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Entries in Asian Cinema (3)

Thursday
Jan252018

MARLINA THE MURDERER IN FOUR ACTS (Marlina Si Pembunuh Dalam Empat Babak)

Stars: Marsha Timothy, Dea Panendra, Egi Fedly, Yoga Pratama, Rita Matu Mona, Vayu Unru, Anggun Priambodo and Safira Ahmad.
Writers: Mouly Surya and Rama Adi, based on a story by Garin Nugroho.
Director: Mouly Surya.

Screened at Pathé 4 Cinema, Thursday January 25 as part of the 2018 International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR).  

Rating: 4.5/5

DOP Yunus Pasolang’s extraordinarily beautiful lensing is just one of the many unexpected virtues of Indonesian auteur Mouly Surya’s fiercely feminist rape-revenge ‘Eastern western’, Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts. A stylised arthouse horror/thriller that doubles as an elegantly intellectual think-piece concerning the region’s gender politics, Surya’s third feature confirms her status as one of Asian cinema’s most important and relevant voices.

Rife with cues as to the film’s origins in the classically male-dominated American genre (despite funding from non-Hollywood backers in Indonesia, France, Malaysia and Thailand), Surya introduces us to her protagonist as she mourns the loss of her husband. As per tradition, he sits wrapped in funeral cloth in the couple’s remote homestead on the atypically brown and dusty island of Sumba. Marlina (Marsha Timothy) has seen much death in this home; a gravestone reads ‘Topan’, who it is revealed was her stillborn 8-month child. Things do not bode well when a band of loutish brutes arrive to eat her cooking, steal her livestock and rape the stricken widow (the unfolding drama comprising Act I, ‘Robbery’).

With nothing left to loose but her sad life and staunch dignity, Marlina disposes of the five brutes, none with more efficient clarity than the leader Markus (Egi Fedly), whose head is freed of its bodily constraints in a particularly sublime moment of coitus interruptus. With her rapist’s head dangling by her side, Marlina sets off over the stunning countryside (Act II, ‘The Journey’) for the nearest police station (Act III, ‘The Confession’) with her similarly abused and heavily pregnant (Act IV, ‘Birth’) friend Novi (Dea Panendra) whose compelling subplot builds to a meshing of life/death magnitude in the final frames.

Timothy is superb as Marlina, her steely focus and unshakable adherence to her noble quest as perfect a reincarnation of the great frontierswoman of western lore as seen in some time. The evocative score by Zeke Khaseli and Ydhi Arfani harkens back to Ennio Morricone’s masterworks for Sergio Leone’s ‘Man With No Name’ films, though it is unlikely any one will forget the name ‘Marlina’ after sharing her odyssey.

Given the current global social climate is on the brink of a seismic shift against ingrained toxic masculinity and patriarchal dominance, the remote setting, cultural specifics and tight character interactions of Marlina the Murderer will be no hindrance to the film securing worldwide festival berths. This should in no way suggest that its politics alone ought to earn it passage abroad; on the contrary, Surya’s profoundly thoughtful and majestically wrought drama (which would make a great double-bill with Coralie Fargeat’s recent brutal sexual assault payback shocker, Revenge) will, like the title character herself, forge its own path through its inherent dignity, grace and determination.

Friday
Jan052018

BLEEDING STEEL

Stars: Jackie Chan, Show Lo, Ouyang Nana, Callan Mulvey, Tess Haubrich and Xiahou Yunshan.
Writers: Leo Zhang, Cui Siwei and Xiaohou Yunshan
Director: Leo Zhang.

Rating: 2/5

There is a special place in movie heaven for acts of such logic- and physics-defying cinematic lunacy as Leo Zhang’s Bleeding Steel, a momentously staged absurdity that almost endears itself through sheer relentless bombast. Largely shot in Sydney (or, more precisely, a graffiti-stained future version of the harbour city populated by basketball-playing American street teens, for some reason), this preposterous romp plays like a greatest hits version of star Jackie Chan’s most recognizable on-screen characterisations, but with dumbed-down dialogue, a garish colour palette and an audio track cranked to 11.  

Ripping huge chunks of inspiration from the likes of Luc Besson’s sci-fi spectacle Lucy, Chan’s own kiddie romp The Spy Next Door and…oh, let’s go with Roland Emmerich’s Universal Soldier, Zhang’s hyper-charged, hardly-coherent head-spinner is a star-vehicle concoction for both old and new generations of Asia’s favourite film stars. The ageing action legend plays special operative Lin, who has dedicated the latter part of his career to covertly protecting his daughter, Nancy (Taiwanese cellist starlet Ouyang Nana), while never being able to reveal his true self to her. Also in a mix to ensure broad regional and demographic acceptance is The Mermaid star Show Lo, the Taiwanese idol ok as the handsome but bumbling offsider Leeson, and Erica Xia-Hou as Lin’s strong-willed career cop 2IC.  

When a book is published revealing Nancy to be the missing link in a clandestine synthetic human initiative led Dr James (Kym Gyngell), the teen-queen Wolverine becomes the target of Andre (Callan Mulvey), a rotting Frankenstein-type behemoth who needs Nancy’s blood to regenerate. Despite barely being held together by his pale grey skin, Andre has amassed an army of black-helmeted alien types led by a leather-clad warrior-woman (Tess Haubrich, channelling Cate Blanchett’s Thor villainess; pictured, below), whose job it is to slay anyone stalling her quest to bring Nancy to Andre. That’ll do plotwise, suffice to say it spins in increasingly convoluted and largely indecipherable directions, with little regard for even the most basic action-movie realism.

Now well into his 60s and unable to dazzle with the same physical prowess he displayed as a younger action hero, Chan is nevertheless called upon to up the adrenalin for cast and audience (often with CGI enhancement); he occasionally appears somewhat bewildered by all that is unfolding around him. He has played this father/fighter/fumbler archetype before, most notably in his last three films (The Foreigner; Railroad Tigers; Kung Fu Yoga), all of which were far better suited to his age and talent. Chan’s signature large-scale stunt, the fight atop and spectacular descent from a big-city landmark (see his antics on Rotterdam’s Willemswerf Tower in 1998’s Who Am I? or the Hong Kong Convention Centre in 2004’s New Police Story) is dragged out again, this time perching him on the Sydney Opera House sails for some silly but spectacular fight scenes.

The most remarkable thing about Bleeding Steel (that awful title aside) is the tonal shifts employed almost frame-to-frame by director Zhang (who worked with the Chan clan on 2012’s Chrysanthemum of The Beast). Featuring broad slapstick humour, Bond-like gadgetry, Mission Impossible-type set-pieces, teen romance beats, some loopy science fiction tropes, schmaltz-rich sentimentality and, finally, knife-to-the-neck/chest-bursting ultra-violence, it is impossible to gauge what type of audience, other than the die-hard Chan completists, will feel wholly satisfied by this schizophrenic genre hodgepodge.

That Zhang and his cast play it with such straight-faced conviction at such a high pitch for all of the 110 minute running time does inspire in the viewer a ‘Stockholm Syndrome’-kind of respect for all involved, but that’s probably not what the producers (of which there are about four million) were aiming for.

Wednesday
Oct052016

NILALANG

Stars: Cesar Montano, Maria Ozawa, Meg Imperial, Yam Concepcion, Cholo Barretto, Dido De La Paz, Kiko Matos, Sonny Sison, Alexandre Charlet and Aubrey Miles.
Writers: Pedring Lopez and Dennis Empalmado.
Director: Pedring Lopez.

Rating: 3.5/5

Pedring Lopez’s blood-soaked romp Nilalang is a wildly enjoyable exercise in mash-up expertise. In equal measure a pulpy Pinoy crime meller and spooky Japanese samurai lark, the Filipino auteur brushes aside some illogical plotting with stunning action set pieces, grim bloodletting and gorgeous animation. Throw in the entirely appropriate casting of a J-porn actress and span 400 years from the pre-credit sequence to end scroll…well, let’s say Lopez leaves nothing on the table in crafting his cult hit in-the-making.

With co-scripter Dennis Empalmado, Lopez uses a dazzling animated sequence that posits his backstory in feudal Japan, 1602. Samurai warriors must protect The Book of Darkness, a tome of Ishi scriptures that capture and carry the slain demon spirits, written in the blood of the legendary ‘Ronin’ soldiers. When the demon Zahagur escapes, leaving a trail of tortured and dismembered victims in its wake, centuries of bloodshed lay before him (the credit sequence, which montages 400 years of man’s inhumanity to man set to a thrash-metal track, coolly suggests Zahagur has chartered the course of mankind’s uglier moments).   

The action transplants first to the port district of Manila, circa 2013, and the take-down of a possessed Japanese criminal Nakazumi (Art Acuna), before settling into the murky, crime-ridden milieu of the present day Filipino capital. A crime scene recalls the brutal methods of the deceased Nakazumi, a coincidence that baffles the NBI Special Crimes Division and its tough-guy anti-hero, Tony (Cesar Montano), who pulled the trigger on the bad guy back in ‘13. With spunky, tough-girl offsider Jane (a terrific Meg Imperial) up for anything, Tony begins to believe that spirits once held captive by The Book of Darkness are out for vengeance and soon those associated with the cop are dropping like flies (or, more accurately, beheaded, disembowelled and face-scalped flies).

Veteran leading man Montano carries himself with a square-jawed, action hero machismo; barring one explosion of emotion in a driving rainstorm, his stoicism in the face of brutal crime scenes, reanimated bad guys and hot women wanting to bed him recalls a granite-like Jean-Claude van Damme in his prime. Said ‘hot woman’ is Maria Ozawa, the former Japanese X-rated star (she retired her AV persona in 2010) making a play at legit drama in the role of Miyuki, an S&M nightclub hostess and descendant of those who wronged Zahagur, who must face-off against the supernatural forces gaining strength.

Or something like that. The convoluted plotting gets a little blurry at times, opening up holes that are never fully closed. The evil spirit is able to possess at will (not unlike the villain in the 1998 Denzel Washington vehicle, Fallen); its vaporous form commands such bit players as an old lady housekeeper, a grave digger and several well-armed bodyguards. Why it doesn’t just take command of Jane or Tony or Miyuki is not clearly addressed.

Not that it really matters, frankly. Lopez is a thrilling visual stylist, filling every corner of his widescreen frame with lush colours and rich detail; DOP Pao Orendain's lensing is world class. Some brutal deaths are etched in the graphic-novel style animation, which proves no less stomach churning; scenes of bare skin torture and gruesome blade work will sate horror buffs (the fate of Yam Concepcion’s pretty young thing Akane is not easily forgotten). Some dialogue is ripe, though it plays well within the 80’s era construct with which Lopez is clearly enamoured. Positively pulsating with ballsy energy, Nilalang carries off a posturing swagger rarely glimpsed in the anaemic mainstream action cinema of today.