Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Two films showing different reactions to oppression at the Hong Kong International Film Festival (Film reviews)

The Empty Hands: bloodied but unbowed
Black Kite (Canada-Afghanistan, 2017)
- Part of the HKIFF's Global Vision program
- Tarique Qayami, director, scriptwriter, cinematographer and co-editor
- Starring: Haji Gul Aser, Masoud Fanayee, Hamid Noorzay, Hadi Delsoz
Ten years after a film adaptation came out of Khaled Hossaini's The Kite Runner comes another cinematic work set in Afghanistan with the word "kite" in its title.  Tarique Qayami's Black Kite tells the story about the son of a Kabul kite-maker who loved kites and passed on his love to his young daughter.  Normally, this would not be all that big a deal.  The problem is that, for a good part of his life and all of hers, they lived in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, where kite-flying was crime punishable by death.
Like The Breadwinner, the other offering set in Afghanistan that I viewed at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, Black Kite shows how idyllic this troubled country used to be as well as how terrible life there became.  It's noteworthy too that both films focus on the relations between parent and child, and how the imagination is enlisted to try to escape from everyday realities.   
But whereas The Breadwinner's lead character is a child throughout the film, the protagonist of Black Kite is shown growing from a young boy (played by Hamid Noorzay) to young man (essayed by Masoud Fanayee) and then a bearded older man (Haji Gul Aser).  Or, rather, Arian physically ages but he seems to stay rather child-like for much of the movie, to the point of seemingly unwittingly invite bad things to happen to him, and consequently makes its harder than one would like to whole-heartedly empathize with.  
At the same time though, it's hard not to not want to mourn for Afghanistan after viewing this film which conjures up enchanting images of the past, including a magically beautiful one involving lots of kites flying up in the Afghan sky, as well as shows scenes of menacing Taliban members hitting -- and, even in one case, shooting in the head -- women covered from head to toe in their burqa and the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan.  And while Arian's daughter is in only a few minutes of Black Kite, it's enough to make this member of the audience want to cry when contemplating her seemingly inevitably dark future.

My rating for this film: 6.0
The Empty Hands (Hong Kong, 2017)
- Part of the HKIFF's Hong Kong Panorama 2017-18 program
- Chapman To, director and co-scriptwriter (with Erica Li)
- Starring: Stephy Tang, Chapman To, Yasuaki Kurata, Stephen Au, Dada Chan
The only contemporary Hong Kong production that I've viewed at this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival (with the other Hong Kong movies being classic movies starring the great Brigitte Lin Ching Hsia), The Empty Hands had a theatrical run a few months ago which I somehow missed.  Since receiving five Hong Kong Film Awards nominations (for Best Actress, Supporting Actor, Cinematography, Art Direction and New Director) though, there's now enough buzz about it to officially attract a "full house" crowd for its fest screening (though, as has come to be the norm, there still were some empty seats in the theater).
After being black-listed by Mainland China for his support of the Umbrella Movement, its director (and co-scriptwriter cum co-star) has reacted by making a very Hong Kong movie with: shooting done in some very recognizable Hong Kong locations (including the abandoned quarry at Lei Yue Mun); a cameo appearance by a pro-democracy politician; and a main character willing to shed blood to own a 1,200 square foot apartment in Wan Chai and harbour plans to sub-divide it into 10 units in order to make a killing in the real estate business.  And in what must be seen as a (further) "up yours" to Mainland China, Stephy Tang's Mari Hirakawa is a Japanese-Chinese Hong Konger whose Japanese karate sensei father (Yasuaki Karuata) raised her by himself after his wife abandoned the family.  
Shocked to discover after her father's death that he's left majority share of his karate dojo (which takes up the bulk of the space of their apartment) to former disciple Chan Keung (Chapman To) rather than her, Mari Hirakawa is startled into action when Chan Keung tells her that if she takes up karate again (after abandoning it in her youth despite having shown an uncommon talent for the Japanese martial art) and is able to last three rounds of a match against another female fighter, he'll hand over his share of the inheritance to her.
Stephy Tang reportedly trained in karate for six months for The Empty Hands, and her efforts look to have paid off tremendously in terms of her action scenes looking painfully realistic and respect having rocketed for the former Cookies member as a serious actress (since this film is actually much more of a drama at heart than martial arts actioner).  Together with the emergence of Chapman To as a directorial force to be reckoned with, this sends a message to those too ready to count Hong Kong cinema out: that there is fight as well as life still in it.
My rating for this film: 7.5 

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