Monday, May 28, 2007

Jeon Do-Yeon Wins Best Actress at Cannes!

A brief, hearty congratulations to Korea's best actress, Jeon Do-yeon, for winning the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival, which wrapped yesterday. She won for her role in Secret Sunshine, the new film from Lee Chang-dong, himself one of Korea's best directors. This is one film I am eagerly awaiting, as it is Lee's first film since he stepped down from his stint as Korea's Minister of Culture. Jeon costars with Song Kang-ho (of The Host) as a single mother who moves to a small town and is tested, Job-like, by horrendous tragedies.

Jeon Do-yeon is the rare actress who can truly transform herself in each role she takes on, whether it be the faithless wife in Happy End, the prim Chosun-era maiden in Untold Scandal, the wily gangster's moll in No Blood No Tears, the love-stricken country girl in The Harmonium in My Memory, or the HIV-infected bargirl in You Are My Sunshine, she never fails to astonish with the sheer force of her emotion and talent. Each film she makes is a master class in acting. And now hopefully the rest of the world will discover the great riches she has given us, and no doubt will continue to give us in the future.

Check out these articles on Jeon Do-yeon and her win, from the Chosun Ilbo and The Korea Herald.

For the rest of the Cannes winners, go to the festival website.

So, once again, I'd like to say to Ms. Jeon: 축하합니다!

Friday, May 18, 2007

NYC Happenings/New Releases 5/18/07 - 5/24/07

Once. I’ve said my piece on this beautiful film (see my earlier post). So go see it. Opens at the Landmark Sunshine.

Memories of Tomorrow. Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai, Memoirs of a Geisha, Letters from Iwo Jima) executive produced and stars as a driven businessman who is stricken with early Alzheimer’s. Directed by Yukihiko Tsutsumi and based on the novel by Hiroshi Ogiwara, the material is quite familiar, from any number of TV dramas, and such recent films as the Korean film A Moment to Remember. Although weakened by such cliché moves as his doctor’s impassioned speech to prevent Watanabe from killing himself, and a few too many swirling camera shots to mirror his disorientation, the film benefits from Watanabe’s strong, impassioned performance, and subtle work from Kanako Higuchi as his wife. Also, it avoids wrapping it all up in a sentimental way, and the ending gains its poignancy by its retreat from hectic Tokyo to a more bucolic scene, which serves as a setting for the convergence of past and present. Opens at the Imaginasian.

Flanders. Bruno Dumont’s searing vision of war has also been reviewed here. Dumont returns to his usual rural setting, where a man is conscripted into a brutal, unnamed conflict, leading to a Bressonian epiphany. Opens at Cinema Village.

Herzog (Non) Fiction. This is where I’ll be spending most of my next three weeks. One of the masters of the 70’s German new wave, he alternated such masterpieces as The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser, Aguirre: Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo and others with these incredible documentaries, following extreme individuals (including Herzog himself) in dangerous environments. Herzog appears in person for some screenings this weekend; check here for the schedule. Among this week’s highlights: Little Dieter Needs to Fly, about a downed pilot who returns to the Vietnamese POW camp from which he escaped, tracing his harrowing experience (Herzog fictionalized this story as Rescue Dawn, which opens next month); The White Diamond, in which an explorer of the Amazon strives to continue the dream of his best friend who perished during an earlier mission; Sans Soleil, Chris Marker’s classic cine-essay on Japan, cats, and Hitchcock’s Vertigo, among other things, one of Herzog’s personal favorites (Herzog will introduce the 7pm screening on May 21); The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner, a short gem about the titular champion ski jumper/woodcarving artist. Herzog’s onscreen commentary is priceless. The series runs at Film Forum from May 18 – June 7.

Eve and the Firehorse. Asian Cinevision’s ongoing series continues with Julia Kwan’s gentle and charming film set in 1970’s Vancouver, about a little girl’s experiences with religion and spirituality. The period detail and child’s point of view is spot on, and features great performances from the entire cast, especially Phoebe Jojo Kut as Eve, and Vivian Wu as her mother. Kwan will be on hand to introduce and answer questions. The film screens at MOMA Friday and Saturday.

Lee Marvin: The Coolest Lethal Weapon. This essential series continues at the Walter Reade Theater with screenings of such classics as The Big Red One, Seven Men From Now, The Professionals, and The Killers.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

All the World's a Music Stage

Once. 2006. Written and directed by John Carney. Produced by Martina Niland. Cinematography by Tim Fleming. Edited by Paul Mullen. Music by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova.. Sound mixing by Robert Flanagan. Production design by Tamara Conboy. Costume design by Tiziana Corvisieri. Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Cast: Glen Hansard (Guy), Marketa Irglova (Girl), Bill Hodnett (Guy's Dad), Danuse Ktrestova (Girl's Mother), Geoff Minogue (Eamon), Darren Healy (Heroin Addict), Marcella Plunkett (Ex-Girlfriend).

A small film in the greatest sense of the word, Once is a musical of a different kind. In sharp contrast to certain current and upcoming summer blockbusters (which will remain nameless here; I won’t add to the publicity machine), this film is a model of subtlety and modulation. Appropriately, since the film’s songs are its core, Once is musical in its structure; it finds visual equivalents to riffs, counterpoints and chord changes in its story and characters. The third feature by Irish film and television director John Carney, Once is an intimate and moving portrait of music and musicians. The director and his two lead actors, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, are quite familiar with this milieu, all being musicians themselves. Hansard is the singer and chief songwriter for the Irish band the Frames, and Carney was the group’s original bass player. Irglova is a singer and musician who has collaborated with Hansard. The fact that they are both nonprofessionals lends Once its special charm. The easy and natural rapport they bring to their roles is a beautiful thing to behold.

The plot, such as it is, is simplicity itself. The Guy (Hansard), a busker performing on the streets of Dublin, has moved back in with his father after the death of his mother and the dissolution of his previous relationship. The pain he feels from this loss is still quite palpable, and he uses this as fodder for the sad, lovelorn songs he performs on the streets at night and in his room. He works during the day at his father’s vacuum repair shop, and performs on the street during his breaks. One day while performing, he meets the Girl (Irglova), a young Czech immigrant who lives with her mother and siblings in a small apartment and works as a house cleaner. Their initial scenes are fascinating to watch. The Guy, still quite a wary, raw wound, is initially dismissive, but soon warms to the Girl, giving her his CDs and inviting her for coffee. When she finds out he works for a vacuum repair shop, she asks him to repair hers. One day they visit a piano shop, where there is a piano that the Girl longs for but cannot afford. They sit at the piano to perform a song the Guy has just written. This is where the musical aspect of the film comes in. Instead of the normal movie musical grammar, where characters break out into fully orchestrated song as the story demands it, the songs in Once begin quite naturally, and it is as if the songs are being created before our eyes. The song they perform in the piano shop is “Falling Slowly,” and the lyrics of this song, as in the others to come, speak for the two characters:

I don't know you
But I want you
All the more for that
Words fall through me
And always fool me
And I can't react
And games that never amount
To more than they're meant
Will play themselves out

Take this sinking boat and point it home
We've still got time
Raise your hopeful voice, you have a choice
You've made it now

Falling slowly, eyes that know me
And I can’t go back
Moods that take me and erase me
And I’m painted black
You have suffered enough
And warred with yourself
It’s time that you won

The Guy and the Girl quite literally make beautiful music together, forming a group with other musicians and eventually recording a demo. I saw Hansard and Irglova perform at the Tribeca Film Festival, and can attest to the fact that these songs sound even better when performed live.

In the film, the Guy and The Girl become more intertwined. Refreshingly, however, much as this is not a typical movie musical, the Guy and the Girl do not have a typical movie romance. Layers to their life stories are slowly revealed, and it doesn’t end in the way one would expect. The final image, involving the store piano, ends the film on a literally joyful note. Carney and his musician collaborators have created an exquisite paean to the joy of music and artistic creation. So please ignore the summer Hollywood hucksters with their big, loud, shiny, computer-generated toys. Once is a film made by and for adults, and richly rewards your 88-minute investment.

Once opens in New York on May 18 at Landmark's Sunshine Theater.

Once trailer:

Added bonus: Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova performing "Falling Slowly":

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Sleepless in Kuala Lumpur

I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (Hei Yan Quan). 2006. Written and directed by Tsai Ming-liang. Produced by Bruno Persery and Vincent Wang. Cinematography by Liao Pen-jung. Edited by Cheng Shang-chang. Art direction by Lee Tian-jue and Gan Siong-king. Sound design by Tu Duu-chih and Tang Shiang-chu. Lighting by Lee Long-yu. Costumes by Sun Hui-mey. Released by Strand Releasing.

Cast: Lee Kang-sheng (Homeless Guy/Paralyzed Guy), Chen Shiang-chyi (Coffee-shop Waitress), Norman Atun (Rawang), Pearlly Chua (Coffee-shop Lady Boss), Liew Lee-lin (Coffee-shop Tea Maker), Leonard Tee (Light Vendor), Samantha Toh Su-yee (Coffee-shop Lady Boss' Second Son), Chiew Kok-fai (Coffee-shop Lady Boss' Grandson), Chan Rong-sin (Real Estate Broker), Loh Kok-choy (Enterprise Representative), Shiva (Indian Laborer).

I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, the title of the beautiful new film from Taiwanese master Tsai Ming-liang, could apply equally to any of his other features, since this film similarly explores the actions of near-mute, lonely souls searching for connection. After the mélange of hard-core imagery, musical sequences, and no-exit desolation that was his previous film, The Wayward Cloud, the film at first glance seems like a retreat into safer, familiar territory. Indeed, Tsai’s usual iconography is fully present: the water, the sparse dialog, the long takes, the taciturn, isolated characters. Although at first this seems like a step backward, as the film unfolds, it becomes apparent there are some intriguingly different things happening here.

For Tsai, this new film’s major departure is its setting. Instead of the familiar Taipei haunts we have been used to, the action here has been transplanted to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. This is the first film Tsai has shot in his birth country (he moved to Taiwan at the age of 20). This change of milieu injects new sounds and a sense of curious discovery to the film. The first dialogue we hear is the loud voice of a Malay numbers runner exhorting a crowd of people to buy number from him, guaranteeing them great riches. “I’ve prayed to the gods,” he insists. Tsai’s regular lead actor and cinematic alter-ego Lee Kang-sheng, looking scruffier than usual, plays a homeless drifter in the midst of this crowd. He foolishly gets his numbers without having the money to pay for them, and is promptly beaten, quite badly, by the numbers runner and his cohorts. He is found by Rawang (Norman Chua), an immigrant worker, who carries him to an abandoned building where he is squatting with his coworkers. Rawang carries “Homeless Guy” (as Lee is named in the credits) on a dirty mattress found on the street. This mattress plays a major role in the film, and it will be carried by various characters in a recurring image in the film.

To backtrack a bit, the film’s very first image is of a catatonic man (Lee Kang-sheng again, this time as “Paralyzed Guy”), on a hospital bed being fed through the nose as Mozart plays on the radio. This is a direct reference to the genesis of Tsai’s film, which is one of the “New Crowned Hope” series of films commissioned by producer Peter Sellars as part of the commemoration of Mozart’s 250th anniversary. His head is shaven, and he lies still in a long shot as the light coming through the window changes.

The film alternates between the paralyzed man and the homeless man, both being attended to by their respective caretakers. This aspect lends the film a sense of tenderness and poignancy, since the act of nurturing and caring for others is a major motif here. Both of Lee Kang-sheng’s characters are connected intimately to three others; besides the construction worker Rawang, he meets a melancholy coffee-shop waitress (Tsai regular Chen Shang-chyi) and her tyrannical female boss (Pearlly Chua). Tsai is teasingly oblique about the connection between these two narrative strands, and it isn’t until quite late in the film that the relation between them is revealed, and it is quite a startling moment when that happens.

Music plays a major role in the film. Besides the opening Mozart piece, which recurs throughout, Tsai uses Bollywood numbers and old Chinese tunes, as well as Malay folk songs. Much like the songs in The Hole and The Wayward Cloud, they serve as surrogate speech for these inarticulate characters, conveying the desire and longing that they can’t or won’t express for themselves. However, instead of being relegated to the realm of movie musical fantasy as in his previous films, the songs in I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone exist on the same physical plane as the characters, emanating from radios and televisions, and in the case of the Malay folk song, from a pair of street musicians.

The joy and surprise of Tsai’s film lies in discovering how all these elements fit together. The tone is much lighter than usual for Tsai, culminating in a hilarious attempted sexual encounter through a thick, toxic haze. I won’t spoil any more for you, other than to say that the film ends on what is perhaps the loveliest (and most hopeful) image in Tsai’s entire oeuvre. It brought tears to my eyes, and all by itself justifies this film’s existence. All that is left for me to say is, see this film. Right now. Immediately. No, I mean it. Stop whatever you’re doing and go see it. I swear you won’t regret it.
And to further whet your appetite, here's the film's trailer:
I Don't Want to Sleep Alone opened in New York on May 9 at the IFC Center.