Just got back into town and am diving into the thick of things at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, now running through May 7. I’m leaving town again on Sunday so I’m cramming as many screenings into the next five days as I can manage. Luckily there are plenty of great films to see. I’m hoping to make it to the Viggo Mortenson vehicle Jauja, by Argentine director Lisandro Alonso and featuring Viggo in a role that’s tailor-made for him as a Danish military engineer caught up in unrest in 19th-century Patagonia. Viggo he gets to acts in two of his native tongues, Danish and Spanish, and the film is a magical-realist version of the historical events it depicts.
Also on the docket is the 3-D version of Tsui Hark’s The Taking of Tiger Mountain, Hong Kong director Peter Chan’s child-abduction drama Dearest, and City of Gold, the documentary about Pulitzer-prize winning Los Angeles food critic and mensch Jonathan Gold. If I were in town next week I’d surely go see the South Korean thriller A Hard Day but I’m hopeful that it will make it to a theatrical release stateside sometime soon. SFIFF also plays host to Jenni Olsen’s newest feature-length experimental documentary/essay film The Royal Road, which looks at butch longing and unrequited love against the backdrop of El Camino Real, the historic king’s road that stretches nearly the length of California. Indian director Chaitanya Tamhane’s independent feature Court also screens this week, taking a character-based, neo-realist look at the absurdities of the Mumbai judicial system and its surrounding social and cultural milieu, with results that are about as anti-Bollywood as you can get.
One of my favorite films from last year, director Diao Yinan’s neo-noir Black Coal, Thin Ice, has one more screening this week at the festival and it’s definitely a don’t-miss movie. From the very start, with shots of random body parts mixed in among train cars of coal shipping throughout the frozen northern regions of China, the film puts a distinctive spin on the classic noir structure. The film follows Zhang (Liao Fan), a less-than-scrupulous cop, as he becomes more and more deeply involved in the mysterious disappearances and murders of various hapless men, all of whom eventually seem to be tied to a classic black-widow character, played by the amazing Taiwanese actress Guey Lun-Mei.
Looping back and forth in time and place, with bursts of intense and unexpected violence, the movie effortlessly transfers the noir genre to the China’s bleak and wintry industrial north, making great use of the icy landscape and the characters’ corresponding desperation and hopelessness. Both Liao and Guey won acting awards (at the Berlin Film Festival and the Golden Horse Awards respectively) for their performances in this film and they embody the moral messiness and ambiguity of the best noir characters. As in all great noirs, everyone is complicit and no one is innocent, and the most innocuous situation, whether in a beauty parlor or at an ice skating rink, can suddenly change into a deadly trap.
So although I’m missing the big galas and parties at the beginning and end of the fest I’m still catching the meat of the event this week. As always the festival is a chance to see some of the best recent global cinema on the big screen.
through May 7, 2015
Premiering at this year’s Hong Kong International Film Festival and now in the midst of a successful theatrical run in Hong Kong, Two Thumbs Up (dir. Lau Ho-leung ) is a pleasurable timepass with a slapdash absurdist energy that carries it past its shortcomings. It’s also notable for being the second Hong Kong theatrical release this year starring Francis Ng (after Triumph In The Skies), who has mostly been AWOL in the former Crown Colony as he’s been trolling the more lucrative waters of the mainland China film industry for the past few years.
Two Thumbs Up is a caper film about a bunch of low-end crooks who devise the brilliant plan of rehabbing one of Hong Kong’s ubiquitous red-top mini-buses into a police van and then using it for various larcenous purposes. In particular they aim to intercept a shipment of corpses on the way to the PRC that have illicitly been stuffed with smuggled cash. All goes well until they encounter a second group of crooks with the exact same plan.
This one comes favorably handicapped since it has a number of points that make me predisposed to like it:
- Stars Francis Ng, which to anyone reading this blog should be patently obvious
- Also stars Simon Yam, another fan favorite around here
- Dialog in very vulgar Cantonese
- Cheap, low-budget digital effects that in no way attempt to represent reality
- Shot in remote, deserted rural nighttime Hong Kong locations to save money and to avoid the local constabulary
- Includes hyperlocal references like a Softie ice cream truck
- Slyly refers to the mainlander infestation of Hong Kong, substituting “cockroaches” for “locusts.” NOTE: This bit has apparently been trimmed from the PRC release in order not to offend mainland audiences and thus cut into any potential profit.
- Garish and ugly, brightly colored polyester costumes
- The awesome mullet and perm respectively sported by the usually dapper Francis Ng and Simon Yam
- Rambling and illogical script that hearkens back to improvised Hong Kong comedies of old
- Sentimental affection for losers, ex-cons, lowlifes and “scum” (the film’s polite translation for pook gai) who are secretly heroic
- Cynical sneer of gangster gal, played by Christie Chen, who resembles a low-rent Guey Lun-Mei
The movie is a pretty lightweight bit of entertainment that hits its main thematic point pretty hard and pretty often (hoodlums can be heroes too!) but the delight comes in the sheer fun that the cast seems to be having as they run through their familiar paces. The veteran foursome playing the crooks, including Francis, Simon, Mark Cheng, and Patrick Tam, have great chemistry and almost every early scene with them merrily devolves into very loudly shouted Cantonese expletives. Like The Avengers (except not) they each rock individual and distinctly tacky outfits, highlighted by Francis Ng’s amazing extra-long mullet, green fringed jacket, and cowboy boots. Leo Ku as the serious and dedicated cop who uncovers their scheme is a good foil for the cursing and hamboning of the main cast, as is Philip Keung as the leader of the rival gang of crooks.
Some knowledge of Hong Kong film history also helps grease the viewing experience as the movie is rife with self-referential in-jokes and fan service moments. At one point early on in the film Francis Ng’s character (alternately known as Big F or Lucifer, depending on your translation) shows off his mad bowling skilz the local alley where he and his posse are killing time and plotting their big heist. Francis affects his patented swagga not after offing a rival triad but after successfully bowling a strike, which references his many years of gangsta leans throughout the past 20-odd years of Hong Kong movie history. Likewise it’s fun to see Simon Yam playing against his usual suave and debonair type as a frumpy loser with a bad perm living in a subway tunnel.
The main foursome are also particularly amusing the first time they stroll out of the van in their policeman drag, with their non-compliant hairstyles and mack-daddy posture, their hats low over their eyes and thumbs slung into their belt loops belying their attempts to pass as respectable coppers. The veteran actors also make their characters likeable enough that once the crew is separated and in jeopardy the audience is actually invested in the fates of the four of them. These little touches make the movie work and goose up an otherwise pretty silly premise.
Although the movie isn’t without many plot holes, directorial obviousness, and failures in narrative logic, the engaging performances of the cast, supplemented by very silly CGI, editing, and art direction, make for a pleasant and entertaining day at the races. It’s certainly no Infernal Affairs or Hard Boiled but it’s not as horrible as a lot of Hong Kong product these days either, and at this point in time I’ll take what I can get.
Starting this Thursday, the Roxie plays host to A Rare Noir Is Good To Find: International Film Noir 1949-74, the followup series to last fall’s wildly popular noir showcase, The French Had A Name For It, which sold out most of its shows in its week-long run of classic French crime movies. The team behind that blockbuster event, former Roxie programmer Elliot Lavine and Midcentury Productions’ Don Malcolm, have put together another great calendar of notable noir, this time from around the world. Included in the program are fifteen films from ten different countries including France, Japan, Finland, Hong Kong, Denmark, Mexico, Greece, South Korea, Brazil, and Poland.
Screening in a triple-bill matinee on Saturday are three films from Japan that exemplify Japanese cinema’s effortless mastery of noir. Underworld Beauty (1958), by legendary director Seijin Suzuki, involves a bunch of guns, a fistful of stolen diamonds, a feisty gal named Akiko and an honorable ex-con, yakuza, double-crossing, shivs, and wild lindy hops, all presented in Suzuki’s garish and exhilarating style.
The second film of the trio, Pale Flower (1964, dir. Masahiro Shinoda), is a bleak little tale of gangsters, gambling, drugs, and a mysterious woman named Saeko who hangs out at a flower-card den and gets involved with the recently released prisoner Muraki, who’s just finished serving time for a gangland hit. Shot mostly at night and populated by junkies, yakuza, and gamblers, the film is a classic noir tale of desperation, addition, and fatalistic longing.
Rounding out the threesome is Intimidation (1960, dir. Koreyoshi Kurahara), a low-budget psychological thriller about a bank executive who gets caught with his hand in the cookie jar and who is blackmailed into larceny and crime. Clocking in at just over an hour, the film almost feels like an extended episode of Perry Mason, economically telling a tightly wound story of human corruption and greed.
The Wild Wild Rose (1960, dir. Tian-Ling Wang) features Hong Kong superstar Grace Chang, who ignites the screen as a flirty chanteuse involved in an ill-fated romance. Chang is a five-tool player, as she can sing, dance, act, and emote, and also looks like a million bucks. Chang applies her multi-octave vocal range to Mandarin-language adaptations of several songs from Carmen including a jazzy version of Habanero, as well as the aria from Madame Butterfly. She’s also surprisingly sympathetic as a bar girl who claims she can steal the heart of any man she chooses and who finds that her own heart is also at risk. The movie mixes melodrama, romance, a gangster named Cyclops, young lovers on the lam, and killer song-and-dance numbers into a heady brew.
I love American film noir but I love the idea of global noir even more, and I’m totally amped that the Roxie is presenting this brilliant series. Don’t miss it—
March 19-23, 2015
3117 16th Street
San Francisco CA 94110
CAAMfest, everyone’s favorite San Francisco-based Asian American arts festival, starts up this week and as usual it’s stuffed with films from Asian and Asian American directors, musical happenings, and food events. The festival spotlights veteran documentary filmmaker Arthur Dong, including a premiere of his new feature-length documentary The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor, which is about the Cambodian doctor perhaps best known for his Oscar-winning turn in The Killing Fields in 1984 and whose mysterious murder tragically ended his life some years later. Former CAAMfest/San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival director Chi-Hui Yang curates a program of shorts, Playtime, that includes Trails, Cyrus Tabar’s hallucinogenic microportrait of Tokyo, as well as a revival of the rarity Snipers In The Trees (1985), an early experimental short by Curtis Choy (The Fall of the I-Hotel). Below are a few other highlights of the upcoming cinematic onslaught.
Dot 2 Dot
Amos Why’s debut feature is the real deal, an intriguing look at Hong Kong’s past and present that uses the city’s unique history and geography as a backdrop for a thoughtful commentary on the transience of culture, place, and identity. The film follows Chung, a Chinese Canadian expat returning to HK who leaves dot-to-dot puzzles inscribed on the walls of the stations of the MTR, Hong Kong’s ubiquitous subway system. A recent mainland China emigre (Meng Ting-yi) begins to decipher Chung’s cryptograms and the two begin a virtual courtship, linked by Chung’s mysterious symbology. Director Why captures a street-level view of contemporary Hong Kong that’s filled with ordinary people who represent the multifaceted denizens of the city in the 21st century. The movie includes lots of non-touristy Hong Kong locations and has a great feel for the everyday sights and rhythms of the city. Hong Kong movie fans can also spot Susan Shaw as a language-school headmistress, and Tze-chung Lam, aka the chubby guy from Stephen Chow’s Shaolin Soccer, as a teacher, as well as TVB star Moses Chan (hiding his celebrity good-looks behind black-framed eyeglasses) as Chung. Though it fondly recalls the Hong Kong of the past, the movie isn’t overly sentimental or nostalgic. It’s a nice look at what’s vanished in Hong Kong over the past few decades and the rapidly accelerating changes in the city.
This US/Vietnam co-production is a slick and creepy horror movie by Ham Tran, the director of Journey From the Fall (2006), which looked at the experiences of Vietnamese immigrants in the US, as well as last year’s glam-slam How To Fight in Six-Inch Heels. Hollow is a quite a departure from Tran’s debut film and demonstrates both the uptick in genre films directed by Asian Americans in the past few years as well as the trend toward US/Asia co-productions. The story centers on Chi, whose younger half-sister Ai apparently drowns in a nearby river, causing Chi much guilt and anguish. But when Ai later turns up a few kilometers down the river seemingly alive and well, things take a turn for the supernatural as the young girl develops a greenish pallor, scratches at mysterious wounds, and otherwise exhibits signs of demonic possession. The movie does an good job blending Viet ghost stories with modern-day horror film tropes and for the most part keeps the source of the mysterious child-possession hidden until the end. I would like to have seen a bit more agency on the part of Chi’s character but the film draws interesting parallels between sex traffickers and malevolent spirits, trying together past and present evils in Viet society. The movie is nicely shot, although the soundtrack relies a bit too heavily on sudden loud and jarring violin sounds to emphasize the scary bits in the story, but there are some nice visceral touches—it’s always rewarding to see pimps and child abductors vomiting gallons of river water.
Nuoc 2030 is another US/Viet genre film coproduction, this one a science-fictional look at Vietnam in 2030, which is by then mostly flooded by global warming. The film’s title plays on the dual translation of “nuoc,” which means both “water” and “country” in Vietnamese. Despite a modest budget, director Nghiem-Minh Nguyen-Vo does an excellent job of world-building with his imaginative use of existing locations and evocative imagery to suggest a drowned world. The poetic narrative centers on Sao, a fisherman’s widow searching for clues to her husband’s murder in a watery Vietnam of the not-too-distant mid-21st century. For the most part the film delicately renders its futuristic storyline with imagination and vision, mixing in environmentalism, genetic engineering, and a fatalistic romance.
Jessey Tsang Tsui-Shan’s outstanding documentary looks Ho Chung village, a small settlement in Hong Kong’s New Territories, an area which is currently undergoing a construction boom due to its location near the Hong Kong/China border. Due to the harshness of farming in the region many NT residents immigrate to Europe to find work, including the two generations of the Lau Family featured in Tsang’s film. Tsuan shot much of the film during the village’s ten-year festival that occurs every decade, using that event as a means of examining the ongoing village diaspora and its effects on the residents. The Laus dispersed primarily to France and the UK and the film also includes footage of their lives overseas, with the resulting French/English-speaking children, intermarriages, and mixed-heritage offspring. Only the family’s world-weary matriarch remains in the village, where she bitterly reminisces about the poverty and hardship of farm life and her still-raging anger at her late husband, who emigrated to the UK decades before and who was only able to return a handful of times to visit his wife and children. The film is an excellent testament to the effects of globalization and the costs of modernization on ordinary people but it’s by no means downbeat or depressing, as it also celebrates the endurance of and connections to the villagers’ cultural roots as they return every decade to celebrate the festival.
My Voice, My Life
Oscar-winner (and former San Franciscan) Ruby Lam’s latest film follows several at-risk Hong Kong high school students as they prepare for a large-scale musical production. This verite-style doc celebrates the struggles and accomplishments of those who have been left out of Hong Kong’s fast-lane, including students from a school for the blind, recent mainland China immigrants, and those whose academics keep them from top-ranked educations. Part Fame, part Frederick Wiseman’s High School, the movie subtly reveals a lot about the social strata of contemporary Hong Kong and its constantly changing cultural milieu.
March 12-22, 2015
San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley
The day-and-date release in the U.S. of the movie version Triumph In The Skies (more popularly known as TITS) represents a renaissance of sorts for my boy Francis Ng, who’s enjoying a resurgence of popularity after a bunch of down years. Although probably best known for his straight-up thuggin’ in classic HK gangster movies like Young & Dangerous, The Mission, Exiled, and many many more, Francis has in the past year or so managed to reinvent himself and his public persona as a romantic lead, a family man, and an overall good guy. Ironically, although Francis is mostly a movie king, his rebranding has been based mostly on the popularity of a couple recent television series.
The sequel to the Hong Kong drama on which TITS is based started Francis on his road to recovery back in 2013 as TITS 2 racked up the ratings and online views in both HK and China. Francis reprised his role as Sam Gor, the serious and intense pilot for the fictional HK airline Skylette who moons over his dead wife and hooks up with the young hottie Holiday Ho. As with the original TITS back in 2004, HK audiences (as well as a sizable number of watchers in China) lapped it up and Francis’ popularity, which had mightily declined for a number of reasons (crappy film selection, aging, orneriness, and overall poor career choices) started to rise again.
But what really got things going again for Francis was another television series, the Hunan TV reality show Dad, Where Are We Going 2? which aired in 2014 and in which Francis starred with his darling boy Feynman, then five years old. The show features six celebrity dads and their ultra-cute offspring wandering the hinterlands of China and interacting with their country cousins. Due in large part to the otherwordly twee charm of his kid and his strict but loving interactions with said child, Francis made a big impression as a warm-hearted patriarch and counteracted his past rep as both a movie villain and a pain-in-the-ass diva actor. Francis released a film while the show was airing, The House That Never Dies, which was a huge box-office success in China due in no small part to his popularity on DWAWG.
Because of the popularity of TITS2, TVB, in association with Shaw Brothers, MediaAsia and its China-based subgroup China Film Media Asia, and a couple other China-based entities, have thus teamed up to produce a film version of the iconic drama series about Hong Kong flight crews and their various romantic entanglements. But despite bringing back Francis as Sam Gor, as well as Julian Cheung Chilam as Jayden “Captain Cool” Ku, the film doesn’t manage to recreate the melodramatic success of the original 2004 series or its 2013 sequel.
To start with, the movie drops the viewer in media res, which is fine if you know the backstories of the various characters, but is utterly frustrating for those unschooled in the minutiae of the characters or their past television lives. Weirdly enough, while relying on the audience’s assumed knowledge of the show, the movie also eliminates a lot of key narrative elements from the series, including the crucial love triangle between Sam, Jayden, and Holiday (who is gone completely missing in the movie), and in the film Sam and Jayden don’t even appear together. The film’s story consists of three vignettes featuring Sam, Jayden, and newcomer Branson (played by the inexpressive Louis Koo) which don’t interlock in any meaningful way. Aside from one scene, none of the male leads interact with each other, and Jayden seems to be on another continent for the entire film. Each of the vignettes lack any kind of dramatic tension, with almost nothing at stake for the characters, and they resolve in the most predictable ways possible. The film as a whole is missing self-awereness, irony, wit, or anything that might add a bit of an edge to the film, and the three narratives play out like long-form wristwatch adverts, with gratuitous product placements of bottled water, designer chocolates, and jd.com, the Chinese shopping site that miraculously ships within hours from Asia to London.
The lead actors don’t look too bad for their age (with Francis in his fifties and Chilam and Louis both mid-forties), and Charmaine Sheh and Sammi Cheng as the love interests are feasible and not too mismatched. Amber Kuo as Jayden’s girl-toy appears to be way too young for him, though, and their vignette in particular is pretty cringeful, relying on a remarkably tired plot twist and saddling poor Chilam with horribly clichéd romcom dialog about hearts living in other people’s bodies and the like. Sammi Cheng as a pop star (what?) is cool with her tattooed knuckles and hard-part eyebrow and she and Francis make a pretty pair, but the impetus for their hook-up is completely contrived. As a fangirl I did enjoy the sight of Sam Gor practicing his dance moves, but the question still remains: WHAT HAPPENED TO HIS FORMER GIRLFRIEND? There is also a gratuitous subplot involving a pair of mainland Chinese characters that concludes in the cheesiest way possible and which seems tacked on just so the PRC audience can hear a bit of Putonghua (inexplicably, the actor playing Louis Koo’s father also speaks Mandarin, though Louis Koo’s dialog is strictly in Hong Kong Cantonese).
As usual Francis does his thing, acting with his mouth full of food and with his eyebrows quirked, but honestly he doesn’t have a whole lot to do. There’s also a tiny bit of TITS fan service with Kenneth Ma and Elena Kong reprising their characters from the television drama and Kenneth Ma is anonymously humorous in the twenty seconds that he’s onscreen, but their appearances only underscore the calculated genesis of the film, in which the producers are trying to suck in as many customers as possible.
The entire viewing experience is like injesting an extra-large serving of Kraft Cheese Food Sticks, with lens flare, rainbows, designer clothes, and saturated color correction making for a pleasant but ultimately vacuous optical experience. Coming from a straight-up fanperson like myself who really wanted to like this movie, I think that, for all of its interminable schmaltziness, the TVB drama is actually a better product, since at least it had some interesting character conflicts and gave its performers space to emote a bit. The movie version is all hat and no cattle, with beautiful sunsets and ferris wheels and not much else. But the movie was number one at the box office in Hong Kong during the Lunar New Year holiday and made more than 100RMB during the same time period in China, which bodes well for Francis Ng and his rebooted career. He’s currently working on a film with Zhou Xun, he recently wrapped another Chinese romcom, Love Without Distance (directed by Hong Konger Aubrey Lam), and there’s already talk of another film sequel to TITS (noooooo!) Meanwhile, the Chinese film commerce machine rolls on, as TVB is planning to cash in with a movie version of another one of its recent dramas, Line Walker, with Nick Cheung and Lau Ching Wan rumored to star.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that a mainstream movie like TITS is so overtly commercial, but being an optimist I always hope that these undertakings might squeeze in a bit of craft and care and maybe even some genuine artistry. No such luck here, but kudos to Francis Ng for riding the wave and coming out on top once again.
The 13th Annual Noir City film fest has come and gone, and as usual it was a celebration of audience-participation in fedoras and fox furs, with free booze samples in the Castro Theater mezzanine between the double-bills.
The glorious week and a half of movies, co-curated by Noir City founder Eddie Mueller and local rep movie queen Anita Monga (she also programs the Silent Film Festival), featured bleakness, backstabbing, angst, and deceit, with some programming surprises to leaven the usual shadowy mid-century filmic fare. I made it out to a fair percentage of the shows, and although I didn’t dig out my peplum jackets or pumps, I did catch several great movies along the way.
The festival’s theme was the subject of marriage and the films all dealt with (un) holy matrimony in one way or another. First up on the docket were a pair of movies set in Edwardian England that were all about killing your spouse. Ivy is a fun black widow film featuring Joan Fontaine as the conniving title character. Although set a bit earlier in history than the classic mid-twentieth-century noir, the film’s gorgeous camerawork by Touch of Evil cinematographer Russell Metty oozed with classic noir imagery including shadowed faces, silhouettes, forced perspective, and similarly expressionistic lighting and camera techniques. The movie’s fancy art direction included gorgeous peplums, ribbons, and frills defining the Edwardian look, with lead actress Fontaine in particular tricked out in period wear, but the storyline, about a married women who wants to bump off both her husband and her lover, is classic noir.
The second film in the double bill, The Suspect, is a much more nuanced look at spousacide, giving its protagonist a layered representation that adds a complexity to his possibly murderous motivations. Whereas in Ivy the doomed spouse is a cheerful and likeable chap, the wife in The Suspect is nothing but misery and her demise is a blessing, not a crime, which makes her suspected killer a sympathetic character rather than a heel. This perception is hugely aided by Charles Laughton’s subtle performance as the cuckolded husband wanting desperately to escape his unhappy marriage. Laughton acts with his entire body and his facial expressions and body language tell the tale beautifully. Ella Raines as the love interest is also pretty good, though her English accent slips in and out. Director Robert Siodmak creates an excellent and suspenseful narrative structure worthy of Hitchcock that never fully reveals the guilt or innocence of the main character–did he or didn’t he?
The festival also included a trifecta of Barbara Stanwyck films. Stanwyck was always good at playing intelligent women chafing again societal restrictions and her roles in the three films at Noir City this year were no exception. Fritz Lang’s Clash By Night, an adaptation of Clifford Odets’ Broadway play, is a bit stagey but it includes great performances by Stanwyck, Paul Douglas, and Robert Ryan (who I’ve always found a bit creepy due to his wrinkly forehead and intense eyebrows) as the three points of a love triangle set amidst the Monterey fishing canneries. A young Marilyn Monroe is also good as a spunky cannery worker involved with an abusive boyfriend, demonstrating the acting chops that were sometimes obscured in her later, glitzier films.
Even more pointedly critiquing the strictures of the oppressed housewife ground to dust by society’s expectations is Crime of Passion. Though possessing a less stellar pedigree than Clash By Night, the movie nonetheless makes an airtight argument for the case that restricting women to confining gender roles leads to murder and madness. Stanwyck plays a hotshot newswoman who falls for a manly cop (Sterling Hayden) who then gives up her career to become the little woman. Seeing Hayden as a romantic lead is a bit weird for me, since I’m mostly familiar with his later career as a dissolute character actor. But Hayden began his career as a male model and was considered a babe when he was younger, though by the time this movie was filmed he’d already started to get a bit jowly around the edges. At any rate, his extra-large build is a worthy lure for Stanwyck’s feisty female news reporter and it feels plausible that an independent gal might abandon her career for the likes of such a hypermasculine specimen.
Rounding off the mini-set of Stanwyck was the classic noir weepy, No Man of Her Own. Stanwyck plays a pregnant woman abandoned by her no-good boyfriend who, through a set of implausible circumstances, poses as the wife of a man killed in a train accident. She and her newborn son are taken in by her “husband’s” family and the film mostly centers on the psychological strain of deceiving her new in-laws and fending off their warm and fuzzy affections. Based on a Cornell Woolrich short story, the film focuses on Stanwyck’s reformed outsider attempting to maintain her newfound place among a family of white Christian pillars of society. Stanwyck is as usual magnificent in all three films, using her face, her posture, and the subtle inflection of her dialog to convey the psychic crises of her characters as each struggles with devastating interior conflicts.
Noir City also included a couple films from the famous Thin Man series, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, which focus on rich people who got the sweet end of the lollipop, and the A-list MGM production provided an interesting contrast to the grittier fare in the rest of the festival. After watching one-percenters Nick and Nora Charles sashay through the two films in top hats, satin smoking jackets, and feathery dressing gowns it was easy to discern the much different thematic and stylistic concerns found in film noir, which usually focuses on the losers in life. Similarly, the Claudette Colbert-Robert Cummings vehicle, Sleep, My Love (dir. Douglas Sirk) strictly speaking wasn’t noir either, as the wealthy heiress and her playboy suitor were entirely too optimistic and guileless to be true noir protagonists. If it had been a textbook noir film the lead character would’ve been the slinky photographer’s model Daphne, who snarls the classic lines, “I want her house, I want her life, and I want her man.”
An interesting side aspect that caught my eye: Chinese people and/or culture made appearances or were referenced in three of the films that I saw in the series. Yet as per usual for Hollywood at the time, only one of those representations, in Sirk’s Sleep, My Love, was thoughtful and not insulting. In that movie Keye Luke has a supporting role as Robert Cumming’s pal-friday, first appearing in an extended scene at his own wedding. Said Chinese wedding is only mildly orientalized, at first as a punchline to the Cummings comment that he’s invited to wedding of his “brother” (who turns out to be with his Chinese business partner, played by Luke). Later, the Chinese male gets to have a healthy and normal sex drive as he avidly makes out with his new wife in anticipation of their wedding night, and a running joke centers on the couple’s eager impatience to get to the honeymoon suite. Luke speaks unaccented English and is Cumming’s partner and friend, not subordinate or servant, which for the 1940s is pretty progressive. Props to Sirk for a balanced and sympathetic portrayal of Chinese culture in general and a Chinese man in particular.
The other appearances of Chinese culture in Noir City films this year consisted of standard stereotypes and reflect the casual racism that’s always been business as usual in Hollywood’s representation of Asians. In the otherwise respectable Barbara Stanwyck vehicle Clash By Night Robert Ryan’s cynical loner character Earl inexplicably does his “Chinese impersonation,”a ching-chong imitation of Chinese speech complete with the corners of his eyes pulled up. In After The Thin Man, the film depicts San Francisco’s local color in part by setting several scenes in a Chinese nightclub. Lum Kee, the nightclub owner and one of the many murder suspects in the film, speaks mostly unaccented English for the bulk of the film but his closing line of dialog is for some reason delivered in a broken ching-chong accent. Side note: before breaking out as a big-time star in the Thin Man series Myrna Loy was known for playing a series of yellowface roles.
Coming up in March will be the International Film Noir series at the Roxie Theater, organized by Don Malcolm, who put together the French Noir festival there last November, and Elliot Lavine, the programmer of I Wake Up Dreaming, the Roxie’s annual noir festival. More noir is always better, so I’m looking forward to ingesting more dark visions of crime, duplicitousness, and paranoia.
So there was a brief frisson of recognition amongst my film and art pals this morning to the video of Swedish director Ruben Östlund reacting to the news that his film Force Majeure hadn’t been nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Though it was pretty cheeky of Östlund to assume his film was a shoo-in, a lot of us artist types could totally relate to his mild freakout in a New York City hotel room (“Don’t undress!” pleaded his companion) as he faced this unexpected diss. Since constant rejections are part of the film/art world game, I definitely had a sympathy flinch or two when I watched the clip on my newsfeed. Östlund has since said that his reaction was sincere, (though some observers think he was pranking, especially since the video showed up on his production company’s youtube channel), but whether or not his mancrying was staged or spontaneous, it wasn’t too far from how I’ve felt many a time in the past. Of course, only five films from around the world get nominated and most do not, so Östlund is in plenty good company.
Another great movie that didn’t get nominated for the Oscar is Human Capital, Italy’s entry into the foreign-language sweepstakes. Opening this weekend, the movie is a cleverly structured look at class, privilege, greed, and desire in contemporary Italian society. The film opens with a quick sequence of events in which a bicyclist is hit by a car on a lonely country road, with the car’s driver continuing on without stopping. The movie then flashes back six months to deconstruct the events leading up to the hit-and-run from the various points of view of several key players including Dino, a scruffy social climber who mortgages his house to buy into a shady hedge fund, Carla, the anxious wife of said hedge fund’s unctuous manager Giovanni, and Serena, Dino’s teenage daughter who is involved with Carla and Giovanni’s spoiled son Massimiliano. Along the way the film touches on the social and economic divides within Italian society and the price that some people are willing to pay in order to advance themselves.
The film is sleek and fast-moving, efficiently weaving together the disparate versions of the story into a satisfying whole. Director Paolo Virzi has a sharp eye for social foibles and finds a lot of bone-dry humor in the characters’ dire situation. One amusing scene in which a group of catty drama aficionados critique the state of contemporary theater arts demonstrates Virzi’s knack for quickly and clearly delineating character traits and interpersonal tensions. He also elicits uniformly solid performances from his cast, lead by newcomer Matilde Gioli’s levelheaded turn as Serena—also good are veteran actors Fabrizio Bentivoglio as the cluelessly ambitious Dino and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi as the mournful, jittery Carla. Though based on a novel originally set in Connecticut, the story makes an effective transition to the suburbs of Milan, with Giovanni’s luxe marble villa, complete with indoor swimming pool and private tennis courts, contrasting with the Dino’s messy middle-class abode.
Director Virzi uses the multiple-point-of-view narrative technique, popularized in Kurosawa’s Rashoman back in the 1950s, to underscore the vast chasm between the stratified social classes in contemporary Italy. All of the characters believe in the veracity and reliability of their perspectives and for the most part can’t see beyond their own noses, suggesting a lack of empathy that contributes to social anomie. The exception to this is Serena, whose great sympathy for the plight of others makes her the moral center of the film. Virzi privileges her perspective by concluding the film’s fractured narrative structure with Serena’s point of view, which adds a small spark of hope that humanity might still rise up from the depravity, greed, and selfishness embodied by the other characters in the film.
A quick tip: this week is the start of the 13th Noir City Film Festival at the glorious Castro Theater in San Francisco. The ten-day festival is chock full of treats, many projected from 35mm prints. Favorite noir actors including Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Ryan, and directors Fritz Lang, Douglas Sirk, and Robert Siodmak, among many others, have films in the program, which is always a great time. Don’t miss it—I certainly won’t.
Opens January 14,
Landmark Opera Plaza, San Francisco
California Film Institute, San Rafael
January 14-24, 2015