Sunday, April 06, 2008

The Last of HKIFF


One thing I couldn’t help but notice while walking about Hong Kong and riding the MTR was the lack of celebrity advertising posted around the city. No smiling Gillian advising us to lose much needed weight, no gigantic Edison billboard in Tsimshatsui peering down imploring us to buy an expensive watch, no sign of skinny Cecelia anywhere. But not only are those three missing from action but they seem to have at least temporarily put a halt to celebrity hawking of products. It’s as if all the advertisers are waiting to see if any more shoes drop or pictures appear before committing to anyone. At least the idol pictured to the left will always be in fashion and if anyone is into Mao paraphernalia like I am there is a little street off of Hollywood that has loads of cool corny Mao stuff from his Little Red Book to Mao alarm clocks. I wonder if they wake you up with an exhortation to kill the bourgeoisie. I prefer my Mao glass coasters. I think the street is called Ladder Street (?) and if you look carefully you may also come across some old black and white pictures of Linda Lin Dai, Connie Chan and Ivy Ling Po. Old Communists must have a soft spot for them.

Here are thankfully my final three mini-reviews of what I saw at HKIFF. Honestly, I am as tired of writing about them as you are of reading them and I want to get on to some other films that I have brewing. So I’ll be as brief as a George Bush moment of truth.

Lawrence Lau (a.k.a Lawrence Ah Mon) is one of the very few maverick non-commercial directors in Hong Kong. In a film industry that sneers at pretensions, artistry and box office failures, the independent Lau has somehow managed to carve out a career over a twenty-year period though admittedly that has only totaled fourteen films – Wong Jing used to do that in a year. Very few of these have met any success at the box office and most have disappeared in a flash. After his 1995 film One and a Half quickly slid into obscurity it took him five years before he was able to make another – but he seems to have returned in 2000 with renewed energy and since then has done perhaps his best work – Spacked Out, Gimme Gimme, My Name is Fame, City Without Baseball and Besieged City. His films are often very local and don’t travel well – and his best films dig into the black unseen heart of Hong Kong exposing alienated teenage gangs or the seamy red light district. Using almost all non-professional actors Lau has directed three powerful films about growing up in a frighteningly unfriendly uncaring world – Gangs (1988), Spacked Out (2000) and Besieged City (2008). Gimme Gimme (2001) took a gentler look at Hong Kong teenagers. Besieged City was one of two films from Lau presented at HKIFF. City Without Baseball was the other. Here are quick clips on both.

If one tracks the trajectory of his disaffected youth films from Gangs to Spacked Out to Besieged City, it becomes clear that Lau has not grown soft or optimistic over the years. Besieged City is like Spacked Out on crack – a ferocious downbeat look at unwanted youth caught in the violent fissures of society. Unlike the girl oriented Spacked Out, the youths growing up in these ugly impersonal tenement projects don’t even have each other to depend on. This is a social cluster fuck – parents that only pay attention to you when they are smacking you, a school system that is a dangerous minefield and friends who turn on you like wild dogs if they have to. Deng has learned to stay invisible to survive school but this doesn’t help him when one afternoon outside school he is taken captive by a punk gang who tell him that his younger brother has killed someone and stolen a cache of drugs. They tell Deng that he had better find out where the drugs are or he will be killed. His soft spoken innocent young brother had left home a few years before after one too many slaps from dad and had joined a young co-ed street gang that spent their days sleeping, screwing, stealing and snorting anything that is in powder form. As Deng tracks down other members of the gang to question them, the story of his brother’s descent into hell and criminality is revealed but it also seems possible that his brother isn’t responsible for the murder. Deng hopes to get to the bottom of this mystery and save his brother and redeem himself before he becomes one more statistic. The film is a hard riveting punch to the gut – visceral and depressing without a light at the end of this black black tunnel.

My rating for this film: 7.5

City Without Baseball is a very different affair. Lau and his scriptwriter/producer Scud take a unique and curious look at baseball in Hong Kong. Unknown to just about everyone, Hong Kong has a baseball team that competes in international competitions such as the Asian Games and acquit themselves with some honor if not a great deal of success. Wanting to tell their story – one of noble perseverance in the face of anonymity – Scud and Lau build a story around them and in most cases actually use the real ballplayers to fill the roles of themselves. It is an interesting little oddball film that feels very undisciplined and unfocused jumping around from character to character with at times no discernable purpose – but to some degree that is the charm of the film. It centers for the most part on three characters – the new coach hired from Taiwan, the star pitcher and a rookie – and their love affairs off the field. In fact very little of the film actually takes place on the field until the end when it shows some clips of their real games at the Asian Games when they played teams like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka (they have baseball teams too!). It never quite works as a whole but there are a number of rewarding scenes that are either amusing or slightly rueful. The film has received a certain amount of notoriety for its many nude scenes – but not as is the norm of women but of full frontal male nudity. So for those who complain that they don’t get to see enough male nudity, this one is for you. Some of it may seem reasonable – guys in the locker room – but two scenes of a guy running naked on a beach for absolutely no reason are honestly exploitation of another kind. Rumor has it that the male nudity was added because some buyers were interested in marketing the film to gay audiences. This may also explain a late rather clumsy gay subplot that is brought into the narrative.

My rating for this film: 6.0

And now for a drum roll – the final film from HKIFF.

Help Me Eros
Director: Lee Kang-sheng
Country: Taiwan
Year: 2007

In his introduction to the film, director Lee Kang-shen spoke of Beetle Nut Girls – a phenomenon that had until now escaped me. Apparently, in Taiwan there are these small stands dotted along the highways of the country in order to serve caffeinated delights to truckers on long hauls. These are all manned so to speak by women who due to fierce competition have over time become lovelier and began wearing less and less clothes. At least in the film, they often wear provocative outfits that play to men’s sexual fantasies such as that of a nurse or schoolgirl. Their entrance only enhances this image – a slide down a stripper’s pole and a cleavage display as they stick their head into the vehicle. So who wants to go on a road trip next summer with me?

Lee Kang-sheng is best known to art movie goers as the main actor in many of Tsai Ming-liang’s films and Tsai’s cinematic influence seems very apparent in this work. If one were to watch lots of the art films coming out of Taiwan, one would have to wonder if the entire country was in a state of deep funk. The films often ache with ennui, listlessness and unstated sorrow. This film certainly falls into this genre though there is a sly tongue in cheek humor constantly at play that makes it quite palatable and makes one wonder if Lee is almost poking fun at this type of film. The screen is awash in startling imagery that often delights, but it never quite adds up to much other than a visual feast. If Lee is trying to make some point here about the human condition, I confess to missing it. His mentor Tsai uses many of the same tools in his films, but they always leave you pondering life when you leave the theater. Honestly, I left mainly thinking about Beetle Nut Girls.

The film begins with some graphic imagery of a fish being sliced into pieces from tail to head but leaving the fish alive as its mouth and eyes move in spasmodic helpless motions. As the film progresses you realize that this is a symbol for the main character, Ah Jie (Lee Kang-sheng) whose soul is dead but he keeps going through the motions of being alive. Once quite wealthy, Ah Jie has lost all his money in the stock market, but still lives in his spacious repossessed apartment. Here he grows marijuana that he takes liberally on a daily basis. The apartment is above a few Beetlenut stands and he gets to know a few of the women – having an affair with one and a threesome with two others. Not even this though is able to shake him out of his complete surrender to life. A side story follows a large woman who works at a suicide phone center that Ah Jie often calls. Her life isn’t much better as she is married to a chef whose cooking has made her heavy and who doesn’t bother to hide his affair with a young male stud. She buys a tubful of eels that she finally crawls into and pleasures herself with. Everything here is shot with an artistic eye that satisfies on one level but seems near masturbation on another – the sex is strenuous, gorgeous and acrobatic shot in cool light, the design of the apartment is out of a magazine, the ladies out of a naughty Vogue layout – but it’s hard to see what the point of the film is other than giving us a visual buzz – but that it does in spades.

1 comment:

eliza bennet said...

Hey, I loved this post (and not just because it is nudity heavy-heh)

Help Me Eros is also here in Istanbul IFF but I opted out of it. Now I'm kind of glad I did.