Friday, March 25, 2011

HKIFF 2011 Report (Love and Lust Edition!)

Two actresses I admire (Carrie Ng and Patricia Ha)
and the director of their latest film

Director Calvin Poon and some of his film's cast members
answer questions from the audience post-screening

A couple years back, a then colleague of mine told me she couldn't understand why the Hong Kong International Film Festival is so called -- in that to her, a bunch of people watching movies in the dark didn't seem very festive. In response, I told her that the HKIFF is actually a real festival for me because it's a time for me to reunite for a time with fellow film buff friends as well as have fun viewing a whole bunch of movies. And sure enough, before or after five out of the six screenings I've attended thus far (including for the two of the films I'm reviewing in this entry), I ran into a friend!

Cool, eh? (And for those who I've met up with at previous editions of the HKIFF but aren't here this year, wish you were here!) Ultimately though, to paraphrase Shakespeare, the movie's the thing -- be they old classics or newly premiering works, from Hong Kong or beyond! So without further ado...

Love Letter (Japan, 1995)
- From the 20th Anniversary of Fortissimo Films programme
- Shunji Iwai, director
- Starring Miho Nakayama, Miki Sakai, Etsushi Toyokawa, Bunjaku Han, etc.

The first feature film directed by Shunji Iwai is a romantic drama that relies a lot of coincidences -- including two women living in different parts of Japan having known the same man and one of them turning out to have the same personal name and surname as the man. Itsuki Fujii is the name of both the prematurely deceased fiance of Hiroko Watanabe and that of a woman now living in his old house in the picturesque town of Otaru (on the island of Hokkaido) who had been his classmate for three years of junior high school. In addition, the female Itsuki Fujii and Hiroko Watanabe turn out to be each other's doppelganger (and, indeed, are played by the same actress -- Miho Nakayama)!

The fact that Love Letter manages to seem believable amidst these torrents of coincidences in its story is no mean feat. Add to this that the story is predicated on Hiroko still being very much in love with a man who had lost his life two years ago in a mountaineering accident and decided one day to write and post a letter to him at his old Otaru home --and that it gets answered by someone bearing his name -- and you have the kind of tale that seems unnecessarily far-fetched. And yet, somehow, it all magically works -- and the movie actually comes across as being emotionally moving as well as plausible.

One major reason why the film manages to work as much as it does is Miho Nakayama -- who did such a good job playing two very different women that I actually thought for some time that the two women had been played by two different, even if admittedly somewhat similar looking, actresses! (Indeed, I was privately musing that quiet Hiroko reminded me somewhat of Rosamund Kwan while the more animated and comic female Itsuki Fujii brought to mind a young Anita Yuen!!)

There's also something charming about the story itself -- which posits that one young woman would be kind enough to accede to the requests of a stranger for childhood stories of her fiance (and this even before the former got to realizing that her pen friend's fiance was now deceased) and that by doing so, she would come to see her relationship with the male Itsuki Fujii in a different and more positive light than previously. In addition, the beautiful cinematography of Noboru Shinoda and sure direction of Shunji Iwai contributed considerably to the sense that the overall film is one that is very well made.

Even while I liked the work quite a bit though, I must confess to being surprised that it was not the tearjerker I had read that it was. Put another way: the movie didn't affect me strongly enough to make me cry. At the same time though, I can attest that the woman sitting next to me at the screening I attended may have done enough weeping for both me as well as her -- and copiously sniffing too, especially in the last 10 minutes or so of the offering whose conclusion I have to say I really did like quite a bit (too)! ;D

My rating for the film: 7.5

Hi, Fidelity
(Hong Kong, 2011)

- From the Galas programme
- Calvin Poon Yuen Leung, director
- Starring Patricia Ha, Carrie Ng, Michelle Ye, William Chan and Chapman To

Before the screening of Hi, Fidelity, its stars (bar for William Chan who had a conflicting engagement) and director took their bows before the audience and the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society's Bede Cheng proudly announced that it was a world premiere. And I got this sense that what the film's makers and the festival organisers were hoping was that this would be this year's Gallants -- a nostalgic return to a previous, more glorious era of Hong Kong cinema, not least by way of its cast being headed by two iconic actresses of yore in Patricia Ha (Nomad (1982), An Amorous Woman of the Tang Dynasty (1984), On the Run (1988), etc.) and Carrie Ng (Naked Killer (1992), Remains of a Woman (1993), Candlelight Woman (1995), etc.).

And true enough, this movie revolving around Hong Kong tai tais in less than satisfying marriages who head to a high class "duck shop" (with a star gigolo in Billy (essayed by William Chan)) across the border where they can give their repressed lust free rein did to some extent get me recalling quite a few older movies. For one thing, seeing Patricia Ha and, especially, Carrie Ng on a big screen again -- as well as "in the flesh" -- really did get my mind wandering down Memory Lane recalling many of the roles they played in the past; and this not least because though undeniably older now, they still have those recognizably familiar mannerisms that mark them as (virtual) old (screen) friends.

For another, Calvin Poon -- who has several scripts (and Cantopop song lyrics) to his name, even if not many directorial efforts -- went for the "almost everything but the kitchen sink" hodgepodge approach to film-making that one tends to associate with
circa 1980s and 1990s Hong Kong cinema; one which makes it so that even while Hi, Fidelity can be primarily described as a drama, it definitely also has it comic moments as well as a couple that probably would have fitted better in a crime thriller or actioner.

While that film-making style and/or philosophy often previously produced cinematic gems, it also produced its share of messes. And, alas, Hi, Fidelity is -- despite the efforts of its two luminous veteran stars -- more mess than diamond, rough or not. In particular, the movie has at least two plot twists too many; including a couple that were so ridiculous that their moments of revelation caused inadvertent laughter in an audience that was filled with fans of many of the cast members (some of whom had actually turned up at the screening with fan gear advertising their adoration of particular individuals).

Still, this is not to say that the film is unwatchable. A large amount of credit for this goes to the game cast -- and I include the younger faces like William Chan and Michelle Ye along with the veterans (who also include Candice Yu On On, Lawrence Cheng and Belinda Hamnett!) and also Chapman To (whose supporting appearance in a film I often find myself appreciating as much as the leading actor's!) -- who appeared to really have given it all a good go.

If only they had had a better script to work with, then the movie would have been a more fitting vehicle for their considerable talents and effort. As it is, what you have is an offering that I thought was moving along pretty well and was actually rather involving until it unnecessarily derailed -- or at least veered off along an overly sensational path it shouldn't have taken -- past the hour mark.

My rating for the film: 7


Samson said...

I am so envious you get to see Love Letter on the big screen. I still remember reading about how popular it was when it was released in Hong Kong years ago, and later catching the film on video (and falling in love with it straight away).

YTSL said...

Hi Samson --

Thanks for the info re "Love Letter" having been a particularly popular work when first released in Hong Kong and later when it was available on video. I actually wonder if knowing that it's highly considered by many made it so that my expectations for the film were too high. As it is, I liked the film but wasn't blown away like I almost expected to be.

ewaffle said...

Terrific reviews as always although no more than what your fans expect.

Pat Ha and especially Carrie Ng are two of my favorites--I glanced through Carrie Ng's entries on the HKMDB and realized I have seen 15 of her movies. Even though she has been in some badly written and directed productions I don't recall a bad performance from her. She seems to be the epitome of professionalism--given weak pages of dialog and clumsy blocking she simply makes the best of it. She hits her mark and does the lines.

I have seen Pat Ha in just a couple of Hong Kong films although she has the advantage of starring in at least one great movie "On the Run".

"Hi, Fidelity" will never make it to the big screen in Motown--I hope the DVD follows quickly.

YTSL said...

Hi ewaffle --

*Blush* and thanks for giving me the idea/conceit that I have fans, they have high expectations and these expectations are often fulfilled. :)

As I think you can tell, I like Pat Ha and Carrie Ng (especially the latter) a lot too. Re Pat Ha: Yes, "On the Run' is amazing -- but I also found her very impressive in "Women Prison" (as well as the other films I mentioned in my blog entry). And strangely enough, Carrie Ng also was very impresive in another women's prison drama: "The First Time is the Last Time".

ewaffle said...

"The First Time is the Last Time" was a hoot. I wrote about it on HKMDB: Crazy Bitch Winnie must have been a fun role for Carrie Ng. She got to pull out all the stops, going from sexy to pathetic, from tough to fearful, from the hardened street girl to a whimpering victim. The part almost requires overacting or at least playing everything big, loud and flamboyant and Ng does a terrific job of keeping her performance on the right side of ridiculous.

YTSL said...

Hi again ewaffle --

Goodness me, you found "The First Time is the Last Time" to be an inadvertent comedy? I, OTOH, bought into the whole melodrama shebang! Though it's also true that I also remember the film for having a particularly hot sex scene with Andy Lau and Carrie Ng in it. :)

ewaffle said...

I should have made it more clear that I thought Carrie Ng had a great time in an insanely over the top role that included but was by no means limited to a significant amount of outlandish scenery chewing in "The First Time is the Last Time".

This might be a first--I quoted myself out of context. ;-}

YTSL said...

Hi once more ewaffle --

Okay, I think I understand better now. At the same time though, I have to confess to tending towards the thinking that playing roles like Carrie Ng's in "The First Time is the Last Time" would make an actress depressed for a time. I guess it's hard for me to believe that such good acting could come without empathizing with and feeling for her character.

richardlimjr said...

when I first caught Love Letter on the big screen in Singapore, I had no idea what it was going to be. All I knew that it was part of a Japanese film fest line up that my ex girlfriend wanted to watch.

I ended up loving the show more than she did.

There's this sweet emotions that swept me at the end of the show. A discovery of a beautiful secret from the past. A sense of irrecoverable love that stills linger.

One thing that I was thankful that this movie is not one of those tearjerkers that's going all out for the tear ducts.

When I knew the director was going to be attending the Love Letter screening at HKIFF, I was so tempted to fly over from Singapore to catch it. But sadly, I wasn't able to do so.

YTSL said...

Hi richardlimjr --

Thanks for your comments. Sadly, Shunji Iwai ended up cancelling his visit to Hong Kong this HKIFF because of recent events in Japan. The following are excerpts from a letter he wrote that was handed out to viewers of "Love Letter":-

""Love Letter" reflected a lot of my personal experiences. The location was in Otaru, but I used a lot of my junior high memories from Sendai. Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture (where Senai is located) and Iwate Prefecture were the areas damaged most severely [by the recent disasters].

"The town was reduced to rubble because of the tsunami, but flowers may bloom again someday. I want flowers to bloom. And I want to make films about the flowers.

"To make this happen, we need your help. Please support us.

"Hope you enjoy the film."