Monday, November 29, 2010

In Review Online: VIFF 2010 Coverage, Part 1

Finally, some of the fruits of some of my labors are up on In Review Online in the first of two dispatches from the 2010 Vancouver International Film Festival. Included are five capsule reviews of Abbas Kiarostami's amazing return to narrative film with Certified Copy, Raúl Ruiz's luscious 4 1/2 hour epic Mysteries of Lisbon, Michael Rowe's daring first film Leap Year, Catharine Breillat's slightly disappointing The Sleeping Beauty and Xavier Dolan's meditation on superficiality in his sophomore film Heartbeats.

Four of these represent some of the high profile releases at VIFF, with Leap Year being a big surprise despite the fact that it won the Camera d'Or this past Spring at the Cannes Film Festival.

Festival Coverage - Vancouver 2010 - Dispatch 1

Coming soon: Dispatch 2 - Five amazing films from the Dragons and Tigers Program.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

MSP Asian Film Festival: PRIVATE EYE

Private Eye (2009)
Park Dae-min
South Korea

Park Dae-min's debut film, Private Eye, carries on the recent tradition in South Korean film of liberally appropriating genre tactics and shaping them into unique versions of hackneyed themes. If that sounds like a backhanded compliment, it is not meant to be. In a world were the economy of film is dominated by Hollywood, all but suffocating any notion of national cinema, I am thrilled that South Korea continues to take Hollywood to the mat year after year. However, most of the time this isn't happening with the titles and directors that may be most familiar to international audiences, but instead with films like the disaster movie Haeundae, the family comedy Scandal Makers, the God-awful monster movie D-War, and the entertaining Public Enemy franchise. Although Private Eye did not see the same success as some of these movies, it is a film cut from the same cloth with very populist intentions and domestic audiences in mind.

Hong Jin-ho (Hwang Jeong-min) is and ex-military officer who now makes money exposing cheating wives and photographing the scandals along the way. Eventually his profession will be known as a private eye, but in the early 20th century, no such thing exists in Korea. Jin-ho is just a guy trying to earn enough money, by hook or by crook, to catch a boat to the US (where he hears there are more cheating wives.) Although he makes a rule not to investigate anything dangerous, Jin-ho agrees to look into a murder when a young medical student offers him a large reward. Jin-ho quickly gets pulled into the mystery that involves opium dens, underage girls, knife throwers and corrupt officials. One of those corrupt officials is Jin-ho's former colleague and less clever nemesis, Yeong-dal (played by Oh Dal-su, the pastry chef responsible for giving the 'Kind Hearted Guem-ja' a job in Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, among other very memorable roles.) As the bodies start to pile up, the race is on for Yeong-dal to pacify politicians in the high profile murders and for Jin-ho to find the truth.

The action moves at a steady clip, but it unfortunately never gives the characters much consideration beyond generic labels: clever and stupid, naive and worldly, evil and pure. And the crackpot team of brilliant sleuth and earnest doctor is as well-worn as the crime novels in a used bookstore. But where Private Eye really shines is in its beautifully constructed early 20th century Korean era. It's an idealized hybrid of contemporary cool and awkward modernization in a Japanese occupied Korean peninsula. Traditional dress mixes with modern, as does the rapidly changing cultural conventions. Uhm Ji-won plays a woman who is an inventor secretly working beyond society's view creating things that help Jin-ho in his profession. She is like a very interesting version of Bond's Q. At one point in the film she is asked to do some eavesdropping with a group of society ladies. Their outing? A sophisticated round at the archery range with the women all wearing their gorgeous hanboks and carrying their bows like a fashion accessory. It's moments like these that are surprising in their picture perfect specificity. The ending is a wee bit overwrought, as if there was some sort of need to make the mystery more mysterious and titillating, but thankfully it is peppered with some genuine suspense so it doesn't fall flat before tying up all the loose ends. With an epilogue almost literally leads into a sequel, we surely have not seen the end of Jin-ho and his his sidekick. With a little bit of care (and luck), Private Eye could turn into a very interesting franchise of historical thrillers.

Monday, November 8, 2010


That Girl in the Yellow Boots (2010)
Anurag Kashyap
Amid the modest fanfare and opening night regalia, That Girl in the Yellow Boots opened the AFF with its just below the radar buzz and resilient independent spirit. Ruth (played by Kalki Koechlin, who also co-wrote the script) is a British citizen who has come to India to find her Indian-born father who left when she was five. Already months into her mission to find a man she has no picture of and little memory, Ruth has submerged herself in the culture by learning Hindi and taking a job as a masseuse where, for extra money, she give handshakes or happy endings or whatever other euphemisms there are for a hand job. She takes her profession in stride with a savviness that is unexpected, but, in contrast, is far too gullible to the ways of her drug hound boyfriend. And perhaps this is the biggest flaw with That Girl in the Yellow Boots, Ruth is too much of an idealized emotive chameleon. Perfectly naive and perfectly confident, she is somewhat impenetrable as a character. On the other hand, as much as the film acquiesces to embracing independent film conventions with a very personalized story sans glamour, it also thankfully kicks expectations for warm fuzzy conclusions out the door. The finale for Yellow Boots is extremely bold if not a little over-the-top. Gritty and uncompromising, That Girl in the Yellow Boots gets slightly muddled in its subplots, but eventually settles into an engaging ride.

Open Season (2010)
Mark Tang and Lu Lippold
In November 2004 a horrifying story emerge from the woods of northern Wisconsin: a hunter had shot eight people killing six of them. But the real horror had yet to sink in. This was no accident and it was no random act of violence. The shooter was Chai Vang, a Hmong man from St Paul, Minnesota who had been hunting in Wisconsin. When another hunter discovered him on his property in a tree stand, Vang was asked to leave. Meanwhile the hunter went back to his hunting camp, told his friends about the incident and eight of them on three ATVs headed back to the sight to confront Vang. These facts, once they settle in, produce a terrifying situation of conjecture both for Vang and events that led to six deaths. Mark Tang and Lu Lippold's incredibly brave documentary of this incident resurrected all the dread and sadness of the story that was so sharp six years ago: dread of society's ability for blind hatred and sadness for the seemingly irreconcilable divide of race. At the time, I was living in the Frogtown neighborhood of St Paul, with a large Hmong population, and the incident weighed heavy on everyone. You could feel it in the atmosphere. Open Season maintains an even hand with a very volatile subject, interviewing family and residents on both sides of the story. From the haunting testimony of Vang in what happened that day to the heartbreaking confessions from family members of the people who were killed, not to mention the disturbing images from when the hunters were first found, the footage powerfully resonates long after the lights go up. Chai Vang represents a tipping point for a much larger problem of institutional racism and extremely dangerous circumstances involving conflict within the hunting culture (read: people who carry guns.) Directors Tang and Lippold hope to get the funding necessary to submit the documentary on PBS. Open Season will screen again on Sunday, November 14. Keep your eye on the AFF site for times.

Friday, November 5, 2010

MFA's 2010 Asian Film Festival

Minnesota Film Arts (or maybe The Film Society of Minneapolis St Paul) christens its first annual Asian Film Festival with many films to covet, explore and discover. Offering a diverse mix of East and Southeast Asian films, the inaugural year is a sign of good things to come. The Fest started Wednesday, but there are plenty of films left to see.

Here my thought on the ones I've seen, listed in order of preference:

I Wish I Knew (2010)
Jia Zhangke
Sunday, November 7, 1:00pm
Saturday, November 13, 2:00pm
The Mainland auteur's newest film gracefully mines the recent history of Shanghai by interviewing residents and former residents of the Paris of the East. A sponge for the country's ills and advances, Shanghai 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. Jia's tribute to Shanghai is as beautiful as it is thoughtful. (For a longer review that I did from VIFF look here.)

Poetry (2010)
Lee Chang-dong
South Korea
Saturday, November 6, 4:10pm
Friday, November 12, 7:00pm
Although Lee Chang-dong has five films to his name (four of which, including this one, I would consider near masterpieces) he remains relatively unknown in the US. Hopefully Poetry will change that. Poetry is the story of Mija, who looks to the art of writing poems as a road self-discover and transcendence. Although Mija is struggling with very worldly issues beyond her control, such as Alzheimer's and an insolent grandson she is trying to raise, her transformation is found through the realm of high art. Poetry won Best Screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival and should see a larger release next year.

Gallants (2010)
Clement Cheng and Derek Kwok
Hong Kong
Saturday, November 13, 7:15pm
A movie best seen with a crowd, Gallants is a loving homage to kung fu films from the 60s and 70s. Leung is an office wimp who dreams of being so much more. One day when he is save by selfless hero who turns out to be the legendary Tiger. Tiger and his fellow martial arts brother Dragon have been quietly holding vigil over their master, Law, who has been in a coma for 30 years. Old rivalries ignite as well as the fighting passion within Leung as master Law miraculously awakes to his biggest challenge yet! The brilliance of Gallants is not only in the overt style that Kwok and Cheng chooses to parody with great wit, but also in its cast. The trio of old-timers—Bruce Leung, Chen Kuan-tai and Teddy Robin Kwan—deliver more charisma than seems fair for one movie.

City of Life and Death (2009)
Lu Chuan
Saturday, November 6, 1:30pm
Tuesday, November 9, 6:45pm
A gritty and brutal portrayal of the Japanese invasion of Nanjing, City of Life and Death has been embroiled in controversy that has stalled its release by almost a year. City of Life and Death was caught in a diplomatic push-pull almost a year ago with the Mainland pulling it from the Palm Springs Film Festival because they insisted on playing a Tibetan documentary The Sun Behind the Clouds (which screened at MSPIFF.) I'm glad to see it resurface because I was feeling bitter about not being able to see this very cinematic film on the big screen. Part war action film part historical melodrama, City of Life and Death is a harrowing account of war in 1937 Nanjing. (These events came to international light with Iris Chang's book "The Rape of Nanjing.") After the release of the film across the Pacific, the Japanese claimed that they were represented too harshly and the Chinese contended that the Japanese were depicted too fairly. For his money and yours, Lu Chuan maintains a pretty even hand in portraying each side as fallible rough cut pawns in a dismal war.

Crazy Racer (2010)
Ning Hao
Friday, November 5, 9:30pm
Thurday, November 11, 9:40
Crazy indeed. Ning Hao's followup to his other crazy film Crazy Stone (2006) is a hilarious keystone cop comedy. Huang Bo plays a disgraced cyclist who finally sees an opportunity for revenge and maybe even redemption. Crazy Racer comes from one of the freshest comedic voices in Mainland China and stars one of the most charismatic actors in the business. (Huang Bo also starred in Cow, which played at MSPIFF this past Spring.) Serious freaking fun.

Summer Wars (2009)
Mamoru Hosoda
Saturday, November 13, 4:30pm
Any animation fan would be crazy crazy crazy to miss Summer Wars on the big screen. Although I can't attest to what kind of format the film will be on, this is one spectacular looking animation on Blu-ray. The influence of Miyazaki in Hosoda's films is obvious, but Summer Wars propels Hosoda into a realm all by himself. This sci-fi family drama is incredibly refreshing, entertaining and beautiful. Do. Not. Miss.

The Red Chapel (2010)
Mads Brügger
Denmark/North Korea
Friday, November 5, 5:00pm
Wednesday, November 10, 5:15pm
Any glimpse into the mysterious North Korea is completely fascinating, and The Red Chapel certainly fits that bill. The Red Chapel is a documentary about a Danish comedy duo who is allowed to perform in North Korea due to their Korean heritage. It goes with out saying that their Western styled humor is 99.9% lost on the isolated North Koreans. But they soldier on with their mission knowing that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity and an experience that they can share with the world. Both funny and moving, The Red Chapel trumps any and all stunt documentaries in existence.

Ip Man 2 (2010)
Wilson Yip
Hong Kong
Friday, November 12, 9:45pm
The recent resurgence in filmic interest in the story of Ip Man, Bruce Lee's mentor, has grown to a three part series (part one and two directed by Wilson Yip, and a prequel directed titled The Legend is Born by Herman Yau) and is also the subject of Wong Kar Wai's newest film The Grand Master, due out...sometime. And I have to admit that three I have seen have resonated historically (even if it is revisionist) and entertained kinetically (even if it is more movie magic than 'master' magic.) The hand to hand fighting handled in these films, including Ip Man 2, is entrancing. Watching Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung, both masters in their own right, do their thing is more than enough for me. The movie falls off near the end with its showdown of showdowns, but I have forgiven that minor flaw.

Sawako Decides (2010)
Ishii Yuya
Saturday, November 6, 4:00pm
A charming, if somewhat slight, blend of comic melodrama works most of the time in Sawako Decides. There's a social commentary in this film somewhere, but it is mostly a character piece prompt up by the irreverent and lovable Sawako, played to punchy perfection by Mitsushima Hikari.

Pinoy Sunday (2010)
Wi Ding Ho
Friday, November 5, 5:15
Saturday, November 6, 9:45
Monday, November 8, 5:00pm
Pinoy Sunday is a Filipino buddy movie set in Taiwan. Dado and Manuel are contract workers for a bike factory. One is earning money for his family back home and the other is earning money to squander, mostly on women who are uninterested in him. One day when they are both down on their luck, they find a sofa that represents a sort of new found happiness. But first they have to figure out a way to get it across town and back to their dorm by curfew. By the end of this movie I was annoyed at the character almost as much as they were with each other. It's an interesting ride with limited payout.

There are a dozen other films that I hope to catch at the Fest as I'm racing between Sembene at the Walker and Chaplin at the Trylon. No complaints here.