Tuesday, April 30, 2024

The Dupes is a classic of Arab cinema that is a painful but important watch (Film review)

One of a number of pro-Palestinian stickers spotted 
in Hong Kong in recent months
The Dupes (Syria, 1972) 
- Tewfik Saleh, director and co-scriptwriter (with Ghassan Kanafani)
- Starring: Mohamed Kheir-Halouani, Abderrahman Alrahy, Bassan Lotfi Abou-Ghazala, Saleh Kholoki 
- Part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival's Restored Classics program
Going into the screening of this (restored in 2023) classic of Arab cinema, I knew that -- as per the title of the fourth segment of 2019 Hong Kong film Memories to Choke On, Drinks To Wash Them Down -- It's Not Going to Be FunAnd, actually, in view of what's been happening in Gaza for some six months now, The Dupes may be an even more upsetting watch in early 2024 because this 1972 film shows how much, and longer, Palestinians have been suffering than many people realize. 
Set in Iraq but actually shot in Syria by Egyptian director Tewfik Saleh, The Dupes had its world premiere at Tunisia's Carthage Film Festival in the same year that its co-scriptwriter, Palestinian author-politician Ghassan Fayiz Kanafan, was assassinated, in Beirut.  Kanafan also wrote Men in the Sun, the 1962 novel that The Dupes' story is adapted from.  And both the novel and the film tell the story of three Palestinian refugees seeking to travel from the refugee camps in Iraq, where they cannot find work, to Kuwait, where they hope to make the kind of money it is impossible for them to do in the refugee camps.  
The oldest and first of the three to be introduced in The Dupes is Abou Keïss (portrayed by Mohamed Kheir-Halouani), an illiterate farmer who went through the 1948 Nakba (ethnic cleansing of Palestinians) and still pines for the olive trees he once had in his home village.  A generation younger than him, 16-year-old Marwan (essayed by Saleh Kholoki) nonetheless feels the pressure to provide for his family -- now rather than after, as he had hoped, he had finished his schooling.  And in between the two of them in age is Assad (played by Bassan Lofti Abou-Ghazala), a young activist who has had run-ins with the authorities and thinks it would be better for him to flee before he gets arrested and thrown into jail. 
After each of them individually fail to agree terms with Iraqi smugglers, all three Palestinians decide to entrust their fate to Abul Al Khaizran (portrayed by Abderrahman Alrahy), a fellow Palestinian who said he would smuggle them on board a truck he would drive across the desert to Kuwait -- for a fee, but less than what the Iraqis said they charged.  (For the record, the bulk of The Dupes focuses on Palestinian individuals and their interactions with one anothers; with such as Zionists barely having any screentime.) 
Before they meet one another's acquaintance, Abou Keïss, Assad and Marwan are shown to have already experienced (more than) their (fair) share of deprivations and frustrations.  But while Abul Al Khaizran appears to be in a better position than the desperate trio, it turns out that he, too, has a tragic past; one that has made him actually even more embittered than his fellow Palestinians -- who, unaware of this, decide to trust him with their lives primarily because he hails from the same homeland as them.

A detached observer viewing what transpires in The Dupes will look at Abou Keïss, Assad and Marwan as easily identifiable, as per the film's title, dupes for trusting Abul Al Khaizran with their very lives.  And this especially when one beholds the old truck he drives and hears his plan, which involves hiding the desperate trio for a part of what was already a pretty dangerous journey inside its water tank -- in hellishly hot conditions, given that they would be making their trip in August (the height of summer).  

But the fact of the matter is that Abou Keïss, Assad and Marwan are pretty much in a "Damned if you do, Damned if you don't" situation and it's really a case of dying a slow or quick, extremely painful or still painful, death for all of them.  The sorry fate of Palestinians, refugees, and Palestinian refugees, it seems.  
At the same time, there's some hope dangled in front of our trio of protagonists -- and the fact of the matter is that sometimes, it's the hope that can kill you.  To repeat: The Dupes is not a film one goes into a screening of assuming that it'll be a fun watch.  But credit to Tewfik Salleh and co for making it engrossing, involving, cruelly tense and painfully heart-tugging -- and for making this (re)viewer want so much better for the work's (anti-)heroes, against what really are overwhelming odds.
My rating for the film: 8.0

Sunday, April 28, 2024

Cinema Strada puts Law Kar left, right and centre (Film review)

Cinema Strada director Donna Ong and subject Law Kar
at the world premiere of the film
Cinema Strada (Hong Kong, 2024)
- Donna Ong, director
- Part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival's Filmmakers and Filmmaking program
The man known to Hong Kong film fans by his pseudonym/penname Law Kar (but whose actual name is Lau Yiu-kuen) is the subject of this documentary directed by Donna Ong.  He also is the producer and narrator of Cinema Strada -- so most definitely is left, right and centre of it.

I'll come right out and say it: I'm not sure whether this is a good thing.  For one thing, Law Kar may be too familiar with Law Kar!  By this, I mean that he -- and thus, Cinema Strada -- may have assumed that audiences of the documentary will already have known a lot about him prior to going into a screening of it.  For even while it does pretty much tell the story of Law Kar from the beginning, chronologically speaking, it also can feel like some of the more basic and obvious information we should know about this veteran Hong Kong film critic is missing -- or only mentioned by the by.
As an example: Law Kar was the programmer for the Hong Kong Film Archive from 2001 to 2005 (and a guest programmer for a number of years after that).  He also programmed the Hong Kong International Film Festival's Hong Kong film retrospectives for a number of years.  In doing so, he shaped opinions and views on Hong Kong cinema for decades -- particularly, it might be argued, in the 21st century.  And yet, the bulk of Cinema Strada focuses on events that took place in the 20th century, and selective decades of that century at that.

In particular, Cinema Strada spends a lot of time on the 1960s -- covering not only Law Kar's time as editor-in-chief of popular youth magazine, The Chinese Student Weekly, which he used to introduce world cinema and film theory to readers, critiqued non-mainstream art films from overseas, and shone a light on local moves in Chinese films, but also his reactions and thoughts about such as the Hong Kong Riots of 1967 and Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film, Blow-Up!  
Given its surprisingly extensive coverage of the 1967 Hong Kong Riots, you might think that there would be mention too of more recent political upheavals in Hong Kong.  But that's not the case.  And I have to admit that I got to wondering whether this constitutes self-censorship on Law Kar's part.  Something that would be... understandable, given the times we now live in. (A reminder: Article 23 came into effect days before this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival got going.  This on top of Hong Kong already having a national security law imposed on it by China on June 30th, 2020.)  But disappointing and sad all the same.
Let's put it this way: I came out of Cinema Strada wondering what this film would have been like if it had been made just five years earlier -- the same way that I rue the biopic about Anita Mui having come out in 2021 rather than, say, 2011, 2016 or even 2019.  I also wondered if Law Kar the subject would have been better served if he had been less "hands on" with regards to this documentary.
To be sure, it was interesting to learn about such as Law Kar's youth in Macau, his time in Italy (when he went to study for a time and met Fellini, even being an extra in one of the Italian auteur's films) and also his views of 1950s Hong Kong after he moved here from Macau.  It also was fun to see snippets of his time with TVB (which he joined in 1974), where he scripted and co-directed drama series for and with then up-and-coming directors including members of the Hong Kong New Wave such as Patrick Tam Ka-ming, Ann Hui, Yim Ho and the late Alex Cheung. 
 Still, I can't shake off the feeling that, ultimately, what I got was an incomplete, uneven, skewed maybe too, portrait of Law Kar -- that was incredibly detailed in parts but basic in others -- and feel that it's a pity that this was so.  This not least as I think Law Kar, the man, could be as interesting a film subject as Harry Odell, the impressario that Dora Choi and Haider Kikabhoy's  To Be Continued (which had its world premiere at last year's Hong Kong International Film Festival) did such a great job of introducing its audience to.

My rating for this film: 6.0

Saturday, April 27, 2024

Nocturnes is an aesthetic treat as well as informative introduction to the world of hawk moth field research (Film review)

Hong Kong International Film Festival 
advertisement on a tram
Nocturnes (India-U.S.A., 2024)
- Anirban Dutta and Anupama Srinivasan, co-directors
- Part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival's Reality Bites program
A few days before this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival got going, a friend and I were telling each other about which offerings we had got tickets for.  Upon doing so, he casually remarked that he was surprised that, given my love of critter spottings (including of butterflies and moths) while out hiking in Hong Kong, I didn't have Anirban Dutta and Anupama Srinivisan's Nocturnes on my list. 

After he did that, I went and checked out the synopsis for it in the HKIFF program booklet -- and determined that this documentary about research conducted in the forest of the Eastern Himalayas into the hawk moth of Arunachal Pradesh did indeed sound right up my alley.  At the same time, I still was very pleasantly surprised that Nocturnes turned out to be such an aesthetic treat even while also imparting information on such as the size and look of the hawk moth, the elevations at which it can be found, and how climate change can and will affect the life of the species. 

Mansi Mungee is an ecologist whom the filmmakers at a "food joint" in the Himalayas, where they had gone to make a film on snow leopard habitats.  When she told them about how her research involved going at night to set up moth screens on which hundreds, even thousands, of insects are attracted to when light is shone on it, they decided to capture this nocturnal scenes and enterprise on film (with the help of cinematographer Satya Rai Nagpaul).  And also install multiple mics to record not only the conversation of Mansi and her assistants (all of them indigenous individuals local to the area -- the chief of whom is Bicki, from the Bugun community) as they meticulously and patiently carry out their rigorous work but also the sounds of the forest that include the flapping of the wings of the moths and other insects in the film.

This results in Nocturne being an impressively immersive and textured work that encourages and rewards those viewers happy to look and listen at what nature is willing to reveal. At the same time, I think the documentary also gets its viewers appreciating and enjoying the dedication and passion of the chief human in the picture, and feel privileged to be privy to the academic discussions Mansi has with her mentor (Ramana Athrey) as well as the bonding and humanising chats she has with her obliging assistants.  
On a lingustic note: Hindi and Bugun is spoken in the film but the documentary's primary language is English.  Much of Nocturnes is dialogue-less though.  And while this might bother some people unused to this -- and get them feeling that time drags as a result -- there are others who will feel that it makes for a meditative viewing experience that actually works out to both relaxing and stimulating -- and generally very satisfying indeed.  So much so, in fact, that I think I would have been happy for this 82 minute length work to have had a running time that was closer to 100 minutes! :)

My rating for this film: 8.0

Thursday, April 25, 2024

They Shot the Piano Player compares favourably to a number of Oscar-winning works! (Film review)

My life in Hong Kong: film festing, and way too ubiquitous 
police presence (See the police van on the 
other side of the road from the HKIFF advertising?) :S

They Shot the Piano Player (Spain-France-The Netherlands-Portugal-Peru-U.K., 2023)
- Fernando Treuba (who's also wrote the script) and Javier Mariscal, directors
- Voice actors: Jeff Goldblum, Tony Ramos, Abel Ayala, Roberta Wallach
- Part of the Hong Kong International Film Fetival's Animation Unlimited program 
The last animated movie I viewed prior to viewing this multinational offering was Hayao Miyazaki's The Boy and the Heron (Japan, 2023).  I realise it's unfair to compare these two very different cinematic offerings -- but if I did so, I'd say that I actually liked They Shot the Piano Player better, and am surprised that it didn't even get nominated for the Animated Feature Film Oscar that the Studio Ghibli production won this year.
Speaking of Oscar nominated animated works: Persepolis (France-U.S., 2007) is one of three works I got to thinking of when viewing They Shot the Piano Player; with the other two being the non-animated Academy Award winners Searching for Sugar Man (2012) and Missing (1982).  For like Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi's work about a girl growing up in Islamic Revolution-era Iran, this offering from Fernando Teruba and Javier Mariscal is an animated docudrama -- in the latter case, about an American journalist trying to figure out what happened to a musical hero who appeared to have vanished into thin air, a la Searching the Sugar Man's Sixto Rodriguez, in a foreign, South American country similar to the fictional one that's the setting for Costa-Gavras' Missing.
It's 2010 and New York music journalist Jeff Harris (voiced by Jeff Goldblum) is planning on writing a book about the Brazilian bossa nova craze of the 1960s.  Early on in his research, he comes across a recording featuring the piano playing of Francisco Tenório Júnior and determines to learn more about this Brazilian musical talent.  
On research trips to Brazil, Jeff interviews illustrious Brazilian bossa nova musicians like Gilberto Gil, João Donato and Chico Buarque (voicing themselves in the movie) about their music, and memories of Tenório Júnior.  At some point, he changes the subject of his planned book to the piano player whose music, life and mysterious disappearance back in 1976 he has become well nigh obsessed with.  And eventually, he is able to piece together the tragic story of a much beloved musician and man who went missing while on tour in then dictator-ruled Argentina -- leaving behind a wife, children, mistress and many friends mourning his disappearance from their lives.
At one level, They Shot the Piano Player is a enthralling dramatic investigation into what happened to a piano player who look to have unwittingly got involved in South American politics, to his great detriment.  At another, it's a chilling indictment of totalitarian regimes and their state terrorism -- which, in South America, led, among other tragedies, to the "disappearance" tens of thousands of people, many, if not all, of them innocents.  At the same time, it's also a beautifully hand-drawn work that's a thoroughly affecting celebration of bossa nova, and the life of Tenório Júnior.
It is very much to its makers' credit that they attempted to do so much, and succeeded in doing so.  A feast for the eyes and ears, this work -- which also happens to be tri-lingual (English, Portuguese and Spanish) -- is also heart-breaking and heart-warming at different parts of its story -- which, it is worth emphasizing, is, at heart, non-fiction. (The fictional bit comes from the man who became obsessed with the story of Tenório Júnior -- so much so that he kept at it for some two decades! -- being not Jeff Harris but the film's co-director and scriptwriter, Fernando Trueba -- and instead of writing a book about the Brazilian musician, he made They Shot the Piano Player!)

My rating for this film: 9.0

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Masked Hearts won me over by being quirkily revelatory (Film review)

 I viewed four of this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival
offerings at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre :) 
Masked Hearts (Japan, 2023)
- Yuya Ishii, director and writer
- Starring: Mayu Matsuoka, Masataka Kubota, Koichi Sato 
- Part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival's Fantastic Beats program 

The second Japanese film I viewed at this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival differs in so many ways from the first. For starters, whereas Takeshi Kitano's Kubi is set in the past, focuses on middle-aged (or even older) men (specifically warring, plotting samurai lords) and has a lot of extreme violence, Yuya Ishii's Masked Hearts is set in the present day, has a young adult female protagonist and doesn't boast much violence (especially on screen!).  
Something else I got to thinking when viewing this comedy-drama -- that began as the story of a young female filmmaker in Tokyo confronted with sexism and ageism but then switches to becoming a work about her and her dysfunctional family after she decides to return home to make a movie with her father and two brothers -- is that, whereas Kubi is the sort of Japanese film that would get screened at Asian film festivals in the West, Masked Hearts isn't.  But/and is the kind of movie that Hong Kong audiences, both at film fests and in cineplexes, eat up.      

Having just viewed Norris Wong's The Lyricist Wannabe (Hong Kong-Taiwan, 2024), I saw parallels early on between the young Hong Kong woman aspiring to break into the music industry and Masked Hearts' Hanako (played by Mayu Matsuoka).  Specifically, both of the films' protagonists are romantics doggedly pursuing their dreams -- that, if they were Hollywood movies, would have a predictable trajectory.  But since they aren't, their narratives actually end up having quirky elements and interesting twists.
Among those quirky elements is the romantic interest added to Masked Hearts by way of the kind-hearted Masao (essayed by Masataka Kubota) -- who works in a slaughter house, and has a fondness for the ridiculously small "AbeMasks" handed out to Japanese households early on in the pandemic -- entering Hanako's life. More supportive than conventionally romantic, he goes with Hanako when she returns to the family home where her father, Osamu (portrayed by Koichi Sato), now lives alone.
A man of few words, Osamu turns out to be a man of many secrets.  And someone who loves his children -- elder businessman son Seiichi (played by Sosuke Ikematsu) and younger Catholic clergyman son Yuji (Ryuya Wakaba) as well as Hanako -- very much.  Suffice to say that all this gets revealed in the final third section of this ultimately pretty satisfying movie.  
Granted that it's not perfect and doesn't reach the heights of The Great Passage, the movie that Yuya Ishii's most well known for.  But the fact of the matter is that this (re)viewer still did come out of the fest screening of Masked Hearts -- held over at the Hong Kong Culture Centre's magnificent +1,700 capacity Grand Theatre -- with a smile and positive feeling that, even in a world where tragedy does occur, there still is much that's good in it, including people who may outwardly seem flawed but actually turn out to have quite a bit (of love and care) to give. :)
My rating for this film: 7.0.                             

Saturday, April 20, 2024

Oasis of Now is the kind of fest film that can send audience members to sleep! (Film review)

The Hong Kong International Film Festival is one of
Hong Kong's premier cultural events
Oasis of Now (Malaysia-Singapore-France, 2023)
- Chia Chee Sum, director and scriptwriter
- Starring: Ta Thi Dju, Aster Yeow Ee, Abdul Manaf bin Rejab
- Part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival's Global Vision program
There's been many a year where I've not seen a Malaysian offerings at a Hong Kong film festival.  However, in the past year or so, both the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival (HKAFF) and now the Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) have featured Malaysian movies in their program.  But while Amanda Nell Eu's Tiger Stripes and Jin Ong's Abang Adik went on to get Hong Kong theatrical releases after the HKAFF, I can't see this happening for Chia Chee Sum's Oasis of Now; this not least because this spare, slow-paced effort comes across as the kind of work that can be appreciated only by film festival audiences, if that!
Oasis of Now revolves around Hanh (portrayed by Ta Thi Dju), a casually multi-lingual female who is gradually revealed to be an undocumented Vietnamese immigrant doing odd jobs for different residents of an old housing estate where the film's director-scriptwriter used to live. She also turns out to be the mother of a young girl called Ting Ting (played by Aster Yeow Ee), with whom she occasionally meets up, and hangs out, with in a stairwell of the housing estate; something that's not immediately clear because, among other things, when we first see Ting Ting, she is being treated as a daughter by another woman.

Very little is explicitly spelled out in Oasis of Now; and this can lend proceedings an intriguing air of mystery.  Initially, I was fine to go with the flow and spend time observing what the filmmaker chose to impart more by way of the film's atmospheric cinematography and sound engineering than narrative plotting.  But after a period, I found myself looking wishing for more clarity with regards to a number of details.  
Also, I found it difficult to figure out how much time had passed in the movie -- for even while Hanh's wardrobe never seemed to change and night didn't seem to dawn in the film, it did seem that some days must have passed to accomodate all the things that went on in the story.  Even more problematically, I found myself unable to resist checking my watch more than once to see how much time had passed and was left before this minimalist movie ended.  In addition, I found myself wanting to look around the cinema to gauge the reactions of my fellow audience members -- over the course of which I saw that a number had nodded off mid-viewing!
All in all, I think it's fair to conclude that I don't think many in the audience were captivated or enthralled by this movie that also feels far more emotionally distant than it could and should have been. And it's indeed so that I didn't find Oasis of Now particularly to be my taste.  More specifically, I think of it as yet another entry from a school of Malaysian cinema that looks to have been overly inspired by Tsai Ming Liang (who, for those who didn't realise, is Malaysian born) in my not so humble opinion.  
To be sure, I've been okay with a few such efforts (like Woo Min Jin's Days of Turquoise Sky, which I viewed at the 2008 Hong Kong International Film Festival).  However, I've not cared for a number of others, including one by Tsai himself that I viewed at the 2007 Hong Kong International Film Festival: I Don't Want to Sleep Alone, which, actually, may be the cinematic effort that holds the record for sending the most audience members to sleep that I've ever seen at the Hong Kong International Film Festival!
My rating for this film: 5.0    

Friday, April 19, 2024

Dahomey in Hong Kong -- the Mati Diop documentary at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, that is! (Film review)

In a cinema waiting for a 2024 Hong Kong 
International Film Festival screening to begin
Dahomey  (France-Senegal-Benin, 2024)
- Mati Diop, director and scriptwriter
- Part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival's Cinephile Paradise program
This postcolonial documentary was one of the films I was excited to see at this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival.  For one thing, Dahomey won the Golden Bear at this year's Berlinale.  For another, in another lifetime, I was an Africanist.  And for a third, I've long been a museophile -- and have worked in museums on four different continents
There are those who might think that Dahomey would be anti-museums. Mati Diop's film is, after all, about the repatriation of 26 plundered royal treasures from the Kingdom of Dahomey (~1600-1904) from museums in France where they had been on exhibit (and/or storage) to Benin, the West African state in whose territory Dahomey would be in.  
But, as we see in the documentary, the repatriated artefacts were/are installed upon their return to the African continent in another museum -- this one in Abomey, the old royal city of the Kingdom of Dahomey -- rather than, say, a palace or place of worship.  Something which is one of the subjects of a very interesting discussion at the University of Abomey-Calavi that was the highlight of the the film for me, and which I wish even more of it had been shown.
Up until the inclusion of the discussion in Dahomey, I worried that the story being presented was one that was too simple and privileging emotion.  This particularly since, early on, the words addressed to the audience was presented as monologues emanating from the artefacts themselves (rather than actual living human beings) and Mati Diop seemed most interested, in the early days after the objects' repatriation, to showing us expressions of awe and delight on the faces of those privileged to be among the first to see them back on African soil after years (centuries even) away.
This is not to say that there weren't individuals at the University of Abomey-Calavi discussion who were happy for the return of the Dahomey treasures to their ancestral homeland.  But, all in all, the students' exploration and interrogation as to how the people of Benin should feel about only 26 items having been returned even while thousands remain outside the country, who their return most benefits, how to make them more accessible (including to residents of Benin who live far away from Abomey, the poorer residents of the country, etc.) and so much more added much appreciated complexity to the story.  
In so doing, they also made this documentary offering so much more better and thought-provoking.  Kudos, really, to them.  And a reminder that the young deserve to be heard, not just the elders and ancients; and, actually, that they -- never mind Africans -- are not a homogenous bloc at all!     
My rating for this film: 8.0 

Sunday, April 14, 2024

Takeshi Kitano's Kubi entertained as well as shocked its Hong Kong International Film Festival audience! (Film review)

One day of a chart of 2024 Hong Kong International 
Film Festival screenings that includes information about
which were sold out and which not
Kubi (Japan, 2023)
- Takeshi Kitano (aka Beat Takeshi), director and scriptwriter
- Starring: Takeshi Kitano,Hidetoshi Nishijima, Ryo Kase, Tadanobu Asano, etc.
- Part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival's The Masters program
Back in 2017, I saw online chat and advertising for a Japanese epic centering on the decisive Battle of Sekigahara, which took place in 1600 and pitted the forces of Tokugawa Ieyasu against a coalition of Toyotomi loyalist clans, and eagerly awaited its arrival in Hong Kong cinemas (or, at least, film fests).  However, to date, Sekigahara does not appear to have been screened here -- or even gone straight to video.  The sense I got was that its subject was considered too Japan-specific for many overseas markets, including Hong Kong (although it did screen at a few North American film fests, including Toronto and Hawaii), so few cineastes outside of the Land of the Rising Sun would be interested in checking it out; this even though its cast included the likes of Koji Yakusho.
Happily this fate has not befallen another movie chronicling another major Japanese historical event -- this one the 1582 Honno-ji Incident.  At the very least, Kubi (whose title translates into English as "Heads"; presumably because so many of them are seen getting cut off in the film!) has made it to Hong Kong by way of screenings at this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival; thanks, I have a feeling, to its boasting a star studded cast, featuring art house and cult movie favourites, and headed by its director-scriptwriter, Takeshi Kitano.
The character of the future shogun of Japan also appears in Kubi but Tokugawa Ieyasu's just a supporting character -- and one there for comic relief at that! -- in the film that is said to have been some three decades in the making.  Rather, far more attention is given to the characters of: the then dominant warlord, Nobunaga Oda (played by Ryu Kase); the warlord nicknamed "the monkey" (because he was said to physically resemble one!) (portrayed by Takeshi Kitano), one of whose (more) capable lieutanants is played by Tadanobu Asano; and another high-ranking vassal, Mitsuhide Akechi (essayed by Hidetoshi Nishijima), who Nobunaga -- who had homosexual tendencies -- physically coveted.     

Before anything else: yes, homosexuality features pretty prominently in the film. And it's a historical fact that it was fairly common among samurai.  But even though there has been at least one film about it (Gohatto), it seemed that a significant proportion of the audience at the screening I attended were unprepared for it.  And it didn't help that the first homosexual scene in Kubi involved violence and seemed to be at least partially played for laughs.  (Consequently, cue laughter -- often uneasy in terms of "Should I be laughing?" as opposed to purely homophobic, but uncomfortable and rather strange to hear all the same -- for a number of other homosexual scenes in the film; including ones that I personally thought were not meant to be humorous!) 
If Takeshi Kitano being its director didn't already get you anticipating it, Kubi is by no means an ordinary, run-of-the-mill samurai epic.  Rather, it has copious amounts of startling violence, satire and what traditionalists might deem to be disrespect of samurai ways and actual historical personalities -- with some of the biggest names in Japanese history depicted acting outrageously and even actually dishonorably as they scheme against one another in their bids to gain power or, sometimes, just remain alive!
Your mileage might vary but I found Kubi to be enthralling and entertaining.  And even while there definitely were scenes that made me wince and gasp in shock, there also ones that made me laugh (as intended, I think!) and still others that I enjoyed for the sheer cinematic nature of it all.  At the very least, there most definitely is a sense that a big budget was assembled and lavished on this cinematic work; and used in ways that are masterful -- as one might expect from Takeshi Kitano who, by the way, had not planned to appear in the movie and only did so after "the film’s producers told him it would be harder to market overseas if he didn’t also appear"!
My rating for this film: 8.5

Saturday, April 13, 2024

Kolheisel's Daughters was the first film I viewed at the 2024 Hong Kong International Film Festival (Film review)

Tickets for the 2024 Hong Kong International Film Festival :)
Kohlheisel's Daughters (Germany, 1920)
- Ernst Lubitsch, director and co-scriptwriter (along with Hanns Kräly)
- Starring: Henny Porten, Emil Jannings, Gustav von Wangenheim
- Part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival's Restored Classics program
It used to be that I'd be able to get a ticket for at least one of the opening films (there usually are two) of the Hong Kong International Film Festival.  For the fourth year in a row though, I was unable to do so -- as tickets for screenings of Hong Kong films (which the opening films tend to be, though there have been exceptions (e.g., in 2018)) tend to get snapped up pretty quickly these days; thanks in some part to there Hong Kong films having reconnected with local audiences in recent years, and also to some extent because people have come to worry that certain local films won't get screened outside of the HKIFF (cf. Stanley Kwan's First Night Nerves (2018)).
Thus it was that my HKIFF-ing began on the second day of this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival: with a screening of the 4K restored version of Ernst Lubitsch's silent comedy, Kohlheisel's Daughters; with live musical accompaniment courtesy of the Hong Kong New Music Ensemble.  An adaptation of the play Kohlhiesel's Daughters by Hanns Kräly, Lubitsch's frequent collaborator, this 1920 film went on to be remade three times; a testament to the original's success, and the story of two very different sisters and the main men in their lives striking a chord with audiences of the day.
In view of the film now being 104 years old, it's fair to say that Kohlheisel's Daughters show its age; with a storyline that involves daughters requiring their father's permission to marry, characterisations of women that are on the sexist side by today's standards, and a depiction of a travelling salesman that looks to have an anti-Semitic tinge.  At the same time though, the passing of more than a century cannot prevent viewers from admiring the talent of lead actress Henny Porten -- who portrayed not just one but both of Kohlheisel's daughters... and invested them with such distinct personalities that there was no mistaking one for the other!    
Porten is first seen as Gretel, a maiden who cares about her appearance and attracts the attention of many men, including Xavier (played by Emil Jannings), who falls so hard for her that he seeks her hand in marriage.  Papa Kohlheisel (essayed by Jakob Tiedke) refuses to let Gretel marry before her rough, tough sister Liesel (also played by Henny Porten) though; leaving Xavier frustrated, until his friend Seppl (played by Gustav von Wangenheim) suggests that Xavier marry Liesel, then acts so awful to her that she will leave him, so he's cleared to then marry Gretel! 
Suffice to say that things don't go as Xavier expects.  Still, things do end up in a way that he and a number of others find quite satisfactory!  Speaking of satisfactory: it's actually quite hard for me to see why any woman would want the physically strong but generally oafish Xavier for a husband.  I guess what got a man appearing to be a good catch was very different in 1920s rural Germany to now, even -- I'd wager -- in the same land!   
My review for this film: 7.0