately pleasuring herself. She makes contact with the blackmailer Iguchi (Shinya Tsukamoto), who puts her through a series of public ordeals involving a miniskirt and a remote-controlled vibrator. Gradually Iguchi reveals his motives for doing this, and they aren't what you'd expect at all.
Tsukamoto's been absent from British cinemas for a few years now: he's best known for Tetsuo The Iron Man, Tetsuo 2: Body Hammer and various other films on the subject of machine fetishism and robot cocks. The subject matter here may be different, but the approach is the same: notably the expressionistic black and white camerawork, the bleak atmosphere generated by the continuous rain, and the new creepy perspectives on familiar things. Case in point: the scene where Rinko is forced to go out in public wearing a miniskirt. Tsukamoto jumpily cuts between her nervous walk and the sidelong glances of the people she passes. Even to an insensitive male viewer, there's a palpable sense of violation that comes across, even though she's never approached or even acknowledged. Also typical of Tsukamoto is a narrative that implodes in the last half hour through some messy blurring of fantasy and reality. (Were the guys in the metal Clangers masks real or not? I dunno.) Plus we even get a robot cock at the climax for old time's sake. The way the film initially sets itself up as your typical psycho stalker thriller before changing direction is interesting, but the whole She Wants It Really angle is a dangerous one to be playing with. Still, I guess that's why they call it Extreme.
We return to the more comfortable territory of violent death via Fulltime Killer, a cunning variation on the Hong Kong Heroic Bloodshed genre. O (Takashi Sorimachi) is the number one killer in Asia, a quietly professional Japanese whose only tie to everyday life is his cleaning lady Chin (Kelly Lin). Tok (Andy Lau) is his closest rival, the up-and-coming new boy, more inclined towards gimmicks and grandiose gestures (why just shoot a guy, when you can make him play Hunt The Live Grenade and blow up the building he's in?). As the story goes on a murderous tour of assorted exotic Asian locations, we find Tok is always just beating O to the kill. There are two standard ways this story could progress: either Tok and O could form a grudging alliance against a third party and share unspoken man-love, or they could try to kill each other. When Tok starts taking Chin out on dates, that narrows down the options a bit.
Hong Kong action cinema occasionally gets accused of Postmodernism, when what they really mean is Theft. Most of the critics have noted that Tok is a film buff who helpfully tells you about all the hitman flicks that are being referenced/pilfered during the action scenes. To be honest, those scenes don't show much originality: when in doubt, directors Johnnie To and Wai Ka Fai tend to stick a wide angle lens on a crane camera and hurl it around the set. But there's more to Fulltime Killer than exit wounds and movie in-jokes: it's the first HK action flick I can think of that's based on a novel (by Edmond Pang), and its literary roots are showing. As it becomes apparent that the film has four narrators battling it out for voiceover time (the two assassins, their shared girl and the cop who's pursuing them), it starts becoming less about the action and more about the myth-making associated with hired killers, which makes for an interesting swing from slo-mo to po-mo. (The Belated Birthday Girl has a spiffy theory comparing this to Adaptation, which is two-thirds narrative mind games and one-third Hollywood finale - this film reverses that recipe.) Plus, y'know, bullets fly, buildings explode, fire pretty.
Hong Kong action cinema has always had a reputation for innovation - note the amount of wire-fu and so on we're getting in Hollywood action films these days. The Koreans, on the other hand, tend to synthesise the best bits of other film cultures into their own. South Korean cinema is going through a bit of a boom domestically - indicated by the remaining four films in this season all coming from there - but for the most part it's because they're producing their own slick variations on standard Hollywood product. Kang JeGyu's film Shiri is a typical example of this. It's the story of two agents - obsessed loner Lee (Song Kang-Ho), and happily engaged Ryu (Han Suk-Kyu) - and their struggle to track down a female North Korean assassin known as Hee (Kim Yun-Jin). After a couple of years where she seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth, she's back and killing again. More worringly, her re-appearance seems to coincide with the arrival of a group of soldiers from North Korea, and the theft of an extremely nasty new explosive. It looks like the North is planning to force a reunification of the two parts of Korea by blowing up as much of it as they can.
It'd be a standard US thriller if it wasn't for the crashingly unsubtle product placement and the surprising emphasis on character. The action scenes are hyper-edited in the Jerry Bruckheimer style, accompanied by a score that sounds like a Hans Zimmer tribute band by the climax - unlike, say, John Woo, the director's happy to let the action degenerate into total bloody chaos, all flying bodies and copious blood spurts. But for the most part the action stays on this side of realism, barring one slightly muffed effects setpiece involving that stolen explosive. Where the film really comes alive is in its careful delineation of the relationships of the principals, which is definitely a Hong Kong tradition - and when a switch is pulled halfway through which sends the melodrama quotient into overdrive, we're dragged along with it.
Not wishing to stereotype or anything, but as far as I can make out, South Korean cinema comes in two flavours: slavish Hollywood copies like Shiri, and films like Sympathy For Mr Vengeance which alternate long slow stretches of atmosphere with short nasty bursts of sharp things being stuck into people. Ryu (Shin Ha-Gyun) is trying to raise money for his sister's kidney transplant, but his own disability (he's a deaf mute) makes it almost impossible for him to hold down a job. After an ill-advised venture into organ retail, he decides that crime is the only way forward: so aided by his girlfriend Young-mi (Bae Du-na), he kidnaps the daughter of the last boss that sacked him. We're not expecting a happy ending, so it's just a question of seeing how pear-shaped his apparently fool-proof plan can go. (Or, seeing as this is Korea, possibly durian-shaped.)
Park Chan-wook's film is interesting to watch, though the jump-cuts and general narrative confusion detract rather than add to the finished film. The main problem is one of tone: we don't really feel sympathy for Ryu as his scheme accelerates further into chaos, and we don't get to laugh at him out of moral superiority. In fact, the audience doesn't really get to feel anything at all: we just watch things get worse and worse and don't know how to react. There are some nice contrasts between the quiet early scenes and the carnage towards the end, and a couple of arrestingly framed widescreen shots, but it doesn't really satisfy overall.
All the reviews of Kim Ki-Duk's Bad Guy have mentioned his earlier notorious fishhook fest The Isle, but I suspect most British critics only know of it by reputation. Well, I've actually seen it, in Hong Kong back in 2001. It's the only movie I can think of so far this century that's had me all but crawling under the seat in sheer horror at the stuff on screen. Tartan have spent two years trying to get The Isle past the UK censors, and finally managed it recently after nearly two minutes of animal cruelty was cut. (No cuts to the human cruelty, though.) Doubtless they'll eventually release it, but in the meantime we have Kim's follow-up film. There's no denying that Han-ki (Cho Jae-hyun) is indeed bad: in the very first scene we see him molesting Sun-hwa (Seo Won) in a public park, oblivious to the complaints of her boyfriend and the police. As revenge for her knock-back, Han-ki engineers it so that Sun-hwa is forced to work in the brothel he owns. But even though this is meant to be punishment, he can't seem to stop himself watching her through the two-way mirror in her room.
Bad Guy is nothing like as extreme as The Isle, and unfortunately that's a bad thing. All the things that, for better or worse, made The Isle extraordinary - the full-on approach to sex and violence, the calm atmosphere with hints of the unspeakable under the surface, the power struggles within an outwardly abusive relationship - all that's here, but in a much more diluted form. Even the imaginative visual sense that made the earlier film so astonishing seems to have gone, barring some nice shots involving the two-way mirror and the overlapping images of the couple. Besides, it's hard to take a film seriously when the evil title character is a dead spit for MTV's Zane Lowe. It's a shame Tartan didn't just bite the bullet and put The Isle in this slot in the first place.
Bad Guy is probably the weakest film out of the seven in this season: but Public Enemy is probably the strongest. Again, the Hollywood influence seems rather strong on the surface: it's a simple tale of a battle of wits between a cop and a killer. Kang (Sul Kyung-gu) is a rubbish homicide detective, whose only real strengths are his dogged persistence and his facility for extreme personal violence ("there's probably a whole stadium full of people I've beat up"). Cho (Lee Sung-jae) is proper old-fashioned Evil Yuppie Scum like we used to have in the eighties, a fund manager with a bad case of American Psycho-style narcissism and a silver business card holder to match. He wouldn't actually sell his own grandmother to make a quick buck: but what he does is even worse than that. With nothing to go on bar a hunch, Kang is convinced from the word go of the yuppie's guilt, and decides to make Cho's life as annoying as possible.
Public Enemy is, amazingly, 138 minutes long: but it doesn't drag for a second, thanks to its splendid balancing act between horror and comedy. Most of the comedy is of a deeply black and cynical hue, and arises from the less-than-sympathetic portrayal of the Korean police, an organisation which appears to be primarily driven by corruption, swearing and blows to the head. (I haven't heard this many people referred to as 'bastard' outside of a spaghetti western.) But when the violence comes - and as seems to be the Korean way, it's pointy in nature - it's sufficiently brutal and sudden to jolt you out of your complacency. Kang Woo-suk's main feat as director is to gleefully veer from one extreme to the other without ever losing the audience: even when the key murder scene is intercut with Kang's comedy attack of the shits, it all holds together (and even turns out to be a major plot point). It could be said that the plot's predictable: you know that Kang and Cho will end up sorting this out mano a mano at the climax. But hell, everyone knows how a twelve bar blues works out, it doesn't stop you from enjoying it.
At the time of writing, the season is winding down: the final film (Public Enemy) is playing a limited run in London, and should be touring the rest of the UK soon. But now these films are in the public domain, expect them to also turn up at your local arthouse - the Cube in Bristol has already shown a couple, and other cinemas will probably follow suit. And they'll all come out on video eventually, of course. Legally, too. I almost miss the thrill of coming home with a box labelled A Better Tomorrow 2, only to find it's actually a copy of Jorg Buttgereit's Corpse Fucking Art. But I don't miss it that much. Being a monkey, and all.
The Tartan Asia Extreme Festival has its own website, consisting of microsites for all seven films featuring synopses, trailers and photos. There was a cracking special offer if you booked an advance pass [dead link] via this site - twenty quid to see all seven films - but it's too late by now for you to do anything with that, I'm afraid.
Tartan Video have a site featuring all their films, including the Asia Extreme imprint. They seem to be a bit reluctant to update it, though.
UGC Cinemas [now taken over by Cineworld] played a major part in getting this Festival off the ground. They used to have a microsite for the Festival, but it seems to have vanished faster than the screens at the Shaftesbury Avenue cinema (which dropped from seven screens to three during the three months of the Festival). Refurbishment my arse, I bet they'll have demolished it by the end of the year. [Okay, so I was wrong, it's still going.]
A Snake Of June [dead link], Fulltime Killer [dead link] and Shiri still have official sites knocking around from their cinema releases in various territories. Can't guarantee how long they'll be around, though. (Katakuris used to have an official site back in 2002, but it's dead [dead link] now, while Public Enemy's [dead link] has been hijacked by something unspeakable, so these things obviously have a limited lifespan.) Meanwhile, fans of Bad Guy can visit Kim Ki-Duk's own homepage [dead link].
SexToyz - and I trust you all understand that this is a link to an adult site - are mentioned here because I didn't believe that the remote controlled vibrator from A Snake Of June could possibly exist in real life. Until I saw The Oyster. The final line of the sales pitch ("with 16 million combinations we guarantee that the secure radio link will not upset other Oyster fans") seems to hint at a plot twist that may even be too perverse for Shinya Tsukamoto. Unless he's saving it for the sequel.