Wednesday, April 29, 2009

My last hike of 2008 (photo-essay)

An old friend of mine -- and fellow Hong Kong film fanatic -- frankly told me that he doesn't care much for my hiking photo-essays. In contrast, a colleague who knows about my blogging activities was moved to rue that I sometimes write about movies rather than always devote my blog to putting up photos from my hikes!

For all of my being a movie geek (who often celebrates Hong Kong's being a movie mecca), I must admit that the recent spate of Hong Kong International Film Festival posts has left me thinking that this blog needed to have some more "green" visuals. So, especially after realizing that my last hiking post before this was back in early March, here's recognizing that it's high time for another hiking photo-essay: this time, of a hike back in December 2008(!) that took my hiking companion and I from The Peak down to the Mid-Levels along parts of the Peak Trail, Lung Fa Shan Fitness Trail and what's known as The Morning Trail:-

A far from gushy waterfall along
the circular -- and largely flat -- Peak Trail

From The Peak looking down towards
the northwestern section of Hong Kong Island

The 494 meter (i.e., 1,621 feet)-high High West
-- a peak set aside for another's day hike! --
as viewed from scenic High West Park

The Peak's real peak(s)?

A section of the largely paved
and down-wards descending trail

Two Hong Kong wild flowers books later,
I still can't identify these flowers! :S

Ditto with these fluffy examples of flora :((

This, on the other hand (and eureka!),
identifiably is a periwinkle flower! :)

Incidentally, that last flower was growing out of a section of the ruins of Pinewood Battery, a 20th century fort that was Hong Kong's highest coastal defense platform for a time. As it so happens, our hike took us to as well as past it. And yes, of course, I took a lot of photos of the historical site... and will put them up on this blog before too long! ;b

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Protect(ion) (This week's Photo Hunt theme)

Two types of protection came to mind when mulling this week's Photo Hunt theme -- and while neither of them are unique to Hong Kong, both of them may well be especially prevalent in this part of the world.

The first of these comes in the form of the local police force: specifically, one that has a high 85% community confidence rating; many of whose members can be seen walking street beats in various parts of the often quite hilly territory during the day and night, come rain or shine.

And speaking of rain: this is a place whose denizens take rain very seriously. (For proof, check out these
official rainstorm warnings as well as the umbrellas and awning set up to protect patrons and operators, respectively, of the dai pai dong (open-air food stall) in the second picture above).

Incidentally, for those who enjoyed my 33rd Hong Kong International Film Festival coverage, here's a movie-connection addendum/bonus of sorts: i.e., apart from the local constabulary prominently figuring in many a Hong Kong movie (think the various Police Story films, among others), I'm also pretty confident that this dai pai dong pictured above is: the one that Tony Leung Chiu-wai's cop character was eating at when he bumped into Faye Wong's lugging market produce in Chungking Express; and is adjacent to the one where Simon Yam and co ate at in Triangle... ;b

Friday, April 24, 2009

Pretty much my final HKIFF 2009 entry

Jia Zhangke (and HKIFF artistic director Li Cheuk-to)
before the screening of the filmmaker's 24 City)

It's more than a month now since the opening films of the 33rd Hong Kong International Film Festival were screened. So even though a few retrospective programmes are still going on (including that featuring the films of Evan Yang, and another for Michelangelo Antonioni that includes his 1972 Cultural Revolution-era China documentary), it seems high time that I wrap up my reviewing of the films I viewed at this year's HKIFF. Therefore, here goes, for one last time this year...

Snow (Bosnia and Herzegovina, 2008)
- From the Global Visions programme
- Aida Begic, director
- Starring Zana Marjanovic, Jasna Ornela Bery and Sadzida Setic

How long does a community and country take to recover from a war, particularly a 'civil' one? For most of this film that is set in 1997 Bosnia in a Muslim village where the only males left are a physically lame religious elder and a psychologically traumatised boy, the answer seems to be "forever". This especially since the war has not only left families unintact and people missing and mourning loved ones but also looks to have blasted the community back several centuries in terms of technological capabilities and physical isolation.

Amidst it all though, there are females who clearly still continue to survive and eke out a living, and even one -- a young veiled widow called Alma (Zana Marjanovic) -- with entrepeneurial dreams to feed millions of others with the products of their agricultural and culinary labour. Soon after she is given high hopes by a meeting with a Muslim man who tells of having miraculously survived a massacre of his family however, a Serbian man pays a visit to the village with an offer that initially seems good but ends up threatening the unity of the community and even its outright demise.

Considering its historical and geographical setting, there was no way that Snow would be anything other than have a sad story to tell. But if you were to choose to view this work, what you'd also see is a film that is full of humanity along with sorrow. Additionally, besides confirming that war is often hardest on civilians and those who survive, it seems to send out a message too that ignorance is not bliss: that however painful it is to find out bad things about the fate of loved ones, knowing helps people to move on and go ahead with the business of living.

My rating for this film: 7.5

24 City (Mainland China, 2008)
- From the Galas programme
- Jia Zhangke, director
- Starring Joan Chen, Zhao Tao, Lu Liping an Chen Jianbin

An uneasy mix of documentary and fiction, this work that "Sixth Generation" Mainland Chinese auteur Jia Zhangke was inspired to make after hearing of the impending demolition of a state-owned factory complex in favour of a new mega urban development may be generally impressive, yet show him up as trying to be too clever for his own good.

24 City begins with documentary footage and a veteran factory worker talking about his workplace and people he had worked alongside with over the years. The man is not completely comfortable in front of the camera and has a few verbal tics that can be somewhat distracting. At the same time, there is no doubt that a significant percentage of his time on screen is genuinely affecting as well as involving.

In stark contrast, the bulk of the film's biggest star's appearance rings so very false and only succeed in eliciting cheap laughs and bringing viewers out of the movie. And even while the other professional thespians in 24 City are less easily recognizable -- and consequently fare somewhat better -- than Joan Chen (who, ironically, put in a great performance in my favorite film of last year's HKIFF), it's startlingly easy to tell them apart from the 'real people' who appear in the work. (Among other things, they uniformly have far more even teeth than the others!)

To be sure, there actually were moments in the film -- bar for when Joan Chen was on screen -- when I was able to forget who was speaking and focus on what was being said. Still, I must admit to having come away from the screening rueing that the 2009 Hong Kong International Film Festival's official Closing Film hadn't entirely been a documentary; albeit while realizing that it probably would have been impossible to get real people to be so revealing to the camera -- and be as articulate in front of it -- as this effort's fictional characters (who, to be fair, did generally come across as having some basis in reality).

My rating for this film: 8.0

Monday, April 20, 2009

Still about movies viewed at the 2009 HKIFF!

Shelf for free leaflets and programmes
over at the Hong Kong Film Archive

Before continuing with my review of 33rd Hong Kong International Film Festival, here's acknowledging that the 2009 Hong Kong Film Awards took place last night. Unlike The Golden Rock, however, I neither watched nor blogged the event 'live'. Rather, I spent yesterday evening taking in yet another movie -- the Oscar-winning Departures (Japan, 2008), actually.

After learning the results, I have to say that I disagree with the event's voters' choice of Best Picture winner. On the other hand, am rather gratified to see my three favorite Hong Kong movies of last year having garnered, among them, the prizes for Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Screenplay and Action Design. :)

But now, here's going back and focusing some more on the HKIFF and movies from another territory along with a different era of Hong Kong cinema:-

Blind Pig Who Wants To Fly (Indonesia, 2008)
- Part of the Indie Power programme
- Edwin, director
- Starring Ladya Cheryl, Carol Genta and Pong Harjatmo

Ever read art theory and/or about the ideas of a certain artist, been impressed by them but, then, been utterly disappointed when you view the product of that theory and artistic effort? This is an experience I had more than once during my art history student days. And one that I had in relation to this film about the Indonesian Chinese ethnic minority by a baby-faced (but actually 30-something-year-old) Indonesian Chinese filmmaker that must have had one hell of a press kit to have prompted the favorable and interesting advance press that it's received.

Before the screening of the film that I attended, HKIFF big wig Jacob Wong came out and bigged up the work as well as introduced its director. After the screening, the director took part in a Q&A session that produced answers that often left the somewhat hostile audience surprised and more skeptical than previously.

In between, we were 'treated' to a viewing of a work that was as full of incomprehensible images (including some seconds which were deliberately out of focus and even more seconds that were inadvertently so) along with multiple excruciatingly bad renditions of Stevie Wonder's I Just Called To Say I Love You that -- I am not exaggerating and I don't know what it says about me but it really is true! :S -- ultimately came across as even more excruciating than a long scene in which a blind ethnic Chinese man gets gang raped by two ethnic Indonesian men.

Frankly, whatever points this absurd(ist) film that its maker openly stated was not meant to be a commercial work gets is due to the interesting and strongly political aims it purportedly has, albeit ones gleaned through what I've read about it and the director's statements rather than the film itself. Put another way: the film's subject matter really deserves of a far better work than this effort from this director whose artistic pretensions -- or plain failings -- look to have got in the way of his serious message.

My rating for (the ideas supposedly contained within) the film: 4.0

It's Always Spring (Hong Kong, 1962)
- From the In The Name of Love: The Films of Evan Yang programme
- Evan Yang, director
- Starring Julie Yeh Feng, Helen Li Mei, Kelly Lai Chen, Zhang Hui Xian and Roy Chiao

Aaaaaaah! So much better!! What can I say other than this music-filled charmer of a drama about two nightclub singers who both want to be number one -- neither of whom actually are all that nasty, despite the possession of that strong ambition -- was the perfect panacea to the hateful Indonesia film of the night before!!!

While taking in a screening of this 1962 work, I got to realizing how much film really is sound as well as sight -- and how good music can help make a movie (just as terrible music can help mar a work). And although I have to agree with Brian (who reviewed this movie some years back on his site) that there are Cathay productions with better scores, this work still undoubtedly has its musical moments -- and a marvelously mesmerizing singer as well as actress in Julie Yeh Feng.

More than incidentally: I had seen the leggy presence that is Julie Yeh Feng before in such gems as Our Sister Hedy (1957), Sun, Moon, Star (1961) and -- of course! -- Sister Long Legs (1960) but this was the first time I got to see her on a big screen. And oh my, what a major treat it was (and so much so that Helen Li Mei -- who also happens to have had her singing dubbed -- really paled in significance)!

At the same time, here's also reporting that I belatedly got a greater appreciation of a couple of Cathay's younger male stars. For whereas I previously was prone to dismiss Kelly Lai Chen as but a weedy wimp, he comes across in this movie all sincere when playing a character with enough heart to care very much for his sister even while being in love with her professional rival. And the more I see of Roy Chiao, the more I realise that the muscular male is no mere big dumb and insensitive lug -- which is good since he had an even more prominent role in the next movie I saw at the fest... ;)

Before writing about that, my rating for this film: 8.5.

Happily Ever After (Hong Kong, 1960)
- From the In The Name of Love: The Films of Evan Yang programme
- Evan Yang, director
- Starring Lucilla You Min, Roy Chiao, Lee Ying, Wang Lai, Liu Enjia and Ma Hsiao-Nung

Remember the jokes in the early days of Cecilia Cheung's emergence that she looked like -- if there ever could be such a thing! -- the lovechild of Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia and Maggie Cheung Man Yuk? Well, for those imagination-filled Hong Kong movie fans, it really will be hard to not think that Vicki Zhao Wei and Lucilla You Min are not related when feasting your eyes on either of the two.

In fact, there really were whole scenes and minutes during this Lucilla You Min star vehicle -- about an angel of a maiden who accedes to a man's request to pretend to be his fiancee in order to please his supposedly dying father -- when the very movements as well as visage of this utterly lovely star from a previous golden era of Hong Kong cinema seemed to presage those of the also attractive contemporary actress.

One reason why I had time to think such thoughts when watching this film is that I've viewed the movie (albeit, then only on DVD) before. Another is that it has a truly simple -- one might even say "simple" -- plot, complete with plot-lines, twists and conceits so improbable that characters in the work are apt to actually remark that this is so out loud!

No matter, really, as this is a movie that just is happy to get by on its charms and the charisma of its main actress. And after seeing her in action, I'll challenge pretty much anyone who deigns to give this work a spin to argue that this is not enough to entertain and create a sense of well-being that will follow you out of the cinema -- so much so that even if you won't be happy ever after, you'll still be smiling for a while at the memory and just the good feeling that the work engenders. :)

My rating for the film: 7.0

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Purple (This week's Photo Hunt theme)

Is it a general optical quirk or just one confined to my digital camera? I'm referring here to the fact that many naturally purple items I've seen in real life turn out to more grayish, brownish and reddish (e.g., rocks I saw while hiking in Northeast Hong Kong) and whiteish (i.e., more than one flower) than purple in photos I've take of them.

On the other hand, until I hunted through my photo archives to find suitable candidates for this week's Photo Hunt entry, I hadn't realized that the night sky over Hong Kong Island in one photo I took looked as purple as it did!

As it so happens, that was the evening I had ventured over to the Hong Kong Cultural Centre over in Tsim Sha Tsui for a show and happened to find portions of that normally pink-tiled edifice looking distinctly purple tinted. Consequently, here's offering up a pair of night shots even though, normally, I don't feel that my night photos are as good or successful as the products of my daytime camera-clicking efforts.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Another four movies viewed at the 2009 HKIFF

Part of a board showing a sampling of what was
on offer at the Hong Kong International Film Festival
(with gold stickers signifying sold out screenings)

The 33rd Hong Kong International Film Festival officially came to a close yesterday. Must admit that part of me is experiencing film festival withdrawal symptoms as a result. Fortunately, it's not like there aren't any more movies to watch -- and in fact, I'm due to attend a preview of a new Hong Kong movie. Also, there are films like Departures currently playing in cinemas. Still, I do intend to complete my reviewing survey of films viewed at this year's HKIFF. I just hope that there are way more people reading these entries than are deigning to comment on them... :S

Gomorrah (Italy, 2008)
- From the Italian Landscape programme
- Matteo Garrone, director
- Starring Toni Servillo, Roberto Saviano and Maria Nazionale

I'm not sure if I've blogged about this but I'm another fan of The Wire. I'm mentioning this because watching this film about the workings of Italy's most famous mafia (Naples' Camorra), I at times got to thinking that I was watching the Italian feature film equivalent of Season 5 of the American TV series.

By this, I mean that they both contain lots of interesting interconnecting stories and characters strewn about and across a crime-infested landscape where it seems far easier to get sucked -- suckered? -- into a life of crime than one where such can be avoided. Also, that even while fictional, there seems to be a whole lot of truth in the portraits painted of people but also a whole urban sub-cultures and -communities.

At the end of the day though, I have to say that I think that The Wire is the more complex and compelling work by quite a wide margin -- probably in large part because it has many more hours to tell stories and flesh out characters. I also find it hard to sympathise with the lot of three of the youngsters who prominently figure in the Italian movie as it seemed like they "asked for it" -- in that they looked to have actively opted to commit criminal acts more for the thrill of it than for a genuine monetary or other need.

My rating for the film: 7.5

Lonely Tunes of Tehran (Iran, 2008)
- From the Indie Power programme
- Saman Salour, director
- Starring Behrous Jalili, Hamid Habibifar and Mojtaba Bitarafan

This low budget movie that follows a motormouth midget of a man and his gentle -- but slow (in wit as well as gait) -- giant of a fellow satellite TV dish technician as they move about Tehran certainly won't be many people's cup of tea. And, in fact, I had gone into a screening of this film knowing that Brian considered it one of the two weakest works of the 10 he had seen at this year's HKIFF.

While it's true enough that I often wish that more happened -- and quicker -- in this no frills work, I actually did find quite a bit of interest within it. One reason for this is Iran, where this film comes from, is one of those countries that seems so exotic in terms of being so different in many ways, including visually, from much of the world that I've been to, lived in and know. On a related note: like pretty much every other work I've seen by filmmakers from that country, the film feels very "real" as well as downright anthropological in being truly focused on depicting regular people and the kind of lives that says much about the society and culture even while -- or perhaps precisely because -- coming across as very mundane and ordinary for its time and place.

Lonely Tunes of Tehran also compels in that even while it has scenes and lines designed to make one laugh, it makes no bones about telling a sad story about two losers from the countryside who find it hard-going professionally as well as socially in a big city that doesn't look like it's experienced much of an economic boom for some time. An additional sense of tragedy comes from learning that one of its lead actors (Behrooz Jalili -- whose giant character shares his first name) died in a car accident after making this film. One just hopes that before his untimely passing, the real life Behrooz found more love and general social acceptance than the character he played.

My rating for the film: 6.5

Rough Cut (South Korea, 2008)
- From the Midnight Heat programme
- Jang Hun, director
- Starring So Ji-suh and Kang Ji-hwan

Of all the films I viewed at the HKIFF, this offering from first-time director Jang Hun was the one that most came across as having been intended to be a commercial crowd-pleaser. Quite surprising, really, in view of the helmer being a protege of Kim Ki-duk, and Kim having producing credits for this cinematic work about an arrogant, aggression-prone action movie star and the movie-obsessed gangster who agrees to be his co-star on condition that the fights in the film they're in are real rather than staged!

Less surprising (but a bit of a let down all the same) was this movie having a similar trajectory to too many other films from South Korea: that is, it entertained with all guns blazing for the first hour or so but then takes a turn for the tragico-dramatic that, instead, of being effectively emotionally moving, threatens to ruin the whole entire shebang for me. In particular, there is a scene about two-thirds into this movie that drains it of large amounts of credibility.

Just as I was about to give up on the work though, there's this amazing knock-out, drag-down fight that gets the two leads covered in muck (and got me admiring them so very much for their willingness to get so down and dirty for a cinematic cause). Additionally, in So Ji-sub (though not the more handsome but also more lightweight Kang Ji-hwan), the movie's got a very capable star actor who leaves one wanting to see him in more hours of film -- and actually feeling something when watching him in the final scenes that intended to generate pathos for a character who it does seem such a waste to have gone down the criminal path.

My rating for the film: 7.5

Disgrace (Australia-South Africa, 2008)
- From the Global Vision programme
- Steve Jacobs, director
- Starring John Malkovich, Jessica Haines and Eriq Ebouaney

John Malkovich as a South African professor whose strong sexual appetite causes him to get sacked from his university position? Although it initially is a bit distracting to have such a well known American actor in the part and cinematic adaptation of JM Cootzee's Booker Prize-winning novel, ultimately he and the movie are so good that it actually all works.

Things really get going in this dramatic work that paints a far more depressing portrait of post-apartheid South Africa than one would like to see (yet also realizes is probably pretty sadly accurate) when the disgraced professor goes and visit his lesbian daughter on her isolated farm. More specifically, a terrible event occurs that not only causes them to threaten to emotionally fall apart but also points to the country as a whole threatening to fall, if not tear, apart.

Some truly bleeding-heart liberals might condemn this thought-provoking film as racist upon viewing it. I think that those who do so seriously would miss the work's many points. This is not least since, when watching the film, I saw so much within it that applies to so many other countries and people -- including Mainland China and my own home country of Malaysia as well as other parts of Africa rather than just South Africa alone.

Some radical feminists who view this cinematic offering might see it as making a strong case for men being beasts driven by testorone way more than thought. Again, I think this would be missing the point. For, ultimately, this emotionally-impacting film paints a portrait of a whole society and community, and shows how, even when one wants to be, no (hu)man is an island. Thus, often times, our actions cause reactions and things don't occur from out of the blue but, rather, are the result of historical along with other actions.

My rating for the film: 8.5

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Three really old films viewed at the 2009 HKIFF

The daughters of Confucius' producer and director
speak before the first screening in decades
of the 1940 film about the Chinese philosopher

Today's Easter Sunday -- a public holiday in Hong Kong elsewhere a lot of other places around the world. It's also officially the second last day of the 33rd Hong Kong International Film Festival (which turns out to have a few programmes -- including Evan Yang, Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni retrospectives -- going on through to May!). And high time to continue my reviews of movies I've seen over the past couple of weeks or so... before I go and catch two more films later today! ;)

Confucius (China, 1940)
- A special Restored Classic film
- Fei Mu, director
- Starring Tang Huaqiu and Chang Yi

Of all the films being shown as part of this year's HKIFF, that proclaimed as a "gift from heaven" may well be the one that the organisers were making the most of. And before the first of five scheduled screenings of that made during World War II and thought to have been lost for several decades, there were special appearances and speeches by Barbara Fei (daughter of director-scriptwriter Fei Mu) and Professional Serena Jin (daughter of producer Jin Xinmin) -- and HKIFF artistic director Li Cheuk-to -- to emphasise how privileged the cinematic offering's 2009 audience are to be treated to a screening of the restored work.

To be sure, I really do appreciate the efforts that went into the making of a film -- and especially at such a historically difficult time in China's and world history -- and those that went into restoring the work. To this end, I dearly wish I could report that Confucius is a wonderful work that effectively shows why that ancient philosopher has been revered over centuries.

In all honesty though, the aesthetically austere film not only bored me but also didn't help me to understand much why Confucius -- the man -- is considered so great. Instead, the portrait that was painted was of a preachy prig who -- unlike Jesus -- wasn't even able to perform miracles and actual deeds that did real good. Also, while the film did make no attempt to hide that he was not appreciated by many when he was alive, neither did it seem to make that strong an attempt to explain why he became to be revered as a saint by a whole lot of others through the ages.

To be fair, things weren't exactly helped by the historically significant work not being able to be entirely restored -- so that several minutes of it had to be viewed in silent and after the end of the film, snippets were shown that the restorers hadn't been able to fit into the work they had more or less cobbled together and were presenting as the restored classic. Still, call me a Philistine but there is no way that I can truthfully state that that I'd consider what I saw to be a five star work like at least one local film writer has done!

My rating for the film: 5.5

Wings (U.S.A., 1927)
- From the Archival Treasures programme
- William A. Wellman, director
- Charles "Buddy" Rogers, Richard Arlen and Clara Bow

In light of my Confucius experience, I went into the screening of another old -- actually, even older -- film with no small amount of trepidation. This especially since the first ever winner of the Best Picture Oscar is a silent movie and has a lengthy running time of 141 minutes.

All my fears proved unfounded, however, as the cinematic paean to World War I flyboys -- that was shown here at the HKIFF with live accompaniment courtesy of German pianist Eunice Martins -- proved to be an amazing visual treat as well as over filmophile delight. For sure, some dramatic sections can seem somewhat hokey when considered in the cold light of day but, in view of its age, I'm apt to think of them as being charmingly so. Also, decades on, the aerial battle scenes -- which undoubtedly benefited from the director having actual "dog fight" experiences of his own -- still come across as a triumph of cinematography and continue to be genuinely impressive and riveting.

Although Clara Bow actually gets top-billing (and the movie's also notable for a brief appearance by Gary Cooper), I found the movie's two male leads -- Charles "Buddy" Rogers, playing the plane enthusiast turned fighter ace, and Richard Arlen as a young man who turns out to be as good as his family is wealthy -- to be very endearing. And while it's the aerial footage that really is the best and most memorable part of the film, they ensured that the other parts of the lengthy and admittedly morally simplistic work never ever dragged either.

My rating for the film: 7.5

Pharoah's Wife (Germany, 1922)
- Also from the Archival Treasures programme
- Ernst Lubitsch, director
- Starring Emil Jannings, Dagny Servaes and Harry Liedtke

This 1922 silent movie gave me my first taste of the work of a film-making legend whose name I knew about long before I had seen anything by him. But while this movie is interesting even for the very idea of Germans deciding to make a film about ancient Egyptians (and Ethiopians), my sense is that it ultimately has greater curiosity along with historic than actual entertainment value.

Like with Confucius, I feel obliged to point out that the archival work hasn't been completely restored. Thus, not only is the whole movie silent but whole minutes of other scenes are completely missing (and, in the version I saw, had to be substituted by still photos) as well as others appearing in various tinted colours. And to make things worse, at the viewing I attended, the person operating the electronic subtitles had problems with timing more than once.

Those factors probably played a part in ensuring that not only did I fall asleep for about twenty minutes of the film but also it being so that after I awoke, I noticed quite a few other members of the audience had falling asleep and also at least one person giving up and walking out mid-way through the work. On the other hand, it's definitely the filmmakers who are responsible for some of the worst hairstyles -- notably those of the Germans portraying Ethiopians but, also, the film's young Egyptian hero -- in cinematic history appearing in this work!

In its favor though, the undoubtedly ambitious work also boasts some spectacular scenes, quite of which linvolved a cast of literally thousands, and amazing sets. And one plot-line -- involving an old architect who has been ordered by the pharoah to be blinded -- had genuinely affecting pathos. Consequently, I have to say that even if it wasn't the absolute triumph of cinema that I hoped, I do appreciate getting the opportunity to view this early Lubistch work -- and on a big screen with live musical accompaniment in the bargain.

My rating for the film: 6.0

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Triangle (This week's Photo Hunt theme)

Due to my having movies -- particularly, those showing as part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival -- on my mind these past couple of weeks or so, I've neglected my other extra-curricular activities and interests, including hiking. Thanks to this week's Photo Hunt however, for giving me an excuse to put some green photos up on this blog -- since one does encounter a number of triangular objects when out hiking here in Hong Kong.

Among other things, some of the peaks one sees -- e.g., High Junk Peak -- are so angular (and steep) that they really do resemble triangles. Then there are the triangles that can be found on the often very useful and reliable directional signs erected by Hong Kong's Country Parks authorities (like that to be found in Pokfulam Country Park).

Less common (and thus really cool to come across) are rocks which have been naturally shaped by such as wind and erosion into near perfect pyramid or triangle shapes. The example in this Photo Hunt entry's bottom photo is to be seen as one descends down Tai Leng Tung along the Lung Ha Wan (trans. Lobster Bay) Country Trail that also includes an ascent up that 503 meter hill (mountain?) that is Hong Kong's 45th highest peak. (And yes, I do reckon that the beautiful views to be had from the top really are worth the effort of the hike up -- and then down from -- there! :b )

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Three more films viewed at the 2009 HKIFF

Publicity for one of a number of
Leslie Cheung memorial programmes that take place
around this time of year here in Hong Kong

I'm listening to a Leslie Cheung CD as I write this blog entry. It only seems fitting as this time of year (close to the anniversary of his death), not only do many thoughts turn towards him but it's almost impossible to pass by a video and/or CD store and not see a video featuring him playing or his voice wafting out of it.

Since I already have an entry about viewing He's a Woman. She's a Man (and also Once Upon a Time in China) up on this blog, I'm not going to write some more about those movies. So, instead, I'll write about the following films I viewed for the first time at the still ongoing Hong Kong International Film Festival (whose offerings I'm electing to skip for a change this evening!):-

The Beauty and the Dumb (Hong Kong, 1954)
- From the In The Name of Love: The Films of Evan Yang programme
- Tang Huang, director
- Starring Li Lihua, Liu Enjia, Huang He and Wang Yuen-lung

This 1954 romantic comedy was scripted but not directed by Evan Yang. Neither is it an old Cathay movie. But in many ways, it feels like one -- and not just because the portly Liu Enjia, who graced many a classic Cathay movie, features in the film as the bank clerk who seeks to social climb with the help of his mute but attractive daughter.

Although unquestionably dated, this more than five decade old work charms -- in large part because many of the character actors in the cast are so amusing and its lead, the legendary Li Lihua, is truly charismatic. An actress I had only previously seen acting imperious in movies in which she played such as Empress Wu and other royal and aristocratic personages, she proves equally adept here playing a humble daughter of a white collar worker who is largely consigned to staying at home due to an illness having robbed her of speech (but not hearing).

As luck would have it, however, the mute female gets spotted by -- and wins over the affection of -- the son of the director of her father's bank. Also as luck would have it, her muteness turns out to be curable, albeit only after an operation that costs a lot of money. So no prizes for guessing how it all ends!

Still, however predictable the tale may be, the cinematic package that is the movie is one that entertains after all the years. So much so that I really do feel that those who decide not to view a film just because it's old -- and believe you me, there are many such people, especially in Hong Kong -- really are missing out much on more than they realize.

My rating for this film: 8.0

Talentime (Malaysia, 2009)
- From the Global Visions programme
- Yasmin Ahmad, director
- Starring Mahesh Jugal Kishor, Mohd Syafie Naswip, Pamela Chong Van Teen, Jacyln Victor, etc.

I knew Talentime's director, Yasmin Ahmad, would be at the HKIFF screening of the film that I elected to attend. That was one attraction of attending that particular screening of this truly -- and unapologetically -- multi-ethnic Malaysian movie. Still, I didn't expect her (and her husband) to decide to sit right in the row behind my two friends who went to watch the work and me. Something which, I have to admit, was kind of distracting -- at least until I got sucked into the the work and its proceedings.

Although Talentime does feature a talent competition, amusing auditions that brought to mine those of He's a Woman, She's a Man and wonderful songs (courtesy of Pete Teo), it's actually more a dramatic work than a straight out musical -- and also is more focused on family and interethnic relations than, say, school shenanigans a la High School Musical. In general, I reckon that this worked out for the best since dramatic examinations of inter-ethnic relations are the director's strong suit. Somewhat surprisingly, however, at least one set of family portrayals in this film came across as too artificial even while two more serious others were as good as I've come to expect of my favorite Malaysian filmmaker.

At the risk of sounding overly critical, it also seemed that Yasmin's comedic touch seemed to have largely eluded her this time around, with much of the comedy coming across as too broad and sit-com to be really effective. Thank goodness, however, for her dramatic sense still being strong and sure. And as the tone went from light to more serious the further along we went in Talentime, the better the film became.

So much so that I sincerely believe that the one viewer who elected to prematurely leave the movie ended up missing the very best parts of the work; sections, not coincidentally, that unashamedly moved me to tears -- and caused me to turn at the end of the film to mouth a "thank you" to its director sitting ever so close to me.

My rating for the film: 8.0

Night and Fog (Hong Kong, 2009)
-From the Galas programme
- Ann Hui, director
- Starring Simon Yam, Zhang Jinchu, Jacqueline Law and Amy Chum

This film, we were warned in advance, was Ann Hui's depresso depiction of Tin Shui Wai, Hong Kong's City of Sadness. As such, I definitely expected something more akin to Lawrence Lau's Besieged City (2008) -- a film that prompted a film friend of mine to say "Slit my wrists now!" as we came out the screening of it! -- than Hui's own The Way We Are (2008).

Based on a true story, this dramatic work centers on a young Mainland Chinese mother of twin daughters who becomes the victim of increasingly violent abuse by her older Hong Konger husband. As she tries to escape the clutches of her spouse, she is damningly let down by her family and those entrusted with seeing to the welfare of people like her over in Hong Kong.

Should it not be clear, I'm not guilty of any spoilers here as the film begins with a murder scene and is then quickly followed by the revelation of the identity of the murder victims. A suspense-thriller this work most emphatically is not. Instead, it is a straight drama; albeit one whose story is told in a non-linear way using such as flashbacks and third person perspectives.

That the movie manages to hold the viewer's attention is a credit to the capable direction of Ann Hui and the acting of the largely no-name -- bar for Simon Yam (who, lest we forget, has played his share of psychos and menacing men along with gigolos and other charmers!) -- cast. Additionally, however familiar and sad, the truth is that the tale is an age-old one that bears re-telling, But, hopefully, its lessons will be taken in by more people this time around.

My rating for this film: 8.0

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Four more films viewed at the 2009 HKIFF

Signs like these over at the Hong Kong
Cultural Centre leave people in little doubt that
it's currently film festival time in in the city

Make sure your eyes don't turn square, a friend of mine told me, upon finding out how many films I'm down to watch at this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival! While I really don't think there's much worry of that happening, fear of film viewing fatigue made me restrict myself to just two movies, maximum, on a single day. Hence this Sunday finds me with some time to write this entry -- having attended one film screening earlier today but not being due to go to the second until later this evening.

So, here's picking up where I left off with the first reviews blog entry from earlier this week and writing about four more films viewed at the Hong Kong International Film Festival (in order of viewing -- and yes, not a single Hong Kong movie among them! ;S):-

The Book of Law (Iran, 2009)
- From the Global Visions program
- Mazizr Miri, director
- Starring Saber Aber, Mani haghighi, Taraneh Alidousti

Iranian cinema is a national cinema that can appear intimidating; with many of its films having garnered great critical acclaim but, at the same time, not having much of a reputation for being entertaining. Some years back though, I started checking out cinematic offerings from that part of the world and, for the most part, have often felt richly rewarded by coming across moving works that possess a deeply humanistic streak.

Thus it is that I often feel happy to take a chance on an Iranian movie such as The Book of Law without knowing much about it beyond its possessing a synopsis that intrigues. A film that had its international premiere at this year's HKIFF, this work about an Iranian man who falls in love with a Lebanese woman when she was not Muslim, only to discover after he finally decides to ask for her hand in marriage that she's become a Muslim convert -- and a very devout one at that -- turned out to be able to make me laugh until I cried as well as just plain cry from witnessing a sad turn of events befalling a character I had come to care for.

Considering how Islam is often perceived as a rigid (and ultra-serious) religion, there's a certain frisson to be had from seeing a Muslim director from a Muslim country poking fun at somebody for being too "by the book", especially since the book in question is the Quran. Above and beyond that though, what one ultimately sees is a genuine plea from a humanitarian filmmaker for greater tolerance, compassion and understanding from everyone of people who are different -- be it culturally but also in terms of the extent of one's religious passion; a message that, hopefully, won't fall on deaf ears wherever this worthy work gets shown.

My rating for this film: 8.0

Trip to Asia: The Quest for Harmony (Germany, 2008)
- from the Filmmakers and Filmmaking program
- Thomas Grube, director
- Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic

This documentary that followed the Berlin Philharmonic as it went on a 2005 tour of six Asian cities (Beijing, Seoul, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Taipei and Tokyo) is a film that, as one might expect, focuses more on the famed orchestra and its performing of pieces of music than on the places that it visited and performed in. This having been said, it was interesting how definite images got conjured up about those cities as well as individual members of the orchestra (notably its British conductor, Simon Rattle).

Polluted and third world is how pre-Olympics clean-up Beijing primarily came across. In contrast, Seoul came across as a clean, hi-tech, first world metropolis. Shanghai was shown possessing far more air pollution than I previously saw in movies like Leaving Me, Loving You (2004) and The Longest Night in Shanghai (2007). Taipei came across physically nondescript but full of highly enthusiastic classical musical fans. Tokyo -- with its serene Meiji Shrine along with its soaring skyscrapers -- looked to have achieved that perfect combination of traditional and modern.

And Hong Kong? Suffice to say, in just a few minutes on film, this work managed to show much of what I love about the Fragrant Harbour: such as the feeling that it's a place that's bustling and full of life but also in possession of conveniently-reached green space and natural beauty. In the process, the portrait painted of it served to once again make me feel so very privileged to be able to live here.

Still, when all things are said and done, the main reason for checking out this documentary work really is the music that is performed by a genuinely world class ensemble. And in particular, getting to watch and hear -- even if "only" on film, rather than live -- the Berlin Philharmonic play Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 (AKA the Eroica Symphony) truly was sheer bliss as far as this culture vulture's concerned!

My rating for the film: 8.0

Before the Flood 2 - Gong Tan (Mainland China, 2008)
- The Humanitarian Awards for Documentaries program
- Yan Yu, director

Back in 2005, Yan Yu -- along with Liu Yifan -- directed a powerful documentary about an old Chinese city that the Three Gorges Dam would put underwater. Before the Flood (1) is 150 minutes in length and contains many startling scenes of local citizenry berating as well as appealing and complaining to Chinese government officials.

Yan Yu's follow-up film which had its world premiere at this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival also centers on the inhabitants of a village under orders to be evacuated before a new dam would cause the water to rise above it. This time around, however, it's not the Three Gorges Dam but one in Sichuan province. Also, this new film is, at 60 minutes, less than half the length of the 2005 documentary. Additionally, the new film turns out to be less a tale of villagers versus outsiders (as was the case in Before the Flood 1) and more of villagers versus other villagers (albeit, it seems to be insinuated, due to outsider involvement).

The result, it seems to me, is a work that is far less interesting than its predecessor and, in fact, quite boring too. It doesn't help that there's not much contextualizing or explaining done on the part of the filmmaker. And that so many of the villagers have the same surname and, frankly, look quite similar (since chances are very high that they're biologically related!).

All in all, my feeling is that this is the kind of work that gives documentary a bad name since, yes, it records certain events and goings-on for posterity but to what other end? Furthermore, perhaps the filmmaker became too close to his subject and material so that he no longer realizes that there are lots of people out there who still don't know what is going, what it's all about and why it should matter enough to them to care to watch a documentary about it. Put another way: this time around, I feel obliged to report with some disappointment that I don't feel I learned anything new: neither about the village concerned nor the much larger -- and still sometimes seemingly way too inscrutable -- country in which it lies. :S

My rating for the film: 5.0

Cairo Station (Egypt, 1958)
- From the Masterclass program
- Youssef Chahine, director
- Starring Hend Rostom, Faris Sahwki and Youssef Chahine

It may be a fictional work rather than documentary but believe me when I tell you that I felt like I learnt far more about the people and socio-cultural millieu of Cairo Station through Youssef Chahine's 1958 film that I ever learnt about from the equivalent people and community in the Yan Yu documentary I saw earlier that Saturday. And within that truth lies just one reason why I think this Egyptian movie that centres on the lowly workers at Cairo's railway station truly is a masterpiece of cinema.

Banned for 12 years in its native Egypt, this realist-style work offers up main characters who are undoubtedly flawed but also surprisingly sympathetic. Chahine himself plays the most miserable character of the lot -- a lame newspaper vendor full of lust with women in general and obsessed in particular with a busty drinks seller already betrothed to a physically strong porter.

Chahine the director also shows that in hard lives that inevitably will be visited by tragedy before the movie's end also lie the ability to enjoy life and its simple pleasures in ways that can be, even if only momentarily, joyous indeed. At the same time, however, there seems to be a sobering cautionary message in the main tale: one that involves it being best to not have ideas way too above one's station.

However conservative that sounds, the work as a whole still does come across as quite revolutionary in its style and sense of abandon. For, ultimately, its characters seem to tell us through their very actions that: yes, we know we shouldn't tempt fate too much but surely it's only human to want to aspire to better things and sometimes, we will get rewarded rather than punished for doing just that?

My rating for the film: 8.5

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Stripes (This week's Photo Hunt theme)

See the stripes? More specifically, see the stripes on the road? Photo hunters from countries with zebra crossings should easily recognise the Hong Kong variant which makes use of bright yellow -- rather than the more traditional white -- colored stripes but serves the same function: of indicating that the demarcated area is where pedestrians are allocated extra rights of way to cross a road.

As can be seen in the first photo in this entry, there really can be a lot of people on and crossing the road at the same time in Hong Kong. (Incidentally, that section of Hong Kong -- in Causeway Bay, in front of the Sogo department store -- which also is the focus of the middle photo is particularly famed for its busy nature... and so much so that it's appeared in many movies, including Hong Kong's City Without Baseball (2008) and a feature-length documentary about the Berlin Philharmonic -- that has been among my Hong Kong International Film Festival viewings -- Trip to Asia: The Quest for Harmony (Germany, 2009).

For one more look at stripes on streets, here's also offering up photo number three -- taken from an upper floor of Hong Kong's Times Square and showing that even famously crowded Causeway Bay sometimes can appear relatively bereft of people! (And this even before the recent economic recession hit the territory... :S)

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Three films viewed at the 2009 HKIFF

Stairway to movie heaven --
at least for the few days that the Hong Kong
Convention & Exhibition Centre was a Hong Kong
International Film Festival screening venue! ;)

Last night, I watched my 13th movie since this year's edition of the Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) began back on March 22nd. Tonight, I'm having a movie-less evening for what's only the second time since that date. What with my having had bought a couple more tickets to bring my total number up to 26, I've also reached the midway point in my personal film festing. So figure it's a good time to start writing about the first trio of movies I've viewed during this film feast of a period. With that thought in mind, here goes (in viewing order):-

Shinjuku Incident (Hong Kong, 2009)
- From the Opening Films programme
- Derek Yee, director
- Starring Jackie Chan, Daniel Wu, Naoto Takenaka, Xu Jinglei, Fan Bingbing, Jack Kao, Chin Kar Lok, Lam Suet, etc.

Call me an optimist but I had high hopes for this crime drama about illegal Chinese immigrants in Japan that was being largely billed early on as a Derek Yee movie. Unfortunately, the spectre of Jackie Chan ended up looming too largely over this work. And while he did play against type and try to be a dramatic actor -- rather than action star -- for the most part, the plain fact of the matter is that I can see how this would easily have been a better film if it had a better (and younger -- to suit the part) actor in its lead role.

Worse still was the fact that Jackie Chan by no means turned in the most laughable performance in this work. Instead, "credit" for that has to go to Daniel Wu -- whose part, to be fair, was probably as thankless as his character was pathetic and luckless. To be sure, he contributed very much to making the movie entertaining... but only entertaining in a "so bad it's hysterically funny" way.

That I don't rate Shinjuku Incident entirely lowly is due in large part to the winning presence in it of Naoto Takenaka (who I shall forever think of as Mr. Aoki of the original and miles better Shall We Dance? (Japan, 1996)). There additionally are several scenes and lines in the film that hark to it having had pretensions to be a work that truly was incisive in its damning portrayal of a group of people who fate has dealt a bad hand but sometimes unfortunately make matters worse on their very own.

On the face of the finished product, however, Derek Yee shouldn't only not work anymore with Jackie Chan but, also, stop trying to channel the spirit of the Shaw Brothers kungfu movies (some of which he did star in, after all). Instead, he should look less far back in time for inspiration: namely, directorial works of his such as the truly affecting C'est La Vie, Mon Cheri (1993) or the also very fine Lost in Time (2003).

My rating for the film: 6.0

Still Walking (Japan, 2008)
- From the Auteurs programme
- Hirokazu Kore-eda, director
- Starring Hiroshi Abe, Kiki Kirin, Yoshio Harada, Yui Natsukawa and Ryuga Hayashi

There are some film fans for whom Japanese cinema = extreme shock cinema. The more I delve into the cinema of the Land of the Rising Sun, however, the more I am inclined to think that immaculate quiet dramas such as this latest offering from Hirokazu Kore-eda (whose body of work I was introduced to via Nobody Knows (2004)) are what Japanese filmmakers really do best.

A drama about a family whose remaining members have been scarred by the premature loss of a loved one (the eldest son and heir, to be precise), Still Walking most certainly has its sad sections, yet is full of life and the sense that -- as its title suggests -- people keep still walking and life goes on. For amidst the mourning and clinging on to poignant memories, new memories get created and emotional connections forged and strengthened.

What could also be described as a multiple character study's cast is uniformly fine -- with Hiroshi Abe (as the family's previously second -- now only -- son) turning out to be as good a dramatic actor as the comic actor I had previously primarily known him as and veteran actress Kiki Kirin (as the family matriach) being an especially watchable presence.

Strange but true: for all of death -- or, at least, the spirit of the dead son -- having such a lingering presence in the movie, watching Kiki Kirin's character cook and cook and cook (and various others eating and eating and eating the food she cooked and had delivered to the house) over not much more than a single day left me craving Japanese food long before the film ended! And so much so that pretty much the first thing I did upon exiting the theatre after the movie was to head to a Japanese restaurant for some sushi and tempura!!

My rating for the film: 8.5

The Sniper (Hong Kong, 2009)
- From the Galas programme
- Dante Lam, director
- Starring Richie Ren, Huang Xiaoming, Edison Chen and Bowie Lam

Due to one of its leads having been involved in one of Chinese entertainment's most major sex scandal in years (if not ever), this Dante Lam film that was actually made before Beast Stalker (2008) has ended up seeing the light of day only now. And some sense of how low Edison Chen's star has sunk may be discerned in it being so that, unlike Richie Ren and Huang Xiaoming, there weren't any rabid fans of his in attendance at this cinematic offering's world premiere.

Judging from the reaction of those fans, they were a satisfied lot at movie's end. Based on the gender of the majority of those folks, it also seems as though this often very visually slick work is targeted squarely at females. For even while it is ostensibly an action movie (about snipers -- rather than, as per its English language title, a single member of that special police unit), it actually does seem as though the film's stars spend more time posing without their shirts on than involved in any job-related action.

I have to be honest and state that I think that Richie Ren and co look pretty good in the film -- and this fact might have positively clouded my opinion of the movie. For even while I'd grant that it's nothing special, I also don't actively dislike it either. Alternatively put: it's not Dante Lam's best but I still think it's quite respectable.

At the same time, if I could send a message to this film's makers, it'd be that: sometimes too much style can hurt a movie; especially an ostensible actioner that possesses such serious subject matter as quests for revenge and yearnings to be the best, not to mention work that involves the taking of other people's lives together with the regular risking of one's own.

My rating for this film: 7.0