Saturday, March 30, 2019

Debutant director Bai Xue's The Crossing compares favorably with John Woo's same-titled movies (Film review)

The director of this film (in the green shirt) and some cast members
(along with a HKIFF staffer) at a fest post-screening Q&A
The Crossing (Mainland China-Hong Kong, 2018)
- Part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival's Young Cinema Competition (Chinese Language) program
- Bai Xue, director and co-scriptwriter (with Lin Meiju)
- Starring: Huang Yao, Sunny Sun, Carmen Tong (aka Carmen Soup), Elena Kong
On the morning that I was scheduled to attend a HKIFF screening of this first feature film from Beijing Film Academy graduate Bai Xue, a London-based Finnish friend posted on Facebook that she had seen it in a cinema in the British capital.  That, more than The Crossing being executive produced by Tian Zhuangzhuang (who had been Bai's professor at the film academy), and more than this cross-border drama having won Best Film and Best Actress awards at the Pingyao International Film Festival, got me realizing that it's actually far more than your standard Chinese indie movie by a fledgling filmmaker.

With a protagonist who lives in Shenzhen but attends secondary school by day in Hong Kong, The Crossing shines a light on the thousands of children who cross the Mainland China-Hong Kong border twice daily every single school day.  With her Cantonese-speaking father (Liu Kai Chi) in Hong Kong and her Putonghua-speaking mother (Ni Hongjie) in Shenzhen (and presumably divorced from each other), bilingual 16-year-old Peipei (Huang Yao) could be said to have a foot in two worlds.  She also has both a Hong Kong identity card and Shenzhen residency, which makes it have the perfect paper credentials to be a mule smuggling sought-after smartphones and more across from Hong Kong over to Shenzhen.
Seeking to come by extra cash to finance a Japanese winter holiday with her poor little rich girl Hong Konger friend Jo (credited in the film as Carmen Soup!), she is introduced to a smuggling operation that Jo's noodle seller boyfriend Hao (Sunny Sun) is involved in that's run by a formidable woman (Elena Kong) who Peipei starts looking up to in a way that she can't do so with her rather pathetic gambling addict mother.  But even while this criminal subplot does take up quite a bit of screentime, it's also pretty obvious that The Crossing also is intent on examining the phenomenon and psychology of folks like Peipei, who are citizens of the People's Republic of China but seem to have few social ties there, not least because they have spent more of their waking hours south of the Mainland China-Hong Kong border, yet still can't and don't fully feel like they belong or entirely fit in Hong Kong either.
Director Bai Xue says that she only learnt about kids being used to transport illegal merchandise from Hong Kong to Shenzhen (an occurence that also crops up in Jevons Au's Distinction) three years ago.  Upon investigating this phenomenon, she became interested in the larger question of these cross-boundary children.  Fluent in Cantonese and Putonghua herself, and raised in Shenzhen from age six, it's obvious from this film that she very much empathizes and sympathizes with this group of young people and their lot.
While it is not a documentary, there are many details in -- and aspects to -- The Crossing that come across as very real and authentic; sometimes to the detriment of one being entertained by the movie.  By this, I mean that I didn't only find myself feeling sad for Peipei but also the actual human beings out there who lead lives like hers.  At the same time, I totally am bowled over by the strength of Bai Xue's research work, and also by her impressive helming of a movie that compares very favorably with another Chinese language film entitled The Crossing (that one directed by John Woo), and puts that 2015 work's subpar sequel --- also directed by John Woo -- to shame.
My rating for this film: 8.0  

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Two 1940s Chinese films at the 2019 Hong Kong International Film Festival (Film reviews)

The 2019 HKIFF features a four film 
Li Lihua retrospective showcase 

Barber Takes a Wife (China, 1947)
- Part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival's Li Lihua: Four Treasures Restored program
- Huang Zuolin, director
- Starring: Shi Hui, Li Lihua

Before what was touted as the Asian premiere of the restored version of this cinematic offering that was released in Chinese cinemas two years before the 1949 Communist Revolution, film critic/scholar Law Kar "treated" the audience to a 20 minute talk.  You'd think that since Barber Takes a Wife is part of the HKIFF's Li Lihua retrospective program, he'd say quite a bit about its lead actress.  Instead, he actually only mentioned her in one sentence; talking much more about the company behind the film (whose founder's descendants have had a hand in the movie's recent restoration) and other bits of trivia, such as the film's portrayal of barbers having caused a strike by barbers in Shanghai, where it's set!

Fortunately, this Wenhua Film Company production does actually feature Li Lihua quite a bit more -- even though its main character is indeed a barber who does the kinds of things that aren't exactly exemplary but do lead to funny developments that make this now 72-year-old comedy an entertaining watch still in 2019.  Handsome, charming and super popular, and known to many by his call number at the hairdressing salon where he works, "Number Seven" (Shi Hui) is asked to take part in what amounts a con job by a customer whose business could do with a large cash infusion.   

After the barber lets on in a conversation that he'd like to make more money than his barbering job can get him, the businessman tells him about a newspaper ad placed by a Chinese heiress, just returned from the US, for a husband.  With the help of the businessman, Number Seven fakes an identity as a wealthy company director, with an economics degree from Oxford University to boot, and goes off to court the lady in question (Li Lihua) -- little realizing that she, too, has faked her identity and, in fact, neither is an heiress nor has ever set foot outside of China.  Oh, and she is a widow with a young child too!

There's no two ways about it: many of the actions of Barber Takes a Wife's main characters are morally questionable.  Given the economically uncertain and troubled times though in which the people portrayed in the film lived though -- one which such high inflation that a meal for four people at a fancy restaurant could cost over 150,000 Yuan! -- their attempts to acquire wealth can be somewhat understandable, even if not laudable.  In addition, the characters played by the movie's charismatic leads are so charming that many of their actions actually end up making one smile, if not outright laugh -- and making it so that audience members can't begrudge them a happy ending against the odds!

My rating for this film: 7.5 

Bright Day (China, 1948)
- Part of the HKIFF's Li Lihua: Four Treasures Restored program
- Cao Yu, director and scriptwriter
- Starring: Shi Hui, Li Lihua

One year after playing the leads in Barber Takes a Wife, Shi Hui and Li Lihua appeared together in another Wenhua Film Company production.  Rather than play a pair of would-be lovers this time around though, they are cast as an uncle and his niece whom he and his wife have raised since she was five years old (presumably after the death of her biological parents, who are never mentioned in the movie)!  And at the helm of Bright Day is the legendary playwright, Cao Yu, whose sole foray into the world of cinema this was.

Considered a milestone of post-Second World War Chinese cinema, the film centers on a kind lawyer who can't help but interfere into the affairs of less fortunate folk, even if this involves pitting himself against powerful folks and outright thugs.  While this drama is pretty earnest, its hero is an easily likeable man with a frequent twinkle in his eye along with edible goodies to dispense to orphaned children and the like who helps to make sure that things aren't all dark and depressing -- even after his good friend, the director of an orphanage, is blackmailed into selling the orphanage and putting his charges along with himself in dire straits.

Set in China just one year before Chiang Kai Shek's Kuomintang regime were driven out by the Communists to Taiwan, Bright Day is another film where economic troubles looms large in people's lives.  Rather than accept that this means that the line between right and wrong inevitably gets blurred in such times, however, Cao Yu has made his stance clear: that is, that there recognizably is a difference between good and bad; and good can as well as should prevail and even triumph always, though it it's true enough that it can take quite a bit of an effort and long journey to accomplish it.    

Something else that is of little doubt is that Bright Day belongs to Shi Hui, an actor whose cinematic output I hope to be able to see much more now that I've been charmed by him on two consecutive evenings of HKIFF screenings.  And while Li Lihua is on screen for far less time than in most of the films I've seen her in (starting from The Fate of Lee Khan one evening in a New York City arthouse theater more than two decades ago), she does leave an impression playing a character is far more girly and conventional than the ones which made her a legend.

My rating for this film: 7.5   

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Two English-language offerings at the Hong Kong International Film Festival (Film reviews)

The image many HKIFF attendees see on screen 
while they wait for the movie to begin

- Part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival's Cinephile Paradise progam
- Barry Jenkins, director and scriptwriter
- Starring: Kiki Layne, Stephen James, Regina King

Director-scriptwriter Barry Jenkins entered into the consciousness of many cinephiles the world over in 2016 with his multiple Oscar winner, Moonlight.  I watched and liked that atmospheric coming-of-age tale of a young, black, gay man growing up in Miami -- not least because of its visual resemblances to more than one Wong Kar Wai movie that I love -- but I actually care more for this follow up offering.

Based on a 1974 novel by James Baldwin (another work of whom's Raul Peck's I Am Not Your Negro was adapted from),  If Beale Street Could Talk revolves around Clementine "Tish" Rivers (Kiki Layne), a young woman seeking -- with the support of her family, including her mother, Sharon (Regina King) -- to clear the name of her sculptor lover, Alonzo "Fonny" Hunt (Stephen James), after he is framed for the rape of another woman (Emily Rios).  A sad socio-political meditation cum lament on what it is to be black in white dominated America as well as a touching period romantic drama largely set in 1970s New York, the film is both emotionally moving and intellectually resonant.

With African American characters at its center and an African American auteur at its helm, it's easy to see why this movie could be characterized as meant for African American audiences.  At the same time though, my own sense is that there's much in it that individuals of other ethnicities can relate to (we are all human, after all).  Also, I'm not sure if it was intentional or just a reflection of real life that, in this film, there can be found characters of more than one ethnicity -- and it's worth noting that it's neither the case that only African Americans are the good guys and gals in this movie, nor that all African Americans in the offering are good people.

On an acting note: Although Regina King it was who was the film's sole honoree at this year's Academy Awards, If Beale Street Could Talk's heart and soul are its young leads.  To my mind, the performances of Kiki Layne and Stephen James overshadows all the others.  And, if truth be told, after seeing this movie, I also am inclined to conclude that Michelle Yeoh was robbed -- because her Crazy Rich Asians' character actually had a more important role to play in that film, and her portrayal of Eleanor Young also was more memorable as far as I'm concerned.

My rating for this film: 8.0 

Peterloo (UK, 2018)
- From the HKIFF's The Masters program 
- Mike Leigh, director and scriptwriter
- Starring: Rory Kinnear, Maxine Peake, Neil Bell, Pearce Quigley, Tim McInnerney, etc.

Receiving its world premiere (at last year's Venice International Film Festival) shortly after the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre that is its subject, Mike Leigh's historical epic begins on the battlefields of Waterloo with a bugler (Pearce Quigley) clearly battle-shocked amidst the carnage taking place around him.  In between that action scene and those of the massacre at Manchester's St Peter's Field that history tells us would occur four years later, there is much talk -- some of it fiery, much of it empty, and lots of it involving bombastic-sounding multi-syllabic words meant to impress more than actually mean something.

A 154-minute-long film with what can appear to be a cast of thousands, Peterloo is a far less intimate work than those I tend to associate with its director-scriptwriter and think are is his best products.  For one thing, it feels considerably more drawn-out than it should have been.  My sense too is that the veteran filmmaker struggled to emotionally connect with the audience even while he did manage to successfully weave together multiple sub-plots and -conversations that all boil down to a major show of terrible social inequality in 19th century England.  

It doesn't help matters either that so few of the characters in Peterloo are sympathetic or admirable.  To be sure, it makes sense that many an upper class individual -- from the clownish Prince Regent (Tim McInnerney) to self-important key ministers to callous local magistrates -- would come across as horribly despicable.  But it's also the case that only one of the oppresssed working class characters -- the mother (Maxine Peake) of the young bugler who featured in the first scene -- and the attention-seeking political reformers appeared to have the kind of mind that got me thinking that she was thinking in a mature way and speaking reason for much of the time.

Interestingly, rather than the climactic scene at St Peter's Field (which was filmed in too prosaic a way to feel visceral and induce serious shock), it's other, smaller, arguably more trivial ones in this offering that have more impact.  More specifically, I found the scene involving a women's political meeting to be the most insightful and telling with regards to overall proceedings.  In addition, there's a calm-before-the-storm scene involving three fiddlers making music on the moors that served as a valuable reminder that life is a precious thing, which is why the loss -- and taking away -- of it is no small matter.

My rating for the film: 6.5   

Monday, March 25, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating for this film: 5.5           

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating for the film: 6.5

Sunday, March 24, 2019

A Canadian documentary about humanity's wrongdoings and a Japanese drama infused with warm humanity (Film reviews)

Entertainment Expo/Hong Kong International Film Festival 
time in "Asia's World City"
- From the Hong Kong International Film Festival's Reality Bites program
- Jennifer Baichwal, Edward Burtynsky and Nicholas de Pencier, co-directors
- Alicia Vikander, narrator
Back in 2006, Jennifer Baichwal made a documentary film about master photograhper Edward Burtynsky travelling the world to observe and record the changes in landscapes that were the result of industrial work and manufacturing.  Seven years after Manufacturing Landscapes, Baichwal and Burtynsky co-directed Watermark, a visually astounding cinematic effort showing how water shapes humanity.  

For their latest documentary offering (which was shot on a wide range of locations in six out of the Earth's seven continents), Baichwal and Burtynsky are joined at the helm by Nicholas de Pencier, who also served as ANTHROPOCENE: The Human Epoch's cinematographer, producer and co-executive producer (with Burtynsky among others).  And I think the addition of a third director underlines this latest film's increased ambition as well as ensured a greater complexity and intellectual depth to its treatment of its subject: the indelible marks that modern humans have left on the face of a 4.5 billion-year-old planet despite having been around for just around 10,000 years or so.
Many of the ANTHROPOCENE: The Human Epoch's visuals are truly stunning and spectacular.  Some look like they came out of a science fiction movie (I think this particularly of the scenes with the excavators at the open pit coal mine in Hambach, Germany.)  Quite a few are aesthetically beautiful even while being intellectually disturbing (such as the results of potash mining in Russia).  But there also are absolutely heart-breaking images of a veritable hell on earth (notably the Dandora landfill in Kenya that's Africa's largest garbage dump which poor people and large wild birds spend time in trying to find things value amidst all the trash).      
The emotional impact of all these arresting visuals is undoubtedly strengthened when viewing them on a big screen, like I was able to.  But the intellectual messages of the film should be devastatingly clear even if you watched it on such as a small screen mounted on the seat of a plane: namely, that humans have done terrible things to our planet and it's high time we cared more for the Earth and, also, the dignity as well as fates of its inhabitants.

My rating for this film: 8.5
Our Departures (Japan, 2018)
- From the HKIFF's Fantastic Beats program 
- Yasujiro Yoshida, director and scriptwriter
- Starring: Kasumi Arimura, Ryusei Kiyama, Jun Kunimura 
Made 10 years after the similarly named Departures (which went on to win the 2009 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar), Our Departures is yet another Japanese movie about two people who move from the big city to more bucolic environs far away from Tokyo.  And like with many of his namesake Yasuijiro Ozu's films, Yasujiro Yoshida's latest offering possesses a mix of gentle humor and warm humanity that will give one a feeling that, even while life can never be all peaches and cream, there still actually is much that's right with a world in which people care for others.
After the death of a beloved family member, Akira Okuzuno (Kasumi Arimura) and Shunya Okuzuno (Ryusei Kiyama) journey from Tokyo to the Kagoshima home of Setsuo Okuzono (Jun Kunimura).  Setsuo is the 59-year-old widower father of Akira's late husband and Shunya's late father -- and while 25-year-old Akira and primary school age Shunya appear like mother and son, they actually aren't biological related (and Shunya's mother died shortly after giving birth to him).  
All this means that the trio make for an unconventional family unit after Akira and Shunya move into Setsuo's home.  Also unconventional is Akira's decision to become a train driver and conductor, like Setsuo, in order to please train-mad Shunya -- who, his grandfather is surprised to realize, inherited his love of trains from his father even though the father (Munetaka Aoki) had opted to become an illustrator rather than follow in Setsuo's footsteps and, because of certain life choices, had become enstranged years previously from the stern-looking patriarch.
Despite all this, it's also true enough that much of Our Departures doesn't depart that much from the many a convention established for heartwarming Japanese family dramas. At the same time though, every little twist and turn it makes seems just right and its director cum scriptwriter truly was able to move me in ways that made me come out of the screening of the film feeling thoroughly satisfied.  And while you don't have to be a train geek to enjoy the movie, I reckon your pleasure will be exponentially increased if you are a fan of the single or double carriage local trains that still are to be found plying routes in Japan along with the fast and sleek shinkansen. :) 

My rating for this film: 9.0

Thursday, March 21, 2019

"The Sisters Brothers" and "The Trial" at the Hong Kong International Film Festival (Film reviews)

Taking advantage of my not going to a HKIFF screening this evening
-- judging from there being zero sell-out screenings listed for today, 
like the majority of other Hong Kongers! ;(

The Sisters Brothers (France-Romania-USA-Spain, 2018)
- From the Hong Kong International Film Festival's Gala Presentation program
- Jacques Audiard, director and co-scriptwriter (along with Thomas Bidegain)
- Starring: John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed

As the end credits rolled at the Hong Kong International Film Festival screening of The Sisters Brothers that I attended, a significant percentage of the audience streamed out of the theater inspite a Q&A with this offering's director having been announced earlier that evening -- and I was among those who chose to do so.  This is not on account of my not having liked the film though.  Rather, it's because I felt like the work was so well made as to have zero loose ends and, consequently, anything I needed any explanations for and/or about!  (Also, the screening had already started later than scheduled as a result of "VIP"s giving speeches that film geeks like myself hadn't really cared for.)

He may hail from the other side of "the pond" and made few, if any, movies that would get people thinking that he'd be eminently suited to helm a film set in the wild, wild West of 19th century U.S.A. -- but Jacques Audiard (whose Deephan, Rust and Bones, and A Prophet I had previously viewed) looks to have taken like a duck to water to a cinematic genre hitherto best left to Hollywood filmmakers; one whose titular characters are a couple of notorious guns for hire (particularly, it seems, by a character known as The Commodore essayed by Rutger Hauer).

John C. Reilly may be the least famous and handsome of the offering's quartet of main stars but his character is the moral anchor of this film; this even though Eli Sisters and his more charismatic -- but also more emotionally unstable -- brother Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) kill people for a living, and sometimes torture folks to extract the required information too.  A good part of The Sisters Brothers involves them being assigned to get hold of -- with the help of a private detective by the name of John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) -- and torture, if needed, a gold prospector named Hermitt Kerman Warm (Riz Ahmed) with a secret formula in his head and utopian dreams besides.   

The usual elements one associates with classic Westerns -- including hardened frontier men and hard-ridden horses, frontier boom towns with their bars serving whisky and full of prostitutes, and miles and miles of territory that's both scenic and rugged -- can be found in The Sisters Brothers.  So too are a dramatically involving story that explains how essentially good men can go down bad roads, a morality tale in which greed gets punished, and emotionally compelling tales of fraternity between biologically unrelated men as well as actual brothers.  

Those who tastes run towards the more conventional may find The Sisters Brothers too quirky for their tastes.  For my part, I love that this revisionist Western often plays with and defies conventions even while tipping its hat to many of the genre's tropes -- and infuses its story and main characters with a rare humanity that makes them sympathetic and even ones you might wish to root for against the odds.  

My rating for this film: 8.5 

The Trial (The Netherlands, 2018)
- From the HKIFF's Masters & Auteurs program
- Sergey Loznitsa, director
Born in what's now Belarus when the USSR still existed, Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa has drawn on Soviet-era Russian archival footage to make a number of films.  For his latest documentary work, he found and made use of unique footage of an 11-day Stalin-era show trial that was shot from beginning to end with sound.  

Editing the footage of the so-called 1930 Industry Party Trial down to approximately down to the length of a regular feature film, Loznitsa sought to give his offering's audience "a chance to spend two hours in the USSR in 1930"; withholding any commentary on his part until very close to the end (and even then, this just involves providing details in a stark manner of the fates of the key men involved in this show trial that actually was far more show than trial).  I guess he felt that what he sought to show would be able to stand on its own and prove revealing, even revelatory, to its audience. 

Especially for those who aren't particularly well versed in the workings of the Soviet Union circa 1930, The Trial presents lots of surprises as well as arcane details that actually can perplex far more than inform.  For one thing, it seemed strange that there was a trial held at all since everyone of the eight accused men -- all of them trained engineers and/or university professors -- readily pleaded guilty in court to what they had been charged with: sabotaging Soviet industrial development and plotting against the country's government.  And this even though, it is made pretty clear soon enough, the state prosecutor -- and the people, represented by nightly mobs, assembled even during snowy conditions -- were demanding that every one of the men -- who ranged in age from 39 to 66 years -- be given the death penalty.

The fact that the overall tone of the proceedings was bureaucratic rather than emotional, never mind histrionic, in nature also wasn't something I entirely expected; again, because we were after all dealing with life or death situations.  In retrospect though, I guess it was this way since the accused, the prosecutors and the appointed court officials  -- were all putting a show for the assembled audience of in the iconic Column Hall in Moscow that had a seating capacity of over a thousand. 

On a not unrelated note: throughout much of the exhaustive -- if not exhausting -- proceedings, there are signs that all is not as they seemed.  Some of these signs are so obvious that they could prompt laughter in other circumstances.  The tragedy though is that what is captured in The Trial, however farcical, actually had grave consequences and turned out to be the precursor for a number of show trials staged in the years thereafter.

My rating for the film: 6.0        

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Bodies at Rest gets the 43rd Hong Kong International Film Festival off to an action-packed start (Film review)

The director and Hong Kong-based actors before the screening of 
the 43rd Hong Kong International Film Festival's Opening Film

Renny Harlin, Nick Cheung and Richie Jen at 
the world premiere of Bodies at Rest

Bodies at Rest (Hong Kong-Mainland China, 2019)
- From the Hong Kong International Film Festival's Gala Presentation program
- Renny Harlin, director
- Starring: Nick Cheung, Richie Jen, Yang Zi, Feng Jiayi, Carlos Chan

After going without a local Opening Film last year, the 43rd edition of the Hong Kong International Film Festival revived the tradition of having a film with Hong Kong representation open the fest; albeit one, in this case, that's a co-production with Mainland China and has as its helmer a Finnish director best known for his Hollywood hits like Die Hard 2 (1990) and The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996).  These days though, Renny Harlin divides his time between Beijing and Hong Kong -- and while there are Hollywood-ish notes in his latest offering, Bodies at Rest also brings to mind Hong Kong actioners from the last decades of the past century (and rivals Jackie Chan's Police Story (1985) in terms of the amount of glass shattered in its action scenes!).

Before the screening last night at which I was present, co-star Richie Jen promised the assembled audience that they would be watching a super fight-packed movie.  And although Bodies at Rest begins in a quiet morgue with far more dead bodies in it than live ones, forensic pathologist Nick Chan (Nick Cheung), intern Lynn (Yang Zi) and security guard Uncle King (Ma Shuliang) soon find their Christmas Eve graveyard shift being filled with far more excitement, chaos, major trouble and action than they could have ever anticipated.

On that dark and stormy -- black rain, in fact! -- night, three masked men go into the facility to demand access to a body of a young woman with a bullet in her whose identification will put them in grave danger.  They may wear Yuletide-themed masks and refer to themselves as Santa (Richie Jen), Rudolf (Feng Jiayi) and Elf (Carlos Chan) but they are armed and definitely not in the mood to dispense seasonal cheer and goodwill.

Especially after Uncle King's attempt at a joke results in his getting a bullet in the head, Nick and Lynn realize that their lives are very much in danger.  Appreciating too that the item sought by the villains represents a chip with which to bargain for their safety, the two of them try their damnest to ensure that it doesn't fall into hands of their trio of antagonists even if they can't escape themselves.

Clocking in at a lean 94 minutes in total length, Bodies at Rest feels like it's missing at least one key explanatory scene that would help its audience understand how the film's forensic expert lead character could also be the masterful detective his actions show him to be as the story unfolds.  This eventful actioner also is one of those movies whose viewers have to believe that apparently regular humans are able to function pretty well after looking to have been pretty badly beaten up and painfully injured.    

Even while my brain was registering that the film contains a number of illogical elements though, I could feel adrenaline rushing through me in a thoroughly enjoyable way for much of the screening.  Renny Harlin's direction in spot on with regards to such as pacing, action director Sam Wong staged some seriously exciting scenes and cinematographer Anthony Pun captured much of the action really well.  The cast also helped to suitably entertain by proving able at pulling off both the dramatic and action demands of their characters; with established stars Nick Cheung and Richie Jen being very on their game while Yang Zi proved to be quite the revelation in her role as a gutsy damsel able to take and also dispense a surprising amount of knocks and setbacks.   

My rating for this film: 8.0    

Monday, March 18, 2019

Scenic views from four Phuket viewpoints (Photo-essay)

In addition to the cave temple at Suwan Kuha and a couple of local museums, my alternative (to beaches and spas) list of places I liked to visit in Phuket (and nearby environs) was one of the scenic viewpoints to be found on the Thai island.  As it turned out, I ended up getting up to four of them in the same afternoon -- ranging from a lookout over Phuket town to another at the southern tip of the island and two that offered up vistas of beaches on the western side of Thailand's largest island... ;b

Viewing platform and mainly urban vista at Khao Rang

Puppet Ponyo found conditions on the windy side at Promthep Cape
View of the most southern part of Phuket and 
a couple of smaller neighboring islands
Another view from Promthep Cape
Puppet Ponyo also posed for the camera at Windmill Viewpoint :)
View from Windmill Viewpoint of Promthep Cape and
a nearby island and beach minus Puppet Ponyo ;b
Call me jaded but I couldn't help but compare this view from 
and thinking that the latter's far more impressive ;S

Add in some sunshine on the water though and 
the view from pretty much anywhere will be magical :)

Sunday, March 17, 2019

One bona fide museum and two historical homes in Phuket Old Town

A historical museum housed in a former school building

Two-paneled painting in the museum depicting ethnic Chinese residents 
on the left and Peranakan Chinese denizens on the right

The Chinpracha House in Phuket Old Town
A couple of weeks before our Phuket trip, my mother asked me to send her a list of places I wanted to visit on the Thai island that she'd send along to her Thai cousin who would be in Phuket when we were there.  In addition to the cave temple of Suwan Kuha, other cultural attractions I relayed my interest in checking out were the Phuket Mining Museum and the Peranakan Phuket Museum.  
But because they're appear to be located fairly out of the way (or, at the very least, not in Phuket Old Town, where my aunt has her house), we ended going to neither of them.  Instead, she took me to visit a museum housed in her old school (while my mother waited in the car because she can be quite the museumphobe and refused to pay the 200 Baht (~HK$49.50 or US$6.31) fee for foreigners)!
For myself, one glance at the building which houses the Phuket Thai Hua Museum and I was pretty much sold.  Among other things: it is aesthetically pleasing, looks to have been well maintained/restored and was fairly substantial in size.  And as it turned out, this museum which provides information on the Chinese community of Phuket (which included immigrants from what's now Fujian, Guangdong and Hainan provinces over in Mainland China, and also ethnic Chinese immigrants who moved from Penang) along with the school previously housed in this location -- which was the first Chinese medium school on the island -- also contained a good number of interesting exhibits that kept me happily occupied for around an hour. 
After getting confirmation that I was indeed interested in historical and cultural stuff, my aunt then took our party to an old row house nearby that belonged to her late husband's family.  There we met with a few members of the family who still reside in the house but have opened up the lower floor of the house to visitors for a fee but nicely let us in free of charge.  
Given how much the outside of the building looked like the row houses to be found in Penang, I didn't find it all that surprising to discover that their internal spaces resembled those of such as the old George Town, Penang, row house that's now home to a Dr Sun Yat Sen Museum.  Those who aren't as familiar with buildings like these will probably find them more picturesque than me, I'm sure.  For my part though, it was more fun to look at old family photos there than the old furniture and such arrayed around the place.
The third and final cultural site I ended up exploring in Phuket Old Town was another ethnic Chinese abode, albeit one that was quite a bit more spacious.  Erected in 1919, the Chinpracha House was Phuket's first mansion built in the Sino-Portuguese style.  Like with my relative's relatives' row house, its upstairs area is still home to members of the family that owns the place while its lower floor has been turned into a cultural museum of sorts that's well described on a Phuket-based website as "something halfway between a museum and a collection of personal items gathered along time".
If truth be told, I enjoyed my visit to it less because I got much information there but because I found the mansion to have a certain aesthetic charm.  More precisely, its main area has been beautifully restored and I thought the lotus pond within is a really nice touch, not least since there are nice reflections to be captured on its surface.  And while some of the other sections of the house do have rundown feel, the decaying look seems to work well, and be appropriate, for this place whose owners appear pretty aware that their family's glory days are in the past but the historical connections they have are still of some value today.   

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Mystery meat and places of worship in Phang Nga and Phuket

Thai satay lunch for two at Phang Nga
The first full day of my recent Thailand trip was full of mystery.  It's not just that Phang Nga's Suwan Kuha (caves and cave temple) turned out to somewhat different from what I imagined.  (As an example: for some reason, I had thought the there would be an opening that led to the sea -- but there wasn't!)  Rather, it was also due to the fact that the fellow driving me around for much of the day -- a relative of a Thai relative -- turned out to have far more limited English proficiency than my aunt had thought was the case.
Before I got into the car, I knew that he would be taking me to Suwan Kuha and also that we would be having a Thai satay lunch in Phang Nga (since, my aunt told me, the town's famous for that particular dish).  However, when we got to the eatery where we'd be partaking of Phang Nga's culinary speciality, my host for much of the day was unable to tell me what animal's meat and intestines I would be having on skewers for lunch with the happily easily identifiable whole shrimp!
Looking at its color, I figured it couldn't be beef (which usually ends up darker looking) and guessed that it was chicken.  Having already tried skewers of wild boar bacon and venison in Takayama last fall, I figured I should just trust my host's taste and assume that the marinated mystery meat would be delicious.  Thankfully, it was indeed actually very much to my liking along with the similarly marinated intestines satay from the same animal (which I later found out from my aunt was pig) -- and, in fact, I liked both the pork and pig intestine skewers I had for lunch more than the shrimp! 
My host cum car driver also decided to make two other stops before we got back to my hotel at Surin Beach.  At the first, I thought, upon spying a public toilet, that he wanted to use those facilities.  But it turned out that he wanted to say some prayers at Lak Muang, the (locally) famous shrine dedicated to the diety of Phang Nga province (whose details I only found out in bits and bobs later, including post Googling a few minutes ago)!
After crossing the Surasin Bridge back into Phuket, we made a stop at a Buddhist temple in Thalang that looked to be pretty well regarded by locals as well as maintained but I'm guessing isn't actually a major tourist attraction (though I've seen a few websites suggest otherwise) since English language signs and explanatory information was pretty thin on the ground.  Home to Luang Pho Phra Phut ("the Buddha that emerges from the ground"), Wat Phra Thong was built around a gold Buddha figure that, legend has it, was discovered after by a boy who tied his buffalo to a pole that turned out to be set atop a buried Buddha image -- and can never be fully dug out of the ground since everyone who has tried to do so has met with untimely deaths!
Again, my host for the day's reason for stopping at the temple involved his wanting to pray there.  I think he also thought, after I had requested to go visit the cave temple at Suwan Kuha that I was a religious Buddhist and/or had a particular interest in religious sites.  Mulling this whole matter further, something I found interesting amidst it all is that he deigned to go into the cave temple and was instead content to wait for me outside of it.  Perhaps it's because Wat Suwan Kuha is more tourist attraction than a bona fide place of worship unlike those two others he opted to stop at; with evidence for this being the case including that you have to pay to enter the caves but not Lak Muang and Wat Phra Thong.     

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Religion and nature at Phang Nga's Suwan Kuha (Photo-essay)

Shortly after I agreed to go to Phuket for a reason that didn't involve tourism, I went ahead and did some research about what are its attractions since I figured that I'd have some leisure time to check out some sights on my trip.  Upon discovering that they appear to mainly revolve around sun, sea, sand and spas, I freaked out a bit since sunbathing, swimming and spa-related activities are so not my kind of thing!

Before I actually got to the Thai resort island though, I had managed to come up with an alternative list of places to check out in the area -- and neighboring areas.  For, as it turned out, the very first attraction I ended up visiting on this most recent Thai trip (and the first to Phuket) ended up being the Suwan Kuha caves -- one of which houses a Buddhist temple a la the cave temples I visited a couple years ago in Ipoh -- over in neighboring Phang Nga province...

 Cave and temple entrance at the 
limestone hill known as Suwan Kuha

 Buddhas abound in main cave that's home to Wat Suwan Kuha

One of the more sacred sections of the cave,
 which one can only get to upon removing your footwear

Cave wall with inscriptions commemorating royal visits
Cave wall with grafitti despite a sign posted next to it 
asking visitors to not write anything on the rock surfaces :(
I initially thought the figure was as alive 
as the dog in the same picture! :O
The deepest and darkest cave was the one
I actually found to the most intriguing
View from close to the highest as well as deepest section 
of the cave system that visitors were allowed access to