Posts tagged ‘zhou xun’
So I got on the plane from Frankfurt to SFO on Sunday and I was horrified to discover that there were no back-of-the-seat individual video screens on the flight. I could not remember the last time I was on a flight longer than an hour without personal video service and since I was staring an 11-hour transatlantic flight in the face, I was pretty pissed off at myself for booking on United Airlines, which is apparently so impoverished that it can’t afford to upgrade its fleet to 21st century standards. That bit of first-world bitching aside, I started to think about the many films I’ve seen lately on those tiny little embedded monitors, so herewith follows the first in an irregularly scheduled series of reviews from the airplane movie film festival. All details from a haze of jet lag, leg cramps, and crappy airplane food.
The Great Gatsby: a fun and spectacular adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic book, this one by the reliably lurid Baz Lurhmann, who transformed the book into a video game complete with swooping camerawork, hiphop, and Leo DeCaprio brooding as the titular character. Toby Maguire not in a spidey-suit is good as Nick Carraway, the Jazz Age babe in the woods. Another little surprise was Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan in a small role as a Jewish bootlegger (since apparently Indian is the new Oriental). I haven’t read Fitzgerald’s book (what?) and I have no allegiance to its plot particulars so I enjoyed the movie as a standalone piece, with the Jay-Z soundtrack and anachronistic mylar party streamers adding to the shiny fun.
The Silent War: Tony Leung Chiu-wai as a blind guy helping the military crack codes in 1949 China. I either missed the plot point or it was never clarified as to whether Tony was helping out the Communists or the Nationalists, and I missed the last twenty minutes of the movie due to starting the film too late (a recurring error on my part), but the art direction was pretty authentically period and Tony and Zhou Xun, who plays a sleek Chinese spy, both acquit themselves pretty well. My movie-viewing experience probably suffered from seeing the film on a tiny digital screen, so if I get the chance I’ll watch it again to get the full effect of the nice cinematography and slick 1940s costume design, since I love the look of peplum skirts, finger rolls, and tweed coats.
Star Trek: Into Darkness. A dumb and dreadful followup to the excellent Star Trek reboot from a few years back that features a very Anglo Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan, which is weird since the character was memorably portrayed in previous incarnations by Mexico-born Spaniard Ricardo Montalban. Cumberbatch is properly menacing and he bellows in his best Shakespearean actor mode, but since Montalban’s archetypal Khan is permanently etched in my brain, Benny’s blue peepers and pale skin threw me off. Zachary Quinto continues his excellent vocal mimicry of Leonard Nimoy (who gets a brief cameo, looking very aged) and Chris Pine grimaces as young Captain Kirk. British actress Alice Eve is good as Dr. Carol Wallace, but her character’s braininess doesn’t preclude her a fan-service scene in her underwear. As a busty blonde she also has a passing resemblance to her TOS predecessor, Yeoman Janice Rand, which means that she & Capt. Kirk will probably get busy some time in future installments. Zoe Saltana as Lt. Uhura mostly exists to be the emotional proxy for the stoic manly men in the movie since every time a crisis comes up the movie cuts to her looking shocked or sad.
Iron Man 3: another film viewing tragically cut short due to my inept movie-watching time management. Robert Downey Jr. swaggers and smirks and Gwyneth Paltrow takes up space, and I suspect one’s enjoyment of the film is directly related to how much you like RDJ’s schtick. He’s a really good actor but I’m having trouble remembering the last non-Iron Man movie I’ve seen him in lately (Zodiac? Sherlock Holmes?). I wanted to see the end of the movie to find out more about The Mandarin, the neo-Orientalist character here presented as a middle eastern/western Asian character by half-desi actor Ben Kingsley. But alas my seatback screen went haywire halfway into the movie and I couldn’t get it to work in time to watch the whole thing. So I took a nap instead.
A Werewolf Boy: a charming little South Korean fable about a girl and her lycanthrope, here played with shaggy-haired K-pop charm by Song Joong-ki. This movie was one of the top grossing films in S. Korea last year so, although teen romances aren’t usually my thing, I wanted to check it out to get a sense of the South Korean pop culture gestalt. Although it’s supposed to be set “forty years ago,” around the 1970s, there were some glaring anachronisms in the art direction and costuming, but despite its shoddy mise-en-scene the movie was a fun little timepass. This is the second wolf-girl teen romance movie from Asia that I’ve seen recently, the other being Mamoru Hosoda’s animated movie Wolf Children, so I’m thinking—are werewolves the new vampires? Or if I want to put a cultural studies frame around it, what do the popularity of these films say about the ongoing transnational hybridity of Asian identities? Sorry, been writing a lot of academic proposals lately so my mind is locked in theoryspeak.
I’m suffering from severe film festival withdrawal right now after a whirlwind weekend at the San Diego Asian Film Festival, where I screened my latest short experimental documentary, The Chinese Gardens. SDAFF is a great festival, with a massive schwag bag, karaoke and lots of free food and drink in the guest lounge, and a jam-packed schedule full of outstanding film product. I flew in Saturday morning and returned Monday and in about 36 hours I saw more films than I usually see in a week, all on the big screen. Not only is SDAFF one of the biggest Asian American film fests, showcasing the newest and best Asian American movies, it also features a slew of outstanding Asian films as well. In my brief visit I saw docs, narratives, experimental films, shorts, features, horror, extreme, sci-fi, romcoms and more. Herewith are some of the highlights.
Tad Nakamura’s Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings follows the life and career of the ukelele wiz and the hour-long film is nice way for the director to stretch out a bit and work on a longer-form piece after three fine short documentaries, Yellow Brotherhood, Pilgrimmage, and the outstanding Chris Iijma bio, A Song For Ourselves. It’s all about relationships with Tad’s movies, which is why, even though I’m pretty much a heartless beyotch, they always make me cry. As with Nakamura’s previous shorts, the latest film possesses some really touching moments such as Shimabukuro’s mom talking about raising two kids as a single mom, and Shimabukuro’s manager seeing her hometown of Sendai hard hit by the Japanese tsunami. Shimabukuro’s a charismatic performer and his easy magnetism translates well to the screen. It’s quite something to see him grow from a gawky teenager to a seasoned performer holding his own at the LA Philharmonic. Nakamura’s editing skilz and his ability to capture emotion on screen, as well as the imaginative AfterEffects graphics work by Michael Velazquez, make the film more than a standard biopic. Nakamura also has a fine sense of place and community, as evidenced in his earlier short docs, and in the new pic Tad locates Shimabukuro firmly in his native Hawai’i, showing Shimabukuro’s respect and understanding for his instrument and its significance in Hawai’ian culture.
Due to various scheduling conflicts I was only was able to catch the middle hour of Sion Sono’s Land of Hope and I was very sorry I couldn’t see the whole thing. Following last year’s Himizu, this is Sono’s second movie set in Japan’s tsunami zone. The story involves several characters as they search for missing family members and deal with fears of radiation downwind from the fictional town of Nakashima (a mashup of Nagasaki and Hiroshima that stands in for real-life Fukashima). More low-key than some of Sono’s earlier horrorist fare like Exte (Hair Extensions) or his magnum opus, Love Exposure, Land of Hope ruthlessly mocks the Japanese government’s inadequate response to the tsunami and reactor meltdown while emphasizing the human cost of those disasters. The film was just starting to get extremely strange with a pregnant woman wandering the streets in a hazmat suit when I had to move on to the next screening, Painted Skin: The Resurrection.
The highest-grossing Chinese-language film in the PRC to date, PS:TR is a chick flick/costume drama/war epic/fantasy film. Director Wuershan manages to dial back the DFX extremes he displayed in The Butcher, the Chef, and the Swordsman (which I quite liked, btw) and focuses instead on various interpersonal relationships including not one but two exogamous human/demon romances. The three-way affair between Zhou Xun, Vicki Zhao Wei, and Aloys Chen Kun must rank up there with Maggie Cheung/Brigitte Lin/Tony Leung Ka-Fei in Dragon Gate Inn as one of the most gorgeous love triangles ever captured on celluloid. An elaborate costume fantasy, PS:TR is a lot of fun, with Zhou, Zhao, and Chen playing it straight as the variously star-crossed lovers, and Mini Yang and William Feng providing comic relief. As per usual Aloys Chen is a fine piece of eye candy but here he lacks the range and charm he showed in Flying Swords of Dragon Gate. Vicki Zhao Wei does well as a long-suffering and unrequited scarred princess, and Zhou Xun as a fox demon manages to simultaneously convey longing, avariciousness, lust, and cunning while at the same time making her character strangely sympathetic. Mini Yang is cute and charming as a spritely bird demon, the first role I’ve seen her in where she was more than a flower vase, and William Feng as her comic foil is equally deft in his role.
Debbie Lum’s documentary Seeking Asian Female looks at the phenomenon of yellow fever, or white guys with a thing for Asian women. Although it takes a little while to get over the ickiness of Steven, the self-deluded main character who’s an Asiaphile with a particular obsession for Chinese women, I think Lum did the right thing in focusing on this guy. Steven is a not particularly good-looking, 60-something, twice-divorced, childlike dreamer living in a small walk-up apartment in Burlingame and making a modest living working at the SFO parking lot. Yet despite his lack of physical attractiveness, money, social status, or property he’s still apparently enough of a catch to draw several young Chinese women into online associations with him. The film makes a cogent statement about the power imbalance inherent in such relationships as even a lowly parking lot attendant in the U.S. can be desirable enough to attract women in developing countries like China.
Once Steven’s prospective bride Sandy arrives from China things start to get interesting, as she has reasons of her own for wanting this marriage of convenience. Lum lightly touches on the plight of “leftover women” in China, those females who haven’t yet married by age 30, but where the film is best is when it explores the subtle power dynamic between a white first-world man and a woman from rural China. The film avoids preachiness or polemics yet its point is pretty clear—at one point Lum asks the clueless Steven just what Sandy is gaining from their relationship and he’s completely stumped. It’s possibly the closest he comes to realizing the vast power imbalance in their relationship and understanding the great advantage he has over his captive bride-to-be.
Yet despite its hot-button subject matter, Lum’s film never overtly judges the motivations of her two characters, although there are many opportunities to do so, and the film thus allows viewers to come to their own conclusions about the situation. For the most part the film also avoids easy romanticism and is fairly clear-eyed about the motivations of its main characters, contrasting Steven’s continued avowances of adoration for his newly met fiancée with Sandy’s much more practical view of the situation. My only quibble is with the very end of the film, where the story succumbs to sentiment and falls back on romantic love as the resolution to its narrative. After the film has successfully dismantled the Western idealization of romance it’s a bit of a letdown to have such a conventional conclusion to the story. But the rest of the film is so sly and watchable and possesses such a sharp and intelligent social and political critique that I’m willing to overlook this lapse.
I concluded my rapidfire film festival junket with a couple super-low budget digital features. Fresh young Korean director Oh Young-doo’s Young Gun In The Time is clever and inventive, with a great lead performance by Kim Young Geon as the titular character, a goofy young gumshoe with a cyborg hand who has a penchant for Hawai’ian shirts. The plot involves some kind of convoluted time travel, along with a murder mystery, a love story, and several excellent fight scenes, plus a sexpot boss and many ponytailed thugs including one whose weapon of choice is a retractable metal tape measure. Of course the time travel paradoxes make absolutely no sense but it’s fun to see where Oh goes with his conceit, and despite its miniscule US$30,000 budget the movie’s got a ton of zany digital effects, split screens, and other filmic tomfoolery that keeps everything moving along at an entertaining clip.
Japanese director Ohata Hajime’s Henge is another example of making the most from limited resources. Also shot on digital video, the film is follows a young couple whose marriage is hard-pressed when the husband starts to metamorphosize into a manical. bloodthirsty beast intent on mayhem. A nutty gojira/love story/werewolf tale that ends up with a guy in a rubber suit terrorizing Japan, the film overcomes its modest means and runs on sheer primal energy, led by a muscular, demented performance by Kazunari Aizawa as the man/beast. Henge questions whether true love knows no bounds, even when your spouse may be a throat-ripping, flesh-eating monster.
The 2012 San Diego Asian Film Festival continues through Nov. 9, so even though I’ve left the building there are many more cinematic delights still to be had. Check out the full schedule here.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
September 19-23, 2012, Roxie and Castro Theaters, San Francisco
September 30, 2012, Camera12, San Jose
September 21–23, 2012
New People Cinema, San Francisco
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.