Sunday, April 5, 2009

Four more films viewed at the 2009 HKIFF

Signs like these over at the Hong Kong
Cultural Centre leave people in little doubt that
it's currently film festival time in in the city

Make sure your eyes don't turn square, a friend of mine told me, upon finding out how many films I'm down to watch at this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival! While I really don't think there's much worry of that happening, fear of film viewing fatigue made me restrict myself to just two movies, maximum, on a single day. Hence this Sunday finds me with some time to write this entry -- having attended one film screening earlier today but not being due to go to the second until later this evening.

So, here's picking up where I left off with the first reviews blog entry from earlier this week and writing about four more films viewed at the Hong Kong International Film Festival (in order of viewing -- and yes, not a single Hong Kong movie among them! ;S):-

The Book of Law (Iran, 2009)
- From the Global Visions program
- Mazizr Miri, director
- Starring Saber Aber, Mani haghighi, Taraneh Alidousti

Iranian cinema is a national cinema that can appear intimidating; with many of its films having garnered great critical acclaim but, at the same time, not having much of a reputation for being entertaining. Some years back though, I started checking out cinematic offerings from that part of the world and, for the most part, have often felt richly rewarded by coming across moving works that possess a deeply humanistic streak.

Thus it is that I often feel happy to take a chance on an Iranian movie such as The Book of Law without knowing much about it beyond its possessing a synopsis that intrigues. A film that had its international premiere at this year's HKIFF, this work about an Iranian man who falls in love with a Lebanese woman when she was not Muslim, only to discover after he finally decides to ask for her hand in marriage that she's become a Muslim convert -- and a very devout one at that -- turned out to be able to make me laugh until I cried as well as just plain cry from witnessing a sad turn of events befalling a character I had come to care for.

Considering how Islam is often perceived as a rigid (and ultra-serious) religion, there's a certain frisson to be had from seeing a Muslim director from a Muslim country poking fun at somebody for being too "by the book", especially since the book in question is the Quran. Above and beyond that though, what one ultimately sees is a genuine plea from a humanitarian filmmaker for greater tolerance, compassion and understanding from everyone of people who are different -- be it culturally but also in terms of the extent of one's religious passion; a message that, hopefully, won't fall on deaf ears wherever this worthy work gets shown.

My rating for this film: 8.0

Trip to Asia: The Quest for Harmony (Germany, 2008)
- from the Filmmakers and Filmmaking program
- Thomas Grube, director
- Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic

This documentary that followed the Berlin Philharmonic as it went on a 2005 tour of six Asian cities (Beijing, Seoul, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Taipei and Tokyo) is a film that, as one might expect, focuses more on the famed orchestra and its performing of pieces of music than on the places that it visited and performed in. This having been said, it was interesting how definite images got conjured up about those cities as well as individual members of the orchestra (notably its British conductor, Simon Rattle).

Polluted and third world is how pre-Olympics clean-up Beijing primarily came across. In contrast, Seoul came across as a clean, hi-tech, first world metropolis. Shanghai was shown possessing far more air pollution than I previously saw in movies like Leaving Me, Loving You (2004) and The Longest Night in Shanghai (2007). Taipei came across physically nondescript but full of highly enthusiastic classical musical fans. Tokyo -- with its serene Meiji Shrine along with its soaring skyscrapers -- looked to have achieved that perfect combination of traditional and modern.

And Hong Kong? Suffice to say, in just a few minutes on film, this work managed to show much of what I love about the Fragrant Harbour: such as the feeling that it's a place that's bustling and full of life but also in possession of conveniently-reached green space and natural beauty. In the process, the portrait painted of it served to once again make me feel so very privileged to be able to live here.

Still, when all things are said and done, the main reason for checking out this documentary work really is the music that is performed by a genuinely world class ensemble. And in particular, getting to watch and hear -- even if "only" on film, rather than live -- the Berlin Philharmonic play Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 (AKA the Eroica Symphony) truly was sheer bliss as far as this culture vulture's concerned!

My rating for the film: 8.0

Before the Flood 2 - Gong Tan (Mainland China, 2008)
- The Humanitarian Awards for Documentaries program
- Yan Yu, director

Back in 2005, Yan Yu -- along with Liu Yifan -- directed a powerful documentary about an old Chinese city that the Three Gorges Dam would put underwater. Before the Flood (1) is 150 minutes in length and contains many startling scenes of local citizenry berating as well as appealing and complaining to Chinese government officials.

Yan Yu's follow-up film which had its world premiere at this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival also centers on the inhabitants of a village under orders to be evacuated before a new dam would cause the water to rise above it. This time around, however, it's not the Three Gorges Dam but one in Sichuan province. Also, this new film is, at 60 minutes, less than half the length of the 2005 documentary. Additionally, the new film turns out to be less a tale of villagers versus outsiders (as was the case in Before the Flood 1) and more of villagers versus other villagers (albeit, it seems to be insinuated, due to outsider involvement).

The result, it seems to me, is a work that is far less interesting than its predecessor and, in fact, quite boring too. It doesn't help that there's not much contextualizing or explaining done on the part of the filmmaker. And that so many of the villagers have the same surname and, frankly, look quite similar (since chances are very high that they're biologically related!).

All in all, my feeling is that this is the kind of work that gives documentary a bad name since, yes, it records certain events and goings-on for posterity but to what other end? Furthermore, perhaps the filmmaker became too close to his subject and material so that he no longer realizes that there are lots of people out there who still don't know what is going, what it's all about and why it should matter enough to them to care to watch a documentary about it. Put another way: this time around, I feel obliged to report with some disappointment that I don't feel I learned anything new: neither about the village concerned nor the much larger -- and still sometimes seemingly way too inscrutable -- country in which it lies. :S

My rating for the film: 5.0

Cairo Station (Egypt, 1958)
- From the Masterclass program
- Youssef Chahine, director
- Starring Hend Rostom, Faris Sahwki and Youssef Chahine

It may be a fictional work rather than documentary but believe me when I tell you that I felt like I learnt far more about the people and socio-cultural millieu of Cairo Station through Youssef Chahine's 1958 film that I ever learnt about from the equivalent people and community in the Yan Yu documentary I saw earlier that Saturday. And within that truth lies just one reason why I think this Egyptian movie that centres on the lowly workers at Cairo's railway station truly is a masterpiece of cinema.

Banned for 12 years in its native Egypt, this realist-style work offers up main characters who are undoubtedly flawed but also surprisingly sympathetic. Chahine himself plays the most miserable character of the lot -- a lame newspaper vendor full of lust with women in general and obsessed in particular with a busty drinks seller already betrothed to a physically strong porter.

Chahine the director also shows that in hard lives that inevitably will be visited by tragedy before the movie's end also lie the ability to enjoy life and its simple pleasures in ways that can be, even if only momentarily, joyous indeed. At the same time, however, there seems to be a sobering cautionary message in the main tale: one that involves it being best to not have ideas way too above one's station.

However conservative that sounds, the work as a whole still does come across as quite revolutionary in its style and sense of abandon. For, ultimately, its characters seem to tell us through their very actions that: yes, we know we shouldn't tempt fate too much but surely it's only human to want to aspire to better things and sometimes, we will get rewarded rather than punished for doing just that?

My rating for the film: 8.5


Kolya said...

Hi YTSL!thx for ur comment on my blog! Then do u enjoy watching WINGS?

YTSL said...

Hi Kolya --

You're welcome. Always nice to see another HK-based blogger who's been attending the HKIFF. Re Wings: Yeah, I liked it -- I gave it a 7.5 out of 10 rating, didn't I? ;)

Bill said...

Hi Yvonne,

In searching through the portal that is WOS, I came across your review of Trip to Asia The Quest for Harmony, a film I wasn't familiar with, but one that I will now seek out. The Berlin Philharmonic has long been my favorite orchestra and the mere mention of it sends my heart racing. I did indeed hear The Eroica as a teenager in New York, performed live by this wonderful orchestra.

Years later, on my one and only trip to Japan, I struck up a conversation with a man at Hakone, who was a violinist with the Berlin Philharmonic, who were touring Tokyo at the time. It was such a thrill to discuss classical music with this musician - with Mt Fuji as a backdrop! If only we could relive those special moments of travel which stay in our memories, and play back in our minds as if they were films.


YTSL said...

Hi Bill --

Thanks so much for checking out the older as well newer entries on this blog!

And lucky you to hear Beethoven's Eroica Symphony performed live by the Berlin Philharmonic!

Thanks too for the story about your meeting a Berlin Philharmonic violinist in Hakone. Very cool! :)