Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Not in a celebratory mood on Malaysia's Merdeka Day thanks to my memories of what happened in Hong Kong on August 31st, 2019

What Malaysians call bunga raya
Every once in a while (still), the Malaysian part of me comes to the fore.  As an example, when I see the flower known in English as hibiscus, the Malay word for it (bunga raya) immediately comes to mind. (Incidentally, it didn't occur to me until I visited Hawaii back when I was a teenager that bunga raya/hibiscus grew elsewhere besides Malaysia!)
And I am totally aware that today is Malaysia's Merdeka Day, the anniversary of Malaya gaining independence from Britain (though it wasn't until 16th September, 1963 that Malaya joined with Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore to become Malaysia).  But, unlike many other Malaysians, August 31st doesn't find me in a celebratory mood: Because, like other people who live in Hong Kong, I remain traumatized by what happened at Prince Edward MTR station on the night of August 31st, 2019: specifically, the police going in there and attacking defenceless civilians (some but not all of whom may have been pro-democracy protestors who had taken part earlier in the day in the same protest march that I had).
With the MTR and police not deigning to produce the full videos of what happened inside the MTR station that evening, we will never know what truly happened inside of it.  For instance, were there any deaths in there? We do not know for certain.   But there have been any videos and live streams shot in there by civilians/regular Hong Kongers to know that terrible things did happen in there. 
Which is why I have been loathe to take the MTR ever since -- to boycott it but also because taking it is something I find scary now because of the memories embedded into me via those videos and live streams that terrible night.  This is on top of not wanting to forgive the police for what their crimes, especially since none of them have ever been penalised for what they did to ordinary people that night and on so many other occasions in 2019. 
Also, morbid but true: when I see red hibiscus now, this Malaysian living in Hong Kong (who often really does feel more Hong Konger than Malaysian) thinks not only of Malaysia's Merdeka Day but the blood shed in Hong Kong's Prince Edward MTR station three Merdeka Days ago.  I wish it weren't the case.  But there it is. 

"Do not forget", I've seen some Hong Kongers implore others today.  For others, I think it's (more) a case of being unable to forget.  Even if they want to.  Because what happened is seared into the memories of those of us who were unable to tear our eyes and attention from those live streams out of Prince Edward MTR station and its vicinity on the night of August 31st, 2019.  And justice for those who were attacked on the night has by no means been served.

Monday, August 29, 2022

To My Nineteen-Year-Old Self at the Hong Kong International Film Festival (film review)

Before the film began...
Director Mabel Cheung (at far right) and other people involved 
in the making of To My Nineteen-Year-Old Self
- Part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival's Galas program
- Mabel Cheung, director 
Back in 1998, Mabel Cheung co-scripted (with partner Alex Law) and directed a film that was based on her (and Law's) shared history of University of Hong Kong (HKU) students.  The decision to make City of Glass was sparked by news that the university's women dormitory Lady Ho Tung Hall -- which Mabel Cheung had been a resident -- would be demolished and rebuilt.  
Close to 15 years later, sparked by the news that the secondary school she had attended was going to demolish its century old Mid-Levels campus, Mabel Cheung decided to make a film about this other one of her alma maters.  But while City of Glass was a nostalgic romantic drama viewed through rose tinged glasses, To My Nineteen-Year-Old Self is a documentary effort that comes across as clear-eyed, and all the better for it.   
Spanning a period of 10 years, it follows a group of young Ying Wa Girls' School pupils from when they are Secondary 1 students in 2011 all the way up to their graduation and beyond.  And while all of these members of a historically high academic achieving educational institution do make it to university (where they presumably still all currently remain in 2022), their paths there were not without bumps in the road and they actually are a diverse -- and thus interesting -- lot personality-wise.        
With regards to the bumps in the road: some of them are personal; others are generational.  After the screening of the film, a friend of mine confided to me that she felt sorry for the girls (and their generation of Hong Kongers in general).  As my friend put it: secondary/high school should be among the best years of one's life but these girls' time as secondary school students coincided with the Moral and National Education controversy of 2012, the "Occupy" phase of the Umbrella Movement in 2014 and the extradition bill protests of 2019; all of which are impossible for Hong Kongers to ignore.  
Even one year before the Moral and National Education controversy occurred, I am sure that Mabel Cheung had little inkling this all would erupt when she was filming a documentary about secondary school students.  I'm sure too that she didn't think the period between 2011 and 2021 would be so eventful -- turbulent even -- in Hong Kong, and been able to forecast such as the tilt towards "localism" in Hong Kong politics in this period, and the horror and anger that has come to be felt against the police force that used to justifiably call themselves "Asia's finest" (but no more).  

Otherwise, I think that she might/would have shied away from having a number of the girls whose trials and tribulations would be recorded on film be Mainland Chinese emigrants and one of them actually aspire all through her secondary school years to become a police officer!  But, actually (of course!), To My Nineteen-Year-Old Self benefits from having these individuals in the mix along with Hong Kong-born girls who, on their own, ranged quite a bit in personality and included a couple of student leader types, a "jock" (who went on to represent Hong Kong in various bicycle races even while at secondary school) and a rebel who dropped out of school for a bit but, nonetheless, ended up at HKU (in the footsteps of Mabel Cheung)!
To My Nineteen-Year-Old Self is clearly a labour of love for its director, who's revealed that she largely financed the project herself.  And in many ways, it's a tribute to her beloved old school: whose principals, both the current -- and first male in the position -- Francis Kwan but, especially his predecessor, Ruth Lee, come across as wonderfully caring educators; and whose ethos is admirable indeed, particularly since it appears to be directed at producing good human beings, not just academic achievers.

It's also a very watchable documentary; in large part because its subjects do come across as three dimensional humans, and interesting personalities whose development and coming of age we are privy to via To My Nineteen-Year-Old-Self!  There's little doubt that Mabel Cheung benefited from getting uncommon access to film them -- at school, in their homes and also elsewhere.  But she got this because she was trusted, not just because the girls were ordered to open up to her.*  All in all, I think they recognized that she meant well for them as well as the school as a whole.  And we, the audience, are the beneficiaries of that.  

"Time is precious, treasure every minute of it", is the school's motto.  And here's stating for the record that I value every one of the 136 minutes of To My Nineteen-Year-Old Self; and, like a number of audience members stated at the post-screening Q&A session I attended, I think it would be very interesting indeed if Mabel Cheung were to make a follow-up documentary following the now young women as they go about the next 10 years of their lives! :)
My rating for this film: 8 
*Update: sadly, it now is far less clear that this was indeed the case.  Some six months after I viewed the film and wrote my review of it, To My Nineteen-Year-Old-Self was pulled from cinemas within days of the start of its local theatrical run "after one of the girls [who appeared in it] said she had “opposed [the film] being screened in public in any form from the very beginning” in a letter published by Ming Pao Weekly" and other people who appeared in the film also voiced their objections.

Saturday, August 27, 2022

The Fish Tale turns Sakana-kun's autobiography into a beautifully whimsical movie (Film review)

The kind of sight that the protagonist of The Fish Tale would love :)
The Fish Tale (Japan, 2022)
- Part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival's Fantastic Beats program
- Shuichi Okita, director and co-scriptwriter (with Shiro Maeda)
- Starring: Non, Yuya Yugira, Kaho, Haruka Ikagawa, Sakana-kun
Back in 2018, I viewed a film by Shuichi Okita about an eccentric artist who scarcely ventured beyond his house and home for the last two decades of his life.  Although Mori, the Artist's Habitat can seem on the fanciful side, it appears that its director was largely faithful to the facts when telling the story of Morikazu Kumagai.  But when it came to adapting the autobiography of celebrity ichthyologist Sakana-kun (Mr Fish) into a movie, it appears that Okita opted for a much more imaginative approach.    
How else to account for The Fish Tale's protagonist being identifiably male (by way of his wearing a uniform that marked him out as a schoolboy rather than schoolgirl) but be played by females (notably, as a young adult, by the long-haired, slender-bodied actress who goes by just one name: Non)?  (By the way, it's interesting to see the confusion this causes -- with different reviewers of the film referring to its lead character as male and others female!) 
Okita's non-binary emphasis also can be gleaned from the first line that appears in this offering: "A girl or a boy, it doesn’t matter".  How's that for a clear statement of intent that The Fish Tale is not going to be a conventional film?!  Something else that points to the movie opting for a creative approach: although Sakana-kun's real name is Masayuki Miyazawa, the film's main character gets referred throughout it as Meebo (which, from what I can tell, is also actually a made-up name!).  
Still, to judge from Sakana-kun deigning to appear in the movie as -- what else? -- an eccentric fish enthusiast who the young Meebo meets and inspires her to want to grow up to become a "fish expert", this approach appears to have his stamp of approval.  And I must say that it has mine too because The Fish Tale really is a lovely, sweet and heartwarming as well as enjoyably whimsical film which planted a smile on my face as well as had me shedding tears of joy!  
Plot-wise The Fish Tale is fairly predictable: with the coming of age tale spending some time showing Meebo as an unconventional young child, then a free spirited high schooler, then a sweet odd ball of a young adult.  What can be interesting though are some of the omissions: e.g., at some point, the family of four that Meebo of becomes a household of two -- with Meebo and his mother, Michiko (Haruka Igawa), living apart from his father and brother -- before Meebo strikes out on his own.  
Adding color and extra dimensionality to Meebo and his story are the friends he makes, including Momoko (played both as a high schooler and young adult by Kaho) and Hiyo (played as a high school tough and respectable adult by Yuya Yagira), who -- like his mother -- accept Meebo's many quirks, including, of course his obsession with marine life (because, actually, Meebo loves octopi and squid as well as fish).  Also, truly, there are a lot of delightful details in what's essentially a story of someone who could have been a shunned fish out of water but, by being showered with support and love, becomes -- okay, mixed metaphors here but bear with me here! -- more swan than ugly duckling!   
One last quirk to point out in this review about this film: Meebo loves to look at, sketch and paint marine life but also to EAT it.  This might strike those unfamiliar with the Japanese as particularly strange.  But as a joke goes: when you go to Japanese aquariums, you will hear people "ooh-ing" and "aah-ing" about how beautiful, cool and cute the sea life is but you also are very likely to hear the word oishi (delicious) being uttered as well as kawaii (cute) and sugoi (amazing)!  So, in some ways, The Fish Tale might seem like it is depicting a fantasy world but, in others, it's actually very Japanese!
My rating for this film: 8   

Thursday, August 25, 2022

Two films from very different worlds viewed at the 2022 Hong Kong International Film Festival! (Film reviews)

Advertising for the 2022 Hong Kong International Film Festival
Klondike (Ukraine-Turkey, 2022)
- Part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival's Young Cinema Competition (World) program
- Maryna Er Gorbach, director, scriptwriter and editor 
- Starring: Oksana Cherkashyna, Serhi Shadrin, Oleh Shevchuk
There was a Q&A with Klondike's director, scriptwriter and editor, Maryna Er Gorbach, after the screening of the film I attended.  If not for it being close to midnight at that point (and my not going to get home after well after midnight that evening as a result), I would have stayed and tried to get in a few questions such as: What's the meaning of the film's title? (Since this Ukrainian-Turkish co-production doesn't take place anywhere near any Klondike I know -- all of which are located in North America); and what's the point for including the real life crash of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in the picture besides locating the proceedings in the Donetsk region of Eastern Ukraine in the summer of 2014?  (This since I could totally envision this film's story working fine without it.)
I'd also have liked to have known if Gorbach had envisioned Klondike to be a straight drama or very dark, absurdist comedy.  If it was the latter, this would better explain the often strange behavior and perspectives of the film's main characters -- a 7-month pregnant countrywoman named Irka (played by Oksana Cherkashyna) who can seem far more obsessed with the state of a baby stroller or sofa than her and her loved ones' physical welfare and safety, and her husband Tolik (portrayed by the late Serhi Shadrin), whose fixation for getting his car back from a separatist friend again seems to surpass his own physical safety and well-being.  
The thing though is that there were hardly any laughs to be heard throughout the screening I attended.  Maybe other viewers half a planet away from the world depicted in Klondike found the film's characters and story hard to read too.  Or maybe we were correct in that it meant to be a dramatic work -- in which case what unfolds in the film is absolutely chilling to behold: namely, residents of a wartorn part of the world who look to have become numbed by violence and try to continue living regular, ordinary lives but absolutely can't because what is happening to their country and world is so very tragic and terrible.
Even before MH 17 got blown up in the sky above them (by, it is implied, comrades of the friend who "borrowed" Tolik's car that fateful day), Irka and Tolik already saw the front wall of their house destroyed by a stray mortar.  Yet, as in the following days, they continue doing such as preparing food, eating, sleeping and watching TV in their house despite the gaping large hole that exists in it.  Though they try to think otherwise, you just know that this can't go on forever though.  Even so, the last sections of Klondike really offer up a number of shocks that left this (re)viewer further unpleasantly shaken by, and uneasy about, it all.      

My rating for this film: 6.0
Love Letter (Japan, 1953) 
- Part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival's Portraits of Women -- A Tribute to Tanaka Kinuyo program 
- Kinuyo Tanaka, director
- Starring: Masayuki Mori, Juzo Dozan, Jukichi Uno, Yoshiko Kuga
Eleven years ago, I viewed a much loved Japanese film entitled Love Letter (in English) at the 2011 Hong Kong International Film Festival.  Like that Shunji Iwai work, Kinuyo Tanaka's decades older Love Letter also hails from Japan but it's quite different in tone and subject matter (though it's true enough that both of these films do feature actual physical love letters!).
The first directorial effort of only the second filmmaker in Japanese cinematic history was originally released in 1953 but its story takes place three years earlier, in a Japan that's recovering from World War II but with people who bear psychological scars from the war and early post-occupation years.  Navy veteran and former prisoner of war Reikichi Mayumi (Masayuki Mori) now lives in Tokyo with his younger brother, Hiroshi (Juzo Dozan) -- the latter of whom one gets the impression was too young to be enlisted into any of the branches of the military and thus was spared going to war, resulting in his having a sunnier and more optimistic as well as energetic demeanor and personality than his elder brother.
Finding it harder than the entrepeneurial-minded Hiroshi to find a job and get on with his life, Reikichi does perk up some after a chance encounter with a former naval academy classmate.  Having parlayed the English language translation skills he acquired at the academy (along with knowledge of the French language) into an unconventional business, Naoto (Jukichi Uno) enlists Reikichi to help him... write English language love letters for Japanese women whose lovers have returned home to the West (but still, after some pleading and cajoling by way of those epistles, provide some financial aid to them)!
Naoto also tells Reikichi that, when doing this, he finds himself becoming more sympathetic to the lot of his clients but it's clear that Reikichi continues to look at them as fallen, sinful women even while turning out to be pretty good at writing love letters for them all the same.  Even when his childhood sweetheart (Yoshiko Kuga) turns out to be one of these women, Reikichi is intent on remaining on his moral high horse; and only begins to get to thinking again after Naoto reads him the kind of lecture which Japanese people are often accused of not doing.  Frankly, it's a real doozy -- and perhaps more than any other dialogue, reminds the viewer that Love Letter's script is by the great Keisuke Kinoshita

My rating for this film: 7.5

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

A documentary about volcanologists and a drama revolving around a teenaged gymnast at the 2022 Hong Kong International Film Festival (Film reviews)

The very existence of the Hong Kong International Film Festival 
helps to make Hong Kong feel like Asia's World City ;b
Fire of Love (Canada-U.S.A., 2022) 
- Part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival's Reality Bites program
- Sarah Dosa, director 
At the Hong Kong International Film Festival four years ago, I viewed Werner Herzog's volcano documentary, Into the Inferno. Among the volcanologists featured in it were a French couple, Katia and Maurice Krafft who, among other things, were famed for often getting closer to active volcanoes than most others along with their amazing photographs and film footage of the subjects that they were not just passionate but actually damn near obsessive about.
Fire of Love tells their story, with the help of footage they shot -- much of it impressive and mesmerizing -- and interviews they conducted with a number of other people.  And although the Hong Kong International Film Festival program booklet doesn't inform people about this, Sarah Dosa's documentary notes early on that this also a story about a couple who are no longer with us: specifically, Katia and Maurice Krafft lost their lives while filming eruptions at Mount Unzen in Japan in 1991.
But rather than dwell on their deaths and turn them into a cautionary tale about daredevils who diced too frequently with death, Fire of Love celebrates their love for each other along with their shared love for volcanoes.  It also gives added dimension to the appreciation of their individual personalities and work by pointing out their differences: such as Katia being a detail-oriented biochemist who brought the micro into focus whereas Maurice the geologist tended to be more expansive and, between the two of them, the more willing to take risks.

For the most part, I really only have one major complaint about this documentary -- and I realize that in the grand scheme of things, it really shouldn't be that big a deal.  The fact of the matter though is that I really would have preferred that Fire of Love had a different narrator besides Miranda July because hers is the kind of voice that is on the soporific side.  Consequently, despite the screening I attended for this film being in the mid afternoon, I found myself feeling like I was being lulled to sleep on a few occasions during the 93 minute offering!  And I also can't help but wonder if, with a brighter sounding narrator, this documentary effort would have felt less workmanlike and more, well, exciting and inspiring.
My rating for the film: 6.0
Olga (Switzerland-France-Ukraine, 2021)
- Part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival's Global Vision program
- Elie Grappe, director and co-scriptwriter (with Raphaelle Desplechin)
- Starring:  Anastasiia Budiashkina, Sabrina Rubtsova, Tanya Mikhina
The titular heroine of this dramatic offering is a 15 year old gymnast (played by Anastasiia Budiashkina) obsessed with her sport and her ambition to compete in the European Championships.  Despite the best efforts of her journalist mother, Ilona (portrayed by Tanya Mikhina), she's as apolitical as you'd imagine a regular sports obsessed teenager to be.  But, what with their being Ukrainians, politics is not something that they can ignore -- with it introducing into their personal lives and the personal and the political ending up being interwoven and well nigh inseparable.  
After an attempt is made on Ilona's life that also puts her beloved daughter's life in danger, Ilona sends Olga away to safety in the form of Switzerland, the home country of her father, who died when she was young (and whose father -- Olga's grandfather -- has not forgiven Ilona for this happening).  There, Olga signs away her Ukrainian citizenship and officially becomes Swiss.  She also joins the Swiss national gymnastics team but, even while she may act like she is above all a gymnast, the ties to Ukraine stay strong -- and not just because of Ilona either.   
While Olga is in Switzerland, the Maidan Revolution (about which there's a powerful film, Winter on Fire) breaks out. Ilona gets caught up in it; and so, too, does Olga's best friend and captain of the Ukrainian women's gymnastics team, Sasha (Sabrina Rubtsova).  And while Olga is a fictional work, director Elia Grappe incorporated real life footage of the Maidan Revolution, including ones showing violent attacks by the authorities on the protestors and journalists present there to jam home what Ukranians have been fighting for, and have been doing for a number of years now. 
Those scenes which take place in Ukraine are painful to view but no less agonizing are those involving Olga in Switzerland.  The loneliness of the exile and the difficulties trying to incorporate into another society (even one where one can speak at least one of its native languages, albeit not like a native) are shown very clearly and well.  Ditto the yearning to go home and join the fight even while others implore you not to do so.  Also, do not underestimate the excruciating frustration of having one's country's struggles being dismissed by foreigners who think they know what's actually going on and better.  This perhaps particularly so if those foreigners also happen to be older relatives.
On a personal note: I wonder if I'd have been less sympathetic and understanding of Olga's outwardly stoic character and behavior before June 2019.  Now I see Olga and recognize that a number of its characters exhibited signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); a condition that many Hong Kongers and Ukranians  sadly know all too well.   
My rating for this film: 7.0 

Sunday, August 21, 2022

Two European offerings at the Hong Kong International Film Festival which got an 8 (out of 10) rating from moi! :)

At one of the screening venues for this year's 
Hong Kong International Film Festival
Everything Went Fine (France, 2021)
- Part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival's Cinephile Paradise progam
- Francois Ozon, dir.
- Starring: Sophie Marceau, Andrew Dussolier, Geraldine Pailhas, Charlotte Rampling
I wonder how many films there are out there that have a major character seeking to peacefully end their lives via assisted suicide?  In any case, I've now not viewed not just one but two: Canada's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar-winning The Barbarian Invasions (2003) close to two decades back; and now veteran French filmmaker Francois Ozon's Everything Went Fine (2021).  And both of them have been quite different, including in tone (with Ozon's film being darker in mood, though not as depressing as one might expect), but eminently watchable.   
Based on an autobiographical novel by the late Emmanuele Bernheim (who wrote the screenplays for Ozon's The Swimming Pool and 5x2), Everything Went Fine stars Sophie Marceau as a character named Emmanuele Bernheim who's a writer and the daughter of a wealthy art collector, André Bernheim (played by Andrew Dussolier) and former sculptor Claude (Charlotte Rampling).  The first time we see her father, he's in a hospital after suffering from a stroke.  Although André initially looks like he could at death's door, he in fact isn't and recovers sufficiently to be able to do such as attend his beloved grandson's clarinet recital and enjoy a luxurious meal at his favorite restaurant.  And yet, he is extremely dissatisfied with his well being and tells Emmanuele that he wants her to help him bring his life to an end.    
Tellingly, André does not make this demand of his other, presumably younger -- but not by that many years -- daughter, Pascale (Geraldine Pailhas).  He also doesn't bother to do so with regards his wife Claude, who has been suffering from depression for far longer than he's been upset with the way things have turned out in his life.  With parents like that, one might think that Emmanuele and Pascale would be pretty messed up individuals.  But, actually, they are not -- and from both these two women, one can see much humanity, and the kind of love for others that involves care, respect, sharing and sometimes even smiles and laughter.
There are some films where everyone is an awful person.  Everything is Fine is not one of those films -- and all the better for it.  At the same time, it manages to show and reveal humans to be complex, imperfect beings, who often make terrible demands of others even while being able to give and forgive.  And does so in a way that's so palatable and intelligently that it might be the Francois Ozon film I've liked best of the ones that I've viewed (and I've actually seen a fair few to date!).
My rating for this film: 8        
Captain Volkonogov Escaped (Russia-France- Estonia, 2021)
- Part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival's Global Vision program
- Natasha Merkulova and Aleksey Chupov, co-directors and -scriptwriters
- Starring: Yuriy Borisov, Timofey Tribuntsev, Nikita Kukushkin
This offering from Natasha Merkulova and Aleksey Chupov was the second of the first four films I viewed at this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival with Russian subject matter.  Unlike Navalny, however, Captain Volkonogov Escaped is neither a documentary nor set in contemporary times.  Instead, it's set in Stalin's repressive Russia, where purges are taking place daily; albeit with certain stylistic anachronisms, notably the national security uniforms involving ruby red lower wear that resemble a cross between tracksuit bottoms and jodhpurs for the field officers and leather jackets for more senior ranks.  
There's also a spectre of a slain comrade (Nikita Kukushkin) who appears from time to time to haunt the film's titular character, Captain Volkonogov (Yuriy Borisov, giving a strong performance), and get him to go on a seemingly impossible mission involving getting at least one relative of one of his many tortured and slain victims to forgive him.  This after Captain Volkonogov realized one day that he and his colleagues were being "re-evaluated" and targeted for death -- for reasons unknown to them beyond it being the way of the authoritarian state that they serve and are dispensible pawns -- and that he needed to get the hell out of Dodge in order to continue living.
Otherwise, Captain Volkonogov Escaped is a fairly straightforward chase film which involves its titular character being pursued by Major Golovnya (Timofey Tribuntsev), another Soviet National Security Service Officer who knows that his life is very much at risk unless he does what he's ordered to do: in his case, track down and apprehend Captain Volkonogov within 24 hours; something that's not that easy to do given that the city where they reside, Leningrad, is pretty large and spread out.  And it doesn't help either that the people that might be said to have known Captain Volkonogov most -- the members of the Security Service who he worked the most closely with -- were all killed off within those 24 hours!
So fast paced that the slightly more than two hours spent viewing it really seem to fly by, Captain Volkonogov Escaped is quite the intense, involving thriller.  At the same time, some of the movie's slower, quieter, in-between-chase scenes may well be the ones that stick in the memory; with one particular one, involving a dialogue between Captain Volkonogov and a senior officer, in which it gets revealed why the victims of the purge singled out for "special methods" (i.e., torture) to be administered on them initially will protest their innocence, only to inevitably capitulate and "confess" their guilt, being utterly chilling and, sadly, all to familiar to those knowledgeable about the ways of authoritarian regimes. 
My rating for this film: 8.0

Friday, August 19, 2022

Entertainment at the Hong Kong International Film Festival by way of "The Outsiders: The Complete Novel" and inspiration from "Navalny"

I was the first one to get into one of the screenings I attended
(Yes, the cinema did start to fill up soon after I took the photo!)
- Part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival's Restored Classics program
- Francis Ford Coppola, director 
- Starring: C. Thomas Howell, Ralph Macchio, Matt Dillon, Rob Lowe, Patrick Swayze, Emilio Estevez, Diane Lane, Tom Cruise
My Hong Kong International Film Festival-ling last year began with a classic Hong Kong film.  This year, it began (this past Tuesday) with an American cult classic.  A 1983 coming of age drama set in 1960s Oklahoma, The Outsiders: The Complete Novel is based on a book by a female writer (S.E. Hinton) but has a cast that's mainly male as well as young -- and what a cast it is too!  But although Tom Cruise may be its biggest name, the superstar actor actually just has a small role in this movie.  Instead, it's C. Thomas Howell (as the quirkily named Ponyboy Curtist) and Ralph Macchio (as the often hangdog Johnny Cade) who have the most time on screen; with Matt Dillon and Patrick Swayze being the two other cast members who have the best opportunities to shine.       
For the record: the version screened at the fest is the 2005 version that's 22 more minutes than the originally released version.  Clocking in at 116 minutes, The Outsiders: The Complete Novel doesn't feel padded at all.  Another sign of its watchability: this tale that centers on working class boys and young men who are self-styled "Greasers" (whose "natural" enemies appear to be the "Socs" from the other, wealthier part of town) never is boring; this thanks in no small part to the charisma of the actors as well as how their characters were written.
Initially, it looks like it'll be similar in style and substance to offerings like Grease but The Outsiders: The Complete Novel is actually a darker, layered film; with death coming into the picture on a number of occasions.  There's also a scene of great visual beauty and poetry that's memorable and meaningful, and scenes showing the boys' love for literature that reveals that the film's two main characters, at least, have surprising and uncommon intellectual and psychological depth.
For all this though, it's hard to deny that one big reason for viewing the film in 2022 for the likes of me was the opportunity to see so many big names when they were mere up-and-coming talents and so young than, in the case of Tom Cruise, their voices were noticeably higher than they are now!  To be honest, based on what I saw of them in this movie, I would have expected C. Thomas Howell and Matt Dillon to have had more stellar careers than they have ended up doing.  On the other hand, Patrick Swayze looked and was good even then -- four years before Dirty Dancing, seven before Ghost, eight before Point Break, etc.  And it is sad indeed to realize that he's been gone from this Earth now for some 13 years already. 
My rating for this film: 7.5 
Navalny (U.S.A., 2022)
- Part of the Reality Bites documentary program 
- Daniel Roher, director
A couple of days before I viewed this enthralling, even gripping documentary about Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, I saw a 17 Tweet thread by him whose first one bore the line "Greetings from solitary confinement" which gave a chilling account of what his life is like, and how he's being treated, in the maximum security prison that he's currently incarcerated.  Reading it, I marvelled how it was possible for a man experiencing what he did to be able to keep his spirits up and write things like "It's okay, it can be worse" and "The commission is right: I really seem to be incorrigible" (the last followed by a "wink" emoji).  Navalny goes a long way towards explaining how this can be the case.   
A CNN production that I wouldn't characterize as a puff piece, Navalny still does end up casting its subject in a favorable light.  But, in all honesty, I think this is due in large part to the man himself: who, at the very least, truly appears to not lack for courage, conviction and love for his country.  An individual who, prior to the making of the documentary, had already experience of house arrest and imprisonment, he also suffered a near fatal poisoning while Navalny was being made.  And yet, after getting treatment for the poisoning and spending time recuperating from the ordeal in Germany, Alexi Navalny voluntarily returned to Russia -- and into the arms of the authorities.             
Early on in this documentary, its director, Daniel Roher (whose documentary short, Finding Fukue, I had previously seen and was touched by) asked the subject of his film what message he had for the Russian people in the event of his death.  Initially, Navalny declines to do this.  But eventually, he agrees to do so.  For me, the message he delivered -- with such evident sincerity and conviction, and while looking straight into the camera -- alone (which can be found here, more than by the way) is worth the price of the whole movie.  
And I think Hong Kongers would do well to hear Navalny's message and apply some of it to their own circumstance too.  For my part, the following lines really resonated: "You're not allowed to give up... we are incredibly strong.  We need to utilize this power, to not give up, to remember that we are a huge power that is being oppressed by these bad dudes.  We don't realize how strong we actually are.  The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.  So don't be inactive"!     
My rating for this film: 8.5

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

More dark days in Hong Kong :(

Gloomy outlook in Hong Kong
The postponed (from March-April) 2022 Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) finally opened this past Monday. Unable to secure tickets to either of its opening films this year, my personal HKIFF-ing began yesterday with my viewing "restored classic": Francis Ford Coppola's The Outsiders (1983). Afterwards, I went for a nice Korean dinner at a member of the Yellow Economic Circle and was feeling pretty good and mellow.
But then I returned home, got online and Twitter, and was hit with upsetting news: specifically, a devastating development in the case of the 47 pro-democrats accused of national security law crimes for having organised and taken part in democratic primaries for the Legislative Council elections back in July 2020; 32 of whom have been denied bail and held behind bars since their arrest on February 28th, 2021.
"#BREAKING #EXCLUSIVE Hong Kong's justice minister has ordered a non-jury trial for the city's largest national security case to date in which 47 pro-democracy politicians face up to life in prison, citing "foreign elements" as a reason, according to documents seen by @AFP" trumpeted Agence France-Presse (AFP)'s Xinqi Su in a much Retweeted Tweet.   
Presumably, she also is the author of the AFP wire piece (which can be found at such as the Hong Kong Free Press' website) whose first line reads as follows: "Hong Kong’s justice minister has ordered a non-jury trial for the city’s largest national security case to date in which dozens of pro-democracy politicians face up to life in prison, according to documents seen by AFP."  
The following is from the same article: "Trial by jury has been used by Hong Kong’s common law legal system for 177 years but legislation imposed by China in 2020 to curb dissent allows cases to be heard by dedicated national security judges... Instead the trial will be heard by three judges who have been handpicked by the government to try national security cases."  
Put another way: It is looking like it's going to be nothing but a show trial and it's pretty much a foregone conclusion that the 47 will be found guilty as charged and given sentences whose maximum penalty is life imprisonment.  And what makes it all the more upsetting is that the 47 whose trial we're talking about here include the likes of 20something year olds like Joshua Wong and Tiffany Yuen, and 70something and 60something year olds, some of whom are not in the best of health like Albert Ho (who actually is currently in the process of applying for bail in order to receive medical treatment) , "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung and Lee Cheuk-yan.  
In short: not just one but several generations of Hong Kong pro-democrat activists and politicians stand to be imprisoned and silenced in one fell swoop!  And also horrifying was the news that came this morning (i.e., less than 24 hours later): that Jimmy Lai's national security law trial is set to be jury-less too
If truth be told, it's not exactly a surprise; what with the trial of Tong Ying-kit, the first ever -- and thus far, only -- national security case tried at the High Court having been jury-less as well.  At the time, it caused a stir.  Sadly, it looks to have set a precedent.  And so, I suspect, will his being found guilty by the panel of three judges of having committed a national security law offence.
Amidst all this, it should not go unmentioned that Hong Kong added one more individual to its population of over 1,000 political prisoners at the beginning of the week with the imprisonment of former teacher-turned anti-extradition bill protestor-turned publisher Raymond Yeung for unlawful assembly, including on June 12th, 2019 -- the day that the police shot him in the eye (which he subsequently has lost 95% of sight in).  
"In an interview with AFP two weeks before his court date, Yeung said: "I hope my case could make some people think again why a person like me took part in the protests."  And here's the thing: One reason why what's happened to people like Raymond Yeung hits hard is because he's one of us and many of us see ourselves in him.  Consequently, I've seen a number of reactions to his story that are along the lines of "I could have been him".  And no, people don't think in terms of "There but for the grace of God go I" with regards to his story but more like "Solidarity!" and "We feel upset at what's happened to him but also what his fate tells us about Hong Kong as a whole". :(

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Hong Kong is really beautiful but, alas, not without problems so bad that it's seeing record numbers of people leaving :(

Hong Kong looking idyllic on a bright blue sky summer's day
-- but too many don't think they have a bright future here :S
I've been experiencing a rare good mood in recent days.  It started with my going on Thursday evening to a favorite bar that a friend had heard was closing down, with its proprietor planning to return to Japan after living here for some two decades, and finding out that he appears to have had a change of heart and is going to try to keep going for a bit after all.  
And probably adding to the lifting of my mood has been there being a (temporary) break this weekend in the rainy spell that Hong Kong has been having for some weeks now.  For yes, it's turned out to be another hot weather warning day but seeing blue skies and high visibility are treats that I no longer take for granted after all these years of living in this part of the world.

On a personal note: I've long thought of Hong Kong as a transient city; with my averaging a friend leaving a year for a number of years.  But starting from 2020, I've seen a really startling number of friends and acquaintances leave Hong Kong.  As in, we're now in double digits and while I've started to lose count of the exact number, I'd estimate that we'll be getting to the 20 mark by the end of this year, if not before.
For the record: The first people I knew who left in 2020 were pro-Beijing/"neutral"-types upset because the protests had disrupted their lives; both of whom returned to Australia, where they had studied and gained citizenships (but had not been born there; with one of them, in fact, having been born in Hong Kong).  Then, post the national security law coming into being, pro-democracy types -- including a number who had never ever previously lived anywhere other than Hong Kong -- decided to leave -- to countries with democracies, like the United Kingdom, USA and Canada.  Also, although it has been made much of by the media, actually, very few people I personally know have left (principally) because of Covid curbs
And this exodus will continue, I'm sure, because, sadly, it's not like all the oppression has ended.  Adding to pro-democracy Hong Kongers' woes is that this is something that much of the world outside of Hong Kong do not realize -- or care? -- about this.  This is in part because we've not had any major street protests authorized and taking place for some time now -- thanks in large part to the pandemic, and "anti-pandemic" regulations and restrictions that often work better at controlling people than the coronavirus -- and thus no scenes of violent clashes involving tear gas and riot police for the media to film, photograph and beam out to the world.     

So it is good that the likes of Al-Jazeera are still producing articles (from time to time) like the explainer that came out yesterday entitled "What's going on in Hong Kong's courts?" (written, it's worth noting, by a journalist who used to be based in Hong Kong but also became part of the exodus).  Some choice excerpts from it:
More than 10,000 people have been arrested in the past three years for their alleged involvement in the protests, government criticism and pro-democracy political activities, according to Hong Kong government data. Of those facing charges, the vast majority are people below the age of 30, although they also include some of the city’s veteran opposition leaders...

Chinese “mainland-style criminal justice” and “lawfare” tactics have found their way into Hong Kong, said William Nee, research and advocacy coordinator at Chinese Human Rights Defenders.

“The volume of cases is part of it, and part of it is the lengthy legal process that people face – and we’re only two years into it,” he told Al Jazeera. “We predict it could go on for many, many years where people are unable to travel, unable to leave Hong Kong, unable to speak to the media, and unable to participate in public life,” he said...

The national security law has created a new criminal procedure in Hong Kong that strays from its common law tradition.

National security defendants are heard before a panel of three judges handpicked for terms of one year by the city’s chief executive, said Nee, which means the justices can easily be removed.

Unlike other criminal cases, there is no jury and defendants are almost exclusively denied bail while legal proceedings continue – often for months...

Sentencing has also become harsher regardless of age or past criminal record, said Steven Vines, a veteran Hong Kong journalist who left the city in 2021. Public order cases that once might have ended in fines or community service now attract prison time...

“People with no criminal convictions whatsoever are being given custodial sentences for things like unlawful assembly, which in the past would’ve incurred a fine, nothing more. People who are being convicted of more serious offences are getting sentences which are akin to armed robbers with a criminal record,” Vines told Al Jazeera...

[P]rosecutions of 2019 protesters are expected to continue over the next two years due to the lengthy backlog – the national security cases could take even longer due to the volume of evidence compiled by prosecutors and successive delays. In the meantime, much of Hong Kong’s opposition and civil society will remain silenced, exiled or in jail.

Friday, August 12, 2022

Detective vs Sleuths entertains at breakneck speed (Film review)

One of a number of Hong Kong movies
screening in local cinemas this summer
Detective vs Sleuths (Hong Kong-Mainland China, 2022)
- Wai Ka Fai, director, co-scriptwriter and co-producer
- Starring: Lau Ching Wan, Charlene Choi, Raymond Lam, Carmen Lee
Before 2019, crime dramas and actioners were among my favorite Hong Kong movie genres.  In recent years, however, I've been loath to view films which with Hong Kong cops as heroes.  And I'm far from the only person who feels this way -- which is why, for a time, Hong Kong crime dramas and actioners began to become akin to endangered species.
In the past year or so, however, Hong Kong filmmakers have returned to producing films in these genres that often are prime showcases of their technical abilities.  And it's been interesting to see how some of them have managed to do so in unconventional ways -- including by way of producing works that involve crime and action but no cops (cf. Kelvin Chan's Hand-Rolled Cigarette), or offerings shot in Hong Kong but which aren't explicitly identified as being Hong Kong (i.e., Soi Cheang's Limbo).
In contrast, Wai Ka Fai's Detective vs Sleuths most definitely possesses characters who are Hong Kong police officers.  But, in a nod (back) to the Hong Kong cinematic tradition of characters tending to be complex and "gray" (rather than metaphorically sporting white or black hats), many of its characters with police connections, even those who are nominally the film's heroes, are neither without weaknesses nor faults.      
Take for example its protagonist: Lee Chun (portrayed by Lau Ching Wan), a police ace who got drummed out of the force after he started literally seeing demons and who, for much of Detective vs Sleuths, sports a yellow slicker of the type that, for Hong Kongers, will surely bring to mind that worn by extradition bill protestor Marco Leung; this even though Lee Chun's sports the word "Police" on its back.  Then there's Chan Yee (played by Charlene Choi), the heavily pregnant police officer who realises that Lee Chun still is a very capable detective despite his eccentric ways and bouts of what can seem like certifiable insanity, and who hides a secret about her past that gives her extra incentive to see that justice is truly served.
After not interacting with each other for many years, Lee Chun and Chan Yee's paths cross again when they come together to investigate a series of gruesome murders being perpetuated by a group of vigilantes claiming to administer justice to murderers whose cases the police had declared to be "cold" (i.e., unsolved).  While Chan Yee treats Lee Chun with respect, other police officers involved -- including her husband, Fong (Raymond Lam), and their superior, Wong Yan (Carmen Lee) -- are less inclined to do so; to the extent that they expect Lee Chun to be an accessory to the vigilantes rather than someone who, like them, wishes to prevent further murders from happening; this even though the people being hunted down by the vigilante group are folks who are on the suspect side morally.
The vigilantes' hunting down of the people they have should be punished with death, and Lee Chun and the police's attempts to figure out the vigilantes' next moves proceed at breakneck speed.  So much so that the viewer of this wild ride of a movie might feel like they have little time to pause for breath and to think.  This is undoubtedly a good thing as far as the filmmakers are concerned -- for not only does this keep the excitement levels up but also to prevent the viewer from noticing plot holes that surely abound as Detective vs Sleuths is the kind of film that preys on your emotions far more than it wants to intellectually impress.  
At the same time though, the viewer still has should be able to appreciate this (surely deliberately) chaotic film's aesthetics.  In particular, the work of veteran director of cinematography Cheng Siu Keung, cinematographer Ray Cheung Tai Wai, editor Allan Leung and editing supervisor David Richardson are noticeably impressive -- and it's notable that the film credits include that director of cinematography as well as cinematographer and editing supervisor as well as supervisor!  
Also delivering up sterling work on this cinematic production are art director Jean Tsoi, styling specialist Stanley Cheung, costume designer Pat Tang and whoever was the location scout on this film that has quite the variety of locations (urban; rural; land; and sea).  Ditto its often under-rated director, Wai Ka Fai -- who labored for so long under the shadow of Johnnie To when at Milkyway Image but, lest we forget, actually is a film veteran who made his directing debut back in 1992!
My rating for this film: 7.5

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Seditious civil servants and whither the presumption of "innocent until proven guilty" in Hong Kong?

What kind of protestor dresses like this?  A Hong Kong protestor
who I'm guessing's a banker, lawyer or senior civil servant, that's who!
As a civil servant friend of mine told me years ago, it would be unseemly for him to be seen out protesting against the government even though part of him wanted to accompany his wife to the pro-democracy protests she regularly attended.  But in a demonstration of how much and strong was the opposition to the extradition bill proposed by Carrie Lam, an anti-extradition bill protest rally was held in Central on August 2nd, 2019, that was organized by civil servants
Just a little over three years on though, such an event would be an impossibility.  And so far has the political pendulum swung to the other side in Hong Kong that what would have been hard to imagine back in 2019 has now happened: i.e., the arrest of civil servants for sedition; with (at least) four having taken place this month alone.
As an AFP wire piece reporting on the two latest arrests (which took place yesterday) noted: "Sedition is a colonial-era offence that has been dusted off to snuff out dissent after Beijing imposed a national security law on Hong Kong two years ago"; and "More than one-fifth of the 128 people prosecuted for national security offences in the city faced charges such as "uttering seditious words" and "attempting to act with seditious intention".  
This from the Hong Kong Free Press article reporting on the arrests: "A police statement published on Tuesday evening identified the pair as “administrators of a social media group,” with local media reporting it was the Civil Servants Secrets Facebook page.  “They were suspected of publishing posts on that social media group to disseminate seditious messages that promote feelings of ill-will and enmity between different classes of the population of Hong Kong,” the police said." 
What the police allege sounds so very heavy.  So let's walk it all back a bit shall we?  Consider this other section from the same article: "The Civil Servants Secrets page made posts – sometimes of a critical nature – relating to government policies. People could make submissions to reveal the internal operations of government departments or air grievances about rules and regulations imposed on civil servants"; with "[o]ne of the last posts made on the page [featuring] a video of a police officer putting his firearms away and taking a nap while on duty, according to local media."   
So... we're really basically just talking about people casually posting shop talk, bitching about their work, their colleagues and their bosses on Facebook?!  Something that I'm sure many (millions, billions?) of people do on social media!  Fortunately for the vast majority of those folks, they are not civil servants, Hong Kongers or both.  Because it really is the case that, in National Security Law-era Hong Kong, people can and will be arrested for "speech crimes" and even "thought crimes".  
More than by the way: note that the two fellows arrested yesterday, identified as civil servants employed at the Home Affairs Department and the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer, were arrested in their capacity as moderators of that Civil Servants Secrets page.  In other words: they may and probably did not even write the posts that are deemed dangerous to national security!  (Although they were arrested for sedition rather than for a national security law crime, they were arrested by the national security -- rather than "regular" -- police.)
AFP reporter Xinqi Su Tweeted yesterday that: "As at 5 Aug [i.e., last Friday], a total of 211 persons had been arrested over national security ground. 128 individuals and 5 companies had been prosecuted. More than 1/5 of those charged were prosecuted over seditious offences. 13 had been convicted and 6 of them were convicted under the NSL."  I don't know about you but that seems like a lot of people arrested in recent years for endangering national security to me.  This not least since before July 1st, 2020, no one had been arrested for doing so in Hong Kong!

Another disturbing statistic: "at 30-Jun-2022, a record 2,701 unconvicted people are being held in HK jails without bail, comprising a record 36% of the jail population, up from 2,552 on 31-Mar."  (Go here for detailed charts and stats.)  So much for the common law presumption of "innocent until proven guilty", huh?  
In a "thank goodness for small mercies" move: the civil servants arrested yesterday (which turned out to be four in number in an updated report) were released on bail today -- but need to report to the police in early November.  Also, as per a policy which came to be known in 2019 (after the arrest of a number of government employees at anti-extradition bill/pro-democracy protests), it's become standard practice for arrested civil servants to be suspended if and when under police investigation.  So, again, so much for the presumption of innocence until proven guilty -- one more sign that in Hong Kong these days, we have not so much rule of law as rule by law (and lawfare).  And, also, how "absurdity becomes normality in Hong Kong". :(