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


Samson said...

Thanks for continuing to report on the HKIFF! I like the concept of Quattro HK, though I haven't seen either of the movies. Hopefully, they will make Quattro Hong Kong 3, 4, 5..., and that I will get the opportunity to see them!

YTSL said...

Hi Samson --

You're welcome and thanks for commenting on my this blog entry -- which went for what seemed the longest time without a single comment! Re the "Quattro Hong Kong" concept: I like the idea but sure hope that the quality improves should further ones get made!

Kathie Smith said...

Great to read your review of The Ditch. I have heard mixed reviews, but I am anxious to see this film. Wang is such a stalwart observer in his documentaries (sometimes painfully so) that I am curious about this fictional turn. You've renewed my belief that this film is something to seek out. Thanks!

YTSL said...

Hi Kathie --

Hope that you'll get much out of your viewing of "The Ditch" when you finally get a chance to check it out. It definitely is not an easy watch -- but several days after viewing it, my memory of it remains strong and my opinion positive. :)