Opening this weekend in San Francisco and other select U.S. cities, The Attorney is the latest South Korean hit film to reach U.S. cinemas. Unlike some of the beloved ultraviolent S. Korean movies to reach our shores, The Attorney is a character-based drama that requires a bit of knowledge of the intricacies of recent S. Korean political history. Its appeal lies in its intimate look at S. Korean social strata, its commentary on political and governmental corruption, and yet another charismatic lead performance by the people’s actor, Song Kang-Ho.
Set mostly in 1981, The Attorney follows mild-mannered autodidact tax attorney Song Woo-Seok (Song Kang-Ho), who is moderately reviled among the snooty, better educated Busan lawyer crowd for his lack of a college diploma until he takes on the South Korean government in a case of “national security.” A group of teenage boys are framed for sedition and accused of being communists, their confessions taken under torture. Song is outraged and defends one of the boys, who also happens to be the son of the lady who runs the pork stew shop that Song frequents. Despite government corruption and obfuscation Song persists in the case and wins the respect of the law community.
The film takes a while to pick up steam, focusing at first on Song’s character and career. But once the main body of the narrative kicks in the story becomes an engaging courtroom drama, leavened with some unpleasant torture sequences that affirm S. Korean cinema’s leading role in oppressively violent imagery. No one films a beating quite like the South Koreans and, though mild by the standards of, say, A Bittersweet Life or The Yellow Sea, the scenes of a helpless, near-naked teenager lying brutalized on a concrete floor or choking underwater effectively make their point.
Dressed in a suit and with his often-wild and frizzy hair combed flat, Song Kang-Ho as Song Woo-Seuk is as straight as his hair, unlike the wacky characters he’s played in the past, including the “weird” in The Good, the Bad, the Weird, the conflicted vampire priest in Thirst, and the slacker dad in The Host. Song is on a roll this year, with three blockbuster hits in S. Korea including Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, the period drama The Face Reader, and The Attorney, which was the top-grossing film in S. Korea in the past month. In The Attorney he’s very effective as the modest tax attorney turned crusader, using his mobile and expressive face and body language to good effect. He’s always been good at playing the schlumpy everyman and here he exploits that persona, transforming from the wrong-side-of-the-tracks lawyer to a civil rights hero.
Although I was caught up in the story, I thought the film’s ending was somewhat treacly and let the government off the hook a bit. Even if Song is validated, does that mean he’s affected real social change, or is the movie all about him feeling good about himself? Sure, one person is redeemed, but was the oppressive social system dismantled? Or is that too much to expect from a commercial movie product? The anti-fascist commentator in me was a bit disappointed by the conclusion until I found out more about the film’s backstory.
The finer points of the film’s social commentary may be elusive to non-Korean viewers without some knowledge of late 20th century S. Korean politics but upon closer inspection I realized that the movie plays an interesting role in the real-life South Korean political milieu. By exposing the ruling party’s dirty legalistic tricks the film clearly condemns the paranoid, nationalistic mindset that gave rise to National Security Act instituted in the early 1980s that severely limited civil rights in S. Korea. More significantly, the movie is loosely based on the early career of former South Korean president Roh Moo-Hyun, a civil rights lawyer turned politician whose reforms were often vigorously challenged by more conservative elements in the South Korean government and who, after retiring from politics, committed suicide (not an uncommon choice for contemporary S. Korean politicians) amidst a blurred presidential legacy that included charges of corruption amongst his cabinet and family members. Ironically, after his suicide in 2009 public opinion of Roh improved considerably and The Attorney is a part of the reclamation and redemption of Roh’s legacy.
The Attorney has become a mega-hit in South Korea and is one of the top-ten grossing films of all time there, so its message has clearly resonated for audiences there. It’s an interesting example of the way that commercial cinema can work towards resolving troubling national histories like the NSA and reshape perceptions of controversial public figures like Roh.
opens Feb. 7
AMC Cupertino Square
Another round of international flights, this time on the much more updated Singapore Airlines. Not only does Singapore have a full 1000-plus slate of movies on demand but they have an entire Indian food menu to go with their Chinese and “Western” selections. Since they were out of the chicken mushroom rice noodles by the time they got to my seat, I ordered the chana daal, which came with lime pickle, some outstanding curried vegetables, a rather dry roti, and raita, which beats most U.S. airlines’ food service any day. Alas, they did not have the cup noodles featured on Cathay Pacific flights so my middle-of-the-flight hunger pangs had to be assuaged by a mediocre cold cheese sandwich. But lots of movies on tap!
This 2013 release was a sensation in China last year for all the wrong reasons as it was rated one of the worst movies ever on China’s online discussion forums, douban and baidu. The movie paradoxically was also one of the highest grossing films of the year in China, due to very bad word of mouth, and it indeed lives up to its negative hype. Truly unique and fascinatingly bad, it’s an astoundingly shoddy cinematic construction that plays like a bunch of fancy and expensive set pieces only tentatively linked together by a narrative structure. Genial superstar Andy Lau Tak-Wah portrays a super-spy assigned to crack the case of an arcane art heist involving two halves of a lengendary scroll painting. Along the way the film throws in a quartet of girl assassins on roller skates in clear plastic miniskirts, an obligatory psycho Japanese villain, and many gratuitous Andy-lounging-on-the-beach-in-Dubai shots, as well as fancy aerial shots of a car flying through the air dangling from a helicoptor attached to a magnetic grappler, a surfeit of swordfighting, explosives, and incendiaries, and many, many costume changes. The movie is full of technology fetishism at its best, and Andy Lau gets to be a combination of James Bond and a low-rent Tony Stark, complete with transparent floating holographic computer readouts and ridiculous gadgets. With its illogical leaps in time and space, the movie is great if you think of it either as one long dream sequence or as one long Andy Lau watch commercial.
Red 2 (Lee Byung-Hyun parts only)
Because I was fortunate enough to watch this on a plane I could skip over all but the scenes involving Lee Byung-Hyun, which absolutely elevated my viewing experience. In this one LBH demonstrates his much improved English diction and gets to play out a greatest-hits of Asian male action tropes. In his introductory scene he appears buffed out and naked, back and front, then goes on to assassinate someone with origami while wearing a kimono. Along the way he also brandishes two guns at time in a shootout, displays some high-kicking hung fu, and, in a pretty fun car-chase/shootout, practices a bit of Tokyo-drifting with a gun-toting Helen Mirren. As per usual LBH looks sharp in a tailored suit and holds his own as he grimaces and swaggers with John Malkovich and Bruce Willis. Somehow the audio on my seat-back monitor got switched to Japanese in the last five minutes of the movie so I missed out on all of the banter in the denouement, but I’m sure it was awesome and clever, and it was actually kinda fun seeing Helen Mirren dubbed in Japanese. In my fangirl dreams she and LBH have a thing for each other—spinoff sequel?
I LOVED THIS MOVIE. The best thing I’ve seen in a long time, English Vinglish is a lovely family dramedy anchored by Sridevi’s charming performance as a woman trying to balance between duty and self-worth. Sridevi is brilliant as a beleagured Mumbai mom and housewife who comes into her own on an overseas trip to New York City by herself. I probably also liked it since the main character is a mother on a long trip away from her family, which, seeing as I was on a long trip away from my family, made me feel all sympathetic and stuff. Also, Sridevi wears some of the most excellent floral-print saris I’ve ever seen.
Another winner and another example of the resurgence of commercial Hindi-language cinema (aka Bollywood), Fukrey (“slacker”) is a bit like The Hangover, B’wood-stylee. The plot involves a quartet of Dehli townies who long to attend the local college despite their apparent lack of intellectual gifts. Among those aspiring students are Coocha and Hunny, a pair of cheerful losers who earn their living as dancers in costumed street productions of religious Hindu mythologicals, and who apparently have a foolproof way of predicting winning lottery numbers that involves arcane dream interpretation. Their interplay in particular includes some extremely funny comic moments and the two riff off of each other as deftly as Martin and Lewis. Dreamy musician Zafar is stuck in a rut—three years after graduating college he’s still fruitlessly pursuing his musical aspirations, which causes his sensible and levelheaded girlfriend, who also teaches at said college, no end to angst. Lali works at his dad’s popular restaurant and sweet shop and also aspires to attend the local college, though he currently can only take correspondence courses. Somehow the four protagonists get caught up in an increasingly tangled morass of financial woe, eventually ending up in debt to the tune of 2.5 million rupees to the local drug boss, a toughie named Biphal (the excellent Richa Chadda from Gangs of Wasseypur 1 & 2) who has “Sinderella” tattooed on the back of her neck. The plot twists and turns ala its spiritual predeccesor, the equally clever and irreverent Delhi Belly, making great use of that city’s crowded, dusty locale to accentuate the characters’ sticky situation. The comedy is deft and skillful and, despite many chances for overdoing it, director Mrighdeep Singh Lamba directs with a fairly understated hand. The characters are somewhat broadly drawn at first but become complex and sympathetic and Lamba has excellent and economic visual storytelling skills—his narrative structure and editing cleverly tie together all of the loose ends of the wide-ranging story. This is the best kind of movie to watch on a long plane flight, with a nice long running time that eats up hours, a fun, lighthearted romp of a story, and amusing and likeable characters. Throw in a few quick episodes of song and dance and you have a winner. Great stuff—
An outstanding Tamil-language spy film written and directed by and starring the amazing Kamal Hasan. This is only the second Tamil film I’ve seen (the first having been Puddhupettai, starring the wonderful Danoush,) but it definitely won’t be my last. The film starts off in New York City as an upwardly mobile NRI woman (Pooja Kumar) describes her marital issues to her sympathetic psychologist. Somehow, through a series of complicated and indescribable narrative turns, the film ends up in the middle of an Al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan, where the plot takes a lengthy digression. The story then wends its way back to New York to further explicate links between Al-Quada terrorists, uranium, an oncology lab, and radioactive pigeons. A bomb scare and much frenetic action follows. Lead actor and director Hasan, who gets to show off his hand-to-hand martial arts chops as well as his classical Indian dancing skilz, among many other talents, anchors the film with his charismatic performance as the super-spy with a complicated personal life who wryly notes, “I have a lot of emotional baggage.” The movie’s production values are top-notch, the songs by Shankar, Ehsaan and Loy are outstanding, and the war scenes pull no punches, with men, women and children blown up, shot, strafed, and otherwise becoming collateral damage in the vicious guerilla fighting. The only weak link is Kumar as the clueless wife—she’s not quite able to pull of her character with much conviction, though admittedly she’s not given a lot of to work with.
Ip Man: The Final Fight
I only got to watch the first five minutes of the latest installment in the ongoing Ip Man saga before the in-flight movie system on the plane was shut off. This chapter, directed by stalwart Hong Kong director Herman Lau, chronologically follows the unrelated Donnie Yen pair of Ip Man movies as well as the unrelated Wong Kar-Wai version, The Grandmaster. Yau did direct Ip Man: The Legend Is Born, the prequel starring Dennis To as baby Ip Man, so there might be some thematic continuity there but for the most part the Ips are all running in parallel universes. Since the flight attendants had already confiscated the headphones by the time I started watching the movie it was a silent viewing experience for me, but I did get to see a very nicely staged encounter in which Ip Man challenges an eager young disciple to a battle to knock the grandmaster off of a square of newspaper laid on a kitchen floor. I watched the rest of the movie a few weeks later after I got back home and it didn’t disappoint, as a fun little slice of bygone Hong Kong ala Echoes of the Rainbow. Anthony Wong is great as the middle-aged Ip Man, carrying himself with dignity, grace, and the inimitable Wong Chau-sang swagga. The movie also includes familiar Hong Kong cinema faces including Anita Yuen as Mrs. Ip, Eric Tsang as a rival martial arts master (who has an outstanding duel with Ip Man that’s a marvel of cinematic fight choreography in the way that it makes two non-martial artists look incredibly suave and skilled), and Jordan Chan and Gillian Chung (yes, that Gillian Chung) as a couple of Ip Man’s disciples. In the face of the continued encroachment of China’s commercial film industry on the Hong Kong moviemaking world, it’s nice to see a genuine HK film with actual Cantonese dialogue (albeit with Ip Man and Mrs. Ip feigning broad Foshan accents). Bonus points for Anthony Wong not being afraid to play an old, albeit very cool, dude.
Although local multiplexes and arthouses are stuffed to the gills with prestige Hollywood Oscar-bait at this time of year, for some reason there are also three new films by top Chinese directors opening this weekend in San Francisco. Bay Area Asian cinephiles can thus take a break from furry-footed halflings, lost-in-space astronauts, and ironic 1970s flashback films.
Chen Kaige’s Caught In The Web looks at the corrosive power of gossip, fueled by the virality of the internet. Gao Yuan Yuan stars as Ye Lanqiu, a woman who’s just received a terminal cancer diagnosis. Riding home on a city bus she sits in a daze, oblivious to the bus conductor chivvying her to give up her seat to an elderly man. As is per usual in this modern world, the encounter is recorded via cameraphone and uploaded to the web by an ambitious young Internet journalist, with the assistance of her hits-happy editor, who salivates with the prospect of posting a trending topic to her online news site. The video goes viral, with an ensuing outcry from China’s netizens, and Ye, dubbed “Sunglasses Girl” by nosy web-dwellers, soon becomes the target of a hyperaccelerated storm of controversy, with her life and character minutely scrutinized and critiqued.
With 600 million registered users and 60 million active users per day on weibo, the Chinese version of twitter, China has a ridiculously busy online culture and the film cleverly indicts the hearsay, rumor, and conjecture spawned by that culture and the lightning-speed with which a person’s name can be dragged through the mud. By focusing on the interweb’s vicious gang mentality Chen, the director of Farewell, My Concubine, (one of the seminal critiques of Mao’s China), also obliquely references the Cultural Revolution’s practice of betrayals and outings and the rapidity with which lives can be destroyed and reputations ruined based on politics, whim, and speculation. Chen also takes aim at China’s nouveau riche, as Ye’s boss Shen Liushu, a corporate oligarch, is a bossy patriarch who lords his financial dominance over his conspicuously consuming wife. Chen Ruoxi, the Internet news editor, (played by Yao Chen, in real life aka the Queen of weibo) mirrors Shen’s arrogant ruthlessness as she estimates page hits and site visits while disregarding the human cost of her calculations.
Though it bogs down a bit in the second half with some treacly stuff about finding meaning in life while you can etc, it’s a pretty lively little flick that shows a reinvigorated Chen Kaige in good form. With 2012’s pretty-but-stilted historical drama Sacrifice it seemed like Chen was stuck in a rut, but Caught In The Web shows that he’s still got something to say, and can say it in a brisk, contemporary style. His social critique is as trenchant as when he made Farewell, My Concubine (1993) and Yellow Earth (1984) and he’s adapted his filmmaking style to match the up-to-the-minute subject matter—the film’s rapid-fire editing suits the amped-up topic as each scene is cut with overlapping sound, jump cuts and truncated dialogue that echoes the hyperfueled activity of the internet.
Also opening this weekend in SF are two other new films by well-regarded Chinese directors. The Roxie Theater screens A Touch of Sin by Jia Zhangke (Platform; Still Life) which got a five-star review from the NY Times and which intertwines four stories of contemporary China in a bleak allegory about the disintegration of human interconnectedness. Playing at the AMC Metreon, Personal Tailor, probably the most commercial of the three films from China opening this week, is directed by Feng Xiaogang (If You Are The One; Back to 1942; Aftershock), which means that despite its seemingly lighthearted topic about a company that brings its clients’ fantasies to life, it’s likely full of veiled social critique. It also stars the brilliant Ge You (Let The Bullets Fly), which is always a plus.
Caught In The Web opens Friday, January 3, 2014
Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinemas, 601 Van Ness, San Francisco (415)771-0183
Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas, 2230 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley (510) 644-2992
Besides Krrish 3, Hrithik Roshan’s latest superhero blockbuster opening today, there’s more joy for Asian film fans in the Bay upcoming over the next couple weeks. Taiwan Film Days at the San Francisco Film Society opens this weekend (Nov. 1-4) and the Third I South Asian Film Festival starts up next Wednesday, Nov. 6. Both are great chances to catch Asian movies on the big screen that may not pass this way again.
Taiwan Film Days is the fifth installation of the SFFS’s weekend-long focus on movies from the island nation that’s got one of the hottest national cinemas around these days. In the past five years or so the ROC has been exporting blockbusters such as Cape No. 7, Seediq Bale, and You Are The Apple of My Eye, and this year’s SFFS series reflects Taiwan’s growing commercial film industry.
Apolitical Romance (dir. Hsieh Chun-Yi, 2013) is a cute romcom with a twist. With its adherence to genre conventions, including opposites-attract lead characters and a wacky supporting cast including deaf old men, tattooed gangsters, and charming seniors, the film could be Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan all over again except for the film’s ongoing banter about Chiang Kai-Shek and the PRC liberating Taiwan. The movie focuses on a geeky Taiwanese man (Bryan Chang Shu-hao, here toning down his idolness) paired with a street-smart mainland chick (Huang Lu with a definitive Beijinger accent) who meet cute at a dumpling stand and pair up to help each other with their respective life dilemmas—he needs to rewrite a manual about PRC culture for his job, she’s searching for her grandmother’s old flame who has been out of contact since before the 1949 Chinese revolution. In true sassy-girl fashion she’s bossy and brusque and he’s mousy and passive and the story centers around their personality clashes as they trek around town, which gives the film an excuse to visit lots of nice Taipei scenery. Bright, shiny, and formulaic, the movie gets a lot of mileage from compare-and-contrast cultural references including the differences between putonghua and Taiwanese and the KMT and the CCP, but the ultimate focus of the film isn’t straight-up politics. In fact, the mild and fleeting references to fraught history between the PRC and Taiwan, as well as to Taiwan’s history of internecine political turmoil which resulted in thousands of people imprisoned, tortured, and dead, may rub some people the wrong way, but maybe making jokes about it is a coping mechanism to deal with the ongoing cross-straits conflict. Or maybe the whole plot is a clever metaphor for the disruptions of the lives of the millions of displaced Chinese and Taiwanese affected by war and exile.
Soul, (dir. Chung Mong-hong, 2013) is Taiwan’s foray into the creepy psychological thriller sweepstakes. A young man (good-looking Joseph Chang from GF:BF) collapses at his job and during his recovery at his father’s remote hillside farm he begins to exhibit disassociative personality traits including murdering people.. The movie follows a strange course of events that are linked to the son’s possible supernatural possession. The deadpan father (Jimmy Wang Yu, the one-armed boxer of yore) also acts in an equally inexplicable behavior, covering up and abetting his son’s crimes. The film attempts to shock and disturb the viewer but its placid and only intermittently violent narrative, intercut with artsy shots of suffering fish and insects and filled with long, obtuse, expository monologues and languid and deliberate pacing and editing, lacks any real visceral punch. The movie has some lovely cinematography and the film is Taiwan’s official entry for the foreign-language Oscar, so it’s got a high-gloss sheen to it, but ultimately it’s filled with a lot of pretty images that don’t overly advance the plot. Joseph Chang is unreadable as the possessed son while Jimmy Wang Yu as the expressionless dad manages some level of menace in his opaque performance. Although the movie hints at an uncanny movitivation for the course of events, there’s no real explanation for why the father and son behave the way that they do unless, in the best tradition of hillbilly slasher movies, they’re just psychopaths.
The Third I South Asian Film Festival includes a whole slew of the latest independent films from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and the diaspora. Celluloid Man, (dir. Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, India, 2012) is an exhaustive profile of PK Nair, Indian film preservationist par excellence and the person who saved much of that country’s film heritage by founding the National Film Archive of India. The film contains some great footage of rare and classic Indian films, while recounting Nair’s deep and personal involvement (apparently to the detriment of his family life) with film preservation on the subcontinent. Some of the most stunning footage isn’t from classic Indian movies, though, but of film emulsion being stripped from its celluloid backing in order to salvage the silver from the silver nitrate, a practice that lead to hundreds of prints of historically significant Indian films such as Alam Ara, India’s first talkie, being lost forever. The film in many ways is a lament for the lost legacy of Indian cinema, despite Nair’s best efforts to preserve it.
In following Nair’s life story the documentary also traces the significance of the film archive and how it brought world cinema to both film scholars and to the masses. In one great clip a pair of farmers in a South Indian village profess their admiration for Kurosawa and De Sica, a direct result of Nair’s efforts to introduce classic films to everyday Indians. The film looks gorgeous, as it was shot by an ensemble of eleven different cinematographers that includes some of India’s most reknowned DPs, all of whom wanted to participate in documenting Nair’s contributions to Indian film history.
Closing out the festival is Ship of Theseus (dir. Negin Singh, India, 2013) an intriguing film that intertwines three stories of the results a transplant (cornea, liver, kidney) from the same deceased donor and the implications of each transplant. The film examines the moral, ethical, spiritual, and economic repercussions of modern medical advances, looking at animal testing, karma, creativity, and the question of who has the privilege of purchasing life over death. The title refers to Theseus’ Paradox, first posited in the 1st century by Plutarch, in which all of the planks comprising the deck of the ship of the Greek hero Theseus were eventually replaced by new timber. Is the ship then the same ship? Hobbes then expanded the question to ask, if those same timbers were used to build another ship, which ship then was the ship of Theseus? The film updates the paradox to contemporary times by looking at the effect of organ transplants and the effects of these and other modern medical advances.
In the first segment of the film, a reknowned blind photographer receives a new set of corneas and begins to lose her creative edge. The second segment follows a monk and animal-rights activist with cirrosis of the liver who must decide whether or not to have a liver transplant, which is contrary to his ethical beliefs. The final segment involves a young stockbroker who stumbles on an organ-theft ring and who then attempts to rectify the effects of this criminal activity.
Ship of Theseus includes gorgeous cinematography, excellent performances, and a thought-provoking story structure. It’s a fascinating and unique examination of the results of the breakneck pace of scientific advances intersecting with age-old dilemmas of human existence.
Nov 6-10, New People Cinema, San Francisco; Nov 16. Aquarius Theater, Palo Alto
So I got on the plane from Frankfurt to SFO on Sunday and I was horrified to discover that there were no back-of-the-seat individual video screens on the flight. I could not remember the last time I was on a flight longer than an hour without personal video service and since I was staring an 11-hour transatlantic flight in the face, I was pretty pissed off at myself for booking on United Airlines, which is apparently so impoverished that it can’t afford to upgrade its fleet to 21st century standards. That bit of first-world bitching aside, I started to think about the many films I’ve seen lately on those tiny little embedded monitors, so herewith follows the first in an irregularly scheduled series of reviews from the airplane movie film festival. All details from a haze of jet lag, leg cramps, and crappy airplane food.
The Great Gatsby: a fun and spectacular adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic book, this one by the reliably lurid Baz Lurhmann, who transformed the book into a video game complete with swooping camerawork, hiphop, and Leo DeCaprio brooding as the titular character. Toby Maguire not in a spidey-suit is good as Nick Carraway, the Jazz Age babe in the woods. Another little surprise was Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan in a small role as a Jewish bootlegger (since apparently Indian is the new Oriental). I haven’t read Fitzgerald’s book (what?) and I have no allegiance to its plot particulars so I enjoyed the movie as a standalone piece, with the Jay-Z soundtrack and anachronistic mylar party streamers adding to the shiny fun.
The Silent War: Tony Leung Chiu-wai as a blind guy helping the military crack codes in 1949 China. I either missed the plot point or it was never clarified as to whether Tony was helping out the Communists or the Nationalists, and I missed the last twenty minutes of the movie due to starting the film too late (a recurring error on my part), but the art direction was pretty authentically period and Tony and Zhou Xun, who plays a sleek Chinese spy, both acquit themselves pretty well. My movie-viewing experience probably suffered from seeing the film on a tiny digital screen, so if I get the chance I’ll watch it again to get the full effect of the nice cinematography and slick 1940s costume design, since I love the look of peplum skirts, finger rolls, and tweed coats.
Star Trek: Into Darkness. A dumb and dreadful followup to the excellent Star Trek reboot from a few years back that features a very Anglo Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan, which is weird since the character was memorably portrayed in previous incarnations by Mexico-born Spaniard Ricardo Montalban. Cumberbatch is properly menacing and he bellows in his best Shakespearean actor mode, but since Montalban’s archetypal Khan is permanently etched in my brain, Benny’s blue peepers and pale skin threw me off. Zachary Quinto continues his excellent vocal mimicry of Leonard Nimoy (who gets a brief cameo, looking very aged) and Chris Pine grimaces as young Captain Kirk. British actress Alice Eve is good as Dr. Carol Wallace, but her character’s braininess doesn’t preclude her a fan-service scene in her underwear. As a busty blonde she also has a passing resemblance to her TOS predecessor, Yeoman Janice Rand, which means that she & Capt. Kirk will probably get busy some time in future installments. Zoe Saltana as Lt. Uhura mostly exists to be the emotional proxy for the stoic manly men in the movie since every time a crisis comes up the movie cuts to her looking shocked or sad.
Iron Man 3: another film viewing tragically cut short due to my inept movie-watching time management. Robert Downey Jr. swaggers and smirks and Gwyneth Paltrow takes up space, and I suspect one’s enjoyment of the film is directly related to how much you like RDJ’s schtick. He’s a really good actor but I’m having trouble remembering the last non-Iron Man movie I’ve seen him in lately (Zodiac? Sherlock Holmes?). I wanted to see the end of the movie to find out more about The Mandarin, the neo-Orientalist character here presented as a middle eastern/western Asian character by half-desi actor Ben Kingsley. But alas my seatback screen went haywire halfway into the movie and I couldn’t get it to work in time to watch the whole thing. So I took a nap instead.
A Werewolf Boy: a charming little South Korean fable about a girl and her lycanthrope, here played with shaggy-haired K-pop charm by Song Joong-ki. This movie was one of the top grossing films in S. Korea last year so, although teen romances aren’t usually my thing, I wanted to check it out to get a sense of the South Korean pop culture gestalt. Although it’s supposed to be set “forty years ago,” around the 1970s, there were some glaring anachronisms in the art direction and costuming, but despite its shoddy mise-en-scene the movie was a fun little timepass. This is the second wolf-girl teen romance movie from Asia that I’ve seen recently, the other being Mamoru Hosoda’s animated movie Wolf Children, so I’m thinking—are werewolves the new vampires? Or if I want to put a cultural studies frame around it, what do the popularity of these films say about the ongoing transnational hybridity of Asian identities? Sorry, been writing a lot of academic proposals lately so my mind is locked in theoryspeak.
This year’s edition of Hong Kong Cinema at the San Francisco Film Society is chock full of star power, with new movies from some of the biggest movie kings and queens in Hong Kong. The opening night film, Bends, starring the glorious Carina Lau as a wealthy woman and the beautiful Aloys Chen Kun as her driver, looks at class divisions in contemporary Hong Kong. Cantopop also shows up in the festival, with Sky King Jacky Cheung appearing in A Complicated Story, and singing groups Grasshopper and Softhard featured in the documentary The Great War: Director’s Cut.
The festival also features a mini-retrospective of work by the late Lau Kar-Leung, the legendary martial arts director who died earlier this year, with rare big-screen presentations of 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1977) and The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (1984), both starring the great Gordon Liu.
Also on tap is Johnnie To’s Blind Detective, starring another Sky King, Andy Lau, and his rom-com soulmate Sammi Cheng, together on screen for the first time since 2004’s Yesterday Once More. The premise is similar to To’s earlier film Mad Detective, in which the main character, here with the added characteristic of vision impairment, re-enacts past crime scenes in order to glean clues about the crime. The sight-challenged detective, played by Andy Lau, teams up with Ho (Sammi Cheng), a cop searching for a missing childhood friend.
The movie will probably be a rude shock for anyone expecting a Johnnie To movie like, say, Drug War or Exiled, as it’s pretty much a slapstick comedy with a few action elements sprinkled in. The film definitely leans toward the comic as the cast performs at a fever pitch, mugging and shouting at each other at the top of their lungs—at one point you can actually see the spittle flying from Sammi’s mouth as she bellows away. It’s a crazy farce that probably isn’t for everyone, but I had a great time watching Andy and Sammi go at it in the best screwball comedy tradition. Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves and a wacky good time is had by all, with the genial Andy Lau not afraid to look like an idiot talking with his mouth full and director To framing his stars against huge adverts for tea cakes.
Quite a few of To’s most deadly serious gangster flicks still have little timeouts for a spot of off-kilter humor, such as Nick Cheung eating a porcelain spoon in Election, or badass bodyguards playing paper-ball football in The Mission, or Anthony Wong, Francis Ng, Lam Suet, and Roy Cheung in Exiled fixing up Nick Cheung’s shot-up flat like the triad edition of This Old House, and some of To’s movies, like Too Many Ways to Be Number One or Mad Detective, are one big comic goof. It’s one of the little quirky things that make Milkyway Image films so fun and such a departure from your standard crime movie, since they ride the spectrum from brutal violence to comic relief so rapidly and unexpectedly. So it’s not surprising to find To indulging in his zany side in Blind Detective. It’s a pretty silly movie and there’s a lot of extraneous nonsense, but it’s great to see Andy and Sammi, co-stars of seminal Milkyway rom-coms like Needing You and Love On A Diet, together again and playing off of each other comfortably and naturally. Even if Blind Detective isn’t as brilliantly bleak as Drug War or Election, the movie is confidently executed since, not unlike the titular hero, To can make these movies with his eyes closed.
More Hong Kong movie royalty make an appearance in The Last Tycoon, starring the legendary trio of Chow Yun-Fat, Sammo Hung, and Francis Ng, along with mainland star Huang Xioaming. The movie is a remake of The Bund, the 1980s Hong Kong drama that made CYF a household name as a righteous gangster rising through the ranks in 1930s Shanghai. The series was remade a few years ago with HXM in the same role that CYF played back in the day and, in a bit a stunt casting, in The Last Tycoon they reprise that role, with HXM playing the younger version and CYF the older version. The two also swapped dubbing chores for each other, with HXM voicing the character in the Mandarin dub and CYF working the Cantonese dub.
The film also features CYF and Francis Ng on the big screen together for the first time, despite both having long and storied careers in the Hong Kong film industry. Both performers rely heavily on body language and facial expressions in their acting technique, with Chow the king of the sorrowful gaze who lets his evocative eyes tell the story. Chow’s held up remarkably well for a man in his late fifties and now possesses the regal bearing suitable for this role. He’s also still quite handsome so it was entirely plausible that he would be a babe magnet involved in a love triangle with Monica Mok and Yolanda Yuen.
Francis Ng’s character isn’t a stretch for him as it’s his typical sinister bad guy role, but through his gestures and mannerisms he imbues the character with menace and unctuousness, and the intensity of his posture and the threatening way he smokes a cigarette attest to his skill and talent in bringing to life even the most banal character. Sammo Hung swaggers through the film as a corrupt cop but alas doesn’t get to show off much of his martial arts chops, but the real gangsta role goes to Hu Gao as CYF’s no-nonsense, butterfly-knife wielding bodyguard. The movie has an expensive look and feel to it (producer Andrew Lau may have also had a hand in the gorgeous cinematography) but director Wong Jing doesn’t quite have enough of a handle on the pacing or action to make the movie really move. With all that on-screen talent the movie should’ve been a knockout, but it’s more of an expensive misfire.
The festival closes with two more big-time Hong Kong movie stars, Nick Cheung and the third out of four Sky Kings, Aaron Kwok (what, no Leon Lai?) in Conspirators, but I can’t really recommend this Oxide Pang-directed thriller. The movie follow Kwok as a traumatized detective searching for clues to his parent’s murder some thirty years prior who hires a private eye (Cheung) to assist him. Set in Malaysia, the movie feels like a cheap 1970s Asian action film, and not in a good way. Nick Cheung is solid as Zheng, the Malaysian private eye, but due to an extraneous twin brother plot device he’s burdened with a bad wig for most of the movie. Despite the fact that he proved he could act in After This Our Exile, Aaron Kwok doesn’t add a lot of life to his characterization of Tam, the detective with a past. Oxide Pang’s direction mixes cheesy, uncompelling fight scenes (Zheng knows kung fu!), implausible and opaque plot points, and filtered lighting that’s supposed to add grit and texture to the film but mostly makes it look like it was shot on the cheap in a back lot in Kuala Lumpur, which it probably was.
I’m out of town this weekend so I’ll sadly miss all that heavenly big screen Hong Kong movie glory. No one else has any excuse–
October 4–6, 2013
The international film world is a trendy place, and programmers are constantly mining national cinemas for the next big thing. Among Asian countries, in recent years Hong Kong, South Korea, and Thailand have became the source for hot and happening directors such as Johnny To, Kim Ki-Duk, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and more, as film fests try to scoop the latest and hottest genre and arthouse directors to liven up their programming. This year’s flavor seems to be the Philippines, as four new Filipino films premiered at Cannes this year. I call it the “Brillante Mendoza effect,” since that director has had a run of movies screening at tony international film fests like Toronto, Hong Kong, and Cannes, where Kinatay famously and controversially won the Best Director prize, after which Roger Ebert declared it was “the worst film in the history of the Cannes Film Festival.” Filipino movies have started to get more respect in Asia as well where, interestingly enough, they are often disregarded or ignored by their more established cousin industries in Hong Kong, Japan, and China. Veteran actors Nora Aunor and Eddie Garcia both won acting awards at the 7th Asian Film Awards in Hong Kong this year, and also won big at the Asia Pacific Film Festival in Macau and the Asia Pacific Screen Awards in Brisbane, Australia. So much like sisig and adobo are the food truck flavors of the month, Filipino cinema has become the new darling of international film set.
Erik Matti’s On The Job was one of the Filipino Four that screened at the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes this year and in the past few years his work has been popping up at festivals in Europe, Asia, and the U.S. Unlike Mendoza, his arthouse countryman, Matti’s a longtime veteran of Filipino commercial film and television production, starting out directing adverts for Filipino TV and moving on to direct a slew of genre product including horror, crime, and comedies.
A gritty, entertaining crime thriller, On The Job was produced for commercial distribution in the Philippines, not for international arthouse audiences, but Matti’s confident control of the material elevates the film from a mainstream genre picture to something more.
The movie opens with a no-nonsense sequence showing Tatang and Daniel, a pair of sketchy dudes, shooting down a man execution-style in broad daylight in a crowded street. Despite their faces being fully exposed the two killers are fearless, seemingly unconcerned about witnesses or the possibility of arrest. It soon becomes clear why they can stroll the streets murdering people—right after they do the deed they’re taken off to prison, where they’ve been residing as convicts for years, hiding in plain sight while the police search fruitlessly for them.
On the case is Senior Detective Acosta, a veteran cop, paired up with Atty. Francis Coronel, an up-and-coming young federal investigator whose father-in-law is a big-time politician. Acosta and Coronel’s relationship parallels that of Tatang and Daniel, drawing classic genre connections between cops and criminals.
On The Job plays up the corruption of the PI police and politicians and their links to their shadow partners, the criminals doing the dirty work of assassinations. Matti’s film boasts a strong premise, hyperkinetic roving handheld camerawork, great sound design, and smoky filtered lighting, with bursts of violence punctuating the narrative. Matti draws out strong performances from his cast, which includes heartthrob Piolo Pascual as Coronel, the upstanding young federale who falls into a pit of corruption once he starts investigating the case. Despite being very pretty, Pascual is believable as a driven and determined investigator whose family connections are a dubious benefit. Anchoring the film is veteran Filipino actor Joel Torre as Tatang, the middle-aged convict/killer who’s hoping to escape his shitty life situation by taking on contract assassinations.
What’s missing is a sense of exactly why Daniel, the younger convict, would willingly become a coldblooded assassin. Tatang, the older of the pair of cons, has a full backstory complete with a two-timing wife and a daughter he’s putting through college, but Daniel’s life is a bit sketchy. It’s not until more than halfway into the movie that we see evidence of a girlfriend or any other positive interpersonal relationships besides his friendship with Tatang. I get that he’s in prison and this might be a way to gain his freedom, but he doesn’t seem to feel a lot of remorse for the ruthless murders he commits. The movie doesn’t effectively reveal how the Daniel started out or where he’s going, only where he is right in the moment. This robs the film of some emotional impact beyond the visceral repulsion of his violent killings. However, his relationship with Tatang, his mentor-in-crime, is strongly developed and its ultimate conclusion is powerful and unexpected, yet logical in the scheme of the characters’ dynamic.
On The Job opens this weekend across the U.S. and has a chance to be a breakout Asian film in both arthouse and mainstream cinemas. Because of the genre’s enduring popularity and accessibility, crime films like OTJ have become the lingua franca in the international film world, and Matti may be the latest Asian director to cash in on the ongoing crime film wave.
Opens September 27
AMC Metreon in San Francisco
Century Tanforan 20 in San Bruno
Milpitas Great Mall in Milpitas
Union City 25 in Union City
Century 14 in Vallejo