Posts tagged ‘the great magician’

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

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September 19, 2012 at 6:14 am 2 comments

Night and Day: More Hong Kong International Film Festival

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Teen nihilism, Himizu, Sion Sono, 2012

Besides Love In The Buff and Beautiful/My Way, I also saw a few other films during my stay in Hong Kong, at both the Hong Kong International Film Festival and the Hong Kong Asian Film Financing Market (HAF). HAF is the biggest trade show in Asia for television and film distribution buying and selling, so I spent a couple days wandering the halls of the massive Hong Kong Convention Center checking out the latest product from all over Asia.

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Starlets r us, Hong Kong Asian Film Financing Forum, 2012

One day I caught the press conference for Painted Skin 2, where pretty male and female starlets Aloys Chen Kun and Yang Mi appeared along with director Wuershan. Wuershan’s last film, The Butcher, The Chef, and the Swordsman, followed the psychedelic journey through time and space of a fateful meat cleaver, and which earned him the chance to direct PS2, which comes out this summer. The presser was all in Mandarin so I didn’t catch any of the fluff, but the trailer looks pretty fun and the costumes and art direction promise to be as fantastical as Wuershan’s last movie. I’m afraid that I didn’t recognize Yang Mi as one of the stars of Love In The Buff, which I’d just seen the day before, in part because she’s so generic looking. I didn’t stick around for the press conference for The Bullet Vanishes, even with the lure of the possible appearance of star Lau Ching-Wan, but apparently only Jaycee Chan, Yang Mi, and a couple other starlets were in attendance so I don’t think I missed much. On my way out I came across a random TVB press conference with yet more starlets, this time in period dress, promoting an indeterminate historical drama.

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It’s rainin’ today, Himizu, Sion Sono, 2012

HAF and HKIFF both screened a slew of movies that have yet to see release in the U.S., so I tried to catch as many of those as I could. Himizu, Sion Sono’s new movie, is a hot mess, yet at times it’s also visionary in its extreme and unflinching critique of the human condition. The film uses post-tsunami Fukashima as a metaphor for the decline of humanity, as seen through the eyes of hapless teen Sumida and his admirer, fellow child-abuse survivor Chazawa. Sumida is the forlorn son of an abusive gambler and a neglectful mother who run a crappy boathouse on the outskirts of town. Enduring several beatdowns from his useless dad, the loan sharks chasing him, and various random gangsters, Sumida eventually takes matters into his own hands, with the help of Chazawa, the rich girl crushing on him who’s also got some weird family issues. Though overly long and in desperate need of a more disciplined narrative structure, the film is nonetheless engaging and in several scenes quite gripping. Shota Sometani and Fumi Nikaidou are very good as the oppressed teens, with Sometani in particular bringing a fierce intensity to his role as the beaten-down yet not defeated protagonist who struggles to find a moral center.

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Shu Qi, jungian, The Second Woman, 2012

The Second Woman, Carol Lai’s thriller, stars Shawn Yue and Shu Qi as Nan and Bao, two lovers who perform together in Chinese theater troupe. Their relationship is complicated by the presence of Bao’s identical twin Hui Xiang, who is also a wannabe actress. When Hui Xiang secretly subs for Bao during a performance the hijinks ensue. The Second Woman clearly aims to replicate the backstage psychological drama of The Black Swan in its use of the theatrical milieu and its Freudian (or is it Jungian?) identity confusion. It’s a handsome and expensive-looking production but all too often relies on really loud and sharp blasts of music, dark objects suddenly falling from offscreen, and other hoary cinematic devices to provoke the viewer’s jumpiness factor, rather than truly creepy or frightening events. It doesn’t help that Shu Qi’s twin characters don’t have a lot of distinguishing features, with the exact same hairstyle, wardrobe, and facial expressions. As the fulcrum of the love triangle Shawn Yue doesn’t have much of the charm that he exhibited in Pang Ho-Cheung’s Love In A Puff/The Buff.  The movie is a tepid attempt at psychodrama that the lacks narrative tension or engaging characters that would give the film some force.

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Little Tony & Lau Ching-Wan, disappointing, The Great Magician, Derek Yee, 2012

I had high hopes for The Great Magician, since it was directed by Hong Kong stalwart Derek Yee (Lost In Time; C’est La Vie, Mon Cherie: One Nite In Mongkok) and stars the A-list cast of Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Lau Ching-Wan, and Zhou Xun. The film is set in the 1920s during the Republican Era in China and has high-tone production values and art design by Oscar-nominated Chung Man-yee. It’s a glossy picture with all kinds of talent and an interesting premise, but in the end it falls flat, suffering from an inability to maintain a consistent filmic tone (is is a comedy? a romance? a satire? an action movie?).

The movie also feels about thirty minutes too long, and here again I must lament the decline of the 90-minute Hong Kong action movie. When Hong Kong directors worked within an hour and a half running time they finely tuned their narrative structures to cram the story and action into that rapid-fire time length. Now that Chinese-language films have begun to creep toward the 2-hour mark it seems like many Hong Kong productions start to tread water around the 45-minute mark in order to fill up the screen time, to the detriment of pacing and action and without compensating by more advanced character development. Such is the unfortunate case in The Great Magician–if the movie had been tightened up by 25% the flaws in its execution might have been reduced by the sheer energy of its breakneck pace (which has many times been the case in even the most celebrated Hong Kong films). Here the unforgiving two-hour run time stretches the unfocused storyline and the movie’s mugging and sight gags start to repeat themselves, ending up in a flaccid, badly paced, expensive looking spectacle. There’s no excuse for an action comedy starring Little Tony, Lau Ching-Wan, and Zhou Xun putting me to sleep, which this film did, which is a criminal waste of underused talent.

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Zhou Xun, decorative, The Great Magician, Derek Yee, 2012

If I’d been able to I could have easily seen many more films than these at HAF and the film festival, but since my visit was limited to a week I felt like I should spend some time outside in the sunshine instead of lingering in darkened rooms all day. Clearly I underestimated by not booking many more days (or weeks!) in Hong Kong, but alas, my responsibilities in the U.S. called me back home. Here’s hoping for another, longer trip some time in the near future.

June 12, 2012 at 11:20 pm 3 comments


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