Tuesday, October 5, 2010

VIFF: Day 4

The Man From Nowhere (2010)
Lee Jeong-beom
South Korea

Completely by the numbers, The Man From Nowhere borrows from so many South Korean action dramas that it almost feels like a theatrical déjà vu. Almost. The film opens with a police stakeout at a club where a drug deal is taking place—the goods are dropped, the police rush in, a dancing girl steals the drugs and the evidence that the police need is gone. The film cuts to a rundown apartment building where a mysterious loner (Won Bin) runs a pawn shop. His only friend is a young neighbor girl who is unafraid of his silence and shady look. As things go, the girl is the daughter of the dancing girl who stole the drugs and the drugs have been stashed in a camera bag sold to the pawn shop. The mob is hot on the woman's tail and the police are hot on the mob's tail. Our man from nowhere gets caught in the middle and his long buried past comes rushing to the surface. The Man From Nowhere is a pulsing and often violent thriller that has no problem stopping now and then for a little melodrama. Most of it results from the clichéd friendship between the secretive lone wolf and the cast aside young girl. But don't go to The Man From Nowhere for the drama, go for the well designed action sequences including a hand-to-hand knife fight that would impress any ronin. Reminiscent of last year's The Chaser and numerous other slick South Korean actioneers, The Man From Nowhere is nonetheless able to carve out a very satisfying niche for itself. The 10:00am screening could not stop the Won Bin fans from storming the theater, coffee in hand. Coos emerged at his first appearance and a shirtless scene near the middle of the film—the power of the heartthrob lives!

The High Life (2010)
Zhao Dayong
preceded by
Condolences (2009)
Ying Liang

Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Zhao Dayong (Ghost Town) jumps to fiction with this unique and fiercely independent film. Bifurcated by two narrative strains, The High Life unexpectedly switches tonal gears and, as a result, magically lifts the burden of expectations. Set in the mean streets of Ghangzhou, Jian Ming runs a fake employment stand where he guiltlessly takes the money of desperate migrant workers knowing that they will disappear before they have a chance to realize his scam. Oddly content with his so-called business, Jian wiles away his free time practicing Beijing opera in full costume and hanging out with his girlfriend who works as a prostitute. His personal conflicts are internalized and are only revealed in his actions—some subtle, some not so subtle. When his friend talks him into helping with a pyramid scheme, he suddenly and insignificantly gets arrested, which jettisons the film into its second part in a jail where Jian is being held. The focus shifts to an unscrupulous but kindhearted prison guard, Dian Qui. Dian forces prisoners to incessantly read aloud from a of his own poetry and finds ways to punish those who refuse. Dian's odd form of reformation is accepted and even relished by some of the prisoners. Dian's candor allows us to get to know some of the inmates, but there fate in the prison is as fleeting as their future. The actors who play Jian and Dian provide a sense of honesty to their complex characters with seemingly little or no effort. The film's title is borrowed from a line spoken by a thug in anticipation for a future that doesn't exist. The High Life depicts anything but what the title implies, and instead finds a simple sort of grace in the small pleasures. Zhao's unusually narrative adds a new facet to the well-worn path of indie Chinese film. Condolences, screened ahead of The High Life, is a documentary that gives the viewer a fly-on-the-wall perspective of a solemn funeral in one fascinating shot.

The Drunkard (2010)
Freddie Wong
Hong Kong

Based on the popular Hong Kong novel of the same name, Freddie Wong's debut feature is as boozy as the title implies. The Drunkard, however, is able to compliment the somber drunken atmosphere with swoon worthy 1960s Hong Kong sexiness. The film's namesake is Mr. Lau, a disillusioned middle-age writer whose private and public failures are washed away with endless glasses of whiskey. Haunted by his memories of the Japanese war in Shanghai, Lau slowly loses his means to support himself, his addiction and the beautiful woman who provide him companionship. Veteran actor Zhang Guozhu carries The Drunkard on his solid but liquor soaked shoulders. He embodies the contradictions of this dignified adict with gritty charm. As if trying to protect himself from the same fate, he finds it easy to call other people clichés. It's worth noting that Wong is a film critic and a programmer for the Hong Kong International Film Festival. He purchased the rights to the novel ten years ago and it has taken him this long to get his film made. The film boasts an impressive production despite its shoestring budget, with an inspired cast of classic actors. As any screen shot or clip will show, The Drunkard will forever be burdened by comparisons to In the Mood for Love (which also drew inspiration from the same novel.) In making a masterpiece, Wong Kar Wai owns the era in with The Drunkard is set. (The Drunkard received its International Premiere here at VIFF with Freddy Wong in attendance.)

The Metamorphosis (2010)
Lee Samchil
South Korea
preceded by
Father's Challenge (2010)
Jo Ara
South Korea

South Korean experimental film: one a riff on Guy Maddin and one a riff on Kafka. Neither worked. 'Nuff said.

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