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
Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s newest film, Like Father Like Son, opens in San Francisco this weekend and it’s an outstanding example of a simple premise explored with utmost sensitivity and sincerity. The story is straightforward—two families discover their respective 6-year-old sons were swapped at birth at the hospital. They then must decide if they are going to trade the children back to their biological parents or continue to raise the sons who are not their blood relations. The film follows the effects of this momentous decision and the impact it has on each family.
Like a fine line drawing, the narrative reveals itself with subtlety and precision and is delivered with a light, understated touch that complements the underlying depth of emotion. What’s unspoken is as significant as what is said, and there’s not an ounce of fat on the exposition. By presenting only the most significant information the film focuses on the great importance of a casual remark or a banal gesture.
Kore-Eda’s naturalistic direction elicits beautiful performances from the kids as well as the adults, and he never allows their performances to devolve into cheap emotionalism. The characters are fully fleshed out, and every action and reaction feels true and genuine. Kore-Eda also manages to draw out a remarkable amount of tension from the plotline which on the surface seems almost too pat and simplistic. Yet the story goes to the heart of one of the humankind’s strongest bonds and explores the relationship between parent and child, questioning whether blood ties mean more than an adoptive family’s affection. In popular culture family ties all too often come off as false or exaggerated, so it’s to the director’s credit that he manages to infuse his characters’ interrelations with great meaning and significance and that he’s able to clearly communicate the heartbreak of their actions without reverting to sentimentality. At no moment does the film lapse into melodrama, although it easily could.
This is remarkably delicate and sensitive filmmaking, without a trace of bombast. The cinematic rendering of the narrative is poetic and lovely, almost minimalist in the way that character and plot details are revealed, yet it never loses its deeply felt connection to the characters’ humanity. It’s one of the best family dramas I’ve seen in a while and it’s highly recommended.
opens Friday, February 14, 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
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.