Monday, July 27, 2015

AAIFF ’15: Jasmine

You have never seen the streets and business plazas of Hong Kong so empty. Fortunately, thanks to cell phones, loitering does not look nearly as suspicious as it used to. Despite his awkwardness, Leonard To will indeed be able to closely shadow the man he believes might be responsible for his wife’s murder in Dax Phelan’s English language HK production, Jasmine (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2015 Asian American International Film Festival in New York.

To is very definitely not over his wife’s death yet, but the Hong Kong police have apparently moved on. As a result of his debilitating grief, he lost his job and his waterfront apartment. However, just when he starts looking to restart his career, he observes a mysterious figure placing flowers on his wife’s grave. When he subsequently follows the strange man to the site of his wife’s murder, he assumes this must be the guilt-ridden killer.

Having plenty of time on his hands, To manages to find a way to snoop through his suspect’s luxury flat. He also starts tailing the unnamed man’s girlfriend, Anna, a model struggling to jumpstart her acting career. Only Grace, an understanding family friend, still finds time to see him, but even she is alarmed by his increasingly erratic behavior.

Jasmine is definitely what you would call a slow-burner. It is also a “big twist” kind of film, springing a third act revelation that will radically alter the audience’s perception of everything that preceded it. You can never re-watch Jasmine with the same mindset, but it would be interesting to revisit each scene in a different light.

Jason Tobin is pretty darned extraordinary as To, personifying twitchy, clammy pathos. He keeps us deeply unsettled, while closely guarding the film’s secrets. It is almost a one-man show, but Sarah Lian and Eugenia Yuan (daughter of the great Cheng Pei-pei and former U.S. Olympian) add considerable human depth and emotional heft to the film as Anna and Grace, respectively. Byron Mann has little to do except obliviously lead To through Hong Kong, but he has the perfect presence for the role, honed by a number prior villainous big screen turns. Grace Huang (star of producer Jennifer Thym’s dynamite short film Bloodtraffick) also briefly appears as Jasmine To, but you might miss it if you blink at an inopportune moment.

Jasmine is a dark, tightly disciplined thriller, occupying the space where film noir and existential angst overlap. Phelan pulls off some impressive misdirection, while cinematographer Guy Livneh gives the proceedings an eerily cool sheen. Recommended for fans of psychological suspense, Jasmine screens this Thursday (7/30) at the Village East, as part of this year’s AAIFF.