The look back

This is probably going to be the final post of the year, so I feel compelled to do one of those yearly wrap-ups that never say anything about anything. Sorry.

Let’s just clear it out now: here’s how 2009 disappointed me, how it thrilled me, and what I’m looking forward to in 2010.

In 2009 I was disappointed, irritated, or pissed off by…

-Video Game journalism, which hit new depths of unwarranted self-importance, and completely sapped any meaning out of the term “hardcore gamer.”

-3-D movies. 3-D effects still don’t add anything to the experience of watching a movie, and those glasses look incredibly stupid and probably aren’t hygienic. 3-D was once the height of kitsch. Why are we taking it seriously now?

-The cult DVD market implosion. 2009 saw the possibility of bankruptcy for Image Entertainment, Dark Sky films ending their retro film line, and the complete demise of ADV, BCI, and Fusian. It was ugly.

-Bioware. Between their stupid trailer for Dragon Age and “David Gaider -- Novelist,” I’m starting to hate them in spite of their mostly competent game design.

-Celebrity deaths.

-Real life. It was a terrible year IRL.

But to be fair, in 2009 I was thrilled, delighted and contented by…

-Dungeon crawlers. After playing Etrian Odyssey 2 earlier this year, I went on a bender with the original Etrian Odyssey, The Dark Spire, Deep Labyrinth, and Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor. I expect to grab Class of Heroes for the PSP soon.

-The DS, which is easily the must-own platform for this hardware generation. Aside from playing host to all of the games listed above (besides Class of Heroes), the DS also received 7th Dragon (in Japan, at least), Phantasy Star 0, Nostalgia, and an English release of Retro Game Challenge to go along with its already stellar library of games I actually play.

-Vantage Master! Falcom offers this awesome strategy game on their website, in English, free of charge!

-Mondo Macabro’s releases of The Warrior (Jaka Sembung) and Born of Fire.

-My expanding collection of martial arts movies. Of the thirty-five movies I reviewed this year, twenty-three were kung fu movies and seventeen of those were acquired in 2009, including obscure crap like Child of Peach and War of the Wizards. Go me.

-Ashes of Time Redux didn’t suck. Thanks Wong Kar Wai.

-Snus: Wonderful Swedish tobacco.

Last year, I got very drunk on New Year’s and made out with a strange woman at a party where I didn’t know anybody. As my friend Pilgrim was driving me home, I had one of those awful moments of clarity that one typically drinks to avoid, and expressed some regret that the first day of the New Year would be spent nursing a bitchin’ hangover. “Look at it this way: you have an entire year to make up for it.” That was his almost brain-bendingly optimistic response.

In similar spirit, here’s what I’m looking forward to in 2010:

-Falcom games on the PSP in English -- the PSP already boasts Ys 6 and Gurumin, but a recent announcement shows that Falcom wants to license more games for English language release. Considering Ys 7 just came out this year in Japan (and looks way better than 6) I couldn’t be more stoked. Other possible releases include Zwei! and Brandish: Dark Revenant. 2010 could be a nice year.

-A new Gene Wolfe novel, The Sorcerer’s House, is scheduled for release on March 16.

-Maybe -- possibly -- hopefully -- but doubtfully, Tsui Hark’s upcoming Di Renjie won’t suck.

-Let’s hope Magnolia’s dvd for Red Cliff is more sensible than their condensed theatrical version.

The first full year of actual, consistent blogging has been great fun. Thanks to the three people who actually bothered to consistently read it. See you guys next year.


Game Review -- Kyonshi 2/キョンシーズ2

Hello Dracula wasn’t just popular in Taiwan. The mix of the macabre silliness and cute, kung fu fighting kids won over Japanese audiences when the first few movies were adapted into a television series that aired in the late eighties. It was popular enough to spawn toys and a manga by an artist named Yu Hiroe. The most curious artifact of its popularity in Japan? A Famicom game from Hudson!

A first look at it might fool you into thinking Kyonshi 2 shamelessly plagiarizes Dragon Quest, but it’s actually closer to Zelda 2. The goal -- so far as I can tell without any knowledge of Japanese -- is to collect the various jiang-shi zombies scattered about town and return them to the Taoist temple, where Ten-ten awaits to issue orders and generally be a bossy little bitch.
You pick from the four male characters (you can’t play as Grandpa King) at the start screen, although I can’t tell what makes them different, and then you’re free to roam about town, buying and selling stuff and going on fetch quests for the locals. Eventually, you’ll walk into a location where the corpses are hanging out, and then you’ll be in the Zelda 2 side-scrolling mode. A button punches, B button kicks, and jumping is assigned to the up key on the d-pad. It’s an awful layout that doesn’t really affect anything since the enemies hop at your character in a single, unchanging pattern. They have high hp, so hitting them over and over until they die becomes tedious pretty fast.
And for those that don’t know Japanese, the frustrating part will come when the battle is over, and leaving the battle screen shows that there are no reanimated corpses following as they guide their character back to the temple. The player needs to buy Taoist charms before the zombies will hop behind him or her. And it’s not a simple task either, since there are a couple dozen characters to talk to who will give you advice, or sell you items, or serve some other purpose I couldn’t discern. And in order to get certain items, the player has to speak to certain characters while holding other items that must be found the same way.
A lot of Famicom RPGs are opaque in this way, particularly the ones that didn’t copy Dragon Quest by the numbers. Adding tedious combat sequences makes Kyonshi 2 even more irritating than other pseudo-RPGs of the era, somehow playing into the long-held stereotype of licensed video games held in the United States -- borderline unplayable.

Kyonshi 2 isn’t unplayable, but it certainly isn’t particularly great. But with the benefit of twenty years hindsight, it does seem like a nice tribute to the popularity of the Hello Dracula films. It's nice to see a Famicom game based on a Chinese film that isn't a pirate cartridge with artwork ripped from successful Japanese games.

Stuff of interest:
Japanese DVD promo

Liu Chih-Yu and Liu Chih-han on some sort of Japanese morning show


Hello Dracula (Chiu Ching-Hung, 1985)

[This might actually be Hello Dracula 2. Please forgive my ignorance in reviewing this film as the first in the series if it is. Thank you.]
The first in probably the longest running series of fantasy films during Taiwan’s infatuation with the genre during the eighties, Hello Dracula (aka 幽幻道士, Son of Chinese Vampire and Corpse Boy) receives very little attention here in the west, even among cult movie aficionados. It’s generally known only to die-hard kung fu movie fans, and even then, it isn’t widely discussed online, possibly because of the limited availability of both the original film and its sequels. (Granted, I probably just jinxed it and all six movies will end up on edonkey tomorrow morning, and yes, there are six) Of the many jiang-shi (or gyonshi/kyonsi) movies that came in the wake of Mr. Vampire (Ricky Lau, 1985) this is my favorite.
For those not familiar with the “Chinese vampire/zombie” myth, it was once believed that in order for a human spirit to attain peace after death, their corporeal self should be buried in a pleasant place near their hometown. Taoists were charged with transporting corpses to their home towns, where they would be interred, and the myth of reanimated corpses that would hop along behind the magically endowed Taoist was born from this practice. There’s plenty of speculation as to why they’re so often depicted in Manchu style dress and the reasons why they detect people by smelling/feeling their breath, but that’s all rather academic. Look it up on Wikipedia.

Set in what one assumes is the early twentieth century, Hello Dracula begins with a travelling Taoist transporting reanimated corpses through a dark forest and is accosted by a tiny hopping corpse boy. As the Taoist is getting beaten up by the little corpse boy, another Taoist, Grandpa King, is travelling through the same forest with his granddaughter, Ten-ten, his four other young apprentices/assistants, and the corpse of their former master in tow. Grandpa tells his charges that they should keep out of the forest, because the reanimated corpse of a child haunts it. No sooner does he inform them of the child than the other Taoist and the kid-zombie come crashing into his wagon, causing the corpse of Ten-ten’s former master to reanimate. The still living humans basically run away, happy to escape with their lives.
Back in town, the locals are upset by the idea that zombies haunt the surrounding forests, and the military governor of the town, whose elder brother recently died, demands that Grandpa King keep the reanimated corpses under control. Unfortunately, his chubby assistant, Shih Kua Pih, is a bit of a bumbling doof, and causes various problems with his clumsiness. Further complicating the situation is a group of foreigners who want the corpse for some sort of experiment. The poorly translated embedded subtitles don’t make it clear if said experiment is mystical or scientific in nature, as one of the corpse thieves is at least dressed as a Catholic priest, and his female companion a nun. Neither of them acts their respective parts, what with stealing corpses and doing sexy stripteases to distract the patrolling militia men.
The movie rambles between set-pieces. Ten-ten controls the corpses with a cute song-and-dance routine; the kid-zombie plays baseball with himself; there’s a comedy vignette with the male Taoist apprentices fighting over Ten-ten’s approval. It all boils down to a climax in which Ten-ten is captured by her former master’s zombie and the corpses all get lose and run wild over the town. Mayhem ensues and the audience is served a great display of kids doing acrobatics, ritual Taoist magic and kung fu.

Liu Chih-Yu became a huge star in her role as Ten-ten, and director Chiu Ching-hung clearly chose to showcase her. As far as child stars go, she’s quite tolerable. Her male counterpart, the bumbling chubby kid Shih Kua Pih, is played by Liu Chih-han. He looks a bit older than the other kids and does pretty well with the comedy and the limited action scenes. Gam Tiu as Grandpa King pales in comparison to Lam Ching-Ying, but that comparison isn’t fair. He was a veteran Taiwanese actor and it shows in his performance. Boon Saam as the fat militia captain is quite funny.
Hello Dracula was definitely intended as a children’s film, as were many other Taiwanese fantasy movies. However, to a western viewer such as me, the sights of kids playing with corpses and little child-zombies are a bit unnerving, to say nothing of once scene where one child attempts suicide. Similarly, the Chinese attitude towards religion was always a bit different from that of the west. It feels a tad irreverent to watch a Catholic priest stealing corpses, even if he is doing so for the sake of research and is shown in a generally sympathetic light (it’s his boss that provides the white-devil stereotype). Similarly, the movie seems to have no clue that sexually objectifying a nun might offend some Christians -- unlike European nunsploitation films, where the offensiveness is part of the fun -- and one has to wonder where the Catholic priest learned kung fu. Also, animal lovers should know that animals were indeed harmed during the making of the film.
Hello Dracula doesn’t provide the same mix of comedy, effective horror, strange fantasy and brutal stunts seen in the more popular Mr. Vampire, but it does provide an extensive degree of light-hearted cheer for a movie filled with violent death and hopping Chinese zombies. Chiu Chung-hing also directed Magic of Spell, the sequel to Child of Peach, as well as serving as action director for films like The Miracle Fighters (Yuen Woo-Ping, 1982). Certainly one of the driving factors in Chinese language fantasy/martial arts films, he’s rather underappreciated.

The only other film I’ve been able to see in this series is 3-D Army (Chan Jun-Leung, 1989) which isn’t really an official entry. It’s a pity that these movies don’t even blip on the radar in the West. When watching a movie like Hello Dracula or Thrilling Sword, it isn’t fair to expect anything. These are, after all, movies made for children on the other side of the world in the primitive 80’s. Like most of the others I’ve reviewed, I would probably watch it with my own kids, if I had any. But with somebody else’s? No. Hell, no.

And no, the title doesn't make any more sense after having watched the movie.


Bald is the new lame

Let it not be said of me that I am outright opposed to remakes. I happened to like Werner Herzog's Bad Liutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, even if it basically spoofed the more important theme's from Ferrerra's film (which is admittedly superior). I'm actually looking forward to David Gordon Green's take on Suspiria. Really, I'm quite open to the whole idea of a remake so long as it doesn't suck.

That said, Louis Leterrier's new Clash of the Titans looks pretty dire.

It's difficult to even explain how obnoxious these new fantasy films are becoming without sounding like a film-Luddite or some sort of shrill Harryhausen fanboy. I'm not against the idea of remaking the 1981 Desmond Davis film in a more serious/not campy way. It would have helped if they'd actually, I don't know, treated it seriously. They only took the myth of Perseus seriously in the sense that superheroes and video games can be taken seriously. It's serious because it has seriously cool digital effects! Lots of people have used digital effects to spectacular ends, but looking the trailer for this just irks me. I don't want to see what Medusa would look like if she were designed to appeal to people who spend most of their free time playing God of War. And whatever happened to a palette of more than five colors?

It really does look like it could be based on a video game. You could splice most of that trailer in with the trailer for the upcoming Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and probably nobody would notice. What's with all the bald, buff guys lately? And why do they all seem to fly through the air to stab at things?

I say this all provisionally, but the trailer doesn't inspire hope. Which is the point of these posts, wherein I try to figure out why I'm having a positive or negative reaction to something I haven't actually seen.

From the trailer, Clash of the Titans feels all too familar, and not because it's a remake. It's more because it looks like a retread of everything from Troy to 300. The market for movies involving myth and swordfighting and ancient warriors has reached full saturation, and the adaptations I was looking forward to (Conan and Solomon Kane) haven't even made it into theaters yet. I love movies about manly dudes hitting each other with sharp stuff, but they've all started to resemble each other, and I need a break from the overdesigned cgi set pieces, yelling, and "inspiring" speeches. If, in the upcoming adaptation, Conan doesn't say more than three full sentences, I'll be immensely happy.


I Dreamed a Dream of a World without Stupid Terminology Pertaining to Video Games

There's a NeoGAF discussion thread (that I found via the Hardcore Gaming 101 forum) wherein a bunch of gamers prattle on in pretend-intellectual speak about the words gamers use to define themselves and each other. I used to edit student essays for a college freshmen rhetoric class, so the tone of this discussion became terribly familiar less than half-way into the original post. But there's something admirable in much of what they say, even if some of the forum-goers aren't as capable of expressing it as others.

It does beg the question of what sort of "gamer" I might call myself. I hate the arbitrary term "hardcore," for all sorts of reasons, the least of which is that it doesn't denote anything concrete. The "esoteric gamer," the terminology proffered by the original poster in that thread, is even worse. Games are already esoteric to those who don't play them, and certain genres of games are obtuse to gamers who don't like them. The word casual now refers to people who play very simple games or buy non-game console software, like Wii Fit. I used to think of "casual" as a reference to people who play lots of Madden NFL 2Kwhatev, Halo, or some other simplified genre excursion. Those people are now referred to as "hardcore" by much of the gaming press, which I suppose is now comprised of little more than Game Informer, 1up, Kotaku and a billion amateur bloggers and forumites and youtube users.

But I also have to admit that I don't call myself a "gamer." Video games aren't my foremost hobby; I spend more time reading and watching movies than I do playing games. But even if video games took up more of my time (and I have been playing them more often, of late) I wouldn't want to personally identify myself with them. I wouldn't want to attach to my identity the title of "gamer." I've seen users on various forums and websites wondering why social networking sites have sections for favorite movies and books, but not video games. I never wondered that.

The matter of self-identification could easily solve itself. You're a "gamer" if you identify yourself as one. But that puts me in an untenable position, as I don't want to ascribe myself that kind of nomenclature, but I probably play more games than most non-nerdy people and know more about game history than the average Xbox Live loudmouth. The games that interest me are usually RPGs. I like dungeon crawlers and silly JRPGs with overly flashy graphics. I love Japanese developer Falcom, whom I make reference (and jokes) to pretty regularly on this blog. I'm also interested in arcade beat-em-ups, Koei/Omega Force games based on Chinese and Japanese history, and games from China and South Korea. I'm starting to think I'll give anything done by Vanillaware a shot.

My tastes are weird, and the games that I like are easily identified as games. I'm a firm opponent of the idea that games are art. (Not that they can't be, but that they aren't, generally) Am I a self-loathing gamer?

I think I've taken shots at Jeremy Parish, Christian Nutt, and Tim Rogers at some point or other on this blog. But really, I think that what they want out of games is more or less similar to what I want. I'll never agree with some of what Rogers puts on actionbutton.net, but I'm fairly (i.e. completely) certain he knows more about game design and the industry than I do.** I'll never agree with Nutt or Parish on some issues either, but the more I read of what they have to say, the less I think we're so different in what we like about video games. Yes, we all want a game that controls well and has fun/workable gameplay mechanics. But I think we're looking for some sort of human warmth as well. For me, that's Falcom's appeal, same for Troika -- even Blizzard at one point. I don't need a brilliant story out of Ys 7 or Temple of Elemental Evil. And I won't get them either. But those games feel as though they were made by people. People I might like.

There's probably a lot of people who feel that way about Valve, or the long defunct Looking Glass, or Treasure. Or at least, something like it.

Video games are made by people who have idiosyncrasies and personalities. I like seeing the evidence of this. Whatever title the game journalists, forum goers and other pedants and didacts would like to assign to this, I'll be happy to take it.

**Please Note: Rogers' site's design makes my eyes shout their safe word. If your eyes don't have a safe word, you should probably sit down and devise one before entering actionbutton.net.


Painted Skin (Bao Fang, 1966)

Mainland Chinese cinema of the mid-1960 has all the spontaneity and human warmth of an algebraic equation, which is interesting when contrasted against the left-wing studios in Hong Kong. Although they’re known for having produced “serious” films -- literary adaptations, like Zhu Shilin’s 1961 adaptation of Cao Yu’s “Thunderstorm” -- the progressive studios also made genre films like Feng Huang’s tremendously expensive historical epic, The Golden Eagle (Chen Jingbo, 1964) or Great Wall’s wuxia classic The Jade Bow (Zhang XinYan, 1966). Painted Skin, a film from Feng Huang contract director Bao Fang, is itself a literary adaptation, but fits well with the previously mentioned films as a “soft film,” designed to entertain rather than instruct their audience.

The film frames the narrative as a story being told to Pu Songling. Pu authored the story collection, “Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio,” in the late seventeenth/early eighteenth century. Popular myth tells that Pu collected his stories from local passers-by and composed his collection out of their stories. There’s not much evidence to support this theory, but the film runs with it. It’s quaint and charming in equal measures.

Scholar Wong Chu Wen is an unsuccessful scholar studying to take the governmental exams in order to gain employment in lucrative administrative position. His brother advises him to forget about auspicious dates and omens and rely on his considerable knowledge of literature and history when he takes his exam -- a gentle way of saying “just study hard, you git.” All that goes out the window when a travelling Taoist tells him that success is in his future, and that to activate his good fortune, he should pray at an abandoned temple on his family’s property. Excited by this foretelling, Wong goes to the temple late at night, only to find a young lady. She tells him that she’s running away from an arranged marriage, set up by her cruel step mother, and that her father is a minister in charge of the examinations at the capital. Seeing this as an opportunity, Wong invites the girl, Mei-niang, to hide away in his study, and that he’ll take her with him to the capital.

He doesn’t tell his wife, or his mother, or his servants about Mei-niang and locks himself in his studio to “study,” spending days and nights there. He doesn’t tell Mei-niang about his wife. I trust the reader can see where this is headed.

Eventually, Mei-niang finds out about Hsia-ling, the scholar’s wife, and is incensed. She tells Wong that she thought that he would marry her once he earned a governmental position, but that now she has no chance at a socially advantageous marriage. Wong ruined her by ruining her.

To rectify the situation, Mei-niang decides that Wong should kill his wife, a task that Wong fails at completing. It is then that strange things start to happen at night, and an awful secret about Mei-niang comes to light.

Painted Skin works because outside of the opening scene, it avoids pedantry. “I know that you are using your tales of ghosts and demons to express your sense of justice,” is about as far in that direction as the opening with Pu Songling actually goes. The rest of the story slowly builds to the horrific reveal. Mei-niang is a ghostly spirit, and beautiful female ghosts and fox demons are well known as the natural predators of hapless scholars in medieval China. And while the film doesn’t follow every detail of the story, likely to avoid the disgusting sequence involving lots of (I’m not kidding) phlegm, it’s probably the most faithful cinematic recreation of one of the “Strange Tales...,” excusing its lapses in textual fidelity by framing it as the tall tale that eventually inspired the story that made it into Pu’s collection. Hence, Wong is really a complete dick, and it’s hard to feel bad for him. That’s about normal for many of the male protagonists in the “Strange Tales...”

As for how it is as a movie, Painted Skin exudes that classic glamour that makes golden age Hong Kong cinema so enjoyable. The way that the film fades out whenever something naughty is about to happen is utterly charming. It feels theatrical at times, with its long shots and careful staging, but isn’t un-cinematic. The moments leading up to the ghostly terror actually muster some real tension, and my only wish was that the film spent an extra ten minutes with its depiction of the supernatural. The simple make up effects and eerie atmosphere make for some effective moments of horror. But up until these moments, one unfamiliar with its source material might assume Painted Skin a very bleak period drama, rather than a horror-fantasy. And it’s a very good, if rather dated period drama up until that point.

An always thought provoking comparison is to look at stories that are frequently adapted as cinema and compare the treatment they receive in each decade or era. Comparing this restrained, conservative film with King Hu’s somewhat uncharacteristic adaptation from 1993 or Gordon Chan’s overproduced wuxia-grotesque from last year will probably give a very wrong impression of Hong Kong cinema’s progress. But it’s a fun time, and will provide an excuse to watch this quaint, sweet little ghost story.


2009 Sucks

Earlier this year, legendary director/cinematographer Jack Cardiff, a man whose career spanned the majority of cinema history, died. David Carradine's death later overshadowed those of legendary Hong Kong cinema villain Shek Kin and Shaw Brothers stalwart Ho Meng-hua, director of classic films like Suzanna and The Lady Hermit. Then Lou Albano; then Shing Fui-On. Michael Jackson. Does anybody need to say more?

Another three: Paul Naschy, Chen Hunglieh and Ding Shanxi. I liked these guys, or at least some of the movies they made/appeared in.

2009 is almost over. It needs to hurry up and end.