Saturday, January 19, 2008

Simply Actors (Hong Kong 2007)

A film centered around the acting profession and what it is to be an actor, Simply Actors seems to be suffering from bouts of misdirection in conveying it's message. There are some great and entertaining moments to be found here, but there are also some out-of-place, questionable moments as well.

After a fellow officer turns up dead, goof-ball constable Chan Man-Long (Sui-man Chim), is thrown into an acting school by his superior officers in order to be a better undercover cop. Man-Long's interest in acting and making everyone laugh at parties made him the top candidate for testing out this new method of training. Man-Long needs to infiltrate the drug lord Crazy Sam's (Chapman To), inner circle in order to bring him down. Man-Long is thrilled with this new opportunity and sense of responsibility that his bosses have deemed him worthy of and can't stand the fact that he can't even tell his wife Judy (Michelle Ye), about it. So now it's off to the performing arts academy and Man-Long couldn't possibly be more excited as he makes his way to his first class. Before he can finish introducing himself to Professor Mong and the rest of the class detailing his time spent studying drama in Italy, the doors swing open as fellow new-student and soft-core porn actress beauty Dani Dan (Charlene Choi), makes a fashionably late appearance. Man-Long and Dani hit it off instantly as Man-Long is a big fan of her "movies" and she's fascinated with Man-Long's time spent in Italy. However, he isn't the only guy in class interested in the new girl. After some training in various classes, Professor Mong tells the class that they'll be observed in order for him to select the two most capable leads for the school performance of, "Romeo and Juliet". Meanwhile, Man-Long's home life is starting to suffer because his girlfriend thinks that he isn't working as a police officer anymore and is only pursuing his dreams of being an actor.

Dani and Man-Long have a heart-to-heart discussion, in which they talk about each other's dreams, goals, and where they came from. Their talk gave them an opportunity to release a lot of repressed feelings, thus taking their relationship to another level. Man-Long's boss comes back into the picture to say that he thinks Man-Long should be ready for some undercover surveillance on Crazy Sam at his favorite Mahjong parlor. Being the nim-wit that he is, things don't go as planned and one of Man-Long's classmates, Alex (Raymond Wong), discovers his true identity in the process. As if that wasn't bad enough, Man-Long's boss gets his hands on some pirated porn movies from a warehouse raid and within the collection is Dani Dan's newest project. Little did he know that Man-Long helped her out in the filming of it, so when he recognizes his subordinate officer, he withdraws him from the performing arts school. Wallowing in his misery, Man-Long overhears the janitor (Anthony Wong...yes, that Anthony Wong) reciting lines from various plays. After the two get acquainted, our janitor friend takes Man-Long on a journey of sorts, to witness the acting taking place in everyday life. Things aren't so carefree back at the Mahjong parlor, as Brother Pang (Lam Suet) is fresh out of a Brazilian prison and looking to his oldest friend Bounce (Tin Kai-Man), Alex's dad, to collect on some money he was supposedly holding for him. So Alex goes to Man-Long for help so that they can trick Brother Pang into thinking he's got the money that Bounce had lost years ago. Man-Long and Alex recruit the rest of the gang from the drama school to get in Brother Pang's way and do the old bait-and-switch routine on the bag of money.

I know it feels like that third act with Brother Pang returning to Hong Kong for his money from Bounce came out of nowhere, and that's because it did. That in a nutshell is my biggest complaint about Simply Actors. The story completely abandoned the premise that it started with, and the sole reason for getting Man-Long to join the drama school in the first place; to bring down Crazy Sam. After the Mahjong parlor scene in which Man-Long is discovered as an undercover cop, there is no more interaction with Crazy Sam's character. What started off as a quest to bring down an evil drug lord that kills police officers, turned into a story of self-discovery with a third act that feels out of place. Also, at times it feels as if the story is just trying to find ways to add actors from Hong Kong's shallow talent-pool into the movie because Simply Actors is cameo-crazy. Story faults aside, the acting in Simply Actors is entertaining, with Siu-man Chim being the obvious highlight of the film. However, Charlene Choi shows a lot of range in her role as porn actress Dani Dan and is incredibly different from what many of us have seen her do in the past. I hate to forget Anthony Wong's role as the all-things-acting janitor. Needless to say, it was interesting, if not a bit out of place.

Simply Actors has some genuinely great moments, especially with the underlying message of a person following his or her dreams and trying to discover who they are and their purpose in life. However, these "serious" aspects are often deflected off entirely absurd and over-the-top comical moments. This mix of ingredients, while a good idea, doesn't work out as well as it could have, but is certainly more appealing than I ever expected it to be. (Lee)

Buy Simply Actors on DVD or VCD from YESASIA!

The official Simply Actors website *In Chinese

Sunday, January 13, 2008

My Tutor Friend 2 (Korea 2007)

Tarnishing the name of what I consider to be a modern Korean classic, My Tutor Friend 2 (동갑내기 과외하기 레슨 II) shares nothing more than the name of the much-enjoyed My Tutor Friend with Kim Ha-neul and Kwon Sang-woo. Those responsible should be ashamed.

Junko (Lee Cheong-Ah), a Japanese of Korean ancestry, is accepted to Ansei University in Korea and immediately leaves to find her crush, Woo-sung (Yang Jin-woo), who was a Korean studying in Japan, but supposedly had to enlist in the army. Mr. Heo (Lee Yeong-ha) runs the guest house that Junko is staying at, and his son Jong-man (Park Ki-woong) and two buddies (Yoon Yeong-seom) and Poongi (Jo Dal-hwan) also happen to live there. Being the typical young men that they are, they aren't used to having a young woman around, so after only a couple of days, Junko decides that she can't stand living around these pigs and tells Mr. Heo that she wants her money back and she'll be staying elsewhere. Jong-man then has to talk Junko into staying because of his fathers threats, so he decides to lie to Junko, saying that her crush Woo-sung used to stay in the same room she has and is sure to return there when he's on leave. Since she has no other leads as to his whereabouts, this naturally sways her to say in the room at the guest house. This is where the ONLY similarity to the original My Tutor Friend comes in; Mr. Heo forces his to teach Junko Korean three nights a week. Junko needs to polish off her Korean speaking skills for when see confronts Woo-sung about her feelings for him. Naturally, Jong-man teaches Junko some terribly offensive words to say as part of her first lesson so that she'll say it to the entire class during her first day introductions. He continues to abuse his position as her teacher, while his buddies work on ways to impress Junko.

Later, when Jong-man and his boys are hanging out and goofing around, we find out Jong-man used to be on the boxing team at school when an old teammate, Juntae, creates an awkward confrontation. We start learning more about Jung-man, including his past as a boxer, and when an old friend calls him out of the blue, he rushes out to visit someone in the hospital. Now Jong-man is never around and is off working himself ragged doing multiple odd-jobs to make extra money. Jong-man had developed a reputation as a strict money saver, but why the sudden interest in making so much money? And who is this mysterious lady from the hospital he keeps running off to visit in secret? After friendly classmate Hee-jeong (Jang Yeong-ran) gives Junko the address to her beloved Woo-sung, we start to see the jealous side of Jong-man come forward and suddenly he wants to take his job as Korean tutor seriously. Once Junko learns the truth about Woo-sung, she too begins to reevaluate her rollercoaster relationship with Jong-man. Sounds nice enough doesn't it? And then, like most Korean romantic-comedies these days, things take a turn and crash directly into the brick wall of seriousness. We learn the identity of the mystery woman Jong-man's being visiting and how past events have kept him out of the boxing ring. However, Junko knows that Jong-man still has the "fight" inside of him and without asking, enters him into the boxing tournament at school. This creates a rift in their friendship, and when Jung-man's lie about knowing Woo-sung comes to the surface, things get even worse. Will Jung-man get back in the ring to battle his past? And what will become of his relationship with Junko that was built on a lie?

If it sounds like there's a lot going on in My Tutor Friend 2, that's because there is. It also contains one of my biggest pet-peeves in a movie; making the third act incredibly serious. Listen people, it's really OK to let a comedy be funny from beginning to end. I don't need to take a breather from all the laughs in order to cry over something. Actually, in this case, I didn't find myself laughing at all. My Tutor Friend 2 has a lot of problems, with the biggest one being my disliking of the main actress Lee Cheong-ah. Her acting is just terrible. I understand that she's trying to play the part of someone who doesn't speak Korean fluently, but she comes across more like an airhead with the mind of a five year old. She spends most of the movie moping about and whining, while Park Ki-woong's character yells at her. Jong-man's buddies are good for a couple of chuckles, and it's interesting to see Julian Quintart as the exchange student George, but that's about it. As I neared the final minutes I couldn't help but think of how much more I enjoyed the "first" My Tutor Friend and how they only shared the same title in order to attract viewers to the second, because part two doesn't feel like a "true" sequel at all.

Cashing in on the name is how I feel about My Tutor Friend 2 after it was over. Being such a huge fan of the first film, I'm definitely disappointed that "part two" didn't live up to my expectations. They would've been better off giving it a completely different name. Don't be mislead dear viewers, as I was, because none of the same charm, fun and wit of My Tutor Friend is anywhere to be found with this obvious knock-off. Consider yourself warned. (Lee)

Grade: D+


Saturday, January 5, 2008

Kidnap AKA Chain Game (Hong Kong 2007)

A not exactly by-the-numbers thriller, Kidnap may be a lot like the cat-and-mouse movies you've all seen before, but it puts enough of it's own unique spin on things to keep the experience entertaining and engaging without feeling stale.

The film starts immediately with Inspector Ho Yuan-chun (Rene Liu), who is in charge of finding the kidnapped brother of theater actress Lam Hiu-yeung (Karena Lam), in the middle of staking out the suspect(s) involved in the kidnapping. Her partner Chi (Siu-Fai Cheung), tails the man responsible for the kidnapping to the roof, where everyone is shocked to see that Lam's brother is also there and is assisting the kidnapper in securing the ransom money. Chi attempts to talk the kidnapper into turning himself in, but things take an unexpected turn for the worst and both the kidnapper and Lam's brother fall to their deaths. Flash forward three years later, and it appears that Lam has moved on from her brother's untimely passing, and is back to teaching young theater students, aided by her husband Qian. Even Chi has remained a figure in their lives for the past three years, trying to help Lam move on with her life in any way that he can. However, it turns out that things aren't so wonderful after all, because Lam's husband is stricken by a terminal illness and his only hope for survival relies on a new treatment in Switzerland which will cost a fortune to undergo. Things aren't so great for Inspector Ho either, as she's divorced from her husband Siu-Chi (Julian Cheung), who was awarded custody of their son Ho-yin, and is finding it difficult not being able to see her child whenever she wants to. To top it off, her ex has already begun seeing another woman by the name of Shirley (Ella Koon), and it's a chance encounter with her son's best friend Jiaming, and his wealthy father Wang (Tao Guo), that will change everything.

Little did everyone realize, Lam hadn't gotten over her brother's death and has been holding a grudge over Inspector Ho and the rest of her team, blaming them all this time for his passing. Also unbeknownst to everyone was the fact that Lam had been meticulously plotting the kidnapping of Mr. Wang's son in order to use the ransom money for her husbands incredibly expensive medical treatment. Lam knew that Inspector Ho would be the one assigned to the case and she was looking forward to making Ho look incompetent. When the time finally comes for Lam to strike, things don't exactly go as planned and the outcome of her actions change the "game" completely.

From the beginning I thought to myself, "If you've seen one ransom movie, you've seen 'em all", and for the most part that's true. If only because they all share the same core premise and goal is always the same: get back the person that was taken. That being said, I'm incredibly pleased that Kidnap had, at least for me, a few new tricks up it's sleeve. A lot of the ideas are well thought out and it gives the viewer the impression of being "smart" in it's execution; which is partially true. It does suffer from a couple of loopholes, the biggest being in regards to a bloody shirt, but you know I can't give you all the details. Also, when the action is taking place, it's fairly engaging stuff, but when it's not, the movie tends to drag. The story tries to redevelop the relationship between Ho and her ex-husband and while the intentions are good, the display itself isn't all that interesting. However, these elements aside, as a whole, Kidnap is above-average stuff. The acting, from the two female leads anyway, is pretty much top-notch stuff, with Rene Liu exercising some serious acting chops. Her performance is Golden Horse worthy if you ask me, even if the movie itself might not be. The stages her character goes through show a lot of range and her performance was enjoyable to watch.

If anything, and like most films of this kind, Kidnap is an exercise in what people are willing to do for their loved ones. The person you are, seemingly becomes a person you never knew you had inside you. How would your character change when faced with such desperation and uncertainty? I'm glad we have movies like Kidnap to answer that question for us. (Lee)

Buy Kidnap on DVD or VCD from YESASIA!

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Ruri no Shima (NTV Japan 2005)

An interesting display of what people are willing to do for the people they love and the place they call home, Ruri no Shima (Ruri's Island), while occasionally over-dramatic, is a heart warming series that proves everyone deserves a second chance.

The citizens of Hitomjima, a small island south of Okinawa, are in the middle of a crisis. See, the total population of Hitomijima is only 50 people and a majority of these citizens are employed by the one school located there. Unfortunately, the one child attending the school, along with his family, have moved off the island and now the school is being forced to close. Without any children on the island, the people of Hitomijima are faced with the inevitable closing of the school and an uncertain future for life on the island. Mr. Nakama (Ogata Ken) decides to go to Tokyo to see if he can get his grandson to attend school on the island, but his daughter won't allow it. After his initial plan falls through, his desperation leads him to plan B: adopting a child. Here we're introduce to Ruri (Narumi Riko), an 11-year old with no real direction in life, who acts out in ways that are very unbecoming of a child at her age. Her mother Nao (Nishida Naomi), had Ruri at a young age and gave her up because she was selfishly too busy living life for herself. Even through Ruri's tough exterior, Nakama still sees the innocent child in her and knows that she'd be a perfect fit for him, his wife Megumi (Baisho Mitsuko), and the island. After some initial hesitation and an overall argumentative first encounter, Ruri too realizes that Nakama isn't like everyone else in her life and that he seems to genuinely care for her.

On the boat ride to Hitomjima, Ruri and Nakama meet a man by the name of Tatsuya Kawahima (Takenouchi Yutaka), who appears to be in need of a new start in life as well. After they arrive, things get off to a bumpy start as Ruri "tries" to adjust to her new surroundings and the people on the island. Among them are Natsumi (Nishiyama Mayuko), the convenience store owner and her husband Kouji (Katsumura Masanobu), an employee at the primary school where Ruri will attend. Also, Granny Kamado (Yoshida Taeko), school chairman Harue (Hiraizumi Sei) and his wife Yoshie (Ichige Yoshie), the school cafeteria lady; school vice chairman Souhei (Shiomi Sansei); young vagabond couple Shigeru (Kashu Toshiki) and Mitsuki (Igawa Haruka); lonely Shomei (Kohinata Fumiyo) who pines to see his estranged daughter again; school principal Manabu (Kishibe Ittoku) and primary school teacher Sanae (Konishi Minami).

As time passes, Ruri begins to see the charm in each of these characters and how special her new surroundings really are. She finds herself wanting to be a part of their lives as much as they want her to be a part in theirs and finally understands what it feels like to be wanted and loved by another person; something she never had with her real parents. Along the journey, troubles naturally arise as the mystery behind Kawashima comes into light and without enough children to keep the junior high open, what will happen to Ruri and her new family after primary school? The lonely, but gentle-hearted Shomei, wants nothing more than to see his daughter Izumi (Nagai Anzu) again, but his history of alcoholism has estranged him from her. Ruri promises Shomei that he'll see her again and she'll do everything she can to help. A reporter from Tokyou shows up during the island's annual festival and doesn't like what he sees. He things the citizens of the island are only thinking of themselves and not the foster children they're bringing to live there. Various situations like these arise for the characters on Hitomijima island, but the biggest concern shows itself when Ruri's mother returns. What does she want? And will Ruri be able to stay with her new family and the people she's grown so close to?

It's situations like the one's I described above that made me really enjoy Ruri no Shima, because they aren't too "out there" or far-fetched. They're simple, yet realistic issues that are told in a believable way by a wonderful cast. The relationship's that develop amongst the characters are some of the best I've seen in a drama series and are really the strength of the show. I'll be honest, I found myself reaching for a Kleenex during the final episode and there are certainly other moments that are filled with emotion as well. The real stand-outs of the show for me were the characters of Ruri, Tatsuya, Shomei and the relationship the three of them shared. Ruri no Shima does a fine job of showing the warmth and possibility within people, and while you may not get non-stop action in every episode, you'll definitely get a lot of heart. (Lee)

Ruri no Shima MV with clips from the series

Buy the Ruri no Shima DVD Box-Set from YESASIA! (*No English Subtitles)

The Official Ruri no Shima Website *In Japanese