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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

Too Much Heaven, Part Three: Hong Kong Cinema at the San Francisco Film Society

Buzz Chung, astronaut, Echoes of the Rainbow, 2010

This weekend the San Francisco Film Society presents Hong Kong Cinema, the first of two Chinese-language film festivals, which runs for three days with seven films from the former Crown Colony. Although it doesn’t include any blockbusters, the brief festival runs the gamut from romantic comedies to crime films to melodramas and is a good look at the range of films coming out of Hong Kong these days.  Herewith are a few of the films included in the series.

Punished

A sleek, economical crime film that’s actually a family drama in disguise, Punished is produced by Johnnie To and directed by Law Wing Cheong, To’s editor and frequent second unit director. The story moves along at a brisk and efficient pace, emphasizing the dysfunctional family relationships behind the kidnapping drama.

Moral choices, Anthony Wong and Richie Jen, Punished, 2010

Anthony Wong is outstanding as Wong Ho-chiu, a ruthless and powerful businessman seeking vengeance for his errant daughter’s kidnapping and death–his performance is subtle and explosive and as usual he can do no wrong. Richie Jen is also excellent as Anthony Wong’s bodyguard and hatchet man with his own family issues to deal with. Supporting performances are uniformly strong and the mood is mostly realistic throughout–the bad guys aren’t too bad and the good guys aren’t too good, so the film possesses a great deal of moral complexity. Each person has a motivation for his or her actions, justified or not, and no one is completely evil or completely good.

In the end, it’s a mother-daughter relationship that’s the catalyst for the resolution of Wong’s moral crisis. As with the best Hong Kong films the movie is also unafraid to tap into the characters’ deep emotional responses–men cry, women swoon, and children weep unashamedly. Director Law keeps things pretty straightforward, with none of the annoying quirks of fellow Milkywayer Wai Ka-Fei. The film makes intelligent connections between the corruption of big business, damaged family dynamics, and immoral criminal activity.

Meeting cute, Gao Yuan Yuan and Daniel Wu, Don't Go Breaking My Heart, 2011

Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart

An adequate rom-com that attempts to capture the uber-success of early 2000s Johnnie To flicks Needing You and Love on A Diet, Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart stars Louis Koo, Gao Yuan Yuan, and Daniel Wu in a love story set in Hong Kong and China. The three play young urban professionals, with Gao unable to decide between playboy Koo and nice guy Wu.

Gao’s dilemma becomes tedious pretty quickly since Louis Koo’s character is so clearly a womanizing asshole. It’s hard to understand what she sees in him, especially with the charming and sensitive Daniel Wu also courting her. But the plot demands a love triangle so the audience must suffer through her indecision for nearly two hours (whatever happened to the excellent concept of the 90-minute Hong Kong movie?) while she dithers between her two beaus. Director To even cribs from his own most successful romantic comedy, Needing You, by using the device of would-be lovers communicating the movie’s catchphrase by signage. There’s some clever usage of messages pasted on office building windows but even that seems awfully contrived by the end of the movie. Though both are cute and dimply, Gao and Koo never seem to really spark–Gao and Wu’s chemistry is better, with Wu nicely conveying a sense of romantic longing. Gao lacks the manic goofiness and exquisite comic timing of To’s usual rom-com muse Sammi Cheng and Louis Koo just isn’t charming enough to warrant Gao’s long-term fascination. Daniel Wu is very sweet as the long-suffering third party but he doesn’t have much character development except his ongoing dedication to a neon green frog. But as rom-coms go, this one is serviceable, with three good-looking and well-dressed lead actors amidst the glamorous backdrop of Hong Kong’s skyscrapers.

Choices, Teddy Robin and Ella Koon, Merry-Go-Round, 2010

Merry-Go-Round

Though it looks great, with beautiful, rich cinematography and art direction, Merry-Go-Round, (dirs. Yan Yan Mak and Clement Cheng) is just a bit too long and a bit too dependent on coincidence to be completely effective. Ella Koon and Nora Miao play two Hong Kong ex-pats living in San Francisco who return to the former Crown Colony after long absences. Koon’s character is a young bohemian with a hidden past, and Miao’s is a master herbalist who left Hong Kong to follow her bliss in the United States. Their lives converge in somewhat forced circumstances– the film’s narrative links its many characters with overly convenient plot twists.

Merry-Go-Round takes a light but serious look at death, loss, and separation. The film uses the idea of returning home as a metaphor for going back, not forward, in life, with several characters attempting to make amends for past misjudgments or dealing with the results of long-gone choices. It also makes some nice points about the advantages of moving on with life instead of dwelling on past traumas, with one character wistfully telling another, “I would have forgotten long ago but you keep reminding me.”

Teddy Robin, who won Best Actor for Gallants (also directed by Clement Chang) at last year’s Hong Kong Film Awards, is very effective as the lovelorn manager of the coffin home/mortuary where Koon ends up working. Also excellent is Nora Miao as the imperious herbalist who so long ago followed her fate to the U.S. But the time structure of the film seems a little skewed–if some of the characters were young adults in 1938, that means that they would be in their nineties now, and the actors playing them in the modern-day sequences seem much too young to be nonegenarians.

Despite its handsomely mounted production design, Merry-Go-Round’s storyline is a bit too unfocused to be completely convincing. But it’s nice to see a Hong Kong film that’s a serious drama instead of the martial arts/triad/comedy flicks that the city’s film industry usually puts out.

Shoemaking, Simon Yam and Sandra Ng, Echoes of the Rainbow, 2010

Echoes of the Rainbow

A charming family drama set in 1960s Hong Kong, this melodrama by Hong Kong New Wave director Alex Law stars Buzz Chung Shiu-Tiu as Big Ears, a young boy whose shoemaker father, his mother and his older brother strive to make an honest living making and selling shoes in their working-class neighborhood. Though a bit soft around the edges, the film is best when it illustrates the community neighborliness found amongst the residents of the street. One pleasant moment occurs when Big Ear’s family takes its nightly meal out to the street behind their house to eat on a homemade dinner table built on top of a tree stump. They’re joined by the rest of their neighbors who are also dining al fresco, presumably to escape the heat of their small, non-airconditioned houses. This small but engaging scene underscores the sense of belonging, safety, and comfort found in an earlier, less hectic time and place.

The film also makes cogent point in its examination of class differences between Desmond (Aarif Lee) and his girlfriend Flora (Evelyn Choi). In one scene Desmond walks for a very long time from his humble street to visit Flora, eventually arriving at the toniest neighborhood in town. The length of his journey and his awkwardness and discomfort in such rarefied surroundings contrasts nicely with the sense of ease and belonging he feels in his own neighborhood and underscores the great gulf in social status between himself and his wealthier sweetheart.

Simon Yam and Sandra Ng are excellent as the cobbler and his wife, and Buzz Chung is endearing without being saccharine. Aarif Lee is suitably modest despite his blazing hotness and Evelyn Choi is sweet and charming as his love interest. Eventually the film succumbs to extreme melodrama but it still remains a lovely rendering of a more innocent time in Hong Kong history.

Ass-kicking, Sandra Ng, Mr. and Mrs. Incredible, 2011

Mr. and Mrs. Incredible

A period piece directed by Vincent Kok, the sometime collaborator of king of comedy Stephen Chiao, this superhero comedy feels a lot like a Lunar New Year film, with its wacky concept, broad humor, slapdash production design, and lead performances by popular stars Louis Koo and Sandra Ng. Koo and Ng play a married couple who are also the retired superheroes formerly known as Gazer Warrior and Aroma Woman (both excellent superhero names). The two erstwhile heroes have renounced adventuring and have settled down incognito in a quiet village where they run a pork bun shop. Their attempt to start a family and to live anonymously in peace is interrupted by a martial arts contest, a life-force sucking villain, and other outlandish circumstances.

Goofy and mild, with humorous banter between its amiable co-stars, the film is a bit talkier than you’d expect from a movie about costumed heroes. It’s carried by the charming performances of Koo and Ng, who are unafraid of looking ridiculous and whose good-natured interplay makes the film an innocuous and pleasant timepass.

Also screening: Redoubtable auteur Ann Hui’s All About Love, a lesbian love story starring Sandra Ng and Vivian Chow, and Benny Chan’s City Under Siege, an action film that involves toxic waste, mutants, circus performers, and other everyday Hong Kong denizens, starring Aaron Kwok and Shu Qi, with production design by the legendary William Chang Suk-Ping (In the Mood for Love, Rouge, 2046).

Hong Kong Cinema

Sept. 23-25, 2011

San Francisco Film Society New People Cinema

1746 Post Street, San Francisco

San Francisco

full schedule and film descriptions here

September 22, 2011 at 4:38 pm 1 comment

Too Much Heaven, Part Two: City of Life and Death and Detective Dee reviews

Andy Lau, sleuthing, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, 2010

Two more Chinese-language films have their theatrical releases in San Francisco, and, although they are completely different in subject, tone, and treatment, both are testaments to the vitality of the new Chinese cinema.

City of Life & Death, dir. Lu Chuan, 2010

My head was spinning when I walked out of the screening for City of Life and Death, Lu Chuan’s devastating and uncompromising look at the Rape of Nanking (or Nanjing).  City of Life and Death is an unflinching look at the infamous Japanese occupation and destruction of the Chinese capital in 1938–the film is a stellar example of the ways in which cinema can both explicate and elevate events from real life. Lu masterfully utilizes wide-screen, black and white, mostly hand-held cinematography, subtle and emotional performances, and a story structure that precludes simplistic nationalism.

Civilians, City of Life and Death, 2010

At the very start in the first hour of the film Lu kills off one of the main characters, forcefully undermining any pretense of a conventionally told story and serving notice that the film will be merciless in the treatment of its characters. As in the real-life occupation of Nanjing, no one is safe and no one will be spared from the casual brutality of wartime and the mentality it fosters. The film also refuses to focus on acts of heroism, although though there are brave and unselfish acts throughout the film’s 2.5 hour running time. No single character is a savior, nor are there any simple answers to the inhuman violence that was perpetrated upon the citizens of Nanjing.

As a Chinese filmmaker Lu makes the unusual choice of presenting the well-known story, which has been used in China to demonize Japan, in part through the eyes of Kadokawa, a Japanese soldier. The opening shot of the film is a close-up of the wide-eyed and impressionable Kadokawa’s terrified face as he and his fellow Japanese soldiers prepare to storm the walls of Nanjing. Kadokawa’s horrified responses to the violence surrounding him as well as the pivotal choices he makes at the end of the film belie any condemnation of the Japanese as inherently bestial or subhuman, The film refuses to lay the blame for the events in Nanjing on inborn flaws in the Japanese national character, instead placing responsibility on the insanity of militarism itself.

Atrocities, City of Life and Death, 2010

Viewers shouldn’t be deterred by the grim subject matter as this is filmmaking of the finest order. The wide screen black and white cinematography underscores the huge scope of the atrocities, and director Lu Chuan understands the value of a long, long take in creating an almost unbearable tension. The performances are also uniformly outstanding. Liu Ye is excellent in his brief but significant role as a pragmatic Chinese officer, utilizing his sensitive, evocative face to great effect. Wei Fan is also very effective as a bureaucrat working for the Germans who realizes too late that his position does not grant him immunity from the horrors around him.

A scene near the end of the film where the Japanese soldiers perform a celebratory dance underscores the violent group psychosis of war. While taiko drummers beat out a mournful cadence, the crouched-over soldiers move through the rubble-filled streets with blankly fierce expressions on their youthful faces. After the screen carnage of the past two hours their procession seems like an exercise in group insanity as the men move in hypnotic lockstep, driven by a rhythm dictated to them and with little will of their own. The scene becomes a grim and surreal commentary on the collective madness of war and the indoctrination that makes young men such as Kadokawa into unfeeling, obedient machines of destruction. This image and many others in City of Life and Death make the film absolutely essential viewing, The film’s current theatrical release makes it possible to experience it on the big screen, where its vast and detailed rendering can completely engulf the viewer and magnify its cataclysmic impact.

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, dir. Tsui Hark, 2010

Andy Lau investigates, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, 2010

A film epic of a completely different sort than City of Life and Death, Tsui Hark’s extravagantly fun and fantastic movie is another example of the outstanding product coming out of China and Hong Kong. Like Benny Chan’s Shaolin, Detective Dee is a brilliant blending of traditional Hong Kong moviemaking with the super-high production values of recent mainland films.

Detective Dee is very loosely based on the exploits of real-life historical figure Di Ren-jie, also known as Judge Dee, who has been the subject of several Hong Kong and Chinese films, books, and television series. Here Dee is played by the ageless Andy Lau, as an implacable sleuth assigned to determine the cause of a spate of spontaneous human combustion.

Carina Lau plays another historical figure, Wu Zetian, who was the only woman to ascend to the Chinese imperial throne. Both Andy and Carina, who started their careers at TVB long ago in the 1980s, are excellent as the titular sleuth and the Empress who may or may not be his adversary. Carina Lau holds the distinction of being one of the only actresses of her generation (along with Maggie Cheung and Michelle Yeoh) who is still working, and she brings a presence and authority to her role. Andy Lau has turned into an excellent screen actor and his ability to convey thoughtfulness and depth (despite his incredible good looks) is a result of his experience in more than a hundred films. He’s not afraid to take roles that emphasize his maturity, as seen here and in Shaolin, which is a nice testament to his graceful aging.

Phatasmagoria, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, 2010

As expected from a Hong Kong fantasy film, Detective Dee includes a surfeit of cleverly staged action set pieces, underscored by director Tsui’s fantasmagoric set designs and kinetic camerawork. But Detective Dee moves beyond earlier Hong Kong films’ visual realizations with its excellent use of extensive digital effects. The world of digital effects has finally caught up to Tsui’s gloriously saturated cinematic vision and in Detective Dee he makes the most of them. Whereas Tsui’s 1990s fantasy classics such as Green Snake featured charmingly unconvincing rubber prosthetics and matte paintings, Detective Dee has the advantage of a full slate of DFX, here outsourced to a well-known Korean effects house. Tsui utilizes this to full effect in realizing his lavishly imaginative vision, which includes transmogrifying faces, a herd of talking (and fighting) deer, characters convincingly immolating from the inside out, and a skyscraper-sized statue of a female bodhisattva.

At the same time Tsui doesn’t let the digital madness take precedence over plot or characterization. The film’s story is a clever and well-developed mystery, and Andy Lau, Carina Lau and Li Bing Bing portray intriguing and complex characters. Tony Leung Kar-Fei is excellent as a revolutionary with a long grudge against the empress. In fine Hong Kong movie tradition, Li and Andy Lau court and spark as conflicted would-be lovers separated by duty and circumstance. As is his wont, Tsui also throws a bit of political commentary into the mix in his critique of the corruption of power.

Detective Dee won Best Director and Best Actress statues at the most recent Hong Kong Film Awards and represents a comeback of sorts for longtime auteur Tsui. Although it was financed by mainland Chinese money and performed in Mandarin, Detective Dee is still a Hong Kong movie through and through, and is an outstanding example of what might come from the integration of mainland and Hong Kong commercial cinema.

City of Life & Death

opens Fri. Sept. 23, 2011

Landmark Opera Plaza Cinema

601 Van Ness Ave.

San Francisco, CA 94102

(415) 267-4893

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

now showing

Landmark Embarcadero Cinema

One Embarcadero Center, Promenade Level
San Francisco, CA 94111
(415) 267-4893

Landmark Shattuck Cinema

2230 Shattuck Avenue
Berkeley, CA 94704
(510) 464-5980

September 19, 2011 at 9:59 pm 3 comments

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