Thursday, June 30, 2016

NYAFF ’16: The Mermaid

It is the highest grossing domestic film in China, easily surpassing Monster Hunt in a fracture of the time, without any sort of book-cooking game-playing. Therefore, it is probably safe to say demand for Stephen Chow slapstick lunacy is inexhaustibly rabid. Unfortunately, this one is a major disappointment. Brace yourself for the didacticism that drags down the manic spectacle of Chow’s The Mermaid (trailer here), starring Screen International Rising Star Asia Award Recipient Jelly Lin, which screens during the 2016 New York Asian Film Festival.

Liu Xuan is a flashy real estate developer, who just pulled off a coup. He plans to soon reclaim a protected stretch of coastal property after chasing away the dolphins with a super-strong sonar installation. I bet you always thought dolphins used sonar themselves, but fortunately Chow is here to correct your zoological misperceptions. Turns out they can’t stand the stuff and neither can a secret colony of mermaids. As their numbers dwindle, the mega-cute Shan is recruited to assassinate Liu using poisonous sea urchins.

However, Shan and Liu fall in love quicker than you can say Splash. Needless to say, this does not sit well with Ruolan, Liu’s on-again-off-again business partner and longtime flirting interest. She is also a major femme fatale, who is hatching a sinister plan of her own.

Let’s face it, The Mermaid should be way more fun than it is. Unfortunately, Chow just loses control of his message (aren’t you supposed to use Western Union to send those?), inflicting interminable scenes of Mermaids getting machine-gunned down (by primarily Anglo henchmen) on the audience. That’s right, there are a ton of dead mermaids in this film. Oh, such good times. At least he makes his environmental points with bludgeoning force.

The film’s saving grace is Kitty Zhang Yuqi’s wonderfully sassy and seductive performance as the villainous Ruolan. You won’t think from appearances in films like CJ7 she had such cattiness in her, but that is how she supplies ninety-five percent of the fun to be found in The Mermaid. Jelly Lin is also quite soulful and vulnerable as Shan, which makes it even more disturbing to see legions of mermen getting slaughtered around her. As for Deng Chao’s Liu, most viewers will want to stab him with a poisoned sea urchin after the first fifteen minutes.

To an extent, Chow deserves credit for directly criticizing China’s environmental protection policies—or lack thereof to be more accurate. By just about every objective measure, the People’s Republic is the dirtiest nation in the history of pollution. (Check out Beijing Besieged by Waste sometime, on an empty stomach.) However, when he starts literally stacking up the body bags filled with mermaid carcasses, he sabotages the film for the sake of the message. Never in our wildest dreams did we ever imagine a Stephen Chow film could be described as a buzz-kill, but here we are. Not recommended—especially not for children because of the slaughtered mermaids—Chow’s The Mermaid screens this Saturday (7/2) with a special Q&A scheduled with breakthrough star Jelly Lin at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

Gondry’s Microbe and Gasoline

Even Mr. Rogers would be tempted to bully Daniel Guéret and Théo Leloir. It is not just because they are French (although there is that). They just seem to be striving for a nauseatingly twee ragamuffin look. Finding themselves alienated from their cool classmates and their square parents, the two lads head off on an unlikely road trip in Michel Gondry’s Microbe and Gasoline (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Being small for his age and slightly girlish looking, Guéret has been dubbed “Microbe” by his classmates. Leloir, the new transfer student, is a grease monkey and a bit of a blowhard—hence, “Gasoline.” Together, they are “Masoline” or “Gicrobe,” but mainly they just talk about girls and their families’ lameness. The working-class Leloirs have serious financial and health problems, whereas Guéret’s high strung New Agey mother constantly wants to solve problems he doesn’t have—yet, she somehow couldn’t find time for his rather impressive gallery opening.

By selling and bartering scrap metal, Leloir and Guéret (but mostly Leloir) kit-bash together a rudimentary car, but since it is not up to legal specs, they camouflage it as a comfy cottage. Conveniently, it also provides sleeping accommodations when they light off on their sketchily planned trip out of Dodge.

Clearly, Gondry loves these kids, because M&G is rendered with great sensitivity. However, it lacks the raw vitality of Gondry’s surprisingly entertaining The We and the I. The screen rapport between co-leads Ange Dargent and Théophile Baquet is quite strong. In fact, Dargent also has suitably awkward but potent chemistry with Diane Besnier, who plays Laura, Microbe’s crushy, perhaps fatally platonic friend Laura. Audrey Tautou is laudable unrecognizable as Marie Thérèse Guéret, a 1970s mother in a post-millennium world.

However, the narrative follows a disappointingly safe and predictable course. It might also be a mistake to have so much scrap metal collecting in a film less than three years after Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant (if you’ve seen it, you know what we mean).

M&G is a very nice film about friendship and loyalty—kind of the end. It is probably the earthiest film of Gondry’s eccentric oeuvre, but it still often feels self-consciously precious. Nice is indeed the right word for it. Recommended for those who dig auteurist after school specials, Microbe and Gasoline opens tomorrow (7/1) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

NYAFF ’16: The Bacchus Lady

Well, this is interesting product placement. Those bottles of Bacchus So-young offers to lonely old men in the park are sort of like Red Bull. The implication is clear. If they go off with her, they should get their energy up, so to speak. It is a tough racket for a senior citizen, but So-young’s bills won’t pay themselves in E J-yong’s Bacchus Lady (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 New York Asian Film Festival.

Evidently, elder prostitution is kind of a thing in Korea, but nobody besides E J-yong talks about it. So-young (the English double meaning of her name is intentional) only takes on clients of similarly advanced years. It is not much of a living, but at least her transsexual landlord and the cashier at the hourly no-tell motel are patient. They will have to be during the week she recuperates from the old sailors’ disease. Somehow she also manages to pick up a kid at the doctor’s office.

Poor lost Min-ho is the love child of a Filipina mother and a rich deadbeat Korean doctor. When her confrontation turns non-lethally violent, So-young takes in the confused boy, hiding him from the cops. Of course, her life seems somewhat strange to the innocent lad, but they soon warm to each other. Meanwhile, So-young’s career takes an Arsenic & Old Lace detour when several old clients request her help arranging final exits.

Sounds like a load of laughs, right? Yet, somehow Youn Yuh-jung, one of the leading lights of Korean cinema keeps things relatively light and totally dignified. She covers the full gamut, but her So-young is always tough. Frankly, if this were an American film, everyone would be scrambling to give Youn awards, because it is both a tragic and empowering performance, in a film that ticks so many social issue boxes.

Some of those secondary themes are more potent than other. Arguably, the euthanasia subplot feels a little shopworn, following in the depressing footsteps of Grace Quigley, Honey, and The Farewell Party. However, the camaraderie So-young shares with her former clients is rather intriguing.

Bacchus Lady is nice film that is considerably elevated by Grand Dame Youn’s gritty, gutsy, and graceful performance. There are not a lot of surprises waiting to be sprung on the audience, but there are moments that will stick with you. Respectfully recommended, The Bacchus Lady screens this Friday (7/1) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

Le Carre’s Our Kind of Traitor

It turns out Putin even ruined the Russian Mob. They used to be reasonable gangsters a money launderer like Dima Vladimirovich Krasnov could do business with. Unfortunately, the newly installed boss is far more vicious than any of the old school Thieves By Law. Knowing his days are numbered, Krasnov reaches out to the least imposing Brit he can find in Susanna White’s adaptation of the John le Carré novel Our Kind of Traitor (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Gail Perkins is rather bent out of sorts when her husband Perry Makepeace allows the free-spending Dima to whisk him away for a night of partying, but the Russian can be persuasive. He is desperate, in fact. The money launderer is scheduled to sign over his accounts to the entitled gangster heir, aptly dubbed Prince, at which time, what happened to his colleague in the prologue will mostly likely befall Dima and his family. Somehow Krasnov convinces the skittish Makepeace to carry a list of names to British intelligence, much to the appalled surprise of his wife.

Dima’s intel might just be too good. One of his names is Aubrey Longrigg, the up-and-coming cabinet minister, with whom counter-intelligence specialist Hector Meredith holds a deeply personal grudge. Krasnov promises the corresponding account numbers in exchange for his family’s safety. Not one to be deterred by skeptical bureaucrats, Meredith goes off the books, keeping his close associates and Makepeace, the designated go-between, in the dark. However, when the Longrigg’s political allies try to put the kibosh on the operation, Makepeace and Perkins double-down with Meredith out of loyalty to Dima’s family.

On the spectrum of le Carré adaptations, Traitor is one of the better efforts without George Smiley. As Meredith, Damian Lewis is no Sir Alec Guinness or Gary Oldman, but he is still more than the equal of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was indeed the best thing about A Most Wanted Man.

Yet, it is Stellan Skarsgård who really propels the film as the flamboyant Krasnov. Frankly, his wardrobe might be the film’s greatest special effect. Mark Gatiss and Khalid Abdalla add further heft and flair portraying Meredith’s cloak-and-dagger colleagues. Technically, Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris are the leads, but their low energy bickering is the least interesting aspect of the film. Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle gives it all the austere sheen of a Norman Foster building, but Marcelo Zarvos score is disappointingly classy, in a non-descript sort of way.

Unlike many le Carré narratives, screenwriter Hossein Amini’s adaptation does not bogged down in a lot of details. This is the rare le Carré that you watch for the characters rather than the twists—and Skarsgård’s Dima is most definitely a character. It also allows Meredith to take a stand against moral equivalency while squarely planting the villain’s mustache on Putinist Russia. We’ll take that in a le Carré film any day. Recommended with enthusiasm, Our Kind of Traitor opens this Friday (7/1) in New York at several theaters, including the AMC Empire, and in Brooklyn at BAM.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

NYAFF ’16: The Throne

It is a hard fact of royal life that a family member has to die before the next prospective king can take his “rightful” place on the throne. Sure, kings have abdicated, but it is generally a bad idea to leave loose ends cluttering up your divine authority. The cutthroat nature of royal families drives the tragedy of Lee Joon-ik’s The Throne (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 New York Asian Film Festival.

Known for prizing scholarship, particularly Confucian ethics, King Yeongjo was slightly disappointed in his ne’er do well, possibly psychotic son Prince Sado. At least that is Team Yeongjo’s side of the story. Of course, Team Sado argues the Prince was not really mad per se, just rattled by the King’s constant belittling. For years a cold war rages between them, but both are restricted from taking direct action by decorum and courtly law. However, Prince Sado finally raises arms against his father in the opening scene, only to be betrayed by his wife, for the sake of their son, the anointed heir.

Sealed in a rice chest as a means of indirect, technically-not-an-execution-by-the-letter-of-the-law, Prince Sado slowly and agonizingly wastes away, as the film revisits their tempestuous history through flashbacks. Frankly, Lee and co-screenwriters Jo Chul-Hyun and Oh Seung-hyun do not favor either the father or the son. Instead, their sympathies lie with the grandson and the various royal family members and court officials caught in the crossfire of their intrigues.

In America, The Throne is notable as Korea’s foreign language Oscar submission, but on its home turf, it was eagerly anticipated as “Little Sister” Moon Geun-young’s return to film after an eight-year hiatus at college and on television. As Lady Hyegyeong, the potential Queen Mum, she is quite a compelling picture of conflicted loyalties and motherly anxiety. Lee Hyo-je is also surprisingly effective as the anointed grandson. Aside from Thirst, most fans know Song Kang-ho for his more affable, schlubby characters in films like The Face Reader and The Attorney. While not exactly a heavy, the severe King Yeongjo is a bit of a departure, but Song sort of humanizes him with some weird fussbudgetry. Yoo Ah-in similarly plays Prince Sado with such off-putting clamminess, it is only because of Lee Hyo-je that viewers come to sympathize with Team Sado.

Regardless, The Throne is a rich period production and its machinations are fascinating even if we often lack a strong rooting interest. Yet, Lee Joon-ik and company ultimately make a case for the sort of tragically Machiavellian sacrifices nobility requires. Arguably, it shares a distant kinship with Mike Bartlett’s West End hit, King Charles III. Recommended for its wealth of first rate performances and a provocative examination of the costs of attaining and maintaining power, The Throne screens this Thursday (6/30) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

Private Property: The Lost California Noir

It seems like bad karma to shoot a home invasion-slash-class conscious seduction thriller in your own home, with your wife starring as the predator’s target, but as an early independent filmmaker, Leslie Stevens had to make do with the resources available to him. Sadly, their marriage ended badly, but Stevens would have quite the interesting career, helming the Esperanto-language horror film Incubus, creating The Outer Limits, and writing the MST3K­-skewered TV movie, Riding with Death, amongst other projects. Long considered lost, his indie noir feature directorial debut has been rediscovered and fully restored, in all its black-and-white hothouse glory. The sun shines bright, but California is a dark place in Stevens’ Private Property (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Duke and Boots might have been banished from a Steinbeck novel for giving seedy drifters a bad name. They make no secret of their violent tendencies, shaking down service station owners for free sodas and traveling salesmen for rides considerably out of their way. For obvious reasons, they just got it into their heads to follow Ann Carlyle, so they forced poor Ed Hogate to oblige. As ill fortune would have it, there happens to be an empty house overlooking the Carlyle McMansion. From their perch they can watch her swimming in the buff (but not the audience, because this was 1960).

Of course, the creepy tramps are not content to watch. Both are sexually attracted to her (notwithstanding their homoerotic tension), but the more passive Boots claims Duke “owes” him a woman. The wiry sociopath duly promises to “arrange” matters for his companion, but he clearly seems interested in her for his own sake when he approaches her under the guise of a freelance gardener looking for work. Against her better judgment, Carlyle keeps devising odd jobs for Duke. Initially, she is motivated by rich liberal guilt, but she is increasingly tempted by his raw, animalistic sexuality. Of course, the ominous courtship is likely to end badly, given Duke’s erratic personality.

Property is a seriously strange film in many respects. Although it is never explicit per se, it addresses sexual predation in uncomfortable frank terms, even by today’s standards. It is also one of the few fully realized California noirs. Veteran Hollywood cinematographer Ted McCord (Treasure of the Sierra Madre, East of Eden) uses light and reflections rather stunningly in key scenes. Stevens’ Beverly Hills home and its trappings also have the perfect look of hip, striving swankiness, circa 1960.

Although he is best remembered as James Dean’s adversary in Rebel without a Cause, future TV director Corey Allen’s performance as Duke ranks alongside movie psychopaths like Max Cady in Cape Fear (either one) and Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death. There is something absolutely foul about him, yet he can turn on the sinister charisma. As Boots, Warren Oates well compliments him with a different sort of resentful, passive aggressive menace. It is too bad life did not work out better for Kate Manx, because she is terrific as Carlyle. It is also a gas to see veteran character actor Jerome Cowan (Miles Archer in The Maltese Falcon and the DA in Miracle on 34th Street) turn up as the salesman who is strong-armed into following Ms. Carlyle.

Despite the sun and the swimming pool, Property is noir in every way. It is a shame it fell off the face of the earth for so long, but it is definitely worth catching up with. Highly recommended for fans of classic film noir and independent cinema, Private Property opens this Friday (7/1) in New York, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

NYAFF ’16: She Remembers, He Forgets

Remember how you were in high school, pretty, popular, and fascinated by aviation? At least that is how it was for Gigi Yu. The aviation part did not come to her naturally, but from hanging around with the leaders of the Aviation Club. Technically, it was the earnest egghead who really understood planes. She married the good looking one instead. Was that a mistake? Yu starts wondering exactly that when she takes a trip down memory lane in Adam Wong’s She Remembers, He Forgets (trailer here), starring this year’s Star Asia Award winner, Miriam Yeung, which screens during the 2016 New York Asian Film Festival.

Yu and her husband Pang Shing-wa work more than they communicate. However, when they were high school students in the early 1990s, anything seemed possible, even with the mounting uncertainty regarding the Hong Kong handover. Yu’s platonic aviation buddies Pang and So Bok-man are both hoped to take their relationship to the next level. Pang closed the sale on open house weekend, which most likely caused So’s sudden disappearance shortly thereafter.

Unfortunately, Yu is starting to suspect Pang turned into a cheating dog. As she revisits her alma mater for this year’s open house weekend (we’d probably call it homecoming), decidedly on her own, Yu gets flashes of memory suggesting that she’d missed some pretty important signs from So. Putting the pieces together, she becomes desperate to reconnect with the torch-carrying rocket-launcher.

Okay, we can all probably admit SRHF is about twenty minutes too long. Any romantic dramedy should be able to wrap things up in under twenty minutes. That said, Wong uses the split time frame with lethal effectiveness. Granted, he is not playing fair, constantly revealing previously withheld information with each successive flashback. Still, few mortals can withstand the sheer power of the nostalgia he unleashes. Even if you weren’t launching bottle rockets with the cutest girl in school (and at least one other dude and the crusty old janitor), SRHF will make you feel like you did.

Yeung is undeniably a big star and she is impressive as the adult Yu. It is a sensitive turn, but also refreshingly mature and grounded. This is a woman who is experiencing a lot of disappointments, but still gets up for work each morning. However, newcomer Cecilia So just walks away with the film as teenage Yu. Her finely wrought chemistry with Ng Siu-hin’s So Bok-man also pays huge emotional dividends. If NYAFF patrons aren’t completely cried out from If Cats Disappeared from the World, this might just finish them off.

The pre-handover setting heightens the bittersweet vibe even further and gives the film a vivid sense of time and place. It is definitely a romantic tragedy, but it is the sort of weeper that makes you feel better when it concludes. Recommended for fans of Yeung and happy-sad love stories, She Remembers, He Forgets screens tomorrow night (6/29) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

Monday, June 27, 2016

NYAFF ’16: Creepy

Cops and serial killers have trouble retiring. At least, Det. Koichi Takakura gives it a try. However, the freshly appointed criminology professor is soon investigating an unsolved family disappearance as part of his academic research. Of course, this case will hit close to home, as they often do in serial killer movies. So it goes when Kiyoshi Kurosawa returns to his macabre roots with Creepy (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 New York Asian Film Festival.

The Honda family disappearance is still somewhat notorious in this sleepy suburban district. For some reason, the mother, father and son up and vanished, leaving behind the daughter Saki while she was away on a class trip. Her memories of that time are rather confused when Takakura interviews her, but she seems to think her missing family members often made calls to a shadowy stranger.

Meanwhile, the Takakuras struggle to adapt to suburban life. The next door neighbor Nishino is particularly baffling. One day he is rude and hostile. The next day he is eager to make nice. Takakura is inclined to give him a wide berth, particularly when his daughter Mio claims he is not really her father, but he somehow seems to make inroads charming his wife Yasuko. Eventually, these two strands will intersect, because the narrative would be an ungainly mess if they didn’t.

Even though we can see the general direction Creepy is headed, the first two acts are eerie as heck. Nobody does ominous atmospherics and evil foreshadowing better than Kurosawa. Unfortunately, the final twenty minutes or so play out more-or-less by-the-numbers. Still, even though Kurosawa stops springing surprises, he has us sufficiently invested to see it through.

Hidetoshi Nishijima (who memorably got the snot beat out of him in Amir Naderi’s Cut) broods like a king as the possibly too-intense Takakura. Yet, somehow Teruyuki Kagawa manages to consistently up-stage him and everyone else as Nishino, who lives up to Kurosawa’s title and then some. Ryoko Fujino manages to be almost as unsettling, yet also disturbingly vulnerable as Mio. Max the Takakuras’ dog is cool too—and he has a significant, but not corny role to play.

It is good to see Kurosawa come back to the dark side, even though Journey to the Shore and REAL are both beautifully poignant films. There is more than enough of his master touch in Creepy to please his admirers and general fans of the serial killer genre. Recommended rather enthusiastically, Creepy screens this Wednesday (6/29) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

The Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple

You know a film has lasting cultural significance when Zhang Yimou helms a Chinese remake (in this case, the wildly entertaining A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop, starring a seriously hard-nosed Sun Honglei). For some reason, the Coen Brothers’ debut film never really found a wide popular audience, but its acclaim made the Fargo and Big Lebowski phenomena possible (as well as the Best Picture-winning No Country for Old Men). The time is probably right for casual fans to catch up with the film that started them off, Blood Simple (trailer here), which re-releases in its 4K restored glory (courtesy of the Criterion Collection) this Friday at Film Forum.

As befitting a film that takes its title from bit of Dashiell Hammett dialogue, Blood Simple starts with some hardboiled narration from sleazy private detective Loren Visser. That is him in the VW Bug, tailing Abby Marty and Ray, the manager of her husband’s east Texas roadhouse. Technically, they were not yet having an affair, but instead of continuing to Houston, they impulsively check into a motel, providing Visser with the evidence her husband expects.

Julian Marty makes no secret of his contempt for Visser, but he still hires the ethically questionable P.I. to kill his wife and her paramour. This turns out to be a mistake in retrospect. Initially, Visser falsifies evidence of his contracted hit job, killing Marty instead, using his wife’s gun to frame her up. At least that was the plan. Things get super-complicated when Ray stumbles upon the crime scene. Several iconic scenes later, the illicit lovers openly distrust each other, unaware of Visser’s villainy.

Even in an age of iPhones and the like, Blood Simple still holds up remarkably well. The noir narrative twists have not dated and it looks as stylish as ever. At the time, some complainers thought the Coens and cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld should have been filmed in black-and-white, but it simply would not have been the same film without Visser’s sickly yellow suit. It just screams bad news.

From today’s perspective, it is rather remarkable how much talent came together for this little upstart noir. M. Emmet Walsh was already something of a legend in 1984, but Blood Simple is the film that truly defines his career. As Ms. Marty, Frances McDormand, who married Joel Coen shortly after Simple wrapped, is more seductive and vulnerable than you would expect from Marge Gunderson, her Oscar-winning Fargo character. 

On the other hand, Dan Hedaya probably helped type-cast himself as ethnically ambiguous heavies with his work in Simple, but he really is terrific as Julian Marty. Frankly, John Getz probably deserved more attention for his understated but assured turn as Ray. Although he is not a household name, Tony-nominated playwright Samm-Art Williams adds considerable flair and energy as Marty’s bartender, Meurice. You can also briefly hear the then unknown Holly Hunter as the voice on his answering machine.

It is pretty crazy to imagine the Sundance press corps eagerly queueing up to get a look at the buzzy Blood Simple from the ultra-indie Coen Brothers (who even tapped their local suburban Minnesota branch of Hadassah for financial support), yet such was the case in 1984. Thirty-two years later, it remains a slickly effective thriller further distinguished by the Coens’ wickedly sly, darkly comic touches. Highly recommended, Blood Simple opens this Friday (7/1) in New York, at Film Forum.

The Innocents: A Test of Faith and Ideology

Mathilde Beaulieu’s faith will be challenged by the horrors she witnesses as a Red Cross doctor during WWII—her Communist faith. She was supposed to oversee the repatriation of French POW and concentration camp prisoners, but she also reluctantly started treating the nuns of convent repeatedly raped by the conquering Soviet Red Army. To do so, Beaulieau will risk more than her ideology in Anne Fontaine’s The Innocents (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Beaulieu’s mission parameters are rigidly focused on French nationals, so she tries her best to turn away the distraught nun. Her Communist materialism also makes her instinctively antagonistic towards the Catholic Church. However, she ultimately relents, moved by the woman’s desperation and apparent piety. When she arrives at the convent she immediately understands why the sisters refused to seek help from the Russians or fellow Poles.

She finds one nun on the brink of delivery and many others in advanced stages of pregnancy. They were the spoils of war for our Russian allies, who raped them repeatedly during several visits. Fearful the future Soviet-dominated government will use the pregnancies to discredit the Church, the Mother Superior is desperate to keep their condition secret. The nuns’ vows of modesty also make routine examinations difficult. Yet, the nuns slowly start to trust Beaulieu, especially the worldlier Maria, who joined the order after having experienced a bit of secular life.

Based on the records of French Resistance and Red Cross physician Madeleine Pauliac (whose nephew Philippe Maynial developed the film’s original story), Innocents is an uncomfortably true episode of WWII history. Undoubtedly, some churlishly pedantic critics will object to the bestial depiction of the Red Army. Yet, the awkward truth is Stalin had largely purged anyone from the military who exhibited any signs of intelligence or talent by this time. All that were left were the brutish and the blindly loyal, so yes, the film portrays them with rigorous historical accuracy.

It will also be tempting for some to think of Innocents as a prequel to the Oscar-winning Ida, especially since Agata Kulesza and Joanna Kulig appear in both films, albeit in radically different roles. While the latter was the standout as the notorious Communist hanging judge in Pawlikowski’s film, she has a harder time humanizing the rigid Mother Superior, which becomes somewhat problematic.

Regardless, French rising star Lou de Laâge is terrific anchoring the film as Beaulieu. She has a smart, forceful presence much greater than her slender size would suggest. She also forges some intriguing chemistry with the resilient Sister Maria, played with earnest grit by Agata Buzek. (We frequently defend the under-rated Jason Statham film Redemption, so it is worth noting that is where Fontaine first saw the accomplished Polish thesp.)

Fontaine also gets credit for vividly capturing the terrible sinking feeling a woman would get when pulled over by a Soviet patrol. Frankly, The Innocents is not likely to get much distribution in Putin’s Russia, but that attests to its honesty and artistic integrity. In fact, the period details are all carefully realized and the large ensemble cast really knuckles down, seamlessly blending into this bleak, war-scarred environment. Highly recommended, The Innocents opens this Friday (7/1) in New York, at the Lincoln Plaza uptown and the Angelika Film Center downtown.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

NYAFF ’16: Dongju

He only published 116 poems, give or take a few strays that turned up since the definitive publication of his first and only book, but they were enough. Much of his poetry was strictly apolitical, but the Imperial Japanese still read plenty into them, especially since they were written in Korean at a time when the language was forbidden. That in itself established a pattern of defiance. Yun Dong-jo’s short, tragic life gets the serious bio-pic treatment in Lee Joon-ik’s Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 New York Asian Film Festival.

Yun was born and raised in Jilin, China, which was then a considerable hub of the Korean Diaspora. Initially, Yun and his cousin Song Mong-gyu studied in Korea, but transferred to more prestigious Japanese universities when the Imperial language regulations became even more restrictive. They would be forced to speak Japanese in any event. However, Song clearly has ulterior motives.

Although his roles are always shadowy, it is obvious Song is deeply involved with the Korean national resistance movement. His exact ideology is also rather slippery. As a teen in Manchuria, he parrots Communist propaganda, but he quickly becomes disillusioned with their brutal tactics. Regardless, it is safe to say he is pro-Korea and anti-Imperial Japan.

The same could be said of Yun, but screenwriter Shin Youn-shick is even coyer about spelling out his revolutionary activities, if any. Yun certainly contributed to and helped edit nationalist publications with Song, but Lee and Shin often suggest his cousin shielded him from direct action. Throughout the film, they conduct a running debate as to which is more important in the long run: Song’s guerilla missions or Yun’s hope-sustaining words.

Choi Yong-jin’s black-and-white cinematography is gorgeous, but Lee’s approach is respectful to a fault and problematically bloodless. The flashback structure also gives the film the feeling of a secular passion play. To their credit, they largely avoid ideological axe-grinding and even suggest the Catholic Church helped protect Korean communities where they had a presence.

It is a good thing Yun had a way with verse, because Kang Ha-neul’s excessively reserved performance is rather charmless. Frankly, it is much more interesting to watch Park Jung-min’s passionate and conflicted portrayal of Song. He genuinely dominates the film, but Choi Hee-seo and Shin Yoon-joo do their valiant best playing the underdeveloped roles of Yun’s fellow student-literary boosters with more sensitivity than they probably deserve.

Be that as it may, Dongju is a generally well-meaning film that artfully incorporates many of Yun’s poems. It also makes a point of establishing the existence of dissenting Japanese citizens sympathetic to the Korean national cause, such as Choi’s Kumi. It is very much a screen biography of a literary figure, with all the strengths and weaknesses that genre usually entails. Primarily recommended for those who already know and respect Yun’s work, Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet screens this Tuesday (6/28) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

NYAFF ’16: What’s in the Darkness

Qu Jing’s coming-of-age story is sort of a Chinese To Kill a Mockingbird, but her father is no Atticus Finch. Nobody stands up for Qu Zhicheng, even though he is the only university educated cop on the provincial force. He would like to apply Western forensic techniques to their latest case, but they prefer to simply beat confessions out of the usual suspects. Of course, this leaves them ill-prepared to capture the serial rapist-murder terrorizing the community in Wang Yichun’s What’s in the Darkness (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 New York Asian Film Festival.

Qu Jing’s mother makes little effort to conceal her contempt for the Qu Zhicheng, but she married him anyway, because he helped her survive the Cultural Revolution. To some extent, Qu’s father never really left those times. He is still preparing for the next famine. Lacking perspective, Qu Jing equates his thrifty hoarding with embarrassing stinginess. However, they share a similarly macabre curiosity that leads them to both investigate the serial murders, in their very different ways.

While her father chafe’s under the Party’s policies and bureaucracy, Qu Jing’s inquiry is dominated by her awakening sexual confusion. Her suspicions first turn towards a dirty old man she encountered when her school ensemble performed for a senior center. As the mystery drags on, she will get sidetracked by her frienemy relationship with the more sexually confident Zhang Xue and the relatively innocent overtures of Han Jian. Unfortunately, the Qus’ inquiries intersect with the discovery of a badly decomposed body assumed to be that of the long missing Zhang.

Most of the Party’s institutions really take it in the shins during Darkness, including the corrupt and incompetent cops, the stultifying schools, and the absurdly strident propaganda. Unlike other films that have critiqued the Party’s venal graft, Wang really calls out their hypocritical Puritanism. For instance, when the police bust a group of teenagers watching a western style dirty movie, they can hardly wait to review the evidence—and you know what that means.

Su Xiaotong is a heck of a revelation in the pre-pubescent Scout Finch role. It is hard to imagine a more emotional complex and contradictory role for a pre-teen. Despite her character’s reserve, she projects a full range of feelings, as well as a constant sense of the girl’s natural intelligence (that even years of Communist propaganda and pedagogy have yet to dull). Likewise, Guo Xiao makes her ostensibly cringe-worthy father a figure of high tragedy, while Lu Qiwei exudes dangerous sexuality as Zhang Xue.

From time to time, Wang gets indecisively stuck in-between genres, but then there are scenes that literally reverberate with cultural and historical significance. It is a bold film, anchored by Su’s shockingly mature performance. Altogether it is quite an impressive debut for Wang and her youthful lead. Highly recommended, What’s in the Darkness screens tomorrow (6/27) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

NYAFF ’16: If Cats Disappeared from the World

Would tennis rackets disappear too? Probably yes. According to the rules established by the Devil, when things mysteriously disappear from the world, all the memories and consequences of their existence also vanish. However, the protagonist will have more profoundly personal associations with cats to worry about than mere sporting goods in Akira Nagai’s beautifully tragic If Cats Disappeared from the World (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 New York Asian Film Festival.

When a thirty-year-old postman is diagnosed with a hopelessly advanced brain tumor, he is rather surprised to find his Mephistophelean doppelganger waiting for him at home. Purporting to me the Devil, his double offers him a deal. Every item he completely sacrifices from the world will extend his life one day. The emphasis should definitely be on completely. The first supposedly pedestrian item to vanish will be phones. Yet, the Postman belatedly realizes it was phone calls that brought him together with the great lost love of his life.

While he reconnects with ex for a final day, the Postman is flooded with memories of their relationship—and then they disappear from each other’s lives. The next to go will be movies, which will also usher his film snob best friend from his life. Clocks will follow, affecting his relationship to his slightly estranged watchmaker father, but cats will really hurt, because of his current feline’s heartrending backstory.

If you want to hear big burly men choking back sobs, ICDFTW is the film for you. Think of it as a cross between Yojira Taika’s Oscar-winning Departures and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Journey to the Shore, but this film really goes for the heartstrings early and often. There is no question Nagai is nakedly manipulative, but viewers will not notice while they are under his spell.

As the Postman, Takeru Satoh revisits the fantastical romantic terrain of Kurosawa’s REAL, but this time he takes his performance several levels deeper. He is also suitably sinister as the infernal doppelganger. He does a lot of brooding and staring out to sea, but his scenes with Aoi Miyazaki as his true love are just devastating. Their achingly sensitive chemistry is a small wonder to behold. Yet, the audience really needs to gird themselves for when Mieko Harada (the fierce Lady Kaede in the other Kurosawa’s Ran) really lowers the boom as the Postman’s mother.

At first, Takeshi Kobayashi’s sentimental score sounds too on the nose, but then it starts to get inside your head. Frankly, that is sort of true for the entire film. Likewise, a few of Nagai’s flashbacks (especially including an extended sequence in Buenos Aires) are initially confusing, but they always payoff in the end. Recommended for those who enjoy tearjerkers that work, If Cats Disappeared from the World screens again this Monday (9/27) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

NYAFF ’16: What a Wonderful Family

He hasn’t quite reached the remarkable productivity of the late centenarian director Manoel de Oliveira, but octogenarian Yoji Yamada’s dependability is still pretty impressive. The Japanese filmmaker is still on a film per year schedule. He is clearly prolific, having helmed all but two of the ten thousand Tora-san films. Yamada even had the chutzpah to kind of-sort of remake Tokyo Story. Yamada continues to tip his hat towards Ozu’s masterpiece, but maintains a lightly comedic tone throughout What a Wonderful Family (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 New York Asian Film Festival.

If you were married to the gassy and slovenly Shuzo Hirata, you would probably want to divorce him too, so we can hardly blame the elegant Tomiko Hirata for finally saying enough is enough. Still, she might have better prepared him for the divorce papers she essentially blindsides him with. Old man Shuzo reacts by playing the victim, using his wife’s supposed abandonment to justify more boozing and grouchy grandpa behavior.

However, the rest of the household takes the potential divorce deathly seriously. Like old school shomin-gekis, the Hiratas are a large household—and possibly getting larger, but also maybe smaller. The eldest son Konosuke shares the house with his parents, his patient wife Fumie, their two bratty kids, and his younger brother Shota. Technically, Konosuke’s sister Shigeko Kanai moved out to live with her underwhelming husband Taizo, but it seems like they are always working out their marital problems in the Hiratas’ house. Of all days, Shota brings his fiancée Noriko Mamiya (note the name) to meet the family exactly when Fumie calls a meeting to discuss the proposed divorce. However, when things get chaotic, they will be happy to have the level-headed nurse there.

Wonderful acknowledges such great big family living arrangements are becoming increasingly uncommon in today’s Japan, but Yamada makes the Ozuian formula work in a contemporary context. He also brings back the cast of Tokyo Family, his Tokyo Story riff-reboot, like a repertory company, with Yu Aoi reprising the role of Mamiya. Stepping into Setsuko Hara’s shoes is a daunting proposition, but she is utterly charming and exquisitely sensitive as the modern day Noriko.

Isao Hashizume’s patriarch is a real handful, in a broadly comedic sort of way, but he shows a delicate touch in his big pay-off scene. Kazuko Yoshiyuki is a consistently warm, humanistic presence as Tomiko, while Satoshi Tsumabuki is surprisingly engaging as the somewhat socially awkward Shota. Technically, she is not family (except maybe to old Shuzo), but the classy Jun Fubuki really lights up the film as Kayo, the mature hostess of the old man’s favorite bar.

There is some shtickiness here and there, but when the Hiratas come together as a family, it really is touching. Yamada hits the right notes and keeps the vibe sweetly nostalgic, so when Gramps consoles himself with Tokyo Story, the film somehow manages to avoid unflattering comparisons. (Still, nothing truly compares to Ozu’s Noriko masterpieces). Recommended for general audiences who can appreciate its gentle old fashionedness, What a Wonderful Family screens tomorrow (6/26) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

Friday, June 24, 2016

NYAFF ’16: Maverick

There is usually a good reason why those “unwritten rules” are not officially codified on paper. The specifics are rather awkwardly embarrassing, but the benefits usually assure compliance. Rookie copper Yeh Ming Xian is not inclined to play that game. He still has his idealism and his self-respect. Consequently, most of his bent colleagues bitterly resent him, but his earnestness might bring Yang “Brother Ming” Cheng back from the dark side in Cheng Wen-tang’s Maverick (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 New York Asian Film Festival.

A little bit of hazing is not so shocking, but several of Yeh’s seniors get rather boorish about it. They clearly realize how bad he makes them look. The die is probably cast during the first operation Yeh participates in. He thought they were taking down a gambling den, but when they encounter “Black Money,” the powerful city council president’s entitled son passed out in a pool of drugs and cash, the cops decide they were just out for a scenic drive. Nothing to see here, move along.

Of course, Yeh is not inclined to go along with their corruption. To make matters worse, he turns up evidence linking the politician to a number of crimes as part of his clerical archival work intended as punishment. Brother Ming better understands the kind of people Yeh is antagonizing. He has assumed the loan shark debts of his hostess girlfriend Ann’s deadbeat brother. Brother Ming has been thoroughly compromised for years, but he might decide it is finally time to cowboy up when he sees the consequences Yeh faces.

Maverick is sort of like a Taiwanese Walking Tall or High Noon, except Yeh’s defiance is portrayed in much more matter-of-fact, workaday terms. Rather than a crusade against injustice, it is more about his refusal to debase himself and the slow reawakening of Brother Ming’s principles. Yet, that sort of makes the film even more satisfying.

You Sheng and Kaiser Chuang are both low-key understated brooders, but they still make a terrific buddy-cop pairing. Chuang’s Brother Ming in particular has a bit of that gritty, old school 1970s Sidney Lumet thing going on. He also develops some shockingly poignant chemistry Jian Man-shu’s Ann. Their world-weary relationship darned-near steals the picture. However, Yang Lie’s sinister scenery chewing as the council president consistently pulls us back into the crooked cop narrative.

Maverick is considered the second of Cheng’s planned thematic trilogy addressing problematic criminal justice, following up Tears. Frankly, it is utterly baffling and altogether unjust that film did not screen more widely in North America, because it is also a quiet knockout punch. Perhaps when all three films are available they will reach some sort of critical mass. Although Maverick is more upbeat, it is just as smart as its predecessor. It should leave viewers eagerly anticipating the third film. Highly recommended for fans of sophisticated policiers, Maverick screens this Sunday (7/26) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

NYAFF ’16: Tekkonkinkreet

They are Dickensian street urchins, but the young boys named Black and White think they run Treasure Town. The old school cops and Yakuza do not necessarily disagree, but the new breed of young turk gangsters lack the proper respect. They will just have to learn the hard way. Unfortunately, the hard way will be hard on everyone in Michael Arias’s Tekkonkinkreet (trailer here), which celebrates its tenth anniversary with a special screening at the 2016 New York Asian Film Festival.

Tekkonkinkreet represents the first major Japanese anime feature helmed by a westerner. Happily, Arias is no mere footnote in animation history. He continues to be a force in the industry, having recently directed the top notch Project Itoh adaptation, Harmony. Transferring Taiyo Matsumoto’s three volume manga to the big-screen, Arias creates a richly detailed by hard-to-define urban fantasy world. In terms of its feel, it is somewhat akin to Streets of Fire, but it looks like 1950s Times Square given a now sagging Rococo facelift by a compulsive packrat.

Black and White soar above the clutter and bric-a-brac like Spiderman or Daredevil. Black is the older brother, who has a quick temper and a brooding dark side. However, he has devoted his life to protecting the innocent-to-the-point-of-delusional White. Recently paroled gangster Suzuki (a.k.a. Rat, but not because he did) understands Black and White’s place in the Treasure Town ecosystem, as well as the importance of its traditional landmarks. Unfortunately, the flamboyant Snake is willing to bulldoze them all for the sake of his development project.  That definitely includes Black and White.

Arias’s ornate cityscapes are quite striking and the mortal superhero action is appropriately rip roaring. The bond between Black and White is as poignant as anything you will see from Pixar. There are also a number of fully realized, psychologically complex supporting characters. Tekkonkinkreet’s only drawback is the whooshing and roiling inner turmoil anime climax that is almost impossible to follow, despite the quality of the art.

Ten years later, Tekkonkinkreet holds up like a champ. It is still a stylish and muscular action-driven anime milestone that is far more sophisticated than its youthful protagonists would suggest. Recommended for all animation fans, it screens this Sunday (6/26) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

NYAFF ’16: A Bride for Rip Van Winkle

From the needlessly apologetic, soft-spoken voice of its heroine to the almost fetishistic maid uniforms she eventually dons, this strange three-hour film clearly sets out to explore the far corners of Japan’s collective psyche. At its core, it challenges viewer assumptions regarding what Nanami Minagawa thinks she wants and what she needs. Yet, it also invites us to challenge its right to make such judgments. It can be difficult and even cruel, but it is worth engaging with the substance of Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Shunji Iwai’s A Bride for Rip Van Winkle (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 New York Asian Film Festival.

Minagawa is a part-time teacher, whose mousy voice eventually gets her fired. Consequently, she resigns herself to a housewife’s life married to Tsuruoka, a fellow teacher she met online. However, the impending ceremony presents the first of a series of crises he will face. Minagawa and her divorced parents simply do not have enough relatives for the ceremony. In a fateful turn of events, she is referred to the mysterious fixer Masuyuki Amuro, who regularly provides fake relatives for weddings, among his other services.

Alas, the honeymoon period will not last long. Soon Minagawa suspects Turuoka of infidelity and turns to Amuro for help. Initially, the mysterious mastermind stokes her doubts, while secretly framing her for an adulterous affair of her own. Shamed, humiliated, and abandoned, Minagawa comes to rely on Amuro, even working as one of his fake wedding relatives. That is how she meets the free-spirited Mashiro Satonaka, who might be the first real friend she ever knew. However, their relationship will be quite complicated.

Based on Iwai’s own novel, the rather obscurely titled Rip Van Winkle can be reasonably construed as a tale of vicious game-playing or unlikely empowerment. At times, the trials Iwai showers on Minagawa are almost Job-like. Frankly, some of Amuro’s darker moments are hard to reconcile with the more edifying interpretation, but the ultimate destination is rather profoundly humanistic. In many ways it directly compares to Tetsuya Nakashima’s Memories of Matsuko, but it does not leave viewers feeling so bereft.

As Minagawa, Haru Kuroki is a like a radiant, exquisitely sensitive Candide. She feels each injustice deeply, yet she carries on. It is a necessarily understated performance, given her character’s painful shyness and meek voice. Yet, she expresses a vast array of emotions with great depth and sincerity. Pop-star Cocco gives the film a much needed lift as the wildly charismatic and outgoing Satonaka. She and Kuroki develop some wonderfully rich and ambiguous chemistry together. Former Japanese AV star Nana Natsume is also terrific as Saeko Tsuneyoshi, Satonaka’s AV agent. Go Ayano’s Amuro similarly brings plenty of energy to the film, but he is almost too inscrutable. It is hard to fathom why he inspires such trust from Minagawa.

There is a two-hour version of Rip also kicking around the festival circuit, but NYAFF is not inclined to do things by halfsies. The three-hour cut often feels genuinely punishing, but that also makes the subtle cathartic releases feel more powerful. It will be highly divisive with audiences, but it is clearly the work of a serious auteur. Recommended for those who can take its unabashedly raw emotions, A Bride for Rip Van Winkle screens tomorrow (6/24) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

NYAFF ’16: Lazy Hazy Crazy

Despite its intentions, this film will make any man over twenty-one feel like a creepy “uncle.” In this context, an uncle is not just an older man. They are clients of the two part-time high school prostitutes. There will be plenty of voyeuristic opportunities, but there are also very real emotions underlying Luk Yee-sum’s Lazy Hazy Crazy (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 New York Asian Film Festival.

Initially, Chloe and the Malaysian Alice consider each other rivals, but they eventually bond over their shared experiences as after-school Uncle-daters. Their third friend Tracy clearly feels intimidated by their superior sexual confidence, but she is still reluctant to join them in the uncle business. Tracy’s inferiority complex is always a factor in their joint friendships, even when the three girls become de facto roommates, moving into Alice’s flat.

Parents are even scarcer in LHC than in your typical John Hughes movie. Alice’s father has been working in Thailand indefinitely, leaving her on her own to pay the rent, so what does he expect? Tracy still has her grandmother, but that relationship is problematic. Frankly, the after-school prostitution is presented as a reasonable economic decision for the girls, but it eventually causes scandal within their judgmental high school social circle. Yet, Luk always makes it clear this is not an isolated phenomenon only affecting Chloe, Alice, and maybe eventually Tracy, bu a wider real world trend.

At times, LHC is uncomfortably frank, especially considering its characters’ youth, yet it always feels more honest and serious than Eva Husson’s sensationalistic Gallic teens run amok. Everything Tracy, Chloe, and Alice do can be logically attributed to hormonal confusion and a lack of parental structure. The girls’ interpersonal dynamics also feel realistically real—one day they are BFFs, the next they are frienemies. Sounds a lot like high school, right?

Luk’s three co-leads are all potential future stars, particularly Kwok Yik-sum, who has the look and the vibrant presence to be an HK Jennifer Lawrence. On the other side of the spectrum, Fish Liew displays unexpectedly potent slow-burning intensity as Alice, whereas Mak Tsz-yi is the grounded one, who really anchors LHC. They are the film, but Gregory Wong makes it even trickier to take stock of the picture with his charismatic and sympathetic portrayal of Raymond, a patron who takes Tracy under his wing through an exclusive month-long booking (her first).

There are no easy answers or snap judgments in LHC. There are also very definitely physical, emotional, and psychological consequences for all of the girls’ decisions. However, the film is ultimately more hopeful than the downbeat opening narration suggests. Luk deftly walks a tightrope, getting explicit without feeling excessively prurient, while Jam Yau gauzy, sun-drenched cinematography lives up to the film’s title. NYAFF digs films about HK youth gone wild, having previously programmed films like May We Chat and High Noon, but LHC is more accessible and less depressing than those previous selections. Recommended for mature, socially conscious viewers only, Lazy Hazy Crazy screens this Saturday (6/25) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.