In offering the following comments on the one Hong Kong and four Japanese films I saw as part of this year’s Asian Film Festival in New York (I have already written about Chinese and Korean films), I understand that there is only an outside chance that they will be shown in theatres or become available through rentals. However, I do offer them as a reminder of the creativity and intelligence of films off the beaten track. If it weren’t for documentaries and foreign films, I doubt that I would ever have gotten involved with film reviewing, even as an avocation.
Directed by Soi Cheang, “Dog Bite Dog” is exactly as the name implies–a brutal struggle between a bad guy and Hong Kong cops. Unlike other films in this genre, Cheang is not interested in showing the more picturesque sides of Hong Kong. Instead he focuses on the seamy underbelly, from garbage dumps to the grimy back lots of warehouses and factories. With unredeemable characters on either side of the law, the ugly scenery serves as the perfect visual backdrop.
Pang (Edison Lee) is a hit man imported from Cambodia who has spent his childhood fighting other children in a grotesque version of “tough men” contests in the U.S. Bred like pit bulls, the boys are kept lean, mean and hungry. Pang, a survivor of many matches, has moved up in the world and now shoots people for a living. In the opening scene at a restaurant, he opens fire on the wife of a Hong Kong lawyer. Still haunted by the gnawing hunger of his youth, Pang wolfs down the food off her plate as she lies dead at the table.
Pang in full combat mode
Pursued by Hong Kong cops in the streets near the restaurant, Pang reveals himself to be a ruthless and efficient killer. Using knives and guns, he leaves one dead cop after another in his wake. Finally, he eludes his pursuers and flees to the outskirts of the city where he happens upon a vast garbage dump, which looks for all practical purposes like an actual Hong Kong garbage dump. There he spots a hut inhabited by a man and woman who apparently make their livings as scavengers. Looking through the window, Pang discovers them having sex. It will soon be obvious that he finds the woman named Pei Pei (Weiying Pei) totally irresistible despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that she is as grubby as him.
After the man is done screwing Pei Pei, he demands a meal. When she responds a bit slowly, he begins cursing and beating her. In showing another side of his character, Pang comes to her rescue and chokes the man to death. But as a creature of habit, he cannot show the woman the affection he obviously feels and proceeds to bully her into becoming his accomplice. He is mainly interested at first in getting help in finding the next boat out of Hong Kong. Since he doesn’t speak a word of Chinese, he can only communicate by drawing pictures (one is of a boat, a leitmotif throughout the film), hand gestures or the occasional slap.
The remainder of the film involves their growing affection for each other and finally their love. When the cops hold the woman as hostage, Pang defies the odds to rescue her. No matter how evil he is, we feel sympathy for him in his willingness to sacrifice everything for the woman he loves. As symbols of Asia’s most marginalized social layers, they only struggle for a normal life. Like Jean Valjean in “Les Miserables”, they have to fend off cops bent on bringing Pang to justice. The most determined of them is Wai (Sam Lee), the son of a crooked cop who is trying to redeem his father’s lost honor through his own heroism even when it means breaking departmental rules.
In many ways, this film is simply a reworking of Hong Kong policier traditions handed down from John Woo to Johnnie To. Virtuoso performances by Edison Chen and Sam Lee, who bring a kind of primal intensity to their roles, separate this film from the pack. This is especially true of Edison Chen, whose character really has no lines in the entire film. He must express his feelings through facial expressions, just like in a silent film, and he does it very well.
While released separately, “Death Note” and “Death Note: The Last Name” are essentially two parts of the same movie. Based on a best-selling manga (comic book), it tells the story of a law student named Light Yagami (Tetsuya Fujiwara) who stumbles across a notebook lying in the street one day that belonged to Ryuk, a god of death. When he takes it home, he discovers that it will allow him to cause the death (heart attack is the default) of anybody whose name is written in the book. As the son of the chief of police and a law student, Light is preoccupied with criminals getting off with a light sentence or going free like O.J. Simpson. Like the Charles Bronson character in the old “Death Wish” movies (but without his guts), Light proceeds to dispatch dozens of criminals by heart attack each day. He becomes known as Kira, the avenger god.
Light Yagami and Ryuk, from the original manga
Ryuk the death god, a 12 foot computer-generated figure, is Light’s constant companion and is one of the most interesting characters in the film. Like the rabbit Harvey who could only be seen by James Stewart, Ryuk is visible only to Light or anybody else who touches the notebook. He has a sardonic sense of humor and a fondness for apples. He accompanies Light everywhere he goes offering critical support for his vigilantism. But when Light begins to kill cops who are on his trail, Ryuk begins to be repelled by his young master and accuses him at one point of being more bloodthirsty than the god of death himself.
Light Yagami is a totally bloodless character. Although he has convinced himself that he is on a mission to uphold justice, he seems more like the youthful killers Leopold and Loeb, who were dramatized in “Compulsion.” They too were law students who turned to crime out of a thirst for power. Like them, Light is a fan of Nietzsche and is seen at one point in the film with his nose buried in “Man and Superman.”
There’s a fascinating article on the Death Note manga in today’s Salon. I concur thoroughly by this observation made by the author Douglas Wolk:
The core of the creeping fear in “Death Note,” actually, is its moral uncertainty: Most of its characters perpetually struggle with doubts over whether they’re doing right or wrong. Light is an unrepentant serial killer, a butcher on an enormous scale, but he isn’t a Freddy Krueger, a monster who represents pure evil, or a Patrick Bateman, a demonic symbol of his age. As coldly manipulative and egomaniacal as he is, he genuinely believes he has the moral high ground, and he sort of has a point — Ohba suggests that Light’s totalitarian world, ruled by a propagandistic TV channel and an arbitrary secret executioner, is in some ways a better, happier world than ours. And over the course of the series, we see glimpses of how the Death Note could be far worse in someone else’s hands; in the books’ only really weak sequence, a corporation acquires a Death Note of its own and uses it to prop up its business interests (by committee, no less).
Like “Death Note”, “Freesia: Bullet Over Tears” is based on a manga. Additionally, it deals with killing as an act of redress. In a future Japan, professional executioners licensed by the state carry out ritual revenge killings. The intended targets are allowed to hire their own armed defenders, also licensed by the state. These killings serve to release pressure in a society that is coming apart at the seams. The ritual might remind one of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” a short story that was required reading for high school students in the 1950s. There are constant riots in the street by people with all sorts of grievances. The cops run from one outbreak to another like the Keystone Cops. Time and place are announced on television and hit-squads descend on a street to ferret out their victims, who are usually pretty bad people who have escaped arrest and imprisonment–just like the characters who succumb to Death Note’s heart attacks.
The film revolves around one of these professional killers, a Mr. Kanou (Tetsuji Tamayama) who is in his twenties and as bloodless as Light Yagami, even more so. Throughout the entire film, Kanou is totally indifferent to danger. Indeed, he is indifferent to just about everything, having been a victim of an army experiment that left him stripped of feelings.
The film is somewhat limited by Kanou’s lack of emotion, but moves along crisply nonetheless through set pieces involving combat between rival squads of executioners as well as being visually striking.
Finally, some words about “Memories of Matsuko,” a film that has the visual “snap, crackle and pop” of the manga-based films discussed above but that is derived solely from the hyperactive visual imagination of director Tetsuya Nakashima. Like his “Kamakazi Girls,” shown at the last New York Asian Film Festival, Nakashima’s latest is filled with pop art/camp sensibility flourishes. Typically, when the main character Matsuko, a woman who is abused by men her entire life, has hooked up with the latest heel, little cartoon bluebirds appear above their heads while an off-screen chorus sings a saccharine love song. Nakashima is heavily into irony, to say the least.
When the film begins, Matsuko Kawajiri (Miki Nakatani) has just died. She was an obese bag lady who is living in a garbage-filled tenement apartment who was murdered by an unknown assailant on the shore of a nearby river that she haunted. Her brother, who leads a conventional middle-class existence, sends his son out to her apartment to clean out the garbage. While there, he comes across various newspaper clippings and old letters that reveal the true story of this woman in a fashion reminiscent of Orson Welles’s “Citizen Kane.”
It turns out that Matsuko was a beautiful young woman who had a good job teaching school. One day, when some money turns up missing, the principal accuses one of her students, a sullen and hostile creep, of theft. In an attempt to cover up for him, Matsuko “borrows” money from another teacher to make up for the stolen funds but gets caught in the act. Not only does she lose her job, the student she was trying to protect tells her to piss off. He was not interested in her protection and would be happy being punished.
From that point, everything goes wrong in Matsuko’s life. She hooks up with a nonstop procession of gangsters, pimps and psychotics who beat her at the drop of a hat. So dependent is she on the attention of a man that she cries out at one point that she would rather be beaten than be alone. Suffice it to say that this is not a very appetizing subject matter for a film, even if the abuse is presented in a black comedy fashion not unlike Terry Southern’s “Candy.”
I found this film thoroughly distasteful but compelling in an odd way. Whatever you want to say about this and the other Japanese films discussed here, they are certainly not interested in lulling the audience with a false sense that everything is right in the world.