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APA's coverage on 2009's Hong Kong International Film Festival includes capsule reviews of Night and Fog, The Shinjuku Incident, and The Beast Stalker.
The Beast Stalker (dir: Ringo Lam)
Call if You Need Me (dir: James Lee)
Cry Me a River (dir: Jia Zhang-ke)
Ghosted (dir: Monica Treut)
Histeria (dir: James Lee)
Jalainur (dir: Zhao Ye)
Night and Fog (dir: Ann Hui)
Perfect Life (dir: Emily Tang)
The Shinjuku Incident (dir: Derek Yee)
Somewhere I Have Never Travelled (dir: Fu Tian-yu)
Tactical Unit - Comrades in Arms (dir: Law Wing-cheong)
Torso (dir: Yamazaki Yutaka)
Yang Yang (dir: Cheng Yu-chieh)
Night and Fog
dir: Ann Hui
Night and Fog has: 1) a beautiful mainlander beat by her raging but oft-sensitive Hong Kong husband, 2) scenes of social institutions -- police, social workers -- consistently unable to help her, and 3) strong women characters who make the most of their lives regardless. Ann Hui is in Social Issue Movie mode here; there's even a scene in which battered women parade in the streets for domestic violence awareness. We've seen this side of Hui before, and while her intentions are admirable and her social convictions are remarkably thought through, they come off as calculated and academic. But though the thematic elements are sometimes clunky, the film is nevertheless engaging because Hui makes poetry out of non-chronological slices of the story. As in Song of the Exile, Hui jumps around in boldly awkward temporal and visual registers, giving us flashbacks within flashbacks, and recollections that alternate as dream sequences. Also appreciated are the performances by Zhang Jingchu and especially Simon Yam, who, as do Charlie Yeung and Aaron Kwok in Patrick Tam's After this Our Exile, proves that Hong Kong cinema can still provide great dramatic roles for middle-aged stars. In fact, Yam turns a textbook wife-beater into a character whose motivations we haven't seen before in this genre: a Hong Konger whose anxieties about being a family with mainlanders manifests as frantic desperation and violence.
dir: Yamazaki Yutaka
Unlike her half-sister, Hiroko doesn't have to worry about getting pregnant by abusive men with emotional issues. That's because she's in a sexual relationship with an inflatable male doll with no head or limbs -- just chest, abs, and groin. For a movie about a woman and a rubber torso, Yamazaki Yutaka's directorial debut is awfully dull. The premise could be fodder for a twisted comedy (directed by, say, Spike Jonze), or salacious camp (Paul Verhoeven comes to mind), or corporeal existentialism (think David Cronenberg). Instead, Yamazaki takes a dry documentary approach, occasionally mixing in largely ineffective family melodrama. Everything plays like sketches rather than finished tableaus, unrealized plans of something potentially fantastic. Yamazaki, who served modestly as D.P. for some of Hirokazu Kore-eda's greatest works, is so unassuming here that he practically vanishes, leaving only shadows of provocation and dramatic interest. I can think of a number of Japanese filmmakers who could have done Torso with more energy and intelligence, instead of the emotional hollowness that Yamazaki provides. Sometimes you just need the real thing.
dir: Cheng Yu-Chieh
Within mere seconds of Yang Yang, you know you're watching a Jake Pollock film. Not that the Taiwan-based star D.P. necessarily has a signature visual style. Rather he has a signature gesture: he announces, loudly, in vibrant camera movements or splashes of light, that he has arrived and that there will be Cinematography! Yang Yang is a stunt film: practically the entire film is in hand-held close-ups. That there is a director involved (Cheng Yu-Chieh), who might want to tell a story or convey complex emotions, is practically irrelevant, though the festival's program notes and the film's inklings of narrative do suggest otherwise. Yang Yang is about a half-French girl in Taiwan -- no, it's about Sandrine Pinna, the half-French Taiwanese actress who plays her. As in Cheng Yu-Chieh's debut Do Over, Yang Yang constantly slips between reality and fiction, though here he does it not to deconstruct the distinctions, but rather to take advantage of everything we know (and presumably love) about Pinna, the current P.Y.T. of the Taiwanese film industry. Pollock's flashy close-ups linger voyeuristically on Pinna's Eurasian features and lusty legs. The camera desires not the eponymous Yang Yang, but Sandrine Sandrine Sandrine! Cheng and Pollock want to be Godard to Pinna's Anna Karina, but they adopt all of the French New Wave's sexist tendencies and none of their creative ones. The soft-focus close-ups are all pretty standard and even invisible, a further intensification of what David Bordwell has called intensified continuity. All the experiment really proves is that we don't need establishing shots -- just dialogue and long takes to help us navigate the proceedings.
What's left to ponder is simply Yang Yang's face, oozing with adolescent beauty, but anguished that it's come at the cost of her individuality: all anybody ever sees is her mixed-race. Charismatic yes, but Pinna is not versatile enough an actress to convey her character's complexities. Meanwhile, Cheng (who grew up bicultural) and Pollock (an American in Taipei) know what it's like to be outsiders in Taiwan, but here they seem less interested in exploring those possibilities, but rather want to explore how beautiful somebody can look while exploring those possibilities. In other words, they're accomplices in the very crime they're denouncing. If I want to see a dejected Sandrine Pinna pine on lost love, I'll rewatch her in the much better short film End of the Tunnel.
Somewhere I Have Never Travelled
dir: Fu Tian-yu
The first 30 minutes or so of Fu Tian-yu's debut feature are utterly charming. A colorblind girl prances her way through life in a sleepy ocean town. Her days consist of talking smack with her grandma and older cousin, while her world has the color scheme and fluffy sweetness of Dippin' Dots. Fu Tian-yu has a great sense of pace and a sensitivity to children's nuances. The girl's colorblindness proves to be a promising way into the characters' isolation and idiosyncrasies. But when she starts to grow up (and is replaced by another actress), all of the energy is sucked out of her and the movie. The leisurely trot a la Summer at Grandpa's turns into the brooding languor of many recent high school coming-of-age Taiwanese films. I like the queer subplot, but I hate the clichés it apparently requires and that black cloud of gloom it brings into a movie that should not invite tragedy. The chromatic possibilities of having a colorblind character are also abandoned as the mood turns dark -- as do the visuals. This is a film filled to the brim with charm, but lets it all drain away.
dir: James Lee
An utter waste of time, Histeria is like any other teen horror film, more specifically the kind that's not actually scary. A band of bimbos (“The Pink Ladies,” they call themselves) terrorize students with sadistic ghost stories, and feign possession to mock neighborhood exorcists. Locked up at school for a three-day detention (yes, it's that kind of movie), the girls refuse to work and cause trouble for the groundskeepers. Ah, but they will get their comeuppance, and it will be stained in blood. And come with cheesy sound effects and a second-rate extra in a monster suit. And when we're lucky, we'll get an onslaught of jarring jump cuts of horrific images in lieu of something actually scary happening. Histeria is the first 35mm film by digital video star James Lee, as well as his first commercial film. Let's hope it's an aberration.
Call if You Need Me
dir: James Lee
On the other hand, James Lee's latest, Call if You Need Me reminds us that he can make solid films, even genre films, when relaxed of any commercial pressure. There's nothing new about the premise (cousins mixed up in gangs and drugs are forced to make tough choices about their loyalties) or the style (slow paced long takes which let us see and hear their everyday world in stark detail). In other words, it's the sort of gangster film pioneered by Hou Hsiao-hsien's Goodbye South Goodbye and which has become a staple in Asian art cinema. But Lee does everything right: that is, he cares little for the machinations of gang life, favoring instead what it's like to hang out with the low-level bosses, their girlfriends, and their cronies. Call if You Need Me is able to so effortlessly wade through the various underworld interactions because Lee sets up everything we need to know about the characters in the two efficient long takes which begin the film. From them, we know that Ah Soon and Ah Peng can't keep their hands of each other, though Ah Peng has a dazed frown that suggests that she doesn't belong. We know Or Kia is a decent guy despite the cool frazzled look because he's willing to dance with the fat girl. Most of all, we feel the clan's fraternity and good-will, expressed through drunken banter and druggy dancing, topped off with a nice pop song which takes us into the night and into the opening credits.
Tactical Unit - Comrades in Arms
dir: Law Wing-cheong
A dubious spin-off to Johnnie To's PTU, Law Wing-cheong's Tactical Unit - Comrades in Arms begins with rival police squadrons competing for their supervisors' notice. Before they know it, they're assigned to team together for a showdown in the jungles along the mainland border. There are scenes of dysfunction, followed by obligatory moments of sacrifice, acceptance, and ultimately, camaraderie. The reliance on formula makes this Tactical Unit film unworthy of comparison to the innovative PTU. Worse yet, the squadrons' bickering comes off as juvenile and annoying; we're left wondering why we're listening to such incompetent unprofessional not protecting the citizenry. Of course, PTU and other To genre exercises also show the lighter side of cops and robbers. But whereas To did this to expand the underworld universe, Law does it to simplify it into cop movie clichés and sitcom antics.
The Beast Stalker
dir: Dante Lam
The best kind of gritty thriller, The Beast Stalker isn't just Dante Lam's triumphant return to form. It's Hong Kong cinema getting back to the basics. No pretentions of making the next big blockbuster, no aspirations for crossing over into whatever market, no eyes on any festivals. Just hard, cold action. The kind where characters' faces get torn apart by shards of glass, where heads get lodged in cracked car windows. Where innocent little girls get shot and killed point blank. Lam spins everything into motion without extensive setup. All we know is that when four people (a cop, an attorney, a hitman and his wife) have little reason to go on living, they're liable to do some extreme things. And when their stories collide, we're liable to get some blistering action. The Beast Stalker is The Chaser without the flash, a pursuit film so tightly knit it has no time to show off. Sure, Nicholas Tse manages to brazenly overact at times, while a car crash is designed with enough slow motion excess to give even the most dazed viewer whiplash. I could do without the neat wrap-up in the final five minutes, but the rest of The Beast Stalker is uncompromising grit.
dir: Emily Tang
I found Emily Tang's 2001 debut Conjugation a cheap knock-off of Jia Zhang-ke's Platform. And I find her new Perfect Life a superficial copy of Jia's explorations into fiction-documentary hybrids such as 24 City. Then again, Conjugation is now remembered fondly by most critics, so maybe I was wrong, as I might be here. Perfect Life interweaves documentary footage of a mainland woman struggling professionally and personally in Hong Kong, with a fictional narrative of a northern Chinese woman led further and further south by economic pressures and bad, bad men. The narrative cross-cutting is not as complex as Tang would have us think, while the juxtaposition of fiction and documentary distracts us from each, rather than exploding the possibilities of reality, as in 24 City. The technique comes off as overly calculated, which is a shame because the calculations don't add to very much. The fictional story would have worked fine as a standalone, mostly because of lead actress Yao Qianyu, whose ever-quizzical face captures perfectly that state of desire and uncertainty. In contrast, the documentary footage feels half-baked, and more of an afterthought provided to give the film hip stylization.
Cry Me a River
dir: Jia Zhang-ke
Jia Zhang-ke never stops surprising us. Here, the shock is that he makes his first explicitly middle-class work, a 19-minute short about two pairs of old college lovers reuniting years later in Suzhou. The Venice-like waterways provide a romantic, nostalgic setting, tapping into fantasies of what love could have been. As usual, Jia sets us along slowly, first with casual conversation over dinner, then in long, tender breaths as we drift down the Suzhou streams. The allegorical possibilities of nostalgia and regret are obvious given China's rapid modernization, but what I appreciate most is how the short captures a generation of China's young middle class reflecting on its past ideals, and sharing those reflections with each other, rather than speeding forward at the speed of global capital. That of course might be the short's ultimate cheesy fantasy, but I'll take the cheese, along with the sappy pop ballad that closes the film.
The Shinjuku Incident
dir: Derek Yee
Given that it was an HKIFF opening night film, given that director Derek Yee publically proclaimed that he would not cut the film's violence to placate mainland censors, and given that the film begins and ends with titles comparing the story to actual events in the 1990s, you'd assume that The Shinjuku Incident is not just another Hong Kong action film, but an important one, with big issues (illegal Chinese laborers in Tokyo) and juicy dramatic roles (superstars Jackie Chan and Daniel Wu fielding for acting awards). Surely the film aims for importance, with Chan in particular giving weighty monologues about responsibility and social justice. But The Shinjuku Incident, like Yee's One Night in Mongkok is merely a pounding, violent thriller, with snippets of romance and drama to lend the action gravitas. But whereas One Night in Mongkok worked because it had a fairly narrow focus and could lunge all of its provocations in a contained way (having Cecilia Cheung doesn't hurt either), The Shinjuku Incident suffers from delusions of self-importance. The Sino-Japanese conflicts attempt complexity but end up jumbled amongst the various loyalties and betrayals. Meanwhile Daniel Wu simply doesn't have the chops to pull off either innocence or decadence; the latter is conveyed not through his acting, but through some over-the-top costume and makeup that would shame even David Bowie. Lam Suet and Xu Jinglei are good as usual, but it comes at a price: they make everyone else look like kids in adult clothes.
dir: Zhao Ye
A portrait of a Mongolian society receding into history, Jalainur begins with black and white images of the Mongolian deserts. But these monochrome vistas aren't nostalgic, nor do they evoke the sublime of 19th century romantic painting. They're less like old photographs than some warped vision of a forthcoming ghost town: the nostalgia that will be, but hasn't yet arrived. Jalainur is thus unlike any such film I've seen about the turbulent social transformations of China's backcountry. The glorious panoramas aren't of the National Geographic variety, but more like those in Michael Polish's bizarre Northfork, where past and future collapse into gorgeous surfaces that seem to defy any common sense of landscape and land ownership. There is a story too -- a beautiful one even. Two men working on the last remaining steam trains are forced to part as the community of Jalainur undergoes rapid economic change. Their story's poignant romanticism permeates the dream-like depiction of Jalainur and its people. Shots of men playing basketball in the dusty desert, or chasing a pig across town, are rendered in glistening, often backlit, textures that are at once sincerely regretful and perversely absurd. You can't feel sentimental for the land because it almost doesn't exist except as flickers of the imagination. That these are the last flickers -- however illusionary -- waiting to be extinguished is perhaps the most crushing vision of all.
dir: Monica Treut
A German-Taiwan co-production about border-crossing artists and lovers, and the border-crossing ghosts they leave behind, Ghosted is a strange little film -- so demonically terrible in terms of acting and writing, yet weirdly fascinating because it presents a Taipei we've never seen before. Treut is clearly an outsider, and her naive eye for the city matches the wonder experienced by Sophie, a German video artist who arrives in Taipei for an exhibition of her work. In other Taiwanese films, we've seen shots of urban longing; in fact, Treut provides an embarrassingly literal homage to Hou Hsiao-hsien. But in Ghosted, we don't get the lush Mark Lee Ping-bing camerawork or Lim Giong's beats (though we do get Hou regular Jack Kao). There's a magical coldness to it that's very Central or Eastern European -- like something by Kieslowski or Ulrike Ottinger, minus the extravagance. But once you get over the fact that co-production allows us to defamiliarize old locales and themes, you're left with a rather frigid, amateur, and boring film. Much of the preposterousness comes from Treut's inability to escape her exotifying gaze, no matter how hard she tries to show us the "real" Taiwan. Sometimes this results in minor embarrassments, like her constant shots of Taipei 101, or a scene where a local tells Sophie, "I'll show you the Taipei you won't read about in guidebooks," and then we cut to them at Liberty Square, the city's #1 tourist destination. But other times, Treut's outsider status creates deeper, more structural problems. That Sophie is haunted by the spirit of a dead Taiwanese lover, and the fact that the film begins and ends with close-ups of local ghost rituals, suggests that Ghosted sees Taiwan mostly as backward or superstitious, at least compared to the Europeans. If you want to love a Taiwanese, prepare yourself for the ghosts! And how mysterious those ghosts are, taking the form of other beautiful Taiwanese women who we may want to sleep with. Then there is Sophie's mysterious neighbor who's too odd to be creepy, or the pair of old Taiwanese ghosts who are too ludicrous to be odd, or the murder mystery that's too trite to be anything entertaining at all.
Date Posted: 4/17/2009