Tuesday, April 01, 2008

More from HKIFF

Here are five more of the films I came across at HKIFF. The details are quickly fading from my memory so these are just chicken nugget reviews – barely filling with zero taste. Just don’t ask what went into them.

Just Do It
Directors: CHEN Yin-Jung, Michelle CHU, SHAO Yu-Hsia
Year: 2007

Not that I want to be cruel to this small innocuous film, but one has to wonder how it got invited to a prestigious film festival like the Hong Kong International Film Festival. I suppose a festival such as this feels obligated to support young Chinese directors, but I suspect that its theme of female empowerment drove a politically correct decision more than a film one. Three directors contribute short films about individual women in Taiwan.

The first one is a satiric look at women having to mold themselves to what men perceive as the ideal woman. Jolie’s parents try for years to have a child – using every sexual position one can do without physical harm – and once they are able to conceive they find they have a girl with superpowers on their hands. As Jolie grows up she realizes that her super strength scares off men and so attempts to become the perfect little woman by hiding her powers. I am not sure whether the second story was really a documentary or a mock one – but it follows a young woman who has just left her husband after a few years of marriage. Purportedly, the woman had been the film subject of this documentarian for years and so the film is able to crisscross the present with flashback moments of her past as she learns to stand up on her own again. The final piece is a woman in search of an orgasm. A young woman spends hours at the beach with her surfer boyfriend until he describes that catching a wave is like having an orgasm. From that point on she becomes hooked in hopes that she find that perfect wave and ride it to a climax. Men be damned, who needs them.

Director: WANG Jing
Year: 2007

This very authentic slice of life look at students in a small north China town is perhaps too slowly paced and overly long at 140 minutes, but it still manages to intriguingly pull the viewer into lives that are in truth fairly ordinary – showing that little dramas are all around us if we look for them. For a few weeks the film follows the lives of a handful of sixteen- year old students into the classroom and into their homes but primarily explores their interactions with one another. As we peek into their lives we see friendships begun and ended, school gangs formed and fought and romances yearned for and acted on. Surrounding the lives of these students is the crass outside world of grown-ups where the kids are witness to corruption, class status, economic blues and little hope. At the end of the film nothing very much has changed – no great dramas have unfolded – the students are just that much closer to being what and where their parents are. This is the d├ębut film from female Chinese director Wang Jing.

Open City
South Korea
Director: Lee Sang-gi
Year: 2008

This debut from director Lee Sang-gi begins promisingly as a sleek, fast moving policier, but like so many Korean films of late feels the need to excessively pile on the melodrama to such an extent that it brings the whole film down like a house of wet cards. I have to confess that I am finding myself more and more annoyed with the current crop of Korean films and their slavish addiction to absurd attempts to create overwrought tragedy (the cow incident in Le Grande Chef was pretty much the final straw). One mother isn’t enough for this film so at the end it has to throw another one on the bonfire of melodrama. There is enough tragedy in the final fifteen minutes of this film to fill a volume of Shakespeare but unfortunately none of it hits home. It only makes you roll your eyes in exasperation.

Cho Dae-young (Kim Myung-min) is a tough hard hitting cop that can tear a gang of toughs apart in five minutes without batting an eyelid. He very reluctantly joins the pickpocketing division – why reluctantly – well because his mother was a top pickpocket and spent much of her life in prison and when Cho’s sister discovered this she collapsed and became an epileptic. Now mom is out and has diabetes (often seen grasping for little cubes of sugar) but Cho will have nothing to do with her. A new girl is in town – Baek Jang-mi (the hotter than a burning house Son Ye-jin) – and she has formed a new gang of pickpockets but is looking for a territory to call her own. She once was an apprentice to Cho’s mother and helps her buy a restaurant. Cho and Baek come together like comets – he can’t keep his hands off her, she can’t keep her hands out of his pockets – and though he knows she is a master pickpocket he begins to fall for her. Other pickpocket gangs aren’t too happy with her intruding into their area and things get nasty – very nasty. But it is at this point where things begin to fall apart in the film as there is a rush to the end with one tragedy falling on top of another to ill effect. The film has some solid swift action scenes, a good dog-eyed performance from Kim and Son Ye-jin is a dazzling treat on the senses (though perhaps not exactly a convincing pickpocket), but the script needed someone to simply say enough is enough guys – this is getting stupid.

Wrestling with a Memory (a.k.a. Gachi Boy)
Director: KOIZUMI Norihiro
Year: 2008

Here is another audience feel good film that is hard to resist even though it has one plot turn that may make some of us groan with its familiarity. The film manages to rise above it though with surprising poignancy among the many laughs and silliness. Ryoichi shows up one day to join a “professional” wrestling team at Hokkaido University – but this isn’t your legitimate college wrestling – this is one strictly put on for show in which the students wear outlandish costumes and choreograph all the routines ahead of time. It is all about fun and entertainment and they perform at fairs and on the street. They accept the highly enthusiastic but extremely skinny Ryoichi (played by a Jim Varney look-alike, Ryuta Sato) because he is reputed to be one of the smartest kids in school having passed the lawyer bar exams even before graduating. Thus it is surprising to them that he can’t seem to remember the routines even though he writes everything down in a notebook and takes Polaroid’s of everything.

I didn’t see it coming but perhaps it should have been obvious – but it turns out that he suffers from the 50 First Date syndrome – he had an accident and wakes up every day having forgotten anything that happened since his mishap. He keeps the notebook and pictures at his bedside to let him know what has happened in his life since then and doesn’t let on to anyone what his true condition is. At this juncture in the film I have to admit that I nearly decided to make my way to the exit because I just saw an impending flood of teary melodrama coming my way – but the film handles it with great dexterity – keeping it generally quite amusing, but with some heartfelt rueful moments in which Ryoichi reflects on his life with dark sadness as he realizes he has no future, only a past to remember and cherish. There is no Adam Sandler showing up in his life. Sato impresses greatly as he takes his character and slowly gives him depth and great humanity.

He realizes that wrestling is somehow keeping him going – not that he remembers it but that he can feel the bruises that it causes. Then the villains show up – a couple punk arrogant chiseled body wrestlers in blond hair who decide to first put him up on a pedestal by allowing him to win some matches and then knock him off it by humiliating him in the ring. Not so fast, as he refuses to go down in a match that is brutal and exhilarating. Much of the film hits a lot of commercial and obvious marks – the goofy group of wrestlers, the father who can’t face his son anymore, the girl he has a crush on and his rejection – day after day after day - and his redemption at the end – but it is done with such a sweet nature that it just doesn’t matter – it works. Or to quote the Mark Schilling review in the Japan Times, “You’ll come out of the theater ready to put a headlock on life”.

Old Fish
Director: Gao Qunshu
Year: 2008

Nearing retirement an elderly long time cop is affectionately called “Old Fish” by everyone in town. He has a nagging wife and an underachieving son in the army that he worries about, but what he loves is his time away from them all ice fishing on the river near his city of Harbin. Recently, as the town has begun to develop it has discovered many land mines and bombs left behind by the Japanese and due to his experience in the war Old Fish is the man they turn to to defuse them. He does so in a matter of fact way – in one case simply putting the bomb on his bicycle basket and riding to the river and tossing it on the ice where it explodes.

Things take a dangerous turn though when someone begins leaving bombs in places that will kill people if they explode. Having no one trained in bomb disposal skills and the nearest one in another city, the police supervisor asks Old Fish if he can try. Not really feeling capable Old Fish initially refuses but when there is no other alternative and the timer bomb is set to explode in fifteen minutes he steps in to disable it. He feels great relief until another bomb shows up, and then another and another and he realizes that his luck will have to run out at some point. All of this plays out in a very understated manner with moments of nervous humor intertwined. Old Fish is in many ways a comical figure, but in truth a very heroic one. Though quite enjoyable, the film refuses to ratchet up the drama and tension in the way that we have come to expect – it very much stays at the same level throughout simply showing Old Fish doing what has to be done. There is also a taste of political convenience about the film where all the cops are gentle, friendly and honest (a point is made several times that they always pay shop owners what they may take from them to help dismantle the bombs) and all citizens are treated with respect. Clearly, this wasn’t set in Tibet.


Eliza Bennet said...

Thank you for the reviews.

Re: your comments on Old Fish, I felt the big hand of Chinese State petting my head after having seen The Assembly and Going Home. It wasn't a good feeling and sort of sullied my opinion of the films.

YTSL said...

Hi Brian --

The funny thing is that your description of "Just Do It"'s plot(s) makes the film sound quite intriguing!

Hi "eliza bennet" --

Sorry, have to take issue with your comments re "Assembly". Actually, was surprised the Feng Xiaogang was able to make the criticisms of certain aspects of the Mainland Chinese establishment in the film rather than that the government had an especially heavy hand in influencing the work.

Eliza Bennet said...

Oh I could feel it all over - it felt to me that the Government allowed the limited critism only because they came out smelling roses at the end.

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