Monday, March 30, 2009

HKIFF 3 - Final

My quick trip to the HKIFF is over with only some ten films in the bag and five of those were old classics. I had wanted to spend more time wandering about HK this time but the sun did an Infernal Affairs on me by staying undercover the whole time. Never saw it - not even a peek or a wink. But it's still Hong Kong and even in drab damp charcoal grays it feels like no other place on earth. I spent way too much time in the Photo Shop and came away with a load of pictures to scan in some day when I am able to. I still only got through perhaps 35% of his offerings but I was surprised to find lots of new ones of some of my old favorites. For those who appreciate the likes of Veronica Yip, Anita Mui, Chingmy, Ada Choi and Maggie I picked up quite a few. And lots of others in smaller bunches. None this time around of Little Tony and Leslie I am afraid - I just ran out of time and money.

I also made a stop by the Tsui Hark/Workshop Exhibit that they have in conjunction with their screening many of his films. For me and many others, Tsui Hark is the greatest living director/producer around with so many classic films to his credit - so one might have expected the HKIFF to really go to town honoring him. Instead though, his films were shown primarily during the afternoons of weekdays in small theaters with smaller screens. Really shameful. And then this Exhibit was a big let down - primarily just posters of many of his films - I could have done nearly the same thing with my own posters. I had really expected much more. Maybe in 25 years they will do it right. Or maybe by then the HK Film Archives will do it as they know how to do these things.

This time around the HK Film Archives was shining the spotlight on Evan Yang, one of the top directors for Cathay. Their exhibit of him was well thought out and informative. I caught two of his films - both which I had previously seen on DVD and reviewed - but seeing Mambo Girl on the big screen was really wonderful - Grace Chang is glorious. It is such an old fashioned story of familial love that you might expect to find that today's audience would find it laughable - but at least this audience didn't and I could hear sniffling all around me and the 20-something next to me was crying so hard I wanted to put my arm around her to comfort her - but thought better of it! Beginnging the festival with Shanghai Blues and ending it with Mambo Girl felt just right.

The only other film I caught was Lonely Tunes of Tehran, another film from Iran but not nearly as interesting I thought as The Book of Law. It follows a Mice and Men duo on the fringes of Iranian society. One is a slow witted large lunk of a man while his friend is a constantly talking eyes bulging gnomish midget. They illegally trudge around Tehran putting up satellite TV hook-ups for people to be able to see channels from America, Europe and the Middle East. This is against the law and they have to keep a wary eye out for the authorities as well as the landlord trying to collect back rent. But the film isn't political really - it's about friendship in hard times with next to nothing going for you and little hope that it ever will. It is a slice of life tale with no dramatic twists - just two guys trying to eke out a living.

As usual I get to the airport too early and so have time to wander around a while before going through passport control - and in Terminal 1 I come across a Media Asia Hollywood exhibit - but I was too cheap to buy a ticket though I did snap a picture or two from outside. Has anybody gone into it? And then there was this cool game room to kill some time. Where else but Hong Kong would have this?

A very few pictures of my time in HK here.

Thursday, March 26, 2009


Another rainy windy day that sends a cool chill whipping around. Not too nice for sightseeing but just fine for moving going. Three more films seen. And all of them terrific. Two of them dealt with Islam and faith in very different ways. The first one was Talentime, the latest film from one of my favorite directors, Yasmin Ahmad from Malaysia. As in her previous films that comprise the Orked trilogy, Yasmin explores the themes closest to her heart of faith, tolerance, family and living in a multi-cultural society. The film is less moody and more narrative than her previous efforts as she widens her net and follows three families - a mixed Malaysian family that is very much like the one in Orked, an Indian family composed of a widow and her two children and another Malay family of a dying mother and her son. The thread that brings them together is a Talentime - a high school talent show in which a child from each of the three families are involved. The film initially appears to be a lighthearted comedy but as the lives of these families spill over and interact, it takes on a powerfully emotional resonance that is at times wrenching. There are a few false notes here - primarily in the form of an English grandmother - and the directing at times felt lax - but in the end her humanistic voice and a simple plea to love each other is what will be remembered.

Next up was an Iranian film titled The Book of Law that took me very much by surprise with its puckish and at time Woody Allen type humor. It is a real treat. A small group of NGO Iranians visit Beirut each year for a meaningless meeting that allows them to eat well and enjoy the sights for a few days before heading back to Tehran. Rahman is a middle aged balding gentleman who has a mother. aunts and a pair of sisters at home constantly looking for a worthy wife for him. But instead he becomes mezmerized by Juliet, a lovely blond Lebanese Christian translator who can quote the great Persian poets. Back home, Rahman pines for her and returns to look for her - only to discover that she has converted to Islam and loves him. They marry and go home where the fireworks begin between Juliet, now renamed to Amanam, and the women folk in Rahman's household who look on her as an outsider (who shockingly wore shorts when she was ten years old!). Matters aren't helped when Amanam begins showing them the falsity of their ways by quoting the Koran at them. Very much a gentle humorous poke in the eye of hypocracy, intolerance and how religion is practiced, one has to be a bit surprised that this got past the Iranian censors - but maybe they have a sense of humor too (hmmm doubtful). Underneath the humor though grows a surprisingly poignant love story which is what really makes the story special. See it if you can.
The third film seen - some little unknown film called Peking Opera Blues directed by someone with the odd name of Tsui Hark. It wasn't bad!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


Since I arrived in Hong Kong on Monday the city has been under a constant gray drizzling sky that gives the place a drab drenched look as people scurry through the rain drops for cover. Still the Hong Kong International Film Festival is up and running with loads of films scheduled over the next two weeks or so. I am only here for a small helping of that - six days and about ten films. That isn't very ambitious admittedly but this time I wanted to have time to wander about and not feel as if I had to rush from one film to another. Last year I felt like it was a military campaign of logistics with strict timetables to set and meet. This year I abandoned the small confines of the Evergreen Hotel in Kowloon for a hotel in Fortress Hill. It's a much nicer place though I do almost miss being able to touch the opposite wall with my toes when lying in bed. In one of those near supernatural happenings, after checking in I decided to walk about the neighborhood without really having any idea in what direction I was headed - but after about 15 minutes I came across some familiar landmarks and realized that like a homing pigeon I had walked straight to the Starlight Photo Shop! Needless to say I looked to see if it still was in operation and found it immersed in just stuff everywhere - literally mounds of newspaper clippings and pictures just strewn about as if it was hit by a small hurricane. If a fire Marshall ever passed by he would shut this place down in a nanosecond - a spark could burn Hong Kong down. I did manage to wade through the piles on the floor and picked up loads of new pictures and have to go back for more. The place is a treasure even if a messy one.

Yesterday I went to see my first film - Shanghai Blues. In truth, if it weren't for this film I doubt if I would have made the trip as there really aren't many new films being shown here that get me excited. This one does though. It's the Big Enchilada. The Golden Sword. The Holy Grail of Hong Kong film. I've always wanted to see this on the big screen and it was worth coming for. It's Tsui Hark at his most sentimental and most playful with scene after scene of beautifully constructed controlled chaos. It plays mainly for laughs with Sally Yeh providing the slapstick comedy but just when Tsui has you laughing he throws in small moments of sublime poignancy. Someone told me that it was being released in the US on DVD. Can that be right? It still isn't out on a HK DVD. I hadn't seen this film in years and you always wonder if it will still live up to your memories - well this one did - as good as film making gets - straight to the heart.

Today I saw another oldie in the Tsui Hark/Workshop retrospective (shamefully the films have been given early afternoon time slots) - A Better Tomorrow. This film has been imitated and parodied so often that I worried that it would taste like stale bread - but it holds up remarkably well. This was the modern film that began the fetish of male bonding over bullets and blood and was a key work in the careers of Chow Yun Fat, Leslie Cheung and John Woo. It's overly operatic and often corny, but it works. It's not so much the action and violence anymore as it actually seems tame compared to what came after it - it's just the great presence and chemistry between the actors. Leslie is astonishingly innocent looking with his handsome puppy dog pouts and I would have to guess that many of the women in the audience were there for him.

Last night I saw a newer action film that was more polished in its technique than A Better Tomorrow ever was - but it lacked its emotional impact because the three main characters were so hollow and uninteresting. This was The Sniper from director Dante Lam. It has gained lots of publicity for all the wrong reasons - the presence of Edison Chen. The film was in the can a year ago but events forced it to be held back till now. It's great seeing Edison in front of the camera again but unfortunately he wasn't co-starring with Gillian or Cecilia. He was so much more expressive in those home movies. Here he is your basic block of wood with literally one look of petulance on his face the entire film as if some starlet refused to be photographed naked by him. He isn't the main character though - that falls to Richie Ren whose fans were out in force last night. He plays a stiff lipped police sniper commander who takes Edison under his wing to train. A former colleague has just been released from prison with a major gripe and he wants revenge and to show that he is the best. The film is fast paced but predictable and not nearly as tense as one might expect. This may be caused by the fact that you don't have a rooting interest in any of the characters or in their fates.

Now that wasn't the case with Dante Lam's Beast Stalker which I caught today - in this one he does everything right. Similar to The Sniper it is primarily a deadly cat and mouse game between two men - one on the side of the law (Nicholas Tse) and one on the other side (Nick Cheung). A child is kidnapped to force the mother who is prosecuting a criminal case to destroy evidence. Cheung is the kidnapper and Tse is out to find the girl. It is much more though than a simple police chase - it is an interlocking story of colliding fates that leads to tragedy all around. All the characters are well-drawn and well rendered by the actors and because of this the story becomes totally gripping. This is one of the best new films I have seen from Hong Kong for a while.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

So I Lied

About no more pictures. While I was rooting around in a drawer looking for my passport I came across these playing cards that I had gotten years ago as a promotion from Celestial. So I zipped them through my scanner. Kind of cool in a geeky way.

Shaw Brothers Playing Cards - 1, 2, 3