Archive for April, 2013
It Takes Two: 2013 San Francisco International Film Festival & San Francisco Global Vietnamese Film Festival
Spring has sprung and two film festivals are popping up this weekend here in the Bay, offering a bunch of Asian and Asian American films to pick from.
The 2013 edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival kicks off this week with a huge menu of movies from all over the planet. And the bienniel San Francisco Global Vietnamese Film Festival offers a more select but equally outstanding bill of fare.
I previewed a couple films that are a good indicator of the range and quality of the offerings this year at the SFIFF. Kenji Uchida’s Key Of Life is a fun and quirky, somewhat absurd comedy that follows a suicidal actor and a hitman who switch lives after the hitman loses his memory and the actor impulsively takes on his identity. Veteran actor Teruyuki Kagawa (Tokyo Sonata) is outstanding as Kondo, the confounded hitman, playing both bewildered amnesiac and serious-as-a-heart-attack assassin with equal conviction. Also fun is Ryoko Hirosue as Kanae, a nerdy girl desperately seeking a man to marry before her terminally ill father dies. Masako Sakai plays Sakurai, the suicidal actor who’s the third of the trio of main characters, as a hopeless slacker, yet one who rises to the occasion when in dire circumstances. Director Uchida, who’s an alumnus of San Francisco State’s Cinema Department, keeps the story briskly moving along and brings a droll touch to the twisty plot, but it’s the small details that really make this movie stand out, such as Kondo gamely donning Sakurai’s slightly too small, very nerdy clothes.
A wholly enjoyable movie to watch, Key Of Life is full of plot switchbacks that keep you guessing throughout, and the resolution of the three main characters’ various dilemmas is sweet, satisfying, and very funny. The movie is all about second chances and making the most of opportunities once life swerves from its expected route, and it’s one of the most pleasurable filmgoing experiences I’ve had in a while.
A very different kind of movie is Kalyanee Mam’s A River Changes Course, which won the World Cinema Documentary Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Mam’s film is quite beautiful and moving in its examination of the corrosive effects of global capitalism on a rural Cambodia family. In the encroachment of what the farmers call “the companies,” or the multinational corporations that are buying and developing the land, the movie details a vicious cycle of forests cut or burned down, rice failing to grow due to drought, villagers contracting intestinal diseases from contaminated water, and the overfishing of the river, leading to families splitting up and the disruption of traditional ways of life.
No one smiles in this movie. After the farmers fall into debt from taking out loans to buy seed, women are forced to take factory jobs in the city sewing baby clothes for US$60 a month, and sons have to leave home to work for “the Chinese” in distant cassava fields. The film makes an strong statement about the destruction of lives and environments in Cambodia—lamenting the deforestation of the land one woman says, “We are not afraid of wild animals any more, we are afraid of people cutting down the forest.” Yet the movie does so with a delicate touch, never becoming polemical or preachy. Director Mam instead allows the grim faces of the displaced farmers and the tiny gestures of everyday life to tell the tale, as young kids endlessly gut and cut the heads off of dozens of small fish, small girls tote infant sisters to and from the fields, and endless rows of women in red bandannas bend over iron gray sewing machines in a garment factory.
The film doesn’t over-romanticize the hardships of village life, but it points out the difference between the villagers working for themselves versus toiling for “the companies,” and as such is an indictment of the destructive human cost of global capitalism’s implacable march.
Also this weekend is the San Francisco Global Vietnamese Film Festival at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco. A much more intimate affair than the SFIFF, the festival nonetheless includes outstanding work including Norwegian Wood, Tran Anh Hung’s adaptation of the popular Haruki Murakami novel, Tony Nguyen’s Enforcing The Silence, a documentary exploring the political rifts within the Vietnamese American community, and several short films including Viet Le’s “sexperimental music video” Love Bang!
San Francisco International Film Festival
April 25-May 9, 2013
tickets and schedule here
San Francisco Global Vietnamese Film Festival
April 26-28, 2013
3117 16th Street
San Francisco CA 94110
Although it’s got its share of body slams and bloody fisticuffs, Fists of Legend, (now playing in select multiplexes in the U.S.) is a nice change of pace from the typical extreme South Korean fare that shows up in U.S. movie houses. In contrast to gangland thriller New World or spy flick Berlin Files, the two most recent Korean movies to roll through town, Fists of Legend is a surprisingly gentle and warmhearted piece of filmmaking. Despite its pugilistic trappings, it’s much more than just a fight movie.
The 2.5 hour-plus movie centers around Legendary Fist, a mixed martial arts reality show that pits former teenage streetfighters, now paunchy and in their forties, against trained MMA fighters. Among the middle-aged gladiators is Lim Deok-kyu (Hwang Jung-Min), a former teenage boxer who now owns a noodle shop. His wife died long ago, his angsty teenage daughter is in trouble at school, and his noodle shop is failing, so Deok-kyu signs up for Legendary Fist for the $20,000 prize money and a chance to redeem himself in his daughter’s eyes.
Despite its sometimes gory fistfighting scenes, Fists of Legend is not so much Thunderdome as it is a critique of contemporary South Korean social and cultural mores. The movie alternates between swaggering 1980s high school kids and their modern-day middle-aged incarnations, bouncing through bullying, father-daughter dynamics, media culture, teenage cliques, corporate corruption, and cronyism, among many other topics, in its long, sometimes meandering cinematic journey.
The sincere and slightly homely Hwang Jung-Min, who was outstanding as the hotheaded loose cannon in New World, is awesome as the noodle shop owner trying let go of the past. Also good is Yoon Je-moon as the corporate toady who learns to stand up for himself. The bad guys are somewhat one-dimensional but the many good guys have a lot of heart and depth. The film is also refreshingly unglamourous in its portrayal of midlife existence, although the fit and trim Hwang does have some pretty cut abs.
All in all the narrative’s bobs and weaves make for a fun and diverting way to spend 154 minutes. It’s not a classic, but it’s good, solid commercial entertainment.
NOTE: The increased number of Korean films gaining theatrical release in the U.S. is part of the resurgent Korean Wave now devouring the U.S. pop culture landscape. Following up his billion-views youtube megahit Gangnam Style, PSY’s latest MV Gentleman has as of this date reached 110 million hits and counting in the three days since its official release. The astoundingly hot Lee Byung-hun is tearing it up shirtless-style in the hit Hollywood actioner GI Joe: Redemption. Kia is apparently the trendy new auto line amongst young groovesters. And Korean Fried Chicken is the ono grind of choice among late-night post-club snackers.
My pal Durian Dave tipped me to an excellent upcoming film series at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Thai Dreams: The Films of Pen–ek Ratanaruang. Though not quite as much the international filmi darling as his countryman Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Ratanaruang has nonetheless garnered critical attention for his unconventional, atmospheric crime films. Six of his movies will be on view at YBCA for a three-week run, with the director in person April 4 at the screening of his latest film, Headshot (2011), and at the April 7 screening of Nymph (2009).
Ratanaruang teamed up with Japanese superstar Tadanobu Asano (Ichi The Killer; Thor) and Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle (famed for his work with Wong Kar-Wai, among many others) for a pair of films included in the YBCA series. Last Life In The Universe (2003) follows Kenji (Asano), a Japanese librarian living in Thailand whose desultory attempts at suicide are interspersed with his equally desultory meanderings around Bangkok. Due to its overuse in describing Thai films I hesitate to use the word dreamlike, but in this case the term is quite apt. The film’s multilingual dialogue and lovely color scheme, with its burnished greens and browns, Chris Doyle’s gliding camerawork and deep-focus compositions, and the languid narrative pace possess the half-remembered structure of dreams. The film is leavened with an absurdist humor occasionally punctuated by brief bursts of violence, but the real story is the development of Kenji’s relationship with Noi, a woman he meets during one of his suicide attempts. After a tragic accident, the two retire to Noi’s incredibly cluttered and filthy beach house, which starkly contrasts with Kenji’s meticulously kept apartment, and slowly develop a friendship. Here Ratanaruang shows a pleasantly light touch, combining Doyle’s keen eye for color and composition with a delicate narrative sensibility. There is a quite beautiful sequence where Noi’s house cleans itself, with books and papers flying through the air like the toys in Mary Poppins’ nursery, suggesting the mystic quality of Noi’s relationship with Kenji. Sporting a pageboy haircut and glasses, Tadanobu Asano is suitably restrained in his librarian role, with only a few brief glimpses of his full-back tat suggesting a history of violence.
Ratanaruang’s second film with Asano and Doyle, Invisible Waves (2006), proceeds in a similarly languid fashion. Passive hitman Kyochi (Asano) poisons his girlfriend, who is also the mistress of his mobster boss, then goes on the lam across Southeast Asia, which as shown here is much less exciting than it sounds. Kyochi endures a Kafka-esque boat ride in a janky cruise ship cabin and briefly wanders through Phuket, getting mugged in a fleabag hotel before the boss’s boys catch up with him. Asano’s quiet charisma anchors the film, along with a dark, fatalistic humor and Christopher Doyle’s brilliant compositions. A bit more linear than Last Life, the film nonetheless meanders similarly through its narrative without a huge amount of action. Mysterious blood smears, a cute baby, karaoke-loving hatchet men, and cameos by Hong Kong performers Maria Cordero and Eric Tsang populate the stark scenario.
Headshot, Ratanaruang’s most recent film, follows Tul, a morose and disillusioned cop who becomes a hitman, mixes it up with various bad guys, falls for prostitute, and becomes a monk, not necessarily in that order. Unversed as I am in Buddhism, the film’s references to that belief system were very opaque to me—perhaps to another less philistine viewer they would have more resonance. Not quite as sublime as Last Life or Invisible Waves, Headshot wavers between violent action and long expository sequences, but the film’s non-linear narrative and Tul’s existential search for a moral higher ground elevates the film above a standard genre exercise.
Also included in the YBCA series are the black comedy 6ixty9ine (1999); Ploy (2007), which looks at love, desire, and betrayal; and Nymph, a surreal stroll through a haunted Thai jungle.
Thai Dreams: The Films of Pen–ek Ratanaruang
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
April 4-21, 2013
Full schedule and tickets here.