written by laura irvine &/or jennifer young

Jen's Top "Ten" List: 2003

Okay here is my fat list of fan girl rantings about last year's films. Extra points are awarded to anyone who actually makes it to the end.;-)

1. OASIS (Korea, Lee Chang-dong)
**Shown at the S.F. International Film Festival in April**
**Also shown at the S.F. Korean American Media Arts Festival in November**
Having never seen actress Moon So-ri before I was completely convinced during the first half of OASIS that an actress with cerebral palsy had been cast. This was an astonishing performance in yet another deeply fulfilling Lee Chang-dong film about life, love, desire, hope, dreams, expectations, pre-conceptions, human frailty, familial relations, the miserable world we live in and what bastards people can be.

2. YMCA BASEBALL TEAM (Korea, Kim Hyunseok)
**Shown at the S.F. International Asian American Film Festival in March**
Taken from a true story YMCA BASEBALL TEAM follows Korea's first baseball team who become a symbol of national pride during Korea's forced abdication to Japan in 1905. First time director-writer Kim Hyunseok uses gorgeously modern film conventions to present a sweet, delightful, and absolutely hilarious snapshot of quaint turn of the century cultural practices and sentiments. A spot-on performance as the film's lead (Babe Ruth-ish) character is delivered by actor Song Kang-ho who wins 2003's best actor award from me - he's lemon-fresh in four terrific films I saw this year (JSA, SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE, MEMORIES OF MURDER and YMCA BASEBALL TEAM).

3. RUNNING ON KARMA (HK, Johnnie To )
**Shown at the 4 Star Theater in S.F. in October**
It's a totally old-school Hong Kong fantasy with a bit of everything thrown in; wacky over-the-top villains, fantastically choreographed action segments, star crossed lovers, humorous dialog & site gags, intriguing plot twists, and some surprisingly good special effects. An artfully blended cocktail by the sure hand of seasoned director Johnnie To - bottoms up!

4. SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE (Korea, Park Chan-wook)
**Shown at the 4 Star Theater's Annual Asian Film Festival in August**
Not everyone's idea of a good time is watching: an innocent child kidnapped and held captive; desperate people floundering in a sea of bad breaks; and ultra tense situations spin violently out of control. On top of that the film's basic premise will sound to you like a tired morality play that's been too often told. But this highly creative writing and directing team (makers of the stupendous JSA) turn the taut, often silent, well acted story on it's ear and give it a completely unexpected shake.

5. SO CLOSE (Hong Kong, Corey Yuen)
**Shown at both the SFIFF in April and Landmark theaters in September**
After a second viewing I was forced to change my low opinion of SO CLOSE. The creativity of Hong Kong filmmakers will forever surprise and wow me and compensate completely for any little faults a film may happen to have - for me originality will rocket a film to the top of the food chain every time. The love story still bored me silly and the chemistry between Shu Qi and her boyfriend is still as lively as a movie theater in Chinatown (you mean they used to show movies in theaters mom?:)! But the supremely competent editing, gorgeous sets, costumes and actresses, fantastically original action and nicely paced, fully realized story make this a one a keeper. Besides Karen Mok is a goddess.

6. BLUE GATE CROSSING (Taiwan/France, Yee Chin-yen)
**Shown at the S.F. International Lesbian Gay Film Festival in May and Landmark theaters in January 2004**
A delicately shot, simple little tale about three sincere teenagers wading through the thorny fields of sexual awakening and ending up in a pain laden love triangle. Director Yee Chin-yen, (who also wrote the screenplay), paints a pretty accurate picture of the confused, inarticulate, meandering nature of teenagers. We get solid acting from all three of the young leads but especially from discovered-on-the-street amateur Guey Lun-Mei who plays spirited lesbian-to-be Meng.

7. OH BROTHERS! (Korea, Kim Yong-Hwa)
**Shown at the S.F. Korean American Media Arts Festival in November**
Brilliant 33 year old actor Lee Bum-Su (SINGLES) plays 12 year old boy Bong-Woo and the outrageous device used to explain the way he looks is that he has that rapid aging disease! Bong-Woo is an incredibly odd, slasher-film loving, Chauncey Gardner character who accidentally gets mixed up in the violent world of Yakuza. Laugh you will.

8. DOING TIME (Japan, Yoichi Sai)
**Shown at the S.F. International Film Festival in April**
Manga author Hanawa Kazuichi penned this mean comedy based on his real-life prison experience. Jailed for three years for illegal weapons possession, Hanawa (played to sarcastic perfection by veteran actor Yamazaki Tsutomu), lovingly narrates a ridiculously detailed description of every strictly scheduled meal and activity. DOING TIME takes a hefty poke at the absurdity of the modern penal system and a culture that's become insanely regimented.

9. NOTHING TO LOSE (1+1=0)(Thailand, Danny Pang)
**Shown at the S.F. International Film Festival in April**
A wild-in-the-streets, scantily clad character named Go Go (played with abandon by hot newcomer Fresh) steals every scene in this stylish, action filled caper film and the good news is she's in almost every one of them. The other plus here is that the fast paced genre allows Danny Pang to show off his super slick editing chops.

10. KILL BILL VOL.1 (Quentin Tarantino)
All right it's not actually the greatest of films but it just HAD to be placed in my top ten. Asian cinephile-heads like me must appreciate that our mutual love got sent out on so very many screens all over the world. And now there's a film _besides_ CROUCHING TIGER that I can discuss with the majority of my co-workers and acquaintances. ;-)

11. PING PONG (Japan, Fumihiko Masuri)
**Seen on Hong Kong import DVD, Region 0, from Panorama Entertainment**
**Also shown at the Asian Films Up The Yin-Yang Film Festival in June**
First time director Fumihiko Masuri has created a deeply stylish, super fresh piece about two ping pong loving pals entering the fast paced, cutthroat world of professional sports. The smoking electroinic soundtrack, a smattering of glistening special effects, and the beauty of some of Japan's finest young actors add even more spark to the effort. Based on a wildly popular manga of the same name the film blends larger-than-life characters with the kinds of realistic growing pains we all face in a brash, high-energy setting. Don't miss it.

12. LOST IN TRANSLATION (Sofia Coppola)
I think it was fitting that I happened to be suffering from insomnia when I saw LIT. Featuring a soundtrack that appears to be stolen from my teenage cassette tape collection, and production values so high that I actually wanted to lick the print, it's amazingly trance-inducing in the same way that you find watching say an unsubtitled foreign TV program captivating when you're tired or bored. Bill Murray is delightful as Bob Harris, the used up American action film star selling his soul to a Japanese Ad agency, and how can you not fall in love with the sedate charms of his young, disillusioned-with-marriage, fancy hotel cohort Charlotte?

13. PECK ON THE CHEEK (India, Mani Rathnam)
**Shown at the S.F. International Film Festival in April**
The film's narrator, a cocky 8 year-old girl named Amudha, has her love-filled life turned upside down when she's told she was adopted. The determined Amudha leads her supportive, adoptive parents to war torn Sri Lanka in search of her birth mother where the family is caught up in the escalating civil war. Faced with the brutality of war, Amudha's resolve is tested, her innocence shaken, but eventually her persistence pays off in a heartwarming climax. A visual treat complete with east-west musical numbers, booming DTS sound effects, strong performances and stunning cinematography the film is another in Rathnam's army of anti-war statements.

14. PRETTY BIG FEET (aka FOR THE CHILDREN) (China,Yang Yazhou)
**Shown at the 4 Star Theater's Annual Asian Film Festival in August**
Pampered city girl visits a rural village for a teaching stint and after some difficulty begins a profound friendship with the local female teacher/saint. Yes the premise is worn out and overly nationalistic but the acting is sublime, the vignettes are honestly affecting and the subject of China's poverty rings as true as any documentary.

15. SPRING SUBWAY (China, Zhang Yibai)    
**Shown at UC Berkeley's Contemporary China Film Festival in November**
Beautifully filmed, written and acted SPRING SUBWAY centers on a young heterosexual couple who's relationship is starting to unravel after seven deeply passionate years. I didn't expect to like it as much as I did since I'm usually bored by films that focus on the intricacies of relationships especially if the film is overtly sexual. But SPRING SUBWAY manages to explore some complex issues without the overly slow rumination that typically accompanies this genre. Even though the central narrative is serious and rather joyless the tone remains optimistic and surprisingly romantic. You don't feel the tight budget at all when it comes to the lush soundtrack which according to Zhang was scored solely for the project. And one of the funnest parts for me was playing spot the film reference as ideas borrowed from AMERICAN BEAUTY, MILLENNIUM MAMBO, THE MISSION, EYES WIDE SHUT, AMELIE and countless others were usurped by self admitted film lover Zhang.

Special Mention:

JSA (Joint Security Area)(S.Korea, Chan-wook Park, 2000)
**On Fire: Recent Films from Korea at the Yerba Buena Center in May**
Maybe Laura and I were the last of our kind to see monster Korean hit JSA but I'm glad we waited until we could see it in a real theater as it completely blew my socks off and turned out to be my very favorite film seen last year. The well developed story of North and South Korean soldiers who meet outside their guard posts in the DMZ (demilitarized zone) and become great friends twists into a tense political drama threatening to fling both countries into a full scale war. The strong messages here are delivered quite quietly through the use of universal emotions deftly portrayed by a highly skilled acting team lead by Korea's Al Pachino Song Kang-ho . Direction, tone, cinematography, sound, music, and editing are flawless. In retrospect JSA may ultimately be regarded as the centerpiece of the brilliant Korean new wave of filmaking we're currently enjoying.

Best Trash:

Worst Trash:

Favorite Soundtracks:

Favorite Bollywood Dance Routines:
Yeh Mera Dil ( spunky & fun from KUCCH TO HAI) - Esha Deol & Tushaar Kapoor
Ishq Samundar (hot & hard from KAANTE) - Isha Kopikar & Sunjay Dutt
Daiyya Re (wet as usual from DIL KA RISHTA) - Aishwarya Rai :-)
Mere Dil Ka Tumse Hai Yeh Kehna (goofy vixen from AARMAN) - Pretty Zinta
Idhar Chala Mein Idhar Chala (Slipping In The Rain from KOI MIL GAYA) - Hrithik Roshan & Pretty Zinta

Favorite DVD:
(Hong Kong,Samson Chiu, Panorama Entertainment, Region 0)
A very plain looking “chicken”, (street slang for career prostitute), with a heart of pure gold stumbles and jokes and philosophizes her way through 25 years of her not-so-easy life. I'd been waiting for another tour-de-force vehicle for one of my all time favorite actress/comedians Sandra Ng since 1998's PORTLAND STREET BLUES. And just as in that previous effort the perfect balance is struck between the wryly humorous and the bitterly sweet.

And here's my list of last year's cinema highlights:

Seeing blood pumper Ryuhei Kitamura's juiced up jailer ALIVE with a whole bunch of movie-violence-loving males.

Getting a chance to see 1958 Academy Award winning epic melodrama MOTHER INDIA in a packed movie palace on that huge Castro Theater screen.

Catching the lively and informative “Bollywood and America” panel discussion was a real highlight of this festival. Not only was the panel itself distinguished (including erudite film critic David Chute) but the audience was filled with a large vocal array of industry professionals and Indian movie enthusiasts.

*Thanks to India being in World Cup cricket matches or some such nonsense all new Hindi films were put on hold for over a month last spring and my local plex, the Naz 8, ran two gorgeous Shah Rukh Khan blockbusters from the year 2000: MOHABBATEIN and KABHI KHUSHI KABHIE GHAM (aka K3G).

Relishing in hardcore filmmaker Sogo Ishii's retrospective of MASTER OF SHIATSU, CRAZY THUNDER ROAD, AUGUST IN THE WATER, LABYRINTH OF DREAMS, and ELECTRIC DRAGON 80,000 Volts!

I was amazed that the programmers were finally showing some decent and recent Hong Kong films: INFERNAL AFFAIRS, SO CLOSE & THE EYE. However my favorite highlight of this festival was finally getting to see historic Thai epic SURIYOTHAI (although cut) on a huge screen and listening to director Prince Chatreechalerm Yukol charm our audience with his wild stories and jokes.

I couldn't believe it when this tour was announced - 8 rare Shaw Brothers films to be shown on the big screen and most were the newly remastered prints! Cheng Pei Pei in COME DRINK WITH ME, Gordon Liu in 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN and Wang Yu as the ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN - I mean how lucky could a Hong Kong film fan be? Sadly there was practically non-existent press for this event in the bay area and I was told this was the Pacific Film Archive's lowest attended event ever which doesn't bode well for more festivals of this ilk. Still we all got to be wowed, (if only for one year), by slinky versions on the big screen of the sweeping classics I'd read so much about.

*Not just one but two brand new blockbusters from one of the most charming actors on the planet Shah Rukh Khan: KAL HO NAA HO (seen at one of the many sold out performances Thanksgiving day at the Naz 8 Indian film cineplex in Fremont) and CHALTE CHALTE (offered at a run-of-the-mill downtown Chicago movie plex right next door to DADDY DAYCARE:).

Yes! I'd risk walking up the wishing stairs and angering the fox demon just to see new films from Korea. This year's festival had a great sampling of the newest dramas, comedies, action and horror films. I got to see five terrific films including: charming Sammi Cheng wanna-be-comedy SINGLES; extremely well crafted period-murder mystery-drama MEMORIES OF MURDER; quirky, funny and sometimes brutally gruesome cop-buddy drama WILD CARD; atmospheric creeper WISHING STAIRS featuring lesbian love affairs, ghost hauntings, and the fox-demon-possessed at a Korean school of the arts for girls; and finally my favorite the over-the-top, side-splitting, black comedy du jour OH, BROTHERS!

Well the entry I was most looking forward to seeing here, the new art film CHOKER BALI staring one of the world's most beautiful women Ashwarya Rai, had an availability problem so they showed K3G (KABHI KHUSHI KABHIE GHAM) instead. I went to see it for a second time and had one of the best theater experiences of the year. The crowd was ready for a good time and boy did they get it. It was a mixed audience but a good portion was made up of gay males, (since we were at the Castro seeing a musical:), who hooted appreciatively at all the high camp and tight see through clothing on the hunky male leads. Fun, fun, fun, fun, fun.

Main man Frank Lee outdid himself this year. We got to see loads of spicy new HK titles like: MY LUCKY STAR, LOVE FOR ALL SEASONS, CAT AND MOUSE, COLOUR OF THE TRUTH, MY DREAM GIRL, GOOD TIMES BED TIMES, PUBLIC TOILET, DRAGON LOADED, MEN SUDDENLY IN BLACK, and one of my favorite films of the year Johnnie To's RUNNING ON KARMA.


Wonderful heart-tuggers from mainland China included: TOGETHER, MISSING GUN, PRETTY BIG FEET, 25 KIDS AND 1 DAD, and possibly my favorite mainland film ever POSTMEN IN THE MOUNTAINS.

And last but not least the gigantic poo poo platter of highly recommended Asian delights shown at the 4 Star's 7th ANNUAL ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL including two from my 2002 top films list: when the SEVEN SAMURAI meets SAVING PRIVATE RYAN you get the engrossing Korean battle epic MUSA: THE WARRIOR and one of the most beautiful films I've ever laid eyes on, the devastating Indian melodrama DEVDAS. Also shown were: a gorgeously produced, exuberant Indonesian drama about a tight-knit group of maturing teenage girls called WHAT'S WITH LOVE; an inspired, well acted Korean cold war mystery called DOUBLE AGENT; playful Japanese Samurai-for-hire farce VENGEANCE FOR SALE; Korean RING knockoff THE PHONE featuring the world's greatest scenery-chewing-demonically-possesed five year old; Thailand's KILLER TATTOO is a delightfully furious bullet-ballet/joke-fest about bumbling hitmen complete with an Elvis impersonator; and one of the best up-all-night/underdogs-pulling-together/Japanese-teenage-girl gang-fantasy-revenge tales ever BOUNCE KO GALS.

*Still, after all those great highlights, the event that rises to the very top for me this year was getting a chance to see JSA for the first time thanks to a mini festival called On Fire: Recent Films from Korea at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. I'd been waiting to see JSA in the theater and my chance finally came last May. Annoyingly the Heroic Grace festival was also happening at the same time so me and a bunch of friends headed to the east bay to catch ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN and GOLDEN SWALLOW (not an adult fetish film;) then jumped in the car and raced across the bridge to catch JSA in San Francisco an hour later. It was absoulutely worth the trouble. :-D