Monday, April 5, 2010

Three more films viewed at the 2010 HKIFF

Kyoto Story's co-director Abe Tsutomo
and star Hana Ebise answer questions
at a HKIFF screening of their film

Before anything else: Here's thanking those of you who have been reading my HKIFF movie reviews. And I have to also say that it's surprised me somewhat to find that these entries have attracted comments from new visitors (or have you guys been lurking for a while?). May this situation continue -- though, of course, it's also very nice to get comments from "regulars"! And now on we go -- with three more movie reviews this time around:-

Tokyo Onlypic (Japan, 2008)
- From the Animation Unlimited programme
- Riichiro Mashima, chief director
- Starring Junichi Mogi and Shoko Nakagawa (but largely animated)

I'm one of those people who is in two minds about whether the Olympics should be taken seriously, as a close-to-sacred sporting event imbued with the Chariots of Fire spirit, or as something that is, at best, ripe for satire and parody. But it's clear enough that the makers of this largely animated anthology that opened in Japanese cinemas on the day that the 2008 Beijing Olympics began stand in the latter camp.

Evidence for this comes in the form of their work: a movie about the staging of an international sporting contest in Tokyo, complete with media coverage from serious commentators and nationalistic-minded anchors, and featuring events like a Race for Love (in which salivating, fleet-footed muscular men chase after a woman seated at the back of a heart-shaped vehicle like greyhounds in pursuit of a mechanical rabbit -- only they also have to show their romantic abilities to woo the woman in the bargain!), another called Independence Men (in which men compete to show that they can get away from their mothers by literally throwing them as far away as they can!) and a third involving 1000 Character SMSing (a phone text messaging competition that taxes the competitors so much that they react in eye-poppingly unbelievable ways)!

As is to be expected of an omnibus work with sections conceived and directed by different individuals, the results are somewhat uneven. To be sure, certain segments provoke more head-scratching than funny bone-tickling, others strain to impress and a few just plain fall flat. But others scale major creative and imaginative heights and really are laugh-out-loud funny.

And should anyone wonder: yes, national and cultural stereotyping and stereotypes abound. But the Political Correctness brigade should note that the filmmakers make as much fun of their own countrymen and -women as they do others. And as can be seen from the Opening Ceremony and Closing Ceremony segments (featuring giant pigeons, huge movable pieces of sushi and a Kamakura Buddha look-a-like whose head bursts into flames!), the city of Tokyo and its environs is as ripe for making fun of as international sporting events like the Olympic Games.

My rating for this film: 7

White Material (France, 2009)
- From the Master Class programme
- Claire Denis, director

- Starring Isabelle Huppert, Nicholas Duvauchelle, Christophe Lambert

As can be seen in such as the HKIFF's inclusion of her latest film in its Master Class programme and the critical accolades she has received over the years, the main woman behind this work is an internationally respected filmmaker. But as the saying goes, nobody's perfect -- and while technically okay, this effort centering on a white woman loathe to leave her coffee plantation home despite multiple indications that the part of Africa it is in will very shortly descend into war, chaos and worse possesses way too many obvious narrative weaknesses and faults for my liking.

First and foremost, the story that gets told in this film is one that is so old that it has become beyond boring. Alternatively put: I am sick and tired of watching films about privileged white people who ultimately pay the price for being out of touch with the (non-white) society in which they mistakenly thought they could live in and off forever.

Granted that this is a lesson that may be personal for Denis (who lived as a child in colonial Africa). But if so, it's more than overdue then that she makes films in which African "Other"s are invested with some sign of humanity, not to mention three-dimensionality, rather than merely appear in roles whose types (e.g., "dangerous beings" or "other victims") are too easily pegged to bear much thought and care.

All this is particularly frustrating because there are enough hints in the film of Denis' awareness of the cultural as well as social and political complexity of Africa -- the inclusion of English-speakers in the ragtag rebel ranks despite the country in which the story is set being obviously Francophone. Also, while Isabelle Huppert and Christophe Lambert contribute star power to the work, it's Nicholas Duvauchelle's character who most intrigues -- because however "half baked" his actions are, one can see the identity crisis that spawned them and understand how certain attributes of his that would be a virtue elsewhere have become a curse in the part of the world he chose to consider as his native land.

My rating for this film: 4

Kyoto Story (Japan, 2010)
- From the Master Class programme
- Tsutomu Abe and Yoji Yamada, directors
- Starring Hana Ebise, USA, Sotaro Tanaka

This is one of those films that is filled with so much love that one's heart can't help but be warmed by it. But while this charmer of a movie's ostensible main storyline involves a young woman who is loved by two very different men (one of whom is an aspiring comedian who has difficulty getting laughs, the other a serious scholar whose actions often get one inadvertently laughing), it also is an open love letter to Kyoto -- in particular the section of the city that once was home to Shochiku's Kyoto studios and remains that of a close-knit community where "mom and pop" stores predominate and Risumeikan University (the alma mater of many of this movie's crew).

Before the screening of this film that I attended officially began, one of its directors (Tsutomu Abe) spoke briefly about the work and told the audience that he considered it an experimental work. At the Q&A session after the screening, he elaborated on this by disclosing that it is part documentary as well as fiction -- and that fact and fiction often mix. (For example, he disclosed, the film's main characters are based on real people. What's more, the laundry owner parents of the main female character are played by the real life owners of the laundry who actually do have a daughter who's the same age as the main female character; and the situation is similar with regards to the tofu-maker parents of one of her suitors being played by real-life tofu-makers who have a son who's the same age as that suitor character!)

At the same Q&A session, director Abe also stated that he was surprised that the audience reception to the movie had been as enthusiastic and warm as it was -- as he had thought that the film he had made would not be able to travel well at all. In a way, I can see what he meant by this -- because, among other things, this observably is a modest movie (whose crew reputedly numbers around 10 and has many students in its ranks) and also a very local one, with lots of specific details and touches. And yet, that very modesty and strong sense of the local (and community) also significantly contribute to this romantic comedy's charms.

In addition, fresh faced Kyoto native, Hana Ebise, is one of those young women one easily can understand men falling for. And even while his character's bumblings and fumblings get laughed at a lot, it's also clear that the actor who plays the scholar who is prone to feeling very deeply (about his work but also a woman who is kind to him) is a real winner as far as this lovely offering's audiences are concerned.

My rating for this film: 8


Glenn, kenixfan said...

I quite liked Claire Denis' Chocolat when I saw it in the theater a good 11 (!) years ago.

However, in rewatching parts of it on cable, I was struck by how she is basically just guilty of that whole "exoticness of the other" way of presenting African culture. There are plenty of films that do that but, from what you have written, it sounds like she is still stuck in that mindset.

She seems like a talented filmmaker though.

And I'm interested in Kyoto Story but admit I had not heard of it until this week.

Horsoon said...

Hey you DO know your films, eh? I learned a lot from your posts :)

YTSL said...

Hi Glenn --

Interesting comments re your impressions re Claire Denis' "Chocolat". (For the record, the only other of her films I've seen is "Beau Travail" -- which also focuses on white people (in this case, French Foreign Legionnaires) in Africa.)

And yes, it's hard to fault her technical abilities as a filmmaker but that's just not enough for me -- especially when you compare those of her films I've seen with something so wonderful as "Kyoto Story" which is both well-made and in possession of so much heart.

Hi Horsoon --

*Blush* Well... I consider my student of film -- but also a major film geek. That, I hope, is apparent from my film-related posts. ;b