Thursday, November 27, 2008

2008 African Diaspora Film Festival: Review Round-up

The 16th annual African Diaspora Film Festival (Nov. 28 through Dec. 14, 2008), screening in New York at various venues including Anthology Film Archives, the Thalia Theatre and the Teachers College at Columbia University, features 88 films from 14 countries. Below are reviews of a few of this year's selections.

Gospel Hill (Giancarlo Esposito)

Actor Giancarlo Esposito makes his directorial debut with the festival’s opening-night film Gospel Hill, which concerns the controversial gentrification of Julia, a southern town still gripped by its violent Jim Crow past. The town remains haunted by the assassination of 60’s civil rights activist Peter Malcolm (Samuel L. Jackson, in black-and-white flashbacks), a crime which was never solved, mostly due to the non-action of the bigoted former sheriff Jack Herrod (Tom Bower), who continues to refer to black people as “niggers” without shame. Malcolm’s brother John (Danny Glover, good as always), has retreated from activism and involvement with his community, dwelling in despairing cynicism. He refuses to join the protest against the construction of a golf course that will displace the residents of Gospel Hill, a black neighborhood in Julia. This protest is spearheaded by John’s wife Sarah (Angela Bassett), who continually exhorts John to pull himself out of his existential funk. Sarah’s nemesis is Dr. Ron Palmer (Giancarlo Esposito), a rapacious real-estate profiteer who is a fervent supporter of the development. Palmer’s bored wife (Nia Long) is having an affair with Jack Herrod’s son Carl (Adam Baldwin), while Carl’s brother Joel (Taylor Kitsch) strives to distance himself as far as possible from his racist father’s legacy. Joel’s relationship with Rosie (Julia Stiles), a very earnest and liberal schoolteacher, is strained when she realizes who his father is. The cast here is very good, including Wu-Tang Clan’s the RZA, who impresses in his brief scenes as one of the townspeople, and Esposito proves to be a perfectly adequate director. The problem is with the flat script by Jeff Stacy, Jeffrey Pratt Gordon and Terrell Tannen, which is oddly lacking in dramatically compelling conflict. Every problem is solved as if by magic: the unrepentant racist ex-sheriff suddenly sees the error of his ways, and even the confrontation between John Malcolm and his father’s killer feels anticlimactic. Ultimately, Gospel Hill doesn’t go anywhere stylistically or thematically we haven’t already been, and the “struggle still continues” conclusion, instead of being inspiringly uplifting, feels truncated and incomplete. (Nov. 28, 30 and Dec. 5)

Prince of Broadway (Sean Baker)

This is by far the most impressive of the festival films available for preview. Baker’s last film Take Out examined the milieu of Chinese take-out deliverymen, and his latest film is set in another environment populated by immigrants, this time the world of street sales of counterfeit and stolen handbags, sneakers, and other merchandise in Manhattan’s garment district. Many of the hustlers and hawkers of these goods are illegal African immigrants and Prince of Broadway focuses on one with the ironic moniker of Lucky (Prince Adu), who lures customers into a storefront owned by Lebanese Armenian Levon (Karren Karaguilian), where they are taken through a secret door in the back of the store, where much cajoling, hustling, haggling, and negotiation occurs. These two immigrants’ lives are a story of stark contrasts: Levon lives in a plush apartment, where he regularly fights with his flighty wife Nadia (Victoria Tate), while Lucky sleeps on the floor in a bare apartment where he must share the bathroom with other tenants. Despite his spartan existence, in which he must look over his shoulder for police and keep a low profile so as not to alert immigration authorities, Lucky prides himself on his skills as a hustler, and he regularly enjoys the company of his extremely patient and beautiful girlfriend Karina (Keyali Mayaga). Lucky’s life is thrown into chaos when ex-girlfriend Linda (Kat Sanchez) presents him with an infant son (Aiden Noesi) that she insists is his and that he must look after for a couple of weeks while she takes care of unspecified life business. As the two weeks stretch to a much longer time, Lucky must juggle this unwanted responsibility while he goes about his hustling workday. Baker, who co-wrote the film with producer Darren Dean and also shot and edited, has clearly studied this world carefully and perceptively, and it shows in every frame. The restless camerawork stalks its characters Dardenne Brothers-style, beautifully rendering the desperation and precariousness of all of these characters’ lives, which can easily be shattered in an instant. Prince of Broadway traffics in the New York neorealist style that is a hallmark of the films of Ramin Bahrani (Man Push Cart, Chop Shop), another independent filmmaker who creates rough-hewed yet aesthetically dynamic films featuring the sort of characters that exist under most people’s noses yet are usually invisible. Also similarly to Bahrani, Baker allows his actors here, which included actual street sellers, to improvise their dialog, which also adds to the freshness and urgency of the piece. (Dec. 4)

The End of Poverty? (Philippe Diaz)

The question mark at the end of the title of Philippe Diaz’s documentary perfectly encapsulates the stance of the film towards its subject, and its depiction of this as an elusive, if not impossible goal. A despairing litany of the origins and current state of the massive inequality between rich and poor in the world, this film systematically lays its facts and statistics before us, buttressed with a gallery of talking heads, including Nobel laureates Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz, and stentorian narration by Martin Sheen. A globe-trotting portrait of despair, from the silver mines of Bolivia and the gold mines of Brazil to the swamps and tea fields of Kenya, the film exhaustively explains the origins of how the labor of the poorest countries subsidizes the richest, and the legal and social structures that have kept these circumstances in an ossified stasis. That’s all well and good as far as it goes, but … any solutions, people? Any insights into how to change things? You will search in vain for any of that in Diaz’s film. While The End of Poverty? is impressively filmed and put together, it ultimately is an unenlightening, earnest “eat your spinach” documentary that you leave in a depressed state about the world’s fate. We go all around the world only to end up exactly where we began. Presumably, any talk of actual remedies will be reserved for post-screening discussions, of which there will be one on Dec. 10 at Cowin Center, Columbia University. (Dec. 3, 10)

Chaos (Youssef Chahine and Khaled Youssef)

Youssef Chahine’s final film (co-directed with Khaled Youssef, who took over the reins as Chahine was ailing; Chahine died this past July) exhibits all the hallmarks of this celebrated Egyptian filmmaker’s work: devastating social critique, outsized drama, and distinctly Egyptian soap-opera theatricality. The villain of the piece is Hatem (Khaled Saleh), a corrupt police chief who regularly takes bribes, treats his prisoners with naked brutality and throws his weight around everywhere. He is obsessed with Nour (Mena Shalaby), a kindhearted teacher who in turn is enamored of Sherif (Youssef El Sherif), the local DA. Sherif is in an ill-advised engagement to Sylvia (Dorra Zarrouk), a woman with loose ways who is the polar opposite of Nour. Chahine paints a panorama of a society gripped by rampant corruption and pervasive injustice. The filmmaking is unabashedly over the top, with loud musical stings at dramatic moments, and the villainy depicted with very little nuance. Realism has no place in this scenario: the prison includes a harem of voluptuous dancing women who parade in front of a hole in the wall separating them from the male prisoners, and there are frequent fantasy sequences that skirt and sometimes cross the line of parody. Hatem is an especially cartoonish character, drooling after and stalking Nour and sniffing her stolen undergarments. The film has a flat and crudely rendered look, which matches the simple morality play that unfolds. Despite all this, Chahine makes his points about the pervasive problems of Egyptian society in unmistakable terms, and the film ends with the rousing sight of the long-terrorized populace rising up to vanquish their oppressors. (Dec. 9)

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Yoji Yamada -- "Tora-san, Our Lovable Tramp": Q&A at Japan Society, 10/17/08

Yoji Yamada has become of late one of my favorite directors. This prolific Japanese filmmaker creates films that are old-fashioned in the very best sense. He is a humanist in every sense of the word: the relationships and struggles of common people are solidly at the center of his works, and all of his stylistic choices are in the service of this focus. Yamada's recent "samurai trilogy," The Twilight Samurai, The Hidden Blade, and Love and Honor, based on the novels of Shuhei Fujisawa, proved that his talent remains undimmed after 72 films (and counting). Yamada, however, will forever be best known as the director of the 48-film series featuring as its main character Tora-san, the itinerant traveling salesman played by Kiyoshi Atsumi. Yamada collaborated with Atsumi on all except the third and fourth films in this series, which ended with Atsumi's death in 1996. All of these films followed the same template: Tora-san returns to his home after a long period away, and stumbles into adventures, always meaning well yet managing to make a mess of things. He invariably falls in love with a woman along the way, but ultimately a lasting relationship is not to be. Yamada assembled an impressive stock company with these films, playing family and friends of Tora-san, most notably the exquisitely lovely Chieko Baisho, as Tora-san's sister Sakura, and brief appearances by Chishu Ryu, Ozu's frequent lead actor, as a priest. These actors also frequently acted in Yamada's non-Tora-san films. All of these films exhibit the qualities that makes Yamada's films so special: a deep love of humanity, a generosity of spirit, and an engaging mixture of humor and sentiment that makes these films always a pleasure to watch.

On October 17, 2008, the Japan Society in New York launched their monthly film series, "Best of Tora-san," running through May 2009, and consisting of eight episodes selected by Yamada himself. The first screening was of the very first film in the series, Tora-san, Our Lovable Tramp (1969). Yamada gave a live Q&A after the screening via digital video feed from Tokyo's Keio University. Below are clips of that conversation.

Yamada's opening remarks:

On the transition from a television series to a film series:

On how the character of Tora-san relates to certain Japanese cultural concepts (Part 1):

(Part 2):

On the influence of rakugo (Japanese storytelling art) on the conception of Tora-san's character, and the origin of his name:

Yamada's answer to my question about the casting of Chishu Ryu:

On the connection of the Tora-san films to the social and political realities of the time (Part 1):

(Part 2):

On the status of Tora-san as a national icon:

And finally, Yamada joins the Japan Society audience for a virtual photo-op:

Friday, November 14, 2008

Review: Shin Han-sol's "Art of Fighting"

Art of Fighting (Ssaum-ui gisul). 2006. Directed by Shin Han-sol. Written by Shin Han-sol and Min Dong-hyun. Produced by Lee Seo-yeol. Cinematography by Yim Jae-soo. Edited by Moon In-dae. Music by Yoon Min-hwa.

Cast: Baek Yoon-sik (Oh Pan-su), Jae Hee (Sung Byeong-tae), Kim Eung-soo (Byeong-ho), Choi Yeo-jin (Young-ae), Park Won-sang (Ahn Gye-jang), Hong Seung-jin (Paco), Park Gi-woong (Jae-hoon), Jeon Jae-hyung (Boong-eo), Kwon Byung-gil (Assi), Son Byeong-uk (Yong-ho).

The title of Shin Han-sol’s debut feature, Art of Fighting, proves to be quite an ironic one, since the fighting on display is anything but artful. Byeong-tae (Jae Hee, from 3-Iron), a supremely underachieving student who has been transferred to a succession of trade schools, is a willowy and delicate young man who finds himself the punching bag of bullies at each school he has been sent to. His father (Kim Eung-soo) is a distant presence, a widowed police officer who is at a loss as to how to communicate with his son. Byeong-tae assiduously studies martial-arts manuals to learn how to fight back, but he is unable to translate the advice found in these books to the real world. While attempting to learn the technique of fighting with coins, he comes across Oh Pan-su (Baek Yoon-sik), a man with a vaguely shady past who reluctantly agrees to become his mentor. Art of Fighting at first glance seems to follow the familiar outlines of The Karate Kid and countless martial arts student-teacher scenarios. However, where this film departs from its models is the often cringe-worthy brutality on display. Absent are the balletic, graceful fighting moves of classic wuxia pian films; instead there are many scenes of brutal street fighting. Bats, knives, and kicks to the head and stomach are the lingua franca of this film. Adult authority is almost completely absent; a rank social Darwinism of kill or be killed abounds here, as Byeong-tae is constantly beaten to a pulp in teacher-less classrooms. The only instance of teacher discipline is merely an act of revenge by one instructor who had a flowerpot thrown at his head during one of the gang fights.

Pan-su’s instructions for Byeong-tae consist of little technique, but an attempt to encourage Byeong-tae to get over the fear resulting from constantly being beaten by several people at once, and to be willing to do whatever is necessary to prevail. As Pan-su constantly reminds his student, there are no rules in fighting: everything is acceptable, from sand in the eyes to using whatever is around – a chair, a broken bottle – as a weapon. What is most important is being the first to strike. Shin makes sure the viewer feels what this sort of dirty fighting is like, a desperate quest to subdue your opponent as viciously and quickly as possible. Despite Pan-su’s instructions, Byeong-tae, to the film’s great credit, does not instantly gain invincibility over his enemies; he still holds back, gripped by his fear. Also raising this film above its standard scenario are the performances of its leads. Baek essays his role as the wizened, world-weary mentor effortlessly, as he has of late become the go-to actor for this sort of role (The Big Swindle, Tazza, Like a Virgin). Jae Hee’s quavering vulnerability and doe-like eyes convey his character’s isolation and quiet desperation quite effectively.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Election Night 2008

The nearly two years-long presidential campaign has been a drama and spectacle against which any film I've seen recently pales in comparison. Populated by a cast of indelible (and sometimes frightening) characters, full of unexpected and unpredictable turns (remember when people thought it would be Hillary Clinton vs. Rudy Giuliani?), and including a third-act plot twist courtesy of the governor from Wasilla, Alaska, this real-life saga has never been less than fascinating to watch. And like the greatest of films, it had a logical, beautiful, and deeply satisfying ending.

For commentary on it all, I humbly defer to the ever eloquent and astute Tavis Smiley, who sums it up far better than I ever could:

And here is that ending (which, of course, is really a beginning):