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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again a little Woo goes a long way: The Killer (1989).

The Killer is a 1989 Hong Kong crime film written and directed by John Woo and starring Chow Yun-Fat, Danny Lee and Sally Yeh.  Chow is triad assassin Ah Jong, who accidentally damages the eyes of the Jennie (Sally Yeh) with his gun’s muzzle flash during one of his hits.  He later discovers that if Jennie does not have an expensive operation she will go blind.  To get the money for Jennie, Ah Jong decides to perform one last hit—and it will indeed be his last.

A police detective, Li Ying (Danny Lee), spots the assassin completing the job but he escapes.  Triad leader Hay Wong Hoi double crosses Ah Jong, and instead of paying him, sends a group of hitmen to kill him.  During Ah Jong’s escape from the Triad, a young child is injured by a stray bullet.  After dispatching the attackers, Ah Jong rushes the child to the hospital while being followed by Li and his partner Sgt. Tsang.  Once the child regains consciousness at the casualty ward, Ah Jong escapes Li and Tsang who becomes obsessed with Fat’s act of goodwill.

The detectives stakeout Jennie at her apartment and plan to arrest him the next time he visits her.  Ah Jong visits Jennie and is caught in an ambush from which he manages to scramble away.  Li and Tsang explain to Jennie that Ah Jong was the assassin who blinded her at the nightclub. Ah Jong meets with his Triad manager, Fung Sei (Chu Kong), and demands his payment for finishing the job.  Fung Sei brings a suitcase for Ah Jong, who discovers it to be filled with sheets of blank paper before finding himself in the middle of a Triad ambush.  He dispatches all of the Triads, but leaves his old friend Fung Sei alive.  The next day, after Fung Sei’s pleas for Wong Hoi fall on deaf ears, Ah Jong does a fantastic hit-and-run on Wong Hoi’s car, wounding the Triad leader and killing his driver and bodyguard.

Li begins to close-in on Ah Jong after Tsang follows Fung Sei; Tsang is killed after revealing the location of his home.  Because of their friendship, Fung Sei leaves a large stockpile of weaponry for Ah Jong.  The home is another ambush; Li is first to attack followed by a group of Triad hitmen. Li gets caught in the middle of the crossfire between Ah Jong and the Triad.  Ah Jong and Li flee, and while Ah Jong’s wounds are mended, they find themselves bonding and becoming friends– it seems strangers can make good bedfellows.  Ah Jong tells Li that should anything happen to him, Li should try to have Ah Jong’s eyes donated for Jennie’s surgery; otherwise, he is to use Ah Jong’s money to fly her overseas to have her surgery performed by more experienced doctors.

Li, Ah Jong, and Jennie wait in a church for Fung Sei to return with Ah Jong’s money.  Fung Sei arrives with the money, horribly beaten by Wong Hoi’s gangsters who have followed him.  He is mortally wounded when the hitmen barge into the church.  After Ah Jong ends Fung Sei’s misery, he and Li engage in a long and bloody shootout with the Triad all over the church. The battle ends with a Mexican standoff between Ah Jong, Li and Wong Hoi.  Ah Jong manages to wound Wong Hoi, but the Triad leader lands two bullets in Ah Jong’s eyes before the latter dies of his wounds.  When a police squadron arrives in the scene, Wong Hoi begs to be taken into custody.  Frustrated by the outcome of the battle, Li fatally shoots Wong Hoi before he himself is arrested.

The Killer is an important and influential film for both Western and Asian filmmakers.  Film scholars have noted the similarities between Woo’s style and The Killer with the films La Femme Nikita (1990) and Léon (1994) directed by French director Luc Besson.  Kenneth E. Hall described Léon as having the similar character configuration of a hitman and the person he protects. In Nikita, the main character’s crisis of conscience after performing a number of hits is also seen in The Killer.  And, not surprisingly, Quentin Tarantino developed films that were influenced by The Killer.  In the film Jackie Brown, Tarantino wrote dialog referencing The Killer.  No references to the film are made in the original novel.

The Killer was also influential in hip hop music.  American hip hop artist, and Wu-Tang Clan member Raekwon released his critically praised debut album Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. (1995) that sampled numerous portions of dialog from the film.  RZA, the producer of the album described the albums themes by stating that “Rae and Ghost was two opposite guys as far as neighborhoods were concerned, I used John Woo’s The Killer.  You got Chow Yun Fat and Danny Lee.  They have to become partners to work shit out.”  Woo apparently felt honored that the group sampled The Killer and asked for no monetary return from them.

Director John Woo has described The Killer as being about “honor and friendship,” “trying to find out if there is something common between two people” and as a “romantic poem.”  The structure of the film follows two men on the opposite side of the law who find a relation to each other in their opposition of a greater evil, Wong Hoi, the leader of the Triad.  The relationship between the two main characters was influenced by the Spy vs. Spy comics from Alfred E Newman’s Mad Magazine.  It is reported that Woo recalled “when I was young I was fascinated with the cartoon–I love it very much…the white bird and the black bird are always against each other, but deep in their heart, they are still friendly, and the idea came from that.”

Though the film received praise and box office success outside of Hong Kong, The Killer’s success around the world made several Hong Kong filmmakers jealous: “It created a certain kind of resentment in the Hong Kong film industry.  One thing I can say for sure is, the American, European, Japanese, Korean and even the Taiwanese audiences and critics appreciated The Killer a lot more than it was in Hong Kong.”

Naturally because of Hollywood’s lack of imagination, an American remake of the killer is in the works.  Director John H Lee will be remaking the film which is supposed to take place in Chinatown, Korea town and south-central Los Angeles.  Luckily, the remake will be produced by John Woo and is set to be filmed in 3-D.  Let’s be honest, a remake of John Woo’s The Killer was inevitable.  While this flick may not be as well-loved as Woo’s Hard Boiled it’s still a master class in acting, heroic bloodshed and ultra-violent gunplay.  Unfortunately, US audiences largely refuse to see films created in other countries probably because they can’t read subtitles not to mention anything starring a non-white actor, or, failing that, Will Smith, so it’s almost surprising that it’s taken this long for Hollywood to decide that the film ought to be recreated with a white lead and an American setting.

My guess is the remake will be a piece of film junk that only insults the original masterpiece created by Woo in the late 1980’s.  With any luck, however, it may be as good as the remake of Death of Samurai released last year.  But I’m not betting on it.

What can you say about this movie?  It was powerful, influential and ahead of its time much like many of John Woo’s films.  One of JPFMovies trademark sayings is “a little Woo goes a long way.”  Now imagine what a lot of Woo does and you’ve got The Killer.

 
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Posted by on December 5, 2012 in Movie Reviews

 

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Old Boy (2003) you come out 15 years older after watching this film.

The website “Film School Rejects” recently picked the top 30 movies of the decade and Old Boy (2003) landed in the number 7 slot so I wanted to give it a shot so I would share my respect for this film with you.

The film follows the story of one Oh Dae-su, who is locked in a hotel room for 15 years without knowing his captor’s motives.  That is right for 15 years, stuck in the same hotel room.  No contact with the outside world except TV.  For food, he eats dumplings and every so often, his captors will flood the room with gas that sedates him the same gas apparently that the Russians used on the Chechens during their disputes.  The sedation allows his captors to groom him i.e. cut is hair and fingernails, but also prevents him from committing suicide meaning that someone is constantly watching him.  Oh Dae-su is not the only prisoner at the facility, we are shown that there are in fact others in the same predicament as he is:  stuck in some sort of private prison for as long as the customer wants you there.  No judge, no jury, nothing to get you out of the hotel prison cell.  The concept gives new meaning to the Eagles song hotel California “you can check out but you can never leave.”

While watching his only outlet to the outside world, he learns that his wife has been murdered, a crime for which he is the prime suspect (though he has the perfect alibi), and that his daughter has been adopted.  In addition to his consistent television viewing, Oh Dae-su begins to shadowbox and harden his fists by punching the walls.  As anyone would he pledges revenge on his captor(s) and secretly begins trying to tunnel out of his cell.  Then after 15 years he is released and finds himself on the roof of a building with a cellphone and some money no explanation or any other information about why 15 years of his life were spent in a hotel room. 

At a sushi restaurant, he meets a young woman Mi-do but passes out after boozing it up.  Mi-do takes him to her apartment where Dae-su puts the moves on her.  She explains that she will have sex with her just not now.  Cleverly, they track down the restaurant that supplied the dumplings he ate while imprisoned and use it to discover those who held him captive.  After justifiably threatening the owner, the only explanation for the confinement is that he “talks too much.” Dae-su must fight his way out of the prison past dozens of henchmen using a hammer. 

Then comes the really weird part.  The tail involves incest, rumors and the suicide of others.  Apparently, Oh Dae-su mistakenly spreads the rumor in school that his captor and his sister had an incestuous relationship, which caused false signs of pregnancy and eventual suicide.

 

Eventually we find out that the events surrounding Dae-su were orchestrated, as well as by using a hypnotist, to cause Dae-su and Mi-do to commit incest.  Woo-jin gives Dae-su a photo album. As Dae-su flips through of pictures of his family, he witnesses his daughter grow older in the pictures, until discovering that Mi-do is actually his daughter (the sushi chef).  The warden then betrays Dae-su with a similar photo album ready for Mi-do.  A horrified Dae-su begs Woo-jin to conceal the secret from Mi-do, groveling for forgiveness before slicing out his own tongue as a symbol of his silence.  

We then see Dae-su working with a hypnotist in winter to help him forget the tragic and even evil deeds that he has done or done to him.  Our last glimpse of Dae-su is an expressionless face—no one knows what his fate will be. 

Old Boy is highly credentialed; it won the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival and high praise from the President of the Jury, director Quentin Tarantino.  Voters on CNN named it one of the ten best Asian films ever made.  The film currently has a rating of 8.4 on IMDb, being the highest rated Korean movie and the 88th best movie of all time on IMDb Top 250.  No small feat for a foreign film not made by Kurosawa.  Moreover, an American remake is planned for release in 2013 directed by Spike Lee starring Samuel L. Jackson.  In its country of origin, South Korea, the film was seen by 3,132,000 filmgoers and it ranks fifth place for the highest grossing film of 2003.

What do I think about this film?  It is one hell of a movie.  The film is original, complex and unpredictable, all of the elements I think a good movie should have.  Old Boy is also well cast and has an ending that I believe is intentionally vague generate conversations and differing opinions.  It is a hard film so be ready, but by all means necessary give the Old Boy a try, you might be surprised even if you don’t like foreign films.

 
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Posted by on September 5, 2012 in Movie Reviews

 

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Jackie Brown The One I Didn’t Like or Watch it if You Like Smoking.

Jackie Brown is a 1997 American crime drama film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino.  It is an adaptation of the novel Rum Punch by American novelist Elmore Leonard and pays homage to 1970s blaxploitation films, legend has it the 1974 classic “Foxy Brown.”

The film stars Pam Grier (who also starred in Foxy Brown), Robert Forster, Robert De Niro, Samuel L. Jackson (who appears in every Tarantino film), Bridget Fonda and Michael Keaton.  Jackie Brown was Tarantino’s third film following his accomplished movies Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994).

Grier and Forster were both veteran actors but had not performed in a leading role for years.  As Tarantino often does with his movies, he gave once popular but then obscure actors’ careers a shot in the arm i.e. David Carradine in Kill Bill.  The film won Forster an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor, and Jackson and Grier nominations for Golden Globe Awards.

Despite this strong cast, Jackie Brown is the one Tarantino I think stinks on ice.  Yes, I said it, I don’t like this film at all.  One reason is that I don’t find any real enjoyment in watching someone light a cigarette and take the first drag in slow motion.  The story moves at a snail’s pace, which is as fast as one of the cigarette smoking scenes that riddle the film.

Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) plays a flight attendant for a small Mexican airline as her career takes yet another step down.  To “supplement” her income, she smuggles money into the United States for Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson), a gunrunner on the ATF’s radar big time who learns that one of his workers, Beaumont Livingston (Chris Tucker), has been arrested.  Certain that Livingston will roll over and inform in order to minimize jail time, Ordell arranges for his bail with bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster) and promptly kills Livingston.

Acting on information Livingston had provided, ATF agent Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton) and LAPD detective Mark Dargas (Michael Bowen) intercepts Jackie arriving in the United States with cash and some cocaine.  Brown initially refuses to deal with Nicolette and Dargas, so she is sent to jail on possession of drugs with intent to sell.  Sensing that Jackie may now be just as likely to roll over as Livingston did, Ordell goes back to his main bail man Max to arrange for her bail.  Max arrives to pick her up, clearly is attracted to her and offers to buy her a drink to discuss her legal options.  The “perp” walk Jackie makes from the prison to the gate could be one of the longest walks in the history of film.

Ordell later arrives at Jackie’s house intending to use his tried and true technique of insuring silence by simple murder.  She surprises him by pulling a gun she surreptitiously borrowed from Max’s glove compartment, and then proceeds to broker a deal with Ordell whereby she will pretend to help the authorities while still managing to smuggle $500,000 of Ordell’s money into the country allowing him to retire.  To carry out this plan, Ordell employs Melanie Ralston (Bridget Fonda), a woman he lives with, and Louis Gara (Robert De Niro), a friend and former cellmate.  He also uses a naïve Southern girl, Sheronda (Lisa Gay Hamilton).

In a predictable move, Jackie will help Nicolette and Dargas arrange a sting to catch Ordell. Nicolette and Dargas are unaware that Jackie and Ordell plan to double-cross them by diverting the actual money before the authorities make an arrest.  Unbeknownst to the others, Jackie plans to deceive all of them with the help of Max in order to keep the $500,000 for herself.  A triple cross that only takes a little more than 2.5 hours to unfurl.

In a large shopping mall near Los Angeles, Jackie buys a new suit and enters a dressing room to swap bags with Melanie and Louis, in theory passing off the $500,000 under Nicolette’s nose.  Instead, she gives Melanie only $50,000 and leaves the rest behind in the dressing room for Max to pick up.  Jackie then feigns despair as she claims Melanie took all the money and ran.

In the parking lot, Melanie annoys and mocks Louis until he loses his temper and shoots her while Ordell discovers that Louis has only $40,000 in the bag (Melanie having kept $10,000 for herself after being tricked into doing so by Jackie).  Ordell realizes Jackie has taken his money and, angered, kills Louis and is now concerned with the involvement of Max Cherry, having been told by Louis that he spotted Max in the store before the pickup.  Lured back to Max’s office, where Jackie is said to be frightened and waiting to hand over his money, Ordell arrives armed.  Jackie yells out that Ordell has a gun and he is shot dead by Nicolette, who had been hiding in another room.

In the clear with the law and in possession of the money, minus his usual 10% fee that Max has taken for himself, Jackie wisely decides to leave the country and travel to Spain.  She invites Max to go with her, but he declines before Jackie kisses him goodbye and leaves.

Jackie Brown alludes to Grier’s career in many ways.  The film’s poster resembles those of Grier’s films Coffy and Foxy Brown and includes quotes from both films.  The typeface for the film’s opening titles was also used for those of Foxy Brown; some of the background music is lifted from these films.

Tarantino wanted Pam Grier to play title character Jody in Pulp Fiction, but Tarantino did not believe audiences would find it plausible for drug dealer Eric Stoltz to yell at her.  Apparently when Grier showed up to read for Jackie Brown, Tarantino had posters of her films all over his office.

I’ve always looked at Jackie Brown with a certain disdain.  It is the black sheep of Tarantino’s film family.  This movie has grown old fast though it is still relatively young and has a 1980’s feel and not in a good way.  Reservoir Dogs is 5 years older and looks like it was filmed yesterday.

While it pains me to urinate on this film, I feel I owe it to you.  Also, it’s far too long.  I didn’t expect action throughout the movie but there was nothing: it was just rambling by all the characters and going into (cheap) “deep” analysis about them that was unnecessary and implausible.  Thus Tarantino manages to take a simple plot and drag it out for over 2 hours.  The usual well-paced films we have come to expect from Tarantino is inapplicable to Jackie Brown.  By the end, I just could not care about any of the characters or what happened to them and that is a shame considering the cast of Pam Grier, Robert De Niro, Samuel L Jackson and Bridget Fonda.
The plot is not as thin as a porno but not thick enough to withstand the weight and pretentiousness that Tarantino places upon it.  When the switch comes, over 2 hours in, it is shot with the director’s usual aplomb, from 3 different points of view.  Fair enough (and this is the high point of the film aesthetically) but the actual plotting at this point is poor.  We are to believe that a) the feds will allow their mark to go into a changing room without keeping any sort of tabs on her, and b) that the bondsman, who is known to the villains, will be in plain sight. It all comes across as contrived.

I wanted out after the first hour but felt I owed it to the director to hang in there hoping something—anything would move.  I was wrong about that.  Enjoy the cigarette smoking clips, which to me symbolize the whole film, slow and full of smoke and mirrors.

 

 
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Posted by on February 19, 2012 in Movie Reviews

 

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Yes only 6-8 months late we finally get the Hero review written by none other than Bonnie! Savor this review we had to file suit to get this review done.

Hero is a movie so rich in content that I almost can’t bear to watch it.  In my opinion, nobody should sit down and watch Hero from beginning to end in one sitting.  What you should do is get the DVD of Hero and watch a section at a time.  Better yet, watch each section several times.  This isn’t the kind of movie in which the plot slowly unfolds.  Though yes, it is one of those movies where the plot line is gradually revealed to be radically different than the way in which it was previously presented, even that isn’t the point of Hero.  What is the point?  Visual art painted in motion, the artful juxtaposition of cinematography with not only martial art but also the art of etiquette, ritual and ceremony.

Here is the story.

As the movie opens, we meet Nameless, a Prefect (the lowest rank in the kingdom of Qin).  He has come to let the Qin Emperor know that he has defeated, and killed, the emperor’s three legendary assassins, Sky, Broken Sword, and Flying Snow.  The Emperor, naturally, wants to know how Nameless managed to defeat such peerless warriors.  As Nameless tells the story, we see it unfold — first his telling, then the version told by the Emperor, who is shrewd enough to read between the lines, and then Nameless’ correction of the details overlooked by the Emperor.  The question is, did Nameless truly defeat Sky, Broken Sword, and Flying Snow — or did he conspire with them, convincing them to lay down their lives in order to give him the opportunity to get close enough to the Emperor to have a chance at slaying him?  Or was there a conspiracy, but one in which there was dissension in the ranks?

The answer to all these questions, the real crux of the matter, lies in the question of whether or not it was possible for Sky and Flying Snow to throw their matches with Nameless so skillfully that the Emperor’s own troops could be made eyewitnesses to testify on Nameless’ behalf.  Likewise, was Nameless skillful enough to defeat Sky and Flying Snow by apparently, but not actually, killing them — with a sword stroke so precise that it appears to kill, but allows one’s opponent, later, to be revived?

I’m not going to tell you the rest of the plot, because it is so convoluted that, frankly, you should just watch the movie and see it unfold for yourself.  Let’s move on to the actors, who are incredibly awesome.  This is a star-studded cast.  We have Jet Li (five time Wushu gold medalist) as Nameless.  Donnie Yen, who often stars in films with Jet Li, plays Sky – and these two incomparable martial artists deliver what I consider to be the best scene in the film, the duel between Nameless and Sky.  Broken Sword is played by Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, who you should recognize if you have seen Red Cliff, in which he played Zhou.  (If you have not seen Red Cliff, you are excused from the rest of this review – please take four hours RIGHT NOW to go watch Red Cliff.)  Maggie Cheung, an actress who from the age of 18 has been handed role after role in Hong Kong films without even having to audition, plays Flying Snow.  Because Hero unfolds several different plots for your consideration (and the Qin Emperor’s), each of these actors essentially played at least three different roles.

I can’t speak in any kind of an educated way about the cinematography of this film – I’m not an artist – but I have to bring it up, because it literally makes the film.  Hero’s director, Yimou Zhang, should join the ranks of Kurosawa in film history.  Each scene is Hero is up to Kurosawa’s standards – and that is saying a lot.  These scenes also bring to mind the duel between Uma Thurman and Lucy Liu in Kill Bill (another Quentin Tarantino film, though I am puzzled about Tarantino’s role in Hero – the credits mention him somewhat ambiguously).

Each scene has a color theme, and the actors wear different colors depending on the plot variation that is being acted out.  The use of color in Hero can only be described as exquisite, and it is something that you almost never see in American films.  (Or rather, I have almost never seen it – but I don’t watch as many movies as the rest of you JPFMovies fans.)

And then there are the truly sweet parts of the film.  Nameless and Sky stopping their fight to give coins to the blind Biwa player, asking him to play on as they duel.  The calligraphy teacher telling his students to keep practicing even as arrows rain down through the school’s roof and walls.  Broken Sword’s decision not to block Snow’s fatal sword thrust, just because he needs to make a point.  The lesson being taught again and again here – let’s not miss it, please – is that it’s not about WHETHER you live or die.  It’s about HOW you live or die.  That’s the point of all the etiquette.  It’s not some cute cultural reference or cinematic device – not ultimately – what it’s about, is dignity.  

Some movies are all plot. Some are all about the character development – and/or the cast. Some movies focus purely on cinematography.  Some movies push a strong moral. This movie does it all.

Finally, I know JPFmovies has been waiting a long time (probably more than six months) for this review.  But now do you see why?  Any sort of proper consideration of this movie takes a person in a million different directions.  How can it even fit in a blog post?  In 800 words or so all I have done is to sketch the outlines of Hero for you.  Can you blame me for taking so long to write this?  (JPFmovies can!)

Go forth and watch this rose of a movie, but just a little at a time, as if you were eating a box of chocolates – I know it’s Christmas, but that’s no reason to stuff yourself.

 
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Posted by on December 25, 2011 in Movie Reviews

 

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