Sunday, December 30, 2012

Review: Jang Jin's "Good Morning President"


Good Morning President. 2009. Written and directed by Jang Jin. Produced by Lee Taek-dong. Cinematography by Choi Sang-ho. Edited by Kim Sang-beom. Music by Han Jae-gweon. Production design by Kim Hyo-shin. Sound by Im Hyeong-geun and Choi Tae-yeong.

Cast: Jang Dong-gun (Cha Ji-wook), Lee Sun-jae (Kim Jeong-ho), Goh Doo-shim (Han Gyeong-ja), Lim Ha-ryong (Choi Chang-myeon), Han Che-young (Kim Yi-yeon).

Now that South Korea has just elected its first woman president, Park Geun-hye, now would be a good time to look back on a Korean film that imagined, or maybe anticipated, such a thing happening: Jang Jin's 2009 film Good Morning President. This was an entertaining, gently satirical portrait of Korean politics by one of that country's top commercial directors. I saw this film when it opened the Busan International Film Festival (then "Pusan") in 2009. During the press screening and conference earlier that day, Jin had some choice words concerning Ms. Park's father, 1960's and 70's dictatorial president Park Chung-hee. Below is the review of the film I wrote at that time.


Jang Jin’s latest film, Good Morning President, the opening night film of this year’s Pusan International Film Festival (PIFF), is above all else a slickly packaged entertainment, a diverting work that solidifies this popular director’s unerring commercial instincts.  If that sounds like a somewhat backhanded comment, let me assure you that it isn’t; the ability to deliver an effective crowd-pleaser can be an achievement as worthy of praise as any art film director’s attempt to create an auteurist masterwork.  Jang certainly delivered the goods with his new film.  As of this writing, Good Morning President is currently the top film of the Korean box office, remaining in that position for two weekends now since its release on October 23, handily overcoming stiff competition from very high-profile foreign releases, including the Michael Jackson concert documentary This Is It.


Jang’s film is a panoramic portrait of the political and personal lives of three successive fictional Korean presidents: Kim Jeong-ho (Lee Sun-jae), who at the outset is on his way out of office; his much younger successor Cha Ji-wook (Jang Dong-gun), dubbed “the Korean JFK”; and Korea’s first woman president, Han Gyeong-ja (Goh Doo-shim).  If any political satire (which Jang’s scenario would seem ripe for) exists here at all, it’s of the gentlest kind possible; one imagines what a more irreverent director, for example Im Sang-soo (The President’s Last Bang), would have done with this material.  As Jang himself said at the press conference for his film, his interest mostly lies in delving into the personal lives of the political figures he examines, and bringing the often remote personage of the Korean president down to a much more human level.  The three presidents of Jang’s film are shown struggling to balance their responsibility to look after and protect their citizens with the demands of their private lives.  Much of the humor of the film, as well as its more emotional moments, arises from the conflicts that result from these opposing personal/political forces.

Korea is a very old country with a very young democracy; its first democratically elected president, Roh Tae-woo, took office in 1988.  South Korea’s preceding presidents were essentially dictators in all but name; the last two that preceded Roh, Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan, seized power in military coups.  Jang mentioned in the press conference that he grew up in the era of Park Chung-hee, who despite the reforms he instituted that brought rapid technological advances to Korea in the 1970’s, was also a very socially repressive and despotic figure who smothered any political or cultural elements that he considered a threat to his hegemony.  Jang talked of the oppression he personally felt living through this period; we can infer from this that “Good Morning President” is in part a celebration of the fact that with democracy, the president is now a much more humane figure, more accessible to the people he (or she, in this film) serves and far more accountable to them.  This by no means should imply that South Korea is now an idyllic paradise; Jang doesn’t lose sight of the country’s political problems.  If one could anthropomorphize South Korean democracy, it would currently be a 21-year old; the growing pains and relative immaturity of such a person is sometimes observable in Korean politics.  And though Jang does not dwell on this, he is clearly aware of that fact, and it gives a definite frisson to the comedic elements of his film.

While this year’s PIFF had much more visually inventive and formally daring films, Good Morning President was a good choice with which to open the festival, a superior commercial entertainment that was a tasty appetizer to the more substantial meals offered afterward.  I would be remiss here not to mention the great cast Jang has assembled, starting with Jang Dong-gun as Cha Ji-wook, making a very high-profile return to the screen after a four-year absence.  Jang is much more than a handsome face here (although that is certainly an attraction, especially for his female fan base); he nicely conveys the slick operator as well as the more genuine person that coexists within his character.  Goh Doo-shim is also fascinating as the Korean female president; although it is admirable that Jang doesn’t unduly underline her status as such, one wishes Jang offered some more pointed commentary on how her character navigates Korea’s still rather patriarchal society.  Nevertheless, Goh provides much heart to her role, and she works well with Lim Ha-ryong, who plays the first husband, and who is more often than not an embarrassment to the president.  (If Cha Ji-wook is the Korean JFK, then President Han’s husband is the Korean Billy Carter or Roger Clinton.)  Their love/hate relationship provides very potent comedic and romantic sparks to the film.  The beautiful Han Che-young also shines in her much more limited role as President Han’s spokesperson and President Cha’s old flame.


Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Bourne Cinema Filmography: Zhang Yimou, "Red Sorghum" (1987)


Red Sorghum (Hong gao liang). 1987. Directed by Zhang Yimou. Written by Chen Jianyu, Zhu Wei, and Mo Yan, based on the novel "Red Sorghum Clan" by Mo Yan. Produced by Wu Tian-ming. Cinematography by Gu Changwei. Music by Zhao Jiping. Art direction by Yang Gang.

Cast: Gong Li (Jiu'er), Jiang Wen (Yu), Liu Ji (Father), Teng Ru-jun (Luohan), Ji Cun-hua (Sanpao).


Adapted from a section of Red Sorghum Clan, a multi-volume novel by Mo Yan, this year’s recipient of the Nobel Prize in literature, Zhang Yimou’s 1987 film Red Sorghum put the Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers solidly on the world cinema map. (Remarkably, this was a fast book-to-film adaptation; both the novel and the film version were released in the same year.) Winning the Golden Bear at the 1988 Berlin International Film Festival, Red Sorghum was an auspicious debut for both cinematographer-turned-director Zhang and its young lead actress Gong Li. Zhang would go on to make more accomplished films, and Gong would grow more into the luminous beauty she is today, but Red Sorghum shows that they were beginning from an already elevated level.

Red Sorghum is set in the 1920s and 1930s in Shandong, a northeastern province of China. This is immediately set up as a memory piece, through the voiceover of a man who tells us that what we are seeing will show how his grandparents met and how his father was conceived. The unnamed and unseen narrator’s grandmother is Jiu’er (Gong Li), or “Nine,” whom we first see getting ready to be taken by a palanquin to her new husband, a leprous older wine merchant named Li Datou. This is an arranged marriage set up by her parents, and one she is an unwilling participant in. As the title indicates, red is an important and dominant color in the film, and this is the color of the interior of the sedan, as well as the color of the veil placed over Jiu’er’s head during the trip.

The narrator tells us that his grandfather is Yu (Jiang Wen), one of the men hired to carry Jiu’er to her husband. In a sequence that introduces the earthy bawdiness of this tale, Yu leads the rest of the muscular, shirtless men in a song that attempts to get a rise out of the impassive Jiu’er, as they tease her about her marriage, and jostle the car violently about as they sing. Jiu’er’s sobs and impending motion sickness eventually get them to stop. The travelers are soon waylaid by a bandit who tries to rob them and rape Jiu’er. Jiu’er, who has been exchanging surreptitious glances at Yu through the whole trip, throws bold glances at him as she is ordered out of the car by the bandit, wordlessly challenging him to save her. Yu rises to the occasion, overpowering the bandit with the help of the other men. Later in the film, after Jiu’er has been living at the winery for some time, Yu, wearing a bandit’s mask, abducts Jiu’er on her way home from a visit to her parents, and in a scene with intimations of rape (although Jiu’er doesn’t seem to be unwilling), he proceeds to have sex with her in a Sorghum field. This, the narrator tells us, is where his father was conceived.

Jiu’er, despite being forced into marriage, and twice carried by men in their arms like a potato sack, is no mere passive victim. She is a headstrong, argumentative woman, who at one point condemns her father for essentially selling her to an older man in exchange for a new mule. After Li Datong is murdered offscreen under mysterious circumstances (the narrator suspects his grandfather, though we never learn who did it), Jiu’er takes over the winery, and in contrast to their previous dictatorial owner, runs it as a collective with the workers as equal partners with her. This puts Red Sorghum solidly on good footing with Communist ideology, as the proletariat defeats evil capitalism, at least for a time. Yu drunkenly returns to proclaim himself Jiu’er’s new husband; though she throws him out at first, he is later able to claim his prize, after peeing in the vats of wine, which (in an example of the film’s bawdy and absurd humor) improves the flavor of the wine, and contributes to the great success of the winery.

Red Sorghum takes a dramatic shift from the humorous, almost fairy-tale quality of the earlier sections, to a much more violent and tragic tone, as the Japanese invade China, destroying the winery in the process. This shift is abrupt and awkwardly handled, highlighting the narrative weaknesses of the film. The Japanese are portrayed as violent and sadistic oppressors, punishing men by having them hanged and skinned alive like animals, and forcing the Chinese to do this to their own. Jiu’er and Yu lead an attempt to fight back against the Japanese, which sets the stage for the tragic ending to the film.

Red Sorghum has been justly celebrated for its visual quality; Zhang’s experience as a cinematographer makes sure that the film is no less than ravishing in its sensual use of color. For this film, Zhang employed Gu Changwei, another talented cinematographer who went on to become a remarkable director himself. The natural beauty of the landscape, the nearly documentary-like details of the wine production, and the full use of the symbolism of the color red – blood, the Japanese flag, the final red-drenched closing scenes – all of this makes Red Sorghum a veritable feast for the eyes.

The performances in the film are just as riveting as the visuals. Gong Li, though she would make a greater impression in later films by Zhang and others, is already in full command of the screen, a master of the portentous glance and sensual expression. Her ecstatic expression as she is seduced by Yu is one of the film’s most memorable shots. Jiang Wen as Yu wonderfully conveys the brutal animal-like nature of his character, although he is not portrayed as an evil person, and indeed displays heroic qualities throughout the film.


Red Sorghum screens at Asia Society, on 35 millimeter, on December 2, 4pm as part of the impressive film series “Goddess: Chinese Women on Screen,” which runs through December 8. For more information, visit Asia Society’s website.

Friday, November 23, 2012

2012 African Diaspora International Film Festival Reviews: "La Playa D.C." and "Toussaint Louverture"


The 20th edition of the African Diaspora International Film Festival screens in New York from November 23 through December 11, 2012 at Teachers College at Columbia University, Symphony Space, NYIT Auditorium on Broadway, The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and the Black Spectrum Theatre. Below are reviews of two major highlights of this year’s festival.

La Playa D.C. (Juan Andres Arango, Colombia, 2012)


Chosen as an official selection of the Un Certain Regard section of the year’s Cannes Film Festival, La Playa D.C. marks an auspicious debut of 35-year old director Arango, who delivers a unique vision, by turns harrowing, heartrending, and humorous, of his native Colombia. He transforms the familiar coming-of-age story with wonderfully evocative cinematography by Nicolas Canniccioni which vividly renders Bogota’s unique geography of harsh concrete jungles surrounded by lushly verdant greenery, as well as a pulsating hip-hop soundtrack that perfectly mirrors the restlessness of the film’s characters. La Playa D.C. follows Tomas (Luis Carlos Guevara), a 13-year old Afro-Colombian whose life experience makes him seem much older, and his struggles to keep his head above the dangerous waters of poverty, drugs, and street life in the capital. His family was forced to flee the civil war on Columbia’s Pacific coast, eventually making their way to Bogota. Tomas’ older brother Chaco (James Solis) has recently returned from being deported from “El Norte,” i.e. the US, and is saving money to return to his family’s hometown, and perhaps make a second attempt to escape the country. His younger brother Jairo (Andres Murillo) has succumbed to crack addiction and now owes a debt to drug dealers after smoking away the product he was meant to sell. With a mostly ineffectual mother and a hostile stepfather, Tomas is forced to take to the streets to survive. He hopes to make a living with his artistic skills in a very specific way: carving out elaborate haircut designs for the young Afro-Colombian teenagers who adopt this as a major part of their fashion and cultural identity. Arango is especially adept at giving us a visceral sense of how this community is looked upon as outsiders in their own country and subject to race-based hostility. This is pertinently illustrated in one scene in which Tomas and Chaco are chased out of an upscale mall by security guards solely based on their physical appearance. La Playa D.C. gives us a glimpse of a nation that is woefully underrepresented in world cinema, and it excels in immersing us in its environment with stylistic flair and humanistic sensitivity.

(Nov. 24, 6pm and Dec. 3, 8pm)




Toussaint Louverture (Philippe Niang, France/Haiti, 2012)


This year’s festival centerpiece, this two-part, three-hour epic made for French television, represents, as far as I know, the first successful attempt to get the story of the famous Haitian revolutionary leader who organized a famously successful slave revolt and eventually won Haiti’s independence from France. Actor Danny Glover, among others, has tried for decades to create a cinematic rendering of this historical figure. This production is mostly successful in rendering the scope of this remarkable man’s life, as well as the complicated political and military machinations necessary for Louverture to free his people. Shot in France and Martinique, Haiti itself being unsuitable for actual location shooting, the film’s budgetary limitations are fairly obvious, most notably in the lack of elaborate battle scenes. This is especially unfortunate, since Louverture was as renowned for being a canny military strategist as he was for being a freedom fighter. Someone more versed in Haitian history than I am will have to judge whether, and how much, narrative compression and dramatization have come at the expense of historical accuracy. Still, Toussaint Louverture does a very good job in illustrating the complex thicket of racial politics and strategic alliances that went into the process of Haiti’s independence. Also, Jimmy Jean-Louis is a riveting presence as Louverture, and brings an impressive sense of gravity and a sense of the human being behind the historical figure.

(Dec. 1, 5pm)



For more information on these and other festival films, and to purchase tickets, visit ADIFF’s website.


Saturday, June 30, 2012

New York Asian Film Festival 2012: Review Roundup

The New York Asian Film Festival kicked off last night, and it will continue at the Walter Reade Theater, Japan Society, and Tribeca Cinemas through July 15. Click here for more info and to purchase tickets.

My NYAFF 2012 preview is now up over at Film-Forward. Below are brief reviews of the opening night films.


War of the Arrows (Kim Han-min)


A costume drama of breathless immediacy, Kim’s third feature employs the Manchu War of 1636, during which the Qing Dynasty of China invaded and enslaved hundreds of thousands of Koreans, as the backdrop for thrilling chases and convincing scenes of archery. The second half of the film is basically an extended chase scene, and the opening sequence hits the ground running, as an accused traitor is hunted down and executed in front of his two children, themselves in hiding from the authorities. Cut to 13 years later, and the two grown-up siblings Nam-Yi (Park Hae-il) and his younger sister Ja-in (Moon Chae-won) have been raised by friends of their father, with Ja-in about to marry Seo-Goon (Kim Mu-yeol), the son of the family. Nam-Yi fritters away his days in drunken despair over forever being branded the son of a traitor, and though he vehemently opposes his sister’s marriage, he is powerless to prevent it. On his sister’s wedding day, his family has the misfortune of being directly in the path of the Manchu invaders, and his sister, along with their entire village, is captured and enslaved. Nam-Yi escapes the carnage and finds a renewed sense of purpose in fulfilling his father’s parting directive to take care of his sister, and relentlessly pursues the invaders to rescue his sister. Standing in his way is Jyu Shin-ta (Ryu Seung-ryong), a methodical, cold-blooded killer who is the head of an elite squad of Qing Dynasty troops. They pursue each other by proxy as Shin-ta follows Nam-Yi’s trail of fallen Manchu soldiers. This is superior action filmmaking in every sense, with camerawork as swift as the arrows that soar throughout, and an uncomplicated, primal heroes-and-villains story rendered with plain and direct, yet incredibly elegant freshness.





Vulgaria (Pang Ho-cheung)

Hong Kong director Pang is often at his best in bawdy comedy mode (Men Suddenly In Black, AV), and his latest film Vulgaria, NYAFF’s opening night film, finds him firing on all cylinders. Based, according to its director, on actual incidents in the Hong Kong film industry, Pang has made an incredibly filthy movie that achieves its perversity solely through dialog, without a trace of nudity … without human nudity, anyway. In this sense, you could see Pang as Hong Kong’s answer to Kevin Smith, except with actual filmmaking talent. Framed as the recollections of an opportunistic, scruples-free producer (Chapman To) spinning true-life tales in front of a class of film students, Vulgaria’s jokes and gags come fast and furious, and they all hit their targets. A certain level of familiarity with the Hong Kong film industry, especially its Category III sex-and-violence sector, will be required to get all the jokes. (It especially helps if you’ve seen the recent HK softcore saga 3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy, whose star Hiro Hayama here plays himself). All the actors are game, and acquit themselves with riveting energy and verve, as they navigate this world of triad investors, product placement, extreme cuisine, and as the hilarious cherry on top, drunken bestiality (perhaps Clerks 2 was an inspiration here?). Among Vulgaria’s many delightful qualities is a fantastic breakout performance by Dada Chan as a model/aspiring actress/video game designer named Popping Candy, so called because of her unique blow-job technique. She takes what in other hands would be a throwaway role and transforms it into a soulful one, and makes clear that there is a fierce intelligence behind her pulchritudinous beauty.


Boxer’s Omen (Kuei Chih-hung)

This bizarre (to put it very mildly) Shaw Brothers horror/fantasy production from 1983 has a thin sliver of a plot involving a man (Philip Ko) who travels to Thailand to get revenge against a kickboxer (Bolo Yeung) who killed his brother in the rung during a match. But this is where things get weird: he goes to a Buddhist temple to get help from the monks, and gets caught up in a good-and-evil battle spanning centuries. This is the type of movie the term “midnight movie” was custom made for. The extreme, gross-out imagery – a character consumes his own regurgitated food, which is regurgitated again and stuffed into a corpse’s mouth, which is then sewn into the skin of an alligator – only escalates, with ever scanter logic, with each minute of screen time. Bats, spiders, skulls with their brains made into soup, a writing zombie woman (emerging from an alligator corpse) who is later flayed and dissolved into maggots – all these and more, so much more, are thrown at us in a nearly sadistic assault on the senses. Add to that a couple of entirely gratuitous sex scenes, and you have the kind of what-the-fuck whatsit that you’ll only find at NYAFF.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Review: Andrey Zvyagintsev's "Elena"


Elena. 2011. Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev. Written by Oleg Negin and Andrey Zvyagintsev. Produced by Alexander Rodnyansky and Sergey Melkumov. Cinematography by Mikhail Krichman. Edited by Anna Mass. Music by Philip Glass, from his 1995 Symphony No. 3. Production design by Vasily Gritskov and Valeriy Zhukov. Sound design by Andrey Dergachev and Stas Krechkov.

Cast: Nadezhda Markina (Elena), Andrey Smirnov (Vladimir), Elena Lyadova (Katya), Alexey Rozin (Sergei), Evgenia Konushkina (Tatyana), Igor Ogurtsov (Sasha), Vasiliy Michkiv (Lawyer).

(Note: this review has been cross-posted on Twitch.)


Acclaimed Russian filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev (The Return, The Banishment) taps into the rich tradition of film noir, as well as the influence and cultural echoes of such diverse Russian forebears as Dostoevsky, Chekhov and Tarkovsky, in his latest work Elena, a superb slow-burn drama in which the peripheral details have as much impact as the main plotline.  Zvyagintsev offers sharp, caustic social commentary on contemporary Putin-era Russia, where class warfare and the attendant divide between the haves and the have-nots prove to be not only insurmountable, but to have deadly consequences.  Its impeccably composed, stark visuals lending a near-apocalyptic mood that permeates every frame, Elena leaves the viewer with a chill that lingers long after the end credits have rolled.

Beginning and ending with a shot of birds alighting on a branch outside a palatial, upscale Moscow apartment (just one example of how natural landscapes inform the human action throughout the film), Elena is named after its protagonist (played by Nadezhda Markina), a sixtyish woman living in that apartment who is married to Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov), a rich businessman.  They met each other years before when Elena was a nurse and Vladimir was her patient; Elena’s caretaker role has continued into their married life, in which her main job is to attend to her husband’s needs, getting him out of bed and handling all the domestic duties.  Though they outwardly seem to be a loving couple, this is belied by the fact that they sleep in separate beds, which make Elena as much a maidservant as she is a wife.

Elena and Vladimir both have adult children from their previous marriages, each with their separate problems.  Elena’s son Sergei (Alexey Rozin) is a dissolute layabout, living in a rundown tenement in the suburban outskirts of Moscow who depends on the financial largesse Elena manages to wheedle out of a grudgingly tolerant Vladimir.  Sergei constantly bickers with his wife, usually over his equally aimless and undisciplined teenage son Sasha (Igor Ogurtsov); Sergei’s lack of emotional maturity is neatly represented by the beer bottle that is constantly at his mouth, echoing the milk bottle in the mouth of his infant son.  Vladimir is estranged from his daughter Katya (Elena Lyadova), whom her father terms a “hedonist,” similarly to Sergei lacking gainful employment, apparently spending most of her time indulging in one-night stands and alcohol.

The needs of Sergei and his family, whom Elena cares for fiercely and seemingly without judgment, form the catalyst for the main conflict of the film.  Elena is very much concerned about getting her grandson Sasha into college so that he won’t be drafted into the military, and perhaps harboring an unspoken wish to prevent him from ending up like his father.  Elena repeatedly asks Vladimir for money to help him go to school, presumably to help bribe the right people, since Sasha won’t get into a good school with his grades alone. Vladimir, openly resenting having to provide for Elena’s family, puts his foot down, refusing this latest request for assistance.  Later, when a health scare and a belated reconciliation with his daughter causes Vladimir to redraft his will, Elena contemplates taking drastic measures to protect her own future financial stability as well as her son’s family’s.  Without giving too much away, if you’ve seen The Postman Always Rings Twice or such latter-day European re-imaginings as György Fehér’s Hungarian film Passion (1998) or Christian Petzold’s German film Jerichow (2008), you’ll probably guess where this story is headed.

With now just three features to his credit, Andrey Zvyagintsev has catapulted himself to the ranks of the finest world directors, and certainly one of the best filmmakers to come out of Russia; Elena is his finest creation yet.  Zvyagintsev and his collaborators, especially his brilliant regular cinematographer Mikhail Krichman, excel in every department; especially impressive is how Elena’s cinematic frame teems with details that complement the main action and provide acerbic and disturbing commentary on modern Russian life.  For example, television – sometimes heard, sometimes seen – is a constant backdrop to many interior scenes in the film.  The inane cooking, dating, and advice shows that blare in the background are the new opium of the people, to borrow from Marx’s famous maxim concerning religion, that prevent citizens from thinking too hard about their circumstances and the societal injustices and socioeconomic inequalities that have placed them there. (Not to mention the conditions that have allowed an authoritarian ex-KGB man have constant rule over Russia for what, with the latest election, will be close to two decades.)

Elements of the natural world, especially animals, exist as portentous symbols of the ominous fates awaiting the human characters; for example, the loud cawing of crows (never a good sign) is heard throughout.  Late in the film, Elena’s train passes by a dead horse on the side of the tracks, an unmistakable metaphor for the evil that Zvyagintsev sees shaping the universe he creates in Elena, as well as the world he sees around him.  In his director’s statement, he says that Elena gave him the chance “to explore the central idea of the early modern period: survival of the fittest, survival at any cost … Ever-increasing disengagement and individualism mean that people start to behave more and more like a bunch of tarantulas in a jar.”

I must mention two more elements that contribute to Elena’s artistic success.  Nadezhda Markina’s central performance is a riveting and complex one that elicits both sympathy and revulsion with equal intensity, as we see what Elena is truly capable of when push comes to shove and the drive for self-preservation becomes an all-encompassing force, subsuming any sense of morality, scruples, or even love.  The starkly understated, yet intense action of the film is propelled by Philip Glass’s propulsive score, taken from his 1995 composition Symphony No. 3.  This piece recurs throughout the film, mostly in scenes with Elena traversing the sharply disparate worlds of wealth and privilege represented by her rich husband’s neighborhood, and the relative poverty of the crumbling high-rise inhabited by her son.  Glass’s music plays during an overhead shot of a newborn baby playing on an oversized bed, which becomes a deeply unsettling symbol of the unending cycle of dog-eat-dog materialism that Zvyagintsev so vividly, and unforgettably, depicts.

Elena is now playing at Film Forum in New York through May 29.  Click here for more information and to purchase tickets.


Saturday, May 19, 2012

Tribeca Film Festival 2012 Review: Seung-Jun Yi's "Planet of Snail"


Planet of Snail (Dalpaengi-eui byeol). 2011. Directed by Seung-Jun Yi. Essays and poetry by Jo Young-chan. Produced by Min-Chul Kim and Gary Kam. Edited by Simon El Habre and Seung-Jun Yi. Music by Min Seonki. Sound design and sound editing by Sami Kiiski.

(Note: this review has been cross-posted on Twitch.)


My personal favorite of all the films I viewed at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, Seung-Jun Yi’s mesmerizing and lovely documentary Planet of Snail slowly and patiently reveals to us the dimensions of the love story at its center.  The film explores the daily lives of Young-chan, a deaf and blind man, and his companion Soon-ho, a woman whose growth has been stunted by a spinal disability.  As much as we can celebrate Planet of Snail for its myriad exemplary qualities in terms of filmmaking and its sensitive and deeply respectful portrayal of its subjects, it can also be greatly appreciated for what it is not.  It most emphatically is not a maudlin, earnest social-problem documentary that dwells on the difficulties of their existence and holds them up as sentimental objects of pity.  Instead, with uncommon gifts of close observation and an unhurried, meditative pace, we are taken into their tactile way of perceiving the world, communicating with each other by the Braille they tap out on each other’s hands.  They have full and rich lives of both quotidian daily tasks and art creation and appreciation and, on the evidence of this film, are a good deal more in tune with and attentive to the world they live in than most of us so-called able-bodied folks.

“All deaf-blind people have the heart of an astronaut,” Young-chan at one point says in the voiceover that punctuates the film’s episodes, and reveals himself as a poetic observer of both his own condition and of the universe that surrounds him.  In addition to being a talented writer who regularly enters literary contests and reads stories with a Braille reader he carries around with him, he is also a sculptor, molding clay into animals and human figures.  This latter skill, especially, is indicative of his playful sense of humor; one of the figures he sculpts is a man pissing into a chamber pot.  Young-chan’s reference to himself as an “astronaut” ties into the film’s title; he perceives of himself as a visitor to this world who comes from another world of silence, isolation, and darkness, using his sense of touch to make sense of and revel in the natural world.  His love of nature manifests itself in such activities and putting his hand out to feel the drops of a spring shower, and literally hugging trees in a public park.

Of course, Young-chan is not alone in this quest to interact with the world.  Soon-ho is his nearly inseparable, loving companion each step of the way, assisting him with such daily needs as their meals (tapping out on Braille what and where the food is), as well as other activities as his essay writing and his playwriting (he composes a religious play for his church and is a consultant to another theatre production about deaf-blindness).  Their evident love for each other and mutual dependence on each other is such that it makes their friends envious.  The symbiotic nature of their relationship is revealed in a remarkable scene in which they work together to change a round fluorescent light bulb, an elaborate operation that they achieve with a satisfied sense of accomplishment. Even though Soon-ho at one point says that it would be ideal if they both died at the same time, she comes to recognize the importance of Young-chan’s developing his own self-sufficiency.  Late in the film, Soon-ho nervously watches from a distance as Young-chan attempts to navigate the streets by himself, and later sees him off on a shuttle bus to a facility where others can care for him as well.

Yi shot Planet of Snail over the course of two years, an extended period of time that deepens the intimate feel of the documentary, as well as enhancing the natural beauty of the visuals, which depict the passage of time and the changing of the seasons with a delicacy that is quite affecting.  This is an extraordinary work that is one of the most life-affirming viewing experiences I’ve ever had at the movies, and it’s hard to me to conceive of anyone else who’ll disagree with me after seeing it for themselves.

Planet of Snail opens later this summer at Film Forum, from July 25 through August 7.  Click here for more information at Film Forum’s website.



Sunday, May 13, 2012

Tribeca Film Festival 2012 Review: Alex Karpovsky's "Rubberneck"


Rubberneck. 2012. Directed by Alex Karpovsky. Written by Alex Karpovsky and Garth Donovan. Produced by Garth Donovan, Michael Bowes, and Adam Roffman. Cinematography by Beecher Cotton. Edited by Garth Donovan and Alex Karpovsky. Music by James Lavino. Production design by Lindsay Degen. Sound by Charlie Anderson and Will Lautzenheiser.

Cast: Alex Karpovsky (Paul Harris), Jamie Ray Newman (Danielle Jenkins), Amanda Good Hennessey (Linda Harris), Dennis Staroselsky (Chris Burke), Dakota Shepard (Kathy), Sean Sullivan (Detective Timmons), Richard Forbes (Detective Ford), Mariana Basham (Marsha Burke), Gabriel Kuttner (Ken).

(Note: this review has been cross-posted on Twitch.)

Actor and director Alex Karpovsky has been a fixture in the past few years in low-budget American indies, many of which have fallen under the rubric (though I hate the term) of “mumblecore.”  In many of these films, both directed by himself and by others, he is an affable and sardonic presence, who has drawn comparisons in many quarters to Woody Allen.  Often in the characters he plays, a darker undercurrent is revealed that lies underneath the friendly façade presented to the world.  Up until now, at least in what I have seen so far of his work, this all existed more or less solidly in the realm of comedy.  However, Rubberneck, his latest film as director and lead actor, takes him into very different territory; it is a moody and atmospheric piece, full of creeping dread, an emotional reflection of its tortured protagonist.  It is essentially a stalker tale, in the mode of such films as Psycho and Peeping Tom; as a result, the narrative trajectory goes pretty much the way one would expect once the obsessive nature of its main character becomes fully established.  But as the cliché goes, it’s about the journey, not the destination, and Karpovsky delivers a compelling and skillfully rendered trip through his character’s trauma-scarred psyche.

Paul Harris (Karpovsky), Rubberneck’s central character, is a scientist at a research laboratory in suburban Boston, a starkly antiseptic environment that fits the mask of logicality and normalcy that Paul wears, and which gradually slips away as the film progresses.  This unmasking is set into motion in the aftermath of one weekend Paul spends having a sexual tryst with his co-worker Danielle (Jaime Ray Newman).  Danielle considers this a one-time thing, to the dismay of Paul, who eight months later, is still unable to let go, and spends his days in tortured awkwardness at still being in Danielle’s presence daily at work.  Even though he applies for work at other labs, he can’t quite bring himself to leave his job, perhaps in the hope of rekindling, or rather, beginning a relationship with Danielle.  His only solace during his longing is the time he spends with his sister Linda (Amanda Good Hennessey) and her son, as well as satisfying his sexual desires with Kathy (Dakota Shepard), a paid escort he frequents.  Whatever faint hopes Paul harbors of getting anywhere with Danielle are dashed when she begins seeing Chris (Dennis Staroselsky), a new employee at the lab.  This unleashes the desperation, anger, and violent impulses that Paul heretofore has very carefully hidden from others, leading to extreme and irreversible consequences.

Rubberneck, written by Karpovsky and Garth Donovan, impresses less with the explanations behind Paul’s pathologies than it does with the use of its suburban settings and eerily stark interiors that surround the protagonist and immerse the viewers fully in his headspace.  Also impressive is Karpovsky’s performance, rendering with chilly intensity this withdrawn and often opaque character who in many scenes in the film is silently lurking and watching.  Incidentally, this year’s festival offered viewers a chance to get a sense of Karpovsky’s range as an actor, and to compare his work in Rubberneck with his more comedic role in Daniel Schechter's film Supporting Characters (which I also highly recommend).  Both films mark the continuing emergence of a remarkable talent both in front of and behind the camera.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Tribeca Film Festival 2012 Review: Kim Nguyen's "War Witch"


War Witch (Rebelle). 2012. Written and directed by Kim Nguyen. Produced by Pierre Even and Marie-Claude Poulin. Cinematography by Nicolas Bolduc. Edited by Richard Comeau. Production design by Emmanuel Frechette. Costume design by Eric Poirier. Sound by Claude La Haye.

Cast: Rachel Mwanza (Komona), Alain Bastien (Rebel Lieutenant), Serge Kanyinda (Magician), Ralph Prosper (The Butcher), Mizinga Mwinga (Great Tiger), Starlette Mathata (Komona's mother), Alex Herabo (Komona's father).

(Note: this review has been cross-posted on Twitch.)

I am of two minds when it comes to cinematic depictions of the African continent, in both fiction and documentary films.  On the one hand, the sad reality is that civil war, corruption, political instability, and famine are inescapable features of many African countries, due to the legacy of European colonialism and the subsequent failings of indigenous leaders.  On the other hand, focusing on such subjects leads to a narrow and skewed view of a continent with rich history and culture, especially considering the fact that many films about Africa are made by non-Africans.  However sympathetic and respectful these outsiders to the cultures may be, there often remains an inescapable aspect of voyeuristic tourism, aimed more at appealing to Westerners than to African people themselves.

At first blush Canadian filmmaker Kim Nguyen’s fourth feature War Witch would seem to conform to the usual trends.  Shot in the Democratic Republic of the Congo but not the specific setting of the film, which is rendered as an unnamed sub-Saharan African country, War Witch deals with the phenomenon of child soldiers, a subject that has been explored in numerous films and TV reports.  The usual issues of the loss of innocence and war trauma are dealt with here as well, so there is certainly nothing ground-breaking or particularly novel in what Nguyen offers us, at least as far as subject matter goes.  What elevates this film above many others, however, is the fable-like atmosphere that informs both the performances and the visual aesthetic.  Also taking the film to a uniquely memorable place is the stunning standout performance by the young actress Rachel Mwanza, a nonprofessional found by Nguyen on the streets of the Congo capital of Kinshasa, who went on to win the best actress award at this year’s Berlin Film Festival.  Mwanza ably carries War Witch almost entirely on her soldiers, never less than convincing at every turn.

War Witch is built around the conceit of Komona (Mwanza), narrating her story to her unborn child, one product of the war that is waged around her, and of which she has been forced to become an active participant.  Twelve years old as the story begins, Komona is taken away from her village by invading rebel soldiers and drafted into the rebels’ child army, but not before being compelled to do the first killing that will haunt her throughout the rest of the film.  We are taken through the roughly three years following her abduction constituting her war experiences.  Komona’s own parents have been replaced by her rifle; the rebel soldiers tell her and the other children that “this is your mother and father” during their training.  Komona’s sadness and fear begin to be alleviated by Magician (Serge Kanyinda), an albino fellow child soldier who takes it upon himself to befriend and protect her.

During a battle with government soldiers, in which Komona is one of the few survivors, the rebels believe she has magic powers that can predict when they will be attacked and protect them from government bullets, and designate her as a “war witch,” and to eventually become the personal property of the rebel leader Great Tiger (Mizinga Mwinga).  Magician sticks by Komona’s side through all of this, and they eventually make their escape from the rebel army to live with Magician’s uncle the Butcher (Ralph Prosper).  Rachel and Magician are able to lead a somewhat normal existence, which includes a humorous episode in which Rachel sends him on a quest to track down a rare white rooster before she will allow him to marry her.  However, the civil war proves inescapable, and they are both drawn back into its murderous embrace.

War Witch has a dreamy, fairy-tale quality that meshes surprisingly well with the more violent aspects of this tale, and Kim Nguyen ably mixes the fantastical elements of his story with a documentary-like aesthetic to create a richly textured work.  The entire cast, a mix of non-professional Congolese actors and professional Canadian actors offer impressive support to the revelatory central performance by Rachel Mwanza, especially Kanyinda as Magician.

War Witch won the Founders Award for Best Narrative Feature at Tribeca, as the award for Best Actress in a Narrative Feature for Rachel Mwanza.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Tribeca Film Festival 2012 Review: Lynn Shelton's "Your Sister's Sister"


Your Sister's Sister. 2011. Written and directed by Lynn Shelton. Produced by Steven Schardt. Cinematography by Benjamin Kasulke. Edited by Nat Sanders. Original music and sound by Vinny Smith. Production design by John Lavin.

Cast: Mark Duplass (Jack), Emily Blunt (Iris), Rosemarie DeWitt (Hannah), Mike Birbiglia (Al), Mike Harring (Tom, in photos).

(Note: this review has been cross-posted on Twitch.)

There are many pleasures to be had in watching Your Sister’s Sister, the fourth feature by writer/director Lynn Shelton (We Go Way Back, My Effortless Brilliance, Humpday), one of the great highlights of Tribeca 2012.  For example, there is the nuanced and lived-in feel of the performances; the way each scene is meticulously mined for maximum comic/dramatic value; and the burnished cinematography that makes great use of the overcast atmosphere of the Pacific Northwest to envelop everything we see in its moody embrace.  But beyond all this, there is the great pleasure of seeing Shelton so beautifully build and expand on her already impressive achievements, delivering (as always) the laughs that come from her characters being placed in rather uncomfortable situations, but adding an emotional weight that enhances both the comedic and serious moments to brilliant effect.

Shelton’s two previous films My Effortless Brilliance and Humpday focused on male friendship and rivalry, and how this can often descend into a mano-a-mano battle of wills, each side loath to back down from whatever emotional position they choose to assume.  Such a rivalry forms the backbone of Your Sister’s Sister, but there are two significant differences.  First, the relationship is between that of brothers, which serves to intensify this sort of rivalry even further, due to the emotional and familial bond that comes into play.  But most importantly, this relationship has already occurred offscreen before the film begins, and is already at an end.  This is because one of the brothers had been dead for a year as the action commences; we are first introduced to the surviving sibling, Jack (Mark Duplass), brooding in a corner as a death anniversary gathering is happening, where the participants share their memories of Jack’s brother Tom.  After Al (Mike Birbiglia) shares a fond memory of a night at the movies with Tom watching Hotel Rwanda, an inebriated and agitated Jack dumps cold water on the proceedings by giving a toast suggesting that Tom wasn’t quite the saintly figure eulogized by his friends.  As one can imagine, this act effectively ends the celebration, bringing Tom’s friends down to Jack’s own depressed level.

This proves to be one breach of decorum too many for Iris (Emily Blunt), Jack’s best friend and an ex-girlfriend of Tom’s.  She stages an intervention with Jack after the party, prescribing a period of exile at her family’s cabin on an island in the Pacific Northwest.  Iris conceives this isolation for Jack as emotional rehab, to shake him out the aimless, depressive slackerdom he has indulged in during the year following his brother’s death.  With literally nothing else better to do, Jack accedes to Iris’ demands, biking out to the cabin.  However, this planned solitude is not to be, as Jack unexpectedly comes upon Iris’ sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) taking up residence there. (Even a simple set-up such as this plays out in a hilariously awkward and nicely staged scene; Shelton misses few opportunities to humorously reveal character.)  Hannah is also using the cabin as a refuge from her own emotional turmoil, having just ended a seven-year lesbian relationship, drowning her sorrows that night in a bottle of tequila.  That tequila is the catalyst for an ill-advised (and also hilariously awkward) sexual encounter between the two, and a complicated situation that becomes even more so when Iris decides to join Jack at the cabin, unaware that her sister is also there.  This sets into motion a chain of consequences that reveals connections between the three (as well as their links to the deceased Tom), in which hidden motives and desires, long suppressed, rise to the surface.

Shelton’s usual method of making her films involves extensive work with the actors in which they fully collaborate with the director in creating their characters, inventing backstories, and using on-set improvisation to flesh out interactions between them, resulting in often startling and unexpected moments.  One great example is one scene in which Hanna tells an embarrassing “bush story” about Iris. (To clarify, the particular bush involved is not the horticultural kind.)  Iris gets revenge on Hannah for telling this story in front of Jack by rather cruelly causing Hannah to unwittingly breach her vegan diet.  As can be expected, all this results in a lot of talk, and definitely much of this film, similarly to her others, is very dialog-driven.  But that is not all there is to it, although there is great dialog here; Shelton doesn’t neglect dynamic staging, and she clearly has thought much more about composition and showing the relationship between her characters and their setting.  I’ve already mentioned the cinematography, and again I’d like to highlight the great contribution of cameraman Benjamin Kasulke, whom Shelton has worked with on two other films, who provides rich visual texture here.

The performance work by all three principal actors is stellar.  Mark Duplass (no slouch as a director himself, along with his brother Jay) has played similar characters in other films, but here he lends a sense of melancholy that is bubbling just under the surface, which leads to an outpouring of emotion at the end of the film that is quite emotionally moving.  Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt are never less than convincing as the siblings who form a female counterpart, perhaps, to the brothers who have been separated by death.  Their emotional trajectory eventually takes center stage, pushing the film out of its light comedic territory into something weightier, though never humorless or overly ponderous.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Tribeca Film Festival 2012 Review: Stephen Maing's "High Tech, Low Life"


High Tech, Low Life. 2012. Directed and photographed by Stephen Maing. Produced by Stephen Maing and Trina Rodriguez. Edited by Stephen Maing and Jonathan Oppenheim. Music by Brendon Anderegg, Brad Hyland, and Kevin Micka.

(Note: this review has been cross-posted on VCinema.)

Stephen Maing’s timely and fascinating documentary High Tech, Low Life, examines the subject of journalism and internet censorship in China through the eyes and experiences of two very different citizen journalists.  Both are people from humble backgrounds who found a new calling using the power of blogging and the internet to uncover stories hidden from the public by the government and to give other people like themselves (often in worse circumstances) a voice and an outlet for their grievances that they have been denied in official channels.  High Tech, Low Life has its world premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

27-year-old Zhou Shuguang, known by the blogger handle “Zola,” before embarking on his new internet life, was a vegetable seller from Fengmuqiao, Hunan Province.  “I used to be a nobody before I discovered the internet,” he says by way of introduction.  After deciding on impulse to investigate the forced eviction of citizens of a neighboring province by city developers, and posting what he found on his blog, the overwhelming response and the measure of fame he received encouraged him to pursue citizen journalism full time.  The next major case we see him reporting on is the rape and murder of a young girl by a high official’s relative, and the apparent subsequent cover-up of this crime.  This episode is illuminating not only for its demonstration of Zola’s tenacious efforts to expose the government’s complicity in protecting well-connected criminals, but also the potentially negative aspects of Zola’s attention-seeking personality.  Zola gets his information by disavowing any sort of journalistic identity, posing as simply a curious onlooker and blogger.  He attends the dead girl’s public wake, and rather ill-advisedly snaps a photo of himself smiling by the girl’s coffin, drawing an outraged comment on his blog condemning his lack of respect for the dead.  Certainly, there is an egocentric aspect to Zola’s activities: he often wears a T-shirt emblazoned with his own image, and at one point he takes a picture of himself that makes it look as if he is leaping over the Great Wall of China, which he makes into a large poster that he displays at a Chinese blogger conference.  However, he consciously sees himself as a representative of the youth of China, with their distracted, short attention spans, and his brash, outsized antics seem designed to appeal to them.  And of course, it’s not only about fame, since there are far safer and less controversial ways of achieving fame than flouting censorship; he is no activist, but he tirelessly strives to bring to light practices of corruption and exploitation in his society that are kept from the public.

57-year-old Zhang Shihe, known as “Tiger Temple,” lives in Beijing, and has a much more low-key personality than the younger Zola.  Similarly to Zola, he got into citizen journalism pretty much by accident: he witnessed a brutal murder being committed in public and posted stills on his blog.  It was eventually taken down, but not before being circulated widely by others on the internet.  Tiger Temple finds the outlet for literary expression and his wish to help others less fortunate that had heretofore eluded him, regularly traveling on his bike to the countryside and reporting on farmers who have been neglected and ill-treated by government authorities.  He interviews and reports on people who have had their land used as dumping grounds for toxic industrial and human wastes, and on those who have suffered the broken promises of government to assist them during changing agrarian policies.  Tiger Temple’s age and personal background provide a sense of history and cultural context that forms a counterpoint to Zola’s relative inexperience.  Tiger Temple’s family suffered from persecution during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, in which his family lost everything and he became homeless; thereafter Tiger Temple embarked on the itinerant lifestyle that he practices today.  Tiger Temple, also in contrast to Zola, sees his brand of journalism as activism and advocacy for the people he reports on.  He arranges for legal representation for the farmers, and he also tries to help the homeless in Beijing around Tiananmen Square find housing after the city destroys their makeshift shelters. 

The film alternates between Zola and Tiger Temple’s separate trajectories, until the two finally meet at a Chinese blogger’s conference.  During their meeting, Tiger Temple sizes up Zola immediately: he calls him a “playful warrior,” a great phrase that perfectly describes Zola’s approach to his journalistic activities.  Zola is also quite self-aware of his own generation: “We’re selfish,” he says of himself and others of his age; he sees this attitude as the first step in “breaking out of the Communist mindset.”

Zola and Tiger Temple are far from fire-breathing radicals, but their activities in reporting uncensored news nevertheless puts them squarely on the government authorities’ radar.  Even though both are careful not to call themselves “journalists” to avoid government regulation and censorship, this doesn’t prevent them from regularly being followed during their travels and having their plans thwarted.  Zola is refused permission to leave the country to attend a blogger’s conference in Germany, and Tiger Temple is detained in the middle of the night and forced to leave Beijing during a national conference.  Their efforts to evade the “Great Firewall,” China’s massive internet censorship mechanism, by providing information unfiltered by the state, cause them to be regarded as threats to national security.  The heat on them only increases during such sensitive times as the Beijing Olympics and the state uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, the so-called “Arab Spring.”

As indicated in title High Tech, Low Life, Stephen Maing gives us a thorough sense of how the latest technological tools can be used to illuminate the lives of those who live far from the places where such tools are commonly available.  In China’s case, many of these people are those who have been left behind, and often trampled under, in the wake of the country’s rapid economic progress.  High Tech, Low Life travels from Beijing to the remote countryside, binding the experiences of the two contrasting blogger personalities who are its subjects with evocative visuals that vividly illustrate the social context that surrounds these two men and their search for the truth.