Sunday, June 18, 2006

NYAFF: Bollywood WIP's, space monkeys and superhero ninjas

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I went down to the Anthology Film Archives today to check out the New York Asian Film Festival, which proved to be an extremely pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Today's showing was a triple feature, one from India and two from Japan. Before the lights went down, there was a raffle drawing from which I won a DVD copy of a Bollywood actionier called The Hero: Love Story of a Spy. Lucky me.

Et Hasina Thi is part of "No Singing, No Dancing, No Mercy", Subway Cinema's retrospective on Bollywood action/crime/thriller director and producer Ram Gopal Varma, who, according to the blurb on their website, is well-known for his subtle and gritty films which stand out against the majority of Bollywood brightly-colored, musical fiascos. It deals with a shy, buttoned-down travel agent clerk named Sarika (Urmila Mantondkar) who is wooed by hunky, well-to-do Karan (Saif Ali Khan), unaware of the fact that he's actually a gangster. When one of Karan's accomplices stashes his suitcase in her apartment and it's searched by the police, Sarika, terrified to mention her sweetheart's name, takes the rap for it, and gets sentenced to seven years in a rat-infested women's prison. Gradually coming to terms with the fact that she's been screwed over by her fella, she breaks out with a team of other women and proceeds to hunt him down to extract her revenge.

Et Hasina Thi is by no means an uninteresting film. It presents the way a shy woman would take revenge on a former lover as being similar to the way she would ask someone out who she secretly had feelings for; it's not an easy thing to do. Nevertheless, it still felt like it had worn out its welcome by the end of its two-and-a-half-hour running time. After she busts out jail, she spends an awulf lot of time following Karan around in her car, watching him from a distance, giving him angry stares, eventually making contact and pretending to help him, which temporarily puts her in even more danger, and I started to wonder when the heck she was actually going to do him in. As it happens, she's been waiting all along for just the right time, but even so, there's still a lot of this film I would've cut, and at the end, I was pretty glad to stretch my legs. It's an engaging, if sprawly and straightforward thriller that doesn't give you much to chew and meditate on, but that's okay, because the next film they showed was one that really warranted a clear mind and an expectance that anything could happen.



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The next film, Cromartie High School: The Movie, is apparently based off of a popular comedic anime series in Japan. The main character is Kamiyama (Takamasa Suga), the lone straight-laced student at the titular juvenile delinquent school, which is attended not only by punks, slackers, yakuza-wannabes and layabouts but also a gorilla, a robot, and a guy who dresses up like Freddie Mercury. To try and motivate his friends, he forms a Global Defense Team to defend the planet from... something. Their first plan is to rid the streets of drugs by buying them all up, and then curing hunger by donating them all to needy children. When this plan backfires, they then turn their sights on a pair of simian space aliens, Gori and Lla, who scheme to turn everybody in school into a mind-controlled Shaolin fighter.

Directed by Yudai Yamaguchi (Battlefield Baseball, and the screenwriter of Versus), Cromartie High School plays a lot like a series "Kids in the Hall" sketches about the Japanese delinquent school system. There are numerous episodic sub-plots, such as one involving a tough kid Takenouchi (pro wrestler Yoshihiro Takayama) who is so senstive to motion sickness that he helps a couple of incompetant Mexican masked wrestlers to hijack a plane, simply because he doesn't want to fly. There's also a terrific Exorcist parody where a kitten inside the robots head causes him to convulse and projectile-vomit like Linda Blair. Both the episodic, skit-like nature of the film, as well as the acting style is reminiscent of a live-action anime. It's a pretty low-budget film too, which works to its advantage... the dopey costumes and location settings only make the shenanigans onscreen even more funny. This one really had the crowd in stitches, and was easily the best film of the night. After an hour's break during which I went out for some pizza and poodled up and down 2nd Ave. for a spell, it was time for the next movie.

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Shinobi: Heart Under Blade was given the following blurb in the NYAFF's leaflet: “What If the X-Men teamed up with Batman and took on the Justice League who were led by Spider-Man, and the whole thing was directed by Michael Bay who had just gotten a total blood transfusion from Tim Burton and the script was written by Stan Lee?” It's a pretty fitting description of this tale of warring ninja clans with supernatural abilities, which plays like a Feudal Japan period film shot in the style of the best of the recent comic book movies.

Infused with a Romeo and Juliet-like core, Kouga (Jo Odagiri) and Oboro (Nakama Yukie) are lovers from opposing clans who are reluctantly selected to lead teams of of their clans' best warriors against one another, by order of the Shogun, who wants to wipe out both Shinobi tribes for good. Kouga leads his team into the woods, hoping to reach the Shogun and convince him to end the fighting. Both he and Oboro want peace for their people, but their teammates and everyone else in their village have trained and prepared and harbored their grudges so long that they can't possibly imagine a world where they're not at war. And so, the Shinobi teams battle each other in the woods, and we see get to see their "special abilities" on display.

The interesting thing about this movie is that it's played completely straight, with a high level of melodrama a la Hero and House of Flying Daggers, but the Shinobis' special abilities are copyright-infringingly similar to the powers of famous DC and Marvel Comics superheroes. We have a guy who can run at super-speed like The Flash, a woman with Jean Grey-inspired "Eyes of Destruction", a skinny, gothic-looking fellow with long, fringed sleeves that he can grab stuff with like Spider-Man, and a woman with a lethal kiss, not entirely dissimilar to Poison Ivy. There are TWO Wolverine-inspired characters, a swordfighter who can repair his wounds at astonishing speeds, and a feral wild-man with claws that come out of his knuckles. Of course, they also all possess the incredble jumping, fighting, blocking, and throwing skills typical of wu xia characters. Derivative, sure, but still beautifully shot and wonderful to watch, and worlds better than quite a lot of American comic book movies (X-Men 3, for instance) It's certainly about as different from Cromartie High School as you can get (and Et Hasina Thi, for that matter), but oddly enough, these three films played really well with each other. They're all playing again too, next week at the ImaginAsian, so if you're interested be sure and check out Subway Cinema's schedule.

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My friend Doug has been hyping up Shinobi for a while; I'll have to borrow his copy, it sounds like fun.

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