Posts filed under ‘bollywood’

Different Drum: Three big Asian films to see instead of Star Wars

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Deepika takes aim, Bajirao Mastani, 2015

The advent of the new S*** W*** release means that no other big Hollywood movies are opening this weekend, which has an added hidden bonus for fans of Asian cinema. Although most US multiplexes have booked the return of Han, Leia, and Chewie, theaters still need to fill out their calendar to give the illusion of choice for moviegoers. Aside from a few holdovers from past weeks and some other counterprogramming hoping to catch the overflow of those not fortunate enough to have gotten advance tix to SW, there are three big Asian movie spectacles opening up this weekend in San Francisco.

srk-gerua

Shah Rukh Khan, Lord of all he surveys, Dilwale, 2015

Included among those are two huge Bollywood blockbusters featuring some of the biggest stars in India. Dilwale includes the legendary jodi of the baadshah of Bollywood, Shah Rukh Khan, and Kajol, the violet-eyed movie queen who has starred with him in several giant hits over the years. Dilwale purports to be a romance/action film and the trailer includes longing glances, exploding cars, automatic weapons, slapstick masala humor, and pretty European scenery, so it will either find a huge audience in South Asia and beyond or fall completely flat at the box office. SRK has a massive fanbase and a lot of goodwill banked over the years so despite the film’s apparent formulaicness I’m betting that the former rather than the latter will occur.

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Ranveer brings it, Bajirao Mastani, 2015

Going head to head against Dilwale in India and here in North America is Bajirao Mastani, another lavish spectacle starring New Gen superstars Ranveer Singh (Lootera; Gunday), Deepika Padukone (Chennai Express; Tamasha), and Priyanka Chopra (Dil Dhadakne Do; Mary Kom). The latest historical epic from quirky visionary Sanjay Leela Bhansali (Saawariya; Devdas), Bajirao Mastani follows the story of the famous Maratha general Peshwa Bajirao and his two romantic interests, a warrior princess (Padukone) and Bajirao’s loyal wife (Chopra). As with all Bhansali films the art direction is completely gorgeous and over the top, this time utilizing a beige and sandstone palette accented by deep, saturated reds and greens. Real-life lovers Singh and Padukone were brilliant together in Bhansali’s 2013 Romeo and Juliet epic Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram Leela and hopefully Bajirao Mastani recaptures some of their intense chemistry. Chopra is one of Bollywood’s best actresses, with presence, gravity, and beauty, and she’s also been making inroads in Hollywood lately, most recently as the star of the ABC action series Quantico.

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Shu Qi, Tomb Raider, Mojin: The Lost Legend, 2015

Rounding out the clutch of Asian film spectacles opening this weekend is Mojin: The Lost Legend, another big-budget CGI spectacle from mainland China’s movie mill. This one is full of A-list Chinese stars including Chen Kun, Huang Bo, Shu Qi, and Angelababy, with an appearance by young Hong Kong actress Cherry Ngan (The Way We Dance) as a Japanese schoolgirl assassin. The storyline follows a pair of down-and-out adventurers, Hu Bayi (Chen Kun) and Wang Kaixuan (Huang Bo), former tomb raiders and treasure hunters who end up scraping by on the streets of New York City Chinatown in 1986. Somehow they are enlisted to rob a tomb they’d disastrously encountered twenty years prior, and the movie follows their exploits as they travel to Mongolia to find their fate. Shirley (Shu Qi) goes along for the ride based on poorly sketched and gratuitous romantic subplot with Hu.

Director Wu Ershan (Painted Skin: The Resurrection) continues his patented ADHD style of filmmaking, as the disjointed plot jumps back and forth in time from China to Mongolia to New York City. The film intersperses large swaths of nonsensical exposition with lackluster fighting and action scenes loaded with egregious CGI. The cast gamely attempts to inject some energy into the witless proceedings, with the usually excellent Huang Bo in particular trying to enliven things with scenery-chewing and profanity, but the film remains a paper-thin excuse for a string of not-very-spooky tomb-based action scenes and strangely juxtaposed set pieces. I actually enjoyed the maniacal weirdness of Wu Ershan’s first feature, The Butcher, the Chef and the Swordsman (2010) but here the scenario falls pretty flat, as the effects overwhelm the story and characterizations.

My favorite part of the movie is the flashback to the Cultural Revolution that includes clueless Red Guards giddily singing CCP propaganda songs and foolishly deriding ghosts and spirits for being counterrevolutionary, but this sequence of political irreverence is short-lived. The rest of the movie relies on a turgid plot and lack of characterization that is sorely lacking in wit or originality.

So if you’re not feeling The Force this week, these are a few options for cinematic spectacle instead. Catch ’em while you can.

UPDATE: Saw both Dilwale and Bajirao Mastani last week. Dilwale: not good. A few brief incandescent moments of SRK-Kajol magic surrounded by many long passages of utterly boring masala crap. I love SRK but this is a shyte movie.

Bajirao Mastani, on the other hand, is utterly enthralling. From its very first moment I was completely hooked. Top-notch art direction, costumes, songs, and performances, with Ranveer Singh bringing the swagga as Peshwa Bajirao, matched in fierceness and intensity by Deepika Padukone as his warrior princess lover. Priyanka Chopra as the third leg of the love triangle is strong and steady. The film is almost too gorgeous in its warm beige and red color palette, with crazy detailed costumes and the best pearl and jewel earrings on men that I’ve ever seen. The songs and choreography don’t stop, with old-school dance sequences featuring a cast of dozens in moving in fluid unison. A complete delight for the eyes and ears, with a passionate love story at its core. Highly recommended.

opens Dec. 18, 2015

Dilwale, dir. Rohit Shetty

Century San Francisco Centre 9 and XD

Bajirao Mastani, dir. Sanjay Leela Bhansali

Century San Francisco Centre 9

Mojin: The Lost Legend, dir. Wu Ershan

AMC Van Ness 14, San Francisco

 

 

 

December 18, 2015 at 7:48 pm Leave a comment

Spread Your Wings: More airplane movie film festival

Kamal Hasan and ominous pigeons, Vishwaroopam, 2013

Kamal Hasan and bad pigeons, Vishwaroopam, 2013

Another round of international flights, this time on the much more updated Singapore Airlines. Not only does Singapore have a full 1000-plus slate of movies on demand but they have an entire Indian food menu to go with their Chinese and “Western” selections. Since they were out of the chicken mushroom rice noodles by the time they got to my seat, I ordered the chana daal, which came with lime pickle, some outstanding curried vegetables, a rather dry roti, and raita, which beats most U.S. airlines’ food service any day. Alas, they did not have the cup noodles featured on Cathay Pacific flights so my middle-of-the-flight hunger pangs had to be assuaged by a mediocre cold cheese sandwich. But lots of movies on tap!

Andy Lau Tak-Wah beaching it, Switch, 2013

Watch advert or dream sequence? Switch, 2013

Switch

This 2013 release was a sensation in China last year for all the wrong reasons as it was rated one of the worst movies ever on China’s online discussion forums, douban and baidu. The movie paradoxically was also one of the highest grossing films of the year in China, due to very bad word of mouth, and it indeed lives up to its negative hype. Truly unique and fascinatingly bad, it’s an astoundingly shoddy cinematic construction that plays like a bunch of fancy and expensive set pieces only tentatively linked together by a narrative structure. Genial superstar Andy Lau Tak-Wah portrays a super-spy assigned to crack the case of an arcane art heist involving two halves of a lengendary scroll painting. Along the way the film throws in a quartet of girl assassins on roller skates in clear plastic miniskirts, an obligatory psycho Japanese villain, and many gratuitous Andy-lounging-on-the-beach-in-Dubai shots, as well as fancy aerial shots of a car flying through the air dangling from a helicoptor attached to a magnetic grappler, a surfeit of swordfighting, explosives, and incendiaries, and many, many costume changes. The movie is full of technology fetishism at its best, and Andy Lau gets to be a combination of James Bond and a low-rent Tony Stark, complete with transparent floating holographic computer readouts and ridiculous gadgets. With its illogical leaps in time and space, the movie is great if you think of it either as one long dream sequence or as one long Andy Lau watch commercial.

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LBH does CYF, Red 2, 2013

Red 2 (Lee Byung-Hyun parts only)

Because I was fortunate enough to watch this on a plane I could skip over all but the scenes involving Lee Byung-Hyun, which absolutely elevated my viewing experience. In this one LBH demonstrates his much improved English diction and gets to play out a greatest-hits of Asian male action tropes. In his introductory scene he appears buffed out and naked, back and front, then goes on to assassinate someone with origami while wearing a kimono. Along the way he also brandishes two guns at time in a shootout, displays some high-kicking hung fu, and, in a pretty fun car-chase/shootout, practices a bit of Tokyo-drifting with a gun-toting Helen Mirren. As per usual LBH looks sharp in a tailored suit and holds his own as he grimaces and swaggers with John Malkovich and Bruce Willis. Somehow the audio on my seat-back monitor got switched to Japanese in the last five minutes of the movie so I missed out on all of the banter in the denouement, but I’m sure it was awesome and clever, and it was actually kinda fun seeing Helen Mirren dubbed in Japanese. In my fangirl dreams she and LBH have a thing for each other—spinoff sequel?

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Sridevi and flowers, English Vinglish, 2013

English Vinglish

I LOVED THIS MOVIE. The best thing I’ve seen in a long time, English Vinglish is a lovely family dramedy anchored by Sridevi’s charming performance as a woman trying to balance between duty and self-worth. Sridevi is brilliant as a beleagured Mumbai mom and housewife who comes into her own on an overseas trip to New York City by herself. I probably also liked it since the main character is a mother on a long trip away from her family, which, seeing as I was on a long trip away from my family, made me feel all sympathetic and stuff. Also, Sridevi wears some of the most excellent floral-print saris I’ve ever seen.

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Fun and frolic, Fukrey, 2013

Fukrey

Another winner and another example of the resurgence of commercial Hindi-language cinema (aka Bollywood), Fukrey (“slacker”) is a bit like The Hangover, B’wood-stylee. The plot involves a quartet of Dehli townies who long to attend the local college despite their apparent lack of intellectual gifts. Among those aspiring students are Coocha and Hunny, a pair of cheerful losers who earn their living as dancers in costumed street productions of religious Hindu mythologicals, and who apparently have a foolproof way of predicting winning lottery numbers that involves arcane dream interpretation. Their interplay in particular includes some extremely funny comic moments and the two riff off of each other as deftly as Martin and Lewis. Dreamy musician Zafar is stuck in a rut—three years after graduating college he’s still fruitlessly pursuing his musical aspirations, which causes his sensible and levelheaded girlfriend, who also teaches at said college, no end to angst. Lali works at his dad’s popular restaurant and sweet shop and also aspires to attend the local college, though he currently can only take correspondence courses. Somehow the four protagonists get caught up in an increasingly tangled morass of financial woe, eventually ending up in debt to the tune of 2.5 million rupees to the local drug boss, a toughie named Biphal (the excellent Richa Chadda from Gangs of Wasseypur 1 & 2) who has “Sinderella” tattooed on the back of her neck. The plot twists and turns ala its spiritual predeccesor, the equally clever and irreverent Delhi Belly, making great use of that city’s crowded, dusty locale to accentuate the characters’ sticky situation. The comedy is deft and skillful and, despite many chances for overdoing it, director Mrighdeep Singh Lamba directs with a fairly understated hand. The characters are somewhat broadly drawn at first but become complex and sympathetic and Lamba has excellent and economic visual storytelling skills—his narrative structure and editing cleverly tie together all of the loose ends of the wide-ranging story. This is the best kind of movie to watch on a long plane flight, with a nice long running time that eats up hours, a fun, lighthearted romp of a story, and amusing and likeable characters. Throw in a few quick episodes of song and dance and you have a winner. Great stuff—

Kamal Hasan does this too, Vishwaroopam, 2013

Kamal Hasan does this too, Vishwaroopam, 2013

Vishwaroopam

An outstanding Tamil-language spy film written and directed by and starring the amazing Kamal Hasan. This is only the second Tamil film I’ve seen (the first having been Puddhupettai, starring the wonderful Danoush,) but it definitely won’t be my last. The film starts off in New York City as an upwardly mobile NRI woman (Pooja Kumar) describes her marital issues to her sympathetic psychologist. Somehow, through a series of complicated and indescribable narrative turns, the film ends up in the middle of an Al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan, where the plot takes a lengthy digression. The story then wends its way back to New York to further explicate links between Al-Quada terrorists, uranium, an oncology lab, and radioactive pigeons. A bomb scare and much frenetic action follows. Lead actor and director Hasan, who gets to show off his hand-to-hand martial arts chops as well as his classical Indian dancing skilz, among many other talents, anchors the film with his charismatic performance as the super-spy with a complicated personal life who wryly notes, “I have a lot of emotional baggage.” The movie’s production values are top-notch, the songs by Shankar, Ehsaan and Loy are outstanding, and the war scenes pull no punches, with men, women and children blown up, shot, strafed, and otherwise becoming collateral damage in the vicious guerilla fighting. The only weak link is Kumar as the clueless wife—she’s not quite able to pull of her character with much conviction, though admittedly she’s not given a lot of to work with.

Anthony Wong brings it, Ip Man, The Final Fight, 2013

Anthony Wong brings it, Ip Man, The Final Fight, 2013

Ip Man: The Final Fight

I only got to watch the first five minutes of the latest installment in the ongoing Ip Man saga before the in-flight movie system on the plane was shut off. This chapter, directed by stalwart Hong Kong director Herman Lau, chronologically follows the unrelated Donnie Yen pair of Ip Man movies as well as the unrelated Wong Kar-Wai version, The Grandmaster. Yau did direct Ip Man: The Legend Is Born, the prequel starring Dennis To as baby Ip Man, so there might be some thematic continuity there but for the most part the Ips are all running in parallel universes. Since the flight attendants had already confiscated the headphones by the time I started watching the movie it was a silent viewing experience for me, but I did get to see a very nicely staged encounter in which Ip Man challenges an eager young disciple to a battle to knock the grandmaster off of a square of newspaper laid on a kitchen floor. I watched the rest of the movie a few weeks later after I got back home and it didn’t disappoint, as a fun little slice of bygone Hong Kong ala Echoes of the Rainbow. Anthony Wong is great as the middle-aged Ip Man, carrying himself with dignity, grace, and the inimitable Wong Chau-sang swagga. The movie also includes familiar Hong Kong cinema faces including Anita Yuen as Mrs. Ip, Eric Tsang as a rival martial arts master (who has an outstanding duel with Ip Man that’s a marvel of cinematic fight choreography in the way that it makes two non-martial artists look incredibly suave and skilled), and Jordan Chan and Gillian Chung (yes, that Gillian Chung) as a couple of Ip Man’s disciples. In the face of the continued encroachment of China’s commercial film industry on the Hong Kong moviemaking world, it’s nice to see a genuine HK film with actual Cantonese dialogue (albeit with Ip Man and Mrs. Ip feigning broad Foshan accents). Bonus points for Anthony Wong not being afraid to play an old, albeit very cool, dude.

February 2, 2014 at 6:16 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

The Thrill of It All: Raj Kapoor at the Pacific Film Archive

Raj Kapoor, vagabonding, Shree 420, 1955

Starting this week and running from July 19-Aug. 11, the Pacific Film Archive plays host to The Eternal Poet: Raj Kapoor & the Golden Age of Indian Cinema, a six-film series of classic Bollywood films by Raj Kapoor, the superstar actor and director whose career spanned six decades. Beginning in the 1930s Kapoor was involved in dozens of films and his popularity in India gained him the nickname “The Great Showman.” He’s probably best known for his lovable tramp persona, modeled in part on Charlie Chaplin’s famous screen character, and he made some of India’s most popular films of the 20th century.

Kapoor began his career in 1935 at the age of 11—his breakthrough film was Neel Kamai in 1947. Many other hit films followed and by the time of his death he was revered as one of the kings of Hindi-language cinema—he acted in as well as directed, produced, and marketed many of his films. Handsome and photogenic, with wavy dark hair and blue eyes, and with a nimble physical grace and keen comic timing, Kapoor was made for the silver screen. As is often the case in India, several of his family members are also members of the Bollywood pantheon including his father Prithviraj, brothers Shashi and Shammi, sons Rishi and Randhir, and grandchildren Karisma, Kareena, and Ranbir Kapoor.

The PFA series is a nice sampler of his work, with films ranging from Aag (1948) to the Kapoor-directed Bobby (starring his fresh-faced son Rishi) from 1974. The films are lovely fables about life, love, and humanity, with Kapoor as the everyman searching for meaning and beauty amidst the chaos of modern times.

Nargis & Raj 4-ever, Barsaat, 1949

Barsaat (1949) stars Kapoor and Premnath as friends who woo two country girls, with Kapoor’s violin-playing idealist looking for love while Premnath looks for recreation. Nargis (who later starred in Mother India) was Kapoor’s real-life extramarital squeeze and she appears in five of the six films in the PFA series. In Barsaat she plays Kapoor’s romantic muse and the chemistry between the two is palpable, reflecting their torrid offscreen relationship.

I watched a DVD screener of Barsaat and even in that degraded format the cinematography was pretty stunning. Despite the fact that it was clearly shot partially on location and partially on a soundstage, the film successfully blends the two visual styles, creating dreamlike mix of realism and artifice. The film also artfully alternates between diegetic and non-diegetic music, further enhancing its surreal, mythical feel.

In Shree 420 (1955), Kapoor in full-on tramp mode is charming and entirely watchable. His lovable rube, also named Raj, wanders the mean streets of Bombay, where, as one character states, “high buildings are made of cement, people have hearts of stone, and only one thing is sacred, that’s money. ” The number 420 in the film’s title refers to the section in the Indian penal code dealing with theft, and literally translates as “Mr. 420,” or respectable thief. Written by K.A. Abbas (a well-known figure in India’s “parallel,” or neo-realist, film community), the movie is an interesting critique of unbridled capitalism, portraying the wealthy as unethical, venal predators who ruthlessly exploit the poor.

Kapoor’s innocent character is seduced by the corruption of the big city, much to the dismay of his love interest, the right-minded and honorable Vidya, played by Nargis. Much like her similar character in Barsaat, Nargis’ Vidya is the film’s moral center, using her expressive eyes and virtuous bearing to great effect.

Despite the harsh realities of life in the big city, Raj finds small kindnesses from the other poor and working-class folks he encounters—a matronly fruit-seller gives him free bananas and, after a brief misunderstanding, his fellow street-dwellers welcome him into their midst. The film’s climax evokes Frank Capra at his populist best, as Kapoor rages against the machine and rallies the downtrodden.

Get your motor runnin’, Rishi & Dimple, Bobby, 1974

Bobby (1974), directed by Kapoor, was the first Indian film to feature the now-familiar Bollywood premise of young protagonists defying tradition in the name of love. Baby-faced Rishi Kapoor, his character named Raja (Hindi for “prince”), and sixteen-year-old Dimple Kapadia play out the classic rich boy/poor girl storyline, challenging the status quo with their caste-busting romance. The film reflects the youth rebellion sweeping the world at the time and at one point, astride a motorbike and dressed in leathers, Rishi Kapoor actually resembles Peter Fonda. Both of the filmic fathers (one played with great zest by Premnath from Barsaat, here with a middle-aged paunch) are tigers, loudly and insistently battling it out for top cat. As is fitting its 1970s release the costume design is amazing, with Rishi in red velour jumpsuits, long striped scarves, and turquoise bell-bottoms.

The film, which takes the countercultural revolution of the 1960s and 70s and filters it through a distinctively Bollywood lens, was the first Hindi-language film to focus on young love, and Rishi Kapoor and Dimple Kapadia ably fulfill their roles as the passionately yearning teen couple. Interestingly enough, many years later in his middle age Rishi Kapoor played a similar role in the 2009 film Love Aaj Kal, as a man who overcomes parental and societal pressure in order to pursue his true love.

The PFA series also includes Awaara (1951) another of Kapoor’s renderings of his famous little tramp character, Boot Polish (1954), and Aag (1948), Kapoor’s directorial debut. All three were available on preview DVDs but I instead decided to wait to see them on the big screen, as they should be. I’m sure I won’t regret it.

The Eternal Poet: Raj Kapoor & the Golden Age of Indian Cinema

July 19-Aug. 11, 2012

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft Way

Berkeley, CA 94720

(510) 642-1124

July 20, 2012 at 7:48 am 1 comment

Slippin’ Into Darkness: Agneepath and The Viral Factor film reviews

Hrithik Roshan, tattered, Agneepath, 2012

A funny thing happened on the way to the multiplex last week—both of the number one movies in China and in India were playing simultaneously at Bay Area theaters. The Viral Factor, director Dante Lam’s latest actioner, and Agneepath, a remake of a classic 1990s Bollywood revenge drama, both made their way to the U.S. with day-and-date releases in the U.S. and their respective countries of origin.

Agneepath, starring the remarkably hot and handsome Bollywood star Hrithik Roshan, set a record for highest opening day grosses in India and is on its was to joining the 100 crores club, along with blockbusters like Aamir Khan’s Three Idiots and Ghajini, Shahrukh Khan’s Ra.One and Don 2, and Salman Khan’s Bodyguard and Dabangg.

The flick is an old-school vengeance story with new-school stars, including the aforementioned Hrithik, pouty-lipped former Miss World Priyanka Chopra, and hulking villain Sanjay Dutt. It also features an item number with another rising star, Katrina Kaif, who shows off her amazing articulated torso in a fast-paced dance sequence.

The original Agneepath is a cult classic in India and stars OG bad boy Amitabh Bachchan. Both the original and the remake take their title from a well-known poem written by Bachchan’s father, Harivansh Rai Bachchan, and it’s featured prominently in both films. Agneepath roughly translates as “the path of fire,” referring to persevering in the face of great struggle.

Sanjay Dutt, evil, Agneepath, 2012

In the new Agneepath the intensity is turned to up eleven for the duration as first-time director Karan Malhotra brings the high melodrama on a grand scale, including child slavery, beatings and hangings, tattooed villains both bald and hairy, machete-wielding transvestites, and a bride who gets gunned down on her wedding day. Not to mention Hrithik Roshan’s smoldering green eyes simmering with rage throughout the movie. At the plex where I watched the show with a mixed crowd of both desi and non-desi audience members, the stoned teenager in the projection booth had jacked up the theater’s volume to “deafening,” but this only suited the movie’s thundering score and accentuated the general more-ness of the storyline.

In contrast to the theatrics of the plot, Hrithik turns in a subtle, intense performance as the tortured hero bent on avenging his father’s wrongful death. Despite being astoundingly hot, as always Hrithik’s on-screen persona is fairly low-key, downplaying his tousled hair and perfect profile. He’s the dreamboat with a heart of gold who is incredibly handsome, cut and toned, yet remarkably unassuming. At the show I attended, Roshan’s first appearance thirty minutes into the movie was greeted by an elated fan calling out, “I love you, baby!” Her sentiment was quickly echoed by a happy murmur from most of the female viewers in the audience.

Producer Karan Johar’s Sirkian aesthetic is all over this one, thought it’s nominally directed by Karan Malhotra. The film’s emotional palette is completely saturated, with every scene staged for maximum dramatic effect. Yet despite the overall fever pitch, some sequences manage to stand out, including a harrowing lynching that sets the dark and violent tone of the film, and a gorgeous orange-toned set piece that takes place during the Ganesh Chaturthi festival. Malhotra makes excellent use of the festival’s spectacle, skillfully intercutting the riotously colorful celebration with a cat-and-mouse assassination attempt. The film’s sleek production values, its gorgeous and charismatic leading man, and its bloody tale of violent retribution make it a good candidate for crossover success in the U.S. and worldwide.

Nic Tse, misunderstood, The Viral Factor, 2012

The Viral Factor, China’s number one movie last week, is a horse of a slightly different color. Part intense and violent actioner, part family melodrama, and part reunification allegory, the film boasts an amazing amount of property and vehicle destruction, and copious quantities of flying bullets, sheared-off limbs, and characters leaping from high ledges. In other words, it’s a typical Dante Lam movie.

The story concerns a pair of estranged brothers, one raised in Hong Kong by his father, and one raised in China by his mother, who of course end up on opposite sides of the law. Fai, the cop, stiffly played by Taiwanese pop superstar Jay Chou, and Yeung, the thief, more energetically rendered by Hong Kong pop superstar Nicholas Tse, meet cute after Yeung busts out of police custody in Malaysia. Intertwined with their nascent reunion is a plot involving a mutant smallpox virus, corrupt cops, and a sleek English-speaking gangster clumsily played by Andy On (here billed as Andy Tien).

Jay Chou, cornered, The Viral Factor, 2012

Director Lam keeps the pace cracking throughout, starting with a blistering car chase and shootout in the streets of Jordan—clearly someone’s been watching The Hurt Locker. Yet in true Hong Kong style the action sequences, smartly choreographed by Chin Kar-lok, are interspersed with a melodramatic family subplot. The hoary cop-criminal brothers theme has a long and venerable history in Hong Kong action movies, perhaps most notably essayed by Chow Yun-Fat and Leslie Cheung in A Better Tomorrow. Here the conflict is much less dramatically rendered, in part because neither Jay Chou nor Nic Tse possess the passion, chops, or sheer charisma of either Chow or Cheung, and as such the brotherly relationship is more friendly than fraught. Tse manages to be convincing as the hotheaded criminal, despite his slight and wiry stature, but Chou doesn’t bring a lot to his role as the cop. Without much fraternal tension the familial dynamics don’t possess a huge amount of urgency, so the storyline’s resolution ultimately lacks impact.

But the action sequences more than make up for this dramatic slackness, and veteran director Lam makes excellent use of enclosed spaces full of whizzing bullets, hand grenades, and sharp objects. As with his two previous films, The Beast Stalker and The Stool Pigeon (both of which also star Nic Tse), all of the lead characters suffer grievous bodily harm from car wrecks, gunfire, blunt force, and other physical trauma, with each eventually sporting the facial scars that have lately become Lam’s signature. Although he handles the fancier set pieces effectively, including a helicopter chase that weaves through a dense jungle of skyscrapers, Lam seems most at home down in the mean streets of Kuala Lumpur. It’s there that the film really gains some traction, with corrupt cops and scraggly gangsters populating neon-lit outdoor food stalls not unlike those found in Lam’s native Hong Kong. Along with Herman Yau, Lam is one of the few directors in the former Crown Colony still making streetwise commercial cinema, and the success of The Viral Factor both at home and abroad will hopefully enable him to find future financing for his gritty, kinetic Hong Kong-style movies.

Bonus beats: Here’s a clip of Chikni Chameli from Agneepath with Katrina Kaif and her amazingly flexible abs. Props for lighting a match on her forearm. Also includes nice cutaways of Hrithik brooding prettily and Sanjay Dutt getting his mean on.

February 3, 2012 at 8:39 am 4 comments

It Could Be Sweet: 2011 Third I South Asian Film Festival

A Letter of Fire, 2011 Third I South Asian Film Festival

This Wednesday sees the opening of the 2011 Third I South Asian Film Festival here in San Francisco, which is one of the best chances to see local theatrical screenings of films from India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Tibet, and the South Asian diaspora. The festival primarily focuses on movies outside of Bollywood’s massive scope, including documentary, narrative, experimental and short films.

According to 2010 U.S. census data, South Asians are the fastest growing Asian American subgroup and have surpassed Filipino Americans as the second-largest Asian American ethnicity. In California the Indian American community grew an amazing 68% between 2000 and 2010, to more than half a million people statewide. This population growth is reflected in the increasing desi flava in pop culture, from banal TV sitcoms like Outsourced to Das Racist showing up on the cover of Spin magazine.

Not to conflate an entire subcontinent’s creative outlet, but since Slumdog Millionaire won big at the Academy Awards back in 2009, the profile of South Asian films has also increased here in the US. Of course Indian-centric theaters such as the Big Cinemas multiplex in Fremont have been showing Indian movies for years, but since Slumdog ran the table at the Oscars, Hindi-language movies have been making more appearances at mainstream cinemas. Just last week, Shah Rukh Khan’s deliriously escapist sci-fi superhero movie Ra.One opened in select theaters across the U.S. and scored the highest per-screen gross of any film that weekend, beating out Puss In Boots and other Hollywood releases.

The Third I festival brings an eclectic mix of films to the Roxie and Castro Theaters. Opening night film Big In Bollywood is a fun, energetic documentary that captures some of the star mania of the commercial Indian movie industry. The movie looks at the experiences of Indian American actor Omi Vaidya, whose meteoric rise to fame in India follows a supporting role in Aamir Khan’s 3 Idiots, the highest grossing film of all time in India. Vaidya’s small but popular role allowed him a taste of the fanatical devotion Indians have for their film stars as the documentary follows Vaidya from his home in Los Angeles to the Mumbai premiere of 3 Idiots. The doc captures the rapid escalation of Vaidya’s public profile as the film smashes Indian box office records. At one point Vaidya makes an appearance to what looks like about 5,000 cheering fans lining several city blocks, reprising some of his lines from the film as the massive throng wildly cheers him on.

Disheveled Imran Khan, Delhi Belly, 2011 Third I South Asian Film Festival

The festival’s centerpiece movie, Delhi Belly, exemplifies a new breed of Bollywood movies far removed from the conventional Hindi-language film industry. A hilarious, fast-paced, and vulgar flick, Delhi Belly follows the misadventures of three twenty-something slackers as they chase down jewel smugglers, gangsters, and other marginal denizens in India’s capital city, with one of the main characters fighting the severe gastrointestinal dysfunction that gives the movie its name. Running a tidy two hours, the film has none of the song-and-dance numbers for which Bollywood is reknowned (except for one tongue-in-cheek OTT production over the end credits that guest-stars executive producer Aamir Khan) and owes more to The Hangover than Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge.

Indian American actor-director Ajay Naidu debut feature Ashes gives a desi spin to the venerable gangster genre. Set in New York City, the film follows a small-time pot dealer (also portrayed by Naidu) as he struggles care for his mentally ill brother while trying to resist falling deeper into the vortex of New York’s underworld.

Dhanush & friend, Pudhupettai, 2011 Third I South Asian Film Festival

Closing the festival is the awesome-looking Tamil-language crime thriller Pudhupettai, starring the intense and feral Dhanush, which follows the rise of a Chennai gang lord. As seen in the clip below, the film manages to be gritty and realistic while also including outstanding dance numbers. Also notable are Vipin Vijay’s surreal feature length experimental narrative The Image Threads, and  A Letter of Fire, Asoka Handagama’s gorgeous drama of a wealthy, twisted family in Sri Lanka. The festival also features two programs, The Boxing Ladies + Shorts: Gender/Sexuality in Frame, and The Family Circus: Local Shorts, which showcase often-overlooked short films.

While South Asian films have yet to completely break through to the mainstream in the U.S., the Third I festival is an excellent opportunity to see the wide range of production from the region and beyond, reflecting the growing desi influence in this country’s cultural landscape.

The 9th Annual 3rd I San Francisco South Asian Film Festival (SFISAFF),

November 10-13, 2011

Roxie Cinema & Castro Theater

Tickets, complete schedule, and film descriptions here.

Brilliant dance number from Pudhupettai, 2011 Third I South Asian Film Festival

November 9, 2011 at 6:16 am 2 comments

Picture This: 2010 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival

Illuminated curtain, Great Star Theater, A Moment In Time, Ruby Yang, 2010

Illuminated curtain, Great Star Theater, A Moment In Time, Ruby Yang, 2010

I’m not sure that the nice Chinese American ladies sitting behind me during the screening of James Hong & Yin-Ju Chen’s Lessons Of The Blood, shown last Tuesday as part of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF), knew exactly what they had signed up for when the bought their tickets. They had been behind me in line outside of the Sundance Kakuki Cinema, chatting amiably in English and Toi San, and I heard them mention that the film was “about the Nanking massacre” and that it had “won some kind of award in Europe.” As the film progressed and drew the audience deeper into its horrific tale, the ladies began to gasp and groan in dismay since Hong & Jin’s movie is not for the faint of heart and tells its story in chilling detail. Not unlike when I see a particularly brilliant horror flick, I found myself overwhelmed with dread and anxiety by the end of the movie, all the more so since its story is drawn from facts and history.

Germ warfare victim, Lessons Of The Blood, James Hong & Yin-Ju Chen, 2010

The film outlines the infamous series of war crimes commonly known as ‘the rape of Nanking,” but as told by Hong & Chen it’s quite a bit more. Unflinchingly graphic in its description of the various atrocities committed by the Japanese military in Nanjing during World War II, it also included several stomach-turning closeups of festering wounds found on the now-elderly survivors of the germ warfare unleashed by the Japanese Imperial Army in the 1940s. Lessons Of The Blood, however, is more than sensationalized propaganda or simple polemics. It’s also an impressively crafted film, using found footage from propaganda films, newsreels, Hollywood movies, television news, and other filmic detritus, as well as a disturbing and ominous soundtrack, coupled with modern-day interviews with Chinese wartime survivors (who willingly reveal their various scars and disfigurations). The result is a haunting condemnation of both the historical crimes as well as the modern-day complicity that implicates us all. Needless to say, watching this movie was hella intense.

Lessons Of The Blood was one of the strongest films from this year’s action-packed SFIAAFF. Although once again I spent more time at the parties than watching movies (in part because so many shows sold out), I managed to catch A Moment In TimeRuby Yang & Lambert Yam’s luminous elegy to San Francisco Chinatown movie houses. The film is a comprehensive look at the ways the Great Star, the World, the Bella Union, and the Mandarin theaters were in days of yore the glue that held together the Chinese community, beginning in the 1920s and continuing until their collective demise in the mid-1990s. I myself had the privilege of seeing several classic Hong Kong films with my buddy Patrick at both the World and the Great Star (including a strange and awesome double bill of the violent shoot’em up Big Bullet and the weepy melodrama Comrades: Almost A Love Story) and I can attest to the downscale utilitarianism of both of those movie houses. But there’s nothing like seeing a Chinese-language film with a roomful of Chinese people who are eating cuttlefish, smoking, and chattering incessantly in Cantonese during the show, and Yang and Lam’s movie captures that sensation exactly. One patron interviewed described his entire family including young children attending 9.30p Saturday night shows for 25 cents total, the kids running up and down the aisles and the parents gossiping and eating chicken wings and melon seeds until all hours.

Cell phone a-go-go, Tehran Without Permission, Sepedeh Farsi, 2008

I also caught a screening of Tehran Without Permission, shot surreptitiously on a cell phone in the months running up to the 2009 presidential election in Iran. Although I was dog-tired from attending my own world premiere and reception for The Oak Park Story earlier that day, Sepedeh Farsi’s verite documentary held my attention throughout its 80-minute run time. Through subtle and succinct vignettes the film captures the mood and attitude of citizens of Tehran, with small details and comments presaging the upheavals that would occur in a few months hence.

Deepika Padukone & Saif Ali Khan, just another impossibly gorgeous Bollywood couple, Love Aaj Kal, 2009

I also made time to see the festival’s annual Bollywood at the Castro movie, Love Aaj Kal, although it was the fourth film of a long day of movie-going. I have a soft spot for this program since it was at last year’s festival that I caught my very first Shah Rukh Khan movie, Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, which spurred my obsessive love for SRK in particular and for Bollywood movies in general. Love Aaj Kal, alas, does not star Shah Rukh Khan but the hot and charming Saif Ali Khan makes an acceptable substitute. Paired with the doe-eyed and astoundingly pretty Deepika Padukone, Saif plays dual roles as a modern-day commitment-phobic NRI in Britain and a noble and lovestruck suitor in the 1960s Punjab. The film deftly shuttles back in forth in time between these two stories, drawing parallels and distinctions between the romances from each period. A well-made and satisfying love story with some excellent dance sequences, the film is a great example of high-quality Hindi-language commercial moviemaking—in other words, a fun and rewarding bit of Bollywood entertainment.

I also passed by a rush line full of excited teens waiting for the special appearance of youtube darlings kevjumba, wong fu, nigahiga and timothy delaghetto. The youth were madly texting and tweeting as they waited to see their favorite internet stars in the flesh, but tickets were, alas, impossible to come by since the show had sold out as soon as it was announced. It was nice to see the next generation of SFIAAFF fans out in force, which hopefully augers well for the continued health and well-being of Asian American filmmaking.

Filmmakers Felicia Lowe & the late, great Loni Ding, 2009. photo: Jay Jao

NOTE: This year’s fest was dedicated to the memory of the force of nature known as Loni Ding, the legendary Asian American filmmaker and educator who a few weeks ago died at age 78 from complications from a serious of strokes. Loni was one of the fiercest and most amazing people on the planet and her energy, dedication, and sheer determination guided her filmmaking, which included seminal documentaries like Ancestors In America and The Color of Honor. She always had a kind word and a smile for younger filmmakers like myself and made us feel like we were doing something significant in our work. She was the moral center of the Asian American film community and she will be sorely missed.

March 24, 2010 at 6:28 am Leave a comment

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