Posts tagged ‘taiwanese films’
So the first time I saw Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s new and much-lauded film The Assassin, which opened this past week across North America, I had just finished a grueling day of teaching, meetings, grant-writing, and other tiring teacherly stuff. I was looking forward to seeing the movie after the huge buzz it gotten after its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, where Hou won the Best Director award for the film. But when I saw the movie I found myself distinctly underwhelmed, and I found myself shifting in my seat and fighting to stay awake throughout the screening.
Since the movie had gotten such overwhelmingly good notices at Cannes I thought that I should give it a second chance so I watched it again, this time when I was alert and well-rested. Alas, I must be more of a philistine than I thought because once again I found myself nodding off in the middle of the movie and checking the time to gauge how much more I would have to endure.
So what gives? Have I been watching too many Korean gangster movies and Hong Kong action films? Have my tastes become completely crass and commercial? Have I become I so immune to the sensibilities of the finest in world cinema that I can no longer appreciate a great film when it comes along? I’ve sat through and enjoyed more than one multi-hour Lav Diaz extravaganza, I relished Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, and I loved the Mizoguchi retrospective I saw last year, so I know about slow cinema. And I’ve seen and liked past Hou films such as City of Sadness, Flowers of Shanghai, and Millenium Mambo. As an art school survivor I also cut my teeth on experimental film, from Stan Brakhage to Deborah Stratman and beyond, so I know from alternative cinema. So why didn’t The Assassin rock my world?
In some ways The Assassin is one big ol’ experimental narrative, albeit a very high-budget and elaborate one. Like many experimental filmmakers, in The Assassin Hou eschews conventional cinematic language—many of the takes in the film begin or end with thirty or forty seconds of stasis, as characters stand around gazing pensively or fiddling with hair accessories. At times Hou’s camera lingers on a gorgeous stand of trees reflected in a shimmering lake, while at other times it focuses on a goat’s asshole, each image as lovingly framed and lit as the other. Characters monologue at one another, revealing key plot points and explaining intricate court intrigue with theatrical gestures and vocalizations. The costumes are beautiful and ornate, with elaborate facial hair and up-do’s to match. These quirks demonstrate Hou’s intent in deconstructing filmic conventions and shaking up the way we see, or as he notes in a recent interview, his interest in “let(ting) the film go further, always further.” At the same time Hou works within the framework of a familiar genre, the wuxia (loosely translated as martial arts or swordplay) film, to which the viewer brings a certain set of expectations. This is especially true of Western viewers who only know martial arts from a limited type of genre film and who don’t have the knowledge of classical or popular wuxia stories in literature or folklore. So folks who go see The Assassin hoping to see a kick-ass kung fu flick (or even something more thoughtful like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) are most likely bound to be disappointed.
I applaud Hou’s audacity in exploding the audience’s expectations but at the same time I was curiously unmoved by the film and found it fairly impenetrable. Sure, it’s pretty to look at but it’s not a huge magnitude more beautiful than, say, your average commercial movie from South Korea, which have pretty much set the standard for cinematic gorgeousness these days. Somehow all of the experimentation in form, combined with miniscule character development and a very slow and deliberate pacing, muffles any visceral effect beyond the film’s immediate visual beauty. That beauty, while laudable, wasn’t enough to sustain my attention for the film’s running time and even after two viewings I remained for the most part unengaged. Still, the film shows much more intelligence and creative curiosity than pretty much all of Hollywood’s output from the past year put together, so if you go into The Assassin with your expectations suspended you may come out of it enlightened in more ways than one.
opens Oct. 23
AMC Metreon in San Francisco
Landmark Clay in San Francisco
Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley
Landmark Guild in Palo Alto
Camera 3 in San Jose
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
The week of June 24, 2013 was absolutely monumental in the LGBT community, following the Supreme Court’s landmark decision on the Defense of Marriage Act. After watching Texas State Senator Wendy Davis’ schooling of the Texas GOP on Tuesday night*, I went to bed conscious of the fact that the Supreme Court would announce its ruling on DOMA and Prop 8 on Wednesday morning at 7am PST. I woke up shortly after 7am and immediately checked my facebook and twitter feeds to find the brilliant news that DOMA had been struck down and Prop 8 invalidated. There was nothing but joy all over my newsfeeds as everyone seemed to be celebrating the glad tidings.
That night we had tickets to the Frameline Film Festival at the Castro Theater, the heart of the LGBT community in San Francisco. We arrived an hour before showtime and lucked out on parking not far from the theater, although the streets were closed off and full of ecstatic, celebratory throngs. At one point it took twenty minutes to navigate a half block down Market Street to pick up my tickets, so jam-packed was the crowd, but I didn’t mind the inconvenience. It was fun to be out and about on such a historic night and even the weather in San Francisco cooperated, as it was uncharacteristically balmy and warm until well after sundown.
After basking in the glow of the celebrating crowds in the Castro, it was great to settle in at the 37th annual Frameline Festival of LGBT Cinema. I only caught three out of the dozens of films at the fest this year, but they were interesting in the various ways they reflected current events.
On that historic Wednesday evening I saw Arvin Chen’s Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? Chen grew up in the Bay Area but now lives and works in Taiwan. WYSLMT is his second feature, following his well-received debut Au Revoir, Taipei (2010)
Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? is a charming and bittersweet tale of a man reconsidering his sexuality after nine years of marriage. Weichung (Richie Jen) has a young son on whom he dotes and a good job at an eyeglass store, and he and his wife Feng (Mavis Fan) seem content. But after Weichung’s boss abruptly leaves the steady-but-dull optician’s business to him (after happily declaring the end of his “relationship with glasses”), Weichung begins to question his satisfaction with life. Running into an old friend, the openly and happily gay wedding photographer Stephen, further catalyzes Weichung’s dissatisfaction. After a chance meeting with dreamy flight attendant Thomas, played by Hong Kong heartthrob Wong Ka Lok, Weichung has to make some hard choices about his life as a “former” gay man.
The movie is sexy in a subdued way, with unrequited lust rather than full-on passion supplying most of the erotic heat between Weichung and Thomas. In a role that’s a change of pace from the Johnnie To action films (Exiled; Breaking News; Punished) he’s known for in the West, Richie Jen is very good as the husband on the down-low. Wong Ka-Lok is beautiful and charming as Thomas, Weichung’s lovely temptation, and the rest of the cast is excellent, including glamourous Taiwanese pop star Mavis Fan playing it straight as Feng, Weichung’s earnest wife, with her real-life full-sleeve tats airbrushed in postproduction. Also outstanding is a subplot involving Weichung’s high-maintenance sister who gets cold feet a few weeks before her planned wedding to the nerdy and devoted San San (played with forlorn mopiness by Taiwanese rock star Stone). Chen directs the movie with a deft touch, with likeable characters, believable situations, and a light touch of magical realism, including a spot-on spoof of a weepy Taiwanese drama. The movie is poignant, funny, and enjoyable, with sympathetic characterizations of its many characters.
South Korea’s White Night (2012) is slow, beautiful, and deliberate, a very different kind of movie than Chen’s brisk and buoyant film. Won-gyu (another sexy flight attendant, what?) returns to Seoul after a two-year self-imposed exile following a traumatic event. He hooks up via the interwebs with Tae Jun, a motorcycle courier, and despite their initial antagonism, the two court and spark throughout a long and eventful night on the streets of Seoul. Director Lee Song Hee-Il depicts Seoul at night as a brilliant, glittering, yet somewhat malevolent site, locating his actors on rain-slicked streets and in shadowy, cramped interiors. His actors do a good job maintaining their complex and often conflicted relationship, with Lee I-kyeong as the streetwise Tae Jun in particular showing a lot of swagga and charisma. White Night touches on relevant issues including internalized homophobia and gay bashing and possesses some great sexual heat from the two hunky leads. However, despite the effectiveness of its moody mise-en-scene, the film’s elliptical and somewhat opaque narrative leaves a few too many questions unanswered.
Like Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?, Two Weddings and A Funeral (2012, South Korea) also looks at the plight of a married man living on the down-low. But in comparison to Arvin Chen’s delightful and subtle film, Two Weddings and A Funeral, though heartfelt, is a much less accomplished piece of filmmaking. The film follows a gay man who marries a lesbian co-worker in order to convince his nagging parents of his heterosexuality, with a predictable lack of success. The film includes queeny friends, gay-bashers, tearz, and contrived situations, and is fairly clumsy and overwrought, filled with overacting and unbelievable plot twists, but there are some funny and charming moments sprinkled throughout. The Frameline screening was also marred by digital artifacts in the projection, which were distracting and took the viewer out of the story. The best part of the screening, however, was Jo Gwang-soo Kim, the film’s very sweet director, announcing to cheers from the audience that he and his partner, the film’s producer, were soon to be married. The two left the stage happily holding hands, yet another reminder of the great historical moment that we were inhabiting.
*NOTE: As a prelude to the repeal of DOMA, Tuesday night brought another significant civil rights drama, played out mostly on the internet. I stayed up well past midnight to watch the awesome smackdown of the Texas GOP by State Senator Wendy Davis, as she filibustered in her neon pink running shoes for 11 hours in order to block draconian anti-abortion legislation. After watching the whole thing play out on ustream and twitter (with the cable and broadcast news channels completely ignoring this fine political theater) I went to bed satisfied, as the bill was not passed in the Texas legislature. Asshat Texas governer Rick Perry has since called a special session to try to ram through the rejected bill, but Texans are not letting him slide by so easy this time. Later that week, thousands demonstrated outside of the state capital building in 100 degree weather, keeping a watchful eye on the sneaky Republicans as they try to roll back women’s rights in Texas. More to come as it develops.
Opening this weekend in the U.S., Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale has bloody battles, fierce beheadings, brave sacrifice, facial tattoos, evil Japanese, and everything else you could ask for in an action movie. It’s another example of the huge growth of the commercial Taiwanese film industry which, as I’ve noted before, is a long way from the arthouse days of Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien.
Seediq Bale (which translates as “true man” or “real person”) is the most expensive Taiwanese production ever, and it’s also one of last year’s most popular films in Taiwan and Hong Kong (it just came out in China this week). It was originally released in a four-and-a-half-hour, two-part version in Asia—here in the U.S. we get the trimmed-down festival edit that only runs 2.5 hours. The shorter version seems to hit most of the significant plot points and moves along at a brisk pace, especially once the fighting starts.
Interestingly enough, the film is directed by Wei Te-shing, who also directed the sentimental and cheesy rom-com Cape No. 7, which featured a curiously nostalgic view of the Japanese occupation of Taiwan. In Seediq Bale Wei corrects Cape No. 7’s soft-focus representation of the occupation, as the Japanese are portrayed as fascistic aggressors who deserve to become machete-fodder for the vengeful Seediq.
Seediq Bale is based on the Wushe Incident, a real-life event during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan when in 1930 some few hundreds of indigenous Seediq tribespeople rose up against the colonizers. The fighting lasted almost two months, during which the Seediq, despite the Japanese troops’ superior numbers and firepower, killed more than one thousand Japanese soldiers and undermined the Japanese operations in the Wushe region.
The film starts out with the Seediq blissfully hunting boar, chanting and dancing, and squabbling amongst themselves about who has the most swag. Their little jungle paradise, however, is soon disrupted by the arrival of the conquering Japanese, who won the island of Taiwan from the Chinese in the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki. Not unlike the fate of the Native Americans after the arrival of the Europeans, the Seediq are subjugated by the maurading Japanese, with their hunting curtailed and their jungle homelands cut down. After a couple decades of the Japanese usurption of their culture and territory, Seediq chief Mouna Rudo decides to take matters into his own hands and plans with his clan to kill the Japanese squatting his land and to retake control of the jungles.
Director Wei makes great use of the gorgeous terrain, with his gliding camerawork following the fleet-footed Seediq racing barefoot through Taiwan’s jungles. He also contrasts the bland and unimaginative, uniformed Japanese with the wild and wooly, improvisational Seediq, who used their familiarity with the landscape to corner and ambush their befuddled foes. Clearly espousing the tenets of guerilla warfare, one Seediq says, “You have to think like the wind–it’s invisible.”
There’s no denying the sheer pleasure in watching a persecuted minority rise up to utterly decimate its oppressors, and to see the Seediq outwit the Japanese and literally cut them down to size is an unholy joy. Yet the film avoids becoming a good native/bad invader polemic by also showing the intratribal strife among the Seediq—not all of the tribal chiefs wholeheartedly supported Mouna Rodu’s quixotic rebellion and some of them actively oppose it, taking revenge for old slights by siding with the Japanese against Mouna’s clan.
The film is both a liberation story and cautionary tale, demonstrating both the need to fight back against the oppressor as well as the great cost of the struggle for sovereignty. A long and emotionally intense passage shows a group of Seediq women, who are as dangerous as the men, sacrificing themselves for their tribe by committing mass suicide. There’s also an interesting subplot about the cultural conflicts of two of the Seediq who have assimilated as low-ranking policemen in the Japanese occupying forces.
Movie idol Masanobu Ando is fierce and gorgeous as per usual as a Japanese soldier who befriends some of the Seediq, but the film’s real star is first-time actor Lin Ching Tai as the scary-good Mouna Rudo. Lin is charismatic and convincing as the badass leader of the Mehebu tribe who decides to stand up to the abusive Japanese invaders, rallying his troops with declamations about the blood sacrifice that will enable them to earn the facial tats they’ll need to enter the afterlife’s fertile hunting grounds.
Also aces is the adolescent Lin Yuan-Jie as Pawan, a young Seediq warrior in the making who earns his tribal tattoos by wielding a mean machine gun. Other Seediq parts are filled by various Taiwanese pop stars with real-life aboriginal blood, including Vivian Hsu, Landy Wen, and Umin Boya. The inclusion of these celebrities is a shrewd move on the part of Wei, as it increases box office appeal while at the same time pointing out the previously overlooked indigenous heritage of some of Taiwan’s most popular singers and actors.
The film’s message is that it’s better to die a brave death as a free man than to capitulate to the colonizer, even against impossible odds. Passionate, violent, and entertaining as hell, the movie is a glorious tribute to its downtrodden protagonists who fight back against colonization and extermination in order to preserve their cultural beliefs.
NOTE: Apparently the success of Seediq Bale in Taiwan (it won Best Picture at this year’s Golden Horse Awards) has spurred an upsurge of interest in indigenous Taiwanese culture, including the building of Seediq Bale Park in Taipei that recreates one of the film’s locations. There tourists can see props from the movie and purchase memorabilia, although, unlike in the movie, the streets are probably not strewn with headless corpses.
Taiwanese cinema has produced several world-class filmmakers, including Hou Hsaio-Hsien, Edward Yang, and Tsai Ming-Liang, but fans of those arthouse titans would be hard-pressed to recognize the current crop of Taiwanese films now popular on the island nation. Cape No. 7 (2008), the second-highest grossing film in Taiwan of all time (just behind Titanic), was a frothy, melodramatic little flick that nostalgically recalled the Japanese occupation of Taiwan (!), and Monga (2010), another recent blockbuster, had more in common with Hong Kong’s gangster movies than Hou or Yang’s thoughtful, epic dramas. Taiwan’s biggest box office hit this year, popular novelist Giddens Ko’s adaptation of his book, You Are The Apple Of My Eye, is a coming-of-age comedy that’s light years from earlier Taiwanese arthouse fare.
Taiwan Film Days, the upcoming three-day festival at the San Francisco Film Society which is now in its third year, reflects the recent upswing in Taiwan’s commercial film industry and showcases its wide range of moviemaking styles and themes. Opening night film Formosa Mambo (2011, dir. Wang Chi-tsai )bears no relation to Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Millenium Mambo, and in fact, other than its country of origin, is pretty much unrelated to the Taiwanese auteur in any way. A quirky and breezy movie that touches lightly on the Taipei underworld, the story follows several characters including a gang of incompetent kidnappers, an underemployed businessman running a popcorn chicken stand, and a group of shady entreprenuers involved in a telephone scam. After the kidnappers snatch a schoolkid various hijinks ensue, with the hapless gang attempting to collect ransom from the kid’s recalcitrant single mom, who can ill-afford the modest ransom. The film’s interlocking stories comment on fate and free will against a backdrop of modern-day Taiwan.
Ranger, (2010) a much darker gangster movie, closes the festival. Wen-Sheng, a convicted killer, is released from prison after 25 years and finds himself immediately re-enmeshed in the hard-knock life. A gritty and observational crime drama, Ranger is also a character study of a man seeking redemption after a wasted life. Director Chienn Hsiang makes good use of the mean streets of Taipei and the film’s handheld camerawork underscores the everyday brutality of Sheng’s woeful existence. Lead actor Wu Pong-fong effectively conveys the resilience of his worn down but not yet defeated character.
Honey Pu Pu (2011, dir. Chen Hung-i) presents a dreamy, visually imaginative view of Taiwanese society, following a group of young groovesters as they ramble the streets of Taipei apparently in search of the a totemic beehive. The screener DVD that I tried to view was alas very janky and I wasn’t able to watch the film in its entirety but the little I saw was engaging, full of pretty young art-student types blithely wandering through trippy, experimentally framed cityscapes.
Also notable at the festival are Giddens’ aforementioned hit film (although both screenings have gone to rush), as well as the intriguing documentary Taivalu (2011, dir. Huang Hsin-yao), which looks at the effect of climate change on the southern Taiwan city of Tainan, and Pinoy Sunday (2009, dir. Ho Wi-ding), a comedy that follows the travails of a pair of Filipino immigrants in Taipei. The festival opens with two screenings of Formosa Mambo sandwiching a reception and party.
Taiwan Film Days
October 14–16, 2011
San Francisco Film Society | New People Cinema
1746 Post Street, San Francisco, CA
Tickets and full schedule for Taiwan Film Days here.