Back from a trip to South Africa, performing with the Surialanga dance company, Smitha Radhakrishnan finds that sometimes the greatest custodians of traditional Indian culture might not be who you'd expect.
Eclipse's new Fallen Women DVD box set chronicles a lesser-known, but certainly not lesser, Mizoguchi.
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APA catches a fraction of this year's Pusan International Film Festival. Part Two includes reviews of Still Walking, Trivial Matters, and Winds of September.
Skip to our individual reviews:
12 Lotus (Royston Tan)
All Around Us (Ryosuke Hashiguchi)
Exhausted (Kim Gok)
Firaaq (Nandita Das)
Forever the Moment (Im Soon-rye)
My Magic (Eric Khoo)
Ocean of an Old Man (Rajesh Shera)
Plastic City (Yu Lik-wai)
Routine Holiday (Li Hongqi)
Sell Out! (Yeo Joon Han)
Service (Brillante Mendoza)
Still Walking (Hirokazu Kore-eda)
Trivial Matters (Pang Ho-cheung)
Winds of September (Tom Lin Shu-yu)
For our overview of the festival, the market, and the city -- as well as some thoughts on Hong Sang-soo's Night and Day -- click here.
dir: Pang Ho-cheung
In response to Hong Kong cinema's turn toward making mainland-friendly blockbusters, Edmond Pang Ho-cheung has stated that his film Trivial Matters was conceived of as a Hong Kong indie that could never get past the Chinese censors. That could make it a political fireball carving out a space for Hong Kong, or it could be a raunchy comedy. As usual, Pang goes for the latter. It's not necessarily a bad thing, since as Pang has noted, this is the sort of quickie entertainment Hong Kong used to specialize in before the industry deflated and the mainland market emerged.
Trivial Matters is a collection of vignettes based on his old short stories. Some are about love, some about life in Hong Kong. Most are about men's inability to have any idea how women think. For instance Edison Chen confidently wooing a girl with a story about feces, or Eason Chan (in a quite provocative role) trying to convince his girlfriend to give him oral. Many feel like dull remixes of Pang's previous films. Chapman To's story about a man and a prostitute is Isabella without the heart. Shawn Yue as an inept hitman is You Shoot, I Shoot without the cleverness. The only standout is Gillian Cheung and Stephy Tang's touching story about friendship, jealousy, and karaoke. The segment has the feel and sensitivity of Beyond Our Ken, still Pang's most mature work. Which isn't to say that Trivial Matters only works when it stops being trivial. The film has laughs from start to finish, which is more than you can say about any Hong Kong comedy these days -- even Stephen Chow's. In that sense then, Trivial Matters is a cousin to Pang's A.V., which argued that the youth of Hong Kong may not know what to fight for anymore, but at least they can concoct some bawdy fun.
dir: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Still Walking, by far my favorite film seen at Pusan this year, takes two hours to depict 24 hours in the life of an extended family. I could have stayed for all 24. How rare it is to see a film where you get to know characters who you don't want to see go. It probably has to do with the fact that unlike most Hollywood films -- or Japanese ones for that matter -- Still Walking resists the impulse to scream when a whisper will do. Which is surprising when you consider the story: as they do every year, a daughter and son visit their parents to commemorate the accidental drowning of their oldest brother 15 years ago. The time is short enough that old jealousies and regrets linger. But as in After Life, Kore-eda is wise enough to know that it's long enough that nobody's going to make a scene about it anymore. More interesting is the way old tensions and family patterns replay years later, when the kids have kids of their own. We glean the old sentiments indirectly: through the way mother and daughter peel radishes or father and son take baths together. All the while time passes as the trains do, taking us through 24 hours without us ever noticing. Still Walking shares much with Ozu's Tokyo Story, from the intergenerational conflict to the impeccable sense of pacing. But what I love about both is that they never let us know that they're telling a story about family. They simply present us with scenes of everyday life, we recognize our own family members in them, and then we immediately understand.
dir: Yu Lik-wai
Armed with spectacular images (directed by Jia Zhang-ke cinematographer Yu Lik-wai) and a killer premise (“who owns the globalized third world?”), Plastic City turns out to be an overblown disaster that's surprisingly boring and empty of ideas. The visuals, of course, will knock your socks off. The deep reds, greens, and blacks evoke a Brazil of the near-future that's half Dark City, half 2046. But ultimately, Plastic City is the work of a DP-turned-director in the worst possible sense. Yu's previous film All Tomorrow's Parties was similarly sloppy, but the smaller ideas contained the amateurishness, and in fact lent it the aura of art. Plastic City, on the other hand, wants to be Happy Together made by Ridley Scott.
Yu co-wrote the film, and perhaps that's the problem; he has no ear for dialogue, no sense of pacing, and no larger vision beyond the individual canvases of each shot. I often couldn't wait for the camera to change positions because an astonishing composition or visual idea would be guaranteed. But the narrative just would not end. Anthony Wong (on autopilot) and Jo Odigari (exuding otherworldly hotness, but otherwise on autopilot) play a makeshift father/son on the run in the jungles of Brazil. From the genre, you know there will be betrayal, death, or both, but the film just does not know when to let it go. The story is bad pulp. It's like Godard's Alphaville without the irony -- in other words just a sloppy b-film. I'm sad to report that of all recent Chinese films, Plastic City most resembles Chen Kaige's The Promise, another pretentious debacle whose narrative stupidity undermined the visual ingenuity. Though Plastic City boasts cutting-edge talent, The Promise + street cred is still boring and annoying. For better apocalyptic sexiness, there's Chen Zhun FHM spread. It's just as vacuous, but at least funny.
Winds of September
dir: Tom Lin Shu-yu
One of the more impressive debuts in recent Taiwanese cinema, Winds of September does what young director Tom Lin's peers have staunchly rejected: make a Taiwanese film reminiscent of those from the 1980s. That's not to say that Winds of September has long takes and little narrative; in fact, many young protégés of Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang have already gone down that route, usually with mixed results. Rather, Winds of September inherits the New Wave's preoccupation with childhood, narrating a generation's coming-of-age amidst social and historical change. As in Edward Yang's Taipei Story, baseball is the cultural touchstone whose fall from grace is allegorical for a generation's tragic entry into adulthood. In Winds of September, baseball is joy, rebellion, and heroism; but the baseball bat is also what clubs one boy's brother, and what's shown as corruptible by money and power. But the main referent is clearly Hou's 1986 Dust in the Wind, which even gets a cameo when one boy, somewhat ironically, tries to make out with a rival gang-member's girl while watching the movie. The presence of Hou's film is doubly ironic given that Dust in the Wind itself features a clip from Lee Hsing's 1964 Beautiful Duckling, which Hou's generation both admired and rebelled against. Seen alongside those two films, Winds of September is Taiwanese cinema again looking back every 22 years, remembering the past and taking a confident stride into the future.
dir: Eric Khoo
For years now, Eric Khoo has been a key figure of Singapore cinema's re-emergence internationally. Yet critics, scholars, and even the Academy Awards scratch their heads about how to categorize him. Much of this has to do with Singapore's own odd place between cultures, ideologies, and geographies, and Khoo's latest film, My Magic, reflects some of those ambiguities well. A Tamil single father has lost the confidence of his young son after yet another night of drunkedness. He attempts to redeem himself -- and finally bring home some money -- by resurrecting an old career as a one-man circus act swallowing swords, eating glass, and piercing various parts of his body. Khoo presents the magician's act for its shock value; we can barely watch as he sticks a needle through his arm. But the visceral effect forces the audience to think about the bodily cost of livelihood in Singapore, a city-state known for its affluence. Or rather, the film literally puts a value on the human body, and we feel that cost on our skin as we watch the torture onscreen. Magic, of course, is supposed to dazzle us, not make us cringe, but Khoo doesn't rest until we realize how spectacle and pain are interrelated for the working class in a market economy. The most “magical” scenes in the film are also the saddest. The magician pulls out his wallet to pay for something, and a gust of fire bursts out when he tries to pull out money. It's as if the old tricks are getting tiresome, consuming his existence. The relatively short movie ends a little abruptly and never seems to develop a sense of pacing and structure, but by the end, the point is quite clear: there's no more magic when magic can be quantified by dollars and scars.
Date Posted: 10/17/2008