Monday, March 25, 2019

Two good-looking films whose storytelling was not as on point as I would have liked (Film reviews)

The Louis Koo Cinema is one of this year's HKIFF venues 
--  and yes, I watched a category III film there ;b

Jinpa (Mainland China, 2018)
- Part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival's Cinephile Paradise program
- Pema Tseden, director and scriptwriter
- Starring: Jinpa, Genden Phuntsok, Sonam Wangmo

"If I had known that the film was produced by Wong Kar Wai, I would not have wanted to watch it." Those were my first words to a friend at the end of the HKIFF screening of this Tibetan language offering from director-scriptwriter Pema Tseden that we both attended.  It's not that I hate the Hong Kong auteur's films.  (Indeed, his Ashes of Time is one of my favorite films of all time.)  But there are certain things I associate with Wong Kar Wai that just don't seem compatible with the kind of work I had expected Jinpa to be when reading its plot synopsis.  

And so it proved.  What's more, this slow-moving drama that initially looked like it was going to be an intriguing road movie about a colorful long-distance truck driver character named Jinpa (portrayed by an actor-poet named Jinpa) -- before ending with the kind of dream sequence that I found to be  exasperatingly ambiguous -- also has certain quirks that one associates with Wong Kar Wai and can feel annoyingly old after a while (such as the playing of one song too many times over the course of a movie and a man with a tendency to wear sunglasses pretty much all of the time, including even when he's indoors).

Set on the Kekixili Plateau (which I first set eyes on in Lu Chuan's moving 2004 drama, Kekixili: Mountain Patrol), Jinpa is visually dominated by Jinpa and the stunningly rugged landscape which he travels through for a good part of the film.  As far as plots go, the movie shows its sunglasses-wearing protagonist having a day in which he accidentally runs over and kill a sheep, then gives a ride to a less fortunate-looking man, who also turns out to be named Jinpa (Genden Phuntsok) and -- more dramatically -- announces that he's on the trail of his father's murderer, whom he intends to kill with the large knife he wears on him. 
Although truck driver Jinpa looks like the kind of tough guy who wouldn't be all that affected by the accidental killing of an animal or the confessions of a would-be killer, it turns out otherwise because, the film seems to suggest, Tibetans tend to be unduly affected by religion and superstition.  In turn, this ties into something else I found rather disquieting about this particular offering: that its producers appear to want to go out to stress how exotic the people and culture as well as landscape is.  And in so doing, I saw less of the featured characters' general humanity and more of the kind of idiosyncrasies that render their ways unfathomably "Other" to the rest of us.

My rating for this film: 5.5           

G Affairs (Hong Kong, 2018)
- Part of the HKIFF's Hong Kong Panorama 2018-19 program
- Lee Cheuk Pan, director
- Starring: Hanna Chan, Lam Sen, Kyle Li, Huang Lu, Chapman To

In one of those strange coincidences, I happened to watch two films with the same sound editor pair (of Tu Duu Chih and Wu Shu Yao) within a day of each other at the HKIFF.  What's more, both Jinpa and G Affairs happen to also be cinematic works in which one single piece of music gets played again and again over the course of their running time.  

In the case of debutant director Lee Cheuk Pan's technically well-crafted drama-mystery, it's Johann Sebastian Bach's Cello Suite Number 1 in G Major -- one of many elements associated with the letter "G" that are cleverly woven into the aptly named G Affairs.  The sort of movie whose makers very much come across as liking to shock and push all sorts of psychological buttons, it begins with a severed human head rolling into a room where a couple are having sex and a third individual is playing the afore-mentioned classical music piece.  

Relying on a non-linear narrative to keep things interesting and more complicated than they actually were (or needed to be), a multi-stranded story consequently unfolds involving three elite school classmates who form unlikely friendships with one another despite having very different personalities and extra-curricular pursuits.  Precociously mature in certain ways, Yu Ting (Hanna Chan) was already super unpopular at school before it's revealed that she's the daughter of a majorly unscrupulous cop (Chapman To) who got involved with a Mainland Chinese prostitute (Huang Lu) even before Yu Ting's mother died of cancer.  

In a series of coincidences, the cop requisitions the apartment of Yu Ting's cello-playing classmate Tai (Lam Sen) for his use and -- unbeknownst to, and separately of, the former -- the prostitute rents an apartment next door to service her clients.  As unlikely as it may seem, these disparate individuals end up having a part to play in the incident involving the severed head that the police appear to investigate.  So too does Don (Kyle Li), a classmate of Yu Ting and Tai whose Asperger's condition belies his intellectual genius and an uncommon talent for computer work.  

Although much is made of them early on, the severed head and police investigations that followed its appearance actually are but red herrings for a movie whose ambitious helmer-scriptwriter liberally sprinkles with socio-political critiques and generally tries to do way more than should be the case.  On a positive note: it's commendable to see someone with so many interesting ideas burst onto the Hong Kong cinema scene.  Let's just hope that all the critical praise (and multiple Hong Kong Film Awards nominations) his first film has received won't go to the helmer's head; this not least since I do think his ideas and works would benefit from a more modest, pared down and streamed line approach.

My rating for the film: 6.5

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