Friday, January 14, 2011

Submitted by Latvia: Hong Kong Confidential

For nearly twenty years, Latvian director Maris Martinsons lived in Lithuania, which submitted his first film Loss as the country’s 2008 offering for official foreign language Oscar consideration, even though it was set in Ireland. Martinsons’ world citizen ethos is again exemplified by his second film, Hong Kong Confidential, another global co-production, in this case submitted to the Academy’s foreign language division by the director’s native Latvia, though obviously filmed in scenic HK. Confidential (a.k.a. Amaya, trailer here) is one of this year’s harder submissions to pigeon hole, well beyond its multinational pedigree, yet it is strangely beguiling and certainly worthy of a product tour on the festival circuit, regardless of Oscar love.

The English-speaking Paul is not a tourist, he is a traveler, visiting far-flung Asian locales in search of traditional and exotic massage techniques. In HK, he signs up for classes taught by the Chinese master Tao, where he seems to have an odd effect on the employees. At first the attractive Jasmine resents his rather confident flirtation, but the older Amaya is intrigued by the mystery man.

Amaya is also something of an outsider, a Japanese expatriate who has made a home with her dull but loving dry-cleaner husband. She is relatively happy, but misses her grown son working in a far-off fishing village. Indeed, everyone in Confidential is missing or yearning for someone and each keeps his own secrets.

Martinsons deftly walks a fine line in Confidential, playing all sorts of narrative games in the background, while foregrounding the film with deceptively accessible relationship dramas and even moments of light comedy. Frankly, it is an odd experience watching a film that is so emotionally engaging, yet also something of a head-scratcher—but that is not a bad thing.

It all works because of the caliber of his cast. Written for the great Japanese actress Kaori Momoi (whose credits include Kurosawa’s Kagemusha and a flat-out awesome supporting turn in Takashi Miike’s otherwise disappointing Sukiyaki Western Django), she brings a mature beauty and a wonderful sense of dignity to the film as Amaya. In fact, her understated wisdom helps sell the film’s riskier, more mystical scenes. Though Andrius Momotovas’ English often sounds more than a bit phonetic, he has a fascinating screen presence, developing real chemistry with the ensemble. There is also something quite haunting about Monie Tung’s performance as the beautiful but wounded Jasmine.

What most distinguishes Confidential is the degree to which Martinsons maintains his characters auras of mystery without indulging in obscurity for its own sake, a la David Lynch. It would surely frustrate more conventional viewers, but it unquestionably establishes its own unique tone, further heightened by the original music composed by lead actor Momotovas (whose catchy song “The World is Full of Love” is at least as Oscar-worthy as nine-tenths of this year’s forty-one qualified tunes). There is no question Confidential is a long shot for the foreign language nomination, but it ought to rank in the top ten percentile of the field. If Academy members paid attention during their screenings, anything is possible.