Naika Reviews “Mr. Vampire”

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Did you ever wish there was a horror film that had slapstick comedy, practical effects, amazing stunt work and Hong Kong fight choreography?  Well this Halloween, look no further than to the Hong Kong classic that is Mr. Vampire from 1985.  Even though it wasn’t the pioneer of the jiang shi (or “hopping corpse”) genre, Mr. Vampire’s the one that made it famous all over Asia.  Its success was so massive that it spawned 3 sequels and a slew of other films that would recycle the same actors in vaguely similar roles from the original.  Ain’t that crazy?  Produced by Sammo Hung and starring fellow Hong Kong stuntmen such as Lam Ching Ying and Chin Siu-ho, Mr. Vampire is an action-packed horror comedy of the Hong Kong kind that’s so crazy that it can’t be missed.  So let’s all be adventurous and dive right in.

Master Kau and Master Four-Eyes (Lam Ching Ying and Anthony Chan respectively) are two Taoist priests who run a business transporting recently dead jiang shi back to their hometowns for a proper burial.  Using special paper talismans to reanimate and control these stiffs, both men are portrayed as pros who know that handling hopping corpses ain’t for laughs.  However, this wouldn’t be a comedy without their two stoopid apprentices, Man-choi (the late Ricky Hui) and Chau-sang (Chin Siu-ho).  Their dumbfuckery is best seen in the film’s opening, where Chau-sang’s prank on Man-choi blows off the all-important paper talismans that immobilize their jiang shi clients.  With a bunch of hopping-mad stiffs on the loose, Kau and Four Eyes hurriedly (and hilariously) come to the rescue to not only subdue these stiffs, but to save their students from themselves.

Master Four-Eyes (L) and Master Kau (R) give a big ‘F*CK YOU’ to their apprentices before they go out for some Yum Cha in Ricky Lau’s “Mr. Vampire.”

The plot rolls ahead once we’re introduced to the wealthy Master Yam and his daughter Ting Ting (the bodacious Moon Lee Choi-fung, in her first big role before becoming an action star).  Yam is looking to have his father reburied elsewhere in order to bring more luck to his family and invites both Kau and Man-choi to a Western-style brunch, hoping to enlist their help. This scene in particular is a bit goofy given that both Kau and Man-choi have no idea what they’re doing when it comes to anything West of China, and Ting Ting, being the most knowledgeable of the bunch, gets a few giggles in at our heroes’ expense.  However, this payoff doesn’t come without her getting creeped out by the leery eyes of Man-choi.  Yuck!

It’s only when Master Kau agrees to rebury Yam’s father do things start to get spooky.  Upon exhumation, our merry band of Taoists are shocked to discover that the corpse has yet to decompose, prompting fears that this stiff may come back to terrorize the living.  With all this in mind, Kau and company decide to move this would-be jiang shi into their lair for confinement.  However, since we have TWO DUMBSHIT apprentices here, things do NOT go as planned.  Not only does our corpse escape, its ferocity ignites a hilarious car-crash of events where Kau, Man-choi, Chau-sang and Ting Ting all team up to fight a jiang-shi which grows more powerful after each battle.  Oh, and did I mention that throughout all of this, Master Four-Eyes, the only other priest in this group, is away guiding other hopping stiffs for burial?

Moon Lee endures another Bey Logan impersonator in Ricky Lau’s “Mr. Vampire.”

Though the plot (minus the spooky) seems pretty standard for Hong Kong fare of the 80s, Mr. Vampire makes up for that with hilarious hi-jinks that are centered around polished stunts and special effects.  My guess is that Sammo Hung’s hand as producer was essential for making the action here as bombastic as possible.  With the legendary Yuen Wah as the invincibly evil “Mr. Vampire”, we get to see how our heroes fight this terror with full-impact hits, painful falls and amazing pyrotechnics once Wah’s burned alive….twice!  The Hong Kong fight choreography also adds rhythmic intensity to scenes where our heroes either need to block hits, run like hell or scream like babies.  One of the standout scenes for me is how Chau-sang deals with a recently turned jiang shi in a prison while Master Kau looks on from his cell after being wrongly convicted for the death of said jiang shi.  Chau-sang hides, runs, fights, does flips, and screams for his life like a madman, and it’s ALL AWESOME!  This fun mixture of humor and action, combined with the scary groans of the jiang shi, transforms your typical Hong Kong fight scene into a heart-pounding set-piece that delivers laughs AND scares.  With scenes like this peppered throughout the film, it’s no wonder that Mr. Vampire was such a massive hit all over Asia.

However, let me be clear and say that  Mr. Vampire isn’t without its flaws.  Some scenes tend to drag a bit, especially those that feature the insufferable Billy Lau.  Furthermore, some of the humor found in Mr. Vampire is, unfortunately, a bit dated.  This is especially the case when it comes to our perverted apprentices, as well as a scene where the mental handicap of a rice-seller’s son is shown for laughs.  Also, am I the only one who thinks that Moon Lee should be beating-up zombies left and right instead of being a damsel-in-distress who gets sidelined for household stuff?  Though this movie pre-dates her status as a Girls-with-Guns alumnus in the Hong Kong film industry, I still wished Moon had more to do in the ass-kicking department.  These issues aren’t exactly deal-breakers for me, but I think we can all see why folks might be turned off by this, especially when it comes to the dated jokes.

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Man-choi (L) gets scared shitless by Chau-sang in Ricky Lau’s “Mr. Vampire”.

Despite these concerns, Mr. Vampire emerges as a rockin’ film that showcases the best of what Hong Kong cinema had to offer in the 1980s.  Filled with fights, laughs, scares and mishaps, this film delivers with universal thrills in a uniquely Chinese cultural package.  Now, it’s easy for the casual viewer to be intimidated by the myths that surround the jiang shi, but if you go into it with an open mind, Mr. Vampire will reward you handsomely.  The fact that jiang shi mania swept Japan, South Korea and the rest of Southeast Asia decades ago is ample evidence for this.  Furthermore, with recent films like 2013’s Rigor Mortis leading the genre’s revival (which, I might add, features both Chin Siu-ho and Anthony Chan), this is probably THE best time to sit down and see this awesome classic.  So set the holy water aside this season, and gear up for a horror comedy that’ll leave you burnt, bruised and hopping mad for some high-kicking Hong Kong action.  Thank you all for reading and have a Happy Halloween!!

Taking Her for Granted

I never ever thought she would go.  I always thought, “Oh, it’s Aretha.  She ain’t going anywhere.  I’ll listen to her stuff more another time.  She’ll always be around.”  And guess what?  She’s gone.  Gone.  After all the history she’s made, Respect and Natural Woman may be the ONLY songs I know from her.  I’m sorry Aretha.  You deserved a ton more from me.  Maybe from a whole lotta others too.  You were a pioneer, an activist, the lady that helped usher in the Obama years and so much more.  Rest well in that throne of yours Aretha.  From what I gather, you will be hard to eclipse…

Naika Reviews “Tampopo”

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There is no greater film about food than Tampopo.  Period.  I’ve never seen Ramen Girl or Spanglish, nor have I raided my Barnes & Noble for Babette’s Feast.  Noodles, whether it’s ramen, liangpi, pho, char kuay teow, boat noodles, pancit and so on and so forth, have now found a place in the American food landscape, and there’s no better way to celebrate that than to savor the flavors of this movie.  In my youth, Tampopo was this mysterious film that would just sit in my video store, waiting to be discovered.  My brother and I finally rented the DVD in the 2000s and we were literally BLOWN AWAY.  You have to understand that for Asian-Americans like us, there was literally no respectful representation of Asian food in American TV or film.  Tampopo, however, was different.  Tampopo wasn’t just an indie darling, or some East Asian village flick that stoked white audiences’ “allure for the Orient.”  It was a daring, modern-day comedy that asked you to not only take food seriously, but to realize that serious people make it their life’s work to make good food for you.

But let’s take a step back and shoot the shit about the details.  Tampopo, for all the adjectives I’ve provided on the last paragraph, is, to its core, a movie about a struggling business.  Our title character is a working class Mom who’s struggling to keep her late husband’s ramen-ya afloat, and it’s only through a combo of factors that she runs into the gruff, cowboy trucker named Goro.  After sharing his thoughts about how bad her ramen is, Tampopo becomes driven to make her business shine and enlists the man’s help to fire it all up.  After giving her a few tips, Goro soon goes to work in getting our lovable Mom into fighting shape.  Literally.  Either through jogging, pot lifting relays or ramen assembly speedruns, Tampopo’s journey to become a true noodle artisan is just packed with so much fun that even the pickiest of viewers will watch.

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This leads us to the next big reason why Tampopo is such a fun flick: she ISN’T the only focus here!  Throughout the course of the movie, we’re treated to a wealth of vignettes from foreground characters who all have their own food journeys to share.  Some of these include a dim sum consumer with a toothache, a con man with a knack for Peking Duck and a stuffy Europhile whose course on pasta etiquette goes south for all the right reasons.  And, without giving away too much, let’s not forget the amazing Koji Yakusho with his portrayal as a scene-stealing gangster whose eye for food is second to none.  Thanks to these stories, Tampopo transcends its former status as a ‘Ramen Western’ into a full-blown celebration of Japan’s urban food scene in the 1980s.

However, Japan’s pre-bubble food scene wouldn’t have been what it was without the allure of Ramen and its status as blue collar cuisine.  When the film does shift back to Tampopo , we see how much consideration goes into every single element of a bowl of ramen.  From the texture of the noodles to the details of making the right broth, Tampopo’s desire to become a top chef reveals that making ramen isn’t just some process that comes out of a pot or a microwave; it’s the ultimate reflection of working class Asia, where humble, hard-working customers demand genuine food from genuine people.

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The times, however, have changed.  This is 2018, and, unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last thirty years, ramen is in the big leagues now.  That being said, Tampopo functions as a window into a not-so-distant past devoid of Yelp, overseas ramen-ya and our predisposition for Michelin stars.

All in all, Tampopo is a paean to the epicure in all of us, showing us firsthand that ‘slinging hash’ isn’t just a way to get by, but a chance to express ourselves through senses beyond sight and hearing.  Even though we’re unable to smell or taste what’s on screen, Tampopo is a visual feast that stokes both our hunger and curiosity without the need for explanations.  This is especially the case when it comes to the preparation of dishes that aren’t ramen, including omelette rice and Korean barbecue.  However, despite these gorgeous gourmet scenes, this film has more to offer than meets the eye.  When we get to the meat of it, Tampopo is, at its core, a heart-warming study on the values of passion and cultivation.  This is best exemplified through our title character’s own journey, where she transforms herself from a sullen cook and widow into a passionate, knowledgeable and vibrant chef whose determination and resilience blossoms beyond the evolution of her ramen.  From here, we can safely say that Juzo Itami’s film isn’t just an ode to the gourmet in all of us.  It’s a potent and vibrant reminder about our capacity to savor the tangible, to love furiously, to share joy with others and to realize just how timeless exuberance can be in the pursuit of mastery.

What a World Cup. What a GAME!!!

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20 years ago, I was in Thailand, where I witnessed the France ’98 final between France and Brazil.  That moment changed my life, making me a football fan forever.  Now with the 2018 Final all said and done, I’m happy to say that another French Golden Generation is on the cusp of greatness.  I’m totally sad for Croatia who, for the majority of this tournament, played some scintillating football from the start to the final, especially from Ballon d’Or winner Luka Modric.  But France, dive aside, did the nasty and made sure they played compact, counter attacking football and capitalized on moments to get them through as 4-2 winners today.  What a game, and what an end to this tournament.  Hell, even Pussy Riot was able to crash the party!  How cool is that?  (which probably means jail time for them….crap)

However, a big thing to note this year was that it was just full of big moments.  From the big boys losing it big time to upstarts trying to make names for themselves, we were treated to highs, lows, and lots and lots of VAR.  And what about those upsets?  Surprises from Japan, Senegal, Russia and Mexico were some of the few of course. Now that it’s all over, I feel totally empty.  I mean, I’m not gonna watch MLB, so what the heck else am I gonna do?  I’m gonna miss talking about this World Cup and all the ferocity that was seen in highlights from every Group match to the Final.  Fox Soccer wasn’t kidding when they mentioned in their coverage of the Final that this event is the “the greatest collective experience we have as human beings.”  If you didn’t see that connection, that desire to win and celebrate in the faces of the fans, you definitely saw it in each and every player on the pitch.

With this, I feel like it’s time to say goodbye to the World Cup.  What a tournament, and what a win for France.  Who would’ve thought that they would do it again twenty years exactly after the triumph of ’98?  That’s football for ya, and from here on out, that a wrap until 2022.

Whirlwind World Cup

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Man oh man, it’s been one hell of a World Cup so far.  The Quarter-final between Russia vs. Croatia finished this afternoon and it was a total nail-biter.  Whether you think Russia’s gotten there fair-and-square or with a little help is the vague madness that, to me, helps to illustrate why this year’s tournament has been so wild.  Upset defeats from the big boys like Germany in the group stages, along with Round of 16 exits from Portugal and Argentina, have made this World Cup an emotional roller-coaster (especially since I’m a Germany fan).  However, one great thing that I enjoyed was seeing Messi and Ronaldo, the two best players in the planet, getting trashed by great teams.  No trophy for them, LOLZ!

But this cup isn’t just big on upsets, it’s big on up-and-coming stars.  Uruguay was very impressive throughout this Cup, especially against Ronaldo’s Portugal, but they, unfortunately, lost to France on the Quarter-finals (Cavani, their star striker, was injured).  Speaking of France, HOW ABOUT MBAPPE!!!???  This kid will totally be the next superstar of world football….once he gives up diving.  And while we’re on the subject of diving, we need to certainly talk about Neymar.  Now, to be fair, it’s not like anyone else isn’t doing this.  Maguire for England (a defender dammit), and Ronaldo for Portugal are obvious examples, but Neymar’s rolling is now one of the most iconic memes you’ll find from this tournament.  The agony on his face, the writing and the sheer drive that powers his tumbling are all elements worthy of laughs, especially when he gets booked for it.

However, what ultimately animates this World Cup is the football, and so far, it hasn’t disappointed (much).  Belgium in particular have been impressive against Japan and Brazil.  France isn’t as stylish as in past World Cups but they are totally getting the job done (with Giroud, Griezemann and Mbappe in attack).    However, sides like England have just been smash and grab for me, and it’s kinda boring (their game today versus Sweden was just….I don’t know, all over the place).  Now that we’re in the semis, things should hopefully heat up for Tuesday and Wednesday.  Until then, keep on watching folks!