Monday, June 22, 2009

New York Asian Film Festival 2009 Review: Jang Hun's "Rough Cut"

Rough Cut (Yeonghwaneun yeonghwada). 2008. Directed by Jang Hun. Written by Kim Ki-duk. Produced by Kim Ki-duk and David Cho. Cinematography by Kim Gi-tae. Edited by Wong Su-ahn. Music by Roh Hyoung-woo. Production design by Lee Hyun-chu. Sound by Jung Kwang-ho. Costume design by Ma Youn-hee. Fight choreography by Jeon Moon-shik and Oh Ho-jin.

Cast: So Ji-sub (Lee Gang-pae), Kang Ji-hwan (Jang Soo-ta), Hong Soo-hyeon (Kang Mi-na), Ko Chang-seok (Director Bong), Jang Hee-jin (Eun-seon), Song Yong-tae (President Baek), Han Gi-joong (President Park), Han Seung-do (Button Man 1), Jo Seok-hyeon (Button Man 2), Park Soo-young (Chief Lee).

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

Jang Hun’s debut feature Rough Cut, a smart, immensely entertaining action film produced and scripted by cinematic enfant terrible Kim Ki-duk, takes the shopworn concept of an actor playing a gangster who meets a real gangster, and invests it with a surprising amount of humor, heart and melancholy. Soo-ta (Kang Ji-wan), a spoiled brat of an actor, as well as an imperious jackass who thinks he’s God’s gift to the world, gets himself in a major jam during the shoot of his latest film when he ends up actually assaulting the actors he’s playing fight scenes with, to the point that no other actor will play opposite him. Enter Gang-pae (So Ji-sub), an actual gangster (as opposed to Soo-ta’s cinematic faux one), a fan of Soo-ta’s who’s initially brushed off by him when they meet in a room salon, where Gang-pae asks for an autograph (after the shy gangster first sends two of his henchmen to ask for him). Later, when Soo-ta is desperate for an acting partner, he seizes upon Gang-pae’s earlier confession that he once aspired to be an actor to implore Gang-pae to fill in for the latest co-star he put in the hospital. Gang-pae agrees, but with one major condition: their fight scenes have to be for real. “I can’t fake things,” Gang-pae says. Bong (Ko Chang-seok), the film’s director (who sort of looks like a much heavier version of Hong Sang-soo), is at first skeptical, but he soon warms to the idea of this “real” aspect of the film that will distinguish his from the rest. Thereafter begins a sort of action-film version of Persona, where these two supposedly polar opposites find they have much more in common than they think. Gang-pae lives alone, taking anti-depression pills and watching films in the anonymous hotel rooms he takes up residence in. He regularly takes breaks from his gangster duties to catch a matinee at the local movie theater. Gang-pae’s favorite film, in a neat bit of homage, is Lee Chang-dong’s Green Fish, another unconventional gangster film, and a major film of Korean cinema’s late 90’s renaissance. Gang-pae seems very much alienated from his profession, seemingly going through the motions of gangster behavior without really feeling it. It’s as if he’s already an actor in his own life, albeit without a camera, at least initially. Soo-ta is also isolated, since his violent nature drives all other actors away from him, and he treats his agent, his only advocate, like a common servant. He carries on a relationship in secret, which seems only to consist of furtive sex sessions inside his van, with Eun-seon (Jang Hee-jin), whom he is loath to be seen with in public. “If your face gets out, you’ll never be able to get married,” Soo-ta feebly offers as an explanation, when it’s obvious that the secrecy is for his benefit alone.

Surprisingly for a film written by Kim Ki-duk, this film has a light touch, rendered with a swift, sure hand and maximum efficiency by Jang, a former assistant of Kim. Real life and cinema blend into one another (Soo-ta speaks in lines from his script when he first meets Gang-pae), belying the film’s ironic Korean title, “A Movie is a Movie.” The bloody pugilism prevalent in the film is leavened slightly by the presence of Mi-na (Hong Soo-hyeon), the film’s leading lady, who becomes drawn to the mysterious Gang-pae. As befits the film’s male-oriented milieu, the character of Mi-na is the weakest aspect of the film’s script. Nevertheless, Hong is quite good in this role, investing her role with an appeal that somewhat deepens her sketchily drawn character. Rough Cut, as much as anything else, is a major showcase for So Ji-sub, a popular television actor appearing in his second film six years after his debut (2002’s Can’t Live Without Robbery), who is terrific, his slow, rolling gait and heavy-lidded, brooding eyes suggesting a Korean version of Robert Mitchum. Although So is the star of this show, Kang Ji-hwan (Host and Guest), another popular television actor, proves a worthy foil, sensitively registering his character’s transformation from pampered celebrity to someone whose privileged bubble is violently burst, especially in the film’s final scene. Rough Cut’s intelligent, quicksilver script is continually surprising, and injects some intriguing ambiguity into the scenario. For example, it is unsettlingly left an open question whether, in a scene in which Gang-pae’s character rapes Mi-na’s character in the film-within-the-film, Gang-pae remains true to his stated credo to not “fake things.” To further the film’s theme of the blurry line between cinema and reality, Jang reportedly included in the film fight scenes where So Ji-sub and Kang Ji-wan accidentally hurt one another on set. This most likely occurred during the shooting of the mud-drenched showdown between their characters, in which (as Jang has related in interviews) all the careful fight choreography planned for them went out the window, as both actors slipped around in the muck.

Even though this film superficially shares little with Kim Ki-duk’s films as a director (for example such divisive films as Bad Guy and The Isle), dig a little deeper and you’ll find some affinities. Kim’s protagonists are usually violent men who feel marginalized from the environments in which they find themselves, and that characterization certainly bears itself out here. However, there is also a fair amount of humor in the film, with Kim’s script gleefully poking fun at the film industry, with its satirical portrait of actors puffed up with an inflated sense of their own importance and abilities, and the routine unoriginality of most commercial film plots. By all evidence, the film-within-a-film of Rough Cut seems to be the most unoriginal gangster film ever made, which would explain director Bong’s eagerness to seize on any aspect distinguishing his film from all the rest. The idea of a funny film written by Kim Ki-duk would at first blush seem like an oxymoron, until you consider that the scenarios of many of Kim’s own films skirt the very edge of risibility, and would be ridiculously absurd and yes, hilarious, if they weren’t rendered with the utter conviction that Kim brings to the material (for exhibit A, see Kim’s freaky plastic-surgery drama Time). Kim’s playful wit extends to the very names of the actor and gangster, which are the English word “star” (Soo-ta) and the Korean word for “gangster” (Gang-pae). Rough Cut was very popular in Korea upon its release last summer (no doubt owing more to its stars than to producer-writer Kim, whose own films usually fare poorly at the box-office), attracting more than a million viewers in its first week of release. So and Kang also shared the Best New Actor Prize at last year’s Blue Dragon Film Awards.

Rough Cut, a major highlight of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival, screens June 23 at 9:30 and June 24 at 6:30 at the IFC Center. Lead actor So Ji-sub will appear in person at both screenings. Click here to purchase tickets.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

New York Asian Film Festival 2009 Review: Wilson Yip's "Ip Man"

Ip Man. 2008. Directed by Wilson Yip. Written by Edmond Wong. Produced by Raymond Wong. Cinematography by Oh Sing-pui. Edited by Cheung Ka-fai. Music by Kenji Kawai. Production design by Kenneth Mok. Sound design by Chin Wing-lai and Kinson Tsang. Action choreography by Sammo Hung and Tony Leung Siu-hung.

Cast: Donnie Yen (Ip Man), Simon Yam (Zhou Qingquan), Fan Siu-wong (Zhao Jinshan), Lynn Hung (Zhang Yong Cheng), Hiroyuki Ikeuchi (General Miura), Shibuya Tenma (Sato), Calvin Cheng (Zhou Guangyao), Lam Ka-tung (Li Zhao), Chan Zhihui (Master Liao), Li Ze (Ip Chun).

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

The very reverential and patriotic Ip Man, Wilson Yip’s biopic about the titular martial arts master best known for having Bruce Lee as his most famous disciple, is a pleasing throwback to classic kung-fu films which features an engaging lead performance by Donnie Yen as Ip Man. The first film in a projected trilogy on Ip Man’s life, Ip Man begins in 1935 in Foshan, a city in China’s Guangdong province renowned for its superior brand of martial arts. Ip, revered by all the masters of the martial arts schools in Foshan as the foremost practitioner of the Wing Chun fighting style, does not run a school or take on students. However, Ip’s spacious mansion has become a de facto university training course for those who want to test their skills against the master. One of these is Liao (Chen Zhihui), a local martial arts schoolmaster, who challenges Ip to a duel while he is having dinner with his family. This is not an unusual circumstance, as evidenced by the exasperated glances thrown Ip’s way by his wife Yong Cheng (Lynn Hung), increasingly weary of these interruptions and resentful of Ip’s inattention to their son. The unfailingly polite and courteous Ip invites Liao to sit and eat with them, after which Ip defeats him with ease, telling Liao, “Thank you for being lenient.” Ip always fights his challengers behind closed doors, promising silence to protect their reputation. Unfortunately for Liao, someone eavesdrops on the fight and spreads the story of Liao’s defeat all over town, causing an angry Liao to confront his accuser the next day at a teahouse where Ip is having lunch. This leads to a brawl that local inspector Li Zhao (Lam Ka-tung) has to break up. Li is contemptuous of these martial arts fighters, declaring that they are behind the times, and that guns are the proper weapons for fighting. Ip coolly refutes this notion by taking hold of a gun Li has pointed in his face, and popping out the cylinder with a swift motion. These early scenes of the film establish Ip as a calm, Confucius-like resolver of conflict, a paragon of wisdom.

Later, Zhao (Fan Siu-wong), a martial artist from the north, breezes into town, beating up all the masters in town and plotting with his boys to take over, declaring that no one in Foshan really knows martial arts and the place is full of nothing but pushovers. Zhao makes his way to Ip’s residence, where his wife reluctantly agrees to let him fight, with one proviso: “Don’t break my things.” Zhao gets off some verbal digs against Ip’s use of the Wing Chun style, and the fact that it was created by a woman. In a great scene full of humor (Ip’s young son rides his tricycle through the scene at one point to remind Ip of his wife’s warning), Ip dispatches Zhao as coolly as all the rest, finishing him off with, of all things, a feather duster.

However, an event soon follows which even Ip Man can’t prevent – the 1937 Japanese invasion of China, which decimates and impoverishes much of the population of Foshan. Ip, having lost his house to the Japanese army, begins working in a coal mine, where many of his fellow martial artists are also employed. Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi), a Japanese general who, conveniently for the film’s plot, also practices martial arts, soon arrives in town, sending his henchmen to the coal mine to look for Chinese who will fight in an arena he has set up, with bags of rice offered as a reward. When one of Ip’s friends is killed by the general during one of the fights, Ip angrily goes to the arena, where he defeats ten fighters at once, proudly refusing to take the promised rice. The intrigued general tells Ip to return to the arena. When Ip fails to do so, one of Miura’s henchmen seek Ip out, arriving at Ip’s house, where he beats up some Japanese soldiers after they threaten his family, making it necessary for Ip and his family to go into hiding. After sending his wife and son away to safety, Ip seeks out Miura, who wants Ip to teach him Chinese martial arts. Ip refuses, saying, “You Japanese don’t deserve to learn martial arts.” He challenges Miura to a one-on-one fight, setting up the film’s final showdown.

These details, and the broad sketches of Ip’s early life shown here, of course, serve mostly as a frame for the acrobatic fight scenes, of which Ip Man offers plenty. Donnie Yen, no surprise, handles these scenes with the grace and aplomb with which he is renowned. What may be a surprise, however, is how good he is in the scenes which don’t involve fighting; he plays Ip Man with an understated appeal which nicely renders the humility and humanity of this character. An even better performance is given by Lam Ka-tung (who will be familiar to fans of Johnnie To’s films) as Inspector Li, who later becomes an interpreter for the Japanese army. His character is pretty much the only one in the film allowed any shades of complexity, a man who sees his own actions, which others would call traitorous, as simply a means to survive. Lam does a great job in effectively making his character’s internal conflicts sympathetic. The ever-ubiquitous Simon Yam, as the owner of a local cotton mill, also impresses in his brief scenes.

Wilson Yip is the consummate craftsman, the widescreen framing and period details (with Shanghai standing in for 1930’s Foshan) lending the film a pleasingly retro feel, highlighting Kenneth Mok’s impressive production design. The script by Edmond Wong is fairly basic, and rather simplistic in terms of character (in short, Chinese good, Japanese bad), but this is arguably well in keeping with the other consciously old-fashioned elements of the film. Surely Yip’s film will be the polar opposite of another Ip Man biopic currently in development, by none other than arthouse director extraordinaire Wong Kar-wai. (The two productions publicly clashed over the film’s Chinese titles; Wong felt Ip Man’s original title, “Grandmaster Yip Man,” was too similar to his, “The Great Master.”) In any case, Yip’s film reached the finish line first, and while it’s a good one, it will be quite interesting to compare it to Wong’s, if the latter ever comes to fruition.

Ip Man screens on June 22 at 7:15 and June 29 at 2:50 at the IFC Center as part of the New York Asian Film Festival. It is included in the ten-film series “Hong Kong Never Dies!” highlighting notable recent films from Hong Kong, co-presented with the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in New York.

Click here to purchase tickets.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

New York Asian Film Festival 2009 Review: Yau Nai-hoi's "Eye in the Sky"

Eye in the Sky (Gun chung). 2007. Directed by Yau Nai-hoi. Written by Yau Nai-hoi and Au Kin-yee. Produced by Johnnie To and Tsui Siu-ming. Cinematography by Cheung Tung-leung. Edited by David Richardson. Music by Guy Zerafa and Dave Klotz. Art direction by Raymond Chan. Sound design by Martin Chappell. Costume design by Mabel Kwan.

Cast: Simon Yam (Sergeant Wong/"Dog Head"), Tony Leung Ka-fai (Shan), Kate Tsui (Bobo/"Piggy"), Lam Suet (Ng Tung/"Fatman"), Maggie Siu (Madame Fong), Cheung Siu-fai (Chief Inspector Chan), Xie Xue Xin (Master's Wife).

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

From Johnnie To’s mighty Milkyway Image film factory comes Eye in the Sky, Yau Nai-hoi’s tense and visually dynamic cat-and-mouse thriller which often gives the viewer a Big Brother view of the characters. Yau, a screenwriter of many of Johnnie To’s best films (Running Out of Time, The Mission, PTU, Running On Karma, Throw Down, the Election films), makes his debut as a director with this film. While Yau’s set pieces lack the visual flair of To’s films, as a whole Eye in the Sky is a lean, limber piece of entertainment that is a worthy addition to the impressive films emerging from this great production house.

The film opens with a great, nearly wordless opening sequence of surveillance and pursuit, but who exactly is the pursuer and the pursued is left teasingly unclear at first. It begins on a crowded streetcar, moves out into the street, and finally into a café, where it all is revealed as a test for Bobo (Kate Tsui), a rookie member of the Hong Kong police’s Surveillance Unit, a undercover force complementing the many street surveillance cameras manned by the Criminal Intelligence Bureau. Her boss, Sergeant Wong (Simon Yam), is her tester, the man we have seen Bobo following, and he peppers her with questions about what he did, where he went, and who he talked to. “Surveillance literally means ‘the eye in the sky,’” he tells her, stressing the importance of paying attention to every detail. However, under both of their noses, a jewel heist has been going on, masterminded by Shan (Tony Leung Ka-fai), who much like his police counterparts, has been keeping a close eye from above on the ragtag crew he has assembled to pull off the heist. It all nearly goes awry when one of the crew breaks their carefully orchestrated schedule to grab more goods. They manage to get away before the police descend on the scene.

Meanwhile, back at police headquarters, Wong (nicknamed “Dog Head”) and Bobo (whom Wong saddles with the handle “Piggy”) are given their new assignment: catching the gang of jewel thieves, who they have been led to by identifying one of the gang, “Fatman” (Lam Suet), who makes the cops’ job easier by going to the same mini-mart every night like clockwork to pick up his nightly snacks. Wong reminds Bobo that their job is undercover surveillance, not playing beat cop: they must stay focused on their mission and not get involved in anything else happening on the street. Not yet as hardened as her more seasoned superiors, Bobo can only watch in distress as thugs brutally beat down a man who owes them money. In a later scene, when the police have Shan in hot pursuit, Bobo breaks the rule of not getting involved, with very serious consequences.

Eye in the Sky (co-written by Yau and regular writing partner Au Kin-yee) moves with a breathless pace, its jagged editing and restless handheld camera giving it a nervier feel than the more classically composed films of Johnnie To. The film refuses to get bogged down in social or political analysis of the erosion of privacy represented by the all-seeing “eye in the sky.” Even though the film has been criticized in some quarters for not taking a stance on this subject, in this case it’s a refreshing asset. There are plenty of other films that deal with this subject, and if the filmmakers have nothing new to add, it’s better to just leave it alone instead of rehashing arguments that have been better made elsewhere. Yau is greatly aided in his rookie stint in the director’s chair by many members of the sturdily reliable stock company of actors To has assembled over the years, who give compellingly lived-in performances. Simon Yam is aces as the grizzled veteran cop; he reportedly put on 20 pounds for the part, although the extra weight looks like an ill-fitting fat suit. Tony Leung Ka-fai is a compelling live-wire as the criminal mastermind, his cool exterior barely disguising the feral animal underneath. Some of these To stalwarts shine even in smaller roles, such as the great Lam Suet as the constantly hungry jewel gang lookout, and Maggie Siu as Wong and Bobo’s hard-assed, foul-mouthed superior. Kate Tsui, a popular TV actress (and former Miss Hong Kong) making her film debut, is also excellent, beautifully handling her role as the true heart of the film, her character forced to learn very quickly on the job. Tsui more than holds her own with her seasoned co-stars; she took home a Best New Actor prize at last year’s Hong Kong Film Awards. The film also won an award for Yau as Best New Director and an editing prize for David M. Richardson. Eye in the Sky once again solidifies the members of the Milkyway Image production company as some of the best in the business. As long as these master practitioners of action films are on the case, Hong Kong is assured of remaining a major player in world cinema.

Eye in the Sky screens on June 19 at 2:00 and June 22 at 3:35 at the IFC Center as part of the New York Asian Film Festival. Click here to purchase tickets.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Death Becomes Him

Departures (Okuribito). 2008. Directed by Yojiro Takita. Written by Kundo Koyama, based on the book "Coffinman: The Journal of a Buddhist Mortician" by Shinmon Aoki. Produced by Toshiaki Nakazawa. Cinematography by Takeshi Hamada. Edited by Akimasa Kawashima. Music by Joe Hisaishi. Production design by Fumio Ogawa. Sound recording by Satoshi Ozaki. Costume design by Katsuhiko Kitamura.

Cast: Masahiro Motoki (Daigo Kobayashi), Tsutomu Yamazaki (Ikuei Sasaki), Ryoko Hirosue (Mika Kobayashi), Kimiko Yo (Yuriko Kamimura), Takashi Sasano (Shokichi Hirata), Kazuko Yoshiyuki (Tsuyako Yamashita), Tetta Sugimoto (Yamashita).

When you die, you want to die a beautiful death. But what makes for a beautiful death is not always clear. To die without suffering, to die without causing trouble to others, to die leaving behind a beautiful corpse, to die looking good – it’s not clear what is meant by a beautiful death. Does a beautiful death refer to the way you die or the condition of your corpse after death? This distinction is not clear.

Though the faces of the dead engross me, in the course of being in contact with the dead on a daily basis, I began to notice that the faces of the dead were invariably gentle ones. During their lives I don’t know what right or wrong they might have done, but it seems to have no bearing on them now. It doesn’t matter whether their beliefs were thick or thin, whether they belonged to this denomination or that, whether they were interested in religion or not. Nothing they have done goes to making the dead wear such gentle faces.

Day after day all I see are dead people. And so the dead appear to me as serene, even beautiful. By contrast, the despicableness of the living began to irk me – the living, who, out of their fear of death, peer into the faces of the dead with fear and trepidation in their eyes. As they watch me washing the deceased, I can sense their lines of sight mixed with feelings of alarm, fear, sadness, affection, and anger piercing me from behind.

-- Shinmon Aoki, Coffinman: The Journal of a Buddhist Mortician, the basis for Departures

At this year’s Academy Awards, an event at which every result seems more and more to be preordained far in advance, there was a very rare occurrence: a genuine surprise. That would be Departures, the latest film from veteran Japanese director Yojiro Takita, winning the best foreign film Oscar, shocking all observers (including the filmmakers themselves) and throwing a monkey wrench in Oscar pools across the nation. Such a turn of events would have been the last one would have expected for a director who got his start in the “pink film” (Japanese soft-core sex film) industry, turning out films with such titles as Groper Train. Since then, Takita moved into mainstream features, becoming quite successful doing so, a versatile and eclectic filmmaker working in many different genres, having box office success with Onmyoji (The Ying-Yang Master) (2001) and When the Last Sword is Drawn (2004).

As baffling as the victory of Departures at the Oscars over much more highly touted films may have seemed to many, once one actually sees the film, it’s not hard to see why this upset happened. The style of Departures is as straightforward and old-fashioned as it gets; in many ways, the film is a throwback to older films released by Shochiku Studios, the famed Japanese studio that released this film in Japan. Departures also deals with the subject of death – combine that with the fact that many of the Academy voters are, shall we say, of somewhat advanced age, it’s no surprise that these themes resonated greatly with many who saw the film.

Departures centers on Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki), a cellist whose orchestra has been dissolved because of bankruptcy. Now forced to give up on his dream of being a world-famous musician, he moves from Tokyo back to his hometown, his loving wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) in tow. Answering a deceptive newspaper ad (a typo in the ad copy leads him to believe he's applying for a travel agency), Daigo becomes an “encoffiner” (or nokanshi in Japanese), one who performs the ritualistic practice of washing, dressing, and placing the deceased in coffins for cremation, all done in the presence of the bereaved. Daigo gets over his initial squeamishness to become quite adept at his new profession, all under the watchful eye of his boss, Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki). However, he must suffer the prejudice of others who find his profession shameful, unfortunately including his wife. Also, Daigo’s own attitudes about death and closure are challenged when he must perform these duties on a long-lost relative.

Departures has been tagged by a number of commentators with that dreaded adjective “sentimental,” which these days has become an epithet, a mark of shame. And indeed, there is much about this film that is not very fashionable, from its slow, deliberate pace to its gentle comedy and unabashedly tear-jerking scenes. Sentimental it may be, but so what? There is nothing wrong with sentiment if it feels truly earned and not crudely manipulative, a feat that Departures succeeds at swimmingly. I found the film very moving, and it spoke to me quite powerfully. Viewers (and critics) willing to drop their cynicism will find themselves reflecting on the losses of their own loved ones, and what it means to confront death, much as I did. The result is a moving, powerful experience. The repeated depictions of the careful and respectful honoring of the deceased’s passage to the afterlife gain resonance with each successive scene. The film is not all tears and somber atmosphere, however; there is much room for humor in this scenario. One great example occurs in the film’s very first scene, in which Daigo, while preparing the body of a deceased young woman, finds that she is not all she appears to be.

Yojiro Takita, much like his protagonist, is a consummate professional as a filmmaker, his unadorned, un-flashy style always at the service of his narrative and the wonderful performances across the board, especially Masahiro Motoki (Shall We Dance?, The Bird People in China) the driving force behind this film. This project originated with Motoki, who was greatly moved and inspired by the book Coffinman, the memoir by Shinmon Aoki, a nokanshi who set down his reminiscences of a life in this profession. Departures is not a direct adaptation of the book, to be sure. Aoki’s book has a far more contemplative and philosophical tone, with frequent digressions on Buddhism and literature that serve to inform Aoki’s reflections on his life experiences. However, like Departures, Coffinman is a beautiful work in its own right, and well worth seeking out.

Departures is buoyed by its excellent cast, who are all given ample opportunities to shine. Motoki deftly handles the myriad changes his character experiences, and has obviously put great care into his preparation of the encoffining ritual, as well as playing the cello (Motoki played the instrument live on set), which beautifully deepens his portrayal. Tsutomu Yamazaki (High and Low, Tampopo, A Taxing Woman) brings a wonderful deadpan humor to his role as Daigo’s boss. Kimiko Yo (Café Lumiere) is also quirkily funny as the funeral company secretary, and Ryoko Hirosue (Wasabi) is quite affecting as Daigo’s wife, a role that becomes much more than the standard long-suffering wife portrayal that it initially appears to be.

Shinmon Aoki's book Coffinman can be purchased from Amazon.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

BAMcinemaFEST Review: Bradley Rust Gray's "The Exploding Girl"

The Exploding Girl. 2009. Written and directed by Bradley Rust Gray. Produced by So Yong Kim, Karin Chien, Ben Howe, and Bradley Rust Gray. Cinematography by Eric Lin. Edited by So Yong Kim and Bradley Rust Gray. Sound by Michael Sterkin.

Cast: Zoe Kazan (Ivy), Mark Rendall (Al), Franklin Pipp (Greg), Maryann Urbano (Mom).

Bradley Rust Gray's lovely second feature The Exploding Girl will screen as part of "BAMcinemaFEST," a film festival showcasing recent American independent films that will be at BAM Rose Cinemas from June 18 through 27. This festival will replace the "Sundance at BAM" series that ran at this time for the past three years, which, according to a Sundance spokesperson, is "taking a break" this year. Nevertheless, it looks like a pretty strong line-up, with at least a few films I'm looking forward to seeing, such as Tze Chun's Children of Invention, Ry Russo-Young's You Won't Miss Me, Robert Siegel's Big Fan, Lynn Shelton's Humpday, Andrew Bujalski's Beeswax, and Nicolas Winding Refn's Bronson. The festival also includes short films, live music performances, and selections from BAM's repertory film program, with director Arnaud Desplechin present for screenings of Francois Truffaut's Mississippi Mermaid and Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums.

Here is what I wrote on The Exploding Girl when it screened at this year's Tribeca Film Festival:

The précis of Bradley Rust Gray’s film The Exploding Girl sounds like boilerplate mumblecore: vacationing college girl Ivy (Zoe Kazan, in a riveting, affecting performance), battling an epileptic condition, has halting, increasingly awkward conversations with the boyfriend she anxiously plays phone tag with, while her platonic buddy Al (Mark Rendall) inches ever closer to becoming something more than a friend. But in the masterful hands of Gray, this becomes a delicate and gorgeous slice of New York life, brilliantly observed and brimming with emotion. Much like his wife and filmmaking collaborator So Yong Kim (director of Treeless Mountain and In Between Days, who also co-edited and co-produced this film), Gray has a visual preference for sustained, intimate long takes, very often shot from middle and long distance, with physical obstructions such as doorways, windows, and crowds on the street often inserting themselves between the characters and the camera, as well as breathtakingly beautiful cutaways to sky and trees (a late rooftop sunset shot of Ivy and Al accompanied by pigeons flying in formation is a particularly exquisite one). These elements provide a depth that manifests itself in every gesture, every emotionally fraught pause in conversation that is captured here.

One of the great charms of The Exploding Girl is how evocatively and accurately it conveys the particularly slow, lazy feel of a New York summer. There are many nice passages of Ivy wandering the streets and lounging at parties, taking needed pauses from the drama of much of her life, not the least of which is her epilepsy, kept at bay by medication, but always threatening to overtake her. The title of the film, which also doubles as a neat metaphor for her condition as well as her emotional turmoil, actually comes from a song by The Cure (which happens to be the flipside of the Cure single "In Between Days,” the namesake of his wife’s debut feature). The Exploding Girl, again like Kim’s films, derives much of its power from a sensitive and magnetic central performance, in this case by the instantly winning Zoe Kazan (granddaughter of director Elia Kazan and daughter of Hollywood screenwriters Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord), who in every movement and expression lends this film an uncommon grace. Kazan last appeared in a key role in Sam Mendes’ film Revolutionary Road, but here she proves immensely capable of being the main attraction. As impressive as all the film’s other collaborators are, Kazan shines as the true emotional center and makes The Exploding Girl much more than just a pretty object. And when the dreaded explosion finally occurs, an event we have been anticipating throughout the film, it leads to a quiet yet intense catharsis, both for Ivy and for us watching, that is a soul-satisfying conclusion to one of the year’s loveliest films.

The Exploding Girl screens on June 25 at 6:30. Click here to purchase tickets.

Additional reading: an multimedia article on So Yong Kim and Bradley Rust Gray on the site FLYP, where you can view clips from their films.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Long Goodbye

100. 2008. Written and directed by Chris Martinez. Produced by Chris Martinez and Marlon Rivera. Cinematography by Larry Manda. Edited by Ike Veneracion. Music by Ricci Chan and Brian Cua. Production design by Aby Jamnague-Rivera.

Cast: Mylene Dizon (Joyce), Eugene Domingo (Ruby), Tessie Tomas (Eloise), T. J. Trinidad (Rod), Ryan Eigenmann (Emil).

Chris Martinez’s debut feature 100 was a film I avoided when I came across its plot description while trying to figure out what I would see at last year’s Pusan International Film Festival. The scenario threatened to be unbearably mawkish: a woman about to die from cancer follows a series of Post-Its that detail what she wishes to accomplish before she dies. However, after seeing the film at the opening night of the IndioBravo Film Festival, a new film festival in New York showcasing recent Filipino cinema, I am happy to report that my fears were unwarranted. 100 (the film’s title refers to both the days she has left to live and the number of tasks on her list) is a funny, heartfelt, and surprisingly tough-minded and unsentimental film. Joyce (Mylene Dizon, superb), the dying woman, is a no-nonsense corporate shark who prides herself on conducting her life with order and structure. She handles the news that she is about to die the same way she does everything else in her life: systematically, thoroughly, and logically. She makes sure to leave no stone unturned in putting her affairs in order, from the style and price of her casket to the music to be played at her wake. The structure of the film is very simple and straightforward; it follows each task written on Joyce’s notes, one by one. With the help of her best friend Ruby (Eugene Domingo), Joyce not only takes care of practical matters, but follows through on a wish list of everything she has ever wanted to do in her now very truncated life: from cooking all her favorite dishes, indulging herself with tons of ice cream and chocolate, smoking pot and kissing a complete stranger, to taking a whirlwind vacation to Hong Kong with her best buddy and “visiting Europe” (mindful of her limited time, she does the latter virtually via YouTube). She also takes care of more emotional tasks, such as breaking things off with Rod (T.J. Trinidad), the married man (complete with pregnant wife) she has been seeing, looking up Emil (Ryan Eigenmann), an ex-boyfriend she has never gotten over, and the hardest of all, telling her mother (Tessie Tomas).

Martinez takes the very best strategy possible with this material: he stays out of its way, filming with a cool, dispassionate eye, making the viewer a fly on the wall observing Joyce’s life. Martinez dials the melodrama way down, always undercutting things with sharp humor, while always keeping in sight Joyce’s ticking expiration clock. And when the inevitable draws near, the emotions this engenders are all the stronger for being truly earned, by immersing us into the details of Joyce’s existence, and not manipulating us into it. Even more impressively, the film affords its protagonist the dignity of not subjecting us to a protracted death scene, an irresistible temptation to lesser filmmakers. (There is, however, a last-rites scene that is as heartbreaking as it is beautifully staged.) Dizon delivers a marvelous performance, adept at rendering her character's prickly exterior as well as the very vulnerable person underneath. Domingo transcends her standard best friend role by being a peerless foil to Dizon; she reveals herself in many scenes as a master of the comic reaction shot. Martinez wittily draws a clear distinction between his film and others about dying women when he shows us a snippet of a tearjerker Joyce and Ruby watches on a DVD featuring their favorite actress. (“It’s great to be alive!” the woman in the film declares, right before she drops dead in her lover’s arms.) 100 is a crowd-pleaser in the very best sense; it delivers an emotionally potent and engaging story without pandering and always respecting the audience’s intelligence. Word to the wise: do not watch this film on an empty stomach. Much of Joyce’s wish list revolves around her favorite Filipino dishes, which Martinez films as some of the most luxurious food porn you’ll ever see.

100 won, among other prizes, the audience award at last year’s Pusan International Film Festival. It screens again at the IndioBravo Film Festival tonight at 7pm, at the Visual Arts Theater. To purchase tickets, visit the festival website. The festival itself runs through tomorrow.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Bourne Cinema Filmography: Jia Zhang-ke, "24 City" (2008)

24 City (Er shi si cheng ji). 2008. Directed by Jia Zhang-ke. Written by Jia Zhang-ke and Zhai Yongming. Produced by Jia Zhang-ke, Shozo Ichiyama, and Wang Hong. Cinematography by Yu Lik-wai and Wang Yu. Edited by Lin Xudong, Kong Jinlai, and Li Haiyang. Music by Yoshihiro Hanno and Lim Giong. Art direction by Liu Qiang and Chen Rongchao. Sound design by Zhang Yang. Costume design by Zhao Tong.

Cast: Joan Chen (Gu Minhua), Lu Liping (Hao Dali), Zhao Tao (Su Na), Chen Jianbin (Zhao Gang).

Jia Zhang-ke's magisterial, mesmerizing documentary/fiction hybrid, 24 City, opens today in New York at the IFC Center. Surely one of the best films of the year, it's scheduled to play for just a week, so get thee to the theater immediately. The proximity of this film's release to the tenth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square uprising may or may not be coincidental, but the occasion certainly provides much food for thought on the massive changes that have occurred in China since then. (For a great assessment of the ongoing legacy of the Tiananmen Square protests, check out this post on Edwin Mak's blog.)

Below is a (slightly modified) review of 24 City that I wrote when it screened at last year's New York Film Festival:

Perhaps the most famous of cinema pioneers the Lumière Brothers’ works is “Workers Leaving the Factory,” a 50-second film which consists of a static shot of what its title describes. This ancestral cinematic image is echoed by several shots of Jia Zhang-ke’s extraordinary, and extraordinarily beautiful, documentary/fiction hybrid, 24 City. The film focuses on 420 Factory in Chengdu, Sichuan province, a former military munitions plant which is about to be torn down and moved to another area to make way for an ultramodern housing complex known as “24 City,” a name which has a vaguely Alphaville-esque, sci-fi tinge to it.

24 City is structured as a series of nine monologues, five of which are spoken by actual workers in the factory, and four of which are delivered by actors, including a trio of great actresses – Lu Liping, Joan Chen and Jia regular Zhao Tao, representing three generations of Chinese history. The experiences of Chinese women are very prominent in this film, much more so than in Jia’s previous work, thanks to the influence of Jia’s co-screenwriter, female poet Zhai Yongming, a native of Chengdu. This is Jia’s densest and most complex film to date, encompassing reality and fiction, and peppered with quotations from Chinese poetry and William Butler Yeats. Music, especially, plays a key role: excerpts of the Internationale play on the soundtrack, workers in the film sing both patriotic anthems and romantic pop songs, and a Chinese opera troupe (led by Joan Chen) performs within the crumbling walls of the factory.

24 City was originally conceived by Jia as a straight documentary; however, the film slowly transformed into a rich collage of stories and physical memorabilia (worker ID cards, photographs, letters) that document the changes across fifty years of Chinese history, refracted through the collective consciousness of this factory. “As far as I’m concerned, history is always a blend of facts and imagination,” Jia says in the film’s press notes. This could refer to both Maoist policies and propaganda that shaped the fortunes of this factory and to the nature of Jia’s project. Jia keeps his focus on individual human stories, a riposte to the Chinese government’s insistence on requiring workers to constantly take it on the chin for the good of society, to be displaced and replaced at will, to always be on time and never miss a day, and never protest or complain.

Far from the vapid, simpleminded analyses of China offered by most American mainstream media, Jia explores these issues with poetry and melancholic beauty. Construction and factory life have surely never been given more vivid and lyrical form than here. Although the film has its share of poignant moments, Jia manages to inject a fair amount of humor in this scenario, one example being a particularly cheeky meta-cinematic reference: Joan Chen’s character, Little Flower, is a “factory beauty” famed for her uncanny resemblance to … Joan Chen.

24 City cements Jia’s status as perhaps the most vital and poetic chronicler of present-day China, and the economic and physical changes wrought by this country’s rapid upward mobility. “I see movies as a tool to record memory,” Jia told me last year during an interview I conducted with him at last year’s New York Film Festival, after a press screening of his previous film Useless. His latest film fulfills this stated aim, and then some. The stunning, hyper-real digital images provided by cinematographers Yu Lik-wai and Wang Yu bring the history and the architecture of this factory into nearly three-dimensionally vivid focus. 24 City is initially challenging and unsettling, due to the unusual nature of his project, but Jia, as always, richly rewards the viewer’s patience, and in the final shots that cap Zhao Tao’s tour de force performance (what a treasure this actress is!), the film culminates with a stunning visual epiphany.

Click here for the schedule of screenings at the IFC Center.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

DVD Review: Lee Joon-ik's "Sunny"

Sunny (Nimeun meongosae). 2008. Directed by Lee Joon-ik. Written by Choi Seok-hwan. Produced by Oh Sung-hyeon. Cinematography by Na Seung-yong. Edited by Kim Sang-beom and Kim Jae-bom. Music by Bang Joon-seok and Lee Byung-hoon. Production design by Kang Seung-yong. Costume design by Hyun Seob-shim.

Cast: Soo Ae (Soon-yi/"Sunny"), Jeong Jin-yeong (Kim Jeong-man), Eom Tae-woong (Sang-gil), Jeong Kyeong-ho (Yong-deuk), Joo Jim-mo (Seong-chan), Shin Hyeon-tak (Cheol-sik), Lee Joo-sil (Mother-in-law).

Lee Joon-ik’s filmography so far includes two period films (Once Upon a Time in a Battlefield, The King and the Clown) and two contemporary music-themed films (Radio Star, The Happy Life). Lee’s latest, the Vietnam War drama Sunny, combines these two modes, its story inspired by the phenomenon of music stars who traveled to the front as “consolatory bands” to boost the morale of the many Korean soldiers who fought in Vietnam on the American side. Over 300,000 Korean soldiers fought in Vietnam, some of whom were accused of war crimes, making this period as crucial a part of Korean history as it is of American history. The Vietnam War has been explored in other Korean films, two significant ones being Jung Ji-young’s White Badge (1992) and Gong Su-chang’s horror film R-Point (2004). Lee’s take on this subject adds a couple of intriguing wrinkles, the first being its musical focus – the Korean title translates as “My Love is Far Away,” taken from the name of a song by the popular 70’s female singer Kim Choo-ja, which is sung by the film’s protagonist. Also, Lee tries something new, for him – making a film with a female character at its center, in direct response to critics who found fault with the almost exclusively male-oriented milieus of his previous films.

The film's protagonist, Soon-yi (Soo Ae), is introduced to us singing a plaintive love song in front of some older women in the countryside where she lives. She is trapped in a loveless arranged marriage to Sang-gil (Eom Tae-woong), currently serving in the army, and her hostile mother-in-law (Lee Joo-sil) makes her visit him once a month at his barracks. This leads to a particularly tense scene in which we learn that Sang-gil has been carrying on an affair with an old girlfriend. “Do you even know what love is?” Sang-gil asks her, coldly turning away from her. Sang-gil later gets into a brawl with his superior, and is sent to the raging war in Vietnam as punishment. When Soon-yi relates this news to her mother-in-law, she unleashes a vicious round of invective against Soon-yi, blaming her for it all, and accusing Soon-yi of driving her son to war, especially because of her failure to produce a grandson. Sang-gil’s mother packs her bags, determined to go to Vietnam to search for her son, but Soon-yi stops her, saying she will search for him. After she unsuccessfully petitions the army base to let her go to Vietnam to search for Sang-gil, Soon-yi stumbles on an agency that sends entertainers to Vietnam to perform for the troops. When she is turned down here as well, she runs into bandleader/hustler Jeong-man (Jeong Jin-young, from The Happy Life) who, after a blowout with his previous lead singer, makes Soon-yi his new singer. Jeong-man owes people left and right, and sends his band to Vietnam in order to earn money to pay off his debts, a fact he neglects to mention his band mates. They perform at bars and army bases, Soon-yi (now known by her stage name “Sunny”) getting over her shyness and soon slinking on stage in ever more revealing outfits. These events are paralleled with scenes of Sang-gil on the battlefield, often set to Soon-yi’s singing on the soundtrack.

As admirable as Lee’s attempts are in expanding his cinematic focus to include women, he ultimately fails at this goal in Sunny. Lee and his regular screenwriter Choi Seok-hwan are clearly on much less sure ground than in their previous films, and Lee often seems flummoxed by his female character. The reasons for Soon-yi’s all-encompassing fervor for searching for a man that by all accounts she doesn’t really love, and who certainly doesn’t love her, remain fuzzy almost to the end, and Lee clearly doesn’t have a clue as to what is motivating her. Lee eventually falls back into more comfortable territory, and a great deal of screen time is devoted to the internecine squabbles among the male band members. Soon-yi’s story gets lost among the male band members fighting and the war scenes, and at times, it’s almost as if the film is struggling to remember that this story is supposed to be about her. The wonderful actress Soo Ae, so good in such films as A Family (2004) and Once in a Summer (2006), is almost wasted here, her character too often relegated to bystander status in her own story. Still, whatever heart and emotion this film retains, as well as its best scenes, belong to her alone. The depiction of the Vietnam War also fails to convince; the film too often traffics in the hoariest of war-film clichés, especially in two fairly risible scenes where the band encounters Vietcong and American troops. The film becomes more and more divorced from plausibility as it progresses, and my heart sank near the end when the story calls for Soon-yi to degrade herself in a way which really shows the film up for the ridiculous male fantasy that it is. And while the conclusion tries to restore at least some bite to Soon-yi’s character, it doesn’t erase the illogic of what came before. In the end, despite Lee’s declared good intentions, this film is just as male-centered as the rest of his films.

Sunny can be purchased from YesAsia.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

DVD Review: Wayne Wang's "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers"

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. 2007. Directed by Wayne Wang. Written by Yiyun Li, based on her short story. Produced by Yukie Kito, Rich Cowan, and Wayne Wang. Cinematography by Patrick Lindenmaier. Edited by Deirdre Slevin. Production design by Vincent De Felice. Music by Lesley Barber.

Cast: Faye Yu (Yilan), Henry O (Mr. Shi), Vida Ghahremani (Madam), Pasha Lychnikoff (Boris).

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, based on a short story by Yiyun Li, is one half of a diptych conceived by Wayne Wang as a return to his indie-film roots after a long sojourn making Hollywood studio films. The other film is The Princess of Nebraska, also based on one of Li’s stories. Of the two, Thousand Years is the far more accomplished and satisfying work. Unlike the self-consciously arty strenuousness of Nebraska, Thousand Years derives its affecting quality from its simplicity, economy of storytelling, and a quietly powerful central performance by Henry O as Mr. Shi, an elderly man invited by his daughter Yilan (Faye Yu, also quiet and compelling) for a visit and a tour of the U.S., after twelve years apart from each other. Mr. Shi, a self-described “true believer” in Communism, his posture held aloft by a back brace, comes to live with his daughter in a bland and eerily anonymous suburban community. They have quiet dinners each evening, Mr. Shi clearly wanting more information about how his daughter is doing, and making valiant attempts to reconnect her after his long absence from her life. Yiyun, however, keeps her personal life a firmly closed book, and she seems increasingly annoyed at his intrusiveness. Bored, and with little to do around the home, Mr. Shi wanders around the neighborhood, which leads to a few dryly comic encounters, most notably with a sunbather who eagerly tells him about her passion for forensic science, and an odd visit by a pair of Mormon proselytizers. Mr. Shi tries to reduce the language barrier by jotting down English words and phrases in his book, and in his conversations with others, he freely mixes his native Mandarin with halting English. Mr. Shi soon meets an Iranian woman (Vida Ghahremani), and they begin having daily conversations on a park bench, and even though they speak Mandarin and Farsi with one another, with some English mixed in, they are able to reveal intimate details with their lives that they can with no one else. Mr. Shi eventually confesses to the woman, “I no good father.” As a rocket scientist back in China (a fact he loves to mention to any American he meets), he was wrapped up in his work, and was mostly absent to his own family. The latent resentment of his daughter towards him has clearly never been resolved. In the film’s closing passages, the weight of the secrets and lies told on both sides finally take their toll on the father and daughter, resulting in a cascading rush of revealed (and painful) truth.

This film is a model of elegant simplicity, both in its narrative and visual design. The soullessness and emptiness of the environment depicted in the film, where Mr. Shi, with the weight of personal and national history evident in every gesture and line on his face, is so clearly out of place, is paralleled by the years of silence between father and daughter. The silence and secrets are intertwined with the legacy of the Cultural Revolution in China, a major theme of Yiyun Li’s fiction. The sharp cinematography (by Patrick Lindenmaier) and editing (by Deirdre Slevin) serve to highlight the appealing concision with which Li’s story is rendered (she also penned the screenplay). Henry O, a veteran actor in China and the U.S. whose lengthy resume includes Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, is a remarkable presence, adept at both deadpan comedy and poignant, rueful reflection. (The DVD contains a fascinating interview with Henry O in which he relates his personal experiences and early struggles as an actor during the Cultural Revolution.) Faye Yu (who previously worked with Wang in The Joy Luck Club) is also excellent, conveying Yilan’s sadness in a role that often requires her to express this without dialogue, a task at which she succeeds enormously.

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers can be purchased from Amazon. Yiyun Li's original short story can be found in the collection of the same name, also available from Amazon.