Thursday, March 25, 2010

The HKIFF 2010 gets underway!

Star Daniel Wu, producer Eddie Fong and director Clara Law
at the HKIFF screening (and Hong Kong premiere)
of Like a Dream

The 34th Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) officially began on Sunday, March 21st but it unofficially began for me the day before -- when I ran into the lift that was due to take me to a screening of Patrick Lung Kong's Prince of Broadcasters (Hong Kong, 1966) at the Hong Kong Film Archive and belatedly realised that among the people in that tight space with me were a colleague and his wife but also two fellow film fans-international visitors in David Bordwell and Colin Geddes (aka the man behind Kung Fu Fridays, among other things). Additionally, thanks less to my own press credentials and more to my having a generous film critic friend, I also had been able to view two films (Love in a Puff and Crossing Hennessy) that officially had their world premieres some days later at the HKIFF.

So, rather than start my HKIFF reportage with coverage of any or all of those three above mentioned films, I'm going to just go ahead and write about the first four films I've officially viewed at the festival proper; ones that I've watched on four consecutive evenings -- with this Thursday evening being the first non-HKIFF screening evening for me this week!

Like a Dream (Taiwan-Mainland China-Australia, 2009)
- From the Opening Films programme
- Clara Law, director
- Starring Daniel Wu, Yolanda Yuan

I admit it: I had high expectations for this cross-continental romantic drama in which Chinese American actor Daniel Wu plays a Chinese American man whose dreams of a Chinese woman traumatized by her boyfriend's untimely death prompts him to head to Mainland China. This not only because Clara Law's first feature film since 2000 had garnered nine Golden Horse Award nominations but also because the work of hers that I had most recently viewed, Floating Life (1996), really had been so very good.

But while some aspects of the film are indeed commendable (in particular, the performance of actress Yolanda Yuan -- which, if truth be told, puts the film's lead actor's in the shade), the truth of the matter is that I also came away from the screening feeling that the work deserved to come away with zero Golden Horse Awards (like actually happened).

Put another way: the effort was one that clearly was not without ambition but, for some reason or another, it actually felt like it would have worked better in another medium -- maybe theater (here I'm thinking of the acting style) or as novel (because then, there would be have been opportunity to explore in greater depth the main characters' backgrounds and inner thoughts). Consequently, even if it wasn't an outright nightmare of a work, it still turned out to be one that fell quite a bit below expectations -- not least for an effort that was selected to be a major film festival's one of two official opening offerings.

My rating for the film (on the scale): 6

Police, Adjective (Romania, 2009)
- From the Global Visions programme
- Corneliu Porumboiu, director
- Starring Dragos Bucur, Vlad Ivanov, Ion Stoica

Wherever I've lived in the world, I've only ever been able to watch Eastern European films by way of film festivals (or similarly "fringe" screening situations). But while it seems true enough that the works from that part of the world are generally pretty far removed in style as well as content from mainstream Hollywood movies, more than a few have impressed me enough to make me think that they definitely deserve a wider audience than they seem to get.

This is most definitely the case with this 2009 Romanian film whose protagonist is a plainclothes policeman but is a work that is by no means a conventional police actioner, drama or even procedural offering. For while its main plot-line may seem ordinary enough -- a plainclothes detective is assigned to follow a school kid and see if there's enough evidence to bust him for dealing as well as using drugs (specifically, marijuana) -- what transpires is an intriguing cultural and character study that has an authentic ethnographic feel to it and characters that feel more like real people than cultural types, let alone fictional figures than only exist within a certain cinematic realm.

On a perhaps related side-note: I haven't seen so much walking (and so many extended walking scenes) in a film since viewing another Eastern European film -- Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr's challenging The Werckmeister Harmonies (2000). On another, unrelated note: The character of the policeman's wife really added to the movie for me -- while small, her conversations with her husband added quite a bit of humor to the proceedings but it also seemed notable how intelligent she -- who may have been said to have existed principally as a device to contextualize a later, more serious exchange between the cop and his superior -- was made to be.

My rating for this film: 8.

Ice Kacang Puppy Love (Malaysia, 2010)
- From the I See It My Way programme
- Ah Niu, director
- Starring Ah Niu, Lee Sinje, Gary Chaw, Fish Leong, Victor Wong, etc.

On many levels, this charming film sees like a modest effort. For one thing, it has a first-time director at its helm. For another, the film also happens to be based on the filmmaker's not particularly dramatic memories of growing up -- or, rather, considering that its main character is a young adult, coming of age in small town Malaysia.

But the filmmaker -- who also happens to be the film's star -- actually is a singer-songwriter who is famous not just in his home country. (Indeed, Ah Niu might well be more famous and popular outside his home country -- to judge by the reaction of many of those at the Tuesday evening sold-out screening -- the one truly sold-out screening I've been at thus far this HKIFF.) And among his cast are award-winning actress-singer Lee Sinje (who no longer likes to use the name Angelica by which she is known by many fans of such as The Eye and Princess-d) and Taiwan-based Malaysian singers Gary Chaw, Fish Leong and Victor Wong.

Lee Sinje is expectedly convincing in her role as the tough cookie that Ah Niu's affable character secretly adores -- and fun to watch too, particularly when going up against another guy who decides that he has fallen in love with her. Still, it is Ah Niu's character (as well as the man himself) that really lies at the heart of a movie with many nice touches -- including a pleasant soundtrack and often surprisingly beautifully lensed shots in a film that doesn't shy away from depicting small town ugliness even while viewing some aspects of days gone with lenses that are more rose-tinted than clear.

My rating for this film: 8.

Eastern Plays (Bulgaria, 2009)
- From the Global Visions programme
- Kamen Kalev, director
- Starring Christo Christov, Ovanes Torosian, Saadet Isil Aksoy

If my records are anything to go by, this Kamen Kalev offering is the first film from Bulgaria that I've ever seen. But while its origins are exotic, much of this cinematic offering's proceedings didn't strike me as all that foreign -- and, frankly, that is something I find more disappointing than reassuring.

A struggling artist protagonist? Not new. His coming across a group of racists in the midst of assaulting a foreign man? Sadly, not something all that new. Ditto his discovering that he has a personal connection to one of the young men who committed the act of violence. And when he falls in love with the daughter of the man he goes to the rescue of, my reaction tended towards boredom rather than anything else.

For all this though, I couldn't help but be intrigued by the performance of Christo Christov, the charismatic actor playing the lead character, who made what would be a stock character feel like a real person; most notably in the scene which has him looking straight at the camera and talking about his struggle to conquer his personal demons and just go about leading life. And this even without knowing until after reading a review post-screening that some of the film is based on his life -- and, sadly, that he died after the making of the film, aged just 40 years of age.

My rating for the film: 6.5


lissa said...

oooh Daniel Wu!
like a dream sounds like something I might be interest in watching, though I only like Wu in Love under cover, can't seem to like his serious films

Glenn, kenixfan said...

As much as I like reading your film reviews, I was hoping to hear a few more things about Crossing Hennessy (I don't have much interest in Love in a Puff so far, sorry to say).

Like a Dream sounds like a letdown but I'm still a bit interested.

Do you think I should buy advance tickets to the Lung Kong films I want to see in April? I've only got one chance to see Teddy Girls and Call girls and would hate to have them sold out before I get there.

Anonymous said...

What a tease! Prince of Broadcasters, Love in a Puff, and Crossing Hennessy are the films that I'm most interested in. Any hopes of prying a one-liner from you about each of these? ;D

sarah bailey knight said...

Hi ytsl,

I agree with duriandave about teasing us Hong Kong movie fans with only a brief mention of not one but three Hong Kong movies you've already seen.

Was Patrick Tse totally charming in "Prince of Broadcasters", were there many outside scenes of Hong Kong circa 1966? I've seen a couple of his movies from the 1960s and liked them.

"Like a Dream" sounded intriguing from the little I've read about it so was sorry to hear it didn't live up to the hype.

Living in a small town I usually avoid reading or viewing 'small town' but "Ice Kcnag Puppy Love" sounds interesting as does "Police, Adjective".

In spite of my slight grousing I look forward to reading more about the festival-films, people, good food & drink, etc etc etc.

YTSL said...

Hi Lissa --

I liked Daniel Wu a lot in "Bishonen..." -- which was pretty serious. Unfortunately, I think he's been on a bad acting streak since 2007's "Blood Brothers".

Hi Glenn --

If I were you, I'd definitely make sure to buy advance tickets for the Lung Kong films. There's a chance that the screenings won't be sold out but why take the risk if you really want to see them?

Hi duriandave --

Lemme think about it... maybe I'll oblige... and with more than one line each. (And yeah, can hear you calling me a real tease from thousands of miles away!)

Hi sbk --

Totally charming? No -- but not bad either. (My heart went to Wong Wai's character in that film instead, however!) And yes, there were MANY outside scenes of Hong Kong circa 1966. :)

Re "Ice Kacang Puppy Love": I'd imagine it's got a different feel from one that would be shot in the small towns you know... Can't see it being shown on a screen anywhere near you any time soon. But definitely do check it out should such an event miraculously occur!

Brian said...

Off to a good start! Nice to see a Malaysian film get sold out. I have not seen that before.

YTSL said...

Hi Brian --

Yep, not too bad a start at all! :)

Re AIS KACANG PUPPY LOVE: I think it helps that many of the people associated with it have made links with -- and already made their mark in -- the greater Chinese entertainment world.

Incidentally, the bulk of the film's dialogue is in Mandarin and the post film Q&A with Ah Niu was conducted entirely in Cantonese without ANY English translation... ;S

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