Three huge South Korean historical actions films have been breaking box office records in their home territory this summer, and we lucky dogs here in the U.S. also have a chance to see them on the big screen.
The first one that rolled through town, opening in San Francisco on Aug. 15, was The Admiral: Roaring Currents. Though no longer playing in SF proper (it’s still showing in Santa Clara and Dublin) the film had a good two-week run at Metreon and Century Daly City. I saw a matinee at Metreon before it closed and was pretty swept up by the sheer muscular grandeur of dozens of sixteenth-century wooden ships in close battle around a raging whirlpool. The movie is a tightly made film full of rousing action, noble sacrifices, and heroic nationalism, as the Joseon navy, reduced to twelve ships after a series of disastrous battles, goes at it against a Japanese invading force of more than two hundred ships. Since it’s all about Korean national pride against the evil imperial Japanese military, the Koreans are scrappy underdogs with mud-streaked faces and rough-hewn sea vessels, while the Japanese are sneering, spit-and-polished marauders in gilt-trimmed ships.
Based on the true exploits of the titular character, legendary Joseon naval commander Yi Sun-Shi, the loosely follows the Battle of Myeongnyang, which took place in 1597 at a strategically important strait off the coast of modern-day Korea. The film spends about half its two-hour running time setting up the various characters and their narratives, then jumps into a series of battles and skirmishes that take up the second hour of the film. These sequences are loads of fun, with wooden-ship ramming, whirlpools, hand-to-hand combat, flying arrows, cannonballs, and flaming boats full of explosives, but the focus remains on the stalwart Admiral Yi, played with gravity and authority by the redoubtable Choi Min-Sik (Oldboy). Also good are Jin Goo as Joseon scout Im Jun-yeong and Cho Jin-woong as Japanese baddie Wakisaka Yasuharu. Director Kim Han-min, whose last film War of The Arrows (2011) was also an hyperkinetic historical, keeps everything moving along at a brisk pace, with escalating skirmishes building to a rip-roaring climax. Roaring Currents is now the highest grossing movie of all time in South Korea, breaking the record previously held by Avatar.
The second South Korean costumed adventure, Kundo: Age of the Rampant (what?) opened this Friday in the U.S. and it also follows a bunch of scrappy underdogs fighting the power. This time the story is set in the 19th century Korea and follows a Robin-hoodlike group named Kundo who stand up for the oppressed peasantry against corrupt nobles and their politician lapdogs.
The film is much more loosely plotted and constructed than Roaring Currents, and director Yoon Jong-bin has a jokey, self-conscious directing style that recalls Takashi Miike without the sadism and misogyny. Yoon riffs on classic Westerns, with a twangy, guitar-based Morricone-esque theme song and good and bad buys fighting on horseback, but adds in some nice swordplay choreography and decent hand-to-hand, sword-on-cleaver action, as well as a good helping of Hong Kong-style martial arts. His cartoonlike direction includes extreme zooms in and out, jump cuts and speed-ramping, and a villain who is only missing a waxed mustached to twirl. The script included lots of anachronistic cursing that translates in the subtitles as a bunch of f-bombs, which only adds to the Brechtian fun.
Though somewhat rambling in its narrative, the film is ultimately an entertaining eastern Western, anchored by Ha Jung Woo as Dolmuchi, a doofy butcher who mixes it up with Jo Yoon, the unacknowledged bastard son of the corrupt local nobleman running Dolmuchi’s district. At 36 years old, Ha is way too old to convincingly play an eighteen-year-old, especially compared to his dewy-eyed adversary, played by Kang Dong-won who with his feline androgyny is entirely plausible as a nineteen-year-old. Nevertheless Woo is fun and fierce as the bumbling butcher turned hero who is recruited by the Kundo vigilantes as they stick up for the rights of the peasants against the corrupt and exploitative nobles. The film gestures toward empowering the common people but ultimately it’s just a lot of silly fun that’s entirely worth seeing on the big screen.
The third of this year’s South Korean historical blockbuster trilogy, The Pirates, arrives in U.S. theaters on Sept. 12 and a review will be forthcoming once I see it. When it rains, it pours, though I’m certainly not complaining.
The Admiral: Roaring Currents
Regal Hacienda Crossing Stadium 20 & IMAX
5000 Dublin Blvd.
AMC Cupertino Square 16
10123 N. Wolfe Rd.
Cupertino CA 95014
Kundo: Age of the Rampant
AMC Cupertino Square 16
10123 N Wolfe Rd
Cupertino, CA 95014
Century 20 Daly City
1901 Junipero Serra Blvd
Daly City, CA 94015
Four Star Theatre
2200 Clement St
San Francisco, CA 94121
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.
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.
June 19, 2014 – August 29, 2014
Pacific Film Archive
2575 Bancroft Way
Berkeley CA 94720
Frameline’s San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival is upon us once again and it’s a monster. Now in its thirty-eight edition, the festival includes dozens of films from around the world screening over nearly two weeks at several venues around town.
This year’s Asian/American contingent includes about a half-dozen feature films and a smattering of shorts from Asia, the U.S, and the U.K. But this year is also all about George Takei, Star Trek’s Mr. Sulu and, more recently, a social media rockstar who’s the recipient of the 2014 Frameline Award and the subject of the festival’s centerpiece presentation, To Be Takei, directed by Jennifer Kroot (whose last project, It Came From Kuchar, similarly documented another queer media icon, underground filmmaker George Kuchar).
George Takei also has a small but significant cameo in David Au’s debut feature, Eat With Me, which also screens at this year’s festival. It’s been more than twenty years since The Wedding Banquet looked at gayness in the Asian American community and Eat With Me hews closely to the themes and concerns of that influential Ang Lee joint. The story follows the relationship between indeterminate Asian American mom Emma, played by Sharon Omi, and her grown son Elliot (Teddy Chen Culver), a cook at a nondescript Chinese restaurant, as Emma comes to terms with her own homophobia while Elliot finds a way to make his sexuality okay with his family and culture.
Although the film is somewhat soft around the edges, it’s secret weapon is Sharon Omi, who is a treasure—a veteran of Asian American theater companies in San Francisco and Los Angeles, she’s always had an impish grin and a dead-on sense of comic timing that’s in full effect in this movie. Although the film is in no way revolutionary, Omi’s performance completely rocks. The rest of the cast is also solid and director Au pulls some charming performances from them, though they’re pretty much coming-out-film stock characters–Elliot the gay son is at odds with his mom; Ian, Elliot’s too-good-to-be-true love interest, is hot, sensitive, and has a sexy British accent; and next-door-neighbor divorcee/yogini Maureen (Nicole Sullivan of MADtv) is the quirky and offbeat. It’s also nice to see another Asian American acting stalwart, Ken Narasaki (and Omi’s real-life husband), in a small role as Emma’s curmudgeonly spouse.
The film also includes the reliable motif of cute boys tearing off their tank tops and snogging at regular intervals during the film. Just like you can expect a song and dance number every thirty minutes in a Bollywood movie, in gay indie films you can pretty much set your watch by when the attractive lead characters will start a makeout session, and Eat With Me is no exception, as Elliot strips down and hooks up on a regular basis throughout the movie.
The rest of the Frameline fest is chock full of film-watching delights that will surely consume the next eleven days of my life. Along with the Kenji Mizoguchi series at the Pacific Film Archive that also starts this Thursday, the World Cup in Brazil, and the A’s and Giants duking it out for the best record in baseball, my summer vacation is shaping up just fine.
June 19-29, 2014
Castro, Victoria, Victoria Theaters in San Francisco
Elmwood Rialto in Berkeley
It’s been a crazy past couple of months so I haven’t had time to update my posts recently, but I’ve finally got a bit of down time, so following are some highlights from some notable film festivals here in Cali.
Down the I-5 I stopped in for a couple screenings at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, which is one of my favorite jams of the year. I was only in the Southland for about 72 hours but I managed to see an outstanding double-bill of two recent Asian genre films at the CGV Cinema in Koreatown, one of the best movie-going venues in LA. CGV is part of a Seoul-based theater chain and its LA outpost usually screens a combination of South Korean movies with English subs and Hollywood movies with Korean subs in its three big state-of-the-art digital theaters. Add to that the cinema’s close proximity to the best of K-town’s nightlife, including dozens of noraebangs, soon dobu houses, Korean fried chicken joints, and soju bars and it all equals a great time in central LA.
First up was Once Upon A Time In Vietnam (2013), directed, written by, and starring Dustin Nguyen, most famously seen in the U.S. opposite a very young Johnny Depp in the classic late-80s cop show 21 Jump Street. A Western/martial arts/steampunk mashup, OUATIV looks pretty, but ultimately is pretty clichéd. Dustin Nguyen gives himself the leading role as Dao, a mystery man who rides into to town (on a souped-up motorbike instead of a palamino) and stirs up the village’s heretofore placid existence, unearthing a past romance with the kindly local baker’s pretty wife Anh (Thanh Van Ngo) and continuing his vendetta with the gang of toughs who are tailing him. Although Nguyen’s Dao is a cool dude, the most truly badass character is Long, the ostensible villain, who is Dao’s archnemesis and romantic rival, played by veteran stuntman Roger Yuan. Despite the film’s good-looking cinematography, the movie is still a bit choppy and rough, with inconsistent art direction that showed its flaws on CGV’s thirty-foot tall, crystal-clear digital screen. The movie’s many gratuitous ass shots and Thanh Van Ngo’s peek-a-booby fighting costume were also pretty silly, though I’m sure some of the film’s target demographic appreciated them.
The second half of the double-bill was the hit Hong Kong action flick Firestorm (2013), starring the evergreen Andy Lau as a conflicted cop hunting down bad guys in the streets of Central. The movie subscribes to the tenet of bigger, faster, and louder, with more explosions, more gunfire, and more bleeding head wounds, and harkens back to the fine old tradition of Hong Kong movie excess, where anything worth doing is worth doing ten times as much. As with any action blockbuster it’s probably better not to be too critical of the gaping plot holes and odd character motivations and just go along for the ride, which is pretty spectacular by the end of the movie. Interestingly, the film’s most harrowing moments are not during the high-powered CGI explosions at the story’s climax but during a quieter though no less tension-filled moment earlier on. The sight of a small child trembling with terror as she tries to silence her screams provides a much more visceral impact than the many later shots of breaking glass and rupturing concrete. Owing a debt to Dante Lam’s emotionally shattered characters and John Woo’s angsty adversaries, first-time director Alan Yuan works in a bit more psychological complexity than the genre demands, which adds to the overall impact of the film. But the movie is also about things blowing up, which it does splendidly, and which I completely enjoyed seeing on the big screen at CGV.
Back home in the Bay I caught a few shows at the San Francisco International Film Festival. Peter Chan’s latest Hong Kong/China co-production, American Dreams in China, was one of the biggest box office hits in the PRC in 2013. The comedy, which follows three friends across the span of several years and two continents, is a slick and engaging rags to riches tale that includes an underlying social commentary about the lives of Chinese immigrants to the U.S. and their tenuous relationship with the American Dream. Tong Dawei, Huang Xiaoming, and Deng Chao play school buddies whose lives and careers entwine as they struggle to make their fortune. All three pull off great performances, convincingly aging from their early twenties to mid-forties, and the interplay between them is authentic and believable, with coverboy Huang Xiaoming hiding his essential hotness behind several pairs of nerd-chic glasses. The movie also includes beautiful cinematography by Christopher Doyle, though it’s much more naturalistic and less self-consciously flashy than his renowned work with Wong Kar-wai, and the movie’s snappy editing keeps the story moving along briskly. Although the climax of the film is a strange paean to copyright infringement and intellectual property theft which perhaps reveals something about the state of China’s hypercompetitive market-based economy, director Chan overall makes astute observations about the characters’ relationship to each other and to the rapidly shifting state of Chinese culture in the PRC and the U.S. Especially revealing is a passage in which one of the characters, then a Chinese grad student in a U.S. college, is reduced to a humiliating, low-status job in a campus lab. The film thus belies the myth of the American dream that lures so many immigrants to the U.S.
Tamako In Moratorium, an extremely droll and low-key Japanese comedy, is anchored by lead actress Atsuko Maeda as the titular character, a recent college graduate who’s moved back in with her divorced dad somewhere in a sleepy city in Japan. Dad runs a modest sporting goods store. Tamako spends most of her time sleeping, eating, and procrastinating, although this description makes it seem like she engages in activity, which mostly she doesn’t. Instead she eats microwaved vegetables from a plastic tub, grunts nonverbally at her dad’s attempts at conversation, and sleeps into the afternoon on her disheveled futon in her cluttered childhood bedroom. The film’s freeze frame moments capture the three seasons that Tamako aimlessly passes in her dad’s small house. The movie’s very slight and subtle dramatic tension is a nice antidote to the bombast of much commercial narrative cinema and, as the brilliant Maggie Lee at Variety points out, the movie’s style owes a lot to the great Yasujiro Ozu in its gentle, non-judgmental look at family dynamics.
I also witnessed the four-hour Filipino opus Norte: The End of History, by long-form specialist Lav Diaz (his 2004 film Evolution of a Filipino Family was 10 hours long). Advance reviews called the film a masterpiece, which I think is a bit of an overstatement, but it held my attention for most of its running time. As I’ve noted in the past, most movies over 90 minutes long put me to sleep unless Hrithik Roshan is singing and dancing in them, but this once kept my interest, aided in no small part by its excellent wide-screen digital cinematography and an episodic structure that allows the narrative to unwind unhurriedly. This is not to say that the movie is slow, although much of it is shot in single master shots. But the action within the frame is always dynamic and, although the film opens with a ten-minute static shot of a group of armchair revolutionaries discussing morality, ethics, and politics, the movie becomes much more cinematic and less chatty as it goes along.
As Noel Vera notes in Film Comment, Norte is a continuation of director Diaz’s interest in themes and motifs from Dostoevsky, and the film has some of the epic feel of a Russian novel. The story revolves around several individuals involved in a murder case, including the actual killer, the man framed for the deed, the patsy’s wife, and their assorted friends and relatives. Like Dostoevsky’s work, the film touches on themes of fate and free will, the moral and ethical responsibilities of the individual, and injustice within a stratified social system. The performances are uniformly strong, including Sid Lucero as an unbalanced intellectual, Archie Alemania as the man wrongly accused of murder, and Angeli Bayani (who played the stoic maid in Ilo Ilo) as his longsuffering wife. Diaz’s use of long takes that incrementally zoom in or pan across the action allow the viewer to perceive the startlingly close relationship between cruelty and kindness. Although most of the film’s violence feels appropriate to the narrative, I was a bit bothered that the killing of a dog got at least twice as much screen time as a violent and disturbing rape.
Lastly, I saw Dragnet Girl, an early Yasujiro Ozu joint, at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. I saw my very first Ozu film, Woman of Tokyo, (also a silent gangster movie) a couple years ago at the Port Townsend Film Festival. That movie set me off on an Ozu kick and I spent the better part of early 2013 watching every Ozu movie I could get my hands on, almost all on DVD. It was a treat for me, then, to see Dragnet Girl on the big screen with live accompaniment at the Silent Film Festival. Although the film’s title implies gats, dames, and rat-a-tat action, the movie is more of a character study in line with Ozu’s later and more famous oeuvre, with long stretches of the film devoted to character relationships rather than shootouts. Guns do make an appearance, however, as well as heists, boxing rings, and small-time gangsters, along with the titular character, a secretary/gangster’s moll played by legendary actress and film director (and Kenji Mizoguchi muse) Kinuyo Tanaka. It was great to see the movie as it was meant to be viewed, on the big screen at the Castro Theater, and once again the Silent Film Festival proved its status as one of the premiere film fests in the Bay Area.
That Demon Within, which had a day-and-date opening in Hong Kong and the U.S. last weekend, is the latest in a series of overwrought and intense thrillers from director Dante Lam (Unbeatable; The Viral Factor; The Beast Stalker), The movie starts off with a bang with a bloody firefight in the streets of Hong Kong as a masked gang of jewel thieves shoots up the cityscape. Hon (Nick Cheung), the gang’s ringleader, ends up in the emergency room where Dave (played by the East Bay’s own Daniel Wu), the beat cop on duty at the hospital, volunteers to donate blood to the not-yet-recognized criminal. The transfusion saves Hon’s life and Dave is subsequently wracked with guilt and berated by his superiors for resuscitating the ruthless crook. The film follows Dave’s tribulations as the repercussions of his impulsively charitable act catalyze his increasingly disturbed responses.
True to director Lam’s recent output, TDW includes fraught family issues, extreme car accidents, and graphic violence with guns, clubs, blunt objects, pointed objects and other nastiness. Lam also ruthlessly exploits Chinese taboos about death as the ring of jewel thieves operate out of a mortuary and wear Chinese demon masks while perpetrating their heists. Lam makes good use of this creepy morbidness, pushing his primary audience’s superstitious buttons to heighten the film’s dark and fatalistic mood.
Lam also shows off his trademark grittiness, making good use of his mostly nocturnal Hong Kong locations and effectively utilizing his supporting cast of unglamourous character actors, as well as making the usually suave and pretty Daniel Wu look psychotically unbalanced. However, Lam’s recent box office successes and perhaps greater creative leeway have also brought his more melodramatic and overwrought tendencies to the fore, as this film’s storyline and direction at times veer far into Grand Guignol excess, with an overall sense of visceral unpleasantness resulting from Lam’s generous use of bloody violence including immolations, shootings, rape, beatings, and stabbings.
What makes the film more than a mindless shoot-em-up is Lam’s examination of a fatefully linked pair of antagonists, the guilt-ridden cop Dave and the smirking gangster Hon. Lam is known for his action set pieces but he also specializes in wounded souls who bear the collateral damage of the wreckage of their lives, such as Nick Cheung in Unbeatable tending to a traumatized mother mourning her lost child, or Cheung lamenting his lost wife The Stool Pigeon. In TDW Daniel Wu is a similarly troubled soul, looking disturbingly haggard and gaunt as he carries on the tradition started by Cheung in Unbeatable of extreme physical transformation as a badge of honor in Dante Lam films. Wu’s emblematic opacity here serves him well as his character has quite a few secrets to hide. However, it strains credulity that Dave would ever be accepted into the Hong Kong police force in the first place since it seems unlikely he’d pass the psych screening. But then we wouldn’t have a movie, I suppose.
In TDW Lam reunites with his current favorite actor, Nick Cheung, who’s fresh from winning this year’s Hong Kong Film Awards Best Actor statue for his outstanding turn in Lam’s popular MMA flick Unbeatable. Here Cheung plays a supporting role but he delivers another solid performance, as usual doing a good job as the evil gangster haunting Daniel Wu’s cop character.
Lam’s been one of Hong Kong’s most bankable directors of late and his recent successes have granted him a lot of leeway in his stylistic tics. In TDW Lam indulges himself quite a bit, at times to the point of caricature, with the film’s narrative detours and winding plot twists wandering through hypnotherapy, Chinese burial rituals, Jungian analysis, and other meandering explanations for the protagonist’s erratic behavior. However, TDW has an undeniable intensity that works more often than not and makes it eminently watchable. Hopefully it will find an audience in its U.S. theatrical release so that more Hong Kong product makes its way to the big screen in this country in the future.
San Francisco CA
and at selected theaters in the U.S. and Hong Kong
Everyone’s favorite local festival starts this week with a slew of film screenings, food parties, and musical events. The fest includes treats such as the world premiere of the legendary Rea Tajiri’s newest experimental doc, Lordville, as well as Golden Gate Girls, Louisa Wei’s feature length study of Chinese American film director Esther Eng, who worked in the Hong Kong film industry in the 1930s, and The Missing Picture, Rithy Panh’s Oscar-nominated personal doc that’s a harrowing look at the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror, told with intricately designed miniature tableaux populated by rough-hewn clay dolls.
Though by no means exhaustive, herewith is a small selection of some of the festival’s other highlights.
This family drama out of Singapore has been racking up a bunch of awards including the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and Best Film at the Golden Horse awards. The plot concerns a middle-class Singaporean couple with a rambunctious 11-year-old son who hire a live-in Filipino housekeeper. Shot in Ann Hui-styled realism, the film shows the struggle of ordinary people caught in the global economic crisis. None of the characters in the film are exempt from the human cost of corporatization, as the OWF maid has a young son back in the Philippines and must moonlight as a hairdresser to make ends meet, while her Singaporean employers hold a series of oppressive, soul-crushing office jobs. Everyone is ground up by the relentless gears of global capitalism—will their humanity remain intact?
A Picture of You
JP Chan’s debut feature (he’s directed a bunch of short films) is a sharply drawn slice of life about a brother and sister, Kyle and Jen, who return to their late mom’s house in the Pennsylvania countryside to pack it up after her passing. Despite the potentially maudlin subject matter, director Chan infuses the film with levity—the tense and familiar bickering between the siblings rings pretty true as once in their mom’s house the two revert to old patterns of behavior. As they’re packing up they find out a bit more about their mom than they might want to know, which leads to more tension and bickering. Chan draws out amusing performances from his cast, lead by Andrew Pang as the sardonic brother and Jo Mei as the discombobulated sister. Also good are Lucas Dixon as Jen’s dorky white guy boyfriend, and Teyonah Parris from Mad Men who plays Jen’s BFF with endearing geekiness. The movie is a bit like a Wes Anderson film (without the twee and annoying stylistic tics) in the way that it delves into the quirkiness of interpersonal familial relationships without sentiment or melodrama.
In yet another Singaporean narrative, two lonely kids befriend each other at their strict middle school. Syafiqah’s absent parents have left her with her indifferent grandmother. Huat lives with his strict father and his mentally handicapped younger sister. The two become friends despite Syafiqah being the good girl and Huat the outcast who’s bullied by the other kids. The scenes where the two kids play joyfully in an aquaduct on the edge of the town contrast beautifully with the rigid, doctrinaire atmosphere of the schoolroom, where corporal punishment is routine and the students dutifully recite facts and numbers without analysis or critical thinking. Huat is imaginative and creative and so doomed to fail in this educational and social system. The adults are either cruel,abusive, or absent and the only affection and tenderness the two children find are with each other. Writer-director Wong Chen Hsi, who grew up in Singapore but who went to USC film school, draws out quite wonderful performances from her two young leads who effectively convey the stubbornness, rebellion, and confusion of their pre-adolescent characters. The film sports some impressive wide-screen cinematography and has a subtle and effective sound design, with the sound of Singapore’s relentless equatorial rain becoming a metaphor for the muffling of dissent in the school and in society. The film is a poignant and moving indictment of the stifling of difference within the modern Singaporean social system.
Lisette Marie Flanary’s documentary Na Kamalei: Men of Hula was a huge hit on the Asian American film festival circuit a few years back, so it’s no wonder someone else has decided to further mine the trials and tribulations of male hula dancers. The Haumana follows Johnny Kealoha (competently played by Tui Asau), a cheesy, alcoholic Waikiki lounge singer who’s bastardized his native Hawai’ian heritage for the aim of fleecing tourists. Yet despite Johnny’s apparent lack of hula street cred, on her deathbed Johnny’s mentor recruits him to tutor a group of high school male hula dancers for the big show. The movie follows Johnny as he strives to whip his motley crew of hula dancers into dancing trim while rediscovering his cultural roots. A feel-good, let’s-put-on-a-show hula movie with lots of pretty boys and nice scenery, The Haumana touches briefly on some of the social issues facing Hawaii but it’s not a particularly dark or gritty movie and it never really strays far from afterschool-special territory. Of note is Kelly Hu in a small role as a barkeep–for some reason she looks absolutely dreadful. She’s badly lit and sports unflattering chola eyebrows and a frizzy frightwig blow-out. But Tui Asau in the lead role is cute and dimply, and the young dude hula dancers, each with their own representative backstory, are about as sexy and cut as you can get. What more could you ask for?
American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs
A good, solid portrait of long-time Detroit civil rights activist Grace Lee Boggs, this documentary traces Boggs’ journey from a middle-class daughter of a Chinese American restaurateur to her 1960s activism in the Black Power movement and through the present day. Now in her late nineties, Boggs is as cogent and cognizant as ever and speaks eloquently about her involvement with the struggle for self-determination in Detroit’s African American community and beyond. Although the pace of the film lags a bit after a dynamite first half, the film captures the thoughtful intellectualism that has driven Boggs’ work for nearly seventy years, and director Grace Lee (no relation, ha) effectively blends personal narrative, historical documentation, and Boggs’ own thoughtful ruminations in an engrossing and informative package.
The highest grossing Thai film of all time and a big hit across several Asian territories, Pee Mak is a comedic remaking of a classic Thai ghost story in which a beautiful apparition romances her besotted, living husband. Here the fable is played for laughs, and the film owes a lot to Stephen Chow movies, 90s Hong Kong ghost story films, and the Three Stooges as it utilizes physical shtick and nonsense situations for its laffs. The movie follows four hapless idiots who determine that their friend’s beautiful wife may be a more than she seems. Hilarity ensues, but the broad slapstick lacks Chow’s ingenious blend of crude physical shtick, perfect comedic timing, rapid-fire wordplay, and cinematic finesse. While classic Hong Kong ghost stories certainly were often full of idiotic slapstick and mo lei tau nonsense they also had imaginative cinematography, creative art direction, and the divine action choreography of masters like Ching Siu Tung, not to mention the well-honed comedic chops of actors like the late great Wu Ma to support their pratfalls. Pee Mak’s cast mostly mugs and screeches its way through the exposition, supported by wacky haircuts and toothblack. I wanted to love this movie but after about 30 minutes I wearied of the clueless, somewhat repetitious antics of the various characters.
March 13-23, 2014
San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland
So this weekend I sat through the four-hour-plus Oscar ordeal since my kids wanted to see the pretty people all dressed up and as usual I felt like I’d eaten six boxes of transfat Oreos afterwards, i.e., not good. Although it was nice to see Les Blank get a shoutout and to see the words “documentary filmmaker” up on the screen, the moments of interest to me were few and far between—those included the two technical nominations for Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster (Harvey Weinstein works it, right?), the Best Foreign Film nomination for Rithy Pran’s harrowing personal doc, The Missing Picture, and pinoy Robert Lopez winning an Oscar for Best Song and becoming the first Asian American member of the EGOT club. Although there were actually some African American presenters in the sea of whiteness, once I realized that Brad Pitt was one of the producers of 12 Years A Slave, its Best Picture win all made sense to me.
After witnessing this onslaught of self-congratulatory narcissism I needed an Oscar antidote in a bad way. Luckily the show ended at 9p PST so I still had time to scrub out my brain, and a great little indie crime film from Paraguay, 7 Boxes (7 Cajas), just about did the trick. Although it closely follows a bunch of crime film conventions, compared to most Hollywood bloat its stripped-down aesthetic was like a breath of fresh air. Shot on digital in one location over two nights, the film has no car chases, no stars, no glamor, and precious little digital effects (except for some speed-ramping and a bit of neon color correction). This is not to say that the film is in any way naïve or primitivist—veteran Paraguayan directors Juan Carlos Maneglia & Tana Schemboribut know their way around a camera and their cinematic style includes a whole lot of wit, smarts and panache.
The plot involves Victor, a young dude who makes his living hiring out his wheelbarrow (more like an oversized flatbed handcart) to various customers of Mercado Cuatro, a large outdoor market in Asunción, Paraguay. Victor wants to be a tele star and he becomes entranced by a video cell phone that his sister is selling second-hand for a pregnant co-worker who’s short of cash. In order to purchase said electronic device Victor takes on a job from a questionable meat-market employee who promises him a hundred dollars US if he can deliver seven boxes to a to-be-determined location elsewhere in the market. The film follows Victor’s misadventures as he attempts to navigate his precious cargo through the overstuffed mercado, running afoul of various criminal plots and activities as he realizes that the seven boxes may be more trouble than they’re worth.
The film is in no way groundbreaking in its subject matter but I believe it’s use of wheelbarrows as getaway vehicles might be a cinematic first, and the movie is a tightly constructed, clever-as-all-hell variation on the crime genre. Celso Franco as Victor anchors the cast with an unpretentious performance and the script is droll and amusing, with the Spanish and Guarani slang peppering the dialog adding to the film’s street-smart atmosphere.
Directors Maneglia and Schemboribut make great use of the Mercado, both as a crowded daytime destination as well as a deserted nighttime locale. Their background in short film and music video production contribute mightily to the film’s snappy pace and economical storytelling and keep the proceedings moving along briskly. The movie makes some passing commentary about the allure of media culture, the oppressive banality of working life, and the ineptitude of both police and thieves, but the film by no means focuses on social issues or Paraguay’s plight as a developing country. Rather, the movie is a great little caper film and a refreshing change of pace from the overwrought self-importance of multimillion dollar Hollywood product.
Co-directed by Juan Carlos Maneglia & Tana Schembori
Opens February 28, 2014
3117 16th Street
San Francisco, CA