Archive for October, 2015
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
Two one-act plays based on a couple short stories by Filipino American author and Bay Area native Lysley Tenorio are currently up at the American Conservatory Theater’s swanky new black box theater in the old Strand movie house in the mid-Market district. As we hopped off of BART and walked a half block up to the theater I felt like I was in a real city, one with functional public transit and a lively street life, instead of the rapidly sanitizing tech-bro haven that San Francisco is becoming. But I digress–
Both of the one-acts that comprise Monstress are set in the Bay Area, though both are historical pieces. Veteran scribe Philip Kan Gotanda penned the first play, Remember The I-Hotel, and Sean San Jose, former performing arts director of Intersection for the Arts, wrote the second, Presenting . . . the Monstress! Gotanda’s piece begins with a short segment set during the infamous 1977 eviction night at the International Hotel, which all Asian Americanists know was the last bastion of the former ten-block Manilatown just next to downtown San Francisco and abutting Chinatown. Two elderly Filipino tenants, Fortunado (Jomar Tagatac) and Vicente (Ogie Zulueta) prepare to vacate the single-room apartments that have been their homes for more than forty years. As the two shave and dress, they remember their youth in San Francisco back in the 1930s when Fortunado first arrived from the Stockton asparagus fields as a young man and met Vicente at a taxi-dancing joint. The play follows the trajectory of their friendship as they become friends, work together as bellhops at a fancy Nob Hill hotel, and pursue romance and the American dream. Along the way they meet up with a Midwestern girl named Althea (Kelsey Venter) and, as they run up against the harsh and brutal realities of racism, learn the limits of their freedoms in a pre-civil rights U.S.
As always Gotanda has a keen ear for dialog and for the small gestures that create a fully fleshed out character. Vicente and Fortunado’s roles are delineated through their playful banter with each other, the way that Vicente swaggers and shadow-boxes across the stage, and the mournful longing embodied in Fortunado’s glances at his best friend. Though the narrative sticks fairly closely to Tenorio’s original short story, in bringing it to the stage Gotanda enhances some of its small details. For instance, story has a throwaway line about Wisconsonite Althea and Vicente sharing butter and olive sandwiches with one one of their nights out. Gotanda expands this to a short but humorously telling exchange that illustrates the cultural differences between the Filipino characters and the American-born girl.
The sound design of the play is very evocative, anchored by several Tagalog pop songs crooned by a torch singer (Melody Butiu) that punctuate and enhance the dramatic action. Key among those songs is the classic love ballad Da Hil Sayo, which is also included in Curtis Choy’s documentary, The Fall of the I-Hotel. The play also opens and closes with a sound clip from Choy’s film as the voice of one of the activists protesting the I-Hotel eviction warns demonstrators that the police are on the way to the hotel. Gotanda and director Carey Perloff thus link the play’s action to the legendary acts of resistance from the I-Hotel demonstrations, bringing to life the struggles and injustices faced by the first generation manongs who made their home in the I-Hotel. The set of Remember The I-Hotel includes a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows behind which significant action occurs, and the audience is thus reminded of the historical events that took place in 1977 just beyond the walls and down the street from the Strand.
Remember the I-Hotel is a sublime and moving piece of work that, with the expansion of a few dance numbers or songs, could easily become a full-length play. The lead performers are excellent, with Vicente and Fortunado convincingly aging from young and sprightly twenty-year olds to elderly men in their seventies. Lydia Tanji’s 1930s costume design is right on the money, from the sharp tailoring of Vicente’s suits to the flower-print dresses worn by the female characters.
The same cast also appears in the second one-act of the evening, with playwright Sean San Jose taking a lead role. Presenting . . . the Monstress! follows the tale of a low-budget Filipino movie director named Crackers Rosario and his leading lady, Reva Gogo, who specialize in no-budget monster movies. Somehow the pair end up in San Mateo CA collaborating with an Ed Woodian director from the U.S. named Gaz Gazman who has a similar interest in creating cinematic schlock.
Set in the 1970s, Monstress features even more impressive costuming by Lydia Tanji including a powder blue leisure suit, neon green floral shirt and matching lime slacks, and suede platform shoes. The tone of this play is much lighter and more comical than Gotanda’s, with a pair of wisecracking queer Filipino commentators narrating the action. Melody Butiu anchors the play as the wide-eyed Reva who is simultaneously dazzled by and wary of the glamour of low-budget moviemaking in the U.S. Yet despite its wacky flashiness the play ends like I-Hotel with a wistful sense of longing and loneliness and as such the two one-acts complement each other nicely. Both are excellent interpretations of Tenorio’s evocative source material and both are great examples of the talent in the Bay Area Asian American literary and theater arts scenes.
Andy Lau’s latest mainland China vehicle, Saving Mr. Wu, released in the U.S. this weekend with not a lot of fanfare. As far as I can tell it’s the first stateside release from United Entertainment Partners, one of China’s big distribution entities. As noted in the Hollywood Reporter in June 2015, “UEP touts itself as the number-one movie distribution network in China, with the company claiming it covers 90 percent of major cinemas in the country.” That same article noted that longtime Sony executive Steve Bruno joined UEP in June to lead its North America division, which will bring Chinese films to the U.S. and Hollywood films to China. Saving Mr. Wu is its maiden voyage into the North American movie market.
Saving Mr. Wu is a fast-paced, hard-boiled piece of crime filmmaking, with director Ding Sheng, who also serves as witer and editor, moving things along at a rapid clip. The pacing is similar in many ways to classic Hong Kong crime films, with very quick edits and terse dialog interspersed with bursts of action. The film’s cinematography is also evocative, depicting a mostly nighttime 21st century Beijing full of wide boulevards, high-rises buildings, and sleek automobiles.
The film is based on the real-life 2004 kidnapping of well-known Chinese television actor Wu Ruofu (who plays a supporting character in the film), with Andy Lau in the title role. Andy basically plays a fictionalized version of himself, and as such he’s very good at it. Unlike his recent role in Lost and Love, where he played a farmer, here he doesn’t have to hide his preternatural good looks, the fine tailoring of his clothes, or his $500 haircut, which is totally fine. Andy’s real life superstardom also makes the reverence some of the kidnappers exhibit towards him seem genuine, and when he croons a song to comfort his fellow kidnappee, a mournful sad sack who exists mostly to be the kidnappers’ punching bag, the rendition is heartfelt and understated. Wang Qinyuan is also effective as the kidnapping mastermind Zhang, a sneaky sociopath who dreams of a big heist that will lift him out of his petty criminalism. Liu Ye plays against his usual saintly and righteous type (one of his roles was playing a young Mao Zedong in the 2011 propaganda extravaganza Founding of a Party) and manages a bit of swagger as the lead cop on the case. Also excellent is Lam Suet as Mr. Wu’s trusted friend from Wu’s days in the military. Lam makes the most of his considerable bulk and his legacy of menace from many Hong Kong gangster roles to evoke a hard-ass, no-bullshit attitude.
Interestingly enough, unlike many movies that have to run the gauntlet of the PRC’s SAPPRFT censorship boards, the film gestures towards social critique. When Mr. Wu asks Zhang why he leads a life of crime, Zhang replies that the system in China is stacked toward the rich and powerful and that because of cronyism, ordinary joes like himself never have a fighting chance. Later in the film Mr. Wu acknowledges that he owes a lot of his success to luck and good fortune, rather than simply hard work and talent. The film also suggests that such a brazen kidnapping, which takes place in the middle of a crowded nighttime street in Beijing, wouldn’t have been possible in Hong Kong, where there’s a more evident respect for the rule of law.
The film is a bit dense in the details, flashing back and forth across several different time frames, and at time director Ding seems unsure of the strength of his storytelling, most clearly seen in his reliance on unnecessary title cards to identify the many characters big and small who zip rapidly across the screen. But the movie as a whole is well-made, sleek, and tense, with a gritty, realistic feel. Like last year’s excellent Black Coal, Thin Ice, Saving Mr. Wu is another notable addition to the roster of recent film noirs coming out of the PRC.
Saving Mr. Wu
directed by Ding Sheng
Century Daly City
and other locations throughout North America