Posts filed under ‘a simple life’

If This Was A Movie: October Film Festival roundup

On trend, CAAMfest Forward Drive-In night

After all hell broke loose in the U.S. back in March one of the first film festival casualties of the COVID-19 crisis was South By Southwest (aka SXSW). Scheduled to open on March 16, it was impossible for the festival to pivot to online immediately and so the entire event was jettisoned. Other film festivals that had been scheduled in the chaotic couple months following were postponed or canceled outright, but those that were slotted a bit later in the year gradually began to pivot and now, as the pandemic enters its seventh month here in the U.S., most festivals are fully online. In addition, some of the previously postponed festivals are also launching programming, leading to an embarrassment of moviegoing riches. This month alone includes CAAMfest Forward, which just started on Oct. 14 and runs until Oct.18, the Mill Valley Film Festival, which is currently running until Oct. 18, and the 3rd I South Asian Film Festival, which runs Oct. 23-25.

Charming, Definition Please, 2020

CAAMfest Forward’s centerpiece presentation, Definition Please, directed by and starring Sujata Day (The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl; Insecure) is a charming and pleasant effort, with the film’s main strength being Sujata’s ability to keep the tone of the film light and consistent. The narrative swerves a bit, though, touching on mental illness, sibling relationships, and familial obligations, but it’s anchored by Sujata’s pitch-perfect, likeable performance. It’s also nice to see a film set outside of a major urban area that nonetheless has a majority Asian cast, which speaks to to the the changing demographics of the Asian American community.

Emotionality, Coming Home Again, 2020

Veteran director Wayne Wang (Chan Is Missing; The Joy Luck Club) has recently gone from directing Hollywood blockbusters to more intimate, personal film projects and with his most recent film, Coming Home Again, he’s hit his stride. Based on a New Yorker essay by Korean American writer Chang Rae-Lee, the film follows a Korean American man who returns to his childhood home to care for his cancer-stricken mother. With gorgeous cinematography by Richard Wong (Colma: The Musical) and a nicely calibrated performance by Justin Chon, the film has an understated emotionality that avoids veering into melodrama.

Streetwise, Takeout Girl, 2020

Takeout Girl (dir. Hisonni Johnson) is a bit like Starsky and Hutch episode updated to the 21st century but it’s engaging nonetheless. At first Hedy Wong, who also co-wrote the film, seems too pretty and has way too much eye makeup for the part she’s playing but as Tara, the titular takeout girl, she never wavers from her wary, streetwise persona. Ultimately the film is fun to watch in a cheesy, genre way, full of drug labs, junkies, and shiny, silver-plated pistolas. Although the motivation for the film’s climax is completely contrived, it allows the movie to end in a blaze of angsty glory.

Fun and kicky, Chosen Fam, 2020

CAAMfest Forward also includes the first several episodes of Natalie Tsui’s web series Chosen Fam, a fun and kicky look at a group of QTPOC hipsters in San Francisco. The show features engaging performances from its multi-culti cast and a smexy attitude that’s echoed by its bright, color-saturated art direction.

Sharky, Bulge Bracket, 2020

Bulge Bracket (dir. Christopher Au), another episodic drama in the festival, is full of finance-bro characters that slip into cliché, but Jessika Van as the new gal navigating the sharky waters of a high-powered investment bank and Feodor Chin as the company boss both turn in solid performances. It’s hard to care a lot about the motivations of the Wall Street characters, though, as they pretty much are greedy bastards who primarily live to make a lot of money.

Ruby, 7,000 Miles: Homecoming, 2020

CAAMfest Forward is also on trend as it includes two drive-in movie nights. The first, an Oct. 14 opening night program, included Lea Salonga In Concert with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, a performance film starring the Filipino American Broadway diva, and 7,000 Miles: Homecoming, a documentary following Bay Area rapper Ruby Ibarra’s trip back to the Philippines for a short concert tour. The resurrection of the drive-in movie is one of the most pleasant unintended consequences of the COVID shelter-in-place era and this program, at the Fort Mason Flix Center, was a lot of fun. Fort Mason’s venue has been running for a few months now and the operation is smooth and easy to access, with clean indoor bathrooms, a small concessions stand (with popcorn!) and food trucks. And when my battery died from running the car radio during the double bill, Fort Mason staff immediately popped the hood on my vehicle and gave me a jump. The second drive-in movie night, on Oct. 15, will include screenings of two Hong Kong films directed by women, My Prince Edward (dir. Norris Wong Yee-Lam, 2019) and Ann Hui’s drama A Simple Life (2011), which cleaned up at both the Hong Kong Film Awards and the Golden Horse Awards when it was first released.

The Mill Valley Film Festival also has several drive-in movies on its schedule, next to the lagoon at the Marin Civic Center. The film that I saw, the Robert DeNiro/Tommy Lee Jones comedy, The Comeback Trail (2020, dir. George Gallo), was really dreadful, but the viewing experience itself was pleasant. MVFF had many helpful volunteers directing traffic (thought there was a bit of a traffic jam exiting after the screening) and their spotless portapotties are sanitized after every use. The next film I’m scheduled to see, the biodoc The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart, will almost certainly be better than the DeNiro film.

Skillful, Los Hermanos/The Brothers, 2020

Also of note from MVFF is Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider’s lovely documentary, Los Hermanos/The Brothers, which looks at Afro-Cubano sibling musicians Ilmar and Aldo López-Gavilán. Virtuoso violinist Ilmar immigrated from Cuba to the U.S. decades before, while his younger brother Aldo a gifted pianist, remained in Cuba. The film follows the brothers as they attempt to record an album together despite political and geographic challenges. Los Hermanos effortlessly weaves together its images with its gorgeous score (composed by Aldo), using the soundtrack to drive and elevate the narrative. One of my favorite bits in the film mirrors Aldo and Ilmar’s struggles to find each other at their respective airports in Cuba and New York City, a small and humorous element that exemplifies Jarmel and Schneider’s skillful portrayal of the brothers’ relationship with each other. The movie also turns an affectionate lens on Cuba, depicting the island nation awash in vibrant pastel light.

Legendary, Road to Ladakh, 2003

Also upcoming on the Bay Area film cinemagoing docket is the 3rd I South Asian Film Festival. Free and fully online this year, the festival includes a tribute to the legendary actor Irffan Khan (The Lunchbox; Life of Pi) who recently passed away from cancer.

October 15, 2020 at 7:48 am Leave a comment

I Want Candy: Hong Kong Cinema & the 3rd I South Asian Film Festival

Lau Ching-Wan, badass, The Longest Nite, 1997

This weekend the Bay’s got another embarrassment of filmi riches from a pair of dueling Asian film festivals. This year’s editions of Hong Kong Cinema, and the 3rd I South Asian Film Festival both offer a ton of tasty movie treats.

The 3rd I festival, which starts Sept. 18, runs six days and features over 20 films from 9 different countries including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, The Maldives, Canada, South Africa, UK and USA. Among the highlights is Jaagte Raho (Stay Awake), from 1956, starring my new favorite actor Raj Kapoor and co-directed by Amit Maitra and famous Bengali theater artist Sombhu Mitra. Jaagte Raho’s story follows Kapoor as a thirsty man from the country that arrives in the city longing for a drink of water. He ends up trapped in an apartment block where he’s mistaken for a thief, spending a long, sleepless night being relentlessly chased by the misguided tenants. As he hides out in various apartments he discovers the corruption and deceit amongst the residents, with adultery, gambling, drunkenness, counterfeiting, greed, and theft among their unsavory traits.

Raj Kapoor, sacrificial lamb, Jaagte Raho, 1956

Although his earlier films featured him as an angsty young romantic lead, in Jaagte Raho Raj Kapoor iterates his naïf-in-the-big-city persona that he repeated many times in his later years. Here he’s all wide eyes and pleading gestures as the country bumpkin, a stark contrast to the duplicitous, licentious lot pursuing him.

Raj and Motilal, tippling, Jaagte Raho, 1956

This is great stuff, sly and satirical, that cleverly exposes the hypocrisy of the corrupt tenants. It’s shot in shimmering black and white with a crack soundtrack with lyrics by Shailendra and music by Salil Choudhary, including the rollicking drunken ramble Zindagi Khwaab Hai. The legendary Motilal is outstanding as an inebriated bourgeois who takes in the destitute Kapoor, in an homage of sorts to City Lights—however, Jaagte Raho’s booze-driven hospitality has a much more twisted outcome than does the Chaplin film. The film concludes with a lovely cameo by Nargis, once again representing the moral center of the movie. This was the final film to star Kapoor and Nargis and coincided with the breakup of their long-time offscreen affair as well, so it’s especially bittersweet to see the famous lovers together for the last time. Jaagte Raho was a box office flop when it was first released, but it’s since been recognized as a classic. Interestingly enough, along with Meer Nam Joker, which also bombed when it first came out, Kapoor cites this as his personal favorite film.

Also of note at the 3rd I festival: Decoding Deepak, a revealing look at the modern-day guru that’s directed by Chopra’s son Gotham; Runaway (Udhao), Amit Ashraf’s slick and stylish indictment of the link between politics and the underworld; Sket, which looks at a vengeful girl gang in an East London slum; the experimental documentaries Okul Nodi (Endless River) and I am Micro; this year’s Bollywood-at-the-Castro rom-com Cocktail; and the short film program Sikh I Am: Voices on Identity.

This year’s edition of Hong Kong Cinema, the San Francisco Film Society’s annual showcase of movies from the former Crown Colony, has a bunch of outstanding product. The program includes a three-film retrospective commemorating the 1997 handover: Peter Chan Ho-sun’s Comrades: Almost A Love Story, which stars Leon Lai and Maggie Cheung as friends almost with benefits from two different sides of the HK/China border; Made In Hong Kong, Fruit Chan’s debut that’s a redux of the venerable Hong Kong gangster movie and which stars the young and skinny Sam Lee in his first role; and The Longest Nite, one of Johnny To’s nastiest crime dramas, with impeccable performances by Lau Ching-Wan and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai as (of course) an immoral cop and a vicious criminal.

These three classics are hard acts to follow but several of the other films on the docket manage to hold their own. Both Pang Ho-Cheung’s Love In The Buff, an excellent romantic dramedy with Miriam Yeung and Shawn Yue as the make-up-to-break-up lovers (full review here) and Ann Hui’s most recent feature, A Simple Life, starring Andy Lau and Deanie Ip as a man and his amah, (full review here) had extended runs in San Francisco earlier this year so this may be the last chance to see then on the big screen in the Bay Area.

Sammi & Louis, bantering, Romancing In This Air, 2012

Also good is Johnny To’s new romantic comedy Romancing In Thin Air, which To co-wrote with longtime creative partner Wai Ka-Fai and the Milkyway Image team. Set mostly at a vacation lodge in an idyllic high-altitude locale in China, the story concerns two romantically wounded individuals grappling with the peculiarities of their damaged relationships. Sammi Cheng is her usual charming self as the female lead, but although he’s likeable enough, Louis Koo as a Hong Kong movie star (!) is a bit lacking in charisma and doesn’t bring a bigger-than-life sensibility or the self-effacing humor that Andy Lau or a more engaging performer might have done.

Although the plot is seems at first to be fairly straightforward, the film gradually reveals Milkyway’s trademark weirdness. The story of Sammi’s missing husband, lost in the dense high-country woods for seven years, is a bit creepy, though I do like that when the husband courts Sammi he turns into a clumsy doofus. The film also includes a very meta movie-within-a-movie conceit and makes several sly jabs at the Hong Kong film business.

Utterly illogical, Nightfall, 2012

Less good are Derek Yee’s The Great Magician, a rambling and messy movie that’s a criminal waste of Lau Ching-Wan, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, and Zhou Xun (full review here), and Roy Chow’s Nightfall, a turgid and ridiculous film that similarly wastes good performances by Simon Yam and Nick Cheung. I really wanted to like this movie, a wannabee intense and serious thriller, not least for its slick and attractive cinematography. But despite a gripping and violent opening scene the movie has some great gaping holes in logic and alternates between chatty exposition and absurd set pieces. Still, Nick Cheung is very good as a haunted convict with anger management issues, though Simon Yam is somewhat less good as the cop unraveling the mystery. Yam doesn’t have quite the emotional depth of Francis Ng or Lau Ching-Wan and so the payoff at the end of the film is weaker than it might have been. Michael Wong is quite bad as an abusive father, with a shrill, one-note performance and his annoying habit of speaking English at the most illogical moments. I kept imagining what Anthony Wong might have done with this part. The violence is a notch more gruesome than most mainstream Hong Kong films, especially in the opening fight sequence—looks like someone’s been watching Korean movies for tips on emulating their gory tendencies.

All in all, San Francisco Asian film fans are going to have to make some hard choices this weekend—not that that’s a bad thing by any means.

3rd i’s South Asian Film Festival

September 19-23, 2012, Roxie and Castro Theaters, San Francisco
September 30, 2012, Camera12, San Jose

Hong Kong Cinema

September 21–23, 2012
New People Cinema, San Francisco

September 19, 2012 at 6:14 am 2 comments

Miles Ahead: Ann Hui’s A Simple Life and My Way

Deanie & Andy, A Simple Life, 2012

Now playing in San Francisco is Ann Hui’s A Simple Life, which was the number one film at the local box office when I was in Hong Kong last month. The film’s popularity was just rewarded at the Hong Kong Film Awards, where it won Best Picture Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Screenplay statues, adding to a slew of other accolades from the Golden Horse Awards, the Hong Kong Film Society, the Venice Film Festival, and many more. It’s an outstanding film that deserves all of the attention it’s been getting, and it represents director Hui at her best.

The film follows the relationship between domestic servant Ah Tao (Deanie Ip) and Roger (Andy Lau), her long-time employer. Ah Tao has worked for Roger’s family for three generations over several decades, caring for the children, cooking, and cleaning. Roger, a successful screenwriter, lives with Ah Tao in his family’s flat in Hong Kong after the rest of his family has migrated to the U.S. After Ah Tao suffers a stroke she decides to retire and Roger helps her to move to an old folks’ home in a former bank, with the elderly residents living in the former cubicles.

Hui’s sure directorial hand crafts what might have been an overwrought tearjerker into a film with emotionally honest core. Shooting digitally in modest locations Hui simply captures the quotidian life of her protagonists, which allows the complexities of their relationship to shine through.  Without lapsing into sentimentality or melodrama she manages to evoke a deeply emotional response, demonstrating the value of directorial restraint over bombast.

Chemistry, Deanie & Andy, A Simple Life, 2012

Andy Lau is quite good, although the movie takes pains to downplay his movie-star gorgeousness. At one point he’s mistaken for a repairman and another time a cabbie, but his perfect jawline and aquiline nose belie those conceits. As evidenced by her collection of Best Actress awards, Deanie Ip as Ah Tao is also outstanding. She also dresses down, with a plain-Jane haircut and dowdy cotton shirt and trousers disguising her glamour. Lau and Ip’s chemistry is excellent and believable and results in several truly affecting moments.

Anthony Wong, in red nail polish and a dramatically fluffy scarf, is amusing as the landlord of the rest home and Chapman To makes a brief cameo as a dentist. The denizens of the old-folks home are played by a who’s who of senior Hong Kong actors including Paul Chun, Helena Law Lan and many others.

The movie comments on the formation of families outside of traditional family structures. Both Roger and Ah Tao’s relationship and the bonds Ah Tao forms with the senior home residents replicate family and stress that kinship is not the exclusive domain of blood ties. This is emphasized by the neglectful relationship between one of the residents and her absent son, as well as another woman whose family abandoned her to assisted living in the senior home.

Andy & Deanie, Best Actor & Actress, 2012 Hong Kong Film Awards

The film also makes some interesting points about class divisions. Although Roger and Ah Tao are clearly very fond of each other they remain distanced as master and servant. Ah Tao continually insists on staying in her place as a servant, refusing money from her former employer and only reluctantly joining a family picture. Her room in the family flat apparently doubles as the laundry room.

Hui’s naturalistic filmmaking style is in full force, with the film’s mis-en-scene seamlessly meshing with my real-life afternoon walk through Wanchai. Seeing it in Hong Kong the film also took on more meaning for me, since in many middle and upper class families there domestic servants are the norm. Hui’s film does an excellent job dissecting the complexities of the master-servant relationship and filtering them through the realities of human emotion.

Masculin/Feminin, Francis Ng in My Way, 2012

At the Hong Kong International Film Festival I saw another Ann Hui movie, My Way, which is a 20-minute piece in Beautiful, a four-part omnibus sponsored by the HKIFF, and which just went live on youku.com today (it’s already had more than 1 million hits and has spawned a great debate about transgendered people in the comments section). Like A Simple Life, My Way focuses on ordinary people going through dramatic changes. In a case of extreme anti-typecasting, Francis Ng plays a transgendered woman on the eve of sex-reassignment surgery. His past roles in hypermasculine crime flicks like The Mission and Exiled dramatically underscore the intertwined nature of gender identity and confounds expectations of clear-cut gender roles—if  Francis Ng can convincingly portray a man who wants to become a woman, then that kernal of femaleness must lie within every male.

Since Ng’s character is a man dressed as a woman, it’s fine that his sleek black silk dress, stockings and pumps don’t quite disguise his muscular arms and broad shoulders. Francis more than compensates for his still-male physicality by his female gestures and expressions, embodying the duality of his pre-op transsexual character–he’s completely convincing in his gender-switching role.

The short film captures an impressive range of emotions in its brief running time, in no small part due to Francis’ intense and vulnerable rendition of a person trying to cope with difficult decisions. Jade Leung is also excellent as his bitter and estranged wife coming to grips with her husband’s transformation. A small but significant character, Ng and Leung’s adolescent son, has a particularly poignant and moving moment. After his father’s surgery, the son receives a text message announcing the operation’s success. Hui shows both the wife and son’s reactions—the wife weeps, while the son quietly accepts the news.

Like A Simple Life, the film also looks at the formation of familial ties outside of the bonds of blood kin, with Ng’s character supported by a circle of other transgendered women who are more caring than her supposed family members. As with many Hui films, there are no clear villains or heroes, just regular people dealing with stressful circumstances as best they can. Sweet and moving, this film captures the pain and joy of a difficult situation. Francis Ng is fearless in his vulnerable rendering of a fragile yet strong character who must make the difficult decision to break from societal expectations in order to find personal happiness.

Here’s the link to My Way in its entirety on youku.com.

A Simple Life now playing:

San Francisco

AMC Metreon 16

Cupertino

AMC Cupertino Square 16

April 16, 2012 at 5:50 pm 5 comments


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