Sunday, November 26, 2006

More Viewing in Hong Kong

Hong Kong is a special place of course for many of us - a homecoming of sorts where you feel like you are at the source of so many pleasurable and purifying moments spent watching their films bedazzle and bewitch you. Around you are constant reminders of this – posters with Andy, Sammi and Carina welcoming you with gigantic smiles or landmarks that nudge your memory of hazy scenes in some long ago seen film. The rough streets of the Young and Dangerous, the sad women standing on the corners of Temple Street, the glitzy neon lights of the hostess bars, the steep steps where Jackie fought off the villains in Mr. Canton and Lady Rose, Hong Kong University where Hsu Chi fell in love in City of Glass, checking into the Evergreen Hotel as did Daniel Wu in One Night in Mongkok and eating at a table where Edison makes his first Hong Kong kill in Dog Bite Dog – all these images of past films wander through the city like ghosts – as much a part of it as the Star Ferry or the Night Market . These trips to Hong Kong are special even if I barely get to touch the surface – just small postcards to remind myself to return again someday.

Two more films seen in HK.

Still Life (China) 2006 – this was my first belated exploration of the works of director Jia Zhangke and after seeing this I feel rather foolish in having avoided his earlier films – “Platform” (2000), “Unknown Pleasures” (2002) and “The World” (2004). I am not really sure why I did so other than a mild prejudice against slow, static and socially relevant films which I assume these to be. Not that “Still Life” doesn’t fall squarely into this characterization. But rather than finding myself impatient with its skeletal plotting and thinly sketched characters I found it to be a powerful, fascinating and soulful look at the tumultuous social changes taking place in China as it rushes towards a free market economy – and the human cost of those left behind. In near documentary style, Jia captures a society that is becoming totally uprooted and mobile, where all the tenuous bonds of family and community are on the verge of disintegration. Shot on HD, the picture is astonishingly clean and clear and there is little artificial separation between film and audience – it is as if looking out your window and seeing this human and national drama take place.

Back in 1993 China embarked on a massive hydroelectric project on the Yangtze River in the Three Gorges area that would over time displace nearly 1.5 million people and cover up long standing communities in water. The price of progress say the authorities – a colossal human tragedy say its critics. Into this chaotic milieu comes Han Sanming looking for his wife and daughter who left him sixteen years previously. He is a coalminer from Shanxi (where the director grew up) and after all these years he has a yearning to see his daughter, but the address he has is now under water and he stubbornly attempts to track them down. To pay his way, he takes on the hard work of breaking down the buildings before the water comes and makes acquaintances with others who have either come from elsewhere to find work or those who are being forced out – one of them being an amusing Chow Yun Fat “A Better Tomorrow” imitator – but there seems little chance of a better tomorrow for these people. With the stunning landscapes of the Three Gorges as a backdrop and peculiar moments of fancy (a spaceship taking off or people dancing on a bridge), the film never feels heavy handed – rather it is a snapshot of history on the move and one that still has a long ways to go.

This film won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival. Jia also made a documentary called “Dong” about the Three Gorges Dam and from what I read some of it leaks into the film with similar dialogue and an inn keeper who plays himself in the film. The town of Fengjie where the film was shot is now under water.

My rating for this film: 9.0

First Love (Japan) (Hatsukoi)

Director: Yukinari Hanawa
Year: 2006
Length: 114 minutes

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

What I am Watching in Hong Kong

Just a quick note to say what films I have seen and what is still on the agenda to see while ensconced here in Hong Kong at the Evergreen Hotel. I picked up a load of HK film books at the HK Film Archives and the Kubrick book store as well as hundreds of pictures of many of my favorite actors at the Starlight Photo Store in North Point - well worth a visit if you are not claustrophobic and don't have nightmares about being killed by tons of pictures falling on you. This store has been here 25 years and is an amazing place crammed with literally thousands upon thousands of pictures in a place not much bigger than a shoebox. I will expand more later on these films but as its after 1 am now and as I have more movies to see tomorrow here is a quick rundown.

Heaven's Mission - Ekin as a reformed triad honcho (reputed to have been the fiercest!) who has literally seen the light and wants to do good, but the cops (Alex Fong) and his old gang (Ti Lung and Stephen Fung) won't believe him. A really solid group of actors and direction by James Yuen led me to have hopes for this even with a low rating from the local paper, but miscasting such as puppy dog like Fung as a nasty up and coming triad member did this film in and it just clunks along with way too many sub-plots and characters to care about.
Rating: 5.5

Mr. Three Minutes - Ronald Cheng goes for family values and a mainstream audience with this familiar mix of comedy and drama. There is nothing new here at all, but it is a pleasant outing as he plays a womanizer who finds a 10-year-old son that he didn't know about on his doorstep one day. Mom is dead and the aunt thinks its time for dad to care for his son. It pretty much goes right where you expect it to with little of the zaniness that Cheng is known for. But nice turns by Teresa Mo as Cheng's assitant, Richard Ng as his dad and the ever so lovely Cherrie Ying as the aunt made this slightly more than passable entertainment.
Rating 6.0

My Mother is a Bellydancer - this is another first time director work from the good people at Focus Films and it is terrific. I have never been a huge Andy Lau fan, but his support for young directors all over Asia is simply a great thing to be doing. This has hit a few fests and deserves it. With a completely unknown cast of actors, this quickly sucks you into a grimy world of low class tenements where the crying kids, peeling painted walls, crowded living space and every dollar perhaps being the last one feels very real. The story tracks the lives of four women who live in the scary face of total indifference - from their children, husbands and life - they are just there to serve and be invisible. When they begin to take lessons in bellydancing at the local community center, it gives them a spark of life and hope. Funny, touching, painful and wonderfully acted. It's so rare and so nice to see such great roles for "aunties" - women into their forties.
Rating: 8.0

Substitute Teacher - a sweet but rather innocuous film from China. A young woman from Shanghai journeys out into an isolated rural area to visit a woman for initially mysterious reasons. This woman turns out to be sick in the hospital and to be the only teacher to the children in a small one room school house. The young woman is convinced to take on the job until the other woman returns. Full of cute kids, moral lessons and nice landscapes.
Rating: 6.0

Still to possibly come - Still Live (China), Diary (HK), Time (Korea), First Love (Japan) and on Thursday Battle of Wits opens up.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Umrao Jaan, India - 2006

Sometimes beauty and tragedy don’t mix. That is perhaps why this tragic tale of a 19th century courtesan never quite works. Played by Aishwarya Rai, one can never really feel her emotional pain because you are so overwhelmed by her luminous beauty. Sure the character’s life is full of disappointments and hardship but she always looks so good and dresses so well that you can’t really feel sympathy for her plight. Particularly when she is crying (which she does often) and the camera lens lights up those glistening moist sad eyes like beacons of vulnerability. The eyes of Aishwarya Rai are legendary. Emerald green like a south sea lagoon, they dominate the screen at times like a Panzer division invading France. If watched on the big screen they are as large as a country house and more inviting as she uses them like stealth bombers to entrance and dazzle the audience with their sheer brilliance. But though they can make us tremble, they can’t make us cry and that is the issue here.

Based on a classic novel and having been made once already starring the great Rekha, this female centered story feels like an unusual choice for director J.P. Dutta who has previously made his fame and fortune with macho action stories. Perhaps he goes too far in escaping those traits as he creates a somewhat laborious and sanitized world of the courtesan life. The film luxuriates leisurely in its stunningly lush interior details, glamorous fashions, period look and lyrical mood, but does so at a snail’s pace that seems happy just to be. Running over three hours in length, the film at times feels like it needs a good kick in the pants to send it on its way. But at the same time it does look so damn fine that you really don’t mind all that much.

In similar fashion to “Memoirs of a Geisha”, the story concerns itself with a young girl named Ameeran who is kidnapped from her loving family and sold into a brothel in the city of Lucknow. This is not just any brothel though, but the top of the line kind where the women not only bowl men over with their beauty but also with their ability to charm and entertain. The brothel owner (Shabana Azmi) welcomes the newly purchased girl into her caring “family” with loving words and a change of name to Umrao. She is handed into the care of a childless couple to bring up in the proper courtesan way where she will learn how to snag a man’s heart with poetry, singing and dancing as well as of course with seduction – all the characteristics that we men find so appealing in courtesans and are so hard to find nowadays.

As she grows up, she turns into a glorious butterfly in the form of Aishwarya and though in truth the over-30 Aishwarya is perhaps too old to play this fledging girl on the cusp of womanhood it is hard to imagine anyone else in current day Bollywood taking on this role. It is one of such immaculate grace and porcelain beauty that it seems made for her. Finally, the day comes for Umrao to have her virginity sold to the highest bidder – and the anxious Umrao only worries that her innocence will be purchased by an old man. She is presented to the local elite in an artistic dance performance that stuns them and makes her the talk of the town. The bids are in and the lucky winner is . . . Nawab Sultan (Abhishek Bachchan) - come on down - who has become totally smitten with her and is all too easily persuaded to hand over large gobs of cash to be with her. He woos her with his casual smile, lap dog eyes and an ability to stab a rude man through the stomach – and she quickly returns his affection and they both promise to love each other forever. They also of course have sex and she gets to add Jaan (beloved) to her name. If love could only be so easy, but things unravel after he is disinherited by his father leaving him penniless and the noxious mascara-eyed Faiz (Suniel Shetty) begins to fawn over her.

But this supposed grand love story never takes hold – it has no weight and seems very small in this otherwise large scale film. It happens so quickly and seems so obviously doomed from the onset that the audience isn’t given time to climb on board and care - and the Nawab is in truth rather a shallow lad who loves lavishly on the wealth of his father. The only real emotion that impacts is when years later Umrao returns to her small hometown to visit her family but as Thomas Wolfe puts it, you can never go home again. Clearly the center of the film is this unfulfilled love but it is everything else that surrounds it that is of much more interest – the courtesan life, the finery, the life style, the political brothel infighting, the entertainment, the poetry, her brothel “family”, the mutiny but that all gets pushed far into the background for most of the film.

Aishwarya actually does a fine job here and it’s no fault of hers that her beauty makes everything else feel small by comparison. Her dancing needless to say is divine and her costumes are ornate exclamation points. The music from Anu Malik is solid on an individual level – each of the many songs are lovely poetic ghazals – but as a mix their needed adherence to fit into a period film makes them all sound too similar in style and after a while they sort of begin to blend together. This is a beautiful film to gaze at and immerse yourself in the loveliness of Aishwarya, but it will rarely touch your heart or inspire you.

My rating for this film: 6.5

The Village Album (Mura no shashinshû), Japan

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Ada Apa dengan Cinta? (What’s Up with Love?)

Director: Rudy Soejarwo

A couple of years ago I came across a screener of this youthful romance and found it more than a little charming and have hoped ever since to find it in digital form. Thus it was a pleasant surprise when I saw it had come out on VCD with English subtitles. Indonesian cinema is a black hole to most people outside of the country for a couple of reasons – there isn’t that much of it, what there is tends to be low budget dramas, romances and comedies and it’s content is severely censored in terms of sexual matter and violence – all things that generally lessen interest in the West, which still tends to approach Asian cinema for its exotic, violent, erotic and fantastic elements. But the prime reason that this cinema is so difficult to access is an even more basic one – similar to its next door neighbor Malaysia – the DVD format is not being utilized to any extent with nearly all their films being released only on VCD with English sub-titles being a rarity. This is primarily for financial reasons as most local consumers can’t afford DVDs and the VCD format fits them fine. Still it’s a shame as other countries in Asia have shown that giving their films international exposure has been a great boost for the local film industry and the easiest way to do this outside of film festivals is through the sub-titled DVD where people from all over the world can begin to appreciate and promote various films over the Internet.

This film is a perfect example of one that could capture a fan base outside of Indonesia with its utterly sweet, literate and touching story of young love. In many ways the film could take place anywhere with teenagers that have many of the same interests as those all over the world – hanging out in malls, going to concerts, practicing dance routines, playing basketball, first love, enduring friends and that getting ready for the first date ritual. Woven subtly within are issues of class, politics and abuse, but it is primarily concerned with love and friendship – the two driving factors of so much angst during our high school days. The film was a huge box office hit – not only in Indonesia but in Malaysia as well – and it generated a tremendous amount of controversy for one shocking scene – shocking I tell you - a kiss between the two main characters. Yes, a kiss. One kiss if I recollect. Apparently, this was the first film in decades in which an onscreen kiss was allowed and it brought in hordes of anxious teenagers to see it. I say recollect because much to my dismay it was censored out of the VCD! I guess someone thought it was necessary to filter out such evil going-ons which young people might see in the privacy of their homes and go on an insane kissing rampage. So if you should buy the VCD just imagine a lingering innocent kiss that occurs near the end of the film at the airport.

Taking place I think in present day Jakarta, it features five extremely close female friends going through the pain of high school. Their motto is “The problem of one is the problem of all and the enemy of one is the enemy of all”. When Cinta (which means “love” and who is played beguilingly by Dian Sastrowardoyo) loses in the school poetry competition to an unknown boy named Rangga (Nico Saputra), she is extremely disappointed until she reads his poem and is overwhelmed by it. She seeks him out for an interview for the school paper, but is immediately rebuffed by his aloof and surly attitude. She tells her compadres that he is to be put in the “must avoid” category in their collective journal, but of course she can’t as she finds herself drawn to this loner who seems so disinterested in the school life around him. And eventually, he to her. As one side character says “It’s like a 70’s romance. Love begins with books and goes to Saturday night”. But her romance begins to interfere with her clique chemistry and after near tragedy strikes, she feels she has to decide between love and friendship. Sweet and charming from the beginning to the end (with a nice soundtrack thrown in), this may feel all too familiar in many ways – even including a mad dash to the airport - but for those who can take one more innocent tale of first love this is a total winner.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Two More Thai Fim links

Here are two articles from Kong Rithdee who writes so well about Thai films for the Bangkok Post. The first is on the actor who plays the title role in the upcoming epic, The Legend of King Naresuan.

and the second article is a brief look at films still to come this year and a criticism of the total lack of political content in recent Thai films.

I also have to congratulate the American people for finally waking up from their 6-year apathetic and unquestioning slumber to send the Republican's packing. It's rather a shame though that it took the lives of 3,000 American soldiers and God knows how many Iraqi's to do so. To paraphrase Pelosi - the elections are over, now let the investigations begin. I truly believe this administration is the most corrupt, immoral and inept in our history and I think the American people and the global community have a right to all the facts. So much hubris for such small minded men and it's time for an accounting.

Friday, November 03, 2006

The Unseeable (Pen Choo Kab Pee) from Wisit Sasanatieng

Wisit Sasanatieng's latest film "The Unseeable" has just been released in theaters in Thailand and here is an interview that was printed in the Bangkok Post. At the end of the article it makes mention of his next project - a martial arts film along the lines of the Shaw Brothers!