BARE BONES: 7 GUARDIANS OF THE TOMB (2018)

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7 GUARDIANS OF THE TOMB (2018)

Chinese/Australian action adventure is also known as Guardians of the Tomb and Nest and is a dull movie that is basically Indiana Jones meets any random SYFY nature run amok flick. Story finds intrepid adventurer Luke (Wu Chun) disappearing while searching for an ancient elixir of eternal life in a giant underground tomb in China. His scheming employer Mason (Kelsey Grammer) convinces Luke’s sister Jia (Li Bingbing) to join the rescue team to be sent into the tomb to find him. What they do find is that the tomb is filled with a swarm of vicious and highly poisonous spiders and that Kelsey Grammer and producer/star Li Bingbing must have really needed rent money.

Inept adventure is directed by Kimble Rendall from a really bad script by he and Paul Staheli. The film seems made up as it goes along and just spins a web of clichés, almost as fast as our cheesy CGI spiders can kill supporting characters with their lethal venom. The spiders’ many abilities seem to be created simply to serve the purpose of a specific scene and director Rendall gets some really bad performances out of his cast, including Grammer and his leading lady, who have been far better in other projects. The FX are cheesy, the dialog awful, the sets are right out of any low budget Indiana Jones rip-off and even Kellan Lutz looks like he’d rather be someplace else. The idea of gorgeous Li Bingbing as an Asian Lara Croft is tantalizing and this flick ruins even that. A waste of time.

-MonsterZero NJ

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IT CAME FROM ASIAN CINEMA: BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL (2017)

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BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL (2017)

Samurai period piece tells the story of swordsman Manji (Takuya Kimura) who kills his corrupt master and bodyguards, only to realize too late that one of the bodyguards was the husband of his younger sister, Machi (Hana Sugisaki). This drives Machi crazy and puts a price upon Manji’s head. When confronted by a large group of men wanting to collect, Machi is killed and Manji escapes mortally wounded. An old witch (Yôko Yamamoto) gives him the power to heal his wounds and tells him he is now immortal. After 50 years of trying to overcome what he did to his sister, he meets a young girl, Rin (also Hana Sugisaki) who seeks revenge on a sinister swordsman (Sôta Fukushi) and his men for the murder of her parents. Can Manji finally achieve his desire for redemption if he helps Rin on her quest for revenge?

Samurai epic is directed legendary Japanese director Takashi Miike from a script by Tetsuya Oishi based on Hiroaki Samura’s manga. It is a blood-soaked story of redemption and revenge told in the style of classic samurai cinema, but with a generous dose of modern day cinema violence. There are some intense and bloody sword duels with a host of colorful characters and various weapons, as Manji and Rin draw closer to Anotsu Kagehisa (Fukushi) and his thugs. Along the way they meet many foes and a few allies and it’s well over two hours and hundreds of bodies later that we finally get the confrontation that we have been waiting for. Miike gives the story some nice emotional depth, as Mani seeks to finally end his tormented life and Rin seeks to avenge the death of her parents. If anything holds this epic back a bit, it is that it is slow paced and a bit overlong. The combination of the more moderate pace, like the samurai flicks it evokes had, and the extremely long running time, make this more of a slow boil with occasional explosions of gruesome action. By the time the last act bloodbath is reached, we’re ready for this to conclude. It’s never boring, but might have been a bit more effective at a somewhat tighter run time. Another issue is that with our anti-hero being immortal, even when he is greatly outnumbered, it’s hard to fear for his safety when we know he will eventually heal and even lost limbs will re-attach. It neuters some of the suspense. Technically the film looks sumptuous with cinematography from Nobuyasu Kita and an atmospheric score by Koji Endo.

The cast are very good. Actor/singer Takuya Kimura was solid as the tortured swordsman Manji. He is a whirlwind of fury in the action scenes and has the chops to give strength to the dramatic scenes as well. Though  immortal, Kimura let’s us know Manji’s wounds hurt and we feel the characters pain. Sugisaki is good in the role of Rin. She’s immersed in grief and a desire for revenge, but is a tough girl and the actress has us endeared to her in her quest. Sôta Fukushi gives us a lethal villain with his master swordsman Anotsu Kagehisa, who has the skill and ferocity to kill hundreds as he carves his way to dominance for himself and his clan, the Ittō-ryū. The supporting cast are also top-notch with characters ranging from the traditional to the more colorful and eccentric.

Miike is a versatile director that has made over 100 films ranging from horror, to crime thrillers, to period pieces such as this and his great 13 Assassins. This film shows his skill at both bone crushing action and dramatic intensity and that he has a love for the traditional, as well as, the ability to be innovative and original. If anything holds this particular flick back a bit, it’s that it’s moderate pace and extremely long running time sometimes work against a story that is driven by numerous action set-pieces. Still very recommended for fans of these movies and certainly for those who appreciate Miike’s films.

-MonsterZero NJ

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IT CAME FROM ASIAN CINEMA: THE VILLAINESS (2017)

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THE VILLAINESS (2017)

Korean action flick follows the bloody path of vengeance cut by Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin) a woman raised to be an assassin since she was a child. As a little girl she watched her father (Park Chul-min), brutally murdered before her eyes. A mysterious man, Lee Joong-sang (Shin Ha-kyun) trains her and eventually marries her, but upon his death, her road to revenge catches the attention of an intelligence agency that wants use of her skills. They want her services for ten years and then Sook-hee will be free. Soon she has a new face, new identity and even a child (Kim Yeon-woo) and new husband (Sung Joon). But when a familiar face resurfaces and she finds herself betrayed by those she trusted, Sook-hee finds herself questioning everything she knew and held dear…and back on a collision course with bloody retribution.

Flick is directed with gusto by Jung Byung-gil from a script by he and brother Jung Byeong-sik and while it is a little plot heavy, it is also loaded with some very intense and gruesome action. The film opens with a bonkers and extremely violent POV scene of Sook-hee shooting and slicing her way through the entire contingency of a large meth lab and this sets the tone for some of the John Woo on crack action scenes that the film is peppered with. There is also a lot of melodrama in between, such as Sook-hee bearing the child of her first husband while at the intelligence agency and dealing with the advances of the handsome Jung Hyun-soo (Sung Joon), who the audience knows from the start is an agency operative sent to keep an eye on her. Don’t worry, the soap opera level dramatics are handled well and just when it teeters on the edge of losing our interest, there is betrayal, murder and the shocking arrival of someone from Sook-hee’s past and soon the blood and bullets are flying again. The climactic fight with an axe wielding Sook-hee on a moving bus is worth watching this for alone. The action scenes are frantic and some of the dizzying camerawork can start to get a bit trying, but there is some real intensity and energy to them and it’s interesting to see where the legendary John Woo’s influence is taken by today’s filmmakers.

The cast are all really good, especially leading lady Kim Ok-bin. She has a screen presence, not only as a beautiful woman, but she is strong in the dramatic scenes and is quite riveting in the action. She has us feeling the pain of her loss and betrayals and we are rooting for her as she cuts and blasts her way through endless amounts of thugs. Shin Ha-kyun is also charismatic as Lee Joong-sang, the man who takes young Sook-hee (Min Ye-ji) and trains her, then marries her once she has grown into a beautiful and deadly woman. Their are some twists involving his character that the actor portrays very well. Sung Joon is also very likable as Jung Hyun-soo. Despite the audience knowing from the beginning that he is an operative, the actor makes us believe he truly cares for Sook-hee and her little girl. Rounding out is Kim Seo-hyung as Sook-hee’s agency boss Chief Kwon, a ruthless woman well rendered by the actress.

Overall, this is an entertaining flick with some dazzling and fast paced action. Sure, some of the frantic camerawork can come close to giving you a headache, but there is plenty of flying bullets, blades and blood to satisfy action fans. There is also a lot of plot and melodrama, but director Jung Byung-gil handles it well and our leading lady keeps our attention when she is not running through her enemies like a lawn mower. One of the best action flicks to come out of Asian cinema in a while and a sign that the Korean cinema is still very much a strong player on the film making scene.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 and 1/2 bullets

 

 

 

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IT CAME FROM ASIAN CINEMA: THE COLLABORATIONS OF KEITA AMEMIYA AND YÛKO MORIYAMA

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THE COLLABORATIONS OF KEITA AMEMIYA AND YÛKO MORIYAMA

Keita Amemiya is an artist and designer who got a start writing and directing for TV before breaking into feature filmmaking in 1988 with Murai Ninja, a film that was a mash-up of ancient Japan sword epic and Star Wars-esque sci-fi flick. The film showed evidence of a director still in need of some experience at the helm, but it also had a unique look and design that displayed some interesting potential. Amemiya lived up to that potential in 1991 with the now cult classic Alien, The ThingTerminator, hybrid Zeiram and hasn’t stopped working since.

Yûko Moriyama was a Japanese TV and movie actress who had a brief acting career from 1991 to 2000. She was very pretty and only five foot four, but could convey a toughness and strength that made her believable as an action star. She worked for Keita Amemiya in three films ranging from 1991 to 1997, including his breakaway hit, Zeiram. In all three she played women warriors and that seemed to get her typecast as such for the rest of her short career. She made an impression, however, that has earned her cult status despite acting for less than a decade.

Zeiram had a beautiful bounty hunter from space coming to earth to hunt a biological weapon which could absorb the genetic material of victims and use it to it’s advantage. That beautiful bounty hunter was named Iria and played by the adorable yet tough Yûko Moriyama, who was twenty-three at the time and it was her first feature film. The flick became an instant fan favorite with it’s live action anime style and the incredible creatures, costumes and gadgets from the mind of Amemiya. It also made an instant cult star out of Moriyama, whose Iria had the beauty of a Japanese anime girl and the kick-ass combat skills of Natasha Romanov. The FX were quite good for a low budget flick, ranging from animation to prosthetics to old fashioned stop-motion. There was plenty of action and the film is now considered a cult classic of Japanese fantasy/sci-fi cinema.

Three years later Amemiya brought his genetic horror back and his leading lady with him, as Iria returned to Earth to battle another Zeiram creature, this time infused into a combat robot. Her A.I. partner Bob was back, too, as well as, her bungling earth sidekicks Teppei (Kunihiro Ida) and Kamiya (Yukijiro Hotaru). Zeiram 2 wisely kept it fresh by having a different look and abilities for it’s title creature and for Iria as well. The sequel once again featured the stunning and unique design work of it’s visionary director and the traditional genre mixing action. Moriyama was sexy and cool as Iria and while the film didn’t quite live up to it’s predecessor, it is still an action-packed, fun flick with the trademark look of an Amemiya film and with bounty hunter Iria being kick-ass as ever. Unfortunatley for fans, it would be another three years before director and actress would team again…

The artistic director and his leading lady worked together one last time, but sadly not a third go around for his heroine from space, Iria and her arch enemy. Moon Over Tao took place in feudal Japan with an object falling to earth that contains a hideous and almost indestructible creature that would kill anything it crosses paths with if unleashed. The ever-pretty Moriyama plays not one, but three alien women, Abira, Marien and Kuzto, who all have come to Earth to reclaim the object for their own personal reasons. The actress doesn’t disappoint, being beautiful and badass as usual. Amemiya would provide yet another entertaining genre mash-up with three times the Moriyama. The flick is a gory good time and once agin has some very unique design work, but still doesn’t quite equal the fun and action of his 1991 cult classic. 

Keita Amemiya continues to write, direct and design for films, TV and video games to this day. Moriyama apparently retired from acting after 2000 with her final film being a Hong Kong flick set partially in Japan called Tokyo Raiders. The actress is still a cult favorite among fans for her portrayal of Iria and it’s disappointing that she left acting so soon and never reunited with Amemiya at least one more time to make the Zeiram flicks a trilogy. Their collaborations are available on DVD and for those looking for more, there was a Zeiram animated prequel series that brought the titular creature and a younger Iria back, though Amemiya and Moriyama were not involved.

(You can read my full reviews for their three collaborations by clicking the highlighted titles, or on the movie posters above -MZNJ)

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 -MonsterZero NJ

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IT CAME FROM ASIAN CINEMA: THE WHITE HAIRED WITCH OF LUNAR KINGDOM (2014)

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THE WHITE HAIRED WITCH OF LUNAR KINGDOM (2014)

Chinese fantasy romance has a bit of a complicated story as it presents it’s tale of Lian Nishang (Bingbing Fan) who is a witch, known to the people in her surrounding kingdom as Jade Rakshasa, a Robin Hood like outlaw who protects the poor. She lives in a mountaintop fortress called Fort Luna and has shunned love until she meets handsome Zhou Yihang (Huang Xiaoming). Yihang is a Wudang priest who has recently become his sect’s leader and is treating the royal prince for an illness. When the prince is poisoned by an ambitious advisor, Yihang is blamed. When Nishang is defending some of her people, she is also framed for the murder of the local governor, who is Yihang’s grandfather…see, told you it would get complicated. Thrown together by fate, the priest and witch fall in love. But their romance is doomed to be a tragic one as murder, betrayal, treachery, witchcraft and an invading army stand in the way of true love.

The Chinese cinema has been churning movies out like this for decades, yet they still have yet to recapture the charm of the great Hong Kong revival of the 80s and early 90s. This flick is based on  Liang Yusheng’s Baifa Monü Zhuan, a novel which also served as the basis for the 1993 Hong Kong cinema classic The Bride With White Hair. This adaptation is directed by Jacob Cheung and credited to five writers, not that it’s a surprise considering how overloaded the story is. But Cheung still makes this a fairly entertaining flick with plenty of martial arts action and actually giving the romance between Yihang and Nishang some dramatic weight. The story may be overcomplicated, which is not rare with these types of films, but it still works to a good degree and Cheung and his army of writers do blend the melodrama, action and fantasy elements well enough that it doesn’t sink under the weight of all the plot details. Like most of these types of films, the action is staged well and the costumes and sets are quite extravagant. There are also some bloody moments as well and Ardy Lam does photograph the proceedings and settings quite sumptuously. Modern Hong Kong films have a tendency to overdo it with the CGI, but here it is used effectively and without relying too much on it as to make it overpowering. Hong Kong legend Tsui Hark serves as a consultant, which may be how the film does manage to juggle all it’s elements so well, as that was Hark’s forte as a filmmaker. Despite an overloaded story, White Haired Witch is still a fun movie, that may not be as charming as something like the classic, and far simpler, A Chinese Ghost Story, but certainly does still entertain.

The cast are all good and our leads, in particular help make this work. Bingbing Fan, who is known to American audiences for her appearance as Blink in X-Men: Days Of Future Past, is beautiful and enchanting as Lian Nishang. She is graceful in her action scenes and can project both a strength and a sensitivity whether she is defending her people or romancing Huang Xiaoming’s Wudan priest. As Zhuo Yihang, Huang Xiaoming is handsome, brave, noble and romantic. He makes a suitable suitor for Nishang and a suitable hero for our story. During a brief plot point of having to appear like he is betraying Nishing, the actor portrays well the pain in his eyes as he does so. The two actors have good chemistry together and it makes the romantic scenes warm and endearing and their relationship seems believable even with all the fantasy elements.

Overall, the film overcomes a very overcomplicated plot to still entertain. It has some beautiful fantasy imagery, some fun action sequences and a good cast to make the characters likable…or not, if in reference to our villains. Film would have benefited from a more streamlined storyline that could allow the centerpiece romance to have a bit more focus. It also could have left out some of the politics and a few extra and unnecessary characters, such as a solider and his little girl who don’t seem to serve a purpose. If you like the Hong Kong cinema or simply Asian martial arts period pieces, this is still worth your time and is never boring, though could have been something more special if not so cluttered.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 swords
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REVIEW: SHIN GODZILLA (2016)

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SHIN GODZILLA (2016)

(Remember, clicking the highlighted links brings you to other reviews and articles here at The Movie Madhouse!)

Shin Godzilla…meaning “true” Godzilla…is a reboot of the classic Godzilla series from Toho Studios and the imaginative minds behind Neon Genesis Evangelion, Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi. In this new incarnation, Godzilla starts out as a mysterious tadpole-like creature that appears in Japanese waters causing structural damage to it’s Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line before making landfall. It cuts a path of destruction as the Japanese government flounders over what to do. As they struggle over how to handle this unprecedented event, the creature mutates growing larger and more destructive as it does. Worse still, this beast, the prying U.S. government calls “Godzilla”, is a walking nuclear reactor heading into the heart of Tokyo.

In this new incarnation of the long enduring classic character, Godzilla is a true monstrosity as it has the power to mutate itself at will, as it returns to Japan, no longer content or satisfied with feeding on the nuclear waste the Asian nation dumps into it’s oceans. There are hints that he is a nuclear created amalgamation of all sorts of sea and other life that now has formed into an ever changing leviathan in search of nuclear fuel. The creative duo also use the creature as a metaphor for the recent earthquake and typhoon disasters that struck Japan in 2011 and the Japanese government’s mishandling of it, due to being mired in bureaucratic red tape and politics. They also take some jabs at the United States prying into Japanese affairs and being a bit of a bully towards the island nation in bending to it’s will. This works for the most part, though if the film has an achilles heel, it’s that it allows it’s political satire to get a bit heavy-handed and overloaded in the second act, while we wait for an immobile Godzilla to recharge after battling a U.S. bomber attack with it’s new version of the atomic heat ray. The film does drag a while before it’s impressive but over-too-quick climax, at a point where it should be ramping up. Having Godzilla dormant for a good chunk of time after a fairly action-filled first half, really slows the film’s momentum. That and the points made here were pretty much the same made in the first half and it starts to get redundant. On a technical level, the FX are mixed. There are some truly spectacular sequences of destruction unlike any seen in a Godzilla film, including the multimillion dollar American flick from 2014. In contrast, there are some weak CGI FX that hinder the impact of some scenes, such as Godzilla’s creepy amphibious first form and some shots during his overall impressive unleashing of his new nuclear capabilities. Tonally, the film takes itself fairly serious, though there is some humor and plenty of satire. The last half could have used more tension instead of talk and after a spectacular battle with U.S. B2 bombers, it’s off-putting to see Godzilla just stand there for so long, allowing Japan to re-group. The traditional Godzilla gave little rest for the weary. Fans will be pleased that the film does use some of Akira Ifukube’s classic Godzilla music for mood and nostalgia and there is also an effective score from Shirō Sagisu as well.

The cast, for the most part, perform well with lead Hiroki Hasegawa standing out as Rando Yaguchi, a young Deputy Cabinet Secretary who sees the flaws in the system and how they are negatively effecting Japan, especially in a crisis. Beautiful Satomi Ishihara plays Kayoko Ann Patterson, a U.S. born senator’s daughter who is the envoy to Japan during Godzilla’s attack. She could have been a bit stronger in a smug role and the fact that her english is terrible, doesn’t bode well for her playing a U.S. born character to an American father. Other than that, the cast all get the tone of their parts and balance the satirical humor with the more serious facets of the story fairly on-point. As for Godzilla, he is for the first time really creepy. He has nuclear energy glowing from points under his skin, like the burning Godzilla from Godzilla vs. Destroyah and actually evokes Hedorah, The Smog Monster, in the way it evolves from a disturbing reptilian-slug thing to a creature that resembles a giant walking, grinning zombie dinosaur. It is a startlingly original take on this iconic beast and his new way of unleashing his nuclear power was shocking and impressive. Too bad a few shots suffered from weak CGI as this sequence was one of the most powerful in the film.

Overall, this was a very interesting, entertaining and sometimes disturbing new incarnation of one of film’s most classic characters. It is still the Godzilla we know, yet with some daring new characteristics and a more contemporary origin. The film is more moderately paced than these movies usually are and comes with a lot of political commentary on Japanese government and it’s relationship with the U.S. It does stumble a bit with a very talky second half and by getting a little too heavy-handed with it’s messages, though it does recover somewhat with an impressive, if not a bit too quickly resolved finale. A bold new start for a franchise and a character that has endured for over 60 years and one of the most unique films in the series.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 and 1/2 Godzillas.

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IT CAME FROM ASIAN CINEMA: TRAIN TO BUSAN (2016)

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TRAIN TO BUSAN (2016)

Korean horror/thriller is a fun mash-up of zombie outbreak flick and disaster movie that may be familiar in it’s story elements, but uses them very well. The plot has self absorbed businessman, Seok-Woo (Gong Yoo) in the middle of a divorce and taking his young daughter, Su-an (Kim Su-an) on an early train to Busan to see her mother. Meanwhile, a leak at the YS Biotech plant starts some kind of viral reaction that turns people into vicious killers who spread the infection through their bite. One of the infected gets on the train and now, while the outbreak spins out of control in the country all around them, the infection starts to spread throughout the cars. Trapped with increasing numbers of the infected onboard, the survivors must battle for their lives against the mindless killers, as well as, the selfish living who would sacrifice others for their own survival. But there is hope, as their destination, the district of Busan, has become one of the only safe havens left…now they must live long enough to get there.

Park Joo-suk’s script is very reminiscent of flicks like 28 Days Later and World War Z with some familiar disaster film elements thrown in, like the pretentious ass (Kim Ui-Seong) who thinks his life is worth more than that of others and the pregnant lady (Jung Yu-mi) fighting for both her and her baby’s survival. But it is Yeon Sang-ho’s tight and skilled direction that takes the routine and familiar elements and really uses them well. He has a background in animated films and this helps him keep the action fast and furious and the film is visually satisfying and very colorful with a surprisingly bright color palette for a zombie film. There is quite a lot of bloodshed, though Sang-ho restricts it to an R-rated level and we don’t get the Romero or even Walking Dead level gore…though the film really doesn’t need it, as tension and suspense are more it’s focus. The director does gives us plenty of that, but doesn’t leave out character development or social commentary, which is added at just the right amounts. The film moves quickly, but does stop to let us catch our breath for a few moments, or to let certain plot points and events resonate. There are a few clever twists, such as the zombies not being able to see in the dark and for his first live action film, Sang-ho does freshen up the many clichés. There are a few slow spots here and there and one element of the climax gets a bit over-sentimental, but otherwise this is a solid thriller with a good cast of characters and high quality production value all around.

With his horde of zombies being very effective, the director does guide his cast of human characters well, too, even if they are mostly all stereotypes. Gong Yoo is the selfish workaholic, Seok-Woo, who has ignored his wife and daughter to the point of divorce and alienation. Obviosuly, he learns to be more selfless and to be a hero during these dire events. Kim Su-an is very sweet as his neglected daughter and she handles her part very well, being likable and sympathetic without getting in the way or being annoying. She’s a tough and strong-willed kid played by a promising young actress. Jung Yu-mi is the stereotypical pregnant lady, but she gives her Seong-kyeong some fighting spirit and keeps her from being a helpless damsel. Ma Dong-Seok is solid as her husband, Sang-Hwa, the traditional tough guy character who shames the selfish lead into becoming more heroic. Rounding out the main cast is Kim Ui-Seong as a ruthless businessman who thinks he is more important that the others and will risk everyone else to insure his own survive. A very stereotypical character for this kind of film played to perfection by the actor. We hate Yong-suk and want to see him get his. A good cast that add some dimension to characters typical of both the zombie and disaster genres.

One of the benefits of living in an area with a heavy Asian population, aside from the yummy authentic food and great markets, is that my local theater occasionally will play a high-profile Korean film complete with subtitles. I just started hearing good word about this when I noticed it had opened at my favorite movie haunt right here in town. Seeing this in a theater was definitely a plus and despite being very familiar with it’s plot and story elements, a skilled director used them very well and delivered a fast paced and suspenseful flick that overcame familiarity with simple fun. It’s well-crafted and takes itself just serious enough, so we do too. It’s spatters plenty of blood, piles up a significant body count and has enough furious action to be effective despite the heavy ‘been there, done that’. It also does so while delivering some well-rounded characters, stereotypical as they may be. Original?…no. Fun despite being part of an over-saturated genre?…very much so!

MonsterZero NJ Extra Trivia: Star Gong Yoo and actress Jung Yu-mi, who plays the pregnant Seong-kyeong, are actually from Busan, South Korea, the destination for our embattled train passengers.

-MonsterZero NJ

A solid 3 baseball bats…sadly, the only anti-zombie weapon on a train!

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IT CAME FROM ASIAN CINEMA: AZUMI 2: DEATH OR LOVE

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AZUMI 2: DEATH OR LOVE (2006)

While this sequel isn’t a bad flick, it is a disappointment after the comic book-style roller coaster ride that was the first installment. Sequel is also directed instead by The Gamera Trilogy’s Shusuke Kaneko and Kaneko creates a more somber and traditional feel for the movie which also seems to be done on a lesser budget and scale.

Story picks up after the first movie with Azumi (Aya Ueto) and Nagara (Yuma Ishigaki) vowing to finish their mission to assassinate their final target, Sanada Masayuki (Mikijirō Hira). Things get complicated for Azumi when they join a group of bandits whose leader Ginkaku (Shun Oguri) bears a strikining resemblance to Nachi…the man Azumi loved and killed. Now the pretty assassin once again begins to doubt her occupation and path in life as she is falling in love all over again.

Kaneko is obviously a good director as his Gamera flicks prove, but may not have been the right choice to follow up the kinetic and colorful first flick. Kaneko has a more traditional style and we get a more laid back and sometimes somber story this time and one that appears to be far smaller in scale and possibly budget. The pace is a lot more moderate though it does have it’s share of top notch sword fights and there is plenty of bloodshed. The film seems to focus more on the dramatic aspects than the action, though and it’s characters are far more subdued even with more comic-ish characters like Roppa (Kengo) and the spider-like ninja Tsuchigumo (Tak Sakaguchi). The script is again by Mataichiro Yamamoto who co-wrote this time with Yoshiaki Kawajiri and seems to focus more on the character interplay and intrigue, this time, creating a more intimate story as opposed to Azumi‘s epically scaled tale. It does’t quite have the uniqueness Kitamura’s style of directing embellished his film with and stands out far less from the more routine sword flicks from Japan. The cinematography by Yoshitaka Sakamoto is a bit more muted in color thus further removing the more comic book/manga feel from the movie which overall is still a well made and satisfying conclusion to the story began in Azumi.

Again it’s Aya Ueto’s show, though she shares a lot of time with the other characters and is more part of an ensemble this time. She is solid as she was in part one and still gives Azumi a nice conflicted personality when hardened assassin collides with the young woman who dreams of a normal life she may not be able to have. The rest of the cast are very good, especially the returning Yuma Ishigaki as her only surviving teammate, Nagara and Kazuki Kitamura as Kanbê Inoue, who has now aligned with Sanada. The characters are less colorful, but performed well.

While the film is a disappointment when compared to Kitamura’s original, it’s still not a bad flick on it’s own. It has some good action and the cast, especially Ueto, do perform well, it just a more moderately paced and scaled adventure that tones down the more comic book aspects for a more traditional samurai flick approach. It does complete the story arc satisfyingly while giving us a Sergio Leone-esque ending that leaves the door open for Azumi to return someday. As Aya Ueto is still in her early thirties and Kitamura hasn’t had much success in his US film career, hopefully that happening is still a possibility.

-MonsterZero NJ

3  swords!

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IT CAME FROM ASIAN CINEMA: GOJOE

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GOJOE (2000)

The story takes place in ancient Japan where the Heike Clan rule after a bitter struggle with the rival Genji Clan. Gojoe bridge is the entrance to their capital city and each night the guards watching it are murdered by someone, or something, unseen. The bridge separates the city from The Devil’s Wood which is a burial ground for the corpses of the more unsavory members of society. This fuels the locals to think it is a demon that haunts the bridge and has set it sights on their city. Enter Benkai (Daisuke Ryu) a swordsman and killer who has put down his blade and taken vows as a monk. He hasn’t used a weapon in seven years, but gets a vision that destroying the demon of Gojoe bridge, will bring him enlightenment. As he investigates, he soon discovers it is no demon that haunts the bridge, but master swordsman and heir to the Genji Clan, Shanao (Tadanobu Asano) who seeks revenge on the Heike. Can Benkai defeat this ‘demon’ when he still has quite a few of his own?

As directed by Sogo Ishii, and co-written by he and Goro Nakajima, this is a very dark and borderline apocalyptic swordplay thriller with a subtle yet strong supernatural undercurrent. The villain of Gojoe bridge may indeed be a mere man, but he believes he is a god come to restore the Genji and the power of that belief seems to make him virtually invincible. Ishii has already crafted an intense and bleak film that, despite being a bit too long, remains intense and atmospheric during it’s entire running time. This added supernatural element only serves to add an air of mystery and power to the already tense flick. The power of belief also seems to be a theme here as both Shanao and Benkai have strong spiritual beliefs that seem to strengthen them in their missions…or in Benkai’s case weaken him as his violent past still haunts him. There is also much said about man’s true nature as many innocents in the film meet violent ends at the hands of the evil that men do and Benkai is only truly ready to face Shanao when he casts off the monk and embraces the killer. Is Ishii saying that despite how hard he tries, man will always be destructive in nature? Maybe!..though he does conclude his film with what could be viewed as a slight glimmer of hope…or maybe it just means the cycle will just begin all over again, someday. The answers are not spoon fed to you. Despite the dark and grim tone and more moderate pace, there are some very thrilling sword duels and the final showdown between our two principals is worth waiting over two hours for. It’s very physical, very bloody…as is the rest of the film…and the supernatural overtones come out of the shadows for an explosive finale. The cast are all very good, Ishii has a stunning visual eye that is only heightened by Makoto Watanabe’s cinematography and the film gets added atmosphere from Hiroyuki Onogaw’s score.

In conclusion, despite a very long length and a more moderate pace, this is an intense, atmospheric and bloody film. It takes some interesting characters, especially our flawed hero and puts them in a very tense setting surrounded with supernatural elements. There are some dark themes running through it and even it’s conclusion may indicate that man’s destructive nature is a cycle, though depending on how you view certain events, there may be a glimmer of hope. An intense and involving film with some really strong action scenes and a darker tone than usually found in these type of movies.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 and 1/2 swords!

azumi rating

 

 

 

 

 

Couldn’t find the trailer, but did find the whole movie

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IT CAME FROM ASIAN CINEMA: AZUMI

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Azumi

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AZUMI (2003)

Azumi is a colorful and fun Japanese action flick, based on a manga by Yū Koyama, that is directed by maverick Japanese director Ryuhei Kitamura. The story tells of young Azumi (Aya Ueto), who is orphaned as a child and taken in to be trained as an assassin for the Shogun, by master Gessai (Yoshiro Harada). She and nine other orphans are split into 5 teams of two for an extensive decade of training. Azumi is paired with handsome Nachi (Shun Oguri) and the two fall for each other over time…until the day they have finished their training and Master Gessai orders each student to fight their long-time partners to the death, as a final test. Having slain the man she loves, Azumi now goes out with the other four survivors as part of a team of hardened and skilled killers on their first mission…a mission bathed in blood and death.

True to it’s roots, Azumi is a comic book-ish and action packed period adventure as directed by Kitamura (Versus, Godzilla: Final Wars) from a script by Mataichiro Yamamoto and Isao Kiriyama. Kitamura makes most of his trademarked over-the-top style with spectacular action, beautiful visuals, outlandish and colorful villains…such as the flamboyant Bijomaru (Joe Odagiri) or the monkey-like Saru (Minoru Matsumoto)…and a beautiful but deadly badass as our heroine. Azumi is the perfect killer with the look of sweet young girl and the skills of a seasoned assassin. While she has been hardened by her training and having to slay the person she loved most, there is still a beating heart in the chest of this warrior and Ueto plays the struggle between assassin and young girl nicely. The film is filled with some very energetically choreographed sword fights, but nothing can prepare one for it’s massive action finale where swords…and swordsman…fly and blood spills generously. It’s a battle of one against an army and it doesn’t disappoint. There is also a rousing score to support the action by Taro Iwashiro and beautiful cinematography to capture the visuals and action by Takumi Furuya. Sure it may get melodramatic at times, but it’s a real treat for fans of these movies and has an epic feel to go along with all the action and Kitamura brings his energetic style to the proceedings, full blast. It’s an old-school samurai flick with some very contemporary cinematic touches and it doesn’t skimp on the blood and guts either.

There is a very large cast here of colorful and stylish characters who are all portrayed well by the cast with the right amounts of restraint and over-the-top when needed. It’s pretty Aya Ueto’s show though and she portrays both a strong woman warrior with nerves of steel and lethal skills, but at the same time, gives us a young girl with a heart and a conscience. There is a bit of a conflict within Azumi and Ueto balances it well. She makes a very endearing and memorable heroine. Beautiful and badass.

I really like this movie. Sure the script could have been a bit tighter, but Kitamura splashes the screen with spectacular and colorful action, interesting and stylish characters and gives us a very likable heroine to root for. The settings and costumes are sumptuous, as is the visuals and cinematography and the action relentless. At over two hours it’s never dull and has a fast pace propelled by it’s maker’s energetic direction. It also gives you a bang-up, non-stop finale where Azumi racks up quite the impressive body count. Followed by a sadly disappointing…though not bad…sequel Azumi 2: Death or Love directed by The Gamera Trilogy’s Shusuke Kaneko.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 and 1/2 swords!

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