Sunday, April 23, 2017

Walter Hill's Revenger is not your standard issue revenge movie! (film review)

During the Hong Kong International Film Festival, I spend 
far more hours indoors in darkened rooms than usual ;S

Revenger (USA-Canada-France, 2016)
- Screening as part of the HKIFF's Gala Presentation program
- Walter Hill, director
- Starring: Michelle Rodriguez, Sigourney Weaver, Tony Shalhoub

Of all my Hong Kong International Film Festival screening picks that (already) had entries on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) and Rotten Tomatoes websites, Walter Hill's Revenger (aka Tomboy, and The Assignment) had the lowest ratings by far.  Yet I felt compelled to check out what its director has deemed to be strictly a pulp fantasy because it stars one of my favorite Hollywood actress and possesses a novel scenario involving an expert surgeon who exacts a revenge on the hired gun who killed her beloved brother that's so singular that many might be convinced that the idea could only come out of a deranged mind.

Sigourney Weaver is imperiously cool as Rachel Jane, a cosmetic surgeon who had her medical license revoked some time back and now, for a different transgression, finds herself incarcerated in a loony bin.  Deemed so dangerous that she has to be in a straitjacket when meeting a prison psychiatrist (Tony Shalhoub) she obviously considers to be her intellectual inferior, the disgraced doctor proves to have a sharp tongue, piercing stare and steely demeanor of someone you'd be most unfortunate to cross.

Without realizing he had done so, criminal lowlife Frank Kitchen (Michelle Rodriguez) did just that; and for his sins, gets turned by Rachel Jane into a biological woman.  Even with a significant prosthetic penis, Michelle Rodriguez doesn't appear convincing as a biological man but makes up for it with an eye-catching portrayal of an angry gunman trapped in a nubile woman's body.  

More than incidentally, I find it interesting that the men that actresses like Brigitte Lin Ching Hsia have played in Hong Kong movies tend to be on the refined side of the male equation but that in this Western cinematic offering, the attempts to emphasize male-ness looked to involve providing the actress with what unfortunately proved to be too artificial-looking chest and facial hair along with male reproductive organs.  Two other technical aspects of Revenger that I thought notable are its copious amounts of flashback scenes and use of voiceovers that, when combined, make it so that Frank Kitchen dominates the picture visually but it's Rachel Jane's voice, and narrative, which feel most influential.     

For the most part though, this is the kind of film where it's probably best not to overthink things and just enjoy the wild ride that's offered up.  In retrospect, I'm surprised that it wasn't part of the HKIFF's Midnight Heat program (even while having been accorded a late night screening slot).  If nothing else, it could show (up) the likes of The Sleep Curse that B-movies involving demented doctors (especially those with A-list actors and/or actresses playing them) can indeed be wickedly entertaining without needing to descend into the realm of the seriously distasteful.    

My rating for this film: 7.5

Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Posterist shines a light on a master illustrator (film review)

The unassuming director of a documentary
on a famous film posterist 

The Posterist (Hong Kong, 2016)
- Screening as part of the HKIFF's Hong Kong Panorama 2016-2017 program
- Hui See Wai, director

More than 20 years ago now, I walked into a Philadelphia Chinatown video store and discovered hundreds, if not thousands, of movies that had been made in Hong Kong that I hitherto did not know existed but which I would eventually grow to love.  Among them were films in videotape boxes featured distinctive illustrated images of people with bigger heads than in real life and often frozen in some kind of comic pose.  

These illustrations, I got to quickly figuring out, were for comedies, many of which -- like The Private Eyes, Aces Go Places and All the Wrong Spies -- were wacky, highly entertaining efforts.  But it wasn't until I watched The Posterist that I came to learn who was their creator.

Between 1975 and 1992, Yuen Tai Yung designed and created -- by hand -- posters for more than 200 Hong Kong movies, a number of which were big box office hits.  Among them were the posters for Bruce Lee's The Way of the Dragon, Enter the Dragon and Game of Death, and all 16 films starring one or more of the Hui Brothers (Michael, Sam, and Ricky).

The Posterist is an informative tribute to Yuen Tai Yung which happens to be have been made by Michael Hui's son, Hui See Wai.  In a Q&A session after its Hong Kong International Film Festival screening, the younger Hui talked about having actually originally made the film for just his family and friends to enjoy.  In particular, he hopes that a still younger generation of Huis, who include his preteen daughter, will appreciate the contents of this documentary about the artist who Hui See Wai credits for helping him gain a genuine appreciation for his relatives' work, and what a number of people belatedly realize was the heyday of Hong Kong cinema.

The Posterist is the first -- and possibly only -- film directed by Hui See Wai, who actually has no film training and didn't envision becoming a professional filmmaker.  And its director has few illusions about it being a pretty modest work; one that's workmanlike in style, with lots of talking heads and few bells and whistles.   

But among the aces in his hand are the many posters of Yuen Tai Yung whose beauty and creativity can take the breath away as well as get one smiling.  Not to be discounted too are the family connections which undoubtedly helped Hui See Wai to gain access to -- and the cooperation of -- the likes of not only Michael Hui but also singer-actor Kenny Bee, master illustrators Ma Wing Shing and a major fan of Yuen Tai Yung who's collected several of his works over the years in addition to Yuen Tai Yung himself.  And it really was quite the bonus that the subject of the documentary turned out to be a great conversationalist, willing not only to share lots of stories but also give a demonstration of his unique way of creating his works of art.

Zhejiang-born and Shanghai-raised, Yuen Tai Yung moved to Hong Kong as a teenager to find work.  In the 1990s, he emigrated to New Zealand and, from all accounts, went for years without creating a single piece of art until around 2007, when he returned to Hong Kong after the untimely death of his beloved wife.  Amazingly, these days, he's actively creating once more, and also active on social media such as Facebook, where Hui See Wai contacted him.  And long may all this continue for someone who looks to get quite a bit of joy from producing art (which, these days, also include realistic portraits along with cartoon-style illustrations) but also hanging out and sharing with his many fans, young as well as old!         

My rating for the film:7.0

Friday, April 21, 2017

The Sleep Curse has its flaws but still can generate frights (film review)

The stars of The Sleep Curse pose for pictures before its
world premiere at the Hong Kong International Film Festival

The Sleep Curse (Hong Kong, 2017)
- Screening as part of the HKIFF's Midnight Heat program
- Herman Yau, director
- Starring: Anthony Wong Chau Sang, Michelle Wai, Jojo Goh, Funaki Ikki, Gordon Lam Ka Tung

Last night, I attended a Hong Kong International Film Festival screening of a cinematic work (Hungarian Berlinale Best Film winner, On Body and Soul) whose helmer had gone some 18 years without directing a single feature film.  In contrast, Hong Kong filmmaker Herman Yau has three movies getting their first screenings in his home territory in just this month alone; with the most anticipated of the lot, action blockbuster Shock Wave, having opened in cinemas yesterday, and romantic drama 77 Heartbreaks and horror offering The Sleep Curse being accorded Hong Kong International Film Festival screenings before their general releases.

As might be expected when such quantity is generated within such a short time frame, the quality of the work(s) can suffer.  In the case of The Sleep Curse, it certainly doesn't help matters that the story (scripted by Erica Li and Eric Lee) is the sort that appears to have been designed more to help serve up visually shocking imagery and press certain emotional buttons than to actually make logical sense.  I also am moved to wonder whether the decision to have lead actor Anthony Wong Chau Sang and lead actress Michelle Wai play dual roles was less to provide them with twice the chance to impress and more to save on the cost of hiring twice the number of thespians to play those parts! 

In the story that takes place in the present day, Anthony Wong portrays Lam Sik Ka, a Hong Kong-based professor of medicine whose research some of his peers and superiors find suspect.  A sleep disorder specialist who believes the day will come when humans won't need to sleep at all, he finds a willing test subject in Monique (Jojo Goh), a Malaysian woman whose family appears to have been cursed to develop insomnia that's so serious that it inevitable leads to insanity and death.

In the film sub-plot that's set during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, Anthony Wong portrays a teacher turned collaborator -- who also happens to have been Lam Sik Ka's father.  Enlisted by a Japanese colonel (Funaki Ikki) to help do such as extort money from his fellow Hong Kongers and assist another, less scrupulous collaborator (Gordon Lam Ka Tung) who runs brothels filled with "comfort women", his fate is sealed -- and that of his relatives too -- after twin daughters (both played by Michelle Wai) of a Taoist priest enter his life.           

In its depiction of Japanese atrocities and revenge exacted by ethnic Chinese people on their territory's evil occupiers, it can seem like The Sleep Curse has Mainland China more than Hong Kong as its target audience.  However, the supernatural elements in this horror work would appear to preclude it being shown over on the other side of the Shenzhen River while this Category III-rated offering's most gruesome scenes seem like they would appeal most to the type of B-movie aficianados who are particularly prevalent in the West.

As someone who's not a particularly big fan of horror films, The Sleep Curse is the kind of work that wouldn't naturally appeal to me.  But even while I wouldn't consider it to be my particular cup of tea, and also was rather disappointed at how so many of its plot elements didn't make sense, I have to credit the movie's visuals with having been able to infiltrate into my dreams/nightmares later that night.  Put another way: this offering may be on the schlocky and exploitative side, yet it nonetheless was successful in leaving some kind of impact on my imagination, if not psyche!

My rating for the film: 6.0   

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Blindness requires leaps of faith to fully enlighten (film review)

Seek and ye shall find?

Blindness (Poland, 2016)
- Screening as part of the HKIFF's Auteurs program
- Ryszard Bugajski, director and scriptwriter
- Starring: Maria Mamona, Malgorzata Zajaczkowska, Jansuz Gajos, Marek Kalita

A confession: I had not seen any of Polish auteur Ryszard Bugajski's films prior to checking out his speculative drama about a real-life Stalinist era government interrogator.  Still, I had heard about his critically acclaimed The Interrogation, which was made in 1982 but banned by the Polish government until after the disintegration of the Soviet bloc seven years later, and is infamous for what its lead character (and actress, who went on to win the Best Actress prize at Cannes in 1990) was put through.

Although Blindness switches the focus from tortured to torturer, I must admit to expecting to have to sit through a similar amount of visually punishing scenes.  This time around though, my sense is that the pain is often much more mental than physical, and sometimes even imagined rather than real too -- with the film's lead character, a middle-aged woman who has a variety of aliases as well as nicknames (including "Bloody Luna"), now coming across more like a victim-to-be rather than someone with the upper hand, and a whip in that hand to boot.

One day in 1962, Julia Prajs Brystgier (who's portrayed by the director-writer's real-life spouse, Maria Mamona) goes to a facility in the country maintained by the Catholic church to seek a meeting with the Primate (Mareka Kalita), Poland's most senior clergyman.  An atheist -- or at least agnostic -- Jew, she nonetheless professes to seek salvation through Christianity, wanting dearly to emerge from the darkness after realizing how blind she had been to such as Communism's failings and the wrongs she herself committed in its name earlier on in her life.  

At what turns out to be a center for the (physically) blind, Julia first meets up with Sister Benedicta (Malgorzata Zajackowska), a Jewish convert to Catholicism, and Father Ciecorka (Jansuz Gajos), a priest blinded by former colleagues of Julia, who -- as her Bloody Luna nickname attests -- drew quite a bit of blood and induced pain when she worked for Poland's notorious Ministry of Public Security.  The conversations she has with them -- and also, eventually, the Primate -- provide an interesting window into her tortured soul. 

They may feel on the stagey side but the at times political, sometimes metaphysical one-on-one discussions that Julia has with these other strong personalities alternately intrigue and educate.  In contrast, the film's dramatic stagings of certain events from Julia's damnable past and hallucinatory imagination tended, to my mind, to confuse matters and over-complicate the story.  In particular, the inclusion in the work of a torture victim who had identified himself as Jesus Christ looked to have overly-mystified things and made it all harder to believe.

Even while I understand that a filmmaker has artistic license to be imaginative, it seems to me that in the case of someone like Julia Brystgier, there needed to be few embellishments to make her story an arresting one.  Actually, after reading about this personality post viewing the film, the sense I got was that if Blindness had depicted more of what actually is known about her and her deeds, it'd actually disturb and devastate more.  As it was, like with Oliver Laxe's also religious-themed Mimosas (which I viewed earlier on in the Hong Kong International Film Festival), its scenes that required leaps of faith tended to lose rather than enlighten me.
My rating for the film: 6.0

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

What a Wonderful Family! II is yet another gem of a Yoji Yamada movie (film review)

The Hong Kong Cultural Centre is my favorite venue
for Hong Kong International Film Festival screenings :)

What a Wonderful Family! II (Japan, 2017)
- Screening as part of the HKIFF's Master Class program
- Yoji Yamada, dir. and co-scriptwriter (with Emiko Hiramatsu)
- Starring: Isao Hashizume, Masahiko Nishimura, Yui Natsukawa, Satoshi Tsumabuki, Yu Aoi, Jun Fubuki, Nenji Kobayashi, etc.

At the 31st Hong Kong International Film Festival ten years ago, I had the privilege of being in the audience for what must have been one of the best received movies that's ever screened at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre.  As wave upon wave of near hysterical laughter filled the vast auditorium where close to 2,000 people were enjoying their viewing of Bubble Fiction: Boom or Bust, I got to thinking that this was the kind of wonderful experience that film fans lived for, and wondered when -- if ever -- I'd experience its like again.

Strongly suspecting that Yoji Yamada's What a Wonderful Family! might elicit a similarly positive reaction, I sought to get a ticket for its HKIFF screening last year but ended up only getting to see it when it was released in local cinemas.  This year, however, I was not to be thwarted in my getting into the fest screening of that entertaining Japanese comedy's sequel which, to add to my delight, was held at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre's Grand Theatre.

Beginning with events taking place close to where the first movie about the Hirata family left off, it can feel like only yesterday since those characters' actions provided us with much amusement along with some food for thought.  This time around though, youngest offspring Shota (Satoshi Tsumabuki) and Noriko (Yu Aoi) are now married and living in their own abode, away from Shota's parents Shuzo (Isao Hashizume) and Tomiko (Kazuko Yoshiyuki), elder brother Konosuke (Masahiko Nishimura), sister-in-law Fumie (Yui Natsukawa), and their two sons.  

Still, like with sister Shigeko (Tomoko Nakajima) and brother-in-law Taizo (Shozo Hayashiya), the pair continue to interact with their relatives, including whenever a family meeting is called to deal with a matter posing a concern to more than one member of this actually pretty close-knit brood -- such as the 73-year-old patriarch's insistence on going behind the wheel despite his driving abilities not being as adept, and safe, as it used to be.  But even while there's some fear (particularly on the part of Shigeko) that Shuzo might have a fatal accident before too long, it's actually the death of another septuagenarian that threatens the family's happiness but then also has the Hiratas revealing their good hearts.  

Before we proceed further: here's serving up a reminder that What a Wonderful Family! II is actually a comedy.  Those familiar with Yoji Yamada's oeuvre should know that he's adept at mixing comedic moments, pratfalls and all, with heartwarming ones.  And the octogenarian filmmaker does deliver laughs aplenty in this fun movie that admirably broaches topics many others mining for laughs would not dare to approach. 

Still, what I loved most about this particular offering is how wonderfully drawn many of the characters are -- so much so that even while they can sometimes feel larger than life, they also can feel very familiar, like family even, despite someone like myself having only spent about three hours in their company, and only virtually at that!  Something else I really appreciate is that, like with his compatriot Yasujiro Ozu (whose seminal Tokyo Story was the inspiration behind Yamada's Tokyo Family), this auteur is able to show that movies can be thoroughly interesting without needing a villain in the piece; with What a Wonderful Family! II being a great and very enjoyable case in point.

My rating for the film: 8.0

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Two unconventional American offerings at the Hong Kong International Film Festival (film reviews)

The commercial and arthouse meet at some
Hong Kong International Film Festival venues ;b

Loving (USA-UK, 2016)
- Screening as part of the HKIFF's Gala Presentation program
- Jeff Nichols, director
- Starring: Ruth Negga, Joel Edgerton

In the space of just five days, I've happened to see two films about real-life interracial couples.  The day before the 2017 Hong Kong International Film Festival began, I viewed Amma Asante's A United Kingdom, which tells the true story of Seretsa Khama and Ruth Williams in a moving but rather conventional way, at a local multiplex.  But while Jeff Nichols' Loving may well also get a regular theatrical run here in Hong Kong, this drama about a Virginia couple whose marriage would not be recognized by their state possesses a more unorthodox style that does seem to make it more suitable film festival fare.          

In light of its subject matter, it'd be understandable if the movie had plenty of melodramatic scenes, tense moments and grand speechifying.  We're talking, after all, about a production which tells the true story of a Southern white man and non-white (sometimes identified as black, other times as Native American, and still other times as both) whose marriage's legality was debated all the way up to the Supreme Court.  

However, Loving is a surprisingly quiet film whose understatedness sometimes threatens to emotionally underwhelm but lack of stillness also can provide certain otherwise mundane proceedings with a stately and atemporal monumentality.  Also rather contrarian is the movie showing that even while Jim Crow laws were on the books in much of the US at the time, there were places even the protagonists' home state of Virginia where white and non-white people were neighbors, worked side by side and socialized (with the unspoken idea being that poverty made them equal but that prejudices still remained, and were liable to rear its head even in (supposedly) friendly company). 

Another unusual aspect of this offering is its choice of an Ethiopian-Irish actress and Australian actor in its lead roles.  Still, in the wake of British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor having starred in 12 Years a Slave (which also had an Oscar-winning turn by Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong'o) and Nigerian-British thespian David Oyelowo having portrayed Martin Luther King in Selma, perhaps it actually was only par for the course that someone like Ruth Negga would get the role of Mildred Jeter Loving and Joel Edgerton that of Richard Loving in this US-UK co-production -- and, also, that they would easily convince in those parts.      

If truth be told, there are a few occasions in the film when director Jeff Nichols does appear too intent on playing with audience expectations before subverting them.  (I think particularly of a scene involving a rope being strung up on a tree that I thought stoked fears in too cheap a manner before dissolving to reveal, and revel in, innocent play.)  On the whole, however, the Arkansas filmmaker has fashioned a cinematic work that is hypnotizingly watchable and where a simple statement such as "Tell the judge I love my wife" can mean and stand for so very much.

My rating for the film: 8.0                

- Screening as part of the HKIFF's Master Class program
- Errol Morris, director

At 76 minutes in length, Errol Morris' documentary portrait of photographer Elsa Dorfman, who took large-format Polaroid snaps of the well known and less so, is the shortest of the eight feature length works (seven of which have screened as part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival) I've viewed thus far this week.  It also feels the slightest, like the kind of modest work about a friend whose ideal audience actually would have been other friends of theirs.

Perhaps realizing this, The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography ends up having a significant chunk of it devoted to documenting its (main) subject's relationship with Beat writer-poet Allen Ginsberg and also has her recounting the evening when she photographed Bob Dylan.  Yet, the truth of the matter is that I found this work to be considerably more interesting when Elsa Dorfman talked about what led to her picking up a camera for the first time only as an adult and the stories behind a number of photographs she took of herself, her mother and also various strangers who paid to be photographed by her (and whose "B-Side" pictures, the photographs they rejected in favor of others, she kept even while they walked away with the "A-Side" shots).

Also interesting is Elsa Dorfman's discussion of the rise and fall of Polaroid Corporation which made some amazing products that the likes of her appeared to appreciate much more highly than its company executives.  It feels like there's an interesting story there waiting to be told but, alas, that cautionary tale still awaits to be told in another, more ambitious film.
My rating for this film: 6.5

Friday, April 14, 2017

Ma' Rosa condemns but also solicts empathy and understanding (film review)

Yes, the Hong Kong International Film Festival has been
in existence for more than twice as long as Hong Kong 
has been a Special Administrative Region of China ;b
Ma' Rosa (The Philippines, 2016)
- Screening as part of the HKIFF's Auteurs program
- Brillante Mendoza, dir.
- Starring: Jacyln Jose, Julio Diaz, Baron Geisler, Kristofer King, Jomari Angeles
In the same venue (The Sky, over in Tai Kok Tsui) and around the same time as I viewed Hissein Habré, A Chadian Tragedy the day before, I saw critically acclaimed Filipino filmmaker Brilliante Mendoza's latest dramatic offering.  This time around, the cinema was packed -- and, forewarned by a friend about the shaky movements of  cinematographer Odyssey Flores' handheld camera, I knew to sit further back from the screen than is usually my wont and consequently felt some pity for those who arrived later and were left with front row seats.
Often showing the characters' point of view rather than a more detached perspective, Ma' Rosa is a cinematic work whose director as well as cinematographer looks to want to get audience members to thinking "There but for the grace of God go I" over the course of the film.  And yes, its titular protagonist (played by Cannes Film Festival Best Actress awardee Jacyln Jose) may be foul mouthed and, together with her drug-taking husband Jose (Julio Diaz), supply drugs to their neighborhood; yet she also happens to be a hard-working mother doing what she needs to do to provide for her family, who include a college student daughter (Andy Eigenmann) and two sons (Jomari Angeles and Felix Roco), and the sense is that the drug dealing is actually only a side-business for a pair of convenience store owners.
Like many a Filipino film I've seen (including previous HKIFF entry On the Job), a grim image is provided of contemporary Filipino society; one where crime and corruption is rife, and it's hard to be as moral as some might expect members of a supposedly heavily Catholic country to be.  It's not just that fellow members of a community are wont to casually curse at, lie to, cheat and betray one another.  Rather, as is shown after Rosa and Jose are arrested by Officer Lopez (Baron Geisler) and his team, those officially charged with defending the law may be the most adept and in the best positions to take advantage of their fellow citizens, and appear to have few qualms for using foul rather than fair means.
Presented with unorthodox options to avoid prison time, Rosa and Jose go ahead and do such as rat on their friendly supplier (Kristofer King) and get their children to raise what appears to be a fortune to bribe the cops with.  Perhaps the most heartbreaking part of this dark, yet not completely uncompassionate, film is to see what they go through to come by what's not more than HK$7,600 (i.e., US$1,012) when calculated using current exchange rates.  At the same time, it's a good (in more ways than one) indication of the strength of the family unit at the heart of this drama; one whose matriarch appears to have raised to be survivors, at the very least.        
Brillante Mendoza has stated that Ma' Rosa and her brood are "a common Filipino family".  By this, I take it to mean that they are representative of Filipino society as a whole rather than that they are in its lower echelons.  The impression I also get is that while Ma' Rosa is a fictional work, there's a reason for its proceedings feeling so realistic.  And when these two elements of this expertly-made film are taken together, it makes for a pretty damning indictment of Filipino society -- and, in all probability, a powerfully accurate one too.        
My rating for this film: 8.5