Wednesday, March 31, 2010

HKIFF Film review 影評: Mundane History 俗物人間

Original Thai title: เจ้านกกระจอก
Director: Anoncha Suwichakornpong อโนชา สุวิชากรพงศ์
Cast: Phakpoom Surapongsanurak, Arkaney Cherkham, Paramej Noiam
Length: 82 mins
Year: 2009


Films that attempt to link a metaphysical study of human life and death with the cosmos will always be ambitious. 2001: A Space Odyssey 2001太空漫遊 and Solaris 星球索拉羅斯 are fine examples. Mundane History fits in this strand, but Anoncha Suwichakornpong's uneven feature debut leaves more to be desired.

Ake (Phakpoom Surapongsanurak), a paraplegic from the waist down after an unexplained accident, is a frustrated young man whose dreams of becoming a film director are shattered. He doesn't talk to his father Tanin (Paramej Noiam) who's rarely at home. Tanin employs a male nurse Pun (Arkaney Cherkham) to take care of Ake. At first venting his anger at Pun, Ake soon develops a close bond with him.

Most of the action takes place in the mansion, and Anoncha adopts a non-linear structure (albeit decided during the editing process), preventing Mundane History from being another heart-warming inspirational film. We have a perfect sense of how 'soulless' the place is (to borrow Pun's words early in the film), with the hollow interior shots, gloomy faces, brooding backs, and the occasional cut to the exterior, perhaps suggesting some external threat, supernatural force or the 'bad karma' that afflicts the family. 

However, Mundane History isn't content with commenting on familial relations or the lack of communication between people. A supernova sequence intervenes in the second half of the film, and soon we hear Pun and Ake spouting philosophical musings on how 'our ideas do change' or 'is it possible to live without a past'. The film ends with a home video-like flaring montage of natural and human images with a voiceover on the inevitable but spectacular event of a supernova, and then proceeds to a live cesarean birth. 

Perhaps there's an indirect motivational message after all, on how Ake's suffering is one of the many trivial experiences in the wondrous journey of life. And if the film is an illustration on how small Pun and Ake are in the greater order of things, then the awesome astronomical explosion (scored with Malaysian band Furniture's 'Hush, the Dead Are Sleeping') certainly does its job.

But I felt rather underwhelmed by the film. Is it because I was sitting at the back of the cinema, far from my comfort zone at the front rows? Have I failed to immerse myself into the cinematic experience due to my obsessive note-taking? Or is it because the relatively staid treatment in the first half poses a serious mismatch with the big bang and grandiose scope in the second half? Does the narrative lack the dramatic and emotional heft necessary to sustain the familiar but fundamental themes of life, death and rebirth? (At least another HKIFF film Enter The Void 死心不息 attempted to do so with its indulgent assault of love and sex.) And is Robert Koehler's observation in Cinema Scope Issue 42 correct in saying that Mundane History 'feels like two different films vying for attention'?

While a metaphysical/spiritual/Buddhist reading of Mundane History remains the obvious choice, it's interesting that Anoncha intended to present a political and social commentary. In the post-screening Q and A, this YouTube monologue, and this interview, Anoncha emphasises the film as a reflection about the politics of Thai society, and the family being a microcosm of Thai society. Aside from a brief shot of a royalist ('yellow shirts') demonstration during the montage, I didn't spot any other overt political allusions. I can only guess there's something in the film about the patriarchal or closeted nature of Thai society and the desire for a breakthrough or rebirth in the current political stalemate. But that's a guess coming from someone who has never set foot in Thailand.

Winner of Rotterdam Film Festival 2010's Tiger Award* (along with To The Sea 男孩與海 and Agua Fria 赤道寒流, both shown in this year's HKIFF), Mundane History is a confident debut that ultimately doesn't measure up as a whole. This is not to say that the film is a poor, slapdash piece of work; but with such high ambitions, there's bound to be some disappointment in its execution.

*= Those with a cynical disposition may want to note that both Mundane History and Agua Fria were sponsored by Rotterdam's own Hubert Bals Fund. I have nothing to add.

Mundane History is showing in the HKIFF.

Reviews from the excellent Wise Kwai's Thai Film Journal here and here, Variety, and The Hollywood Reporter.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

HKIFF Film review 影評: Symbol 睡衣男異次元空間

Original Japanese title: しんぼる
Director: Hitsohi Matsumoto 松本人志, David Quintero
Length: 93 mins
Year: 2009

A comedy superstar in Japan, Hitoshi Matsumoto's directorial debut Dai Nipponjin 大日本人 (aka Big Man Japan) was a welcome introduction of postmodern revisionism to the Japanese superhero genre, as well as (to leave off my academic pretenses) being simply a hilarious popcorn movie. Hitoshi's ambitions in his second film Symbol are epic in comparison, scrapping narrative for physical gags and rounding up with another bizarre but possibly serious surprise, but the final product falls short in the comedy department.

Two seemingly separate narratives occupy the film, which is obliquely divided into titles 'The Education', 'The Implementation' and 'The Future'. We begin with a straight tale, where a has-been Mexican luchador Escargotman (David Quintero) prepares for a tag team fight while his family and a foul-mouthed nun support him. Intercutting back and forth is the second story, where we see Hitoshi playing a pajama-clad (something inspired by Yayoi Kusama 草間彌生?) unnamed character trapped in a Pavlovian white room furnished with boy angels' penises. We see the tribulations of Hitoshi trying to escape by using objects dispensed by triggering the penises. Hence the amusement in Symbol.

What makes a good Japanese TV game show doesn't necessarily make a good comedy film. It's abundantly clear in Dai Nipponjin that Hitoshi doesn't aim for the rapid-gag factor, and part of the enjoyment in that film is in witnessing the miserable ordinary life that the protagonist leads. However in Symbol, Hitoshi resorts to rather simple jokes that get repetitive and tiresome. There's still the loser persona and the deliberate pacing within the jokes (a certain sushi sequence springs into mind), but this time around I found myself increasingly straining to laugh at the gags.

Symbol's third act slightly redeems itself by going all out in absurdity. The two narratives finally intertwine, and the film lurches towards a global, metaphysical, philosophical, and perhaps religious dimension (thanks for the spoilers in your programme synopsis, HKIFF). Nonetheless, by the end of the film we're left with a middling head-scratcher rather than a complementing ooh-ah moment.

Then again, maybe I wasn't in the mood that day... (can Variety, The Hollywood Reporter or Twitchfilm be wrong?)

Symbol is showing in the HKIFF.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

My (belated) 34th HKIFF schedule and picks 電影節心水推介

I'm pretty late for posting this as my favourite event of the Hong Kong calendar has started 2 days ago, but better late than never. If there are any fellow bloggers/internet lurkers/members of the public/stalkers who would like to catch a film together and have a coffee/debate/fight afterwards, feel free to send me an email!

Films that I've bought tickets:
Symbol 睡衣男異次元空間 6/3 2:30pm (Asian Film Awards screening)
Those who have seen Dai Nipponjin (aka Big Man Japan) 大日本人 and are expecting more deadpan surreal antics from Hitoshi Matsumoto 松本人志 will be surprised (and possibly disappointed) by his new curio. Do expect another bizzare deus ex machina though. Review coming up.
Story of a Discharged Prisoner 英雄本色 - 19/3 5:30pm (19FA3M3R)
You've seen that classic John Woo adaptation, why not see the original? Sincere social-realist melodrama along with some impressive action sequences (minus the bloodshed), it also sports a delicious performance from everyone's favourite villain Sek Kin 石堅.
Teddy Girls 飛女正傳 - 21/3 12:30pm (21FA3M1R)
The Joys and Sorrows of Youth 冷暖青春 - 21/3 3:30pm (21FA3M2R)
Police, Adjective 字典與警鎗 - 22/3 7:15pm (22GC3E1)
From the director of 12:08 East of Bucharest 布加勒斯特以東午後8分, this FIPRESCI and Un Certain Regard winner is another fine film from the Romanian New Wave, and with a barbed denouement that fully justifies its careful pace. Review coming up.
Father of My Child 爸爸的肥皂泡 - 22/3 9:30pm (22GC3E2)
Fans who caught Mia Hansen-Løve's subtle but touching debut All is Forgiven 寬恕與原諒 in French Cinepanorama 2008 have no reason to miss this one out, and those who missed out can now catch this new talent from France. Review coming up.
Enter the Void 死心不息 - 23/3 9:00pm (23SM3E2)
Provocateur Gaspar Noe (Irréversible 無可挽回) brings another predictably graphic, controversial and divisive work, but with its hypnotic cinematography this is one that has to be seen on the big screen. Supplemental drug use optional.
Petition (Director's Cut) 上訪(導演版) - 26/3 5:45pm (26SP3E1)
If there's one documentary about the injustices happening in China that you have to watch, then it has to be this one. One of the highlights of Cannes 2009, this world premiere of a 5-hour director's cut will certainly elaborate further the lives of individuals that seek to have their cases heard. Keep an eye out for a public seminar with director Zhao Liang after a screening of the 2-hour international version on April 2nd.
Mundane History 俗物人間 - March 27th 6:00pm (27UQ3E1)
Fans of Apichatpong 'Joe' Weerasethakul (Syndromes and a Century 世紀症候群) would want to catch this mysterious and metaphysical feature debut by indie helmer Anocha Suwichakornpong. (Fans of 'Joe' should be aware his new short A Letter to Uncle Boonmee is part of the Avant Garde Programme II  前衛短片選輯(二):虛中有實 - thanks gar~*!)
Spring in a Small Town 小城之春 - March 28th 2:30pm (28FA3M2R)
A chamber drama, an adult love story of irrepressible emotions, a film ahead of its time, a landmark in Chinese cinema. Simply a must-see.
Lola 嫲嫲對婆婆 - 29/3 7:15pm (29UL3E1) and Kinatay 男孩看見血地獄 - 29/3 9:45pm (29UL3E2) 
This Cannes Best Director winner Brillante Mendoza (Serbis 我們這一家影院…服務周到, Slingshot 丫丫叉叉) double bill should be interesting: the first about two grandmothers struggling with grief and poverty; the second a brutal tale about a fresh police cadet committing an irreversible act of evil.
Vincere 獨裁者的情婦 - 31/3 9:45pm (31GC3E2)
Marco Bellocchio's (The Wedding Director 婚禮大導, and subject of a HKIFF retrospective in 2003) operatic tale about Mussolini's mistress was well received in Cannes 2009 despite failing to win any awards. (Note this will be released in Hong Kong by First Distributors, date unknown.)
Metropolis 大都會(終極修復版) - 1/4 8:00pm 
With 30 minutes of unseen footage rediscovered in 2008, this latest restoration sheds new light on Fritz Lang's masterpiece. An essential work in silent cinema, German expressionism and the sci-fi genre (a direct influence to another sci-fi classic Blade Runner) and a must-see in this year's HKIFF. 
Don't be misled by the inappropriate 'The Avatar of the 1920s' reference in the adverts though: at best it's a testament to its awe-inspiring scale and ambition (time will tell whether Avatar is a genuine groundbreaker in technology or merely a record in box office history motivated by mass hype and fanboydom), at worst it's an ironic insult (Metropolis tanked on release and never recuperated its massive production costs).
La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet 舞動花都 - 2/4 3:00pm (02AC4M3)
Frederick Wiseman returns to his love of ballet with this observational documentary. I was surprised that the two initial screenings sold out quickly (surely not that many Hong Kongers have the patience to endure Wiseman's lengthy and unassuming works?), but then I realised: girls laden/spoilt with ballet lessons have idols to aspire to, and women can revisit their childhood fantasies and drool at the pretty clothes and pretty people. No offence intended. 
Around a Small Mountain 小山36景 - 2/4 9:15pm (02KG4E2) 
82 year-old Jacques Rivette's lifelong obsession with the interplay between life and art continues in this light gem starring Sixties icon (and forever Mrs. Gainsbourg) Jane Birkin. I'm curious why this was allocated a single screening, whereas fellow Nouvelle Vague director Alain Resnais gets three... 
The Dust of Time  時光微塵 -6/4 12:30pm (06KG4M2)
This and Theo Angelopoulos' other works, with his magisterial long takes and compositions, simply deserve to be seen on the big screen. 
White Material 白鬼 - 6/4 6:00pm (06CT4E1)
Claire Denis had a great 2009 with 35 Shots of Rum 巴黎日和 and this film (starring the fearless Isabelle Huppert) marks a return to Africa, where she was raised and shot her debut Chocolat.  
Lourdes 神蹟疑雲 - 6/4 9:00pm (06SM4E2)
A wheelchair-bound non-believer experiences a religious miracle- or doesn't- in this acclaimed FIPRESCI-winning feature starring Sylvie Testud.
The Travelling Players 流浪藝人 - 10/4 2:15pm (10AC4M2X)
Thirst 求之不得 - 11/4 3:30pm (11SP4M2X)
This is a rare opportunity to catch a masterpiece by Guru Dutt, the 'Orson Welles of Bollywood'.
Landscape in the Mist 霧中風景 - 18/4 9:20pm (18SM4E2X)
Love Massacre 愛殺 - 30/4 7:30pm
Having missed this twice in two separate Film Programmes Office/Hong Kong Film Archive seasons, now's the time for me to catch this seminal Hong Kong New Wave classic by Patrick Tam 譚家明 (After This Our Exile 父子). And gaze admiringly at Brigitte Lin 林青霞.
Yesterday Today Tomorrow 昨天今天明天 - 8/5 12:30pm
Lung Kong's 龍剛 government-supported adaptation of Albert Camus' The Plague was vociferously criticised by leftists in the aftermath of the 1967 riots. With our experiences during the SARS epidemic, this film is ever more visionary and haunting.
Hiroshima 38 廣島廿八 - 8/5 3:00pm
Lung Kong's ambition reaches its peak with this anti-war, anti-nuclear weapons feature. As it portrays a Japanese family played by Chinese stars sympathetically, the film predictably suffered from the wrath of leftists and nationalists at its release. One must admire Lung Kong's earnest efforts in tackling a global issue, something rarely seen in contemporary Hong Kong cinema.

Films that I'm waiting to purchase due to scheduling issues: 
Dogtooth 狗牙
Avant Garde Programme II 前衛短片選輯(二):虛中有實
The Happiest Girl in the World 今天應該很高興
Spring Fever 春風沉醉的夜晚
Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl 金髮奇女子
After All These Years 其後 
Oxhide II 牛皮貳
La Pivellina 天降B女
Hadewijch 戀戀耶穌
Mr. and Mrs. '55 55年的夫妻
Paper Flowers 紙 花 
The Hunters 獵人
Days of '36 三六年的歲月
Journey to Cythera 塞瑟島之旅
The Suspected Step of the Stork 鸛鳥踟躕
Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow 悲傷草原
Okoto and Sasuke 春琴抄
The Lights of Asakusa 淺草之燈
So Goes My Love 從愛到愛

Films that I'll miss and recommend (excluding those that are due to be released):
Any retrospective events I have missed out
Apart Together 團圓
Eighteen 十八微風少年
The Secret in Their Eyes 謎情追兇
Wild Grass 野草  
Sweet Rush 我懷念的
Kanikosen 蟹工船
Like You Know It All 電影節桃花劫
Life During Wartime 感情線上腦交戰
Confucius (2010 Version) 孔夫子(2010年最新修復版)
Karaoke 你卡拉,我OK 
Adrift 慾念起錨 
To The Sea (Alamar) 男孩與海
I Killed My Mother 殺死我阿媽
Eastern Plays 索菲亞的天空
The Red Shoes 紅菱豔  
Honeymoons 蜜月勿越
Lebanon 黎巴嫩
Independencia 大獨立
Double Take 雙面希治閣
Bluebeard 藍鬍子
Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno 緊張大師的無間地獄
A Town Called Panic 笑震震小鎮
Between Two Worlds 超時空戰紀
The Portuguese Nun 葡萄牙修女

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Observations on the 34th HKIFF 評論電影節

1. Props for this year's programme booklet design. A handy A4 size, perfect for on-the-go browsing/sharing and for keeping you seemingly occupied while queuing up for the next screening (even though most of those who bother to queue up are presumably avid festgoers who planned their schedules well in advance).

The cover's psychological/film noir theme also gives a good impression of seriousness unlike last year's 'hip' amateur student project, although this was summarily dismissed when I found out the images correspond with the idiotic booking assistant for Hong Kongers who prefer to be illiterate, Spin the Wheel (I can't wait to see how many people expecting gripping blockbuster tension would be 'thrilled' by the avant-garde low-budget In the Woods 浪蕩林深處).

2. Generally this year's programme is pretty good. Perhaps a shorter festival (17 days compared to last year's 23, but still relatively long compared to foreign fests) leads to careful selection, as the major films in the fest circuit more or less are covered (but see point 4 below). Very welcoming (for me personally) that they dropped last year's deliberate attempt to introduce more motivational/uplifting films- less populist/mainstream flicks, more arthouse/world cinema fare this year.

Retrospectives are outstanding and genuinely must-see (i.e. films that aren't readily available on DVD/Internet). In particular, Theo Angelopoulos' films, with its long takes and meticulous compositions, must be appreciated on the big screen. Bruce Lee's retrospective scheduling on weekdays, like last year's Film Workshop retrospective, remains awkward. Seminars for retrospectives, like those organised by Film Programmes Office, are unhelpfully held near the early screening dates- generally the public won't have seen most, if not any of the films, and if you want to encourage the public to appreciate them or contribute to discussions, then you really have to let them see the films first.

(N.B. Will we ever get to see the Nagisa Oshima 大島渚 retrospective that toured North America and Europe in 2008-09?) 

3. It's encouraging that both opening and closing slots are occupied by Hong Kong films. Those who complain that it's bad for an 'international' festival, or that these are unnecessary premieres for soon-to-be-released films, are missing the point: it's always helpful to have an international platform for showcasing what Hong Kong has to offer. HKIFF is far from (and probably will never be equal to) Cannes/Berlin/Venice/Toronto, and even in these top fests local films are given slots either in competition or gala premieres.

Also pay attention to the Hong Kong films premiering in the Hong Kong Panorama section, as well as the shorts in the Short Film Competition. How many of these will be on general release or on limited runs at Broadway Cinematheque/The Grand Cinema? Will there be another success story like last year's KJ 音樂人生?

4. Notable absences from this year's programme, some rather glaring: Werner Herzog's The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans and My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done; Tilda Swinton-starring I Am Love; Venice Silver Lion winner Women Without Men; Berlin Golden Bear winner The Milk of Sorrow; Berlin Silver Bear winner Katalin Varga; Sally Potter's Rage; Pedro Costa's Ne Change Rien; Lukas Moodysson's Mammoth; João Pedro Rodrigues' To Die Like a Man; Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are; Richard Linklater's Me and Orson Welles; Atom Egoyan's Chloe; Fatih Akin's Soul Kitchen; Harmony Korine's Trash Humpers; Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story; James Benning's Ruhr; Young British Artist Sam Taylor-Wood's directorial debut Nowhere Boy; Samantha Morton's directorial debut The Unloved; Shinya Tsukamoto's 塚本晋也 English-remake Tetsuo: The Bullet Man; Adam Curtis' It Felt Like a Kiss; US indie The Exploding Girl; UK TV mini-series The Red Riding Trilogy; South Korean film Paju; and Anna Wintour documentary The September Issue (because if last year's Valentino, The Last Emperor 末代皇帝華倫天奴 sold out, then there's no reason why this one won't). And although last year's absences I noted have been covered in other film events in 2009, Lucrecia Martel's acclaimed The Headless Woman remains unreleased in Hong Kong.

5.  For Chinese speakers, two interviews with artistic director Li Cheuk-to 李焯桃 to listen to at and RTHK's 講東講西.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Restart (a.k.a. A New Beginning)

It's been almost 10 months since my last post, but I've decided to start blogging again. Much has changed during this period, both personally and the people/events around me, but some things remain the same: my procrastination, my writer's block and my passion for cinema and politics. Any particular reasons for why I'm restarting this blog? A sudden reminiscence for what I've written, the ensuing drive to pick up the activity again, and the same motivations you'll find here. Let's see how it'll go this time...

In the meantime, here's something to whet your cinematic appetite:

Selections for this year's programme that I can gather from the trailer: Marco Bellocchio's Vincere, Claire Denis' White Material, Sabu's Kanikosen, Alain Resnais' Wild Grass, Theo Angelopoulos' The Dust of Time, Patrice Chéreau's Persecution, Takashi Miike's
三池崇史 Yatterman, Francis Ford Coppola's Tetro, Coen Brothers' A Serious Man, Hitoshi Matsumoto's 松本人志 Symbol, Rabbit Without Ears 2, Harry Brown, The Messenger.

Other leaks about the programme from various sources: Frederick Wiseman's La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet; Pianomania; The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers; short films by Clara Law 羅卓瑤, Peter Chan 陳可辛 and Heiward Mak 麥曦茵; Guru Dutt, Krzysztof Zanussi and Shimazu Yasujiro 島津保次郎 retrospectives; brand new restoration of Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes; and a complete restoration of Fei Mu's Confucius (by which they inserted the post-credits footage in last year's screenings into the main film

And of course there's the must-see, one-off screening of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, a new version featuring 30 minutes of newly discovered footage and featuring live music accompaniment from the Hong Kong Sinfonietta. Buy tickets through UBRTIX here.