Review: The Yellow Sea

I’m a fan of both Korean cinema and film noir, but I hadn’t seen the Yellow Sea, a Korean noir from 2010. This extended trip has given me a chance to catch up on a few things, and one of the first was to see the Yellow Sea, all 140 minutes of it.

That sounds like a long running time, but it went incredibly quickly. The Yellow Sea is engrossing, tense, and intense. I honestly can’t properly do justice to my immersion in this film. I was totally its slave for its running time.

A great movie, but not necessarily one I’ll be watching again. There are a few reasons for that. Like Hotel Rwanda, this is a great movie that demands a large emotional toll. I wasn’t exhausted from my viewing like I was after Hotel Rwanda, but this was a brutal movie – in the sense that it offered a very grim and very gritty view of the world.

Also, the lack of readily available firearms in Korea means that the action took place with knives and axes. This creates a much more vicious film than one with guns. People were stabbed multiple times and heads were crushed after being split. The violence was so personal and so visibly costly to both the victim and the perpetrator that I began to be seriously anxious when it looked like more blood would be spilled.

That sets it apart from other great Korean films like Man from Nowhere, and especially from something action-packed but light like the Good, the Bad, and the Weird. The violence here is much closer to that of a Bittersweet Life, but even more brutal, if that can be achieved.

The Yellow Sea is the perfect noir in that it takes a morally questionable individual and keeps upping the ante, the stakes getting higher, the opposition getting stronger, and the whole time he and you are trying to figure out just who is doing what to whom and why. The movie does answer these questions, but it stays true to its sensibilities and the denouement is just as grim and brutal as the climax.

The ending, thankfully, offers some small source of optimism.

In the end, I have to give this 5 bloody kitchen knives out of 5. I don’t know if I want to watch it again, but in the days since seeing it, there hasn’t been one in which I haven’t considered the movie and its story.

You can learn more about the Yellow Sea here.

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Review: River of Stars

Cover for River of Stars

One of my favourite fantasy authors is Guy Gavriel Kay. His works generally take historical periods and – to a greater or lesser degree – add magic. His worlds are not entirely second worlds, more like slightly altered historical Earth, with the serial numbers filed off.

His Under Heaven, taking a fantasy lens to Tang China just before the An Shi Rebellion, was fantastic. It’s tough to say until I actually re-read it and the Sailing to Sarantium duology, but it might be my favourite of his works, and that’s saying a lot.

River of Stars is a sequel to Under Heaven, but returning to the Kitai empire hundreds of years after the events of Under Heaven. It looks at the fall of the Northern Song Dynasty while touching on the Outlaws of the Water Margins and the career of Song general Yue Fei.

I want to start by stating that I enjoyed the book. I recommend it. Saying that, I had a slight sense of disappointment reading River of Stars, and I am having a hard time quantifying the reason for this. Could it be that it seemed somewhat detached? There was an emotional distance between the events, the characters and the readers which did not allow total immersion in the story. However, it’s not as if I wasn’t invested. I tore through the novel as quickly as real life would allow.

Was it that the end seemed anti-climactic? Even setting history aside, the main plot couldn’t have ended any other way. Certainly, some secondary characters may have acted differently while remaining true to their characters as depicted, but I think the decision of the protagonist on which the climax pivoted fit perfectly with that character.

But in the end, this is a Guy Gavriel Kay novel. Even one of his disappointments (I had a similar feeling after reading the Last Light of the Sun) is far and away better than almost any other recent fantasy. I am in no place to criticize his technical skills, and while I can imagine changes I might make were it my story, that would have created a much different work, and not necessarily a superior one.

If you like Guy Gavriel Kay, you will surely enjoy River of Stars. If you are a fan of historical fantasies – or just fantasy fiction in general – I strongly recommend River of Stars. I give it 4.5 recurved bows out of 5.

You can learn more about River of Stars here.

You can learn more about Guy Gavriel Kay here.

You can learn more about Under Heaven here.

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Dispatches from South Korea

I’ve been in South Korea for just over a week, and have been honoured to have participated in my Korean family’s Lunar New Year (Sollal) celebration, which included the sacrifices to the ancestors (which was fruit and prepared food we later ate . . . so not really sacrifices), kowtows to the elders (which included my nieces and nephews kowtowing to my wife and I), and a huge lack of internet. I’m at my sister-in-law’s place now with some internet, so I hope to have some time to compose some posts. Then again, there’s talk of visiting the East Sea (to heck with your Sea of Japan nonsense), which – I’m sorry – wins out over writing some posts. However, here are some previews.

Prince of Wolves? Delivers exactly what I expected and makes me excited to read King of Chaos. If you liked Master of Devils and dig old Hammer horror films, do yourself a favour and check this out.

Yellow Sea? An amazing South Korea neo-noir which packs a lot of tension and action into two-and-a-half hours.

River of Stars? Another outstanding novel from Guy Gavriel Kay, though I consider Under Heaven better. I’ll try to figure out why.

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Rig for Silent Running!

It’s not as if this blog has never gone quiet before, or that there has never been three or four weeks between posts, but this time I have a good reason. Honest!

I’m about to embark on an extended trip with only intermittent internet, so while I hope I’ll be able to post something in the next month, it might not be much and it definitely won’t be often.

However, once I return, preparation for the Nefertiti Overdrive Kickstarter will begin in earnest, so you can certainly expect more activity then.

But until that time . . . down periscope!

You can find out more about Nefertiti Overdrive here and here.

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Statham is Pretty Safe

Safe is a pretty standard Jason Statham actioner. Statham, as usual, plays an anti-hero who is a one-man army. Similar to Redemption (known as Hummingbird in the UK), he is at the very bottom when he finds himself saving a young girl who is the target of the Russian and Chinese mob as well as a corrupt municipal government and its special police team led by the nefarious Captain Wolf.

Statham kicks the requisite butt and is suitably heroic, basically portraying another Frank Martin – all Statham actioners seem to portray the same character, the one made famous by the Transporter. That’s not a bad thing, given that when one gets a Statham actioner, one knows exactly what one is getting.

This movie isn’t inspired, but it is workmanlike, hitting all the necessary notes. The actress who portrays the little girl is competent enough not to ruin her scenes but doesn’t show anything above competence. The villains are suitably villainous, though I found myself wishing somebody would give James Hong a heroic role rather than using him as a villain. Hong is always good, and I know he could do more, but I only seem to see him playing villains.

Ah well, it’s a job. At least he’s regularly working.

So, if you dig Jason Statham action movies, Safe is a good option for you. It takes a little bit of time to get going, but once it does it’s pretty relentless.

I give Safe 4 emptied magazines out of 5.

Have you supported my Kickstarter for Farewell, Something Lovely?

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Five Influences on my Writing Philosophy

Over at Kickstarter, as part of an update for my crowd-funding page for Farewell, Something Lovely (please support!), I listed five important influences on my writing philosophy. This is not about my writing style or discipline, just how I approach writing. These are the influences that finally led to my current state as a mercenary hack.

Yes, I am a mercenary hack. Yes, I am very cool with that.

Please support Farewell, Something Lovely.

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Bad Sleep Is Bad

I haven’t been getting a lot of sleep recently. This isn’t good for a writer. Here’s why.

1) Lack of motivation. When I’m tired, I have a hard time getting off my ass or getting fingers on keyboard. This does not lead to productivity.

2) Lack of creativity. I might be planning things through the day, but by the time I’m at the keyboard, I can’t get it out. It might still be banging away in my skull, but a couple of failures to get started and that lack of motivation kicks in, so nothing gets done.

3) It’s a self-licking ice cream cone. Weird thing is, when I’m really tired, I have a hard time going to bed. I’m watching something, or playing a game, or reading something, and I look at the time. I know I should head off to bed, but I don’t get up and do it. Inertia.

This is not at all good because Friday is the launch of the Farewell, Something Lovely Kickstarter. I need to be pumped and active for the two weeks it is running. This might prove difficult.

But it’s got to be done. Better get my ass in bed by a good time tonight.

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Review: Iron Monkey

Iron Monkey Movie PosterWhile I am a fan of martial arts movies, my knowledge of them is pretty pedestrian. I know the high points, but there have been a lot of important works that I’ve missed. In at least one case, that has now been remedied.

Last night I watched Iron Monkey on Netflix Canada. The movie stars Donnie Yen and Rongguang Yu (yes, I know the family name should be first, but if I’m not writing ‘Yen Donnie,’ it doesn’t make sense to write Yu Rongguang). I’ve seen a few Donnie Yen pics, and those of you who don’t watch a lot of Asian cinema may know him from Blade II. For the whole time, I was trying to remember from where I knew Rongguang Yu, and only after reading up on the movie in Wikipedia, did I find out he was the Big Bad in the Korean actioner Musa: the Warrior.

So, two solid leads. What about the story? Iron Monkey is about a Robin Hood figure in 19th century China, dealing with a corrupt system by opposing it and protecting the common folk. Rather than Donnie Yen playing the hero, he plays a martial arts teacher and father, who is invested in the status quo and initially opposes the Iron Monkey. Of course, he learns of the corruption of the Imperial government, and joins with the Iron Monkey.
The story doesn’t have a lot of twists or turns, but if you want a straight-ahead actioner with some fantastic fight choreography (this is a directorial turn for Wooping Yuen, who did the fight choreography for the Matrix) this movie will more than fit the bill. It’s a great example of fun wuxia that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

There is nothing wrong with this movie, but there also isn’t anything special about it. It breaks no new ground and says nothing important that hasn’t been said better elsewhere. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just those generally separate the good movies from the great.

I give this one 4 angry monkeys out of 5.

You can learn more about Iron Monkey here.


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A-Team Losers

So, this morning – thanks to Netflix – I re-watched Joe Carnahan’s the A-Team, with Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper, Sharlto Copley, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, and – a personal favourite – Jessica Biel. When I was a kid, I watched the TV series all the time. Even then, I recognized the problem of this bad-ass team of virtuous mercenaries who never killed anyone, and I think Joe Carnahan’s approach works a lot better. It’s incredibly entertaining, and everyone in the movie seems to be having a heck of a lot of fun. The chemistry of the leads is fantastic, and even Quinton Jackson – an MMA fighter rather than an actor –acquits himself well. Certainly the weakest link, but I think the stunt casting served the movie in this case.

It seems to me, that this is the A-Team by way of the Andy Diggle and Jock version of the Losers. Now, I remember the whole “planning” part of Hannibal Smith’s character, but frankly, the almost insane plans portrayed in the movie reminds me very much of the Losers, including carrying off a target with a VTOL aircraft (helicopter in the comic, Osprey in the movie). That makes me love the movie even more, given my well-documented adoration of the Losers comic – and lesser adoration of the movie adaptation, which was pretty cool, but didn’t reach the epic awesomeness of the comic series.

This is not to say that the A-Team TV series didn’t influence the Losers at all. The whole “wrongly convicted” is kind of there, and the working in the underground certainly is, though I would imagine the influence would be less overt than it seems to be in the movie.

The problem with inspiration and my creative progress is that right now, at this instant, as I am thinking a lot about the Blighted Earth, I watch something like the A-Team, which leads me to read some of the Losers comic, and now I’d love to inject that absurdist level of heist genre into my special forces post-apoc story.

That’s probably not going to happen, because the dissonance would likely kill the story, but I’m thinking the A-Team/Losers style of action adventure would be awesome for an RPG. I’m playtesting Nefertiti Overdrive right now, but a version of those rules surfaced as Direct Action: Special Operations Force RPG – which I’m highlighting on the SEP website right now – and those rules would probably works really well for this style of game.

Wait, . . . is that yet another project once Nefertiti Overdrive is done?

Maybe. Just maybe.

You can find more information on the A-Team movie here.

You can find more information on the Losers comic here.

You can find more information on Direct Action here.

You can find more information on Nefertiti Overdrive here.

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Blighted Earth – The Story

All this thinking about Blighted Earth has helped me refine my thinking on the story. I’ve always been a fan of the Searchers-style storyline, where a group is in search of a captured innocent, generally one that has an emotional link to at least one of the protagonists. I’d throw a movie like the Missing and even – to a degree – True Grit into this style.

Here’s how I see Blighted Earth happening.

"Combat Hero" by Dean Martin

“Combat Hero” by Dean Martin

I’m going to refer to our main character as Boss, which is what the team calls him (her?). Boss is brought back into action by his ex-Commanding Officer (XCO). She comes to him at his home in a relatively small village within the Bastion (that’s the protected lands, which I think I will place in the Niagara Region, an area I know relatively well, and one that has a pretty good climate for agriculture).

XCO is still with the military, and comes to Boss to ask his help. Raiding has all but crippled trade with the coastal communities of the New England Commonwealth. Fort Cook and Fort Conrad are under threat, and for the first time since the end of the wars some decade ago, there is real fear the boundary will be breached.

During a raid, the XCO lost her son and her daughter is now missing. The military cannot provide anyone to go in search of the lost – including more than just her daughter – due to the requirement to reinforce the boundary forts, so the XCO comes to the Boss. He was her sergeant when she was a captain of a pathfinder platoon. The XCO comes with the Medic (now a doctor and an officer) to persuade the Boss to get the band . . . the team back together.

The Boss’ wife agrees he needs to do this. They have two daughters, and the wife empathizes with the XCO, so the Boss heads off with the Medic to gather up the 2IC (a warrant, and with the engineer/techie role) at Camp Alexander, the HQ for 2 Division, responsible for the southern boundary. From Camp Alexander, the three head to Fort Cook, on the boundary. There, they recruit the Scout and the Face, who are working as mercenaries. A military intelligence Captain is thrown into the mix, as the military will provide support, but only on the understanding that they get intel out of the sortie.

The Face gets information that helps get them on their way, to a point where the Scout is able to start tracking the raiding party back to a community, previously unknown, where they encounter Regehr – who had commanded their regiment during the wars. He’s gone native, and he has plans for the Bastion, plans the team need to thwart.

There are three problems for the protagonists: find the captives, stop Regehr, and deal with the Captain, who seems intent on splitting the team and undermining the search for the captives.

Any more gets into “spoiler” territory, and I might actually want to pursue this at some point.

Read more about the Searchers here.

Read more about the Blighted Earth here.


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