Turning Japanese

28 working days…no word from Customs… [Sigh]

As mentioned last week, my parents are here, and this weekend was largely spent in a range of cultural pursuits – at least, in comparison to the next few days, when the eventual destination will be the anti-culture capital of the world, Las Vegas. We got to contrast two cultures on Saturday and Sunday: the first day of the weekend saw us at the Arizona Scottish Highland Games; on the second we stumbled, more or less by accident, across a Matsuri or Japanese festival, in downtown Phoenix.

Despite the vastly different backgrounds from which these two sprang, there were some interesting cultural similarities, not least in the way in which both celebrated – or perhaps “wallowed” might be closer to the truth – in history. In Scotland’s case, this is somewhat understandable, given that the country ceased to exist as a sovereign nation the best part of three hundred years ago. While the sons and daughters of the country have done much to be proud of since (and quite a few things we’d rather not broadcast – Sheena Easton comes to mind there), it’s best not mentioned that these have been as the junior partner in a supposedly united kingdom.

For Japan, the situation is different, yet perhaps not so much as you’d expect. For hundreds of years, it was a nation which practiced isolationism to a degree which would be utterly impossible today, and the savage Westernisation which has followed its defeat in World War II is not going to be welcomed by all, leading to a strong sense of nostalgia for older i.e. better times. In both Japan and Scotland, it’s probably true to say that icons such as whisky or bonsai are wrapped up as a significant part of national identity, to a degree which may not be apparent to outsiders.

It would, however, have been nice if either event had made some effort to introduce a contemporary feel to proceedings. Okay, this’d be a bit difficult for Scotland, given their last worthwhile contribution to shared world popular culture was probably the pneumatic bicycle. But Japan’s three biggest post-war cultural exports are perhaps Godzilla, Hello Kitty and anime, and all three were virtually absent from the matsuri. One Hello Kitty book and two wall-hangings, depicting the big G and Sailor Moon, was about the sum total, which is a shame, because they would have brought in a whole new generation for whom the noble arts of flower-arranging aren’t much of a draw. I must confess to having thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition of drumming, performed with rather more enthusiasm and energy than the martial arts nearby! This was hugely refreshing, in comparison to the po-faced and almost dreary nature of some of the items: you could certainly admire them, but they didn’t really spark much enthusiasm in me.

I have to admit though, I don’t think I ever realised before what big buggers koi carp are; they had entire plastic swimming pools filled with them, though my enquiry of whether they were also selling chips to accompany them didn’t go down too well… You need to show relevance to people; you bring nations together by showing that the Japanese have the same sick and twisted interests as we do. Thus, I have visions of a pop matsuri, in which Godzilla would wrestle a barbed-wire death-match against Mima Shimoda, accompanied by a rendition of the Sailor Moon theme played via a cheap, plastic alarm clock. The food would be McSushi, and all the stalls would be manned by over-sized robots and doe-eyed schoolgirls, with the odd tentacle flicking casually in and out of proceedings (if not the schoolgirls). Doesn’t that sound rather more fun?

1st Phoenix Film Festival

AMC Arizona Center, February 9th-11th, 2001

Dana Millican looks 'Green' At the risk of sounding like a mini-megalomaniac – which, the nurses say, is way down my list of disorders – there are occasionally times when, just for a moment, it seems as if the universe truly does revolve around me. I mean, within three months of my arrival in Phoenix, they’ve organised a film-festival. And not just any film-festival, but one dedicated to low-budget and independent movies, with nothing costing more than a million allowed on the premises. Does life get any better than that? Not when we get two all-access press passes to the event, no.

For given the choice between seeing a film with a million-dollar budget, and one costing a hundred million-dollars, I know which one will get my popcorn. The more money that is ploughed into a project, the more people have a finger vested in the pie, and inevitably, you end up with movies written by committees of accountants. Any risks, originality, or spark of life have to run the gauntlet of rewrites, test screenings and studio executives, and the results are…Gone in 60 SecondsBattlefield Earth…Jim Carrey. Given the choice between hiring Mr. One-Expression, or making twenty feature films, which is better value for viewers, film-makers and the world of cinema in general?

James Hutson and Kirsten Robek cut out the 'Middlemen' In addition to the independence of vision, low-budget movies offer another advantage: they’re short. Of the seventeen films in the festival, the longest ran for just 101 minutes, because when you’ve got no money, every frame has to count. These are like blow-darts, make the point and stop, unlike the overblown epics coming out of Hollywood. There, you might as well smash the rock over the viewers’ heads a few more times because it’s someone else’s money anyway.

This helps explain why, of the eight films seen over the weekend, all were worthy of respect; they might not have been perfect (unsurprising, when you can often afford no more than three takes), they might not always have succeeded in their goals, but you can only applaud all the makers for their efforts, especially in the face of shooting schedules as low as ten days. These people are the future of cinema, and deserve support and recognition every bit as much as Hannibal – which I saw on Sunday night after leaving the festival, and can honestly say was less enjoyable than every movie in it. Two films, Vice and Boys From Madrid, are already contenders for my ten best of 2001, and Green would have followed them, if it hadn’t been made in 1997. My only gripe was an excessively parochial feel: all the features were English language, and only one came from outside North America. That, I suspect, comes down to submissions rather than any conscious decision, and next time, as an “established” event, I hope for a more global selection. On the other hand, it was an additional pleasure to see shorts, not only in their own programs, but alongside the main features.

Uncomfortable? It's 'cos they're 'Standing on Fishes'The event took place in a far-off corner of the 24-screen AMC megaplex in downtown Phoenix; if this smacked of sell-out to The Man, at least we got comfortable stadium seating with lots of leg-room for our souls, and it was a salutory experience to walk past the likes of Saving Silverman on the way to the festival zone. Once there, it was like entering another country because, as well as the content, the atmosphere was great. Most entries had directors, producers and actors in attendance, who were delighted to talk about their work afterwards, in sessions of excellent informality. Everyone was approachable and friendly, and additionally, a lot of guests hung around to see other people’s movies, a major plus compared to other festivals I’ve attended.

Heather Ann Foster gets into  the spirit of 'Urban Ghost Story' On the down side, an unfortunate number of screenings were plagued with technical problems: the video projection was particularly awful, with bad colour and shortcomings on sound – where there was any at all – but even some of the film projection was not up to an acceptable standard. These gremlins led to films starting anywhere up to half-an-hour late, and this had a knock-on effect, delaying both later movies in that screen, and in other screens since people might have tickets to them as well. At $10/film, it was pricey, especially for the video-projected films (a fact not mentioned in the program!) and the ticketing system itself seemed strange. If you bought a ticket to a specific movie, you (theoretically) might or might not get in, since priority was given to those who’d bought one-day passes.

I say “theoretically”, since none of the screenings we went to were sold out, with the majority less than half-full. While this is perhaps fortunate in the light of the above, it’s otherwise a shame, and I think the festival could have done with broader publicity – on several occasions before the weekend, we mentioned it to people and their reaction can be summarised as “Huh?” However, everyone we spoke too at the event had a thoroughly good time, so there should be plenty of positive word-of-mouth for next year. It’s a festival that certainly deserves to be a success, and I’m already looking forward enormously, to bigger and better things next year.

[Thanks to Golan Ramras for the press passes, and Chris Fata for editorial assistance, festival liaison, her comfy shoulder and enough Diet Coke to float a battleship…]

For more information on this year’s festival, and to keep up to date on the plans for next year’s, visit the Phoenix Film Festival website.

Festival reviews

Boys From Madrid
Chump Change
Killing Cinderella
Standing on Fishes
Urban Ghost Story
TC Awards

Best Film: Boys From Madrid
Best Actor: Theo Pagones, Boys From Madrid
Best Actress: Meredith Scott Lynn, Standing on Fishes
Best Director: Carlo Gustaff, Boys from Madrid
Best Supporting Actor: Phillip Maurice Hayes, Middlemen
Best Supporting Actress: Patricia Kalember, Killing Cinderella
Best Script: John Woodward, Vice
Best Cinematography: Karl T.Hirsch, Green
Phoenix Films

Bus Stop
The Gauntlet
The Getaway
Highway to Hell
The Prophecy
Raising Arizona
Tank Girl
Terminal Velocity
Zabriskie Point
Official Festival Awards

Best Short Film: The Limited (Catherine MacKinney)
and Modern Daydreams (Mitchell Rose) – tie
Best Feature Film: Middlemen
Best Director: Kevin Speckmaier, Middlemen
Best Screenplay: Stephen Burrows, Chump Change
Best Ensemble: The cast of Rollercoaster
Arizona Filmmaker Award: Karl T. Hirsch, Green
Audience Ballot Award: Chump Change
Best Student Short: My Chorus (Richard Doherty)

Fuel For Thought

22 working days since my possessions hit US territory, and Customs still haven’t cleared them… What: me, worry? Went out today to pick up some propane for the barbecue – or is that Bar-B-Q? The British part of me regards such preparations as horrifically premature, seeing it’s only the middle of February, but then in Britain, there are only about two days a year when a barbecue is a viable proposition, and so you can use Halley’s Comet as a handy reminder that it’s time to get more fuel. Ah, yes — many are the grim, soggy afternoons spent round a grill saying, “I think it’s alight now”, and “The rain’s easing off a bit” alternately, both more in hope than with any real conviction.

Anyway, I digress. While at the gas station, watching the attendant fill the tank with a device that looked like a medical instrument from hell (but which would, undoubtedly, make a fabulous flame-thrower), I noticed a small fire-extinguisher behind him. Yeah, right: like anyone is going to hang around and try to put a fire out if it goes anywhere near that propane tank. They’d be better off hanging a pair of running shoes or some clean underwear back there.

But gas-stations are a significant part of the American psyche. Last night, on the way to the drive-in (another part of the American psyche, about which you can expect to read more in due course), I passed a cross-roads which had three of its four corners occupied by different brands of gas – Chris tells me this is not particularly noteworthy and she knew of one which, until recently, had a grand slam of four, one on each side. From the consumer point of view, this does make it very easy to go comparison shopping – provided you’re brave enough to stand in the middle of the junction and make notes – but it’s hard to see how all four could make enough to survive. That they do, proves further that America is indeed the land of the car.

On the other hand, I was delighted to discover that Arizona is one of the few states where parallel parking is not part of the driving test, perhaps because it is the only state with more parking spaces than cars. Given the monster truck which Chris drives (okay, it’s not that big, but you’re talking to someone who has only ever owned a Renault 5 before, and the two-door version at that), I will not be shedding tears at the thought of missing out – reversing the beast is bad enough on its own, without having to steer it, in the manner of a supertanker going round the Elephant & Castle.

This comes to mind, since I will be driving my parents round town for the next few weeks, as they make their first visit to Arizona. That, in itself, promises to be an entire barrel-load of monkeys; I don’t think they’ve been in the car with me for any longer than 25 miles tops, and it’s almost more than that to the airport from here. How they – and I – will take to this is hard to say. Even though I have a pristine driving record (largely because, until I moved out here, it had been almost entirely uncontaminated by any actual motoring), they’ll be nervous; Dad in particular, is far more used to being in the driving seat than being chauffered. My mother has a driving licence best described as theoretical: I think it’s on papyrus.

Still, I look forward to seeing their faces at the Grand Canyon, or when we drive down the Strip in Las Vegas. I remember vividly how utterly gob-smacked I was, and I’ve clocked up a few more countries than my parents. At the very least, it’ll be hard for them do any backseat driving when their jaws in their laps.

Waiting for Customs

This editorial is likely not to be one of the longest ones I’ve written, since there are no less then ten new Film Blitz reviews to get done this week, which I think is an all-time record in the three-plus years I’ve been doing the site. This is as a result of the first Phoenix Film Festival, which was on over the weekend, an intense jolt of cinema which saw us take in 8 movies in under forty-eight hours, including four in a row on Saturday afternoon. Poor Chris’ eyes were beginning to bug-out like 35mm lenses by the end of that little stint, and I must confess to feeling more than a bit hyper myself, due to the consumption of industrial quantities of Diet Coke. I look back to the days of all-night film-shows – or worse still, the eighteen-hour marathons of Black Sunday – with a mix of nostalgia and how-the-hell-did-I-cope? However, it was fun, especially since the festival had a budget cap on entries of one million dollars, meaning the total price of all the films was less than a quarter of the cost of Hannibal.

With that out of the way, and since I now possess a hangover-like aversion to seeing any movies for a while, I can return to another favourite leisure pursuit: worrying about my possessions. Regular readers will recall that 49 boxes, containing my entire life, were packed up and shipped out on the good ship Hong Kong Senator at the end of October. Fortunately, icebergs, nuclear-powered submarines and the Bermuda Triangle were all safely avoided, and the Senator duly docked in San Diego on January 17th. So, why am I still having to listen to one of the eight CDs I’ve bought since my arrival? Three words: United States Customs.

You will understand, given my past record with UK Customs, how annoying and bordering on the traumatic this is, even though all the things which UK Customs saw fit to seize (Funeral Party magazine, and a copy of Jail Babes), were actually exports from the Land of the Free. So, there shouldn’t be any problems, right? I mean, I even found a good home for my legal-there-but-illegal-here Traci Lords films, out of a keen desire to avoid deportation. What more could they want?

Of course, it is entirely plausible that it’s just bureaucratic failings which have extended the theoretical ten-day clearance period into something currently standing at eighteen and counting. After all, these are civil servants, and my brush with the Immigration wing taught me that “ninety days” is actually closer to four and a half months. And it’s also possible that the sight of 49 boxes, largely of videos and laser-discs, was taken as a sign for US Customs to send out for popcorn and beer, and settle in for a film festival of their own. In which case, I just hope they, unlike UK Customs, remember to rewind the tapes afterwards.

Things are not helped by the difficulty I’m having getting information out of the shipping company: emails go unanswered, phones are busy, and if I do get through, I’m told (very politely) to call back again later. Needless to say, this is pouring gasoline (see? I’m getting the hang of this American lark!) on the inferno which is my paranoia, and every knock on the door is now expected to be US Customs with a search-warrant and a SWAT team, because I forgot some arcane regulation about importing PVC-clad Hello Kittys.

Let’s give the shippers one more try…got through and am on hold…she’s now calling Customs from her end: I’m back on hold…[I visualise her asking Customs, “What do I tell him?”]…okay, they don’t know anything either, they’re in the dark as much as I am. And, goddamit, I can’t even drink to ease my fears, since I’m on day 18 of my month of sobriety: I’m seriously beginning to wish I’d picked another month. If there’s no update next week, you’ll know I’ve gone on the run!

Incredibly Bad Film Show: The Story of Ricky

Dir: Nam Nai Choi
Star: Fan Siu Wong, Fan Mui Sang, Cheng Chuen Yam, Yukari Oshima

“Ricky is sent to prison. In the jail, he sees the prisoners being exploited and tortured by chief warden Cobra. Ricky decides to stand up against them. After many setbacks, Ricky gets the support of the other prisoners…”
— DVD synopsis

It is perhaps fitting that a film such as this, should come with a synopsis which is wildly inaccurate in just about every way e.g. the chief warden doesn’t so much as appear until more than fifty minutes in. And it also curiously underplays things: as you’ll see, describing what happens to Ricky as “minor setbacks” is one of the greatest understatements of all time. The film is based on the 12-volume Riki-Oh manga by Tetsuya Saruwatari and Takajo Masuhiko, and also spawned two anime OAVs. But it is in this live-action incarnation that it has become most infamous, largely because it may well be the second-goriest movie ever, surpassed only by Peter Jackson’s Brain Dead. And, after a few beers, it could also be the finest film in cinema history.

Ricky Ho (Fan Siu Wong) is sent to prison – he should know he’s in trouble as soon as the transfer bus pulls in, for the courtyard is awash with what looks like tomato juice, but probably isn’t. Such are the choice of a free economy, for as a title-card informs us: “By 2001 AD, capitalistic countries have privatised all government organisations. Prisons, like car-parks, have become franchised business…”. This may explain the lack of guards, but those that are seem not be over-taxed – one guard’s duties solely seem to consist of yelling “Go over there!” at prisoners. Ricky Ho sets off the metal-detectors but an X-ray (carried out with an cheerfully complete lack of safety precautions) reveals he carries five bullets in his chest.

Elsewhere Samuel is bullying an elderly prisoner, Ma. Cue the first appearance of the Chorus – a group of inmates whose role is to forward the plot without getting in the way:

“Samuel is at it again.”
“He’s a gang leader, and the captain of his cell-block.”
“He’s friends with the guards.”
“Well, what can you do…”

Before they, as one, turn to urinate. Such apathy extends to the staff too – “He fell and whined like a pig. What a nuisance!”, says a guard on seeing the results of Ma’s nose meeting DIY equipment. But Ricky won’t stand for this, and trips Samuel, who falls face-first onto spikes – it feels more like a public service announcement warning against the dangers of leaving large pieces of nailed wood carelessly around the bathroom.

Samuel hires the uber-fat Zorro to kill Ricky, for 30lbs of rice. He doesn’t, though the neat wound Ricky inflicts on him bears no resemblance to the torso-wide gash seen in the next shot. “Another move and I’ll…hit you!” says a guard, not exactly causing Ricky to quake in terror, as he encounters the head of the North Cell, Oscar. While locked in his cell, we get a flashback to Ricky’s training. This was from his uncle Shan Kuei, in a cemetery with the gravestones as fodder for smashing – the families of the buried must have been a bit miffed at this. Ricky makes for an entirely unconvincing student, in collar, tie and preppy look, even if the training causes his body to glow like a poster child for Chernobyl.

Back in jail, we meet the assistant warden. He keeps porno vids on the shelf in his office, and has a glass eye, which he keeps in a water glass. Oh, and he keeps mints inside the eye. While on the missing body-part front, he also has a hook for his hand, which acts both as a fork and a tool to drag dead prisoners away, so I hope he washes it between times. And it spikes Ricky when he won’t talk, but he won’t rise to the bait, so the assistant warden hands him to Oscar for a duel. Oscar blinds our hero with powdered glass and slices up his tendons but Ricky is so tough, he just ties them up himself, in a move not found in my First Aid manual. His opponent is no less tough: in a last-ditch move, he commits seppuku, and tries to use his own intestines to strangle Ricky; one bone-crunching punch (as seen in The Street Fighter) settles his hash for good. The other block heads turn up: West Cell’s Rogan (Oshima), East Cell’s Tarzan, and South Cell’s Brendan. Ricky discovers they’re growing poppies for opium in the jail, so sets fire to the crop, bringing down the wrath of Rogan. This time, he is caught by being buried in concrete – is that what they mean by a hardened criminal?

The real warden returns: he’s even tougher than his assistant, gouging out a prisoner’s eye for unrolling a red carpet badly, and is especially keen to see Ricky punished. Tarzan charges through the cell wall and goes to work on Ricky, but three punches make his elbow, jaw and hand explode, Fist of the North Star style. Time for Plan B: the roof starts to descend. Tarzan, abandoned by his mentors, assists Ricky to escape, at the cost of his own life – the lack of “squish” here is about the only moment of restraint in the entire film. Ricky falls through a trapdoor instead, and is buried alive for a week underground; it barely bothers him, even when Rogan uses some dismembered dog to block the breathing tube. There’s a flashback to why Ricky is in prison; it’s not important. Ricky’s next torture is having razor-blades crammed into his mouth, before Rogan beats him across the face, till the blades poke through his cheeks. His reaction? Spray a mouthful of blood and flesh into the warden’s face.

You can only push a man so far, and when the guy who brings Ricky food is slaughtered, it’s time to break out, using the old “hanging from the ceiling” ploy. There’s an excellent one-punch skull liquidation, and the assistant warden continues to lose body parts carelessly – first an eye, with an arm following shortly thereafter. The warden is busy grinding up the arm of a prisoner who complained about the food, when Ricky bursts in. After disposing of Rogan (though he doesn’t actually kill her…er, him), he has to take on the big boss, for after all: “The warden of any prison has to be the very best in kung-fu.” It helps that he turns, for no readily-apparent reason, into the Incredible Hulk, with much shirt ripping and crap hair – just orange rather than green. Even Ricky driving an entire arm through his stomach doesn’t slow him down. It’s only when he gets an up-close-and-personal look at the meat grinder, that justice prevails. With one punch, Ricky takes down the prison wall. “You’re all free now!”, he says, begging the question – why the hell didn’t he do that the day he arrived?

Ricky: minute-by-minute

Listing all the violence in the film would take far too long, but here are the highlights…

7:40Carpentry plane to the face
8:17Spiked wood through hand, into face
15:03Zorro opens up…
15:43…and Samuel does the same
30:58Really big bread-knife to head
34:21“You’ve got a lot of guts, Oscar”
37:32The exploding head scene
43:48Alan loses face – and the rest of his skin
59:26Tarzan goes to pieces
72:45Ricky gets the point(s)
75:50A stoolie loses his head
77:19Ricky makes a hole-in-one
78:29Don’t complain about the food
79:39Just one, wafer-thin mint?
84:50The warden goes for a spin.


  • Fan Siu Wong and Fan Mui Sang are a father-son combination – the former plays Ricky, while I think the latter is either the guy who trains him or the warden.
  • Yukari Oshima’s turn as Rogan is bizarre but effective. She’s probably the only name in the film familiar to most Western viewers, given her role in films like Angel and The Outlaw Brothers, so seeing her playing a man is something of a shock!
  • he DVD has both dub and subtitled versions; the above is based on the former, but the latter offers entirely new possibilities for amusement. All the characters have different names – “Zorro” is known as “Silly Lung”, which is hardly more appropriate – and there are any number of phrases to make you go, “Eh?”:
    • “Captain, we haven’t brushed our teeth yet.”
      “Use them as brushes.”
    • “You’ve even broken my sinus.”
    • “Ma’s hanging himself to death!”
    • “Your original name was Rick. But you were strong as a bull at 7 or 8 so I called you Ricky.”
    • “You’ll turn into a dried persimmon.”