Thursday, October 7, 2010

VIFF: Day 6

I Wish I Knew (2010)
Jia Zhangke

Jia Zhangke's I Wish I Knew plunges into the depths of Shanghai's living history with huge doses of artistry and humanism. Politically bold and historically rich, I Wish I Knew is a compassionate search for the heart of a city bursting at the seams with modernity. Since opening its ports to foreign trade, Shanghai has been a sponge for the country's ills and advances, but has maintained its aura as a European city even in China's most xenophobic moments. The Shanghai that we know now was built by its trade prowess, but defined by wars that raged in the 30s and 40s. Although Shanghai was under constant threat from the Japanese for nearly 15 years, it was the brutal battles between the Communists and the Nationalist that held the population in a powder keg that eventually sent residents scattershot physically and emotionally. It is this fragile moment in the 1940s from which Jia excavates stories about Shanghai from people still residing in the Paris of East and others flung to Hong Kong or Taiwan. Most are recalling moments of their childhood or the trials endured by their parents: the daughter of a gangster, the son of a KMT officer, the son of a Communist officer. But Jia also mines Shanghai's cinematic past by interviewing the son of actress Shangguan Yunzhu (Two Stage Sisters, Crows and Sparrows), the daughter of director Fei Mu (Springtime in a Small Town) as well as the living actress from that film Wei Wei (recently seen in her small role in Freddy Wong's The Drunkard.) Jia also spends a brief amount of time with Hou Hsiao-hsein, in the last car of a train of course. There is also a fascinating interview with the man in charge of Antonioni as he shot his documentary Chung Kuo. Zhou Enlai had invited the French auteur, but later when Zhou had fallen out of favor with the Communist, the innocent man was rigorously questioned for his involvement with Antonioni's 'anti-revolutionary' film. The interviews, as one might expect, are beautifully staged even in the cases where they are particularly stayed. Connecting the interviews are elegiac scenes from the city that recall moments of 24 City. Jia closes out the film with interviews from the new generation: a self mad man in the stock market and the hugely popular writer/blogger/racecar driver Han Han. The English title, I Wish I Knew, is an epitaph for Shanghai's history that is being buried under its gloss and wealth, but it also seems to describe the desire of a young director too understand. The Chinese title, 海上传奇, with the characters for Shanghai inverted like Hou Hsiao-hsien's Flowers of Shanghai, is literally translated to "legend on the sea." Commissioned for the Shanghai Expo, I Wish I Knew keeps Jia on firm documentary ground with the exception of ambiguous and slightly heavy-handed interludes that include Zhao Tao. I nonetheless, relished every second of I Wish I Knew: a beautiful tribute to the city that now roars.

Insects in the Backyard (2010)
Tanwarin Sukkhapisit

An assured debut from Tanwarin Sukkhapisit, who acts as director, writer and star, Insects in the Backyard is an oblique and very personal confrontation of Thailand's sex trade. Jenny and Johnny are teenagers whose parents have 'died' and who now live with their older sister, Tanya, a transvestite prone to wearing long black gloves and smoking gowns as she casually hangs out at home. The kids are endlessly frustrated with Tanya's constant coddling and mothering, and Tanya is always silently devastated by their rejection. The complications and confusions between the trio compel them to individually seek libido driven answers. Insects in the Backyard is a painfully honest film that is occasionally hard to watch due to its candidness. Sukkhapisit has made an incredibly brave first film.

Sawako Decides (2010)
Ishii Yuya

A sweet and effective comedy, Sawako Decides is carried by the spirited performance of Hikari Mitsushima as Sawako. Sawako is a classic underachiever, or, as she describes it, a low-middler. After five years in Tokyo, she is on her fifth job and her fifth boyfriend and neither one is worth writing home about. But writing home is something Sawako never did anyway, having left at the age of 18 with a very large chip on her shoulder. But now her father is sick, and, at the persuasion of her uncle and her boyfriend (who sees a possible career opportunity for himself), Sawako returns home to help with her father's clam packaging company. Facing the scrutiny of the entire village for abandoning her father and his business, Sawako is forced to confront her low-middling characteristics to put her life on track. Although the film has some unexpected turns, you know exactly where this film is going. Peppered with clever and funny dialogue, Sawako Decides, at the very least, aims to please.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)
Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Uncle Boonmee, you are wonderful. But given my behindedness in these updates and the fact that I am going to Uncle Boonmee again in a few days, I will post my thoughts a little later.

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