Archive for January, 2015
So there was a brief frisson of recognition amongst my film and art pals this morning to the video of Swedish director Ruben Östlund reacting to the news that his film Force Majeure hadn’t been nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Though it was pretty cheeky of Östlund to assume his film was a shoo-in, a lot of us artist types could totally relate to his mild freakout in a New York City hotel room (“Don’t undress!” pleaded his companion) as he faced this unexpected diss. Since constant rejections are part of the film/art world game, I definitely had a sympathy flinch or two when I watched the clip on my newsfeed. Östlund has since said that his reaction was sincere, (though some observers think he was pranking, especially since the video showed up on his production company’s youtube channel), but whether or not his mancrying was staged or spontaneous, it wasn’t too far from how I’ve felt many a time in the past. Of course, only five films from around the world get nominated and most do not, so Östlund is in plenty good company.
Another great movie that didn’t get nominated for the Oscar is Human Capital, Italy’s entry into the foreign-language sweepstakes. Opening this weekend, the movie is a cleverly structured look at class, privilege, greed, and desire in contemporary Italian society. The film opens with a quick sequence of events in which a bicyclist is hit by a car on a lonely country road, with the car’s driver continuing on without stopping. The movie then flashes back six months to deconstruct the events leading up to the hit-and-run from the various points of view of several key players including Dino, a scruffy social climber who mortgages his house to buy into a shady hedge fund, Carla, the anxious wife of said hedge fund’s unctuous manager Giovanni, and Serena, Dino’s teenage daughter who is involved with Carla and Giovanni’s spoiled son Massimiliano. Along the way the film touches on the social and economic divides within Italian society and the price that some people are willing to pay in order to advance themselves.
The film is sleek and fast-moving, efficiently weaving together the disparate versions of the story into a satisfying whole. Director Paolo Virzi has a sharp eye for social foibles and finds a lot of bone-dry humor in the characters’ dire situation. One amusing scene in which a group of catty drama aficionados critique the state of contemporary theater arts demonstrates Virzi’s knack for quickly and clearly delineating character traits and interpersonal tensions. He also elicits uniformly solid performances from his cast, lead by newcomer Matilde Gioli’s levelheaded turn as Serena—also good are veteran actors Fabrizio Bentivoglio as the cluelessly ambitious Dino and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi as the mournful, jittery Carla. Though based on a novel originally set in Connecticut, the story makes an effective transition to the suburbs of Milan, with Giovanni’s luxe marble villa, complete with indoor swimming pool and private tennis courts, contrasting with the Dino’s messy middle-class abode.
Director Virzi uses the multiple-point-of-view narrative technique, popularized in Kurosawa’s Rashoman back in the 1950s, to underscore the vast chasm between the stratified social classes in contemporary Italy. All of the characters believe in the veracity and reliability of their perspectives and for the most part can’t see beyond their own noses, suggesting a lack of empathy that contributes to social anomie. The exception to this is Serena, whose great sympathy for the plight of others makes her the moral center of the film. Virzi privileges her perspective by concluding the film’s fractured narrative structure with Serena’s point of view, which adds a small spark of hope that humanity might still rise up from the depravity, greed, and selfishness embodied by the other characters in the film.
A quick tip: this week is the start of the 13th Noir City Film Festival at the glorious Castro Theater in San Francisco. The ten-day festival is chock full of treats, many projected from 35mm prints. Favorite noir actors including Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Ryan, and directors Fritz Lang, Douglas Sirk, and Robert Siodmak, among many others, have films in the program, which is always a great time. Don’t miss it—I certainly won’t.
Opens January 14,
Landmark Opera Plaza, San Francisco
California Film Institute, San Rafael
January 14-24, 2015
Classic Chinese pop music, known as Cantopop or Mandopop depending on the dialect, is a bit of an acquired taste. It’s all smooth edges and soft sounds, designed to soothe and comfort, as opposed to, say, the techno-hip hop flavors of Kpop. It’s no surprise that Western imports like Air Supply, kings of the power ballad, are hugely popular in China and Hong Kong. There are of course exceptions to this, including the hard-rocking Cantopop kings Beyond, but the top of the charts in Hong Kong as well as on the mainland have since the 1980s been dominated by sleek pop balladeers such as Jacky Cheung, Faye Wong, and Andy Lau.
The cinematic equivalent of Canto/Mandopop would be Back In Time, (aka Fleet of Time), which recently played here in the U.S. as a day and date release with China. The film was number one at the box office in China before being bumped off the top spot by Jiang Wen’s Gone With The Bullets. Like a lot of Chinese pop music, Back In Time is competently crafted and pleasant to experience, but soft and cloying, without a lot of rough edges.
A slick weepy with attractive leads in Eddie Peng (most recently seen kicking ass in The Rise of the Legend and Unbeaten, among other manly roles) and Nini (chief flower in Zhang Yimou’s Flowers of War), Back In Time is unabashedly nostalgic as it traces the relationships of a group of friends from their high school days to adulthood. The main narrative follows the reminiscences of businessman Chen Xun (Peng) as he recalls his chaste adolescent romance with the Fang Hui (Nini), a transfer student to his secondary school. Although the two promise everlasting devotion, for the sake of narrative tension their romance hits the skids. Will they kiss and make up or will they forever be lost to one another? The film’s gauzy, soft-focus shots of billowing curtains, rain-slicked streets, snowy landscapes, and characters literally crying in their beer heighten the overall sentimentality of the proceedings.
The movie is also fairly apolitical, despite spanning a period of great change in Chinese history (roughly 1999 to the present day). Although China went through a lot during that time, almost none of this is present in the film (except a reference to Beijing’s winning bid to be the site of the 2008 Olympics). Instead the film focuses on its youthful love story, which strips the narrative of most of its historical context and content. Compared to Taiwan’s similarly structured Girlfriend/Boyfriend (2012), which actively incorporated student political demonstrations into its story, Back In Time only briefly touches on events that occurred during its timeline. The rest of the film takes place in a historical vacuum, with the passage of time primarily reflected in the changing hairstyles and cell phones of the protagonists (with wigs worn with varying degrees of success, including Eddie Peng’s ill-fitting late-90s mop and Nini’s curiously changing hair lengths).
Lead by the pretty leading pair played by Peng and Nini, the film’s cast is winning and earnest, though in the earlier parts of the movie some of the performers look way too old to be high school students. There are also a few confusing plot developments such as a hissy fit at an outdoor restaurant that escalates without explanation into a knock-down brawl, but none of them as contrived or annoying as those found in the Nicholas Tse/Gao Yuan Yuan romantic drama stinker, But Always. But Back In Time, though by no means racy, also deals fairly frankly with sexuality, a change from many similar melodramas of its ilk that’s worth a few points in my book. At times the overwrought emotionality of the movie just barely avoids self-parody and isn’t helped by the swelling violins and tinkly piano on the soundtrack. But it’s a watchable timepass, especially if you’re in the mood for a deeply emo cinematic experience.
With Back In Time, distributor China Lion continues to hit its stride. Unlike the typical Asian genre fare of gangster, martial arts, and wuxia films usually distributed in the U.S. and aimed at Western sensibilities, CL’s most recent releases aim straight for the Chinese expat community. Its last five titles released in 2014—Back In Time, Women Who Flirt, Love On A Cloud, Breakup Buddies, and But Always—are romantic dramas or comedies and feature performers popular in China but mostly unknown in the U.S. even among Asian film aficionados, with the exception of Nicholas Tse and possibly Zhou Xun. These movies also differ from the output of international arthouse favorites like Zhang Yimou or Chen Kaige and are solidly middlebrow and commercial, created to entertain and not to startle, and have found an audience in the U.S. Deadline.com notes, “China Lion has had success with romantic dramas imported from Chinese-speaking regions in the past. They handled Beijing Love Story ($428K cume) in February and other past titles include Love ($309K cume) and Love In The Buff ($256K cume).”
Back In Time (as well as the CL releases that immediately preceded and follow it, Pang Ho-Cheung’s Women Who Flirt and the Angelababy vehicle Love On A Cloud) demonstrates that China Lion has figured out a winning formula that works for its Chinese expat niche audience. Though many of these films may not be appealing to the typical Asian-film fanboy in the U.S., to Chinese audiences away from home they’re just like listening to the latest Jacky Cheung CD—they’re a soothingly familiar entertainment experience.
Legendary director Tsui Hark has been a fixture on the Hong Kong cinema scene since the 1970s (except for a little hiccup in the 90s when he made a couple crappy Hollywood movies with Jean Claude Van Damme, but let’s not talk about that now). His string of significant cinema work started in 1979 with The Butterfly Murders, moved through the 1990s with a slew of indispensible films including A Better Tomorrow (producer), A Chinese Ghost Story (producer), and the Once Upon A Time In China series (director), and continues to the present day with a clutch of period action films including Detective Dee 1 & 2 and Flying Swords of Dragon Gate. His latest joint, The Taking of Tiger Mountain, just opened in the U.S. a week after its successful debut in China, where it’s the top film at the box office.
The film is based on a popular Beijing opera (from the novel Tracks in the Snowy Forest) that was one the Eight Model Plays sanctioned by Mao during the Cultural Revolution. The opera was adapted into a film in 1970 that Tsui Hark, along with most of China’s other 800 million people at the time, viewed as a youth. Tsui’s current adaptation is a co-production of the heavy-hitting commercial studio BONA Film Group and the August First Film Studio, which is the film-producing branch of China’s People’s Liberation Army, and the influence of these disparate financing sources shows in the finished product. While it mostly passes as an energetic action/adventure movie, Tiger Mountain also has the smell of Chinese military propaganda, which inhibits some of director Tsui’s more maverick instincts.
The story is based on a true incident that took place in 1946 during China’s civil war, in which a small platoon of PLA fighters overcame a much larger bandit crew (alluded to as affiliated with the Kuomintang, the PLA’s opposition during the civil war) that’s holed up in a mountain stronghold. The film opens with a framing device in which Jimmy (Han Geng), a young modern-day Chinese student in the U.S., sees a snippet of the 1970 Taking Tiger Mountain film. As his buddies laugh at the old-fashioned opera stylings, Jimmy smiles fondly and later watches the film on his phone as he travels home to Harbin. The movie then cuts to the main action as the PLA platoon struggles to protect a village from the KMT bandits while confronting a lack of food and supplies as well as the onset of winter. As the situation worsens the platoon’s leader, known only as 203, decides to storm the bandit’s hideout on Tiger Mountain, sending in Yang (Zhang Hanyu), a PLA intelligence agent, to infiltrate the gang. The main body of the film follows Yang as he works from within the bandits’ lair while his compatriots endeavor to attack the stronghold from without. After a somewhat slow setup the narrative picks up speed around the forty-minute mark once Yang makes his way into the good graces of the bandit leader, Hawk. Following much intrigue and double-crossing the film concludes with a rip-roaring battle in the snowy mountain as the heroic PLA troops clash with the diabolical KMT bandits.
Tiger Mountain was released in China in 3-D (although its U.S. release is only in 2-D), and the film’s first brief battle sequence feels a bit too gamish, with slo-mo bullet-cam shots and computer-animated blood spurts probably better appreciated stereoscopically, The later, more extended action sequences, including an outstanding siege of a small village, are more engaging and rely less on CGI and more on real hand-to-hand combat and kinetic fight choreography. The climatic battle sequence and a brief coda involving a runaway plane are both pretty thrilling and demonstrate Tsui’s sure hand with action, characters, and special effects.
Tsui draws out solid performances throughout, although some of the film’s characters fall into standard war-movie types. Zhang Hanyu is dashing and resourceful as Yang, the fearless PLA spy sent to infiltrate the bandit camp, and he has several outstanding moments that convincingly demonstrate Yang’s ability to think on his feet. Tony Leung Ka-Fai plays a few years older in a bald-wig and hook nose as Hawk, the ruthless bandit leader, and it’s great to see him sink his teeth into the meaty character role. Lin Genxing is forthright, square-jawed, and handsome as the platoon’s captain but otherwise isn’t terribly compelling. Yu Nan doesn’t get to exercise her usual steely bravado since she’s mostly a captive throughout, though she does escape her bondage several times during the course of the film. Tong Liya as Little Dove, the doughty nurse, is predictably brave and lion-hearted. There’s also a cute little traumatized kid who gets to play a heroic role in the last battle as well as provide a manipulative emotional moment at the film’s climax.
As a Western viewer it’s a bit odd for me to root for the PLA since in my mind the Chinese army is forever linked with the 1989 brutality of Tiananmen Square, but PRC audiences undoubtedly have more positive associations with China’s military. Chinese viewers also probably feel a more visceral response to the strains of the familiar revolutionary opera on the soundtrack and find kinship with Jimmy and his nostalgic journey home to rediscover his family’s PLA roots.
In fact, Jimmy can be seen as a surrogate for Tsui himself, as at the outset of the film he recalls his nostalgic U.S. encounter with the original Taking Tiger Mountain film. Later, at the film’s conclusion, Jimmy is surrounded by a cadre of PLA soldiers and can only smile helplessly, submitting to the collective PLA memories, even as he tries to re-imagine a different version of the narrative’s conclusion. The PLA perspective, and by extension the August First version of the story, is too overwhelming to contradict.
Under different circumstances Tsui really could’ve cut loose but may have felt constrained by the sanctity of the material and/or by the military film office breathing down his neck. The film is much less irreverent and less of a pointed critique than some of his earlier productions that scathingly sent up organized religion (Green Snake), corrupt government officials (New Dragon Gate Inn), and colonial malfeasance (Once Upon A Time In China). Nonetheless, hints of Tsui’s signature style sneak in via the Road Warrior-esque bandit fashions including mohawks, facial tats, and various other quirky costuming choices that recall the art direction of Tsui’s earlier films including The Blade. Another glimpse of the film that might have been is an electrifying throwaway coda involving a speeding fighter jet, a long tunnel, and a very high precipice. Still, The Taking of Tiger Mountain is nowhere near as heinously patriotic as earlier glossy August First propaganda productions like The Founding of A Republic from a few years back. It’s to Tsui’s credit that he’s able to create a highly watchable and sometimes exhilarating film, however restricted he may have been by his material and his funding sources.