Movie Review – Summer 1993

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EXPECTATIONS: An illuminating look at one’s childhood.

REVIEW: It is perfectly reasonable to believe that the majority of the world sees cinema as a temporary reprieve of the burdens of the outside world. We all see enjoyably bombastic things that would never occur in real-life like dragons, magic, aliens, sea creatures; features that are proven to provide examples of powerful cinema.

But on the other side of the spectrum, witnessing stories that are incredibly realistic and true-to-life can also provide examples of powerful cinema. Case in point: Carla Simon‘s directorial debut, Summer 1993.

Receiving full critical acclaim from various film festivals around the world, it was selected as the Spanish entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 90th Academy Awards (but it wasn’t nominated). Will the film live up to its sterling reputation?

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In the summer of 1993, following the death of her parents, six-year old Frida (Laia Artigas) is forced from bustling Barcelona to the Catalan provinces to live with her aunt (Bruna Cusí) and uncle (David Verdaguer), her new legal guardians.

The couple’s own daughter Anna (Paula Robles), even younger than Frida, welcomes her new sister with open arms without an ounce of jealousy, but Frida has a hard time coping with her emotions in her new chapter of her life.

Even as the new family begins to find some semblance of balance, the nature of her parents’ passing casts a shadow over how Frida is treated by the local community. Indeed, her life will never be the same.

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A complete surprise in the best of ways, Summer 1993 is one of the best films of 2018. Let’s begin to discuss why that is. The many themes in the film of death, loss, loneliness are dealt with subtlety, nuance, honesty and conviction from Carla Simon‘s direction.

Her filmmaking immerses the audience into the story, making them feel the summer heat (thanks to cinematographer Santiago Racaj), hear the sounds of nature like the gusts of wind and the insects buzzing (thanks to the sound editor Roger Blasco), the awkwardness and the slow-burn tension of the many conflicting emotions of the lead character.

Since the story is somewhat autobiographical to her life experiences as a child, she pulls one hell of a trick to convey those themes from the perspective of a six-year old girl. Not to mention the nature of the death as well as the reputation of Frida’s parents and the time the story is set. In one particular scene, one mother even her daughter away in terror when Frida cuts her knee, scared that she might be contagious.

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The film also becomes brutally honest, as we follow the actions of Frida, as she contemplates how to get some of the affection that is embraced upon her younger cousin, Anna. The passive aggression and jealousy causes her to be selfish and sometimes, shockingly cruel, especially in a scene that involves a lake that will definitely draw gasps from the audience.

But none of this would work if we don’t believe in or empathize with the lead characters and Simon succeeds with flying colours, as she gets captivating performances from her child actors. In interviews, director Simon said that she simply gave direction during shooting just by standing next to the camera, giving instructions.

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It was something that easy that gave us two fantastic lead actresses in both Laia Artigas and Paula Robles. Both deliver likable, believable and thankfully, naturalistic performances that lend the film the authenticity and they never act to the camera in a precocious fashion. The supporting cast consisting of Bruna Cusí and David Verdaguer, do a great job lending credibility to the film, but the stars of the film are Artigas and Robles.

What is best about Summer 1993 is that Simon never makes the film mawkishly sentimental. Every emotional moment feels genuine and earned without resorting to histrionics, blatant overuse of the stirring musical score and especially the lead performers acting all cutesy just to wring a few more tears out of the audience.

Featuring fantastic performances from its cast, sensitive and illuminating direction from director Carla Simon and an assuredly humanistic look on the mindset of a child, Summer 1993 is one of 2018’s best films. Please go see this film because if we don’t see the films that deserve it, we get the films that we deserve.

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Laia Artigas, Paula Robles, Bruna Cusí, David Verdaguer, Fermi Reixach, Isabel Rocatti
Director: Carla Simon
Screenwriters: Carla Simon

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Movie Review – Ice Cream and the Sound of Raindrops (Nippon Connection 18)

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EXPECTATIONS: An interesting filmmaking experiment as well as an entertaining exploration on the vigor of youth.

REVIEW: Japanese director Daigo Matsui is an acclaimed filmmaker who has always specialized in the youth of Japan. Whether it is about the lure and folly of social media like in the music-video motif film Wonderful World End, the enthusiasm and passion of youth in the road comedy Our Huff and Puff Journey and as something as innocuous as puberty in the seemingly comical Sweet Poolside, Matsui knows his way around.

After his anarchic and ambitious comedy/drama Japanese Girls Never Die, we now have his latest film, Ice Cream and the Sound of Raindrops, an ambitious piece that gained certain buzz due to being filmed entirely in a single take. Does the film succeed above its gimmick and become more of a substantial entry in Matsui’s filmography?

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Based on a true story, six boys and girls (the entire cast play themselves) are chosen through auditions to act in a play of “Morning” by Simon Stephens. Through the course of a month, the cast and crew try really hard to prepare for the scheduled play.

Unfortunately, one of the producers informs them that the play is cancelled due to lack of interest, which shocks the group, making them blame each other for the failure. But one of them declares to the group to continue on rehearsing, regardless of the cancellation.

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Ice Cream and the Sound of Raindrops is an interesting experiment, as it showcases Matsui’s stellar direction whilst playing around with the artifices of filmmaking in a mischievous way.

One amusing example is the fact that the film has a musical score and yet the music is played live by MOROHA, throughout. Not only is it quite funny, due to some very funny and yet truthful lyrics, but it does convincingly delve deep into the character’s emotions convincingly.

Since the film involves rehearsals as well as real-life events, Matsui plays with the aspect ratio, changing from 1.85:1 to 2.35:1 from time to time to differentiate the difference, although in the later stages of the film, it does become quite disorienting, which was Matsui’s intent.

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While it does showcase the many conflicting emotions that today’s youth go through (the play itself involves a murder due to jealousy and resentment), it also provides an ample showcase for the thespian skills of the cast, who all give great performances.

Kokoro Morita, in particular, fills the many facets of her character, whether it’s giving an intentionally bad performance to showing heartfelt emotions but most important of all, switching those emotions on and off convincingly and seamlessly, Morita does a great job.

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Speaking of being seamless, major props must go to director Daigo Matsui and cinematographer Hiroki Shioya. The sheer meticulousness both the camera choreography and the blocking create a thrilling experience that makes it easy for the audience to immerse themselves into the story. When the film ends, you can just see and feel the exhaustion from everyone involved and when the credits come up, don’t feel surprised if you end up having the urge to cheer.

As for its flaws, the shifts between reality and rehearsal can be quite jarring. Since it clocks in at 74 minutes, it is safe to assume that the film can be seen as slight (like this review). But as an experience in both filmmaking as well as whom the characters represent, Ice Cream and the Sound of Raindrops is a film worth running out for.

“We are the cosmos made conscious!”

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Quickie Review

PROS

The camerawork and performances synchronize together so well

Cast give great performances

Matsui’s direction lends credibility to themes about youth in Japan

CONS

Shifts between fantasy and reality can be quite jarring

May be seen as slight or insubstantial

SCORE: 7.5/10

Cast: Kokoro MORITA, Reiko TANAKA, Taketo TANAKA, Yuzu AOKI, Guama
Director: Daigo Matsui
Screenwriters: Daigo Matsui

Movie Review – Holiday (Sydney Film Fest 2018)

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EXPECTATIONS: A gory fun time, with a feminine aesthetic on brutal violence, similar to Coralie Fargeat‘s Revenge.

REVIEW: Have you ever seen a film that was so unexpected in its brutality and its disturbing content that you found it unforgettable? Well, one such example that I’ve seen recently was Isabella Eklof‘s Holiday. Judging from the poster, you would expect some sort of exploitative saga about a woman in trouble, but through Eklof’s eyes, it is nothing like that at all, and that is what makes it all the more haunting than one could ever imagine.

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Young, vibrant and presumably naive Sascha (Victoria Carmen Sonne) is the new girlfriend of drug dealer Michael (Lai Yde). She joins Michael and a group of friends on a luxury holiday in Turkey, but must accept that this decadent lifestyle comes at a cost, as such is shown in a scene where Sascha overspends on the credit card near the beginning of the film. Also, not least that her own position within this supposed family is as just another prized possession to be owned and displayed by Michael.

While Michael busy with criminal activities that can have him affording all the decadence, Sascha befriends Thomas (Thijs Römer), a man sailing the Mediterranean by himself. Michael is quickly shown to be violent, abusive, and controlling. He has an explicit code of trust and mercilessly punishes those that breach it (like in a scene of violence that is only heard off-screen).

When Sascha needs a break from Michael, she calls Thomas and begins courting him without ever revealing her relationship. This causes major problems when Michael spots her going to visit Thomas.

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There are a few films that come to mind when watching Holiday. One of them is Gaspar Noe‘s Irreversible, which is a crime-drama revenge tale that is told in reverse and the film is infamous for its elongated rape sequence. Holiday also has a elongated rape scene that changes the entire tone of the story and makes the outlook of the characters change drastically.

Another example is Catherine Breillat‘s Fat Girl, where both films, after the shocking sexual violence happens, all storytelling expectations or tropes are thrown out the window. Nothing will go what audiences will think happen and none of the future events happen only for shock value, but are still unbelievably and irredeemably human. None of the characters are explained due to backstories nor flashbacks; but there is a human element in each of them that can be quite empathetic.

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For a film that has subject matter that is pitch-black dark, Eklof and cinematographer Nadim Carlsen lense the film so bright, so vivid and so crisp, that it almost feels like it is a veneer for something sinister; something that is lurking underneath the surface that looks to good to be true.

And that sort of subversion applies to the characters. Despite what Sascha goes through, she is never portrayed as a victim nor as a person that pleads for help. She adapts to the environment that she inhabits in and plays with the cards that she is dealt with. But there are yearnings that she has; as evidenced in scenes with Thomas and how she interacts with him.

Or in another scene set in a nightclub where she stares at herself in the mirror, looking conflicted about whether to become her believed best self and her honest self. But the gradual character arc she goes through becomes gradually toxic and morally perplexing, that it becomes just as unbearable to watch as the violence, particularly when the film reaches its climax.

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Victoria Carmen Sonne does very well in portraying Sascha, guiding her through the character arc convincingly and never resorts to histrionics nor endearing herself to the audience. She gets deep into the dark nature of the film (both physically and mentally, in such brave terms) and conveys her character honestly, making the film effective in shocking the audience due to what she goes through.

Lai Yde is incredibly scary as the gangster, Michael, mainly due to how he underplays the role. At times, he can be quite charismatic and brutish and jovial, but like the film’s glossy exterior, there is something underneath the surface just waiting to come out, and Yde gives it his all, giving a compellingly repentant performance that is hard to watch, yet difficult to look away from.

Holiday is a morally repugnant, shockingly apathetic and yet strangely alluring piece of work from Isabella Eklof that is sure to shock and provide food-for-thought to adventurous filmgoers. Just be sure to have a strong stomach, because this is definitely not for the faint-hearted. Hesitantly recommended.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Great, uncompromising direction from Isabella Eklof

Convincing performances from the two leads

Thought-provoking moral dilemma adds punch to the story

The storytelling is very subversive, throwing the audience off

CONS

The shocking violence will repel people away

A bit of a slog to get through

SCORE: 7/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Victoria Carmen Sonne, Lai Yde, Thijs Römer, Adam Ild Rohweder, Yuval Segal, Stanislav Sevcik, Morten Hemmingsen, Bo Brønnum, Michiel de Jong, Saxe Rankenberg Frey, Laura Kjær
Director: Isabella Eklöf
Screenwriters: Isabella Eklöf, Johanne Algren

Movie Review – The Heiresses (Sydney Film Fest 2018)

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EXPECTATIONS: None.

REVIEW: If one were to classify this film briefly, The Heiresses could be seen a cross between Wong Kar-wai‘s Happy Together and Albert and David MayslesGrey Gardens. As Kar-wai says about the title of his film, being happy together is being happy with oneself, and it is within that context is where the journey in The Heiresses comes from.

The story follows the lives of Chela (Ana Brun) and Chiquita (Margarita Irun), whom have both descended from wealthy families in Asuncion, Paraguay. The two have been together for 30 years but recently their finances has worsened and they begin selling off their inherited possessions. But when their debts lead to Chiquita being imprisoned on fraud charges, Chela is forced to live a new phase of her life that would force her out of her shell.

Driving for the first time in years, she begins to provide a local taxi service to a group of elderly wealthy ladies, despite her pride. As Chela settles into her new life, she encounters the much younger Angy, forging a new and exciting connection. Chela finally begins to contemplate on her past and starts to ponder major decisions for her future.

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Now that may seem like a depressing story to trudge through, but the characters are well-realized, the performances are compellingly naturalistic and the storytelling is assured and even has a welcome dash of humour, thanks to the sharp, acerbic performance by Marina Martins.

The social context of social status and privileges in Paraguay’s elitist zeitgeist (which is still quite prevalent today) adds a certain punch to the characterizations. In the case of Chela, she is shy of the outside world (and could be suffering from chronic depression) and what it has to offer and yet within the metaphorical shell she has nestled in, she has a sense of pride with what she has before and even after her possessions are taken away.

The storytelling never ventures through predictability nor gets buried in its various subplots and the characters’ growth veers the same way. There are enjoyable moments of intimacy and tenderness like the interactions between Chela and Angy (as well as the housemaid, Pita) that signal the character progression of the former but said attention should also be paid towards the shot selections, which deviate from POV shots and handheld towards more open shots (courtesy of cinematographer Luis Armando Artega), as well as the costume design and make-up, which conveys the gradual vivacity of Chela.

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But none of those things would be effective if it weren’t for the performances. The majority of the cast are all newcomers or those with relatively little acting experience. Brun is understated and yet magnetic in the way she conveys foreign sensations using her expressive face like fear, hurt and hopefulness with aplomb.

Irun is good as Chiquita, the much more grounded of the pair (who can handle the harshness of life more capably) and as mentioned earlier, Martins is a hoot as Pituca, an older neighbour who selfishly berates Chela to drive her to her ladies’ card games. But the other standout of the film is Ana Ivanova as Angy. Convincingly confident, fierce and comfortably sensual, she shares an enjoyable and lovely rapport with Brun.

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While the film may be a bit too understated for its own good (which can test the audience’s patience) and the metaphors may be a bit blatant (one scene involves a spill of a intricately set platter), the film scores mightily with a satisfying ending that achieves what it exactly sets out to do, with a sense of ambiguity as well as a sense of catharsis.

Overall, The Heiresses is a quiet, understated and yet compelling piece of work that is brimming with intimacy, naturalistic performances, assured storytelling and the tactful use of thematically rich subtext. Recommended.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Great naturalistic performances from the cast

Strong storytelling, with the social backdrop lending the story punch

Assured direction keeps story on course and tone in check

CONS

Some visual metaphors are quite blatant

May be a bit too understated for its own good

SCORE: 8/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Ana Brun, Margarita Irún, Ana Ivanova, Alicia Guerra, Nilda Gonzalez, María Martins
Director: Marcelo Martinessi
Screenwriters: Marcelo Martinessi

Movie Review – Believer

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EXPECTATIONS: A vastly different, yet satisfying remake of Johnnie To’s Drug War.

REVIEW: Everyone knows how I feel about remakes, being mostly unnecessary and the ones that stand out strive to be different and so on, yada-yada-yada. Therefore, I won’t be singing the same tune again.

In the case of Lee Hae-young’s Believer, it is a remake of Johnnie To’s stellar crime-thriller Drug War, a film that stood out due to To’s fantastic direction that not only makes thrills with its boilerplate procedural narrative but also sidestepping Chinese film censorship, which is no easy feat.

Believer doesn’t have those obstacles but just the elephant in the room; being that it is a remake of a critically acclaimed film. It can be a simple cut-and-paste of the original, or it will make a deviation from it and stand out from the crowd. That’s where director Lee Hae-young comes in.

Standing out with his directorial debut, the delightfully strange comedy-drama Like a Virgin, which involves a trans-woman who competes in Korean wrestling in order to win money to pay for her sex change operation. That alone already sounds like the type of director who takes the road less traveled. With a talented cast (including the late Kim Joo-hyuk) and crew in tow, will Believer be a remake that finally stands out?

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Basically following the framework of Drug War, the film follows detective Won-ho (Cho Jin-woong) who, to bring down the boss of Asia’s biggest drug cartel, conspires with a drug pusher named Rak (Ryu Jun-yeol) who is a lowly member of the gang seeking revenge against the boss, Mr. Lee, who has never been truly seen as many people out there claim to be him.

From the second the film started, it is very clear that Believer isn’t a straight cut-and-paste remake of Drug War. Taking a different approach in comparison to the almost laser-focused procedural pacing of Johnnie To’s film, Lee Hae-young’s film takes on a more stylish and cinematic approach, adding dimensions to the lead characters, utilizing more unorthodox shot placements (one used on the revolving platter), adding more gore and prurience and making the villains even more larger-than-life (courtesy of actors Kim Joo-hyuk and Cha Seung-won, as a new character not in the original).

In simpler terms, director Lee and scriptwriter Chung Seo-kyung (a collaborator for the acclaimed director Park Chan-wook) takes the framework of Drug War and puts a lot more “movie” into it. Cinematographer Kim Tae-kyung lenses the film stylishly with great results and the propulsive electronic score by Dalpapan adds a lot of energy to the proceedings.

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And on that note, Believer succeeds overall. Starting from the smaller details, the humour is more from the macabre variety, rather than the dark humour in Drug War, and it lends some ample laughs. Whether it’s a character that uses his tongue for more than just profane swearing or a particular use of gore that is reminiscent of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the depravity is sure to startle and induce awkward laughter.

The characters are more overstated than in the original and the actors are more than up to the task in portraying them up to eleven. Last seen in roles like the perverted stepfather in The Handmaiden and the fiendish villain in A Hard Day, Cho Jin-woong fits into the role of Won-ho like a glove and while the script initially gives him an emotional throughline to play with via a character death, it’s largely forgotten until the ending.

Ryu Jun-yeol, fresh from the biggest Korean film of 2017, A Taxi Driver, is compellingly enigmatic as the taciturn Rak. Since the drama is pumped up, the relationship between Won-ho and Rak is put into the spotlight but unfortunately, it’s not developed very much beyond petty squabbles about mistrust and dependence on one another. It also doesn’t help that it’s overshadowed by the vast amount of quirky characters i.e. the villains. And it’s because of that, the contemplative ending, which is incredibly out of place with everything that proceeded it, falls flat.

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But the actors who play the villains do their very best to compensate and they are definitely the most entertaining parts of the film. The late Kim Joo-hyuk gives a spectacular performance as the deranged Ha-Rim, who can be set off by something innocuous as the noise of a LED light bulb. Park Hae-joon is entertainingly boisterous as Sun-chang, a lieutenant of Mr. Lee who can’t keep his mouth shut.

Others include Jin Seo-yeon, who is hot-headed as Bo-ryeong, Ha-rim’s eccentric and fanatical (of Lee Min-ho, of course) girlfriend, while Cha Seoung-won effectively plays Brian, a drug-peddling minister/estranged son of a dead industrialist with a bit of a screw loose. Best of all are Kim Dong-young and Lee Joo-young as deaf/mute brother-and-sister (unlike the two mute brothers in Drug War) drug cooks who are amusingly menacing in dirty clothing, firing off machine guns as well as bicker in hilariously exaggerated sign language.

But the majority of the female characters (apart from Lee Joo-young and Kang Seung-hyun as a member of Won-ho’s team) are portrayed problematically, including the character of Bo-ryeong. Whether they are meant to be leered at as eye candy or only serve as a plot device/character motivator, it’s a problem that not only brings down Believer, but other South Korean films, especially V.I.P.

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The action, which most of it is in the third act, is well-done and ferocious as many South Korean action films can be. Although none of the action scenes are immaculate as in Drug War, it relies on more of an extravagant approach (including scenes of hand-to-hand combat) that works. And there are scenes that are intensely gripping, the stand-out being an elaborate undercover scheme involving scripting and acting skills that shows ,like in Stephen Chow’s King Of Comedy, that undercover cops are the best actors.

And speaking of the best, Believer is the best we could’ve hoped for a remake nowadays. Retaining the framework of the original whilst going on its own path, the cast and crew all deserve kudos for their genuine effort, even if the destination is not as satisfying as the journey. And it serves as a substantial swan song for Kim Joo-hyuk, who steals the show with his towering performance.

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Quickie Review

PROS

The cast give good performances, especially Kim Joo-hyuk

Macabre sense of humour lends plenty of laughs

Quirky supporting characters add loads of fun

Well-executed action, gripping scenes of tension and good pacing

CONS

Problematic portrayal of female characters

Ill-fitting ending

Ineffective human drama between two leads

SCORE: 7/10

Cast: Cho Jin-woong, Ryu Jun-yeol, Kim Joo-hyuk, Kim Sung-ryung, Park Hae-joon, Cha Seung-won, Jin Seo-yeon, Kang Seung-hyun, Seo Hyun-woo, Kim Dong-young, Lee Joo-young, Jung Ga-ram
Director: Lee Hae-young
Screenwriters: Chung Seo-kyung, Lee Hae-young, based on Johnnie To’s Drug War

Movie Review – Birds Without Names

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EXPECTATIONS: A compelling dramatic mystery filled with grit. And also, YU AOI!!!!!!!!

REVIEW: Director Kazuya Shiraishi is a filmmaker that has gone of a bit a rise these past few years. Since his breakout hit with the 2013 crime drama The Devil’s Path, from 2016, he’s made five films and they have all revolved or worked alongside on one specific type of genre: the crime film.

Whether he makes a comedy like Twisted Justice, or an erotic drama like Dawn of the Felines, or in the case of this review, a romantic drama, Shiraishi is bound to add a certain amount of grit to make his work stand out.

And now we have Birds Without Names, a romantic drama that revolves around a murder mystery based on a novel by Mahokaru Numata, with a fantastic cast and actress extraordinaire Yu Aoi in the lead role. Will the film stand out and become another stellar entry into Shiraishi’s filmography?

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Yu Aoi stars as the 33-year-old Towako, a woman who has been scrounging off room and board off her live-in-boyfriend, Jinji (Sadao Abe). Jinji is a timid 48-year-old construction worker who keeps Towako fed and clothed while basically not being the boyfriend of the year due to his lack of cleanliness and at one point in the film, his lack of finesse on how to use the toilet.

Towako doesn’t give really care about Jinji, to the point where she verbally abuses him repeatedly. Nevertheless, she needs him to survive. Jinji is submissive and endures the humiliation to keep Towako, while Towako still pines for her ex-lover Shunichi (Yutaka Takenouchi), who broke up with her 8 years ago in a monstrously ugly fashion.

Towako has a weakness for sophisticated looking men, and when Jinji is not around, she sneaks off to love hotels with her current lover, Makoto (Tori Matsuzaka), a married man, who is of course in a designer suit. All of these relationships will coalesce when it is reported to Towako that Shunichi has gone missing.

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Does the film live up to Shiraishi’s stellar filmography? Not only does it accomplish that feat, it might actually be his best film yet. Birds Without Names is based on a novel of the same name by Mahokaru Numata, the famous female author who specializes in crime stories that feature manipulative men, brutal women and complicated relationships; basically the dark side of human nature.

Which makes it the perfect source material for Shiraishi to adapt and expand his directorial range. To manage a story like this, a good director would apply an understated approach to the storytelling and thankfully, Shiraishi is up to the task. Learning from his mistakes with his heavy-handed storytelling in The Devil’s Path, he manages to tell the story at a measured pace which effectively brings out a gradual sense of tension; by ably showing reliance on visual storytelling (for the most part) that compels and most of all, being able to milk great performances out of the committed cast.

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Yu Aoi gives one of the best performances of her career as Towako, a depressed and gradually unstable woman who has not moved on from her past boyfriend, who had treated her monstrously. She never tries to make her character sympathetic and delves into the poisonous flaws of her character with aplomb. There’s a point in the film where she really looks like she is about to burst with emotions and it’s a wonder to behold.

Sadao Abe is equally as good, playing a character who’s hangdog behaviour and naivety make him become the glue of the film that holds it together. He may be the most sympathetic character by default, but he also does irredeemable actions that make him flawed, just like Towako. The supporting cast are no slouches, with Yutaka Takenouchi lending credibility and nuance to an incredibly despicable character and Tori Matsuzaka who capably shows shades of his character being more than what his facade conveys.

As for the flaws, there is a through-line of casual misogyny that will definitely put off some viewers. Especially in the case of Towako’s behaviour, where she basically allows the bad behaviour of the male characters to happen and even gets in on it to harm other women i.e. Shunichi’s wife.

But there is the ending to consider, which is quite touching and compelling to the point where it will make audiences re-evaluate what they thought of the characters prior to the climax.

Overall, Birds Without Names is a great piece of work from Kazuya Shiraishi, that not only succeeds as a great romantic drama but as an actors showcase for all involved, especially Yu Aoi.

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Quickie Review

PROS

The cast all give fantastic performances, with a career-best from Yu Aoi

Measured, nuanced storytelling

Never shies away nor pulls any punches from the dark nature of the story

CONS

Moments of misogyny

Polarizing ending

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Yu Aoi, Sadao Abe, Tori Matsuzaka, Yutaka Takenouchi, Eri Murakawa, Masaaki Akahori, Muck Akazawa, Shu Nakajima
Director: Kazuya Shiraishi
Screenwriters: Taeko Asano, based on the novel of the same name by Mahokaru Numata

Movie Review – Be With You (2018) [Far East Film Festival 20]

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EXPECTATIONS: A remake that would equal the original Japanese film.

REVIEW: When one reviews a remake, is it possible to do so without talking about the original assuming if one knows about the original in the first place? Absolutely not. When the remake has the same story and the same name, how can one not talk about it?

In recent times, South Korea has remade Asian films such as Junichi Mori’s Little Forest and Yoshihiro Nakamura’s Golden Slumber. And in the upcoming times, audiences will also get Believer, which is a remake of Johnnie To’s crime-thriller Drug War. And as expected, the overall critical response is mixed. The former has received positive reviews while the latter has received a more negative response.

While Believer remains to be seen, now we have a remake of Nobuhiro Doi’s 2004 romantic drama, Be With You called…well, you get the idea. With a talented cast, a first-time director and the fact that South Korean film specializes in melodramas, how can this remake go wrong?

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The film starts off with the telling of a fairy tale, detailing the story about a mother who makes a promise to her loved ones that she will come back to life to revisit them.

From there we go to Soo-ah (Son Ye-jin), a loving housewife who before passing away makes an unbelievable promise to her husband, Woo-jin (So Ji-sub), to return one year later on a rainy day.

Miraculously, she keeps the promise and reappears before her husband and son but all her memories have disappeared. Tragically, the relief at their reunion is short-lived, because it turns out that Soo-ah has to leave her family once again.

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Does the film stand out on its own as well as being a proficient remake? The answer unfortunately is no. With most remakes, the problem is simple: they don’t stand-out from their inspiration. The best parts of the film are the parts where the original succeeded in, which means that director Lee Jang-hoon knew what made the original work. Scenes relating to the past, with young love are executed well, particularly with the young actors Lee You-jin and Kim Hyun-soo.

And the problematic parts of the film are the parts that were already present in the original (manipulative musical score and suspension of disbelief) and where the filmmakers try to embellish the story with individual elements. The original film is 13 minutes shorter than the remake, which basically means there are 13 minutes of footage that easily could’ve been cut out. Scenes like the telling of the fantasy story and the scene early in the film involving the father and his health feel blatant in what needs to be conveyed.

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Few of the embellishing moments of the film are quite welcome though. An added sense of humour does provide great contrast to the dour nature of the story, with Ko Chang-seok (and Bae Yu-nam) providing great support as Hong-goo, Woo-jin’s best friend. And there’s also a great cameo from a famous actress that got a big laugh out of me.

But the biggest problem of the film is the lack of chemistry between the leads. Son Ye-jin, who’s done many roles of this nature (from A Moment to Remember to The Classic to Spellbound, the list goes on) unfortunately feels distant and cold in the role of Soo-ah. So Ji-sub, who is better in roles of a darker nature like in Rough Cut, is just okay in the role of Woo-jin. He has good scenes with Kim Ji-hwan, as his son and the comedic scenes with Ko are amusing, but the romantic chemistry with Son never lights up.

For both parts, it is quite hard for the audience to be empathetic of their situation romance-wise in the early stages of the film, but when the film reaches its emotional crescendo and it provides the two a chance to sink her teeth into, it’s too little, too late.

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And the nature of the story is quite problematic as the original was. A feminist critique might focus on how Soo-ah’s importance to the family seems to be directly related to her ability to cook, clean, and basically take care of Woo-jin and Ji-ho, and not how the story really affects her. In this day of age, this issue could’ve been the perfect reason for director Lee to address it and make the remake stand out, but unfortunately, it becomes a missed opportunity.

And that’s all the Be With You remake is: a missed opportunity to be something great. It’s not a terrible movie by any means, it just feels like a lot of remakes nowadays: unnecessary.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Some much-needed mirth

The past flashbacks are the best parts, due to appealing leads

Most parts of the film that work in the original work in the remake

CONS

Lack of chemistry between the leads in present day

All problems in the original are present in the remake

Use of musical score is quite manipulative

Fails to address major issue in premise, especially during current political climate

SCORE: 5/10

Cast: Son Ye-jin, So Ji-sub, Lee You-jin, Kim Hyun-soo, Kim Ji-hwan, Ko Chang-seok, Bae Yu-nam, Lee Jun-hyeok, Seo Jeong-yeon
Director: Lee Jang-hoon
Screenwriters: Lee Jang-hoon, Kang Soo-jine, based on the novel Be With You by Takuji Ichikawa

Movie Review – A or B

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EXPECTATIONS: An entertainingly bonkers thriller.

REVIEW: The cat-and-mouse thriller genre has been a great well for filmmakers to mine since Alfred Hitchcock came into the picture. With classic films like Strangers on a Train to current films like The Commuter, films where the lead character is an ordinary person swept up in extraordinary circumstances have been a constant in cinema.

With China’s latest effort in the cat-and-mouse genre, we have A or B, with Xu Zheng playing the hapless lead in the extraordinary situation which could involve the potential loss of his wealth, his belongings and even his wife, thanks to an unknown assailant. Will the film provide the requisite thrills?

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Xu Zheng stars as billionaire thief, Zhong Xiaonian prowls auction houses appearing calm on the surface while plotting a multi-million-dollar heist. But just as his criminal career is about to strike gold, he’s kidnapped and forced to take part in a twisted multiple-choice game (hence the title) controlled by a mysterious, unknown captor.

By not going along with the captor’s game, he’s on the verge of losing his reputation, all of his possessions and his long-suffering wife (Wang Likun) so must beat his anonymous captive at their own game before it gets deadly.

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One of the essential elements of a successful cat-and-mouse thriller is that the audience should be able to empathize and relate to the predicament of the lead character(s). In the case of A or B, we see Xiaonian, a character who is despicable in the way he treats his co-workers, his friends and especially his wife. It would take a certain kind of actor to play the role very well and unfortunately, Xu Zheng is not that actor.

Zheng tries valiantly, lending a sense of desperation to the character but his performance doesn’t help the fact that the character is unlikable not worth caring for. Wang Likun also tries her best as Simeng, Xiaonian’s wife, but her thinly-written character is left nothing to do but suffer. Suffer for her husband, suffer for her life, it just goes on and on and it doesn’t make a compelling character and only serves as a motivation for the lead, which is a real shame.

The supporting cast are all okay with their parts like Duan Bowen as a reporter who helps Xiaonian out and Wang Yanhui, overacting gloriously as the scumbag competitor to Zhu Zhu as the vamp femme fatale; but Simon Yam plays a role that is only present for less than a minute and honestly, anyone could’ve have played that role.

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Another essential element is the plausibility of the predicament. As for the storytelling itself, director Ren Pengyuan lends a pedestrian execution to the proceedings. While there are some moments that add life to the story i.e. the more desperate moments in the climax, it goes beyond ridiculous that it’s hard to empathize with what’s happening.

There are moments where Xiaonian all of a sudden becomes MacGruber MacGyver and improvises objects that would help his escape. Those moments are unbelievable but they are undeniably entertaining, even if one of the moments basically rips off the 2005 American thriller, Cellular. But the film wades into melodrama in the second act, which revolves around Xiaonian and Simeng and it wallows there, having the life sucked out of it.

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It also does not help that the culprit in charge of kidnapping Xiaonian is very easy to figure out and the motivation for said villain is quite rote and is revealed too little, too late. And just when the ending of the film suits what had proceeded it, thanks to the magic of Chinese film censorship, all of what happened was all for naught, thanks to the end credit sequences, that are pandering, insulting and a total cop-out.

And there are filmmaking gaffes that are quite blatant like continuity errors (eg. inconsistent car damage in the car chase), plot holes like how no authority bothered to track down who sent the suspicious messages, how did the characters gather all the lights and so on.

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There are even terrible lines of dialogue like “A number that cannot be turned to cash is just a number” and this reviewer’s personal favourite, “People would indeed die for money”. The audience just went through 90 minutes where the message conveyed exactly that. There was no need to verbalize it and it just comes off as patronizing.

And there’s the bizarre elements like how the antagonists in the film cater to Japanese customs like eating sushi, which goes back to the xenophobia of Chinese film censorship and the use of a bomb that actually says the word “EXPLOSIVE” on it, in English. Whether one were to see it as patronizing or it’s meant to hint that it’s a foreign product because the Chinese would never make explosives, who knows?

It just goes to show how unengaging the film is when these details go noticed. Overall, A or B is a middling cat-and-mouse experience with few thrills, a couple of okay performances, saddled with a cool premise. Unfortunately, due to the slack pacing, the sloppy storytelling, the unlikable lead character and the cop-out ending(s), the film doesn’t make the grade of either an A or a B. More like a D-minus, really.

Quickie Review

PROS

An interesting premise

Some okay performances

Some ridiculously entertaining moments

CONS

Sloppy storytelling

Melodramatic second act

Terrible end-credit scenes that ruin what had preceded it

SCORE: 4/10

Cast: Xu Zheng, Wang Likun, Duan Bowen, Wang Yanhui, Zhu Zhu, Simon Yam
Director: Ren Pengyuan
Screenwriters: Ren Pengyuan

Movie Review – Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum (Far East Film Festival 20)

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EXPECTATIONS: A sub-par found footage entry from the ever-going underwhelming entries of Korean horror.

REVIEW: Found-footage films is the type of genre that has been around longer than one would think. Going back to the 80’s with cult classics like Cannibal Holocaust and Guinea Pig 2: Flower of Flesh and Blood to 90’s films like Man Bites Dog and then the big milestone in the genre, 1999’s The Blair Witch Project. The one that bought the genre into the mainstream and it thoroughly convinced people that the events in the film were real due to its realistic depictions.

And with later entries like Paranormal Activity, REC and Cloverfield, it showed that found-footage is the type of genre that isn’t one to be messed with. But the genre began to die down over the years with mediocre entries and over-saturation of said genre. But most of the time, it was because they did not adhere to the rules of found-footage. Here are the rules to make a good found-footage film:

1. Footage must not be filmed professionally.

2. Actors must not be recognizable nor act like they are in a film.

3. Dialogue must sound realistic and not scripted.

4. There must be no use of a musical score or non-diegetic sound.

5. The footage must end in a tragic manner in order to be “found”.

6. There must be a convincing reason for why the camera is still rolling.

7. Cut to the chase of the story that the footage is made for.

If any of these rules are broken, it takes the audience out of the film and makes it easy for them to pick apart the film to shreds due to the film’s lack of verisimilitude. But the rules can be bent, as with films like Unfriended showing that non-diegetic sound and the use of music can compliment the film.

Now we have South Korea’s entry into the found-footage genre, Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum. Considering the entries of horror from South Korea has been quite inconsistent lately and this is actually the first found-footage film from South Korea ever, expectations are quite high. Does the film do the genre proud?

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In 1979, 42 patients at Gonjiam Psychiatric Hospital killed themselves and the hospital director went missing. Rumors and strange stories about the now abandoned Gonjiam Mental Hospital abound.

An internet broadcaster recruits a handful of people for their ‘experience the horror’ show at Gonjiam Psychiatric Hospital. They are to explore the haunted asylum and stream it live on their online show. To attract more viewers, the show hosts play tricks on the guests, but things start to get out of control after they sneak into the place.

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Does Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum live up to the high standards of the found-footage genre? No, but it does provide an above-average experience as it adheres to most of the found-footage rules whilst delivering some true, genuine scares.

Let’s see how it goes by the rules. For the first rule, in the story, the film utilizes the latest technology in film gear including digital camera with mounts and the use of drones and it is used quite well in the film, particularly when it shows its flaws like fuzziness and lack of a strong connection. The use of technology also makes the character interactions in the first act feel integral and natural, since the story states that the footage is shown in a livestream.

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As for the actors, most of them are unknown and thankfully, they all give performances that rarely feel jarring and feel natural and genuine. Even when they feel quite jarring, it fits within the scope of the story. Moon Ye-won in particular runs through the gamut of emotions here and she does a good job.

As for the dialogue and character motivations, the script is well-written enough to convey the characters quite well and they rarely make odd decisions that feel scripted, except for one major one that feels quite unbelievable, even if it fit that certain character. The script also provides a good reason as to why the camera is still rolling, relating to social media and the use of the internet for easy fame, satiating greed.

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As for the filmmaking, the jump scares that happen always occur with diegetic sound, whether it would be the sound of a door slam, a noise a person makes or the use of breathing and the gust of a wind, the sound design is quite effective in amplifying up the tension. It also helps that there is no use of a musical score, except for the webcam show segments, which adds to the realism of the storytelling.

Director Jung Bum-sik relies on the power of suggestion, the sounds of silence and the less-is-more kind of filmmaking to great effect rather than the use of jump scares, blood and gore or even actual violence. He does crib from films like The Blair Witch Project, particularly with scenes set in the dark forest, but they are still quite effective in their own right.

Overall, Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum is an above-average entry in the found-footage genre. With genuine scares, a fitting cast and a strong adherence to verisimilitude from Bum-sik’s direction, it’s a haunting experience that’s bound to spook a few frights out of the audience.

Quickie Review

PROS

Well-executed scares and sustained tension

Adheres to the found-footage rules quite well

Overall good performances

CONS

Derivative at times

Some overacting

SCORE: 7/10

Cast: Wi Ha-joon, Park Ji-hyun, Oh Ah-yeon, Moon Ye-won, Park Sung-hoon, Lee Seung-wook, Yoo Je-yoon, Park Ji-a
Director: Jung Bum-sik
Screenwriters: Jung Bum-sik, Park Sang-min

Movie Review – Girls VS Gangsters

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EXPECTATIONS: The worst film of 2018.

REVIEW:

When one thinks of female filmmakers, you think of people like Ann Hui, who’s a fantastic filmmaker with films focusing on society in Hong Kong eg. Night and Fog, A Simple Life, Our Time Will Come and others. One could also think of Mabel Cheung, a wonderful filmmaker who makes passionate and graceful dramas like An Autumn’s Tale and Echoes of the Rainbow.

But if there’s one Hong Kong female filmmaker that people would like to forget, it’s Barbara Wong. Starting off promisingly with the hilariously open documentary Women’s Private Parts and the wholesome comedy/drama Truth or Dare: 6th Floor Rear Flat, she stumbles slightly with dopey comedies like Protege de la Rose Noire and Six Strong Guys. And then came Wonder Women, a film so bad that the egregious product placement actually comes across as a relief to the film itself.

She hasn’t really recovered since, although she’s found financial success in China with awfully manipulative melodramas like The Allure of Tears and The Stolen Years, the latter being so terrible that not only it plagiarizes better melodramas like A Moment to Remember, The Vow and Million Dollar Baby; it also plagiarized this YouTube video. No, that last one is not a joke.

Continuing on from catering the China rooster by petting and rubbing it in an abrasive fashion, we have the 2014 comedy/drama Girls (not to be confused with Kenneth Bi’s Girl$), a film about female relationships that is a rip-off of the Tiny Times franchise. In an interview promoting Girls, Wong says that “It’s difficult to make a film about female relationships. No matter if it’s a gossiping or fighting scene, you have to make it real.

Well, enter into Girls VS Gangsters, a sequel (no, really!) to the 2014 film. Originally meant for release in 2016 and delayed several times until it finally arrived (dumped?) onto cinemas in March of 2018. Will this film be a return to form for Barbara Wong? Will this film actually be empowering for women? Will this film be realistic in portraying female relationships?

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Continuing where Girls left off, Xiwen (Ivy Chen) announces that she’s finally getting married to Qiao Li (originally played by Shawn Yue, but is absent for some reason) and Kimmy (Fiona Sit) persuades her to take a fun bachelorette trip to Vietnam, where the third member of the group, the filmmaker Xiaomei (originally played by Yang Zishan, but is absent for some reason), is supposedly working on a project there.

The first obstacle for Kimmy’s plan arrives in the shape of Xiwen’s other best friend (and Kimmy’s mortal enemy), Jialan (Ning Chang) and her fiancé’s teenage sister, Jingjing (Wang Shuilin). Things quickly get worse on their first night in Vietnam, where Xiaomei has arranged for them to go to the extravagant house party of a wealthy mobster (Tran Bao Son).

After a wild night at the mansion that sees Kimmy eat a dead scorpion and end up in the bedroom of her host (with no prurience, because China), Xiwen, Kimmy and Jialan wake up the next morning to find themselves naked on a deserted beach, with Jingjing nowhere to be found. Worse still, Xiwen has an ugly new tattoo on her back, while the other two are handcuffed to a trunk full of gold bars that they’re soon told by a mysterious caller to spend.

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And it gets worse and worse and worse. Girls VS Gangsters is one of the worst films that his reviewer has ever seen. No joke. And yes, for those who are curious, this film is worse than Benny Chan’s Meow, which this reviewer has said was the cinematic equivalent of ultraviolent dysentery. Girls VS Gangsters is the cinematic equivalent of drowning in a cesspool of vomit WHILST having ultraviolent dysentery.

But as one that likes to live life optimistically, let’s begin with the positives. Yeah, there are none whatsoever. To put it mildly, let’s begin with the problems. Remember what director Barbara Wong said about female relationships having to be real? Well here in Girls VS Gangsters, the characters converse with each other while using gold bars as currency, they make rape “jokes” to each other, one being “if you can’t keep this secret, you’ll be raped 100 times”; the characters get attacked by Vietnamese gangsters; they all talk about men despite this being a female empowerment film; apparently all of this is real.

And then there’s the filmmaking. What filmmaking? The green-screen and CGI utilized in this film is grotesquely cheap; there is no story whatsoever, as it consists of nothing happening very loudly for two excruciating hours. And there are many filmmaking gaffes here that is so unbelievable that they are still on-screen. Some examples include the use of slow-motion so bad that it stutters; a case of bad ADR that is so noticeable that it comes from a character whose mouth is closed; action scenes where none of the actresses are even on-screen together or not on location at all; it just goes on and and on.

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The “comedy” is absolutely ear-piercingly terrible, even by China-market standards. The high point of the humour is apparently flatulence that not only happens three times throughout the film, but is actually a major plot point. Apparently, eating a deadly scorpion is funny. Vomiting on a corpse while it’s in the coffin is the height of hilarity and gay characters are downright hysterical because they’re gay. There’s even a God of Gamblers parody in the film that’s worse than anything in From Vegas to Macau III.

And speaking of China-market standards, there’s a cameo from boxer Mike Tyson. Yes, the Mike Tyson. The same one that was convicted of rape and is registered as a sex offender is starring in a film directed by and starring women. And he’s the best actor in this thing. If that’s not offensive enough, he’s portrayed as half African-American and half-Korean, who loves Korean dramas. No, really, that actually happens. It’s blatantly clear that the only reason his character is half-Korean is that no Chinese woman on film would ever like him unless he was. And it all leads to an embarrassing scene referencing the Korean drama, Descendants of the Sun. And there’s the racism that if you’re not Chinese, then all the races of Vietnam, Thailand and Laos are absolutely interchangeable, from the appearances, customs and even the geography.

And if they are interchangeable, so are the actresses. Fiona Sit, Ning Chang and Ivy Chen have all done good work in prior films. But in Girls VS Gangsters, they all play characters that are all narcissistic, petulant, sociopathic, manipulative, greedy, selfish and morally ugly shells of a human being that the audience will be begging for the usher to hand them barf bags and oxygen masks while seeing their performances.

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And let’s get into the stupid moments in the “plot” of the film. How does one of the characters take a dump without taking her pants off? How do the characters wear on Vietnamese clothing while they are handcuffed? If the characters were naked in the beach while being cuffed, where did they get their phones? Apparently, the characters can skydive without proper training and while consuming alcohol. For a character who wants to intentionally lose in blackjack, she clearly doesn’t know that nothing in blackjack can stop you from losing!

There’s so much more to gauge, criticize and rant about this film like the horrific musical number in the credits, but this review will never end. Many people say that excessive watching of films of the horror and action genre can lead to people turning into violent, psychopathic and angry beings. No, they don’t. Films like Girls VS Gangsters turn people into violent, psychopathic and angry beings because it is so tortuously poor, that you can feel your well-being and life force being sucked away seeing that humanity actually made a film like this and released it in cinemas.

It’s a film that’s so bad that Shawn Yue and Yang Zishan and even the constant cameo-appearing Barbara Wong decided not to appear in it, despite their characters making appearances. Everyone in this film should repeatedly smash themselves in the head with a gold bullion and be thoroughly ashamed.

P.S – Girls VS Gangsters was released in cinemas on International Women’s Day. If that’s not offensive, I don’t know what is.

Quickie Review

PROS

Really?

CONS

EVERYTHING!!!!!!

SCORE: ABSOLUTE ZERO!!

Cast: Fiona Sit, Ivy Chen, Ning Chang, Mike Tyson, Wang Shuilin, Fan Tiantian, Tran Bao Son, Elly Tran
Director: Barbara Wong
Screenwriters: Barbara Wong, Daryl Doo, Yingyan Hou, Zheng Shanyu