Sunday, September 30, 2018

VIFF ’18: Mori, the Artist’s Habitat

All things must pass. That simple fact of life was already one of the primary themes of this gentle film, but it will hit home with extra force for viewers watching it two weeks following the death of revered co-star Kirin Kiki. She was the designated grandmother of Japanese cinema and a mainstay of Kore-eda’s films. Her loss is enormous, but she left behind a wonderful body of work, including Shûichi Okita’s Mori, the Artist’s Habitat (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2018 Vancouver International Film Festival.

For decades (the year varies from source to source), modernist artist Morikazu Kumagai has confined himself to his Tokyo home and its sprawling backyard garden. Known for his cat paintings and nature studies, Kumagai has found all the inspiration he needs communing with the bugs and goldfish that share his world. Alas, the days are numbered for his Eden. A condo development underway will block out the sun from most of his beloved garden.

If you think this will be an angry protest movie, guess again. While there are protestors, primarily art students, posting anti-development signs around the neighborhood, Kumagai is above such things. He just continues Zen-like, present in every moment.

In some ways, Habitat is a small, partial cure for the divisiveness that ails us now. Instead of shunning and demonizing each other, two parties with seemingly diametrically opposed interests can come together, break bread, and forge connections. In this case, it is Kumagai with his wife Hideko (naturally played by Kiki) and protective neighbors that connect with the foreman and construction workers building the condominiums across the street.

Granted, we have seen characters like the nature-centric Kumagai and his protective wife in other films, but encountering them in their idyllic home, interacting with nature and the constant flow of visitors (Kumagai is not anti-social, but maybe just a little gruff) is quite endearing—even restorative.

Tsutomu Yamazaki’s portrayal of Kumagai is wonderfully subtle and finely calibrated, embracing his eccentricities without indulging in shticky foibles. Of course, Kirin Kiki is warmly charming as Hideko. Ryo Kase also has some nice moments as Takeshi Fujita, a photographer Kumagai has allowed into his inner circle. Plus, Yoichi Hayashi gets some dry chuckles as Emperor Showa (yes, since Kumagai no longer goes out into the world, the world will have to come to Kumagai—figuratively).

Habitat is a simple narrative, following a day in the life of Kumagai with a short epilogue presumably set a few weeks or months later, but it is all about art, nature, life, and mindfulness. Okita is quite attuned to natural settings and subjects, having previously helmed The Woodsman and the Rain. Somehow, he instills in Habitat a vibe that is both elegiac and life-affirming. Highly recommended, especially to remember the life and talent of Kirin Kiki, Mori, the Artist’s Habitat screens this afternoon (9/30) and next Sunday (10/7), as part of this year’s VIFF.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

VIFF ’18: A Family Tour

The Mainland Chinese government forced independent filmmaker Ying Liang into exile, but at least they also provided some creative inspiration along with the pain and inconvenience of his separation from family. In 2014, Ying and his wife shadowed his in-laws across Taiwan while they were on a strictly regimented tour. That frustrating so-near-yet-so-far pseudo-reunion germinated into his first feature since his devastating When Night Falls got him into all that trouble in the first place. An independent Chinese director will have a very similar experience with a very similar film in Ying’s A Family Tour (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2018 Vancouver International Film Festival.

Yang Shu’s film is called Mother of One Recluse, but its premise is identical to that of When Night Falls. It too focuses on the distraught mother of shut-in son sentenced to death for the murder of six cops. It was again truly a case of temporary insanity, induced by the injuries he suffered during a police beating and his fruitless quest to have his assailants brought to justice. The results for the filmmaking are also the same. Yang now lives as an exile in Hong Kong with her husband Cheung Ka-ming, a legal, born-and-bred Hong Kong citizen.

Even though they skype regularly, it has been over five years since Yang has seen her mother Chen Xiaolin in person and probably even longer since they had a conversation of real depth. Her husband arranged Chen’s bus tour of Kaohsiung City, but the Mainland-based company keeps close tabs on their customers. Nevertheless, the diplomatic Cheung has convinced Peng, the tour director to turn a half-blind eye. However, their initial meetings are still awkward, especially after Yang’s mother gives her a micro-recording of an intimidating police visit she received while Yang’s film was on the festival circuit.

Tour is a breathlessly quiet, delicately humane scream of protest. Ying does not merely revisit the circumstances of his banishment. He also harkens back to the dark days of the Cultural Revolution, drawing sharp parallels between the suffering of Yang’s parents then and the conditions for dissidents in Mainland China today. It is especially distressing to hear how family members had to sever contact to protect each other—and may need to do so again now.

Ironically, Nai An is probably still better known as an indie producer, but she is one of the finest screen thesps working today, based on her fearless performances as Chen here, as well as When Night Falls, Girls Always Happy, Old Stone, and the short film What Tears Us Apart. Granted, each time she has played a mother, but they have been very different mothers, yet often almost always with acute sensitivity and overwhelming poignancy.

Arguably, the work of Gong Zhe as Yang, Ying’s analog, is even more subtly challenging, but ultimately deeply moving. She has created a tough, painfully human portrait of an artist who has made some hard choices and must now live with them. Pete Teo is just achingly earnest as her supportive husband Cheung, while co-screenwriter “33” (that’s her name, don’t wear it out) is spectacularly shallow and abrasive as Peng, the busybody.

Clearly, a lot of pain and frustration went into Family Tour, but it is also the product of considerable artistic integrity. Yes, Ying is inescapably critical of the Mainland Communist regime, but he also refers back to Taiwan’s checkered human rights history. It is just a shame when governments keep family members apart, but it happens all the time, particularly in contemporary China. Very highly recommended, A Family Tour screens tonight (9/29) and Monday afternoon (10/1), as part of this year’s VIFF.

Friday, September 28, 2018

HK Cinema at SFFS ’18: Somewhere Beyond the Mist

This could be the easiest case a Hong Kong police detective ever worked, but it will still take quite an emotional toll. It is a case of parricide that hits close to home for the pregnant police inspector, who is struggling with her dementia-suffering father. Desperate people do horrific things in Cheung King-wai’s Somewhere Beyond the Mist (trailer here), which screens as part of the San Francisco Film Society’s annual Hong Kong Cinema series.

Angela and her husband seem to be doing well, judging by their stylish and relatively spacious (by HK standards) flat, but her father’s erratic behavior is a constant source of embarrassment. In contrast, Connie, a distressingly innocent looking high school student, lives in mean poverty that her stern but lecherous father makes exponentially more unpleasant.

One day, Angela draws the case of a middle-aged couple found strangled and dumped in the High Island Reservoir. It will not be much of a mystery, because Connie will stun the officer with a confession during a routine questioning. It will also be pretty clear why she did it when Cheung flashes backwards to give us lowlights from the young teen’s family life. Of course, she could not do it alone, but she easily manipulates her torch-carrying platonic friend Eric. The real question is the extent to which we consider her a monster and victim.  50/50? 30/70?

Mist is cold as heck, but completely absorbing. Sometimes it is painful to watch, but it is never exploitative or excessively heavy-handed. Frankly, there were at least half a dozen bullying and cyber-shaming films at this year’s NYAFF that were more soul-searing. However, Mist issues a direct challenge, using Angela as an audience proxy to ask just how far removed are we from the miserable and merciless Connie?

Rachel Leung Yung-ting is completely transfixing, profoundly heartbreaking, and totally terrifying as Connie. The impact of her performance is stunning, but it would be a grave mistake to overlook Stephy Tang’s quiet, more subdued work as Angela, because that is where the film’s real bite lies. Cheung gets another remarkable performance from young Zeno Koo, who leaves us even more conflicted with his achingly vulnerable work as poor, pliable Eric.

Best known as a documentarian, Cheung also has an eye for the widescreen, composing shots reminiscent of scroll paintings (shot with icy perfection by cinematographer Shermen Leung Shu-moon), which often relegate the dwarfed characters to a far corner. It is clearly an uncompromisingly auteurist work, but it is also deeply haunting. Recommended for patrons of serious world drama, Somewhere Beyond the Mist screens Saturday and Sunday (9/29 & 9/30) as part of this year’s edition of the SFFS’s Hong Kong Cinema 2018.

Maximum Impact: The FSB and the Secret Service, Working Together

You would think the U.S. Secret Service would more likely deal with the Russian Federal Protective Service (FSO) than the FSB, the cosmetically revamped successor to the KGB, if it were tasked with protecting a top secret summit in Moscow. However, the FSB needs more good press, so Russian D-minus-list action star Alexander Nevsky duly plays a FSB agent in his latest outing. This time, he gets to partner up with Kelly Hu, but she can’t redeem Andrzej Bartkowiak’s Maximum Impact (trailer here), which opens today in select theaters.

Maxim Kadurin is built like a tank, but he is actually a FSB computer jockey supporting the deceptively small of stature Andrei Durov, a.k.a. “The Hammer from Hell.” However, a concussion forces the agents to swap roles right before the arrival of the American Secretary of State for a double-secret gab session with his counterpart. However, Sec. Jacobs’ granddaughter Brittany manages to stowaway on the State Department plane, so she can rendezvous with her internet flirtation, a Russian boy band idol.

When Kadurin foils an assassination attempt, the shticky pack of fedora wearing villains fall back on an improvised plan B: kidnapping the granddaughter. Since the two airheaded kids are weirdly competent at avoiding detection, it leads to much certainty regarding her status and safety. Fearing the worst, Kadurin and Secret Service Agent Kate Desmond to find and secure the wayward granddaughter before their bosses know she is missing.

Nevsky might be well-connected in Russia (he also represents the country in the Hollywood Foreign Press Association), but his films just are not catching on anywhere else. To be fair, Showdown in Manila is not terrible, but Black Rose was just a lifeless mess. He is not totally unlikable on-screen, but comedy is clearly a challenge for him. That is a real problem, because the jokes and gags are much higher in Impact’s mix than it was for his prior films.

Kelly Hu gets to do a lot of kick-boxing to the extent of almost eclipsing Nevsky as the film’s primary action lead. On the other hand, she has to suffer the indignity of a bleach blond bowl-cut disguise. However, that is nothing compared to humiliating shtick forced on Mark Dacascos, playing Tony Lin, a former Z-list TV star now fronting the gang of mercenaries. However, there is plenty of additional embarrassment to go around, including Tom Arnold playing a senior Secret Service agent obsessed with his prostate and Bai Ling as Scanlon, the over-sexed Under-Secretary for Security. Only Eric Roberts seems to glide through unfazed as Sec. Jacobs.

Take it from someone who appreciates a scrappy B-movie: this is just a bad film. It is more like an employment project for Nevsky’s contacts than something anyone should actually watch. As a cinematographer, Bartkowiak shot classics like The Verdict and Prizzi’s Honor, but his work as a director has been less auspicious. Yet, in this case, most of the creative decisions were most likely out of his control. Not recommended, Maximum Impact opens somewhere today (9/28) and hits VOD next Tuesday (10/2).

Thursday, September 27, 2018


It is sort was sort of like winning the ultimate reality TV survival game, except maybe winners weren’t so lucky. After the doomsday plague broke out, 5,000 lottery winners were placed in sealed bunkers and connected to six other survivors via the communication system known as the “Domain.” Survival has been more of a mental challenge for Phoenix and her six fellow lucky drawers, but they might start to face physical issues as well in screenwriter-director Nathaniel Atcheson’s Domain (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in Los Angeles.

Phoenix is stuck with a really motley group of survivors. Somewhere, along the way, they stopped using names and started referring to each by the city their bunker is located in. Orlando is an aggressively obnoxious jerk, who recently confessed to his criminal past. He is definitely the worst of the group, but Chicago has also been exhibiting anti-social tendencies. At least she has Denver, with whom she has commenced a seriously long-distance relationship. That has caused a bit of jealousy in Boston, who takes his position as their ostensive leader very seriously.

Over Phoenix’s objections, the group votes to disconnect Orlando from their feeds. Presumably, this is a massive violation of protocol, but Denver’s hacking prowess makes it possible. Unfortunately, bugs start developing in the system shortly thereafter, suggesting they may have upset the Domain’s equilibrium. As the glitches become progressively more serious, Phoenix and Denver start considering the possibility of escape.

The first two-thirds of Domain are quite cleverly conceived and tightly executed. These (for the most part) six bunkers feel like a real living environment, as well as a hermetically sealed ecosystem unto itself. However, Atcheson sort of writes himself into a corner, which forces him to fall back on a derivative cop-out third act reveal.

Brit Lower is terrific as Phoenix, balancing strength and vulnerability in equal measure. She develops some remarkably potent (though necessarily chaste) chemistry with Ryan Merriman’s Denver. William Gregory Lee also portrays the risk-averse Boston with surprising depth and dimension.

Even though the laws governing their situation do not make a great deal of sense, but Atcheson scrupulous observes them—and in some cases explanations will be revealed later. Yet, the film really works best when things are murky and mysterious. Recommended as an interesting near-future, slightly-dystopian film (one that is more about the social and psychological implications of extreme situations), Domain opens tomorrow (9/28) in LA, at the Laemmle Music Hall.

Saulnier’s Hold the Dark

It wasn’t dingoes that took Medora Slone’s child. It was wolves. At least, everyone believes her, because this thing has happened before. However, that will not placate her husband when he returns from serving in Fallujah. Although his wrath will surely fall on his wife, there is no telling who else might feel his rage. For someone as ferocious as Vernon Slone, the loss of his son could just be an excuse for a bloody rampage. Ultimately, there is no why. Vernon is just wild and violent. That could describe several characters in Jeremy Saulnier’s Hold the Dark (trailer here), which premieres on Netflix this Friday.

Medora has summoned broken down naturalist Dr. Russell Core, a noted wolf advocate, hoping he will track and kill the wolves that presumably carried off her young child to his death. Although he is a conservationist, he keenly empathizes with the grieving mother. He also senses something is a little off with her. That intuition is born out when she disappears right before her husband’s return. She has her reasons.

Instead of tracking wolves, Core helps local sheriff Donald Marium track Vernon and Medora. The former leaves a trail of dead bodies that are quite easy to follow. However, the more elusive Medora has set off into the dark heart of the Alaskan wilderness.

Hold the Dark has even more carnage than Saulnier’s previous films, Blue Ruin and Green Room, but it is loaded sinister spiritualism and heavy allegorical symbolism. Yes, people are wolves—and even worse. Still, it must be stipulated, Saulnier crafts an eerie mood that is hard to shake.

For better or worse, the film peaks about midway through when Cheeon, one of Vernon’s Native Alaska drinking buddies, ignites a massive shootout with Marium’s deputies, to provide a distraction. This might be the most intense and horrifyingly brutal gun fight ever staged on film.

Yet, there is also deeply humanistic element to the film, thanks to Jeffrey Wright’s performance as the profoundly world-weary Core. It is painful to watch him gasp, wheeze, and stew in his regret and remorse. Similarly, James Badge Dale’s Marium gives us a grounded, tragically decent everyman figure to identify with.

On the other side of the spectrum, Alexander Skarsgard is big, hulking, and quietly creepy, totally footing the bill of a villain who evokes the supernatural. The chameleon-like Riley Keogh is also quite unsettling as Medona, but Julian Black Antelope overshadows them both as the lethally resentful Cheeon.

Although Hold the Dark is clearly intended as a meditation on violence, it remains inscrutable on many levels. There is no satisfying explanation for the death Vernon leaves in his wake. He is meant to be something akin to a force of nature or a mythical beast. That is both frustrating and unnerving, much like the film itself. A little less portentousness would have made for a tighter, tauter ride, but it is still clearly the work of an assured stylist. Recommended for its intangible spookiness and its shocking centerpiece, Hold the Dark starts streaming tomorrow (9/28) on Netflix and also opens in New York, at the IFC Center.