Sunday, April 29, 2012

This is Not a Film at the 2012 HKIFF

The filmmaker who is the subject of this work 
(that is a film despite its title proclaiming that it is not so)

- This Is Not a Film (Iran, 2011)
- From the Master Class program
- Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, directors
- Starring Jafar Panahi

Finally, we (or, rather, I) get to discussing the final work that I viewed at what turned out to be an actually pretty satisfying -- and satisfactory -- 2012 Hong Kong International Film Festival.  And yes, I do find it a bit strange that I watched an equal amount of Iranian and Hong Kong films at this year's HKIFF -- and a whole lot more Japanese movies than Hong Kong as well as Iranian films (see reviews here, here, here, here, here and here) -- but I guess that goes to show how international this film fest really is...

Getting back to This is Not a Film: we're talking here about a homemade documentary by two Iranian filmmakers --one of whom is under house arrest and officially banned for 20 years for directing and scripting a film (but not appearing in one), the other of whom was jailed for three months after this film was made -- that truly was made, and made available to be viewed, against the odds.

The conceit here is that this is not a film but, rather, a discussion by Jafar Panahi about a film that he would make if he could.  Within the confines of his apartment, on a day where his wife and child have gone out and left him alone to do such as look after his daughter's pet iguana (named Iggy and who makes a memorable guest appearance in the film that left me pondering how it surely must not be coincidental that pets end up having not insubstantial roles in both this film and Mohamad Rasoulof's Goodbye), Panahi gets filmed by documentary filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb discussing filmmaking but, also, going about his daily life as best his can.

The result is unorthodox but not at all uninteresting.  There's a surprising amount of often inadvertent humor -- including when Mirtahmasb chastises Panahi for trying to direct the film since he's officially banned from doing such a thing.  Still, what most clearly comes across in this surreptitious glimpse at the drudgery that now passes for life for an Iranian filmmaker under house arrest but still obviously bursting with ideas is how ridiculous as well as frustrating the constraints can feel and be.

To be sure, the surroundings in which Panahi has been confined actually look physically comfortable.  And presumably he's not entirely cut off from the world since he's shown doing such as talking to people on a mobile phone, working on a computer, viewing videos on a large screen television -- and even being allowed to be visited by the likes of Mirtahmasb and also to interact with other people in his apartment building.

Nonetheless, despite it not being made explicit, there surely must be some frustration at not being allowed to go out with his wife and daughter, and to enjoy the activities associated with a festival that was taking place on the day that this film was shot.  Consequently, what we have here is a sad reflection of the state of Panahi's life in Iran (and, by extension, the circumstances of Iranian filmmakers) -- but, also, a powerful statement of his courageous as well as dogged commitment to continue being involved in filmmaking, in whatever way that he is allowed (or, rather, is allowed to get away with doing).

My rating for this film: 8

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Texture and Local Streets (This week's Photo Hunt themes)

Images that capture the texture (as in the substance and character) of local streets.  That was what I set out to look for for this entry for Sandi's and Gattina's Photo Hunts this week.  And I think I've found them in the three photos taken in different parts of Hong Kong at the top of this blog post.

The top-most photo shows a street in Hong Kong's Central District.  Not the geographical center of the territory (or even Hong Kong Island), it is so named because it's historically been the territory's central business and administrative area.  And although there are more vibrant shopping areas elsewhere in the Big Lychee, it still is the place to be in the minds of many people -- including those charged with deciding the location of flagship stores for luxury fashion brands and such; a place with a smooth, cosmopolitan vibe and high (yet not to the point of super over-crowded) traffic levels.

The middle photo is of Causeway Bay -- to be precise, a part of this popular, high density section of Hong Kong that borders the quieter, still leafier, but now also high-rise-filled Happy Valley.  With streets that often feel busier and more jam packed than even Central's, it also feels more local -- or, at least, Asian -- to me; and it is the "go to" area on Hong Kong Island for dining and meeting up with friends as well as shopping for a lot of local residents.

Of my three photos, the bottom one might appear to be the odd one out -- for many reasons.  For one, it's not of a place on Hong Kong Island but, instead, of a thoroughfare on quieter Peng Chau, one of Hong Kong's over 200 Outlying Islands that is still populated but is car-free.  For another, while advertising also abounds in the photo, the name brand here is Sunkist rather than Escada or such like!  

At the same time, don't be quick to assume that Peng Chau is necessarily a world apart or away from the rest of Hong Kong, including the Central District, and beyond.  As a matter of fact, the first person I met who enthused about the joys of Peng Chau island living to me was a French financier I got to chatting with one evening in an English pub in Central!  And the second person who brought up the topic of living on Peng Chau to me was Taiwanese theater director (and sometime film director) Stan Lai -- one of whose plays, Writing in Water, was partially inspired by conversations he had with a Hong Kong actress who hailed from that island! :b

Friday, April 27, 2012

An art house film viewed at a multiplex courtesy of the 2012 HKIFF

The dominant colors of Goodbye are gray and muted --
and so is the mood of the film

Goodbye (Iran, 2011)
- From the Auteurs program
- Mohammad Rasoulof, director
- Starring Leila Zare, Hassan Pourshirazi, Behname Tashakor

Close to three weeks ago now, I went to UA Langham Place for the second last screening on my 2012 Hong Kong International Film Festival schedule.  As I sat in the cinema waiting for the serious Iranian drama that was my chosen viewing fare for that evening to begin, I was serenaded multiple times -- as it was on a loop -- by Celine Dion's My Heart Will Go On, one of the promotion gimmicks for Titanic 3D.  

If nothing else, this "development" got me seriously questioning the suitability of that Mongkok multiplex as an appropriate venue for film festival screenings.  And it is a real testament to Goodbye that it took only a few scenes to establish that the world lived in by its protagonist and those around her lies a universe apart from any Hollywood movie's -- and only a few minutes for me to feel like I had been thoroughly sucked into that other space that also is very different from the realm which I personally occupy.

A few months back, I had viewed and been blown away by Mohammad Rasoulof's The White Meadows, an allegorical political film shot in an area of Iran whose incredibly photogenic landscape is dominated by a large lake and surrounding salt marshes.  Goodbye, Rasaoulof's follow-up film after The White Meadows, also happens to have been made after the filmmaker was arrested, jailed and, post release on bail, slapped with a travel ban.

Going into a viewing of Goodbye with this knowledge in hand, it's well nigh impossible to not see its director-scriptwriter's plight in that of the protagonist: a Tehran-based lawyer, recently disbarred for her activism, who spends the bulk of this film trying to leave her country and get away from the claws of its repressive ruling regime.  And it makes seeing the difficulties she faces in trying to not only break free but, also, to live and breathe while biding her time before making what is effectively an escape bid all the more painful.

A married woman, she is physically separated from her journalist husband who either has been exiled to the south of the country -- or has fled there to escape capture.  Now she lives a largely solitary life, filled with whole pockets of silence, in an apartment where she is more likely to be paid visits by plainclothes policemen and/or security agents than friendly faces such as those belonging to her mother (who, it is made clear, lives a distance away from her).  A life that is, at best, depressing; and, at worse, one in which her very existence is under threat.

Almost needless to say, this film which won the Iranian auteur the Best Director, Cannes Un Certain Regard award does not make for enjoyable viewing.  At the same time, I think that's actually the point -- because feeling uncomfortable when viewing the admirable (even if hard to love) cinematic effort means that it has successfully gotten under your skin and conveyed some modicum of the discomfort (to put it mildly) to be found in its maker's life as well as that of the offering's protagonist.  Consequently, long after you've said goodbye to it, it really is the case that you'll find that the memories of Goodbye do stay strong, and with you.

My rating for the film: 7

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

To Sai Kung's Tai Long Wan once more! (photo-essay)

One hot Sunday in July 2010, a friend and I decided to hike to Sai Kung Peninsula's Tai Long Wan from the Sai Wan Pavilion.  After getting there and enjoying the gorgeous sights and more than the place had to offer, we decided to head back along the route that we had come from to get the bus back into Sai Kung town rather than press ahead and go along the rest of Stage 2 of the Maclehose Trail

For while we had been treated to breathtaking views on the hike, I got to belatedly realizing that this was an excursion better attempted when the temperature was lower because, frankly, I actually got worried at one point that I was in danger of getting heat stroke! So it wasn't until a considerably cooler winter's day that I ventured again along the same trail -- and with a different friend in tow!  

On this more hike-friendly day, the general humidity as well as High Island Reservoir's water levels were noticeably lower than on the previous Sunday that I had hiked in that area.  But the sun was still shining, the sky still was a beautifully blue for much of the day and the hiking so much more pleasant that we did end up going beyond Ham Tin.  However the last few kilometers of Maclehose Trail Stage 2 would have to wait until still another time as this time around, my friend and I got tempted by the boat ride from Chek Keng that I've decided is my favorite of all ferry and kaito rides in Hong Kong! ;b

After first climbing up from Sai Wan Pavillion to Chui Tung Au,
the trail leads steeply down to Sai Wan -- which one can see 
is still a distance away but so alluring looking already

At Sai Wan village, cafes offer drinks and snacks 
including bowls of tasty tau-fu fa

But what's really irresistible there are the gorgeous views
to be had there for free!

And no, it's not a mirage that such a place exists in 
Hong Kong -- and that it's so uncrowded to boot! ;b

 Looking back at Sai Wan and points south of it
from further along Maclehose Trail Stage 2

A view of Tai Long Wan that doesn't include Sharp Peak

 A view of Tai Long Wan that does include Sharp Peak
and part of the Maclehose Trail

View from the beach cafe at Ham Tin
where we stopped and had lunch

To be continued! :)

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Robo-G (Still another movie viewed at the 2012 Hong Kong International Film Festival!)

In lieu of my not having a photo of Robo-G, here's going ahead
and offering up a photo of various Robot Ks instead! ;b

Robo-G (Japan, 2012)
- From the I See It My Way program
- Shinobu Yaguchi, director
- Starring Mickey Curtis (AKA Shinjiro Igarashi), Yuriko Yoshitaka, Gaku Hamada, Ianky Junya Kawashima and Shogo Kawai, etc.

In recent years, various articles have been written about Japan's love of robots, especially humanoid ones.  And it's Japanese inventors who have created such seemingly straight-out-of-science-fiction-and-anime machines as female android Geminoid F (who recently made an appearance in Hong Kong at Cityplaza's Robots in Motion 2012 show) and humanoid robot ASIMO.  Thus it was that when viewing Robo-G, I got to thinking that this Shinobiu Yaguchi offering surely is an "only from Japan" movie.  

Among other thing, it seems a very Japan thing for there to be a robot contest -- and one at that in which a trio of young engineers at a small consumer electronics company would have an entry.  And even while it does involve a greater credibility leap, I also could imagine such a scenario as that in which an enthusiastic young Japanese woman (essayed by Yuriko Yoshitaka) might actually get infatuated with a humanoid robot and it additionally could fit within the realm of possibility for that same young woman to be an engineering super brain as well as mega robot(ics) geek!

If Robo-G were a Hollywood movie, the American male equivalents of the main characters found in this Japanese movie would be super competent individuals (and, I'd imagine, the female less so).  My sense too is that the robot competition in which they are taking part would be taken far more seriously (whereas in the Japanese movie, there doesn't seem to even be formal prizes to compete for, only a chance for welcome positive publicity via TV coverage and exposure).

But since Robo-G is a Japanese movie, the whole affair turns out to be largely played out for laughs -- with its three main young male characters (who are played by physically diminuitive Gaku Hamada, tall and thin Junya Kawashima and the distinctly overweight Shogo Kawai) already not having all that much confidence in their robot invention before it was inadvertently activated and then proceeded to literally crash out of a window and break into several pieces after falling several floors down!   

Filled with desperation as well as despair, this anti-heroic trio cook up a scheme that involves their getting a human to don the reconstructed outer sections of their robot.  Needing this particular human to be a specific height and size, they end up having a 73-year-old grandfather (portrayed by Mickey Curtis (AKA Shinjiro Igarashi) "powering" (playing) the robot.  (And lest you think that this paragraph contains major spoilers, suffice to say that the movie's plot focuses considerably more on what happens after the old man gets people more and more excited about the robot by way of his actions while wearing that robot suit.)

What with contemporary Japan aging faster than any other country in history, it makes sense that the main protagonist of Robo G turns out be an elderly gentleman rather than a younger individual.  On a related note, it actually is quite the traditional East Asian message that this 2012 Japanese film tenders to its viewers: that is, that older folks still can contribute to society by doing such as helping and inspiring younger generations whose members may be more technically savvy than older people but still have much to learn from their seniors. 

My rating for this film: 7.5

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Reflect and Humour (This week's Photo Hunt themes)

As those of you who have become acquainted with my Ponyos know, Puppet Ponyo is the Ponyo plushie that I take on vacation and appears in my travel photo-essays (like this Japanese one and this German one).  And as many of you probably also realize, my Ponyos help inject some often very welcome humour and whimsy into my life.  So it shouldn't take much reflection to figure out what I'd turn to for this week's entry for Sandi's and Gattina's Photo Hunts in view of humour (spelt the British English way with two "u"s!) being one of the designated themes!

At the same time, this set of Puppet Ponyo photos are a bit different from the usual ones -- in that they were taken in Hong Kong (which these days is my home territory as opposed to a foreign travel destination). More precisely, they were taken on a visit to Hong Kong Wetland Park in Tin Shui Wai with my German friend -- who lived in Hong Kong for seven years (and is officially a Hong Kong permanent resident!) before being recalled to Germany by her company -- on one of her regular visits to a part of the world we both love.

As it so happens, two out of the three Puppet Ponyo photos that I've selected for this blog entry turn out to feature bodies of water on which interesting reflections can be seen.  And with regards to humour: I have to say that pretty much every photo I see of Puppet Ponyo invariably gets me smiling. 

Still, I do reckon there's something especially humourous about the photo in which Puppet Ponyo is perched atop the sculpture of what appears to be a baby stork in the style of a rodeo rider while my friend it was who suggested -- and was particularly tickled by -- the Puppet Ponyo kissing a frog picture.  So maybe it could be said that whichever of these photo most appeals to you will say something about -- and will be a reflection of? -- your particular character and personality! ;b

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Kuk Po and the neighboring spaces bordering Hong Kong's Frontier Closed Area (Photo-essay)

So what lay ahead after on the 15 kilometer Northeast Hong Kong hike (chronicled thus far in five previous photo essays here, here, here, here and here) that two friends and I went on whose main objective was to get to the picturesque walled village of Lai Chi Wo after we made it to our main destination?  The answer: quite a bit of a trek out still; one that involved going northwest-wards and up to the natural gap between still higher ground known as Fan Shui Au and then down hill to an area bordering Starling Inlet (AKA Sha Tau Kok Hoi) that, as we found out, is home to some more (near) abandoned villages!

In all honesty, although I knew about Lai Chi Wo (and its fung shui wood) long before I went on this particular hike, I was unfamiliar with these other (near) abandoned settlements that I similarly found to be very interesting to visit.  All told, because we reached Kuk Po and the associated space which borders the Frontier Closed Area of Hong Kong that borders Mainland China pretty late on into our journey, we weren't able to explore it much.

Instead, we tarried just a short while to do such as snap a few photos and mentally plan our next visit to this borderland area before heading along to the still inhabited village of Luk Keng (that's also home to a green minibus route terminus) that was the end point of this particular trek (but which I've already targeted as the starting point of the next excursion that will take me to Luk Keng)! :b

The earth god shrine at Kuk Po -- and my shadow approaching it!

A calendar in an abandoned house points to its last day 
of its occupation having been February 11th, 1989

A well maintained sacred space in one of the otherwise 
pretty much abandoned villages

Strange as it may seem, the tall buildings in this photo
are actually in Mainland China while the unbuilt-up space
in the foreground is situated in Hong Kong

 One of its buildings may have a red star on it
but this row of houses lies on the Hong Kong side
of the Hong Kong-Mainland Chinese border

 Perhaps the most impressive single building we saw on 
this hike -- once home to a school built in 1928 and said to 
have been inspired by Guangzhou's military academy!

Somewhat surreally, these buildings and villages that look like 
they are from another time actually exist in the present day -- 
and in an area where a modern looking Mainland China 
is to be found just across the water and border

Panoramic view of Kuk Po (and the hilly range 
over which lies such as Lai Chi Wo)

And coming up next week: another photo-essay... but this time, from a different hike! ;b

Monday, April 16, 2012

Lizard on a tree in Hong Kong!

Lookit what I spotted while out hiking 
in Sai Kung East Country Park yesterday! :O

 Since it's on a tree and has a crest, I'm guessing that it's
a member of the crested tree lizard species that lives 
in Hong Kong (and also Malaysia!)

This photo gives a good idea of how long
this lizard's tail was relative to the rest of it! :O

Back when I was in primary school, I was an avid viewer of an American children's TV series called Big Blue Marble and it was through its pen-pal club/exchange that I became pen friends for a time with a girl from New Jersey who was nice enough to send me an American magazine and chewing gum along with a number of enthusiastic letters.  Several months after we started corresponding, she wrote and asked me -- in all seriousness, I'm assuming -- whether I lived in a tree.

To put it mildly, I was shocked and felt not a little insulted.  Rather than halt our correspondence immediately, however, I decided to respond... by telling her that I did indeed live in a tree house.  What's more, I had a pet crocodile that I would ride to school and back home on -- and while I was in class (in a school that also was up in a tree), the pet crocodile would wait patiently down below for me.

After mailing off my story, I figured that my New Jersey pen friend would figure out that no one in the world lived like that.  Instead, in her next letter, she told me how she thought my way of life was a great one and that she wished she had a pet crocodile too -- a reply that frankly left me feeling so flabbergasted I didn't know how to respond, and thereby caused our correspondence to come to a halt right there and then!

To be fair, Malaysia does have crocodiles in the wild (as well as such as crocodile farms).  But the largest reptile I've seen in my home country outside of a zoo actually have been monitor lizards rather than crocodiles.  (And, I have to say, I've seen more than one monitor lizard in my family house's garden!)

Believe it or not, Hong Kong also is home to at least one crocodile -- Pui Pui -- who now resides at the Hong Kong Wetland Park after being caught in a river in the New Territories!  But the closest thing to a crocodile out in the wilds of the Big Lychee that I've seen thus far has to be larger lizards like the one up on a tree that I saw while out hiking in Sai Kung East Country Park yesterday.

Like a few of the smaller lizards that I've spotted while out hiking in Hong Kong (like can be seen in this entry and also this one), the creature I came across yesterday was kind enough to stay still for a time and effectively pose for me.  Seeing that the photos I have of it are so clear, I'd appreciate if someone could identify what kind of lizard it is for me. (I'm thinking it's a crested tree lizard but confirmation -- or an alternative ID -- from someone more knowledgeable about Hong Kong's wildlife would be much appreciated!)

Sunday, April 15, 2012

A Hong Kong kung fu comedy and a German dramedy viewed at the 2012 HKIFF

Large posters, including for the 2012 HKIFF, hang on 
the outside of City Hall -- one of the film fest's screening venues
Dreadnaught (Hong Kong, 1981)
- From the Once Upon a Hero: The Wong Fei Hung Saga program
- Yuen Woo Ping, director
- Starring Yuen Biao, Kwan Tak Hing, Leung Kar Yan, Yuen Shun Yi, Fan Mei Sheng, etc.

In what was another lifetime, one in which I was an anthropology graduate student living in Philadelphia, I rented a Hong Kong movie called Wing Chun so often from my local video store that I got to realizing that it'd make more economic sense for me to buy myself a copy of it. And that is how it came to be that that 1994 Yuen Woo Ping-helmed martial arts actioner starring Michelle Yeoh became only the second ever movie I owned a home video copy of!

But while Yuen Woo Ping has directed 23 other films to date, I have to confess to not having found the others of the movies he's helmed (as opposed to been action choreographer of) that I've viewed to be all that much to my taste.  And this includes cinematic efforts that have been deemed seminal Hong Kong movies by others -- such as Snake in the Eagle's Shadow (the film that made Jackie Chan a star in the Chinese-speaking world) and Drunken Master (the latter of which had Jackie Chan playing a young, mischievous version of legendary kung fu master Wong Fei Hung) -- as well as undoubted duds like his most recent True Legend.

Based on its reputation as well as its two lead actors, however, I figured it wouldn't hurt to give Dreadnaught, Yuen Woo Ping's 1981 martial arts comedy about a cowardly young man (played by the super agile Yuen Biao) who seeks to learn kung fu from Wong Fei Hung (essayed by the venerable Kwan Tak Hing), a try -- and especially when it got shown on a big screen courtesy of this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival. At the same time, however, the screening schedule really wasn't in its favor as it happened to be the third movie I watched one Sunday -- and worse, the earlier two films I viewed happened to be the really affecting A Letter to Momo and the sublime He's a Woman, She's a Man (complete with a fantastic post-screening Q&A with its director).

If truth be told, I felt emotionally spent hours before the beginning of the Dreadnaught screening. Even so, I believe that I would have emotionally connected with, and otherwise responded, to a better film. As it was though, I was left cold by the way too broad humor on show in the movie (though it's also true that it was able to tickle the funny bone of a viewer sitting behind me who laughed appreciatively at it all), unsatisfied with the idea that anger and strong sense of justice would suddenly help the film's young protagonist to come to possess the fighting ability he exhibits in the movie's climactic scenes, and jolted out of the picture whenever the admittedly already elderly Kwan Tak Hing was too obviously "doubled" by a younger, more athletic man.

At the same time, I must admit to having got a thrill out of seeing Kwan Tak Hing as Wong Fei Hung in a color movie that did have higher production values than the scores of black and white films he appeared in earlier in his career.  Additionally, even though his character in Dreadnaught was not a particularly great one, Yuen Biao still had opportunity to show how agile and acrobatic he was back when he was in his physical prime (particularly in a chase sequence that had him doing such as literally climbing walls).

Also, as it turned out, I found myself being pretty impressed by the lion dancing on view in Dreadnaught, be they ones in which individual "lions" showed their acrobatic abilities or those that involved deadly serious duels between a battling pair of these showy creatures. (I'm not sure if Leung Kar Yan performed his own stunts in the lion dancing scenes; if he did, still more credit is due this under-rated actor who had third billing in this work playing Wong Fei Hung's chief disciple, Leung Foon.) If only there had been more stand out scenes like those, then this movie would have hit the heights that I was hoping -- and, in truth, also expecting -- that it would do.      

My rating for this film: 5.5

Almanya: Welcome to Germany (Germany, 2011)
- From the Gala Presentation program
- Yasemin Samdereli, director
- Starring Vedat Erincin, Fahri Yardim, Aylin Tezel, etc.

Two evenings after I viewed Dreadnaught, I took in a film whose humorous notes struck much more of a chord with me. Almanya: Welcome to Germany is a feel-good dramedy revolving around an ethnic Turkish family whose patriarch went to Germany in the 1960s to make money but ended up settling with his family in -- and even becoming a citizen of -- a country with a majority population whose religion and certain cultural mores he does not share.

Directed by Yasemin Samdereli (who also co-wrote the script with her sister Nesrin), Almanya: Welcome to Germany was conceived as a tribute to their forebears.  But rather than opt for a strictly dramatic treatment of the story of Turkish "guest workers" who answered Germany's call in the 1960s to help alleviate their labor shortage, they've opted for -- and managed to pull off -- a light-hearted and warm take on the topic by focusing on one three-generational ethnic Turkish family, the older members of whom were born in Turkey but the younger ones in Germany.

There is some humor in the depiction of the younger members of the family who include: an ethnic Turkish -- but German-born -- man who has less of a tolerance for spicy food than his ethnic German wife; a pre-adolescent boy who insists that ethnicity is like football, in that you can only be part of one team, not two or more; and a young ethnic Turkish woman who shocks her family by having a boyfriend who is not only not Turkish but also not German (instead, he's -- gasp -- British!).

But it's the depictions of the early part of the older members of the family's lives that bring on the most laughs. In particular, the film shows how funny-haha as well as funny-strange the ideas one ethnic group can have of another can be -- especially when the other ethnic group does not share the same religion.  Even more admirably, Almanya: Welcome to Germany also does not neglect to show that "reverse culture shock" can occur when the Turkish people who have gotten used to living in Germany go back to Turkey to visit, and that that "reverse culture shock" also does have its humorous side. 

With a message in favor of tolerance -- for those of a different culture from you but also individual differences to be found within a single family -- that is made easy to swallow by way of its coming with a dose of easy, playful humor, Almanya: Welcome to Germany is a film that's hard to not like.  Something (else) that I love about the movie is how it reaches out to all audiences by way of its emphasizing our common humanity and everyone having their own quirks, some of which are indeed funnier than others.

As a cultural aside: I find it interesting that I saw three films with German individuals at the helm at this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival -- and, as it turned out, one of these was a documentary about a Catalan restaurant (El Bulli: Cooking in Progress), another was a documentary about an English actress who has starred in French as well as English language films (The Look) and now there's also Almanya: Welcome to Germany which also doesn't have ethnic Germans as its focus!  So maybe to be German these days is to be more international-minded than many other nationalities -- and if so, all the more power to them for being so! :)

My rating for this film: 8

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Sturdy and Home (This week's Photo Hunt themes)


When most people in the world think of Hong Kong, they tend to conjure up vistas filled with high rise buildings -- some of which house offices and shops, others of which are home to a substantial number of the Big Lychee's slightly over 7 million inhabitants.  Images, in short, akin to the top most picture in my entry this week for  Sandi's and Gattina's Photo Hunts (albeit minus the green foreground that came from my having taken that photographs from within the borders of a Hong Kong country park!).

Others will think of Victoria Peak, Hong Kong Island's highest hill, and the views to be found from there. For many locals, the Peak (as it tends to be more simply referred to here) also stands as the residential and social summit of Hong Kong.  So it strikes me as somewhat ironic -- and also rather funny -- that few of the homes on it look deemed worthy of photographing -- not least because while sturdy enough, they really don't stand out that much architecturally or aesthetically.  (To get an idea what I mean, see the middle shot of my three photographs.)

For the fact of the matter is that it's location much more than building construction itself that really determines their attractiveness, prices and such here in Hong Kong.  And even while the sturdy homes in my bottom photo are located in an agriculturally fertile area, they are miles cheaper than anything to be found on The Peak -- and not because they are more modest looking either but, instead, because of their location out in the northwestern New Territories that's not far from the historically rich (but now much less so) Kam Tin (whose name translates from Cantonese as Gold Field) but inconveniently distanced from the central business district and associated high density and cosmopolitan commercial areas of Asia's World City.

Friday, April 13, 2012

A Letter to Momo viewed one morning at the 2012 HKIFF

The 36th Hong Kong International Film Festival has ended
but my reviewing of films I viewed during the fest continue!

A Letter to Momo (Japan, 2011)
- From the Animation Unlimited program
- Hiroyuki Okiura, director

The morning after I attended an evening screening of 13 Assassins and then went with two fellow film fan friends -- one visiting from Britain, the other from Canada -- for dinner (and sake) at my favorite yakitori-ya in Hong Kong, I woke up early to go attend a morning screening of another HKIFF offering. As someone who is more night owl than early bird, I try to keep morning screenings to a minimum.  But it's hard to completely avoid them during such as the Hong Kong International Film Festival -- and, as it turns out, I went to two over successive weekends at this year's HKIFF.

I am happy to report that I got quite a bit out of both of the films I viewed in the HKIFF's 10.30am slot.  As I previously attested, I found The Look fascinating enough.  As for A Letter to Momo: I really am sincere when I state that it'd rank in the top five of the sixteen films I viewed at this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival.

Hiroyuki Okiura's animated coming-of-age drama centering on a girl who is brought to live by her newly widowed mother to her old family home on the remote rural island of Shio is the kind of film that unquestionably was made with a lot of care as well as love.  So it actually doesn't come as too much of a surprise to learn that this traditional hand-drawn anime work took seven years to make (even while one can't help but admire the dedication and persistence of its filmmaker.)

A Letter to Momo has drawn positive comparisons with Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro.  Some of the scenes depicting life in a seaside settlement may also bring to mind Miyazaki's Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea.  But the 13-year-old protagonist in this Hiroyuki Okiura film appears older -- and definitely also is sadder and more taciturn for much of the movie -- than those Studio Ghibli offerings' main female characters.  On a related note: the overall tone of A Letter to Momo also is more bittersweet than those Miyazaki movies.

Momo holds dear a piece of paper with the words "Dear Momo" written by her father that she found in a drawer of his desk at work after his death.  At the same time, she also is wracked by guilt along with sadness whenever she sees and thinks of this unfinished "letter" as the last time she saw her father, she had uttered words in anger that she came to deeply regret having aimed at him.  

After moving to Shio, however, A Letter to Momo's protagonist soon finds herself with little time to dwell on such thoughts as a result of her discovering the existence of three mischievous goblins that -- a la Totoro and the soot sprites -- few people other than her (and most definitely not any adults) can see.  Frightening at first, these supernatural creatures gradually come to reveal their softer and fun sides to Momo.  In the process, they slowly but surely help her to open up, psychologically heal and also emotionally (re-)connect with others, old family members and new friends alike.

Among the more interesting -- and admirable -- aspects of A Letter to Momo for me is how this film has whimsical supernatural elements and obviously is an animated work yet also can feel so very "real" as well as realistic.  In particular, I found its depiction of grief and how different people going about attempting to deal with the major loss of a loved one to be very moving, and their eventual coming together emotionally cathartic and touching.  And lest there be any doubt: yes, this cinematic work really did literally move me to tears even while also having a few scenes that will surely make one smile, laugh and, in at least one particular instance, get one's adrenaline positively pumping away!

My rating for the film: 9 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Lai Chi Wo -- reached at long last! (Photo-essay)

A couple of years after I first learnt about the existence of Lai Chi Wo -- and three photo-essays (see here, here and here) chronicling the hike I went on to get to that which once was the most prosperous as well as Hakka walled village in northeastern Hong Kong on -- I finally made it to this scenic locale.  Although my hiking party knew that we still would have some way to go to finish that day's hike, we couldn't help but linger in the area and do such as check out parts of the Lai Chi Wo Nature Trail as well as the village itself...

For one thing, we figured that it'd be some time before we'd be in this isolated part of the Big Lychee again.  For another, Lai Chi Wo really is a place that feels pretty special -- not least because there really aren't many places like it (left) in Hong Kong...

 The kind of sign that warns -- but also gets one laughing! ;D

 No sign of tree failure here! ;b

Lai Chi Wo's Hip Tin Temple (on the left) and primary school 
(on the right) both lie outside the walled village proper

The (still) well maintained Hip Tin Temple
looks immaculate inside as well as on the outside

Inside the walled village, there are buildings that look fit to 
still be lived in along with others that look ruined beyond repair

In addition, there are those that look to have been
largely abandoned -- but are still maintained for 
ancestral spirits to visit should they so wish

The way out out of Lai Chi Wo over on its western side
is not as flat as the way in from the south

And yes, it's more than six kilometers this way to the nearest
still substantially populated hamlet -- and minibus stop!

To be continued... in one last photo-essay documenting this very fulfilling around 15 kilometer hike! ;b

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Two of the seven Japanese films I viewed at the 2012 Hong Kong International Film Festival

I Wish... was the title of a Japanese movie that screened
at this year's HKIFF -- and, as it so happens, 
the words on one of my Hello Kitty handkerchiefs! ;b

 I Wish (Japan, 2011)
- From the Auteurs program
- Hirokazu Kore-eda, director
- Starring Koki Maeda, Oshiro Maeda, Nene Otsuka, Joe Odagiri, Isao Hashizume, Kirin Kiki, Kyara Uchida, Hiroshi Abe, etc.

Famed Japanese auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda's latest cinematic offering has a number of big and respected name thespians among the adults in its cast.  But they largely play second fiddle in the film to the children -- in particular Koki and Oshiro Maeda, the real-life pair of brothers who play two brothers who now live in different Kyushu towns as a result of their parents (essayed by Nene Otsuka and Joe Odagiri) having divorced.

Serious sixth grader Koichi (Koki Maeda) and his mother have moved in to live with her parents in Kagoshima while cheery fourth grader Ryunosoke (AKA Ryu) (Oshiro Maeda) lives with his slacker musician father and his bandmates in Fukuoka.  Both boys appear settled in school and have made  friends who they do spend time hanging out with but they still make time and effort to regularly talk to each other over the phone.

I'm not sure how long ago it was that their parents divorced but it's clear enough from early on in the film that Koichi pines for the days when his parents, brother and himself still lived in the same town and under one roof. And one day, after he hears another student in his school tell a story involving there being a way to make wishes come true, he decides to go about doing what he can to make his wish to have his family reunite come true.   

Koichi assumes as a matter of course that his younger brother will share this wish, and Ryu agrees to journey to meet up half way with Koichi and help him effect his plan. But the truth of the matter is that Ryu doesn't share Koichi's wish for their family to get back together again as Ryu's memories of time spent as a family tends to involve quarrels breaking out at some point or other between his parents.

If Hirokazu Kore-eda were a more conventional filmmaker, the brothers' differing wants and wishes would get easily resolved.  But because he is not, they are not -- and, in the process, I Wish turns out to quite a bit more than the average, conventional movie revolving around a couple of children who, as it so happens, do actually -- and admirably -- come across as regular kids (rather than the kind of precocious tykes that feature in way too many movies).

Bereft of cheap theatrics, I Wish is the kind of drama that doesn't contain any incredible emotional highs or dramatic emotional lows.  Instead, it has a lot of moments that appear close to life -- that will make you smile in knowing recognition as well as smile in amusement, with pleasure or, a couple of times in the movie, through bittersweet pain.  

As it so happens, the best section in the film for me actually didn't involve Koichi and Ryu's family but, rather, the boys and their friends who had decided to go off with them in their journey to make their own wishes come true as well and a lonely elderly couple who open up their home to the children and make them pampered guests for the night. The possibility is left hanging in the air that maybe it might turn out that this elderly couple and one of the children are related.  

No matter however that it's never confirmed or disproved.  Rather, the magic lies in realizing that there are such things in this world as the kindness of strangers -- and love between two brothers who some people might be inclined to dismiss as being too young to really be capable of having feelings so strong and thoughts as deep as they are depicted as having in I Wish.

My rating for the film: 8

 13 Assassins (Japan, 2010)
- From the Gala Presentation program
- Takashi Miike, director
- Starring Koji Yakusho, Goro Inagaki, Takayuki Yamada, Hiroki Matsukada, Yusuke Iseya, etc.

Six years ago, I viewed Takashi Miike's torture-filled Imprint at the 2006 Hong Kong International Film Festival and considered it the second worst of the 23 films I saw at that year's HKIFF. (Not only that but I'd also consider the Japanese filmmaker's English language offering to be the worst of his films that I've seen to date.)

As it so happens, I've not seen another Miike movie since then... that is, until this year's HKIFF, when I took in a screening of his masterful reworking of a 1963 film about 13 assassins who embark on a suicidal mission to assassinate the Shogun's younger brother that is considerably more mature and dramatically serious than any other Takashi Miike film that I had previously viewed.

13 Assassins has been compared with Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai.  I also see similarities between it and Peter Chan Ho Sun's Bodyguards and Assassins, notably in the structure and rhythm of both films being along the lines of introductory/teaser action, then a period of not so much action during which considerable time that is devoted to introducing and fleshing out both films' large group of "good guys" before the action truly (re-)commences in earnest.      

At the same time, 13 Assassins also contains touches of the kind one expects to see in a Takashi Miike movie (and would most definitely not expect to see in a film by either Akira Kurosawa or Peter Chan).  In particular, this film's cruel villain, Lord Matsudaira Naritsugu, may be based on a real life historical personality (and identified as a member of the real life Matsudaira clan) but he (who is portrayed to chilling effect by Goro Inagaki) is shown enacting atrocities in a way that could be described as over-exaggeratedly larger than life as well as cold-blooded and casual.

And the horror of it all is dramatically hammered home by the shocking physical uncovering of what he did to one truly tormented woman in particular -- who, among other things, literally weeps blood red tears when recounting what had happened not only to her but her family at the hands of the evil lord.

In contrast, the main hero of 13 Assassins is a man whose demeanor as well as physique would not cause him to be noticed by many. Instead, what comes to stand out about Shimada Shinzaemon (who is played by Koji Yakusho) as the film goes along is this samurai's steadfast resolve, honorableness and, also, uncommon intelligence and craft -- all of which bode well for him and the motley crew he assembles to carry out their mission to assassinate Lord Naritsugu despite his small group inevitably having to go up against a force that is several times their number.

Understandably, the movie's 13 assassins are not all equally memorable.  But there definitely are a number of interesting characters in that group, including Shinzaemon's nephew (Takayuki Yamada) -- a gambler who views going on the mission as the biggest gamble of his life -- and the single non-samurai of the bunch, a deceptively tough mountain man (Yusuke Iseya) who doesn't seem to fear death like more normal men even while he also has an uncommonly strong zest of life (or is it just sex?!).

For all of the colorful characters who populate the film, the truth of the matter is that the star of the show really is the incredible action on display.  When viewed especially as individual strokes, much of what is on display in 13 Assassins is actually not particularly flashy. Instead, it's the intensity and ferociousness that really stand out -- and left me gasping for breath in view of how long it all goes on for in the film, and also at amazement at the spectacle of it all and how much it did resonate emotionally.

My rating for this film: 9