Thursday, March 19, 2009

20世紀少年 (20th Century Boys)

20世紀少年 (20th Century Boys)
Directed by YukihikoTsutsumi
Starring Toshiaki Karasawa, Etsushi Toyokawa, Takako Tokiwa

20th Century Boys, created by Naoki Urasawa, is a science fiction mystery manga that cleverly combines the careless innocence of youth with the harsher reality of growing up in a world scarred by failure and terrorism.

Fresh from the reeling disappointment of Watchmen (I've seen it twice, am now tempted to lower my initial rating but will let it stay there for the meantime), I was a bit cautious to watch another ambitious adaptation. Still, I thought, not Hollywood.

To put it succinctly, the first installment of the 20th Century Boys trilogy is tha bomb. *Scrambles off for actual words*

Folksies, this is how a comic book adaptation should be made. As a visual medium, the panels should not be the shoot list. A faithful tribute is just an excuse for being lazy. Details, no matter how meticulously brought to life, do not make a movie. Besides, where's the fun in that, eh? Director Yukihiko Tsutsumi is clever enough to filter and borrow only the iconic images of the manga and frames the rest with his own point of view.

Covering the first five volumes of the sprawling, kaleidoscopic epic, the movie moves at a brisk pace, which is very necessary since this is first and foremost a mystery story that goes back and forth the past and the present. 20th Century Boys hits the ground running with an ominous conversation between two prisoners locked up in separate cells hinting at a darkness that blankets the country before transitioning to 1973 (the actual opening of the manga), where a boy named Kenji plays along to the opening riffs of T. Rex's "20th Century Boy" on a broom as the crunchy guitars ROAR its way through sleepy classrooms. Later on we see Kenji (Karasawa) in 1987, drained and tired and forced to smile as he tries to balance running a grocery store with taking care of a baby his sister has mysteriously left behind.

When one of his regular patrons disappears, Kenji decides to take chance at visiting the client's home to check if the family left behind any form of payment and discovers instead a symbol on a wall that is connected to his childhood.

In another area in the city, the police find a body that is drained of blood, possibly connected to a virus that has been killing hundreds in Africa. Has it reached Japan?

And some place else, a cult is born, worshiping a messianic masked man simply called "Friend," the symbol that Kenji saw printed across the cult leader's mask.

It is the same symbol that one of Kenji's childhood friends writes a letter to him about before dying a few days later.

The key to solving the mystery is in Kenji's childhood and in his circle of friends. And this is where the 20th Century Boys truly shines. The flashbacks are infused with such relaxed nostalgia where the kicked-up dirt mixes with sweat and snot, and bullies are rampaging giants who can break your bone at a whim. The warmly-hued scenes of playing in the fields also serve as a grating and ultimately heartbreaking contrast to the complex lives the grown-ups are leading. Evil is no longer getting your ass whupped or imagined villains straight from the pages of comic books. Evil is failure, the postponed dreams that grow more distant as the years pass, but also as palpable as murder, terrorist bombings, and betrayal.

The screenplay wisely omits a few scenes from the manga, with a couple of rewrites (the back story of Donkey comes to mind) for the sake of pacing, but I don't mind at all because the soul of the movie is intact and not drowned out by the nifty special effects or a stoic reverence to the source material.

Much like Stephen King's novel "It," 20th Century Boys follows the lives of childhood friends who have grown apart but are reunited by a pact they made decades ago. And Tsutsumi never loses sight of the movie's center: That it is possible to confront the monsters and giants we have always feared because true friends will always have your back.

In the movie's climactic showdown on the eve of the new millennium, even if I knew what was about to happen, I continued to cheer on for Kenji and his friends, secretly hoping for a different ending. Tsutsumi has made me care for these characters all over again, and differently from when I was reading the manga. It's a different experience altogether.

Now, that's how you do it Mr. Snyder.


See prang (4BIA)

สี่แพร่ง or See prang (4bia)
Written and directed by
Youngyouth Thongkunthon (The Iron Ladies) / Banjong Pisanthanakun (Shutter) /
Parkpoom Wongpoom (Shutter) /
Paween Purikitpanya (Body #19)

Filipinos love ghost stories. We love it so much that sharing a ghost story has become a staple in any type of gathering: birthdays, weddings, funerals, all it takes is for someone to mention a little strange episode---a flickering light bulb in a bathroom, a distant melodic humming, a passing shadow---and the stories start pouring in and almost everyone has something to share. There is a personal connection to the story and it runs deeper than urban legends.

Most of the time, it's in the blood.

Just the other night I heard something. My neighbor's son saw this. My sister's husband's nephew had a run in with. Sometimes it seems as if we live with ghosts. When one is moving to a new house or a new office, we often ask, "May multo ba dito?" (Is this place haunted?) while negotiating for lower rent. It is the natural aspect of the supernatural in our lives that make watching Asian horror movies more of an experiential trip down a dark memory lane.

Hollywood rarely frightens us. A university professor who had seen "The Exorcist," touted then as the scariest movie of all time, overheard an audience in the movie house casually say, "Nangyari yan sa pinsan ko eh, hindi naman to nakakatakot." (My cousin went through the same thing. This is not scary at all.) Serial killers, demonic haunting, that's not quite horror for us.

Ghosts, yes. Ghosts of friends and ex-lovers, jealous wives and cheating husbands, vengeful children and ignored admirers, yes, yes!

It's karma. It's that dark secret you've buried. It's your aunt's cousin's crazy son left in the mental institution that's tapping on your window 23 floors high.

And 4bia, uneven as it may be, is all this.

Happiness (Youngyooth Thongkonthun): 4bia doesn't get any scarier than its first installment. Feeding on our longing to make a connection, it tells the story of a young woman who is stuck in her room because of a broken leg and not surprisingly, she turns to her cellphone for a little company, having regular exchanges with a friend through text messages until she receives a mysterious SMS from a stranger, a lonely young man. They become "text mates" of course. When she sends him a picture of herself and he replies with the image that she has just sent, the fright that has slowly been creeping in abruptly grabs us by the throat and doesn't let go until a window shatters. The end is too neatly tied up but at this point, my racing heart didn't care. Maneerat Kamuan is nominated for Best Actress in Bangkok Critics Assembly Award . Wise Kwai has the details. 5/5

Tit for Tat (Paween Purikitpanya): Voodoo, using the term loosely, is a familiar form of revenge and Purikitpanya's frenetic and flashy direction tries its best to give it a sharper, bloodier edge but only succeeds in keeping my interest on the first half of the movie. A young, darker-skinned boy is relentlessly bullied and beaten up by a cool, fashionably hip group of friends. He conjures and cast curses through a book of witchcraft to inflict painful deaths without realizing the fatal ricochet of black magic. Glossy at best, the "Final Destination" body count frenzy doesn't allow for fear to settle in and results in a mechanical display of violence. One down, four to go. Yawn. The CGI ghouls/ghosts in the end only added to the too calculated orchestration of horror. 1/5

In The Middle (Banjong Pisanthanakun): Four buddies on a camping trip share ghost stories until one becomes too scared to sleep near the tent's entrance. The guy on the other end of the tent replies that if he were to die and become a ghost, he would haunt whoever is sleeping in the middle for a change. Of course, fate was listening too closely. "In the Middle" is refreshingly funny and geeky; the self-aware nods to other movies of the same genre (Shutter, The Others) lends it a tongue-in-cheek tone making one jump when the scares do shake the tent. Not exactly original but it is undeniably likable, like those stories you hear over beer. 3/5

The Last Flight (Parkpoom Wongpoon): The only a passenger, a corpse. That image alone, menacingly quiet in the dark rows of empty seats, is the movie itself. Everything else that surrounds it is familiar: the lurking jump-out-of-the-shadow scare, the lurking jump-out-of-the-shadow sound effects. As a study of atmosphere thick with anxiety, "The Last Flight" works quite well. Wongpoon composes images that linger, haunt even, but that's all they are, images too evocative to terrify. 2/5

The connection between the four segments is subtle and one that I admittedly had to look up. The chronology of the events (edited for spoilers) are:

Story 3 ("In the Middle"). One of the teenagers' name is Ter. Story 4 ("Last Flight"). Ter is mentioned as the brother of Pim's colleague and fellow stewardess, Tui (not seen in movie) who could not accompany the flight because something has happened to her brother. Story 1 ("Happiness"). The girl with the broken leg is seen reading the online news about a character's death. Story 2 ("Tit for Tat"). The image we see of the curse is the image of the girl with the broken leg.

4BIA Film Posters here.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Syndromes and a Century (Sang Sattawat)

Meshes of the afternoon

Syndromes and a Century(Sang Sattawat)

Conceived by Apichatpong "Joe" Weerasethakul
Starring Akanae Cherkam, Jaruchai Iarmaram, Sakda Kaewbuadee

*Syndromes and a Century is one of seven films commissioned for the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth.

Amadeus is in the details here* so it isn't a diptych but variations on a theme, two views of a memory- - -they're movements. But whether across time or geography is what Joe Weerasethakul isn't making apparent - - - that's always been part of his elliptical charm and past/present and rural/urban overlap as dichotomies anyway so it's not as if knowing which is which is crucial to getting anything. And neither is getting anything per se. Knowing a bit about its Mozart connections sort of is, though, because as used as we may be to the way his work splits in half, the one thing we do get is how melodic the whole piece feels. How benign with happiness, too. Joe's remembering something he has no memory of- - -how his doctor parents met - - - so it's hazy, so it's fond, so idyll drapes it. From the first half's country hospital - - -where a young doctor is torn between her forthright suitor and the elusive orchid farmer she's starting to fall for and a dentist who wants to be a pop star strikes an odd friendship with a monk who wants to be a DJ- - -to the secret wing of the city hospital in the second half - - - where mysterious diseases with no names are treated and brandy is stashed in the hollows of prosthetic limbs for the staff to sneak a nip in. And all over, between bisected halves, murmurs and ricochets and rhymes and refrains and shapeshifts : an outdoor concert becomes an outdoor aerobics session, a pop CD given to the monk becomes a remote-controlled UFO two other monks play with, a solar eclipse becomes an ominous air duct, and one deceptively passive woman with one leg shorter than the other crosses over both segments unchanged by the transition the way other reappearing characters are. All exuding, even at its most obtuse, this persuasive calm that makes you fear decoding them will upset its delicate, contained loveliness. So you don't. There's bliss enough in just humming along to those magic changes, those melodies - - - prettified with mystery, soaked in bearable lightness, invincible to regret. * * * * *