Sunday, April 30, 2023

A Light Never Goes Out gets one hoping that Hong Kong's neon lights will never go out, and that Hong Kong too will keep on shining (Film review)

Is there a light that never goes out?
A Light Never Goes Out (Hong Kong, 2022)
- Anastasia Tsang, director
- Starring: Sylvia Chang, Simon Yam, Henick Chou, Cecilia Choi
I have a friend who doesn't watch many movies and, she says, does most of her movie viewing on planes rather than in a cinema; so she's not too familiar with movie trailers.  Even so, she shocked me when, on a rare cinema outing with me, she mistook the trailer for A Light Never Goes Out we viewed before the film we had gone to see for a public service announcement!
In retrospect, I can see where she was coming from -- as it (and Anastasia Tsang's actual film) contains lines and messages like "I couldn't keep the neon lights glowing.  But you must keep the home going" and "Glory days lost, lights gone out [but] the neon within us still glows".  Lines and messages that can be interpreted by local audience members of A Light Never Goes Out as telling Hong Kongers to ga yau (add oil), persist and not give up the fight (for Hong Kong); this even while the film in question ostensibly and/or essentially is a nostalgia-filled drama centering on a grieving widow determined to cling on to her memories of her beloved husband and ensure that his life's work lives on.

Bill (who comes in the form of Simon Yam) was a neon sign maker by trade and vocation.  He also was the husband of Heung (portrayed by Sylvia Chang, who won the Golden Horse Best Actress award for this performance).  Recently widowed and very obviously not 100% psychologically reconciled to being so, Heung -- whose name is how the "Hong" in "Hong Kong" is pronounced in Cantonese -- sees Bill in her dreams and sometimes talks to him like he's still alive.  
Visiting his studio one day, Heung sees signs of it still being use and jumps to the conclusion that Bill (or, at least, his ghost) has been working there in recent days; a line of thinking which gets her daughter, whose name Choi Hung actually means "rainbow" but gets translated in the English subtitles as Prism (and who is essayed by Cecilia Choi), somewhat understandably upset with her!  (Prism, by the way, is planning to migrate to Australia.  So yes, A Light Never Goes Out is one more contemporary Hong Kong film where migration themes feature.)  

On a subsequent visit to the studio though, Heung discovers that her late husband had taken on an apprentice -- and that Leo (played by Henick Chou) it was who had been trying to keep the business going.  Encouraged by Leo, Heung decides to work to not only keep the neon signs that Bill made working and hanging but also to make one more neon sign that she's convinced that the master craftsman had sought to do prior to his premature demise.
If A Light Never Goes Out were made just a few years ago, its story might have been deemed interesting but not super topical.  But Hong Kong's neon signs are currently in the news because so many of them have been taken down upon the orders of the authorities in recent years and a realization has set in that something which has come to (latterly) be seen as part of Hong Kong's cultural heritage as well as a distinctive part of the local landscape is in danger of disappearing.  A measure of how drastic this disappearance has been: an article in The Guardian contains the estimate that Hong Kong was home to some 120,000 neon signs in 2011 but just around 400 in 2022!     
As Heung laments in A Light Never Goes Out: "That's decades of history.  They take it down without notice."  And while she's referring to the neon signs, many local members of the film's audience will undoubtedly extrapolate it to mean that it's Hong Kong's history that is being destroyed or changed; and this, of course, gives this drama extra resonance along with weight and meaning.  Which brings us back to the friend I wrote about in the first paragraph of this film review, and why and how she mistook the trailer for Anastasia Tsang's movie for something else, and more!      

Something that there's no doubt of though is how beautiful the neon lights can be, and how beautifully they were showcased by this film's cinematographer, Leung Ming-kai.  A Light Never Goes Out is one of those cinematic works that, if it did not visually impress, would have weakened the movie's message. And the fact that this (re)viewer came away from this offering hoping that the lights will never go out on Hong Kong's neon lights, and Hong Kong itself, is pretty telling of what I think of it.   

My rating for this film: 7.5

Friday, April 28, 2023

A 48-year-old Hong Kong housewife's sentenced to four years imprisonment for "seditious" posts on Twitter and Facebook

Photo from four years ago today
Four years ago this year, a very large and peaceful protest march against a planned extradition bill took place.  Four years on, there are (many) days when it can feel like we will never see its like again.  Hong Kong has changed that much since April 28th, 2019.  
Consider what happened in a courtroom in Hong Kong yesterday: the sentencing of a 48-year-old housewife to 4 months imprisonment for having commited "acts with seditious intention".  Law Oi-was was said to "have published 65 statements on Twitter and Facebook between June 6, 2022 and March 28 this year that aimed to “bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection” against the Hong Kong and Central governments,” incite violence and “counsel disobedience to law,” among other intentions." 
As detailed on Chinese news website The Witness (and I'm sharing English language versions of as translated by DeepL): 
The defendant's posts were directed at the Central Government and the Communist Party, including a picture of a lion wearing the flag of the People's Republic of China eating a human being, "the HK$11.7 billion of the Hong Kong Police Mutual Aid Society has been erased by the motherland", "the independence of all provinces, the elimination of the Communist Party by all people, and the establishment of an independent country", "there is a new China without the Communist Party", "CCP Virus", "mutated Chinese Communist Party", and "fighting Communists"."
The posting is also directed at the Hong Kong SAR Government and the Police Force, including the words "I was part of the struggle back then and I was not afraid of the violent suppression by those in power", pictures showing the anti-government demonstration in Admiralty in 2014, denouncing the Hong Kong Police Force for "indiscriminate arrests", "police and triads cooperating and attacking the public", and "there is no mob but tyrannical police, no thugs but tyranny".
The defendant also used photos, videos, and statements showing "Restoring Hong Kong, the revolution of the times" to promote Hong Kong independence. The postings also involved incitement to violence, including "May the corpses of 30,000 black police officers be padded to pay tribute to the souls of the dead", "The death of martyr Leung Kin-fai, a year and two months of silence...", "What Hong Kong needs is a revolution", etc.
To be sure, many of the proclamations by Law Oi-wan -- who, besides being a housewife, is a single mother of four (the youngest of whom is 12 years of age) -- can seem on the wild, reckless and irresponsible side.  But can what amounts to the angry rantings of a woman whose two Twitter accounts had a total of 357 Followers really be enough of a serious threat to national security to be sentenced to four months jail?  
Put another way: these are by no means Key Opinion Leader (KOL) numbers by any stretch of the imagination!  Also, granted that she was reported to have a Facebook account too, whose number of "Friends" I've not seen detailed anywhere thus far.  But how many could that account possibly have; this since it belongs to the same woman who had one Twitter account with just 331 Followers and another with an even more measly 26?!
For the record: presiding magistrate Peter Law did judge that "the scale of the offence was small and the defendant had limited influence".  But that may make it even more shocking then that "the court decided to impose a lower starting point for sentencing" but still came up with a sentence of four months!  I suppose one should thank goodness for small mercies that Peter Law did not decide to sentence the housewife to one day in jail for every Twitter Follower that she had -- which would then amount to closer to a year.  But even so! 
Sharing another translated section of The Witness report: "The case also alleges that the defendant was involved in violations of the National Security Law, the National Anthem and the National Flag Law, including the use of "May Glory Be to Hong Kong" as Hong Kong's national anthem and the use of the "Black Bauhinia Flag" as Hong Kong's national flag."  From this, it would seem that Law Oi-wan's major crime was to be a public advocate of Hong Kong political independence.
If so, are the following red herrings? "A yellow umbrella and other items were found during a search of the defendant's home".  In that, as far as I know, yellow umbrellas, which are associated with the Umbrella Movement, symbolize a yearning for democracy for Hong Kong (but not political independence) and are not illegal (as yet).  And I've seen yellow umbrellas being carried around and hoisted up on rainy days, and sold in more than one store, as recently as this year, month and even week!
Something else to note: Law Oi-wa was convicted of sedition, and "sedition is not covered by the Beijing-imposed national security law, which targets secession, subversion, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts and mandates up to life imprisonment."  So, technically, she was not guilty of endangering national security.  Still, I think it's fair to argue that it's only been in national security law-era Hong Kong that she would be prosecuted for, and deemed guilty, of breaking the law!

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

A labor activist got "invited to tea", with sadly too predictable results

Hong Kong humor can be on the dark side these days,
like much of Hong Kong :S

Hong Kong's ex-police chief Chief Executive John Lee wrapped up a four day trip to Mainland China at the beginning of this week.  Barely 48 hours later, we see the kind of "developments" that we used to associate with Mainland China rather than Hong Kong.
These statements prompted people to conclude that Joe Wong had been taken into custody this morning by the police, then released.  And To's claim that "Wong had not been arrested, but had experienced an “emotional meltdown” and was under tremendous pressure" only adds fuel to, rather than dispell, many people's suspicions that Joe Wong had been "invited to tea" by folks he would not want to be near, let alone socialise with, and subjected to police interrogation.
As per a Hong Kong Free Press report this afternoon on the matter: "The police confirmed on Wednesday [i.e., today] that they had received the cancellation of the request for a Labour Day march. A police spokesperson warned that anyone who gathered unlawfully on Hong Kong Island on May 1 could be charged with participating in an illegal assembly, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison."
"To added that they had expected this development when applying for approval to hold the march. “This is not a coincidence,” the labour rights activist said. He expressed hope that Hongkongers would uphold their beliefs despite any hardships encountered at the moment."
Curiouser and curiouser?  Not really, if one has been following how the Hong Kong authorities now operate.  The Hong Kong Labour Rights Monitor Tweeted on the chain of events leading to what's transpired today:  
Wong and To posted on Facebook that at the April 21st meeting with the police, the police had asked many questions and about a number of hypothetical scenarios.  For example, "what the organisers would do if the total number of participants exceeded estimations, and how they would handle “people with different views, including how to avoid violent groups from hijacking the march”".  
In addition, the "police showed the organisers comments left on their Facebook post about the planned march and asked them whether they knew who had left them, the post read. One of the comments were “even though [we] are in the UK, we still support everyone. Add oil.”" Comments that most people would seem as innocuous but aroused the police's suspicions -- or that they decided they could use as an excuse to get the organisers to withdraw their march application.
"Another observation: at no point in all of this is the police trying to help honest citizen exercise their rights to protest. What they’re doing though is having conversations away from public scrutiny which always end up in organizers abandoning their plans. Time and again."  So, yeah, dark days in Hong Kong indeed; so dark that so much gets obscured from regular folks -- though, I must say, it often can feel like some of us have grown pretty adept at making out what is happening in the dark and reading the tea leaves.:S

Monday, April 24, 2023

The Hong Konger wants Jimmy Lai and his extraordinary struggle for freedom to neither be forgotten nor in vain (Film review)

Currently available to view on Youtube
- Ron Holwerda, director
The subject of this documentary was born in Guangzhou, China -- in 1948, according to this work (though Wikipedia is among the sources that lists his year of birth as 1947).  And early in this Acton Institute production, an interviewee says of Jimmy Lai that: "He's Chinese.  He loves being Chinese."  
Meanwhile, something that goes unmentioned in The Hong Konger: Jimmy Lai's Extraordinary Struggle for Freedom is that Jimmy Lai has British citizenship.  I wonder whether this was deliberate or an oversight.  In any case, I must admit to finding this omission rather strange; this not least because I think this fact would add to Jimmy Lai's overall tale rather than detract from it.  And would not take anything away from his being a Hong Konger (and Chinese).
When he was 12 years old, Jimmy Lai decided to stow away on a boat to Hong Kong.  Upon arrival, he went to work as a child laborer in a garment factory.  Having left China for the then British colony, he found both freedom and fortune in the city that he came to call home and has never left -- even when many people urged him to do so (to ensure his personal safety and avoid the fate that the Chinese authorities have long sought for him).
On August 20th, 2020, Jimmy Lai was arrested on the charge of "foreign collusion"In December of that year, he was arrested again and charged under the National Security Law that China imposed on Hong Kong.  Denied bail that time around, he has been behind bars ever since.  But not forgotten.  Something that the people behind The Hong Konger: Jimmy Lai's Extraordinary Struggle for Freedom -- some of whom are Jimmy Lai's personal friends (including Acton Institute co-founder Robert Sirico); two of whom (Mark Simon and Simon Lee) are his former employees; a few of whom are Hong Kong activists in exile (like Joey Siu, Sunny Cheung and Samuel Chu); and many of whom are senior political figures (none more so than Chris Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong) -- are seeking to ensure stays so.  
When viewing this slickly made work, I found myself wondering how many of those others who have seen it had heard of Jimmy Lai before they viewed it.  To be sure, in Hong Kong, his is a household name (as is that of the clothing chain he founded, Giordano, and the pro-democracy newspaper he established, Apple Daily).  But while this documentary is about a Hong Konger, I get the distinct sense that -- unlike with, say, Kiwi Chow's protest documentary, Revolution of Our Times -- its primary target audience isn't actually Hong Kongers; and this not just because the film is in English (rather than Cantonese) either.
Something else that I definitely get the sense -- and not just because of the names I saw in the end credits either -- is that this film is (primarily) made by non-Hong Kongers.  As a result, some factual mistakes can be made (or facts glossed over): including a map and potted history of Hong Kong that divides the territory into Hong Kong Island and the New Territories, with Kowloon not rating a mention; and 2019 protest footage being shown when the 2014 "Occupy" phase of the Umbrella Movement was being discussed.  

It may seem like I'm being nitpicky.  But when making a film like this one (which has a specific agenda -- to free Jimmy Lai -- and might be described as a propaganda piece even if its messages are ones that I agree with for the most part), I think that little mistakes provide can cast doubt on other facts and sections of the presentation.  Which, frankly, is a pity -- because the story of Jimmy Lai is one that is very much worth learning about, and his plight is one that should concern those who value and appreciate freedom even half as much as he does. 
A business tycoon but also a political activist -- of whom Chris Patten said is "not always right but extremely brave" -- Jimmy Lai wanted democracy and freedom for Hong Kongers (and -- actually this is what made the authorities over in Beijing most angry -- Mainland Chinese people too).  And he was willing to give money and put his body on the line for this -- unlike the majority of Hong Kongers of his socio-economic station.
Something which The Hong Konger: Jimmy Lai's Extraordinary Struggle for Freedom points out -- and absolutely is worth noting though -- is that he insisted on peaceful protest.  There are some who might fault him for doing so.  But I, for one, actually think that this makes him deserve to be free all the more.  Along with all those other of Hong Kong's political prisoners who love Hong Kong so very much and have sacrificed so much for it already. 
My rating for this film: 7.5   

Saturday, April 22, 2023

A visit to the urban village of Cha Kwo Ling (Photo-essay)

For a number of reasons, I've not been out hiking for a couple of months now.  But I (still) have been doing a lot of walking, and not just along the Victoria Harbourfront either!  Something else I've been doing a bit of in recent months: exploring still other parts of Hong Kong that I hadn't previously ventured to.  
One of this places is Cha Kwo Ling, which has been described as one of Hong Kong's last squatter villages but, also, in Jason Wordie's Streets: Exploring Kowloon, as "one of the last remaining original, pre-urban villages in Eastern Kowloon" and an "early Hakka stonecutter's settlement".   Although I've known about its existence for a time, I was put off going there by a friend who described her visit there as depressing.  
But after seeing it featured in Amos Why's Far Far Away, I decided to go check out the area in the company of a fellow fan of that cinematic love letter to Hong Kong who had been there before and found Cha Kwo Ling to be an interesting, atmospheric part of the Big Lychee...
It can look like we're miles away from the city proper
-- but we are not, really!
In the village, there can be found a few information panels 
erected as part of the Travelling Through Cha Kwo Ling project
Lest it not be clear, however: Cha Kwo Ling is 
a living village that remains home to and for people...
...and this sleepy cat on a not so hot tin roof! ;b
Miles away from The Peak, literally and figuratively
A charmingly whimsical private garden in Cha Kwo Ling! :)
whose walls are locally quarried stone
Inside, the many joss offerings testify to this still
being an active and popular place of worship :)

Thursday, April 20, 2023

Over My Dead Body is a movie that I need(ed) time to process! (Film review)

A very Hong Kong movie that, nonetheless, has 
already screened in Japan and the UK!
Over My Dead Body (Hong Kong, 2023)
- Ho Cheuk-tin, director
- Starring: Wong You-nam, Ronald Cheng, Alan Yeung, Teresa Mo, Jennifer Yu, Edan Liu, Lau Kong, Jiro Lee, etc.
Back in late 2019, when the Hong Kong police got pretty generous with the tear gas, a woman reportedly screamed at the riot police to go away before they tear gassed her area -- because the value of her apartment would go down by a million (Hong Kong dollars) if they were to treat the neighborhood to one of their tear gas buffets.  I tell this story here not just as an excuse to bring up the anti-extradition bill turned pro-democracy protests once again but to give an idea of how people can obsess about property prices in Hong Kong and have what can seem like irrational or, at least, exaggerated fears about certain developments causing the value of their property to drop.  And it's in this context that the attitudes and behavior of a number of characters of Over My Dead Body can make some kind of sense.
Director Ho Cheuk-tin's sophomore effort is a satirical comedy involving the residents of the Seaside Heights apartment block who find what appears to be a dead body of a naked man on their floor.  While their first reaction is to call the police, this is quickly followed by a disinclination to do so -- for fear that their residence will become known as a "murder home" and plummet in value.  Thoughts soon turn to trying to figure out how to dispose of the corpse in such a way that can't be traced back to them.
This dark matter initially just concerns the adult residents of Flat 14A (characters played by Wong You-nam, Jennifer Yu, Teresa Mo and Alan Leong).  But they soon also get the elderly couple in Flat 14B (essayed by Bonnie Wong and Lau Kong), the dog-lover owner of Flat 14C, and father and son living in Flat 14D (portrayed by Ronald Cheng and Edan Liu) involved too; with the men folk largely tasked with moving the dead body to a nearby public housing estate known for its suicides (and whose residents won't worry about nose-diving property prices since they don't own the units in which they live).
Those unaware of Hong Kong superstitions might miss the significance of these flats' being on the 14th floor.  Suffice to say here that 14 sounds to Cantonese speakers like "will certainly die" and, along with the numbers 4 and 24, will often not be included for Hong Kong apartment building floor numbers.  (Also worth noting: there's another allusion to the deadly number 4 in this movie in terms of the times of the night that are shown whenever Alan Leong's character checks his watch.)
Another set of Cantonese homophones that is worth noting when viewing Over My Dead Body is that of "male corpse" and "blue ribbon" (a term for those folks who fall into the pro-police/government/Beijing end of the political equation).  Your mileage may vary but suffice to say that there are a considerable number of people in Hong Kong who find the very idea and conceit of people desperately trying to make sure that a "blue ribbon" doesn't darken their doorstep, never mind enter their living space, to be absolutely hysterical -- and for that one joke to be enough to power and propel an entire movie!
In fairness to the makers of Over My Dead Body, there is more than one target of their comic barbs; with the calling out of residents who don't give proper lai see to building security guards and Hong Kongers who let their imaginations run wild after listening to property ads being particularly on point.  But especially after having assembled such a great cast for this movie, I wish that the ensemble had been given stronger material to work with, and characters to play that were more easy to like.  (As things stand, the most sympathetic person in the film may well be Jiro Lee's priggish security guard!)
Perhaps I'm being overly demanding but director Ho Cheuk-tin -- who won the Best New Director prize at the Hong Kong Film Awards this past Sunday -- set such high standards with his first film (last year's The Sparring Partner).  Something I'll say in Over My Dead Body's favor though: I actually like it and its ideas more the more I think about them; with my feeling more favorable about the movie now than I did in the minutes after I left the cinema post viewing it!     
My rating for this film: 6.0 

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Marutai leaves viewers wishing that it wasn't Juzo Itami's final film (Film reviewer)

I hope I'll (still) be in Hong Kong when the 48th Hong Kong 
International Film Festival comes around, and enjoy it
as much as I have the 47th edition of the fest! 
Marutai (Japan, 1997)
- Juzo Itami, director and scriptwriter
- Starring: Nobuko Miyamoto, Masahiko Nishimura, Yuji Murata
- Part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival's The Complete Juzo Itami Directorial Retrospective program
In light of Juzo Itami being the filmmaker whose works I viewed the most at the 2023 Hong Kong International Film Festival (with my having also viewed his A Taxing Woman's Return, A-Ge-Man -- Tales of the Golden Geisha, The Last Dance and Supermarket Woman at the fest), it seemed fitting that the late director-actor's final film was the movie that brought this year's HKIFF-ing to a close for me.  Happily, this was another entertaining offering from the Japanese auteur -- with his wife and lead actress, Nobuko Miyamoto, among the cast who did him proud.
Drawing upon, and referencing, both his own experience of witness protection and the news-headlining activities of the Aum Shinrikyo cult (which culminated in a deadly Tokyo subway sarin attack in 1995 -- two years before this film's release), Marutai centres on Isono Biwoko (portrayed by Nobuko Miyamoto), an acting diva who is put under police protection after she witnesses a lawyer's murder by religious fanatics.  You'd think that these subjects would be suited for a serious work but Juzo Itami's made a film addressing them that actually offers up a lot of laughs as well as shocks, scares and food for thought.  
The puppy dog-like Detective Chikamatsu (played by Yuji Murata) and far more serious and intense Detective Tachibana (essayed by Masahiko Nishimura) are assigned to stick closely to Isono -- but the stubborn and self-centered actress is determined that their doing so will neither cramp her style nor limit her activities.  These don't only involve her carrying on acting in movies and also on stage but also taking classes in traditional Japanese dance (with scenes bringing back memories of the geisha training in A-Ge-Man!) and more, and going out for dinner at establishments that include her favourite Chinese restaurant.  Oh, and there's the secret affair that she's conducting with a married entertainment bigwig (who comes in the form of Masahiko Tsugawa) too! 
Some of Marutai's comedy comes in the form of such as Detective Chikamatsu being clearly star-struck by Isono but nothing quite beats seeing Detective Tachibana becoming in an extra in a stage production of Cleopatra which has Isono appearing as the Queen of Ancient Egypt dressed in a costume that makes it look like her breasts have been exposed!  Further wacky shenanigans come by way of a subplot involving yet another detective with a quirky personality: this one being a gourmet who's too high brow for his boss' liking, and is consequently asked to go to a karaoke bar!  
But although that strand of the movie initially feels like it came out of nowhere, there soon is shown to be reason for its inclusion in Marutai: a movie that is brimful of ideas and never feels like it's overstayed its welcome despite its 132 minute running time making it a lengthier cinematic offering than normal. An entertaining work that's life-affirming even though it does contain violent deaths, it left this viewer ruing that Juzo Itami's life and career ended up being cut short; with the filmmaker having died -- with it widely being believed that he was killed by Yakuza -- less than three months after this film was released in Japanese cinemas.
My rating for this film: 8.0

Monday, April 17, 2023

Juzo Itami's Supermarket Woman is yet another gem from the late, great filmmaker (Film review)

I really love watching (good) movies on a (really) big screen! :)
Supermarket Woman (Japan, 1996)
- Juzo Itami, director and scriptwriter
- Starring: Nobuko Miyamoto, Masahiko Tsugawa
- Part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival's The Complete Juzo Itami Directorial Retrospective program
Juzo Itami's penultimate movie before his premature demise was the fourth film directed and scripted by him that I viewed at the 47th Hong Kong International Film Festival.  And with Nobuko Miyamoto and Masahiko Tsuguwa having also appeared in A Taxing Woman's Return, A-Ge-Man -- Tales of the Golden Geisha and The Last Dance, seeing them once again in Supermarket Woman felt like a reunion with by now old friends.   

Fittingly, the duo play old friends (from childhood) who have a chance reunion in a supermarket.  Now housewife, mother of a university age offspring and a widow, Hanako (Nobuko Miyamoto) was checking out a new supermarket on opening day when she literally bumped into Goro (Masahiko Tsuguwa), who was also checking out the new supermarket that was now his store's rival (to see how it compared to Honest Goro, his place).  
To celebrate their reunion, Goro -- who is now a childless widower -- invites Hanako back to his messy bachelor pad for a chat and, he hoped, a bit of nookie.  In another movie, Goro's pawing might well have led to date rape and worse.  In Supermarket Woman, Goro gets told off for behaving badly but he and Hanako remain friendly.  Not only that but she ends up agreeing to go work for him and help to make his supermarket a better place for its shoppers!
How Hanako goes about making Honest Goro a better store is really fun and entertaining to see.  Also fun and entertaining to watch is the relationship between her and Goro.  Truly, Nobuko Miyamoto and Masahiko Tsuguwa had developed really a great chemistry as well as fun film personae; with her coming across as a really capable dame and him as an amiable goof!  
Adding to the sheer enjoyment of viewing Supermarket Woman was this movie coming across as the most good-natured as well as lightest of the Juzo Itami films I viewed at this fest.  I mean: sure, there's a villain in the piece.  But, at the end of the day, he's a supermarket owner plotting the demise of a rival store by way of such as cheap sales tricks; not, say, a cult leader out to swindle people of their fortunes or a yakuza out to murder people like the bad guys that have featured in others of the filmmaker's movies!  

My rating for this film: 9.0

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Vital Sign is a tribute to ambulancemen and love letter to Hong Kong (Film review)

Various cast (and crew (including director Cheuk Wan-chi on 
the far right) at the world premiere of Vital Sign

Vital Sign (Hong Kong, 2023)
- Cheuk Wan-chi (aka GC Goo Bi), director
- Starring: Louis Koo, Neo Yau Hok-sau, Angela Yuen
- Part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival's Galas program 
A few years back, I got into an argument with an expatriate who's lived in Hong Kong for a number of years and thought he knew a lot about Hong Kong but showed his ignorance of the local cinema by proclaiming that all Hong Kong films were about cops or Triads.  Worse, after I reeled of a bunch of titles of Hong Kong movies that weren't crime dramas (including some martial arts epics!), he then admitted that he hadn't seen (m)any cinematic offerings from this part of the world at all even while still maintaining that his point was a largely correct one!  

I saw this man again a few months ago at a dinner party hosted by mutual friends which, fortunately, was large enough that we could avoid talking much to one another.  Otherwise, I would have been unable to resist pointing out to him that, especially in the past three years, there have been a bunch of Hong Kong films that most definitely don't have cop or Triad protagonists!  In fact, for every movie like Detective vs Sleuths, I'd say that there have been 10 other films whose lead characters have had neither been police officers or gangsters but, instead, say, IT guys (Far Far Away), foster parents (Lost Love) or Paralympic athletes (From Zero to Hero)!
And although they are from the uniformed services, in Cheuk Wan-chi's Vital Sign, the protagonists are ambulancemen.  Leading man Louis Koo plays a veteran frontliner who makes light of his abilities but actually is seriously committed to saving lives.  He also is a widower with a young daughter who he clearly loves and cares for very much -- and is considering emigrating to Canada, where his parents-in-law already reside, in order for her to have a better future.
In contrast, "Wong Sir" (portrayed by Neo Yau Hok-sau) does not seem to have any plans beyond speedily climbing up the professional ladder. Though at least a decade younger than Louis Koo's character, he already holds the same rank as him.  After being assigned to the same team as the older man though, "Wong Sir" comes to realise though that he has much to learn from his senior -- about work but also maybe also life itself.
Vital Sign has a number of impressive scenes of the ambulancemen (who also include the ambulance driver played by character actor Poon Chan-leung) in action but it also makes room for domestic scenes that gives its characters added dimension and complexity.  By themselves, the sections in the movie in which Louis Koo interacts with the child actress who plays his daughter are very watchable.  They also are integral to this drama's other subplot: one involving Hong Kongers faced with the pressing question of whether to go or stay. (A reminder: "Hong Kong's second Handover" has prompted a considerable emigration wave out of the city.)
Initially, Angela Yuen's character (whose name is Miffy, like that of the famous rabbit character!) appears to be in the film for comic relief.  But her presence ends up helping to give Vital Sign an added emotional dimension and her views provide balance for as well as counterpoints to that of its two male principals plus further food for thought.  
Further emotional power comes by way of the choice of song to play over a key scene in that which was the official Closing Film of the 47th Hong Kong International Film Festival. Sally Yeh's 珍重 (Take Care) may not be a contemporary work (and, in fact, dates back to 1990) but its lyrics feel very relevant to 2023 Hong Kong, and this movie that works as bittersweet love letter to this city and its people.

My rating for this film: 7.5

Saturday, April 15, 2023

The King of Wuxia is a wonderful, loving tribute to King Hu (Film review)

Display of posters of a few of the 2023 Hong Kong
 International Film Festival's close to 200-strong selection
- Lin Jing Jie, director
- Part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival's Filmmakers and Filmmaking program 
With a total running time of 3 hours and 36 minutes, Lin Jing Jie's documentary on King Hu has been split into two parts for screening at such as the Hong Kong International Film Festival  The 126 minute long The King of Wuxia Part 1: The Prophet Was Once Here focuses more on King Hu the filmmaker while the 95 minute long The King of Wuxia Part 2: The Heartbroken Man on the Horizon focuses more on King Hu the man. 
But while there invariably will be people who are more interested in one side of King Hu but not the other, I really don't think one should view just one part of this enthralling homage to one of Chinese cinema's greatest filmmakers.  Also, it's not like there are no personal recollections about him in The King of Wuxia Part 1 nor no coverage of his films and filmmaking in The King of Wuxia Part 2; this not least since King Hu put so much of himself into his films and craft, and he never stopped thinking of making films up until his dying day (with the botched operation that prematurely ended his life being one that he had undergone in prepation for getting ready to direct his planned final film, The Battle of Ono).  

Many of the film personalities who appear in The King of Wuxia also appear in both parts of the documentary.  And what a stellar bunch they are!  Among them are stars of King Hu's films including Shih Chun, Hsu Feng, Cheng Pei Pei and Paul Chun Pui, and actor-action choreographers Sammo Hung and Ng Ming Choi, directors like John Woo, Tsui Hark, Ann Hui and Shu Kei, and cinematographer Harry Chan (who was the cinematographer for Raining in the Mountain and Legend of the Mountain, which were filmed at the same time!).  And truly, each and everyone of them provided interesting insights and information about the legendary filmmaker they knew personally and professionally.
In addition to interviews with film personalities, The King of Wuxia also contains a good amount of clips from King Hu's films -- which whet my appetite to re-view the films again. (For the record: I've viewed all 15 of the movies that he directed and also have seen a number of movies in which he's appeared!).  There also is some on-set footage, and the likes of Shih Chun revisiting locales in different parts of Taiwan where they had filmed: including where King Hu had built an "inn" (for Dragon Inn (1967)) and the bamboo grove where an incredible fight sequence in A Touch of Zen was shot; and I really wished there had been visits to locales in Hong Kong where King Hu had filmed too, with a short view of Shing Mun Reservoir ending up feeling like such a tease!
From the stories we are told about King Hu in this documentary, he comes across as such an incredible talent and, also, absolute perfectionist.  It's also amazing to learn how "hands on" he was about so much; with it becoming clear that he did a lot of the editing of his works as well as directing (and including action scenes even though he gave others martial arts/action choreography credits), and even worked on creating props and getting the sets to look like he wanted them to.      
Sadly, his perfectionism resulted in the shooting of his films ending up being too lengthy and deemed too expensive to fund.  Changing audience tastes also played a part in his ending up not making as many films as he wanted to.  It also didn't help that he was so visionary that his films could end up being misunderstood.  One of the most affecting parts of The King of Wuxia is Shu Kei tearing up upon recalling how he hadn't realized how great Legend of the Mountain was and ended up playing a part in editing down the over 3 hour long original to a less than 2 hour long work that was hoped would be more commercially successful.
As can be surmised from its subtitle of The Heartbroken Man on the Horizon, The King of Wuxia Part 2 contains a number of sad revelations.  But happier tales and amusing anecdotes are shared in it as well as The King of Wuxia Part 1.  But although quotes by King Hu appear on screen in both parts of The King of Wuxia, it's only in Part 2 that there's footage of him speaking -- and it's in English (rather than Mandarin, which is the primary language heard in the documentary; spoken by all of the Hong Kongers who feature in the film as well as the Taiwanese and, partly, by the American Chinese Henry Chan)!
For those who didn't know: King Hu was born in Beijing in what was then the Republic of China, in 1932.  He emigrated to Hong Kong in 1949, got into the film industry there, and went on to direct films both in Hong Kong and Taiwan.  (And although they are Hong Kong productions, Raining in the Mountain and Legend in the Mountain was filmed in South Korea.)  King Hu passed away in Taipei, Taiwan, in 1997, but had spent the last decade of his life in the U.S.A.  Truly, his was a life worth making into a movie -- with enough interesting details to fill two movies (or even more -- as I actually found myself wishing that there was a The King of Wuxia Part 3 to view!)    
My rating for the film(s): 8.5                 

Thursday, April 13, 2023

Two very different films viewed at the 2023 Hong Kong International Film Festival (Film reviews)

Film fans waiting in line to get into a Hong Kong International
Film Festival screening at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre
The Last Dance (Japan, 1993)
- Juzo Itami, director and scriptwriter
- Starring: Rentaro Mikuni, Nobuko Miyamoto, Masahiko Tsugawa
- Part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival's The Complete Juzo Itami Directorial Retrospective program
Juzo Itami had a life that was full of experiences that just called to be made into a movie or more.  Five years before his death (which was made to look like a suicide but many people reckon came from his being murdered by Yakuza) in 1997, and after he made Minbo: the Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion (1992), he was attacked by Yakuza angered by the way Yakuza were portrayed in Minbo.  The experience caused him to contemplate death, and come up with The Last Dance: a dramedy about a director-actor (and remember, Juzo Itami acted as well as directed!) who ends up spending a not insignificant amount of time in hospital.
Rather than take on the leading role in the film though, the then still-recovering Juzo Itami had Rentaro Mikuni play Buhei Mikai, a filmmaker who becomes ill with cancer while acting in and directing a movie about a helmer who is seriously ill with cancer.  Adding to The Last Dance's meta quotient: Buhei's wife is played by Nobuko Miyamoto, who happened to be Juzo Itami's wife as well as regularly the leading lady in his movies!      

A good part of the first half of The Last Dance has Buhei on film sets and, in the hospital scenes, skewering the medical system which emphasizes saving lives to such a great extent that it can lead to the destruction of patients' quality of life.  It also contains scenes of Buhei having sex with his leading lady (played by Haruna Takase) and thus cheating on his wife: something which can feel awkward to watch given the understanding that Buhei is Juzo Itami's alter-ego in this film!
Still, this is nothing compared to how weird it can feel to view much of the second part of the movie -- which shows Buhei realizing that he has cancer, that his cancer is terminal and effectively preparing for death.  Watching this substantial portion of The Last Dance with the knowledge of how Juzo Itami died makes it so that it all makes for uneasy and even downright sad viewing indeed; and one can but hope that before his death and before his wife was widowed, Juzo Itami and Nobuko Miyamoto were able to have a significantly happier marriage and be better at communicating with each other than the main couple in this work!
My rating for this film: 6.0 
- Laura Poitras, director
- Part of the HKIFF's Cinephile Paradise program 

Like with The Last Dance, death looms large over this documentary by Laura Poitras.  All the Beauty and the Bloodshed begins, in fact, with artist-activist Nan Goldin talking about her older sister, Barbara, who commited suicide when Nan was 11 years old.  And over the course of chronicling both Nan's artistic and activist careers, mention is made of a number of people (including good friends of hers) who have died: some from AIDs, others from other diseases, and still others from Opioid overdoses.
As All the Beauty and the Bloodshed makes clear, Nan Goldin herself has not had an easy life.  Determined to not end up the same way as her sister (and also her parents -- who do not come off well in the film), she left home in her early teens, took drugs (and became addicted to Opioids), entered relationships that were not only unconventional but, in one case, put her life in danger.  
As this documentary also shows though, Nan Goldin's a fighter and survivor.  In addition, she had the good fortune to be introduced to photography early in life and gained fame as a photographer who produced uncommon, striking visuals: some of which can be seen in All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, and some of her video art too.
I have to be honest and say that Nan Goldin's art is not particularly appealing to me, and what I admire more is her activism. After overcoming her addiction to Oxycontinin and surviving a near fatal fentanyl overdose, she founded the advocacy group P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) in 2017.  She also set her sights on the company (Purdue Pharma) that mde Oxycontinin and the family behind that company (the Sacklers) and sought to make them pay for their pushing Oxycontinin on millions of people.
As it so happens, the Sacklers are known for their arts patronage.  And as a famous artist as well as an activist, Nan Goldin found herself in a position to shame art museums and galleries into cutting ties with the Sacklers by not accepting further funding from them and also removing their names from spaces within prestigious institutions like the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Louvre.  
In the course of her activism, Nan Goldin commendably put(s) a lot on the line. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed also shows that a lot goes into her art too and there's much to admire to that.  Still, Laura Poitras' work could never be accused of glossing over its subject's less attractive aspects.  But it's in Nan Goldin's willingness to reveal so much of herself, warts and all, that this documentary derives so much strength and, yes, beauty too.       
My rating for this film: 8.0 

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Lady Windermere's Fan (1925) with live piano accompaniment at the Hong Kong International Film Festival! (Film review)

Tram advertising the Hong Kong International Film Festival
-- a tradition of sorts! :)
Lady Windermere's Fan (U.S.A., 1925)
- Ernst Lubitsch, director
- Starring: Irene Rich, Bert Lytell, May McAvoy, Ronald Colman
- Part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival's Restored Classics program
Viewing a silent movie with live musical accompaniment is not an experience I'd wager that many people living in the 21st century have had.  Almost unbelievably though, I've been treated to that experience twice in the past month!  A few weeks back, I attended a screening of Buster Keaton's The General (1926), with live pipe organ accompaniment courtesy of Cameron Carpenter, that was part of the Hong Kong Arts Festival.  And now I've also had the experience of viewing a screening of Ernst Lubitsch's Lady Windermere's Fan to live piano accompaniment by Bowen Li.
I suppose it's the nature of this events that one really notices the music being played.  I'm not sure whether it was just me though who felt that the music being played for the first 10, even stretching to 20, minutes or so on the latter occasion seemed at odds with -- or, at the very least, more slower paced than expected of -- what I saw transpiring in the film.  In any event, I must confess to having felt more distracted by -- or inclined to overly fixate on -- the music than one would think was ideal, and it took a longer while than expected for me to get to enjoying my viewing of this 1925 cinematic adaptation of Oscar Wilde's four-act comedy of manners that was not the first and also not the last.  (There have been a number of film adaptations of Lady Windermere's Fan to date!)  
Although Lady Windermere (played by May McAvoy) is the first person who appears in the movie, this work truly belongs to Mrs Erlynne and that actress who portrays her, Irene Rich.  And although the initial impression I got was that she would be the villain of the piece, Mrs Erlynne turns out to be the character the film's audience are supposed to be sympathize -- or even empathize -- with the most.  This even though one of her first main actions is to effectively blackmail Lord Windermere (essayed by Ronald Colman), the honorable nobleman who loves his wife more than she often seemed to realize!
Recently returned from abroad, Mrs Erlynne seeks -- nay, yearns -- to be accepted into and become a part of (high) Society.  For this, she will need money, among other things.  And the way she's decided to do this is to appeal to Lord Windermere to pay her to keep her mouth shut about her being the mother of his wife; a woman that Lady Windermere was told at her young age had died!  This Lord Windermere agrees to do without much hesitation.  And all would have been fine and dandy; except for such as, over time, Mrs Erlynne deciding that she wanted to meet her daughter and Lady Windermere mistakenly suspecting that her husband and the woman who was actually her mother were having an affair!    

Early on in the offering, Lady Windermere's Fan looks to be peopled by self-absorbed members of nobility whose actions and conerns were pretty laughable.  As one got deeper into the movie though, more than one character went from being one- or two- to three-dimensional.  And by film's end, they come across as noble in spirit as well as social class; and even while the things they care and worry about understandable.  
Despite it being helmed by the German-born Ernst Lubitsch and actually being a Hollywood production populated by thoroughly American actresses and actors, Lady Windermere's Fan looks to have very successfully pulled off the illusion of being set in the homes of British nobility and about British high society.  The set and costume design are visually impressive indeed, as is the titular fan!  Also, the cast really do look and act like they are to the manor born -- or, in the case of Mrs Erlynne, manor aspiring!  All in all, it's a very commendable effort which, even while obviously dated in overall style and technique, still has actually stood the test of time pretty well; more so, I'll venture to state, than the one-year-younger The General!
My rating for this film: 7.5