Thursday, March 31, 2011

Two more movies viewed at the 2011 HKIFF last Sunday

The Blue House -- an Wan Chai tenement building
that has been in danger of demolition but now
has been classified as a Grade I heritage building

Not so long ago, I'd have tried to not let a day go by without a film screening when the Hong Kong International Film Festival was on. These days, however, I'm of the mind that it ca be good to have a short break in the middle of the festival -- and today was such a day. So in lieu of taking in a HKIFF screening this evening, I instead had drinks and dinner with friends -- and now am back home writing this catch-up entry... what with my having already viewed six movies between now and viewing When Hainan Meets Teochew earlier this past Sunday, including the following two...!

Pina (Germany, 2011)
- From the Master Class programme
- Wim Wenders, director
- Starring members of the Tanztheatre Wuppertal Pina Bausch

For those who didn't already know this: I am not a fan of 3D movies -- and, in fact, contrived to only view one 3D movie the whole of last year. Nonetheless, when I found out that Wim Wenders (whose Buena Vista Social Club I loved -- even while having been left cold by his earlier acclaimed Wings of Desire) had made about a 3D film about legendary dance choreographer Pina Bausch (1940-2009) and her Tanztheatre Wuppertal Pina Bausch company (whose astounding Vollmond (trans. Full Moon) I had seen being performed at the Hong Kong Cultural Center a few years back), I just had to see this movie when it was screened as part of the 2011 Hong Kong International Film Festival...

...and let me state outright that Pina did not disappoint and made for quite the viewing experience. Interestingly, although I was acutely aware at the start of this visually sumptious movie that it was in 3D (not least because I had to wear a pair of 3D glasses on top of my regular spectacles), this technological state of affairs got so natural that I ended up not noticing the work's 3D effects all that much. Instead, what left much more of an impression on me were the dance sequences that Wim Wenders creatively filmed outside of the usual stage space -- with the performances that took place in a quarry, on public transportation and by a busy road side coming across as particularly innovative and exhilarating.

In a conversation with a friend who had attended the same Sunday afternoon screening as me, he vouchsafed that Pina was not a particularly good introduction to Pina Bausch since the film didn't provide much background to Pina Bausch the person as well as professional and also her dance troupe and dance style/choreographic innovations.

Alternatively, he took my point that one possible measure of the offering's effectiveness and success would come from whether it made its audience more inclined to check out a Pina Bausch-choreographed dance work -- and I will personally say that this movie did leave me kicking myself for not having got a ticket to a Tanztheatre Wuppertal Pina Bausch show at the recent Hong Kong Arts Festival and vowing to go see another of its shows the next time the troupe comes over to perform over here in the Big Lychee.

Something else that I took from this beautiful looking movie is that even while Pina Bausch's premature death is a major tragedy for the artistic world, it really does look like the Tanztheatre Wuppertal Pina Bausch can go on without its founder and major, influential inspiration. In addition, this film helped me to see members of the troupe as interesting individuals in their own right -- and when I next view a performance by this company, I know I will be watching and looking out for certain individuals in it even while still appreciating the performance of the troupe as an often quite breathtakingly amazing unit.

My rating for the film: 8.5

In the Face of Demolition (Hong Kong, 1953)
- From the All for One and One for All: Union Film programme
- Lee Tit, director
- Starring Ng Cho Fan, Cheung Yin, Tsi Lo Lin, Bruce Lee, etc.

Early on in my born again Hong Kong movie-hood, I realized that Hong Kong movie makers often reference the works of their predecessors (cf. Stephen Chow's entertaining Kung Fu Hustle (2004) and Eric Tsang's family-friendly 72 Tenants of Prosperity (2010) vis a vis Chor Yuen's seminal The House of 72 Tenants (1973)). So when I viewed Peter Chan Ho Sun and Lee Chi Ngai (AKA Chi Lee) He Ain't Heavy, He's My Father (1993), I figured that those who made it were inspired by past movies too -- and not just Hollywood's Back to the Future at that.

Still, it wasn't until I viewed In the Face of Demolition that I realized that Tony Leung Kar Fai's He Ain't Heavy, He's My Father's character's motto and ethos of "All for one and one for all" -- one which was initially rejected by his son, only for the younger man to later see the error of his ways -- came from that 1953 Union Film that has been defined by the Hong Kong Film Archive publicist as having been "a film that defined a generation".

A drama largely set in a tenement that is home to many families as well as individuals, In the Face of Demolition richly depicts how these groups and people variously deal with living in poverty and on the brink of disaster -- with some coping quite a bit more nobly and better than others. In particular, one can't help but come away from a viewing of the movie wishing that one could be as admirable in trying circumstances as the character essayed by Ng Cho Fan who, even when unemployed and in debt, is looked up to by many others and lives up to their trust in his humanity but also strong sense of communal responsibility.

At the risk of sounding callous, however, I found myself unable to empathize with all of the occupants of the tenement that was in not particularly good physical condition -- and thus wasn't the safest of places to be in when such as a typhoon comes near Hong Kong. In particular, too many of the characters seemed to be too fiscally careless -- or at least overly generous in sharing out whatever cash and commodities they came into possession of.

Consequently, even while I applaud many of the characters' communal spirit and ethos, I also thought that they sometimes deserved some of the problems that came their way. So if this Union Film production was actually trying to preach the nobility as well as virtues of altruism and sacrificing for a larger whole, it seemed that it didn't completely go the right way in propagating its message -- which is a pity since there nonetheless is little doubt that its well meaning makers most definitely had their heart in the right place.

My rating for the film: 7

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Another HKIFF 2011 Report (this one written in less than an hour!)

Singaporean director Han Yew Khang (left) speaks
in Mandarin and the HKIFF's Bede Cheng
does the translation (into English) duties

As I begin writing this entry, I'm aware that it's just about two hours before another HKIFF screening that I've got a ticket for begins -- and also that I'm five films behind in my reportage. Still, before I get into writing about another movie I viewed at the ongoing Hong Kong International Film Festival, here's going on the record and stating how pleased I have been to find quite a few filmmakers (and, in the case of Hi, Fidelity -- cast members) have been present at the screenings I attended.

Adding to the pleasure has been the presence of people to interpret remarks made in Cantonese or Mandarin into English (or, when applicable, English into Cantonese) -- something which hasn't always been the case (as was so a few years ago at the HKIFF screening of High Noon). So thank you, HKIFF -- and especially Bede Cheng and Joanna Lee for their sterling efforts thus far. :)

But now on to the reviewing:-

When Hainan Meets Teochew (Singapore, 2010)
- From the Global Vision programme
- Han Yew Khang, director
- Starring Lee Chau Min, Tan Hong Chye, Yeo Yann Yann

In an e-mail exchange with a friend shortly after watching The Ditch, I told her that I rued not having more comedies on my HKIFF viewing list. At the same time though, it wasn't exactly as though I was spoiled for choice with regards to offerings in that genre -- something that a film prof acquaintance over here for this year's HKIFF from Australia noted just last night. And thinking about it some more, it really can seem to be so that comedies don't often get screened at film festivals -- and, as Peter Chan Ho Sun has observed (in Miles Wood's Cine East: Hong Kong Cinema Through the Looking Glass (Fab Press, 1998)), don't seem to get much respect from critics -- nor come awards time.

Perhaps it's because humor can seem to be more culture specific than other human emotions. (I still recall the authors of Sex & Zen & A Bullet in the Head: The Essential Guide to Hong Kong's Mind-bending Films (Fireside, 1996) issuing a cautionary warning against checking out the comedies of Stephen Chow and those movies whose video covers had people with big heads on them!) And the Australian film prof I spoke to last night told me that he had been left cold by a comedy from Singapore that he and I had viewed a few days back.

On the other hand, to judge from the audience reaction, the humor of When Hainan Meets Teochew appeared to be much appreciated by the mainly Hong Kong (with a smattering of Singaporeans and others) audience I viewed the movie with. And I definitely feel that I owe A Nutshell Review's Stefan S at least one drink for bringing this title to my attention. (So Stefan, next time you come over to Hong Kong... ;b)

A feel-good gender-bender of a movie, When Hainan Meets Teochew's main characters are a Hainanese woman who could easily be mistaken for a male based on her physical appearance and a Teochew man who believes he is a woman who just happens to have a male body. After a kerfuffle over a prized bra (which turns out to belong to the Hainanese woman's beloved ex) leads to the Teochew man being ejected out of his apartment, the Hainanese woman takes him in as a lodger -- and become good friends.

As to whether they can become more than good friends: interestingly, while the Hainanese woman does appear to be an out and out lesbian, the Teochew man appears more ambivalent with regards to which gender his life partner should be from. Alternatively put, what he really would like is someone with whom he can be happy with -- and sex as well as gender may not be a factor in the equation at all.

In a similar way, When Hainan Meets Teochew appears content to be a fun movie without being an outright comedy (since it does have some dramatic sections as well) and also appears in two minds as to whether it wants to insert actual romance into the proceedings. Rather, it seems content to throw what could be described as conventional romantic comedic elements into the proceedings (including a mother who wants her daughter to have someone to look after her rather have her daughter have the role of the looker-after, and an ex-lover who returns to the apartment to add twists, friction and spice to the Hainan woman and Teochew man's sex-less apartment sharing arrangement) and then play around with them in unconventional ways.

All in all, I found this offering to be entertaining -- as well as often surprising, especially given that it actually received funding from a Singaporean government body! Also pretty funny -- but also poignant in part, given the relationship depicted in the movie between the Teochew protagonist and his father -- was the writer-director Han Yew Khang's revelation during the post-screening Q&A session that Lau Chau Min (the female whose character is known as Hainan Boy) is actually his film company's production manager and Tan Hong Chye (the man whose character is referred to as Ms. Teochew) actually is a wardrobe stylist and costume designer -- with the implication being that their characters' reel lives are based on the two individual's reality!!

My rating for the film: 7.5

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Another 2011 HKIFF report (The not so viva edition)

Director Cheung King-wai (far left) answers audience queries
after the world premiere screening of his One Nation, Two Cities

Chalk it down to my being a glutton for punishment -- or just a fanatical movie geek. For despite having being down to view four Hong Kong International Film Festival screenings this weekend, I couldn't help but also go to the Cine Art House to check out Road to Dawn, a 2007 Mainland China-Malaysia co-production focusing on the time that Dr. Sun Yat Sen spent in Penang directed by Hong Konger Derek Chiu and starring Taiwanese actor Winston Chao.

Any review of that movies will have to wait for another day, however -- as this time around, my focus will be on the film I viewed before it and that which I viewed after it; both of which have little in common with each other besides the fact that they both are part of this year's HKIFF programme (and attracted my attention and got me to part with some money to purchase tickets for admission to their screenings!):-

Viva Riva! (Congo-France-Belgium, 2010)
- From the Global Vision programme
- Djo Tunda Wa Munga, director
- Starring Patsha Bay, Manie Malone, Hoji Fortuna, Marlene Longage

To whoever came up with the title from this movie: It seems you want the audience to cheer for Riva, the film's flamboyant protagonist who definitely is not without his share of physical charm. But if that really is the case, couldn't you have made him less reckless to the point of downright stupidity?

By this, I don't mean his having gone ahead and stolen some valuable items (in this case, a truckload of petrol-filled barrels) from his dangerous boss but, rather, his looking to have more or less completely let down his guard once he and his bounty made it across the border from Angola into his home country of Congo (formerly Zaire and -- in colonial times -- the Belgian Congo). Put another way: it's one thing to effect a heist against your employer when he's not looking but quite another to baldly risk getting tracked down and caught by him and his murderous henchmen because you've become way too fixated on spending your share of the takings on women, booze and generally having a good time.

What with Viva's successful theft taking up only something like the first five minutes of the film, much of the rest of it gets spent telling an essentially simple story of a man who becomes obsessed with a woman he doesn't really know (and turns out to be a local kingpin's moll) and whose open pursuit of her is so blind that he doesn't seem to realize (or care) that he is being intently pursued in turn by his vengeful ex-boss who is determined to reclaim what he considers rightfully his as well as make his former employee pay for having stolen it.

One way in which Viva Riva!'s makers flesh out the story is by taking time to show the social as well as moral corruption that appears to taken for granted -- or just as a fact of life -- among the Congolese these days. Another is by peppering the movie with a plethora of erotic sequences that, along with certain scenes of brutal violence, make for the work's Category III rating being well deserved.

Even while I was not too enamored by the sex scenes (that were so powered by lust that they are among the most unromantic I have ever seen), I'm not going to blame them for my actually developing a migraine while viewing the movie. Rather, I think this was the result of the pulsating music that never seemed to let up -- some of which was energetically rhythmic but others of which came across as noise that looked to have not only affected my brain but drowned reason out of many of the movie's characters -- none of which, as a consequence, I was inclined to cheer for, let alone care for and empathize with.

My rating for the film: 5.5

One Nation, Two Cities (Hong Kong, 2011)
- From the Humanitarian Award for Documentaries programme
- Cheung King Wai, director

Before the screening of One Nation, Two Cities commenced, its director announced to the assembled audience that the film was completed less than 24 hours ago and that it actually had turned out to be 69 minutes in length (rather than the 100 minutes in length that it had been stated as being in the Hong Kong International Film Festival booking guide). The process of editing the documentary, he said, had presented great difficulty -- and it is interesting that at the Q&A session after the screening, he admitted that upon viewing the work, he thinks he had cut too much from the early sections of the film... and also that many of the questions he was asked concerned what was not in the offering (and whether those parts had never been filmed at all or had been cut in the editing room).

Although Cheung King Wai also stated that this version of his documentary about a Mainland Chinese woman who does not have Hong Kong residency status (despite her parents and her children having it) is his final one, I too am one of those who is of the opinion that perhaps the film would be better served by being re-edited -- and preferably, made lengthier. In particular, although the audience does learn quite a bit about the woman in question from the film (by way of interview with her, her uncle and a couple of friends and more), it really feels like a glaring omission that there is no interview footage with with her parents with whom she stays on her visits to Hong Kong and her ex-husband with whom she stays during her time back in her hometown in Mainland China.

Also at the post-screening Q&A, Cheung King Wai made what I thought to be quite a surprising as well as frank admission that he had found the woman at the center of One Nation, Two Cities to be thoroughly "commonly ordinary" and thus hard to make a film about. (This in contrast to the individual at the center of his previous film, KJ.)

To judge by the audience reaction, it would seem that many people agreed that she wasn't particularly interesting -- including in contrast to her mother who actually was the subject of more than one audience query. One reason might be that whereas it seems easy enough to understand why this documentary's central character would want to become a Hong Kong resident, the question of how her mother, whose brothers are all university educated, came to have a life in Hong Kong where she works as a cleaner and lives in impoverished circumstances (not to mention has a husband who seems disinclined to talk much at all).

All in all, too much felt like it had been left unsaid and unexplored -- or been left on the cutting room floor -- for this Cheung King Wai directorial effort to approach the level of his two previous works that I've seen (KJ and the earlier All's Well With the World). At the same time though, there's little doubt that he has once again commendably cast light on subject matter that doesn't usually get filmed -- which in this case includes broader social-cultural issues such as the effects on official government policies on individuals and their families, and also what appears to be a contemporary tendency in Mainland China towards having more and more families and marriages being broken up (be it by official policies or personal actions such as married men having affairs as was the case with the ex-husbands of the main woman in this documentary and her also divorced best friend).

My rating for this film: 6.0

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Cage(d) (This week's Photo Hunt theme)

Sad but true: when many people see the word caged in Hong Kong, what will come to mind first is the existence of people known as cagemen -- whose terrible living conditions was the subject of Cageman, Jacob Cheung's 1992 Hong Kong Film Awards best film winner -- more than cages that house animals.

At the same time, since I prefer to see wildlife living in the wild -- this admittedly even more so after having had the experience of going on safari in East Africa (first in Kenya, then subsequently in Tanzania) -- I have not been to a zoo in decades. (Indeed, the zoo part of the Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens is pretty low in my list of places in Asia's World City to visit.)

So I was wondering how I could participate in this week's Photo Hunt -- until I was leafing through the set of photos I took on my favorite hike of 2010 -- along the Nei Lak Shan Country Trail that yielded great views of the Ngong Ping 360 cable car as well as Big Buddha and surrounding countryside. More specifically, I got to thinking that the each of Ngong Ping 360's cabins physically resemble cages -- and it is true enough that they are designed so that once you're inside, you can't get out of them by yourself! :D

In any case, I figure this is as good an excuse -- and opportunity -- to share a few scenic photos of Hong Kong with those who visit this blog. So I am trusting that you guys and gals will be okay with this creative interpretation of this week's Photo Hunt theme... ;b

Friday, March 25, 2011

HKIFF 2011 Report (Love and Lust Edition!)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating for the film: 7.5

Hi, Fidelity
(Hong Kong, 2011)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating for the film: 7

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Two more movies viewed at the 2011 HKIFF

View of the village of Tai O -- one of the parts of
The Big Lychee in which Quattro Hong Kong 2 was shot

Earlier this evening, I attended my fourth screening of this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival. But this entry will focus on the two films -- both with Hong Kong connections -- that I viewed in between Shunji Iwai's Love Letter and Olivier Assayas' Carlos:-

Quattro Hong Kong 2 (Philippines-Malaysia-Thailand-Hong Kong, 2011)
- From the Galas programme
- Brillante Mendoza, Ho Yu Hang, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Stanley Kwan, directors
- Starring Kara Hui Ying Hung, Gordon Lam Ka Tung, Terrence Yin and others

Last year at the Summer IFF (a lighter-on-content film fest presented by the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society), I viewed Quattro Hong Kong, a quartet of short films that convey impressions of Hong Kong as viewed and presented by Herman Yau, Clara Law, Heiward Mak and Fruit Chan. Two impressed ((Herman Yau's evocative Fried Glutinous Rice and Fruit Chan's fun The Yellow Slipper), one didn't particularly appeal (Heiward Mak's wanna-be-cool We Might as Well be Strangers) and one I thought was really sub-par (Clara Law's Red Earth). In short: I thought the work was uneven in quality.

Still, that first Quattro Hong Kong didn't keep me from being interested in checking out Quattro Hong Kong 2 -- this especially since the second edition of this film project had such pedigreed helmers as the directors of Kinatay, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Rain Dogs and Centre Stage (AKA Actress). In part, this was because I was curious to see what these different directors would make and present of Hong Kong -- particularly since only one of them is from this part of the world. Additionally, particularly after having viewed the comfortably and seemingly seamlessly transnational Carlos, I got to wondering how other directors besides Assayas would fare when filming on foreign soil.

In retrospect, the first of the short films that played, Brillante Mendoza's Purple, was the most conventional of the lot -- and also had the most stereotypical images of Hong Kong. At the very least, the locations that feature in the work (including the village of Tai O on Lantau Island and the Flower Market in Prince Edward) looked like they were chosen on the advice of Hong Kong Tourism Board and/or local tour guides. To my mind, these elements contributed to the piece that ostensibly focused on a widower still very much in love with his deceased spouse and a young man pining for the girlfriend he had just had a quarrel with feeling clichéd -- with the not bad (but not great either) work's evocative musical score turning out to be its best part.

Next up was Ho Yu Hang's quirky Open Verdict. Reuniting the director with Kara Hui Ying Hung and Chui Tien You, the two Hong Kong stars of his At the End of Daybreak, this multi-stranded effort looks to have been too ambitious for its own good given the structural limitations of time as well as budget. Consequently, although it started off intriguingly and has a fun middle part, this film which attempts to weave together a tale of bungles on the part of the Hong Kong and Malaysian police and a mystery man who takes a room at a budget motel concluded in a manner that is too jarringly abrupt for my liking -- and consequently ended up disappointing even which I do appreciate the clever barbs it managed to throw out (that maybe only Malaysians or those versed with the Malaysian politically cultural situation will appreciate).

Then came the outright superduper dud of the evening from the director whose Uncle Boonmee... added a Asian Film Awards Best Picture prize to its many other awards that same night. To my mind, Apichatpong Weerasethakul's M Hotel, shot entirely in a single section of a single (hotel) room and featuring sounds like what one might expect a fish rather than actual human to make, is the kind of "WTF?" query inducing art house film that gives art house films a bad name -- and to those who profess to find worth in it, I am inclined to retort that "The Emperor has no clothes"!

After that segment whose conclusion had caused a friend of mine sitting next to me to applaud with sarcasm (and probably some amount of relief at its having drawn to a close), it just couldn't get worse, could it? And even though Stanley Kwan has been known to produce duds of his own (notably in the form of The Island Tales and, more recently, Showtime), he it was who came out with the best film of Quattro Hong Kong 2's quartet.

13 Minutes In The Lives Of...
purports to be 13 real time minutes of people on a bus journeying from Hong Kong International Airport to Tsing Yi -- and in 13 minutes, Kwan manages to capture Hong Kong life and make interesting and enlightening comments on contemporary Hong Kong culture and society, and life in general. Lastly, it also has the best quote of the anthology: "it's the music of life" (in reference to the kind of noise that is the norm in Hong Kong and which some people really are likely to miss when it's not there any more).

My rating for the film: 5 (an amalgamation/average -- with the extremes being 0 -- yes, a big fat zero! -- for M Hotel and 8 for 13 Minutes In The Life Of...)

The Ditch (Mainland China, 2011)
- From the Auteurs programme
- Wang Bing, director
- Starring Lu Ye, Xu Cenzi, Yang Haoyu, etc.

Ostensibly and officially a Hong Kong-France-Belgium co-production, The Ditch is directed by a Mainland Chinese filmmaker who is a renowned documentarian, stars Mainlanders and was shot in the Mainland. But its devastatingly portrayal of the "anti-rightist" campaign masterminded by Mao Zedong that resulted in such inhumanity as the consigning of thousands of accused "rightists" to "re-education"/forced labor camps in harsh lands such as the Gobi Desert and, consequently, inhuman conditions and often painful deaths almost certainly means that it will never get to be shown in Mainland China and be officially accepted as Mainland Chinese, even if it were to win international prizes and accolades galore.

Wang Bing's first feature film is inspired by both real life events and a novel. The filmmaker -- who actually was born some years after the events that are seminal to this film -- also conducted interviews with prisoners and warders of the Jianbiangou Reeducation Camp that is the location of this work, and one of the former inmates actually makes an appearance in The Ditch (which gets its name from a long ditch that the inmates were tasked with digging). So small wonder that there are so many details in this film set over a 3 month period in 1960 that ring true, even while being -- or because they are -- so much more devastatingly dehumanizing and gut-wrenchingly horrible than a regular human being can imagine as well as bear.

So many terrible things get shown in the first hour or so of the work that the viewer, never mind the people depicted in the work, is liable to get to thinking that there is no hope left for humanity. (The nadir, for me, was a scene involving a hungry man greedily eating an ill man's vomit. In all honesty, I had to close my eyes for much of the scene -- otherwise, I feared that I would have thrown up myself!)

But just when you think that life has been reduced to its most brutal and base, not just basic, along comes a woman who shows that an individual previously seen only as a hollowed out being and then a corpse actually was a man who had a previous, better life and remains very much loved even in death. Even more touchingly, she is shown to awaken and attract a surprising amount of caring humanity in at least one of her dead husband's fellow "dormitory" mate -- one that leads him to also show a surprisingly fierce will to survive and prevail over the kind of conditions and circumstance that would make most people give up, if not outright cease to want or be able to live.

Lest the reader get the wrong impression, The Ditch is very far from being the kind of cinematic offering that could be said to be inspirational. In fact, a viewing of it is more likely to leave one feeling emotionally drained and devastated -- all the more so because you just know, despite the standard feature film disclaimer that appear at the end of it, that so much of the terrible things depicted in it really did happen -- even if "just" not to people with the same names or physical appearance as the characters in the movie.

So why watch such a work and highly recommend it to others? Because if historical occurrences like the ones alluded to and depicted in this film get forgotten, similar horrible ones might be more easily allowed to happen in the future. For, as the philosopher George Santayana chillingly suggested, "Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it".

My rating for the film: 8

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The 2011 HKIFF begins... with 5 1/2 hours of Carlos!

A HKIFF program guide/booking booklet and
the many tickets I've got for this year's HKIFF :)

The 35th Hong Kong International Film Festival got underway today -- with the very first screening of the day being the complete 325 minute version of Olivier Assayas' made-for-TV mini series which topped Film Comments' critics' top 2010 films list. And that screening also started off my own personal 2011 HKIFF-ing which is scheduled to take in 21 works by the time the film fest draws to a close at the end of April 5th!

As has become the norm, first on the Mobius Home Video Forum, then over on Hong Kong Cinema: View from the Brooklyn Bridge and over on this blog since 2007, I'll offer up reviews of films I view at the HKIFF -- which this year is scheduled to include a number from Hong Kong (of course!) and Japan (ditto!) but also from territories further afield, including Singapore, Brazil and Congo as well as the usual European suspects. And although in this entry there'll just be my thoughts on one work (even though I've already seen two HKIFF offerings today), the other entries will have me sharing my thoughts about at least two movies and usually more than that! :)

Carlos (France/Germany, 2010)
- From the Gala Presentation programme

- Olivier Assayas, director

- Starring Edgar Ramirez, Alexander Scheer, Nora von Waldstatten, Talal el-Jourdi, etc.

In this part of the world, Olivier Assayas is probably best known to many people as Maggie Cheung Man-yuk's ex-husband; this despite his having directed and scripted over 20 films, including two (Irma Vep (1996) and Clean (2004)) starring his ex-wife. And it's not just pure Asia-centrism that has made it so that those two films and HHH: A Portrait of Hou Hsiao Hsien (2002), his documentary of Taiwanese auteur Hou Hsiao Hsien, were the only works I had seen by the former Cahiers du Cinema writer prior to Carlos.

Rather, it's due to it being so that quite a few of Assayas' other works, have not attracted the most positive of reactions -- notably, Demonlover (2002) which was notoriously heckled at when it screened at the Cannes Film Festival. In contrast, however, Carlos has won him the kind of plaudits that would have made it a dead cert to win such as the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, if not outright Best Film, if not for the fact that it actually was made for TV.

A transnational tour de force of a work (whose production values are much more in tune with that of big budget feature film than your everyday TV show), this richly detailed fictionalized account of the life and times of the real life international revolutionary/terrorist Illich Ramirez Sanchez (AKA Carlos the Jackal) can, at its best, seem alternately like an amazingly well-researched documentary and an enthralling psychological study of a man whose ultimate cause is himself and the feeding of his ego. And this particularly in the build-up to and during the real life event during which the man who decided to give himself the code name of Carlos (supposedly after a Venezuelan President he admired) held the OPEC oil ministers hostage and had them and others at his mercy.

The work starts with Illich/Carlos living in England and working as a Spanish teacher but already having spent some time among Palestinian revolutionaries as well as studying economics at a university in Moscow. By the time it ends, we've seen him and others living and working in a range of territories stretching from Europe to the Middle East and into a part of Africa beyond that which borders the Mediterranean Sea Along the way, we hear Carlos and others speaking English, French, German, Arabic, Japanese, Russian and more. And while it's unusual enough for a single human being -- fictional or real -- to be so trans-national and multi-lingual, it is truly revelatory as well as thoroughly admirable to see a single TV or cinematic work being so.

Even if one were to take away the fact that he had to perform in far more languages than is the norm for an actor, Edgar Ramirez's performance would be one that's impressive in its range -- since he convincingly plays Carlos from the 1970s through to the 1990s, and as a fine physical specimen of a young man to a middle-aged fellow bloated by too much alcohol and other excesses, and various stages in between. (Even more breath-takingly, the camera is allowed to lay bare both extremes of physique -- rather than mask them!)

While Ramirez definitely owns the screen whenever he's on it, Carlos also undoubtedly benefits from having a generally strong cast to share screen-time with. Interestingly, despite the nationality of its director, the standouts among this France-Germany co-production's supporting cast are not French but, rather, German (notably Christoph Bach, Alexander Scheer, Nora von Waldstatten and Julia Hummer) and Lebanese (Talal El-Jordi, Ahmad Kaabour and Rodney El Haddad).

At the same time though, it's the main man behind the camera that I came away with the most respect for. Because what he has produced is a work that few other filmmakers could make: both in terms of the comfort and confidence that is shown in (re-)creating scenes taking place in such a large number of culturally as well as geographically diverse lands and over a couple of decades -- and in cobbling them together to make for a very coherent, enthralling whole that comes across as intelligent, probing and questioning as well as intriguing, thought-provoking and entertaining.

My rating for the TV mini-series/film (on the scale): 9.5

Saturday, March 19, 2011

License Plate (This week's Photo Hunt theme)

Spotted at Wong Shek Pier up on the Sai Kung Peninsula a while back... a sight that made me and my friend who saw it simultaneously think "how philosophical" and "I guess the Bimmer's owner's message might also be along the lines of "how great it is to be rich"!" (And additionally on my part -- here's something I can use for that Photo Hunt license plate theme!) At the same time, because the car bearing this license plate was parked near a public pier located in close proximity to places where people go hiking or do water sports, we also decided that the overall message could be "To be financially well off doesn't mean not being able to enjoy free fresh air, the outdoors and sporty pursuits"! :D

Of course, the more you think of the particular words on that license plate, the more associations you make with it. Among the others that have entered my mind: Hamlet's "to be or not to be" soliloquy (which I had to study at school in England, and also was fortunate to hear being uttered on stage at Stratford Upon Avon); and Cat Stevens' lovely If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out (which I was introduced to one hot summer's day in Colorado where I was at archaeological field school) with its "if you want to be free, be free, 'cause there's a million things to be, you know that there are" lines. :)

On a more sobering note, the events of the past week and a bit more in Japan also have got me thinking that "to be" also denotes survival. Not quite "to live" (somehow, "to be" seems more passive, doesn't it?) but still at least "to exist". And as the recent major disasters that have befallen the country many people (including myself) would have picked to have been the most capable of handling earthquakes and tsunamis (and even nuclear power plant crises) also have shown, to be -- as in continue to exist and survive -- sometimes really can be a major achievement in itself. And the first step on the road to renewal and recovery. Gambate, Nippon!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Japanese encounters over the years

Peaking through a gateway into an inner part of
the Engyoji Temple complex on Shosa-san

As regular visitors to this blog realize full well, I love Hong Kong. But Japan is the Asian country I feel much more culturally partial to rather than that which the Big Lychee is a Special Administrative Region of.

Considering my ancestral and ethnic roots, this may come as a surprise to some people. But the truth of the matter also is that I paid my first visit to Japan decades before I visited any part of Mainland China and met my first Japanese person and friend several years before I met the equivalent from Mainland China.

A fellow pupil of the kindergarten section of an international school I attended back in Penang was the very first Japanese person I got to know and became good friends with. "Shin-ieh" was how I remember pronouncing the name of the boy who became one of my two best friends in that co-educational establishment. And I also will never forget how we, his classmates, were utterly envious of his super cool Japanese stationery -- which, to his credit, he regularly very generously shared with us as much as he could. And yes, I do also remember him as being the smartest kid in class -- even though he was far from being your stereotypical nerd! :D

Years later, at Beloit College, I got to know three Japanese students in my class. Two of them, Mio and Hiroshi, were exchange students from Waseda University in Tokyo -- and two more opposite characters you could hardly find. Not only was one of them female and the other male but one loved sushi, the other professed to hate it, one was super hardworking while the other was extremely hedonistic, etc., etc., etc.

And then there was Chika, the amazing person who had come to college in Wisconsin by way of international schools in India and Thailand as well as presumably regular school in Japan, could speak nine different languages (Japanese, English, Thai, two Indian languages -- including Hindi, German, French, Italian and Arabic), play five different musical instruments (including the piano and saxophone) and had the kind of amazing energy that threatened to drive me -- her room-mate for a semester -- crazy.

To give you an idea: she'd be studying when I got ready to go to sleep and by the time I woke up the next morning, would already have gone for a long jog and practiced the piano, among other things! But every once in a while, she'd sort of run out of batteries. Just before doing so, she'd return to the room, say "I'm feeling tired" and promptly collapse on the bed and fall fast asleep, with all of her clothes and even her shoes on -- leaving me to remove her shoes for her and tuck her in... and to complain after she woke up that she made me feel like the wife of a workaholic salaryman!!! :D

Considering how parochial and mono-cultural is the reputation of the Japanese nation as a whole, I find it somewhat ironic that I've gotten to know quite a few international-minded and -living Japanese people in far flung parts of the world. And yes, even in Tanzania, I got to know another Japanese -- an embassy official who had actually gotten a degree in Kiswahili and had a deep love for Tanzanian arts and culture. And Eiko, if you ever read this, I still do fondly remember the day we went together to Bagamoyo where, in addition to visiting historical sites, we also went over to the late, great musician Hukwe Zawose's house and were treated to an impromptu concert by his father and son. :)

More recently, I've been privileged to meet some Japanese business colleagues turned friends of my father -- a couple of whom my family believe really started warming to us upon discovering our mutual love of Totoro and things Studio Ghibli by way of being introduced to my Totoro plushes (including the three foot tall and wide and four foot tall and wide ones!); and one of whom would go on to help me to get a precious ticket to the Studio Ghibli Museum on one of my later visits to Japan. :D

The proverbial "they" say that when you are facing death, your life will pass before your eyes. Although Japan is hundreds of kilometers away from Hong Kong and I don't feel personally threatened by the terrible disasters that have taken place on Honshu in the past few days, seeing on TV and reading about what has transpired there has got me reflecting on and fondly remembering the Japanese people who have made an impact on my life over the years -- and sincerely hoping that they -- many of whom I regret to say that I no longer am in touch with -- have not fallen victim to the multiple whammies that have hit Japan recently.

And if by any chance they ever come to chance upon this blog entry, here's saying thank you for the memories, hope you and your loved ones are well, and I hope our paths will cross again some time in the future in happy circumstances.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Lau Shui Heung Country Trail hike (photo-essay)

If truth be told, part of me is feeling a bit weird for blogging about a hike I went on last spring at a time when Japan remains in crisis and so much else is going on in the world. But, as a Christian Science Monitor blog headline asserts, Japan knows how to rise from the ashes, life goes on and, as my time in Tanzania taught me, those of us who are in fortunate positions should treasure life and those parts of it that are enjoyable -- and in my case, going out hiking with a good friend on a beautiful day with nice cool weather that yields scenic views is such a thing.

So here's going ahead and spreading the word about my positive experience of hiking the little known -- to judge by the dearth of other hikers about on it that day -- Lau Shui Heung Country Trail in the northern New Territories of Hong Kong:-

Spotted on our way to the start of the trail proper:
a broken off bit of plant branch with unusually sticky red sap

The -- if memory serves me right
-- same plant's
green flowers

View of the nearby rural hamlet of Hok Tau Wai
nestled amidst green surroundings

A dry leaf-strewn uphill section of the trail

The kind of natural pattern that looks to have served
as inspiration for camouflage clothing manufacturers!

Don't say you don't think too that
the items above resemble hairy balls! ;b

About half way into the hike, there came
a hint of the scenic views that were to come
The kind of scenery that is breathtaking when
viewed "live" (rather than in a mere photo)

To be continued... and I hope you welcome that this is the case! :)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Rejuvenating weekend

Flowers in bloom amidst still bare branches
along the side of Tai Au Mun Road
in Clear Water Bay yesterday

My regular hiking companion looking back and down
at part of the Luk Wu Country Trail in scenic
Sai Kung East Country Park that we hiked on earlier today

To those who wondered whether I was okay after I didn't join in yesterday's Photo Hunt, I thank you for your concern and please don't worry. It's just that I found myself spending so much time online following the ongoing catastrophe in Japan since first learning about the earthquake and tsunami hitting that country on Friday afternoon that I felt I needed to go and spend some time outside doing such as appreciating the more positive side of nature.

So yesterday, I took my mother (who's here visiting) to one of Hong Kong's naturally scenic areas in Clear Water Bay where we strolled along a road that gave us splendid views of the coastal area and Clear Water Bay's two public beaches on one side and more hilly country, including High Junk Peak and its surroundings through which the High Junk Peak Country Trail runs, on the other. Gazing at those sights and at plants showing clear signs that spring is here, and enjoying the feeling of the breeze blowing from the sea, it felt as though so much was good with and in the world.

Then, earlier today, I bowed to temptation in the form of beautiful weather (complete with welcome blue skies) and went off with my regular hiking companion on a hike in Sai Kung East Country Park. The Luk Wu Country Trail offers the attraction of taking people up to one of those plateaus in Hong Kong with 360 degree views where nary a building can be seen. For much of today's hike, my regular hiking companion and I also found ourselves not within sight of another human being except for each other.

Those two elements alone would be very attractive in and of themselves. So it really is a bonus that the trail offers up beautiful vistas for much of the way. And while some people might see the exertion required to hike this trail as a negative, I honestly feel that this kind of thing helps make one appreciate all the more that nature's beauty -- or just a general engagement with nature -- is not one that is given entirely freely.

Put another way: we should never take nature -- and its benevolence -- for granted. And like the great Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki taught via such as My Neighbor Totoro (and to quote from Stomp Tokyo's review of the film), "although nature seldom intends to hurt people, it can be dangerous and should be treated with respect." (And yes, I do think that living in a land like Japan, where natural disasters are unfortunately a part of life for many people, has informed Miyazaki's way of thinking as well as imagination -- cf. Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea and the admittedly far less destructive tsunamis in that lovely gem of a movie.)

Friday, March 11, 2011

On a dark day for Japan

Statue of a Buddha in Engyoji on Mount Shosha

My thoughts, condolences and good wishes go to the country and its people who have come up with so much to make me happy. May they weather the major disaster that is the magnitude 8.9 earthquake and its accompanying tsunami and other aftermaths.

Take care, everyone, wherever you are. For those who are out of harm's way: thank your lucky stars and be grateful for having what you normally take for granted -- including physical health and safety.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Eating and strolling about in Macau

Mother and child (and holy spirit) stained glass window
at Penha Church on the Macau Peninsula's Penha Hill

Puppet Ponyo posing in front of the
temporarily closed-for-renovation
Dom Pedro V Theatre

How now Macau! As much as I love (being in) Hong Kong, I do find it nice to be able to get away for a while to some place that is culturally and physically different from Asia's World City. So it really is a bonus that the former Portuguese enclave of Macau is just one hour by ferry away.

For while it now is a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the People's Republic of China like the former British colony of Hong Kong, the Portuguese part of Macau's heritage remains very much in evidence in such as its traditional architecture, the surprising number of churches to be found in the territory (and particularly its historic center) and the food served at popular restaurants like A Lorcha, Fernando's and O Manel (all of which I've enjoyed eating at over the years). Additionally, in large part due to the majority of Macau's visitors being intent on frequenting its 33 casinos, its historic urban areas are pleasantly free of crowds for the most part.

What with today being my mother's birthday, I took the day off from work and took her (and Puppet Ponyo!) to Macau for a flying visit. Upon arriving in the territory, we headed straight to A Lorcha for a pretty substantial lunch of beautifully crusty bread, soupy clams spiced with coriander and garlic (yum!) and feijoada served with rice (yummy!). Feeling a need to walk off part of our meal afterwards, we proceeded to stroll along narrow, atmospheric streets that led us variously to historically significant Lilau Square, up Penha Hill to quiet Penha Church, down to picturesque St. Augustine's Square and its conglomeration of historic buildings including the Dom Pedro V Theatre, St. Augustine's Church, Sir Robert Ho Tung Library and St. Joseph's Seminary, and then to beautiful -- even when crowded, as is usually the case -- Senado Square.

Shortly after reaching Senado Square (or the Largo de Senado, as it is known in Portuguese), the eating began again -- even if it only was a double scoop of gelato from Lemoncello Gelato, a place that I discovered while researching a Macau food feature article for bc magazine a few years back and have made a point of revisiting each time I return to Macau. (This time around, I had a scoop of the peach and mango mix gellato and one of the coconut -- both of which were delicious; ditto with the pink guava flavored gellato my mother decided upon.)

Then, after popping into the Lou Kau Mansion next door for a look inside the historic house, a spot of food shopping at a branch of Koi Kei and quiet rest in the pretty back courtyard garden of the Leal Senado that few people seem to know exists, we decided that we were able to eat some more -- but not what would be served at an actual sit-down dinner. (Each time I head over to Macau for the day, I resolve to eat two full meals there but end up not being able to due to the lunch portions I get at my Macanese restaurant of choice being way too large for my comfort!)

So we hopped on a bus and made for the original Lord Stow's Bakery in Coloane where the most delicious creme brule-style egg tarts are to be found. (And yes, they really are worth the 8 Macau patacas per egg tart price and the more than half an hour trip there from the Macau Peninsula!!!)

By now feeling full and also somewhat exhausted, we decided to call it a day as far as our Macau sojourn was concerned. So it was back to the Macau ferry terminal and -- via another of those ferries that sails four times an hour for twenty fours between Macau and Hong Kong -- back to Hong Kong... a place that I found myself glad to be back again -- not least because, however polluted relative to many other places, its air actually feels fresher than that of its fellow SAR! :O