Sunday, April 4, 2010

Three very different films viewed at the 2010 HKIFF

For many film fans, Bruce Lee remains
the big boss 37 years after his death

Time flies when you're having fun -- as well as busy with work. Although it feels like this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival had just begun, it officially will come to a close just two days from now. But while I have yet to feel like I've had my fill of HKIFF screenings, it's true enough that I've actually gone to my share -- and so much so that I'm way behind in my reviewing of films I've seen at the fest.

So, before I go and view a couple more movies at the HKIFF tomorrow, here are reviews of three very different films I viewed in the early part of this week:-

The Big Boss (Hong Kong, 1971)
- From the Bruce Lee 7010 programme
- Lo Wei, director
- Starring Bruce Lee, Han Ying Chieh, James Tien, Maria Yi

For a long time (in particular, when I was living in the US), I was pretty resentful that Bruce Lee movies were what many people thought I was watching when I told them I was a Hong Kong movie fan. In large part, this is because, as I have come to retrospectively realize, the movies that my Hong Kong cinema passion were being negatively judged by actually were Bruceploitation films rather than the real McCoy.

Post viewing Bruce Lee's first action movie (and the one often considered to be the rawest and least sophisticated) for the first time earlier this week, I got to thinking how sad this situation is. Put another way: I seriously feel that even those people who are prone to making fun of "chopsocky flicks" could and would not be anything but impressed and captivated by Lee's powerful screen presence and persona if they were to actually watch him in action.

In his role as a young Chinese villager who goes to Thailand in search of work and winds up at an ice factory owned by a Thai Chinese big boss, Lee does not fight for the first part of the film. (Whenever his character is tempted to, he fingers a jade pendant given by his mother that serves to remind him of her injunction against resorting to violence.) Instead, it's James Tien's character who is shown acting admirably as the big brother who seeks to make sure that his fellow workers and community members are protected against bullies and other evil.

But after Tien's character and a few others mysteriously disappear, a situation arises in which Lee is called into action. As he steps into the fray, it quickly becomes apparent that he is a fighter several levels above everyone else. And when I say "he", I mean Lee the action star as well as Lee's character -- for the sheer nimbleness, pace and power of the man's movements are truly deservedly the stuff of legend.

Along with his eye-catching on screen performance, Lee's behind-the-camera input also cannot be help by noticed. By this I mean that the action choreography on display in the action scenes that involve the charismatic star -- which he is widely reported to have overseen himself -- really do feel like they belong in a different, better movie that much of the rest of The Big Boss. As it is, the fight scenes in which he is in the thick of the battle -- in particular those in which he has to fight several men at the same time -- elevate this offering to a really high plain; one in which the artistry as well as violent effectiveness of the martial arts as practiced by Lee can be appreciated and leave the movie's audience gasping in shock but also awe.

My rating for the film: 7.5

The Hunter (Iran, 2010)
- From the Auteurs programme
- Rafi Pitts, director
- Starring Rafi Pitts, Mitra Hajjar, Ali Nicksaulat

An ex-con who likes to go on solo hunting excursions in the woods, Ali also is a night watchman who would prefer to work days so that he could spend more quality time with the wife and young daughter he clearly loves. But when he puts this request, his boss not only turns it down flat but tells him that with his record, he should count himself lucky to have the job that he does.

Although he's not particularly happy about this, Ali goes about trying to make things work for his family and himself. And initially it all does seem to be going okay, only for his life to shatter and unravel when he returns home to an empty apartment and learns several hours later that his wife and daughter were fatally caught in the cross fire of a shoot out between police forces and anti-government individuals.

Angered and possessed of a death wish, he takes himself and a rifle up to a high spot to unleash his frustrations by doing such as shooting at the police. And if this development seems improbable, even more so is what follows -- including the incredibly swift conclusion reached by the police that he is the police killer and their equally fast tracking down of Ali despite his pretty immediately having gone on the run.

The first film from Iran I've viewed that is of a genre other than straight drama, The Hunter has an interesting premise that turned out to be badly executed. The result is a work that's far more boring than it could and should have been.

Honestly, until I saw this offering, I never would have thought that a film about a cop killer could be more boring than films from the same country with such as a Muslim convert (The Book of Law), a Muslim seminary student (Under the Moonlight) and a young girl, a female cyclist and an old woman (The Day I Became a Woman) as protagonists. But now I know far better -- and I hope that writing this review will help others to come to this realization too!

My rating for the film: 5

The Messenger (USA, 2009)
- From the Gala Presentation programme
- Oren Moverman, director
- Starring Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, Samantha Morton

The two most recent American films I had viewed prior to checking out that which is the only fully English-language movie I'll be checking out at this year's HKIFF were The Hurt Locker and Up in the Air. So I'm wondering if it is a sign of the times -- or just a sign of my tendency to go for certain types of movies? -- that this film about military men whose jobs require them to be the bearers of bad news effectively combines the themes of those two films I had seen earlier.

In any event, and also like those other two films, The Messenger boasts very good performances by the lead actor and others who also have substantial time on screen, an intriguing premise and interesting perspectives. And it most certainly does have its moments -- including two (one early in the film, the other towards the end) contributed by Steve Buscemi in the role of a parent that Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson's characters are tasked with relaying the news of his son's death to.

Still, some elements seem to be missing from the movie that could make it really great rather than just okay-to-good. For example, although I applaud Woody Harrelson's inhabiting a character who is in many ways far removed from those others he essayed in such as Cheers and 2012, things might have worked better if his captain had been less quickly matey with Ben Foster's staff sergeant character. As it is, the less edgy both soldiers' came to act, the less edgy the film came to feel.

In addition, while I like that the film's makers sought to make the offering not just a straight drama, I just don't think its comedic and romantic elements worked all that well. Worse, they seemed to dilute the movie's overall emotional impact. This even while I did come away from the viewing with a strong sense of how being a messenger of this sort can psychologically wound an individual as much as being shot by real bullets can psychologically as well as physically destroy.

My rating for this film: 6.5


Joyce Lau said...

Hey there,
Nice reviews.
I thought you might be interested to read my article on the film festival, too.

YTSL said...

Hi Joyce --

Thanks for reading. And actually I read your piece before but have only just gone and commented on it. (Sorry if they sounded on the abrupt side -- they were written in haste!)