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Que Caramba Es La Vida: Mill Valley Film Festival 2014

 

Maria del Carmen , Que Caramba Es La Vida, 2014

Maria del Carmen, Que Caramba Es Mi Vida, 2014

The Mill Valley Film Festival’s 2014 edition starts this weekend and as per usual it’s a star-studded affair, with guest appearances by the likes of Hilary Swank, Jason Reitman, Billy Joe Armstrong, Ellie Fanning, Laura Dern, Metallica, and many more Hollywood glitterati. The program also boasts an outstanding lineup of documentaries, including several by local filmmakers, so the reasons for driving across the Golden Gate Bridge (or the Richmond/San Rafael Bridge, depending on your homebase) are manifold.

Lupita (Las Estrellas), Que Caramba Es La Vida. 2014

Lupita (Las Estrellas), Que Caramba Es La Vida. 2014

This year the festival is spotlighting Spanish-language cinema from around the world, including the excellent documentary Que Caramba Es La Vida, an intriguing portrait of the fierce and talented women mariachis of Mexico City. Directed by veteran German filmmaker Doris Dörrie, the movie documents the experiences of several female performers working to make a mark in a field dominated by men. The film is shot mostly verite-style with no narration, as each of the women describes how she came to be a mariachi and why she continues in the business. Some come from mariachi families, with parents or grandparents who performed before them, while others are the first in their families to perform. A particularly compelling story is that of Maria del Carmen, a mariachi singer who lives with her single mom and young daughter in a small apartment in Mexico City. Del Carmen’s mother recalls that even as a girl, her daughter Maria had a voice “that went right through you,” and this is pretty apparent after hearing del Carmen soulfully belt out a couple songs in the Plaza Garabaldi, which is home to scores of mariachi bands plying their trade every night. The film depicts del Carmen’s everyday performance prep routine, as her mom and daughter help her with her makeup and hair, as well as revealing her concerns for her daughter’s future as a female growing up working-class in Mexico. The movie also follows Las Pioneras, a group of older female mariachi groups whose members who are now in their sixties and seventies and who started out as mariachis in the 1950s as teenagers and young women. The last quarter of the movie follows the Dia de los Muertes celebrations in Mexico City, neatly contextualizing the mariachi tradition. Que Caramba Es La Vida effectively looks at some of the social and cultural milieu surrounded the women, including the effects of drug dealers, misogyny, poverty, and crime on their ability to keep performing.

Rodrigo y Gabriela, For Those About To Rock, 2014

Rodrigo y Gabriela, For Those About To Rock, 2014

Mexican music of a different sort is profiled in For Those About To Rock: The Story of Rodrigo y Gabriela. Rock journalist and first-time director Alejandro Franco narrates his very accessible portrait of the popular Mexico City guitar duo, from their roots in the capital listening to thrash and heavy metal like Megadeth, Metallica, and Slayer as teenagers. Both subjects are fluent in English and were raised in middle-class Mexican families, so their stories for the most part are very different from their mariachi counterparts in Dörrie’s film. The film is a standard biopic of a successful musical outfit so, unless you’re a big Rodrigo y Gabriela fan, the movie is less compelling than Dorrie’s movie. The film starts out strong, quickly and succinctly contextualizing the Mexico rock music scene, but bogs down in the middle as it becomes a fairly  linear recounting of R&G’s career.Although the film is about musicians, one of its shortcoming is that there isn’t actually enough of R&G’s music in the earlier part of film, so if you’re unfamiliar with the duo you might not know what the fuss is all about. The film makes the mistake of telling and not showing, which weakens its impact—there are a lot of talking heads explaining things and not enough things happening instead. Whereas Que Caramba takes place on the streets and in the plazas of Mexico City, For Those About To Rock happens mostly in recording studios, backstage, and at clubs, and concerts, and is more of a fannish tribute about legend-building than an incisive look at the duo. There is also not much dramatic tension—the director refers to the story as a “fairy tale’ and it’s presented as such, with R&G destined to achieve their rock star ambitions. The viewer learns very little about either musician’s personal life or any deep, compelling reasons for why they make music other than “it’s fun”, and the film lacks a strong sense of a cultural context for who they are and where they came from. The film ends with about ten minutes of live concert footage that only underscores the relative paucity of music in the rest of the film, which may be enough of a reason for admirers of Rodrigo y Gabriela to watch the film.

The Mill Valley Film Festival eleven days beginning on Oct. 2 in various theaters in and around Mill Valley. Go here for complete schedule and ticket information.

October 3, 2014 at 5:43 pm Leave a comment

Ruffneck: Keaton, Laurel, and Hardy at the SF Silent Film Festival

A boy and his log, The General, 1926

A boy and his log, The General, 1926

Buster Keaton’s The General is one of those movies that are on every cinephile’s best-of list, and with good reason. Elegantly structured, coolly executed, and funny as hell, the film was Keaton’s own favorite, although it was the movie that almost ruined his reputation when it first came out. It took a long time to shoot, was prohibitively expensive, and absolutely did not make bank when it was released—Keaton’s rep as a comedic star took a big hit and his studio reined him in after The General‘s box office failure. The movie was anything but well-received when it was released in 1926, although it’s now considered a classic.

The storyline follows a railroad engineer and wannabe Confederate soldier during the Civil War (nimbly played by the diminutive Keaton) who traces the theft of his beloved railroad engine, named The General, behind Union lines. The movie features some of the most beautifully choreographed stunts of the silent era, involving huge piles of rolling logs, steam engines on collision course, and the spectacular demise of a full-size locomotive. The sight of an actual train engine falling many dozens of feet from a bridge to a riverbed is still amazingly impressive, even in this age of CGI and digitally created special effects. The film is Keaton at his best, with its stripped down, symmetrically structured narrative, its large-scale, dangerous, and perfectly executed stunts, and its underdog hero struggling within a vastly unsympathetic world.

Tearing it up, Two Tars, 1926

Tearing it up, Two Tars, 1926

Silent film comedy of an entirely different sort are the Laurel and Hardy two-reeler short films, Two Tars (1928) and Big Business (1929). Two Tars follows a day in the life of a couple of sailors on leave in Los Angeles as they go joy-riding among the California chaparral with a couple of dames. Although Stan and Ollie play sailors, all of the action in the twenty-minute movie takes place on a pair of landlocked Southern California roadways. Featuring Laurel and Hardy’s signature physicality and escalation of destruction, the short also includes some very suggestive digital manipulation of a gumball machine as well as several excellent Stan Laurel pratfalls. The short concludes with an epic traffic jam that would make Godard proud that illustrates the primal allure of large-vehicle destruction, the weaponization of cow pies and rotten tomatoes, and a gal getting a faceful of black ink.

Up at the plate, Big Business, 1929

Up at the plate, Big Business, 1929

Big Business is even more of a felon’s wet dream, as a small misunderstanding rapidly escalates into complete mayhem, resulting in an entire house vandalized down to its spinet piano and brick chimney. L&H play door-to-door Christmas tree salesmen plying their wares in the sunny, overexposed 1920s Southern California suburbs, which were about as sparsely populated as the high desert at the time. The two get into a scrap with a feisty homeowner and soon the axes are out and windows, doors, and a Model T fall victim to the OTT belligerence of the battling adversaries. The humor derives from the extreme reactions of both Stan and Ollie as well as their antagonist, played with righteous fury by L&H regular James Finlayson.

All three of these comedy classics are screening as part of Silent Autumn, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s one-day event on Sept. 20 at the glorious Castro Theater. Also notable are screenings of new restorations of The Son of the Sheik, starring the beautiful Rudolph Valentino, and the German expressionist classic, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. As per usual with all SFSFF events, each program includes live accompaniment, by silent film score maestro Donald Sosin as well as the always innovative Alloy Orchestra. Go here for complete schedule and ticket info.

September 16, 2014 at 4:39 pm Leave a comment

Typical Girls: Kenji Mizoguchi film series at the Pacific Film Archive

Making ends meet, Street of Shame, 1956

Making ends meet, Street of Shame, 1956

The Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley comes through once again with another outstanding series, this time focusing on legendary Japanese filmmaker Kenji Mizoguchi. Running through the end of August, this set gives you the chance to see much of Mizoguchi’s amazing oeuvre on the big screen and in glorious 35mm.

Along with Akira Kurosawa and Yasajiro Ozu, film historians consider Mizoguchi one of the Holy Trinity of golden-age Japanese filmmakers—the work of these seminal directors spanned much of the early and mid-twentieth century and has received massive critical attention. Among those three, however, Mizoguchi’s star has dimmed a bit, due in part to the somewhat unrelenting bleakness of his films. But his portrayals of the plight of women in a patriarchal society are pretty key, and his intricate camerawork and direction are still fresh and revelatory. The PFA series is a great chance to witness Mizoguchi’s masterful use of the filmic medium to examine the effects of a brutal and uncaring society on individuals caught in its strictures.

Mizoguchi’s brilliant use of the camera is in full effect throughout the series. Famous for including a minimum of close-ups and often shooting his scenes in extended master shots (a style dubbed “one scene, one cut”), he performs a kind of cinematographic butoh, with ultra-slow, beautifully choreographed push-ins, pans, and dollies that mesh with the characters’ actions and dialog in an intricate, intertwined choreography.

The PFA series include most of Mizoguchi’s well-known jidai-geki (historical dramas)  like the popular ghost story Ugetsu, winner of the Silver Lion Award for Best Direction at the 1953 Venice Film Festival, and The Life of Oharu, a masterpiece that’s a sad tale of a woman’s oppression, told with clockwork precision and driven by a bravura performance by Kinuyo Tanaka. In addition to his more famous historicals, the PFA is also screening several of Mizoguchi’s modern-day films. Mizoguchi is recognized for his period pieces, yet like his compatriot Akira Kurosawa he also directed several films that scathingly examine issues and problems of 20th-century Japan. As with his period films, these modern-day movies often center on the plight of women in a straight-laced society. Osaka Elegy (1936) is a bleak, brilliant, and economical portrayal of the social strictures that constrained women in a pre-feminist age. Elegy is buoyed by Mizoguchi’s sympathetic portrayal of the female protagonist, surrounded by exploitative, weak, or cowardly male figures who lend little support when the heroine falls on hard times. A proto-noir filled with deep shadows and geometric compositions, the film displays Mizoguchi’s mastery of the medium even in the 1930s.

Coiffed, A Geisha, 1953

Coiffed, A Geisha, 1953

Also from 1936, Sisters of the Gion is a surprisingly modern and unsympathetic take on the hard-knock geisha life, full of Mizoguchi’s gliding camerawork and one-take marvels. Hard-as-nails Omacha and her more sensitive sibling Umekichi are two low-end geisha in the Gion, Kyoto’s licensed pleasure district, who are struggling to make ends meet by landing “patrons,” customers who are mostly old wizened married guys. The film is a cutting indictment of the capitalist system that’s all about the money and is a good example of a Mizoguchi keikō-eiga (tendency film), which literally displays his socialist tendencies. Omacha is the deal-maker, trying to manipulate the system to escape the oppression of poverty, sexism, and misogyny, while Umekichi desperately believes that the system will work in her favor. The PFA series screens Mizoguchi’s remake of Sisters of the Gion, A Geisha (1953), which updates the story to postwar occupied Japan and which stars the famed Ayako Wakao in one of her first film roles.

The PFA series concludes with Mizoguchi’s last movie, Street of Shame (1956), which is an excellent example of Mizoguchi’s use of film to examine social problems. The story concerns a group of prostitutes in postwar Tokyo who struggle to overcome an andocentric culture insensitive to the needs of women. In a role that’s a departure from her parts in the period films Rashomon and Ugetsu, Machiko Kyo plays Mickey, a material girl who’s not above stealing her co-workers’ customers or blithely overextending her credit at local shops. Ayako Wakao as Yasumi is a no-nonsense working girl who plans to escape the brothel by becoming a moneylender and shopkeeper. The men in the film are for the most part weak, craven, or venal, preying on the female protagonists and only valuing them for their bodies or their beauty, or despising them for their vocation. Yet Mizoguchi makes it clear that the women are prostitutes only because they are given little other choice in society. In one amusing scene one of the women who’s left the profession to marry a small-town cobbler returns to the brothel. She laments that marriage is worse than selling her body to strangers as her husband forces her to work in the shop from morning to night, then expects dinner and sex at the end of the day. Mizoguchi’s narrative uses the women’s plights as a critique of capitalism, an exploration of the uncertainty and despair of post-war Japan, and an indictment of the constraints of a patriarchal society.

While many of Mizoguchi’s films are available on DVD, Mizoguchi is absolutely a big-screen director. His subtle use of the camera and his epic portrayals of women and men struggling to overcome their fate deserve to be appreciated in a movie theater and, as usual for this excellent venue, the PFA serves up his films as they were meant to be seen.

 

Kenji Mizoguchi: A Cinema of Totality

June 19, 2014 – August 29, 2014

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft Way

Berkeley CA 94720

July 22, 2014 at 8:33 pm Leave a comment

Fun and Games: Journey To The West: Conquering The Demons and The Guillotines film reviews

Journey-to-the-West-2013-Movie-Image

Don’t mess with Sun Wukong, Journey To The West: Conquering The Demons, 2012

I recently had the chance to view two of last year’s top box-office draws from China, both of which are Hong Kong/China co-productions helmed by A-list Hong Kong directors. Both Andrew Lau’s The Guillotines and Stephen Chow Sing-Chi’s Journey To The West: Conquering The Demons are flashy, expensive commercial spectacles, but one shows much more directorial flair and cohesion of vision than the other.

Although it has about as much in common with the classic Chinese text as did A Chinese Odyssey, Stephen Chow Sing-Chi’s last riff on the Monkey King legend (which is to say, not a whole lot), Journey To The West: Conquering The Demons, is still a brilliant film nonetheless. The narrative follows Zhang Wen, a callow and ineffectual demon hunter being chased by a much more competent and coincidentally beautiful demon hunter, Duan, (Shu Qi) who keeps futilely throwing herself at him. As with A Chinese Odyssey, the movie has a philosophical bent hidden under its humor, as Zhang Wen tries to balance between greater and lesser love while struggling to maintain his chastity in the face of earthly temptation (aka Duan).

Don't mess with Shu Qi, Journey To The West: Conquering The Demons, 2012

Don’t mess with Shu Qi, Journey To The West: Conquering The Demons, 2012

Chow Sing-Chi is in top directorial form with this one, mixing up pathos, slapstick, crude humor, and CGI. His singular cinematic vision is in full effect, starting with a long set piece involving a fish demon that takes its cue from Jaws, Super Mario Brothers, and Bong Joon-Ho’s The Host. Stephen Chow’s great gift is his visual virtuosity, his skill with deadpan absurdity, and his ability to draw out great comic performances from his actors. Although some of the CGI animals are a bit cartoonlike, some images are sheer genius, such as the brilliant and beautiful image of a bodhisattva gazing over the curve of the earth from outer space.  Shu Qi is also outstanding, by turns fierce, giddy, and charming as the demon hunter smitten by her younger colleague. She and Huang Bo, as one incarnation of the Monkey King, have an outstanding improvisational moment late in the film as Sun Wukong teaches Duan how to dance.

Journey To The West: Conquering The Demons, is essentially a very long backstory to its supposed inspiration about the Monkey King and his travels. The film has become the highest grossing Chinese-language film in China to date, so a sequel is now in the works, hopefully with some acting role for Chow as well (he doesn’t appear in this one). Quite possibly the second film will more closely follow the classic story, though with Stephen Chow that’s never a guarantee.

Metal mayhem, The Guillotines, 2012

Metal mayhem, The Guillotines, 2012

The Guillotines is another redux of a classic Chinese story, this time remaking Master of the Flying Guillotine, the seminal 1970s kung fu movie that starred Jimmy Wang Yu and the titular spinning metal decapitation machine. While director Andrew Lau (Infernal Affairs) infuses the film with a dusty, gritty feel and some fun fighting sequences, the movie still somehow falls short. The Guillotines follows an elite band of Imperial assassins who find themselves entangled in court politics and who are forced to flee the vengeance of the new regime. Starring 21st century movie idol youngsters including Huang Xiaoming, Ethan Ruan, and Shawn Yue, (who hail from China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, respectively), The Guillotines was the number one film in China for a couple weeks before rapidly dropping off the box office charts. Despite its roots as an action film the movie is a bit of a downer as, aside from the thrilling opening sequence full of blood and fancy CGI, the assassins don’t actually get to demonstrate much of their prowess with the weapon that is their namesake.

Brotherly love, Shawn Yue and Ethan Ruan, The Guillotines, 2012

Brotherly love, Shawn Yue and Ethan Ruan, The Guillotines, 2012

Director Lau is an outstanding cinematographer and his camerawork and compositions make great use of light, shadow, and dust, but despite bromances between the various handsome and brooding characters, the film’s tale of betrayal and brotherhood is somehow less compelling than it should be. Continuing to stake his claim as the movie king of the future, Taiwanese popstar and Golden Horse award-winner Ethan Ruan shows some charisma as the Guillotine with a past. The ordinarily dapper Huang Xiaoming, recently seen as the young Chow Yun Fat counterpart in The Last Tycoon, is less effective as the renegade Guillotine, in part due to his ill-advised beard, flowing hair, and sacrificial, Christ-like demeanor. Still, the movie is an enjoyable time-pass and, with Andrew Lau’s high-caliber cinematography and production design, it’s probably pretty stunning to look at on the big screen.

Both films show the continued integration of Hong Kong and China’s commercial film interests. If mainland money means that Stephen Chow keeps making movies, then I’m all for it, since in Journey To The West he seems to have maintained a firm grip on his singular aesthetic. But the flip side of HK/China co-production is good-looking but unsatisfying big-budget movies like The Guillotines. With all of the high-end competition from commercial cinema product from Hollywood, Bollywood, China, or beyond, a movie has to have a more than slick good looks to stand out from the crowd.

Journey To The West: Conquering The Demons

Blu-ray disc now available from yesasia.com

The Guillotines

Opens June 14

Presidio Theater in San Francisco

June 8, 2013 at 3:38 pm Leave a comment

More Than This: Pen-Ek Ratanaruang at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

Last Life in the Universe_by Pen-ek Ratanaruang_credit Palm Pictures

Mythic, Last Life in the Universe, Pen-ek Ratanaruang, 2003

My pal Durian Dave tipped me to an excellent upcoming film series at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Thai Dreams: The Films of Pen-ek Ratanaruang. Though not quite as much the international filmi darling as his countryman Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Ratanaruang has nonetheless garnered critical attention for his unconventional, atmospheric crime films. Six of his movies will be on view at YBCA for a three-week run, with the director in person April 4 at the screening of his latest film, Headshot (2011), and at the April 7 screening of Nymph (2009).

Last Life in the Universe 3_by Pen-ek Ratanaruang_credit Palm Pictures

Desultory, Last Life in the Universe, Pen-ek Ratanaruang, 2003

Ratanaruang teamed up with Japanese superstar Tadanobu Asano (Ichi The Killer; Thor) and Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle (famed for his work with Wong Kar-Wai, among many others) for a pair of films included in the YBCA series. Last Life In The Universe (2003) follows Kenji (Asano), a Japanese librarian living in Thailand whose desultory attempts at suicide are interspersed with his equally desultory meanderings around Bangkok. Due to its overuse in describing Thai films I hesitate to use the word dreamlike, but in this case the term is quite apt. The film’s multilingual dialogue and lovely color scheme, with its burnished greens and browns, Chris Doyle’s gliding camerawork and deep-focus compositions, and the languid narrative pace possess the half-remembered structure of dreams. The film is leavened with an absurdist humor occasionally punctuated by brief bursts of violence, but the real story is the development of Kenji’s relationship with Noi, a woman he meets during one of his suicide attempts. After a tragic accident, the two retire to Noi’s incredibly cluttered and filthy beach house, which starkly contrasts with Kenji’s meticulously kept apartment, and slowly develop a friendship. Here Ratanaruang shows a pleasantly light touch, combining Doyle’s keen eye for color and composition with a delicate narrative sensibility. There is a quite beautiful sequence where Noi’s house cleans itself, with books and papers flying through the air like the toys in Mary Poppins’ nursery,  suggesting the mystic quality of Noi’s relationship with Kenji. Sporting a pageboy haircut and glasses, Tadanobu Asano is suitably restrained in his librarian role, with only a few brief glimpses of his full-back tat suggesting a history of violence.

On the lam, Invisible Waves, Pen-ek Ratanaruang, 2007

On the lam, Invisible Waves, Pen-ek Ratanaruang, 2007

Ratanaruang’s second film with Asano and Doyle, Invisible Waves (2006), proceeds in a similarly languid fashion. Passive hitman Kyochi (Asano) poisons his girlfriend, who is also the mistress of his mobster boss, then goes on the lam across Southeast Asia, which as shown here is much less exciting than it sounds. Kyochi endures a Kafka-esque boat ride in a janky cruise ship cabin and briefly wanders through Phuket, getting mugged in a fleabag hotel before the boss’s boys catch up with him. Asano’s quiet charisma anchors the film, along with a dark, fatalistic humor and Christopher Doyle’s brilliant compositions. A bit more linear than Last Life, the film nonetheless meanders similarly through its narrative without a huge amount of action. Mysterious blood smears, a cute baby, karaoke-loving hatchet men, and cameos by Hong Kong performers Maria Cordero and Eric Tsang populate the stark scenario.

Headshot 2_by Pen-ek Ratanaruang_credit Kino Lorber

Merit-making, Headshot, Pen-ek Ratanaruang, 2011

Headshot, Ratanaruang’s most recent film, follows Tul, a morose and disillusioned cop who becomes a hitman, mixes it up with various bad guys, falls for prostitute, and becomes a monk, not necessarily in that order. Unversed as I am in Buddhism, the film’s references to that belief system were very opaque to me—perhaps to another less philistine viewer they would have more resonance. Not quite as sublime as Last Life or Invisible Waves, Headshot wavers between violent action and long expository sequences, but the film’s non-linear narrative and Tul’s existential search for a moral higher ground elevates the film above a standard genre exercise.

Also included in the YBCA series are the black comedy 6ixty9ine (1999); Ploy (2007), which looks at love, desire, and betrayal; and Nymph, a surreal stroll through a haunted Thai jungle.

Thai Dreams: The Films of Pen-ek Ratanaruang

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

April 4-21, 2013

Pen-ek Ratanaruang in Person April 4 and 7, 2013

Full schedule and tickets here.

April 3, 2013 at 10:20 pm Leave a comment

Teenage kicks: Battle Royale and Girlfriend Boyfriend film reviews

Don’t make me, Battle Royale, 2001

Two very different movies about adolescent angst are now playing in the Bay Area. Kinji Fukasaku’s legendary Battle Royale (2001) has its long-delayed U.S. theatrical premiere at the San Francisco Film Society and the Taiwanese flick Girlfriend Boyfriend is rolling out in selected theaters around the country, including here in San Francisco.

My older kid was born around the time Battle Royale was first came out so I missed it back in 2001—this is the first time I’ve seen Fukasaku’s brilliant and infamous swan song. Aside from scattered festival and one-night screenings BR’s never had a theatrical release in the U.S. until now, but with the popularity of The Hunger Games (much inferior, by the way), it’s now getting a limited release. After more than a decade, Battle Royale doesn’t disappoint—it’s everything it’s cracked up to be and more. The concept may be sensationalist (a game where 15-year-old kids fight to the death) but the movie itself is much more than exploitation. This is economical storytelling at its best.

Director Fukusaku draws out great performances from his teenage cast, quickly and effectively sketching out their complicated relationships in a few rapid strokes. The fact that the students aren’t strangers but classmates with prior emotional relationships only adds to the frisson, and their adolescent dilemmas—who’s crushing on who, which girls are the top clique, how the popular and the excluded kids get on—are magnified to a fatal pitch by the movie’s premise. Most of us can totally relate to the situation, which adds another layer to the vicarious experience—who among us didn’t fantasize about taking an Uzi to a particular mean girl or mindless bully?

Emotional frisson, Battle Royale, 2001

Fukasaku is masterful in executing (sorry) each vignette and the pacing and plot are spot on. The scene where the five happy schoolgirls suddenly turn their machine-guns on each other is amazing moviemaking at its best, particularly since it’s perfectly set up. The story arc of cold-hearted beyotch Mitsuko is also particularly brilliant as her backstory slowly reveals a much deeper motivation than plain self-interest or villainy. Not just simple exploitation, this is smart, smart stuff.

Although there have been a ton of extreme movies since its first release that go far beyond BR’s violence, Battle Royale’s slaughter always has an impact because the characters are more than simple cannon fodder. What Park Chan-Wook understands and Takashi Miike still doesn’t get is that an audience’s attachment to a character heightens the effect of the gore. Which is why the fact that the plight of (mostly) unwilling killers in BR has such a great effect—their backstories add meaning and that meaning adds a punch that goes beyond the visceral to the emotional.

Three in one, Girlfriend Boyfriend, 2012

Youthful angst takes a totally different turn in Girlfriend Boyfriend (GF BF), China Lion’s latest China/U.S. day-and-date release. GF BF is a slick drama with an unusual love triangle about Taiwanese youth coming of age in the last couple decades of the 20th century. The movie is nicely restrained and avoids veering toward excess even when the narrative steers over melodramatic waters.

The opening sequence, a present-day boxer rebellion of sorts at a Taiwanese girls school, frames the main story, which takes place mostly in 1980s & 90s Taiwan. Mabel (Guey Lun-Mei ), Aaron (Rhydian Vaughn), and Liam (Joseph Chang) are best friends in high school during the waning days of KMT martial law. The movie follows them as they come of age during the Wild Lily student movement of the early 90s and through their lives as young adults. The film touches lightly on youth uprisings of the 1990s but those events are really only a backdrop to the love story and mostly serve as a metaphor for the youthful rebellion of the protagonists.

All three leads are quite good—Joseph Chang resembles a young Simon Yam (i.e., ridiculously good-looking) and is effective as the conflicted Liam. Guey Lun-Mei has been one of my favorite young actors lately and she holds her own as the pivot of the triangle. British-Taiwanese actor Rhydian Vaughn, last seen rocking a mullet as one of the gangsta boys in the ‘hood in Monga, is charming and goofy with his million-dollar smile.

Joseph Chang and Rhydian Vaugh, pretty boys, Girlfriend Boyfriend, 2012

The movie makes some interesting points about sexuality, although the story arc of one of the main characters grappling with his desire is a bit mopey for my tastes. His angsty. quasi-closeted behavior, however, is offset by the out-and-proud queerness of one of the supporting characters.

As noted by my buddy Anita, the movie was shot on film (though digitally projected) and the cinematography is aces, with some gorgeous, incandescent shots. The look of the film transmutes smoothly from the dull green utilitarianism of the 1980s Taiwanese high school to the glowing sheen of millennial Taipei. The three leads age convincingly, with the aid of various wigs and hairstyles, with Guey in particular conveying the brashness of late teenhood through a more sober early adulthood.

August 11, 2012 at 3:29 pm 2 comments

Better Things: 2012 San Francisco Independent Film Festival

Pissed off, Gandhu, 2012

The San Francisco Independent Film Festival opens tonight at the Roxie Theater and as usual it’s a great chance to see movies that might never again get local theatrical screenings. The festival has gotten more global since its modest inception back in 1998, and this year’s lineup includes three Asian-themed features that demonstrate the SFIFF’s wide range of programming.

From India, director Q’s Gandhu (which roughly translates as “asshole,” “loser,” or “idiot’) is a punk rock, black-and-white opus that follows the daily misadventures of the title character. Gandhu wanders the mean streets of Kolkata with a perpetual scowl, existing in a nihilistic limbo as he fails to connect with most of humanity. Interspersed throughout the movie are short musical rants where Gandhu rails against the injustices in his life and generally blows off steam. Billed as “anti-Bollywood,” the movie is a fun, scruffy alternative to the glitzy, monolithic Hindi-language film industry.

Cake frosting or psychosis? Monsters Club, 2011

Monsters Club deals with a crazed Japanese Unabomber who sees dead people. Bad boy filmmaker Toyoda Toshiaki became interested in Ted Kaczynski’s manifesto and out of that interest grew this dark meditation on life, death, suicide, technology, society and the state. Main character Ryuichi lives in an isolated, snow-covered mountain cabin where he bathes in an icy outdoor shower, cooks spartan meals of cabbage and brown rice, and builds deadly bombs in cigar boxes that he mails to entertainment and journalism CEOs. Yet despite its focus on a mad bomber the film isn’t action-packed—rather, it’s more like a voayge inside the head of the disturbed protagonist. After a visit from his younger sister Ryoichi begins to have visions of his dead brothers, one of whom committed suicide and the other who died in a motorcycle accident. The film’s stark white snowy landscape reflects the vastness of Ryoichi’s psychic anomie as he tries to come to grips with his own violent reaction to what he perceives as the corruption of modern society.

Girljock, No Look Pass, 2011

No Look Pass (dir. Melissa Johnson) follows Emily Tay, Burmese American basketball star for the Harvard women’s team, as she deals with pressures both on and off the court. Included in these are living up to the expectations of her immigrant Burmese parents, who hope she’ll marry rich and settle down after college. Emily’s got other plans, however, including romances with a cheerleader and a female soldier she meets in Germany while playing in the European leagues after graduation. The movie starts strong as Emily deals with the various challenges of her last year in college, but loses steam once she graduates and the narrative moves to Europe. The film also gives short shrift to the Asian American aspects of Emily’s story–at one point she states, “If it were up to me I’d rather be white,” but this startling statement isn’t really followed up. The film also discusses her Burmese parents’ flight from their homeland but doesn’t do much significant investigation into how their refugee experience might impact their aspirations for their children. Instead we see them as stereotypically demanding Asian parents, with (tiger) mom always scowling disapproval despite her daughter’s amazing accomplishments. There are, however, some excellent behind-the-scenes sports moments as we get to witness Emily’s Harvard coach and her coach in Germany both screaming profanities at their respective teams, a tactic that they apparently use to motivate their players.

The San Francisco Independent Film Festival

Feb. 9-23, 2012

Roxie Theater

3117 16th Street, San Francisco, CA 94103-3327

(415) 863-1087 ‎

http://sfindie.festivalgenius.com/2012/

February 10, 2012 at 1:04 am Leave a comment

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