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Thread: NY ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL Aug. 28-Sept. 12, 2020 online

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    NY ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL Aug. 28-Sept. 12, 2020 online

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 09-26-2020 at 10:01 AM.

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    BENEATH THE SHADOW 影裏(Ohtomo Keishi, 2019)

    OHTOMO KEISHI: BENEATH THE SHADOW 影裏 (2019)


    ANANO GO IN BENEATH THE SHADOW

    Friend

    The blockbuster director of the romantic manga sword fighter Rurouni Kenshin films here explores his contemplative side with an arthouse film based on a prizewinning contemporary novel. It is the story of a strange, haunting friendship. Shuichi Konno (Anano Go)is a delicate-looking young man of thirty who's transferred to northeastern Japan, Morioka (Iwate), by his company. He seems to have been excited, and then, lonely. Someone else comes to work there, Norihiro Hiasa (Ryhei Matsuda of The Sythian Lamb, NYAFF 2018), who latches onto Konno, gets drunk with him in his apartment, takes him fishing, later, even camping. We know there is something, well, fishy about Hiasa, but we also believe in Konno's fascination, need, even, it seems one night, desire, in this moody piece of minimalism.

    The devil is in the details. And Ryhei Matsuda, who seems more confident, even aggressive, even hostile with Konno, seems devilish. Anano Go is a bit of a sex object at first, the camera caressing his butt and crotch in jockey shorts in opening scene repeatedly. The "friendship" between Konno and Hiasa seems a bit suspicious, or maybe Konno is just so lonely. But no - Kazuya comes for a visit, and it emerges that in Tokyo Konno had a relationship, commemorated by a very long hug, with someone who has become a trans female. But the details are of the fish, how to put a worm on a hook, then gang hooks, Hiasa's little chat about the cycle of nature - "moss loves fallen trees" - and his story about the pomegranate tree (an image picked up later) in his yard growing up.

    This is yet another Japanese film that weaves in the Fukushima event. Iwate, where this mostly transpires, was affected by the earthquake, I understand. But first, there is Hiasa's sudden disappearance from work, followed by his surprise reappearance later selling shares in a suspicious mutual aid society he forces everyone he knows to subscribe to, including, after a night of drinking, Konno. Then, Fukushima, and Hiasa seems to have been in one of the devastated areas.

    Konno goes hunting for his lost friendship that never was. But then, it was a very special friendship. We have seen that. Only Hiasa has this other side. And he has warned his friend, with another haunting speech about the deeper shadow behind a face, the warning that he's not all he appears to be. This, Konno finds out something about, as revealed in scenes of meetings first with Norihiro's father (Jun Kunimura), then with his older brother, Kaoru (Ken Yasuda).

    This film is a little too slow and too long, but early on it reminded me of Lee Chang-dong's wonderful, haunting Burning (NYFF 2018) created by just spicing up a bit a Haruki Murakami short story. One feels one is very much in the realm of the short story here also. Director Ohtomo Keishi has worked here from a novel by Shinsuke Numata, which won the Akutagawa prize in 2017. It's the essence of this story, and of the film, that the secret of Hiasa, Konno's intense, mysterious friendship, slips away like the fish Konno releases at the end of the film. But that seemed somehow rather anticlimactic.

    This is a movie whose beginning and middle are better than its end. James Hadfield is cruel but not inaccurate in his Japan Times review when he concludes that the film finishes "in an awkward hinterland," not "atmospheric enough" to be a "mood piece" nor "taut" enough to "satisfy as a suspense story." Ohtomo doesn't hit a home run in his foray into art filmmaking. Nonetheless this is a memorable, in some ways classic, theme.

    Beneath the Shadow 影裏 , 135 mins., debuted Dec. 2019 at Hainan, and was released in Japan Feb. 14, 2020 (Sony Music Entertainment). The dp was Akiko Ashizawa. Screened for this review as part of the Aug. 28-Sept 12, 2020 virtual cinema New York Asian Film Festival.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 09-20-2020 at 12:20 PM.

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    A BELOVED WIFE 喜劇 愛妻物語 (Shin Adachi 2019 )

    SHIN ADACHI: A BELOVED WIFE 喜劇 愛妻物語 (2019)


    AZAMI MIZUKAWA AND GAKU HAMADA IN A BELOVED WIFE

    Hellish family road trip seen as redeeming comedy

    Shin Adachi is not a conventional Japanese filmmaker or one who fits time-honored cultural norms of understatement and politeness. As a screenwriter he debuted in 100 Yen Love (Japan's 2015 Oscar submission) with the story of a thirty-something woman who became a boxer to help a guy who is a jerk. In his directorial debut 14 That Night he focused on a high school student whose ambition is to fondle the breasts of a porn star. This time, adapting his own novel, he depicts a highly unappealing version of himself as Gota (Gaku Hamada), a currently unsuccessful and sometimes lazy screenwriter whose big complaint is that he is not having "sex" (the Japanese use the same word) with his wife. The film focuses on a hellish and unenjoyable but also funny road trip the short, dumpy Gota drags his wife and TV-addicted daughter on to Kagawa Prefecture, on the island of Shikoku gathering information for a screenwriting assignment, a film about a high school girl who makes udon commissioned from Gota's agent as a vehicle for a financier’s mistress.

    Chika (Azami Mizukawa), the shrewish wife, never hesitates to berate Gota. And she seems justified. He hasn't been much of a provider. He says what he's earned in the last year amounts to 500,000 Yen, which is less than $5,000. Now, he keeps bugging her to have sex with him, meanwhile indulging in porn through a virtual reality headset and getting stopped by police for looking up the dress of woman passed out drunk on the street. Perhaps it's no wonder Chika goes to comical (or wearying) efforts to save money. Not a pretty portrait either, Chika dresses like a slob and drinks to excess. She's also however currently the family breadwinner. The family dynamic is ultimately leavened by the presence of sweet young daughter Aki (Chise Niitsu), one positive fruit of this unglamorous ten-year marriage.

    It all seems dull and sordid, but Adachi pointed out in an interview with James Hadfield of The Japan Times that Gaku Hamada was chosen because his diminutive, baby-faced look makes him ultimately hard for audiences to dislike. Adachi told Hadfield it's all based on his "actual experiences" but that the movie makes it (the behavior) "all look better." (Hadfield's aside is that he presumes the cramped, messy apartment used for the family here must surely be "rather less fancy" than Adachi's own current one.) It emerges that Adachi is a child of the eighties and kitchen sink TV series like Taichi Yamada's which Adachi saw as "unsparing" and "harsh" but also "big-hearted." A sweet-and-sour mixture is what Adachi strives for here, though with this autobiographical protagonist who's without shame or politeness in front of his wife and daughter and has drag-out fights with his wife, it can wind up being hard to find the big-heartedness or sympathy.

    Adachi is a cutting-edge, increasingly in-demand Japanese writer and director who is seeking to take local cinema in fresh directions that make Peter DeBruge of Variety compare him to Alexander Payne and Noah Baumbach or, even more, Woody Allen. Deborah Young in her Hollywood Reporter review of this high-profile new film notes its "weird originality" and, underneath its "near-constant vulgarity," "a beating heart." Maybe so, but a lot of this seemed tiresome and icky to me. Woody Allen never had this kind of crude, kitchen-sink quality and at his best is much funnier than this as well. Note: the current subtitles are below par in quality.

    A Beloved Wife 喜劇 愛妻物語, 117 mins., debuted at Tokyo in competition Nov. 2019. Screened for this review as part of the New York Asian Film Festival, presented virtually Aug. 28-Sept. 12, 2020.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 09-20-2020 at 12:21 PM.

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    THEY SAY NOTHING STAYS THE SAME ある船頭の話 (Odagiri Joe 2019)

    ODAGIRI JOE: THEY SAY NOTHING STAYS THE SAME ある船頭の話 (2019)



    Of time and the river

    This ambitious and beautiful Japanese historical film was directed by Joe Odagiri with cinematography by Wong Kar-wai's superb muse Chris Doyle and lovely but a bit obtrusive music by Armenian jazz pianist Tigran Hamasyan. The forty-four-year-old Odagiri's Japanese Wikipedia page is immense. As Deborah Young tells us in her Hollywood Reporter review, at home Odagiri's known as a "gothic rebel with a reliably huge female fan base," and he has been involved in many films and TV series. He wants to do something art house and impressive here, and he does, if it might have used some tightening up here and there. He may be inspired in his calm setting and aging, simple protagonist by Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring by Kim Ki-duk whom he worked with on the latter's Dream, but Akira Emori's old boatman Toichi doesn't spout Zen wisdom like Kim's old dude. He's just a stoical, unlettered old man who's modest and a bit lost but an integral part of a beautiful, natural place.

    Toichi is always ready to row village-to-town passengers of all sorts, loud or quiet, offensive or polite, across the wide mountain valley river in his flatboat whenever asked. He says it takes three days to learn the oars, three years to learn the pole. It's all he knows how to do, and he does it tirelessly and lives in a shack at the bend in the river. His frequent companion is a loud, goofy young man called Genzo (Nijir Murakami, a media cutie in Japan, here doing a nice character turn), who provides such delicacies as bean paste baked on summer rocks.

    But remember Marvell's "To His Coy Mistreess, "at my back I always hear/Time’s wingd chariot hurrying near"? At Toichi's back, in the distance, rarely seen, he always hears the sounds of a bridge building over the river. Genzo hates the idea of faster, busier people, loss of the few coins for his crossings for Toichi, of his livelihood. They dream, once vividly, in black and white, and violently, of attacking the bridge and its builders and stopping the whole thing. This never happens. At the end, the bridge is built (it's surprisingly pretty, a soft red), the town and village people rush back and forth, and Toichi is a back number, advised to take it easy and not think too much by the doctor.

    The Japanese are great at historical, costume cinema, and this film set in the Meiji era (late 19th to 1912) shot by the master Christopher Doyle sets an enchanting mood. This is also a nation of storytellers. Americans saw this combination epitomized early in a US import triumph from Janus Films, Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, which skillfully blends three Ryunosuke Akutagawa stories within a haunting mood. This is not that. So often I longed for the brilliant storytelling this movie hints at, feeling it has the material, and just needs to rearrange it a bit and cut out the fat - or "kill his darlings," since surely there are numerous beautiful passages Joe was loathe to part with.

    Nijir Murakami says somewhere a Jim Jarmusch film is his favorite movie, and one of the other key players, who plays Nihei (Masatoshi Nagase) was in Jarmusch's Mystery Train, so it may make sense that I thought of Dead Man, the way its incidents flow from one scene to the next and with death, like here, hanging around the corner. They Say Nothing Stays the Same has very good scenes in this glamorous package, but they don't quite mesh enough, and there's too much space between them. Scenes are vivid and good nonetheless.

    The first big one, disturbing the generally tranquil life, comes when Toichi's flatboat runs into a lump of something floating in the water. It's a dead girl. Only when he lugs her to his shack, Genzo discovers she's not dead, she's breathing. She may be called "Fu," which Toichi thinks it would be nice if it meant "wind," but IMDb knows her only as "Girl" (Ririka Kawashima). Toichi treats her wounds with Genzo's mix of mudwort and bear bile, but they fear she was hit on the head, and when she finally speaks she has forgotten all about her life. On the river Toichi hears all rumors and there is one of a family massacred at Ichinomiya with one girl carried off. They think Fu may be the girl. Her muteness seems to confirm this. Later she begins to speak, then runs off, later comes back and lives with Toichi and eventually becomes his helper. She is dark and knowing. Once, she jumps off the boat into the water. Toichi divers after her, to rescue her, but in a typically lovely underwater scene, we find she swims like a fish. They live, by the way, off fish-on-a-stick sandwiches. Later the story about a massacre at Ichinomiya turns out to be just a story.

    We meet, with Toichi, rude, impatient people who treat him abominably, including some bridge engineers, and some nasty little boys who throw stones and mock, all giving a sense of evil in the world. But ultimately the message is ecological. Since the bridge is building, the water is dirtier, and without clear water there are no fireflies. "Fu" (Girl) says fireflies are more important than bridges. We meet also, with Toichi, a girl ghost, in ragged grey clothing - another thing the Japanese excel at is ghosts - and she says she is watching him. Maybe she's going to take him away, with the tides, with the seasons.

    It all ends, in a way, with winter, which brings astonishing scenes of snow that show the region where this film takes place is more beautiful, grand, stark, and mountainous than it seemed in the closer, lusher greenness of summer.

    Before the snow there is a great storm with heavy rain when the straw period raincoats come out. The Girl and Toichi sit huddled in his shack when Nihei, a longtime passenger and friend, arrives carrying the body of his dead father, asking the favor of Toichi to aid him in fulfilling a promise. His father spent his life hunting animals; Toichi ferried him to his hunting grounds and considered him "a great man." His last wish was to have his body offered to the animals he hunted to repay those lives he took. But this must be done in secret. So they, with the girl, take the corpse of Nihei's father into a dark and rain-drenched forest across the river. (Here in particular the score of Tigran Hamasyan seems a little too sweet and prominent.)

    A Letterboxd contributor comments that the film is "really good for 95%" of the way but in the other 5% chooses to "drive off a cliff" - breaking the calm and peace too much. James Hadfield is similar in The Japan Timeswhen he says Odagiri "can’t quite reconcile the film’s mood-piece feel with his more dramatic urges." This is indeed a challenge in such a long film (two hours and seventeen minutes): ruthless editing might have helped. But, again as Hadfield says, Odagiri is probably too in love with his beautiful cinematography and high quality cast. So was I.

    They Say Nothing Stays the Same ある船頭の話, 137 mins., debuted at Venice (in the Giornate degli Autori section), where Odagiri was also present as one of the stars of Lou Ye’s (not as good) competition spy film Saturday Fiction Sept. 2019, also showing at Busan, Montreal, Hong Kong, and Taipei. Screened for this review as part of the virtual 2020 New York Asian Film Festival (Aug. 28-Sept. 12).


    RIRIKA KAWASHIMA, AKIRA EMOTO

    CINEMATOGRAPHER CHRISTOPHER DOYLE
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-28-2020 at 10:08 PM.

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    ONE NIGHT ひとよ (Shiraishi Kazuya 2019)

    SHIRAISHI KAZUYUA: ONE NIGHTひとよ(2019)


    TAKERU SATOH, RYOHEI SUZUKI, YUKO TANAKA AND MAYU MATSUOKA IN ONE NIGHT

    Family dynamic not improved by spousal murder

    Ths screenplay of One Night was written by Shiraishi’s collaborator Takahashi Izumi and based on a 2011 play by Kuwabara Yuko. Shiraishi's a bit of a NYAFF bad boy (we know him from The Blood of Wolves and Dare to Stop Us), and here returns with a multilayered meditation on the stigma of violence. This time he focuses on a family.

    The film opens with a flashback to a stormy night when Koharu (Yuko Tanaka) returns home, in mannish taxi driver garb, to inform the three children that to eliminate the family's pain and suffering she has murdered their violent, abusive father by running over him with her taxi. She will turn herself in now, and will go to jail, but they are free. She promises to come back in a decade - no, make that fifteen years - to rejoin them. Meanwhile they will be safe and can pursue their lives unimpeded.

    Well, Koharu has made a brave sacrifice, but of course she's left her two sons and daughter to grow up without a mother and father and in the shadow of yet another trauma. It turns out that in the absence of the parents their mother's family runs the provincial taxi company and takes care of the kids. But in the wake of the ugly physical abuse of the murdered father (of which we get a hideous glimpse) and the outsider status bestowed upon them by having a murderer for a mother, the three kids aren't exactly what you'd call lucky, or the town's favorite young people.

    We quickly jump forward fifteen years, when Kooharu appears, looking totally gray and surprisingly neat and respectable. It seems she has spent several years since her release working at different jobs elsewhere but they haven't been in touch. She hesitated to come back, she says, but she has kept her promise. She had reason to hesitate.

    Now we meet the three offspring as they are now. Yuji (Takeru Satoh), the talented, smart one, has a dashing, saturnine appearance and a chip on his shoulder and is cultivating literary fantasies while actually working for a porn mag in Tokyo - where a scene shows his lowly status. He's come back back home to the provinces now for the first time in a while to meet mom, but he's the least happy with her return, or with anything. He's meanwhile gathering data on the family scandals and horrors for a planned novel, taking constant snapshots of the family scene with his smartphone as part of the preparation. As for the tall, still stuttering Daiki (Ryohei Suzuki), he is in a foundering marriage to a wife whose family business he's been working at, though the wife wants to divorce him and leave, taking their little girl with them. A brief scene fills us in on that.

    Most positive - she insists their mother did save them from a much worse life - is the daughter, Sonoko (Mayu Matsuoka),a pretty young woman who dreamed of being a hairdresser, and was a hostess at a snack bar, but lately, as she tells Yuji, focuses on being a call girl, an "escort," if you like, while getting drunk every night at a karaoke bar.

    Koharu's brother's family, who've been running the taxi company successfully, seem more happy to see her. We meet some of them. Yumi (Mariko Tsutsui) is having an affair while caring for her senile mother-in-law. Michio/Doushita (Kuranosuke Sasaki) is a new driver. He arrives around the same time that Koharu does, looking a bit the worse for wear but mercurial and all smiles. He doesn't drink, do drugs, or gamble, which got him hired right away. But following scenes where he's reunited with his teenage son after a long separation and encounters an unwelcome former colleague, it emerges that he has a problematic past of his own that he's trying to escape from.

    Whatever the family or taxi firm employees may think or however well they get along with Koharu, the locals of this provincial town quickly grow hostile to Koraru's return when they hear of it: her presence, seen from a slight distance but still too close for them, is a scandal. Local news has reported on it and little flyers multiply around the taxi company broadcasting that there's a murderess, a husband-killer, in town. The siblings hasten to clean up the company vehicles that they awaken to find covered in abusive white graffiti. If this film is good at anything, it's mess: cluttered, disorganized rooms, littered spaces, graffiti-covered walls and vehicles are, perversely, a delight to the eye. Sometimes the Japanese seem to be reacting to the design austerity of their traditional culture, the empty tatami-spread rooms, the rolled-away futons. Of the graffiti-decorated cars, Yuji takes snapshots with his phone, but promises his saying it's to show Koharu is only a joke.

    Koharu's return is a classic gesture for a play. It causes all the old traumas to come back to mind. Realized cinematically it also brings about a lot of things - like the abusive fliers and graffiti. Perhaps the cathartic reconciliation wold work better on the stage. But what Shiraishi can provide that a playwright can't is another big storm outside.

    James Hadfield of The Japan Times, who calls this "the most conventional thing [Shiraishi has] done to date," sees this a treatment of themes Kazuya cares about: "whether the ends ever justify the means, and if there’s any hope for people who commit awful deeds. He thinks that some of the early scenes show "taut execution" but finds the climax to be "a disappointing mess." An Italian critic (the film debuted at Udine) calls it "hasty" and says that's the "only fault." Well, the finale is busy. Some of the physical clutter that provides the film with its pleasingly icky contemporary texture may seem to pour over into overelaborate action. But nonetheless those final minutes are cathartic. There's nothing like family for drama.

    One NIght ひとよ (Shiraishi Kazuya 2019), 123 mins., debuted Oct. 2019 at Tokyo, showing Nov. 2019 at Taipei, and included in the online Jun.-Jul.2020 Udine Festival. It was screened for this review as part of the virtual 2020 New York Asian Film Festival (Aug. 28-Sept. 12, 2020).
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-29-2020 at 10:41 PM.

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    MIYAMOTO 宮本から君へ (Mariko Tetsuya 2019)

    MARIKO TETSUYA: MIYAMOTO 宮本から君へ (2019)


    SOSUKE IKEMATSU, LEFT, IN MIYAMOTO

    Enthusiastic salaryman

    Early this year the Harvard Library's film collection featured a series on Mariko Tetsuya called "Self Destruction Cinema" and that may be the best place to begin in describing the latest of his two more high-profile films (he has been active as a writer and maker of movies and TV mini-series since 2003). The previous film is called Destruction Babies (and that's the title, transliterated in Japanese characters, Disutorakushon beibzu) and features someone more sadistic and more masochistic than young Hiroshi Miyamoto. (The full title this time is From Miyamoto to You and there was a miniseries, with the same actors and director, based on the manga series "Miyamoto kara Kimi e" by Hideki Arai.) Ssuke Ikematsu plays the role in both and he owns the role; there are several other actors from the miniseries also here. Ikematsu is awesome as the baby-faced young salaryman who goes for broke in feelings and commitment, no reserves, no good sense, no physical fear.

    Cinema of extremes, also. Miyamoto is some kind of madcap hero, but no role model. He takes it on himself to rid a pretty young woman, Yasuko (Y Aoi) of an unwanted ex-boyfriend. Then she takes to him and they have sex and get involved. Next thing you know, he's meeting her parents, the Nakano family, who own a company. The mother loves that he drinks like a fish. (In some parts of Japanese society it's considered a good social trait to be able to drink a lot.) There is a sequence of extreme beer drinking. Miyamoto drinks so much he later passes out in a comatose sleep while with Yasuko. A member of the Nakano family is a ruby player and has giant bruiser-type rugby player friends. One of them comes and rapes Yasuko, right in front of Miyamoto, stretched out sleeping like a baby. He's so out Yasuko's screams never wake him. The rape is the hardest of a series of violent, hard-to-watch sequences in this movie of gonzo interpersonal violence and scream-fests that sometimes seem grating and at others, purgative.

    When Miyamoto finds out what has happened to his girlfriend (he has to guess, which makes the sequence more painful), he becomes determined to take revenge against the giant rugby player rapist. He is also more than ever determined to marry Yasuko. Only what has happened has made Yasuko unable not to loathe him. She called on him for help again and again and he did not budge. Her revulsion will change, somewhat inexplicably. The storytelling provides no clear logical explanation of Yasuko's change of feelings toward Miyamoto.

    In many scenes Miyamoto is missing three front teeth, because in his first of several violent encounters with the rapist, he gets a giant fist in the mouth ("like a bowling ball," he recounts afterward) and loses them Later he gets more damaged, but in a final encounter between the two high up on an apartment building balcony, Miyamoto manages to reverse roles by doing damage where it hurts most and capitalizing on the advantage inflicting excruciating pain gives him over his huge adversary.

    The dialogue is at two levels in this movie, low and high, with nothing in between. People are either talking calmly, under their breath (with some voice-over narration) or, when it gets intense, shouting at the top of their voices, possibly spouting blood or foaming at the mouth as they do so. Particularly memorable in this vein is a scene where Miyamoto comes to propose marriage at the top of his lungs to Yasuko in the middle of her place of work. There is scattered applause, but Yasuko screams back in front of everybody her absolute refusal and desire never to set eyes on Miyamoto again.

    Everyone (in the English language comments I've found) talks about how cringe-inducing and hard to watch a lof ot the action is in this movie. Japanese fans of the mang seem to have been delighted by the film. "You are in a comic book world," one says, and that sums it up. The Japanese are not as offended by or judgmental about fictional violence or extremes as Americans are. Even if you're shocked, this is also compulsive watching, except for the rape, when I wanted to look away. This is not a Cinema of Cruelty a la Antonin Artaud or spatter action a la Grand Guignol. Many blockbuster action of thriller films have more violence, cruelty, and blood. Here, it's mitigated by Miyamoto's good-heartedness and sincerity. His courage is foolhardy, but his determination and loyalty are worthy of the tales of courtly love. In its warped, hysterical way, Miyamoto is a rom-com. Wait for the Judd Apatow-produced Hollywood remake.

    Miyamoto 宮本から君へ, 129 mins., opened in Japan Sept. 2019 and Hong Kong Nov., 2019; featured at Chicago Oct. 2019. Screened for this review as part of the virtual 2020 New York Asian Film Festival.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-29-2020 at 02:26 PM.

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    BEASTS CLAWING AT STRAWS 지푸라기라도 잡고 싶은 짐승들 (Kim Yong-hoon 2020)

    KIM YONG-HOON: BEASTS CLAWING AT STRAWS 지푸라기라도 잡고 싶은 짐승들 (2020)



    A pleasing genre debut surrounding a bag of money

    The bodies really mount and a fancy bag gets shifted around in this engaging, if occasionally a little opaque multi-segmented tale of people scrambling for money. It starts with a cheap hotel with sauna in Pyeongtaek, a northwest port city in South Korea, where the action transpires (and there's some good seafood). In the prologue, down-on-his luck employee at this joint Jung-man (Bae Sung-woo) finds a big Louis Vuitton satchel (presumably a real one, to honor the contents) that somebody left in a locker, heavy with maybe a million bucks in Korean money. He stuffs it away in a back storage room to retrieve later, as it turns out, after getting fired for not being punctual at work. In what follows the shifted-around sequences show us what happened before this event - and after it.

    Jung-man and wife work at lowly jobs due to heir small business going belly-up, and live with his aggressive, difficult mom with dementia (Yun Yuh-jung). As stylish if not particularly helpful story segments unreel ("Debt," "Bait,", "Food Chain," "Shark," "Luck Strike" [sic], "Money bag"), over time we meet hip madam Yeon-hee (Jeon Do-yeon) and her spousally-abused top call girl Mi-ran (Shin Hyun-been), who needs to get rid of her husband and also (Yeon-hee does) owes a lot of money from losing stock market investments loaned to her by her boyfriend, whom we'll also be meeting. Jin-Tae (Jung Ga-Ram), a cute but goofy young Chinese illegal with processed orange hair , volunteers to do the husband disposal, having fallen for Mi-ran, by faking a car accident. Then he can go back to China with her.

    With some fanfare there arrives the madam Yeon-hee's boyfriend, who's a customs agent Tae-young (Jung Woo-sung), who gets hounded by loan shark Mr. Park (Jung Man-sik) and Park's cannibalistic enforcer (Bae Jin-woong). There's a nosy, self-indulgent cop, a nasty hotel manager, a high school classmate of Tae-young's coming around to bother people, and other creditable actors.

    Most of these projects go badly wrong, and hence the growing body count.

    Debuting filmmaker Kim Yong-hoon, as a generous [Korean Herald article reported, is a late-bloomer long toiling in a media corporation, is working zestfully from an adaptation of Japanese writer Keisuke Sone's novel. There are influences and Kim acknowledges Fargo. US reviewers have mentioned What's Up Doc? (with more blood) as well as Pulp Fiction meets No Country for Old Men "one could charitably say," says Neil Young in his Hollywood Reporter Rotterdam review.

    Well, those are two of my favorite Tarantino and Coen brothers movies, and we shouldn't expect that level of intensity. But we can enjoy the glossy gangster movie style, nice lighting and cinematography (there's a swell fire, and lots of night-time neon panorama, doubtless enhanced by first-time director Kim Yon-hoon's beginner's enthusiasm. Most of all there are watchable actors, headed by Jung Woo-sung (The Good, the Bad, and the Weird) and Jeon Do-yeon, who won the Best Actress award at Cannes in 2007 for her lead performance in Lee Chang-dong's Secret Sunshine (NYFF 2007). At the end, I wanted more - but nowadays, that's a good thing. We can well hope for other explorations of the wealth of genre possibilities and the Korean flair for gangster violence from Kim Yong-hoon.

    The Variety critic said all the genre tics might have made this deserve retitling as "Beasts Clawing at Cliches" "if it weren’t such an amusing, echt Korean romp." But it is, and we had fun.

    Beasts Clawing at Straws 지푸라기라도 잡고 싶은 짐승들, 108 mins., debuted at Rotterdam Jan. 2020, winning the jury award there, and opened theatrically in South Korean in Feb. 2020. It has played in France, with a premiere in Paris Jun. 22, 2020 and theatrical release in Paris Jul. 8 (AlloCin press rating 3.6: Nouvel Observateur "un polar amphtamin"; limited release July 30, Singapore. Screened for this review as part of the virtual 2020 NYAFF.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-31-2020 at 10:09 PM.

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    A WITNESS OUT OF THE BLUE 犯罪現場 (Andrew Fung 2019)

    ANDREW FUNG: A WITNESS OUT OF THE BLUE (2019)


    AVIAN WITNESS TO A MURDER IN A WITNESS OUT OF THE BLUE

    An attractive criminal and a red parrot

    In this classy, if conventional, new Chinese polar noir, we follow the cops and the crooks with equal sympathy. Particularly we follow career heist specialist Sean Wong (Louis Koo), who currently holes up in a rooming house where where the other lodgers are on the old side (one lady is 95, another 100) and the pretty landlady (Jessica Hester Hsuan), smitten, like us, plies him with special soups and meds. She has a hidden weakness. The cops are less attractive. Three months ago there was a jewelry heist (led by Sean Wong) which left several people dead, but has left few clues. Now, Homer Tsui (Deep Ng), one of Wong's confederates, has been found murdered in the industrial building where the loot was kept. The only witness is a magnificent scarlet red parrot, which has been trained to talk.

    In one scene, Detective Lam (Louis Cheung), who's keeping the parrot just in case, dreams it can speak in sentences like a human. He wakes up with a shock and tells the parrot about his dream, and says, "I wonder what I'm like in your dreams." He need not wonder what his colleagues think of his keeping the parrot and hoping for clues from it. Not much. He's a bit of a bumbler. As for the parrot, its Cantonese is poor. But Lam says Cantonese is just too hard a language to teach a parrot. They should have chosen English or French, relatively simple tongues.

    Nice details like this are worthy of Andrew Fung (Fung Chih-chiang), a screenwriter of films such as Stephen Chow's Shaolin Soccer and Johnnie To's Sparrow. This is the fourth of his features as a writer-director, which are in a variety of genres. It's not a high-powered, big budget Hong Kong dazzler. TheScreen Anarchy writer Ard Vijn says it's not to be remembered "for its action scenes, plot twists, or outrageous style." Really? Well, aybe not. But it's a nicely crafted procedural with fine moments of character and mood, the parrot, and an ending that seemed twisty enough to me.

    Wong is playing detective too, because the jewelry has disappeared, while his heist team members are getting polished off one by one by a mysterious killer. He wants to prove that killer is not him. This whole setup for Louis Ko and the charisma bestowed upon him remind one somewhat of Alain Delon in Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai. Edmund Lee calls the character "an amoral enigma" in his South China Morning Post review. He may have musings and misgivings, but he's also capabel of pulling out a long gun and mowing down people. He's got an arsenal in a satchel at the rooming house.

    Another officer dies, Inspector Yip (Philip Keung), who had suspected Wong of killing Homer Tsui. As the thieves are knocked off one by one, Inspector Lam and his colleague Charmaine (Cherry Ngan Cheuk-ling) now suspect Yip. It's the old good Hong Kong movie thing of cop double-crosses and suspicions. Another officer accuses Lam of having it in for Yip and protecting Wong, and Internal Affairs comes in to relieve Lam of his badge and gun. Of course that doesn't stop him. Before it's over, all riddles will be solved and needed organs donated. Too tidy? Hey, Forget it Jake, it's Hong Kong.

    A Witness Out of the Blue 犯罪現場 ("Scene of the Crime"), 104 mins., debuted a and opened Hong Kong Asian Film Festival and opened in China and Hong Kong in Oct. 2019, Nov. 2019 in Taiwan. It was screened for this review as part of the Aug. 28-Sept 12, 2020 virtual NYAFF.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-31-2020 at 04:12 PM.

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    MOVING ON On 남매의 여름밤 (Yoon Dan-bi 2019)

    YOON DAN-BI: MOVING ON On 남매의 여름밤 (2019)


    PARK SEUNG-JOON (AS DONGJU) ENTERTAINS THE GROUP WITH HIS IMPROVISATIONAL DANCING

    A slice of fragmented Korean family life, in transition

    In Yoons gentle family drama, a newly divorced man, Lee Byunggi (Yang Heung-joo) moves into his aging, widowed father Lee Youngmuk's house with his 18-year-old daughter Okju (Choi Jung-woon) and tween son Dongju (Park Seung-Joon), and shortly afterward, their Aunt Mijung joins them, escaping a broken marriage. It's a steamy summer. We join them all for a while.

    Everybody is good humored and good at coping. Okju and Donju squabble, but it doesn't get nasty till it emerges that Donju is loyal to their mother, and Okju refuses contact with her. Grandpa is initially in the hospital from heat stroke and when he's back, doesn't say much, but he seems not to feel imposed upon. They give him a birthday party after Aunt Mijung comes, which he seems to enjoy. Mijung sleeps in the same bedroom with Okju at her invitation which she, perhaps understandably, refused to allow Dongju to occupy, while Dad, Grandpa, and Dongju sleep in the other bedroom.

    Michael Rosser's Rotterdam interview with Yoon Dan-bi appeared in Screen Daily. "When I first saw Good Morning by Yasujiro Ozu," Yoon said, I felt he was a good friend of mine. Even though I dont know him, I just hope my film can be a friend to someone too." On this first feature as a director, Yoon took advice from cinematographer/co-producer Kim Gi-hyeon that Ozu might have liked, to cut out the dramatic incidents and just focus on the basics, family unites with grandpa and then departs from him.

    This obviously is neither the style of Ozu nor the world of Ozu. The world of Ozu is gone and this is Korea, not Japan. The film doesn't give us much information and these folks are tight-lipped, the period of time covered, brief. Mijung won't tell dad, Byunggi, what has gone wrong in her marriage to drive her here; she appears to have a drinking problem. We don't know why the kids are with their dad, or what grandpa used to do; teasingly, Donju says his biography reports that he used to be a gangster. He appears comfortably off. It's a pleasant, lived-in old house: the director has has reported that it had been occupied for fifty years and was used for the film as-is. With its pleasantly overgrown garden, front and back, with vines and fruit, and interiors with nice wood paneling, it's a warm, living presence whose future, like grandpa's, sadly is uncertain.

    Dad appears to be selling shoes out of his van. Whether this is a desperate move or his usual routine, we don't know. Okju gives a pair of white trainers to a boy she meets who may be her boyfriend. Later, there's an incident when Okju on her own tries to sell a pair of her dad's sneakers to a guy who suspects they're (1) not new or (2) knockoffs. Which it is, and why Dad has to come and pick up Okju from the police station, is unclear.

    The shoes assume less importance compared to looming bigger events, notably the grandfather's declining state, and the need for decisions to be made about the future, which, in turn, are swept aside by the natural course of things. In the end the film does assume an Ozu-esque feel after all through its simple focus on the generations, the strength of family, and the big transitions in life.

    My cast list is incomplete but the other main actors are Park Seung-joon and Kim Sang-dong.

    Moving On 남매의 여름밤 ("Sibling's Summer Night"), 105 mins., debuted at BUsan Oct. 2019, winning four awards, and showed Jan. 2020 at Rotterdam, winning the Bright Future award there for best debut feature Rotterdam was good for young Korean directors, with its jury award going to Beasts Clawing at Straws). Screened for this review as part of the 2020 virtual NYAFF (Aug. 28-Sept. 12).


    YOON DAN-BI
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 09-01-2020 at 09:02 AM.

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    LEALLY DECLARED DEAD 死因無可疑 (Yuen Kim Wai 2019)

    YUEN KIM WAI: LEGALLY DECLARED DEAD 死因無可疑 (2019)


    CARLOS CHAN AND ANTHONY WONG IN LEGALLY DECLARED DEAD

    For the devotee, not creepy enough

    This terminally grisly thriller is something you might not want to watch if you've got a big life insurance policy. To begin with, it says insurance adjusters regard every client as a crook. Next, it might give you some wrong ideas about bumping off relatives to collect, or make you think it's cool to be sadistic. I had a lot of time for the fresh-faced young Hong Kong film star Carlos Chan as insurance salesman Yip Wing-shin. But he hasn't much to do but act eager and worried. And the reason I called this movie "terminally grisly" is it's only grisly at the end. It's Based on Yusuke Kishis 1997s Japanese novel The Black House, which was previously adapted into both Japanese and Korean films in 1999 and 2007 respectively. This probably isn't an improvement. These facts (but not the guess about competition) comes from an informative review for ScreenHK by Casey Chong.

    Declared Legally Dead is a good example of slick, highly competent Hong Kong filmmaking without any original ideas. The scenario and direction lack the grace notes and originality to appeal to cinephiles. And there's not enough horror to appeal to genre fans, either. One thing that's impressive: the lush score by Yusuke Hatano, utilizing the Budapest Art Orchestra. Excellent musicians, beautifully recorded and remixed for the film. They had me with the introductory music.

    Mr Yip's got trouble. It's not enough that life insurance seems to attract the sadistic and the larcenous. He himself gets ured into a spooky den occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Chu, an evil couple who later turn out later to owe big to a loan shark for gambling debuts. Chu Chung-lak (professional creep Anthony Wong) is persistent and scary like a zombie. Mrs Chu, aka Shum Chi-ling (Karena Lam, cast against type) has a cloudy eye and a limp. Shhh....don't tell anyone: she's the evil one, he's the doofus. They lure Mr. Yip into their creepy den to be witness of the suicide of Chu's stepson, Chu Kafu. Only Chu's eagerness to collect the insurance suggests it's not what it might appear. Later Yip is saying, "He set me up, used me as his alibi."

    The insurance company delays, Mr. Chu is impatient, and Yip starts investigating. The police don't get involved, probably too busy arresting pro-democracy protesters, suggests the Today sarcastic Singapore-based reviewer, Douglas Tseng. He calls this movie a "half baked insurance scam thriller." Damn, he has all the good ideas.

    As the delaying and investigating go on, we meet Yip's girlfriend, Wai-yee (Kathy Yuen) a psychology major, and her teacher, Kam Chio. He has some terrible ideas about the desirability of extreme punishment for criminals (the stuff about the cruelty of narcissistic types sounded rather familiar), and while he comes to an awful fate it seems not undeserved. On Letterboxd - where people get to the point fast - astute critic Big Chungus deplores "a regressive mindset towards mental health - where people who are sick are presented as insane, and the good guys try to diagnose them off textbook terms based on broad assumptions instead of understanding." True, and simply incinerating the person who displays this mindset isn't enough.

    Going back to labels, South China Morning Post's Edmund Lee (or his editor) calls this in their review's headline "a psychological thriller with a slasher ending." But the trouble is it patently fails on both counts. What it offers is the opportunity to admire Carlos Chan in a wife beater staying up all night with his girlfriend while you're listening to the rich sounds of that Hungarian symphony orchestra. If you want a recent Asian psychological thriller, Lee Chang-dung's Burning is as good as it gets. If you want quality gore with psychological sickness as well, try Fincher's Se7en or Demme's Silence of the Lambs.

    Speaking of titles, the English one, as can happen, makes little sense. The meaning of the Chinese title is "Cause of death is not suspicious," which is what the first half of the film is about.

    Legally Declared Dead 死因無可疑, 109 mins., opened in Hong Kong in Dec. 2019 and in Singapore and Malaysia Aug. 20, 2020. Screened for this review as part of the NYAFF virtual 2020 edition, where it shows only in the NY State region Sept. 5.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 09-01-2020 at 10:21 PM.

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    FORGIVEN CHILDREN 許された子どもたち (Naito Eisuke 2020)

    NAITO EISUKE: FORGIVEN CHILDREN 許された子どもたち (2020)



    Bullies as victims: you can run but you can't hide

    This second stab by Naiko Eisuke at a movie about bullying - the first was a bullied person's revenge flick, gruesome but satisfying to some tastes - has justifiably received more recognition. It gets more into the complexities, seeing the bully as victim and noting the cruel destructiveness of contemporary social media attacks. Eisuke doesn't sustain his style throughout; he seems more obsessed with his subject than with his art. But it stays lively throughout. He has performed the difficult feat of making a memorable film about a well-worn topic.

    The early segment has an artful wildness. It's playful, then dead serious. It follows with nimble camera the group of four bully boys, young teenage pre-delinquents, out in a wasteland. Their leader is Kira Ichikawa (the striking Yu Uemura). Another boy, Itsuki (Takuya Abe), who is bullied, arrives with a small homemade crossbow made out of chopsticks, a flimsy thing. Only a miracle turns it into a murder weapon. Kira aims it at Gurimu (Ryuju Sumikawa), another, smaller bullied boy. Itsuki steps in front of Gurimu to protect him, and Kira shoots, catching Itsuki in the neck, and the boys run off and leave him to bleed out and die. All this has a shocking blunt vrit clarity.

    Also simple, flowing, and effective is the quiet police interrogation of Kira at home, with his parents very much in evidence. The judicial trial that follows with the devastated parents of the dead Itsuki present, the whole thing seeming too flat and rapid, also feels like a reasonable simulacrum of the event. After that, where there were more choices where to go with scenes, the energy and focus dissipate.

    A saving grace is Kira. He is made to seem a dark void in the center of everything, a person mysterious even to himself. He's strong at first only because he's inert. He's the exact opposite of the hyper-conscious monster (who commits a massacre with a crossbow) played by Ezra Miller in Lynne Ramsey's We Need to Talk About Kevin. Yu Uemura, whom Max Scilling in his admiring Japan Times review has compared to the bright-eyed Yuya Yagura of Koreeda's masterful Nobody Knows, holds the increasingly busy and turbulent film together. He has a kind of feral grace, seeming both pretty and damaged, with a rough look and a scar under his left eye from being bullied himself, looking alternately hurt, vulnerable, and defiant.

    After the incident and the judge's decision absolving Kira, comes the hard part - which shows what a tough, demanding movie this is to watch (that's why it should be more spare and precise).The focus is on the aftermath. At first Kira is hanging around with his pals again, but then other boys come and beat him up horribly - their action polished off by Gurimu, the boy he used to bully, landing him in the hospital. Kira's father (Mihara Tetsuro) is fired from his job, and even his defiant mother gets the message.

    What they need is witness protection, but that's not available. In fact, though their disappearance temporarily complicates that, Itsuki's parents are initiating a civil suit against Kira. They move somewhere else and Kira goes to a new school under a new name. He's a smoker now and a loner, followed by Momoko (Yukino Nagura), a girl from school good at making stuff. She helps him rebuild a crossbow (really?). She's an outsider too, accused of dating her adult drama teacher, participating in an illicit relationship.

    We go back and forth to a discussion of bullying in Kira's class, broken up into groups to hash out the issue. This is when the idea comes up that the real victim is the bully. The bullied person is the root cause of the bullying: blame the victim. Kira is silent and hiding in multiple hoodies. But his story is all over the internet, and his classmates are all over the internet too, and one of them outs him in the bullying discussion class. All this is certainly a bit on the literal side but shows Eisuke's flair for wrangling groups of kids. After that, the screen goes media-mad for a while, and Kira's mom is lured into writing a defensive memoir that's reviled, but well-publicized in a tabloid magazine. Somehow all the media stuff doesn't overwhelm the personal side. It's hyper-active and distracted: that that's the world we live in now.

    Schilling writes that Forgiven Children (the actual translation of the Japanese title, for a change) has "a legal, moral and psychological complexity" that shows "the messiness of reality," in which "storybook endings have no place." He's referring to bullying films where there's retribution, or reform.

    The film meanders, but the intense, theatrical scene when Kira gets outed in the classroom is still great, both horrific and funny, with the chant of "Tweet it! Tweet it!" Kira and his parents must flee again, Itsuki's parents find them, and the father flees. Shinri, Kira's mother (Kuroiwa Yoshi) remains his unshakable ally. The screen is repeatedly filled with tweets and texts, videos, and other online media blasts - a busy, destructive cyber world where you can run but you can't hide. It's called "the Riverbed Case" - a homage to Keanu Reeves' debut, perhaps?

    At the end, which goes on too long, Eisuke tries for some poetic and surreal moments and celebrates the bond between Kira and his mother, with nods to earlier coming of age classics (Clio Barnard? Shane Meadows, perhaps?) and a moment of positivity, fruit tart, and coffee, offering sweetness, smiles, and a little hope. For all his mixed messages Eisuke winds up making a solider and more humane movie this time. His persistence with this familiar theme has taken him to a new level.

    Forgiven Children 許された子どもたち, 131 mins., opened in Japan Jun. 1, 2020. It was screened for this review as part of the 2020 virtual New York Asian Film Festival (Aug 28-Sept. 12).


    YU UEMURA IN FORGIVEN CHILDREN
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 09-02-2020 at 10:21 AM.

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    MEMORIES TO CHOKE ON, DRINKS TO WASH THEM DOWN (Leung Ming-kai, Kate Reilly 2019)

    LEUNG MIND-KAI, KATE REILLY: MEMORIES TO CHOKE ON, DRINKS TO WASH THEM DOWN 夜香‧鴛鴦‧深水埗(2019)


    GREGORY WONG AND KATE REILLY IN MEMORIES TO CHOKE ON, DRINKS TO WASH THEM DOWN

    A collection of segments set in Hong Kong fails to engage

    This is an odd collection of shorts with a Hong Kong setting and a wealth of opportunities not quite seized.

    1. "Forbidden City." An old woman with mild dementia spends a few hours with her pretty new Cantonese-speaking Indonesian caretaker who consents to take her on a bus trip ("Forbidden City" because she's not supposed to go out), knowing that if they ride around in a circle her charge will not know the difference and will think they're been on an outing. This seems to be about the repetitious dialogue. We feel for the caretaker who has to listen to the same stories five times in a couple of hours. Greater humor and greater poignancy in the writing were needed; the two actors are fine.

    2. "Toy Stories" focuses on two brothers in the Japanese toy shop of their mother. The information they exchange about various toys is quite precise. Each toy refers to an experience of their childhood or an aspiration of their adulthood. But the main interest is the sudden revelation that the younger brother has lost his job and would like to take over the store but has just learned she wants to turn it over to somebody, and he hasn't told her about his situation.

    3. "Yuen Yeung." A female American English teacher and her local math teacher male colleague meet regularly to eat Hong Kong food, and Kentucky Fried Chicken, and drink (Yuen Yeung is a coffee-tea mix with a local labor history connection). This could be a low-keyed romance about shyness, frustration, and disappointment - if the writing were better and the acting more expressive. This seems a collection of narrowly missed opportunities for greater humor and warmth.

    4. The oddest segment and most unexpected, since it's a documentary. It cuts back and forth somewhat confusingly between campaigning and personal moments as Jessica Lam, a young Hong Kong barista and cat fancier of and also someone running in the city election in 2019 - one in which, we are told by story cards, the DAB Pro China party lost big. But we are shown that Jessica, though ostensibly on the winning side, herself lost, if by only 102 votes. We learn that she not only likes cats in some sense doesn't like people - or at least doesn't care to have them sit close her at the bar. She also tells us she didn't want to serve on the political committee much anyway. Two videos by Teenage Riot are inserted in this segment in which Jessica appears. There is some information about Hong Kong politics in this segment, obviously, but it seems confusingly edited and lacks depth.

    Each of these segments has strong story possibilities that, in a revised or expanded form, might have emerged. In the present form however they are underwhelming.

    Memories to Choke on, Drinks to Wash them Down, 77 mins., presented by Golden Scene Co. Ltd, was an extra at the 2020 all virtual NYAFF.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 09-03-2020 at 12:30 PM.

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    DETENTION 返校 (John Hsu 2019)

    JOHN HSU: DETENTION 返校 (2019)



    An elegantly filmed videogame of a moment in Taiwan's repressive 1960's

    This film is set in 1962 during Taiwan's long nightmare of government repression, a period when hyper-vigilance against communist infiltration dominated national daily life. Two students are trapped at the hillside Greenweood High School at night. Trying to escape, they discover a missing teacher and run into ghosts and what the Wikipedia article calls "the dark truth of their fate." Detention, strangely enough, is based on a videogame described as a "survival horror adventure." Knowing that makes things a lot clearer.

    That medium seems a strange entree into the rarely depicted "White Terror" period of the Kuonmintang regime of repression in Taiwan when thousands were executed. It leads to a rather strange combination of the elegant and the crude - but elegant prevails and this film won a raft of awards in Taiwan. As a depiction of an historical moment, it's odd to see the horror movie style used. On the other hand, this is a classy horror movie, one that's never really frightening, but with awfully good-looking young men and women representing students repressed for a book club presided over by two dissident teachers (reading Turgenyev's Fathers and Sons - a very serious offense), a striking sound design (too loud, in the horror movie manner, but still subtle by horror movie standards) and a nicely recorded score of strings and piano by Luming Lu and handsome cinematography by dp Chou Yi-Hsien. The choice has been made to depict the horror of government repression as a horror movie, but a tasteful one. This is a handsomely made movie, but ultimately not a very interesting one by the standards of films about repressed students and spooky government oppressors.

    In the film's favor, it's banned in mainland China. It "enjoyed strong box office success in Taiwan and Hong Kong (Wikipedia). On the other hand, it doesn't seem likely to arouse much excitement among western viewers. Those in search of historical truth will find events dealt with too impressionistically. Genre horror fans will find it too restrained and tasteful. Some young men are dunked head first into vats of water. One gets his throat slit by a young woman. There are a couple of executions by bullet. There is some intimidation. The best scenes are those at the beginning when students are meeting clandestinely and being found out.

    Really there don't seem to have been a wealth of ideas about how to vary scenes. Many of them involve young men (with nice eyebrows, casting seemed to favor those) in khaki shirts and pants being marched or pushed around, or given the head-dunking treatment. The staging is dark and grand, rather than bright and intimate, where in might have been more scary.

    In her Variety review Jessica Kiang notes that the "White Terror" period has been little depicted in film, that the Taiwanese would rather forget it (but those who forget risk repeating). An exception is Hou Hsiao-hsien’s 1989 A City of Sadness and Edward Yang alludes to it in his 1991 autobiographical masterpiece A Brighter Summer Day. Hsu's Detention is meant to be what Kiang calls a more "populist" and less "arthouse" approach. It's extraordinary to learn that The White Terror period lasted over 38 years, staring in 1947 and ending in 1987. That's a lot to forget.

    It winds up being an "ambitious, but not entirely successful" mashup of "haunted-house horror," of "monster movie" of "love story," and "historical reckoning" or "sentimentalized call" for national reckoning. At best it probably couldn't do all that. The videogame source accounts for an effective theatricality, but also thin characterizations and a sense that events are mechanically predetermined rather than natural. But after all, the whole thing is intentionally surreal in style.

    The dissident teachers are led by Miss Yin (Cecilia Choi) and Mr Zhang (Fu Meng-Po), who pass out the banned books to the nice looking young men/boys and women/girls. As Kiang puts it their discussion sessions are "bathed in a honeyed nostalgic glow", which leads us to expect a standard glossy historical film. Then suddenly the film morphs into a nightmare where the school is transformed into a wasteland with monsters and torture, with a network of flashbacks depicting the book club's betrayal, and the repression - arrests, torture and executions - that followed, as well as details as to Miss Fang's troubled home life and relationship with Mr Zhang, Finally in the action "rather cleverly," Kiang thinks, "it’s revealed just who is doing the dreaming of this hellish place, what their real mission is and how it relates to the history of the White Terror and the fog of willful amnesia in which it has been shrouded." That's a large order, and some of it was lost on me. Multiple viewings might be necessary. But since this lacks the breath of real life one doesn't feel highly motivated, though this is, in its way, a beautiful film to look at and listen to, without question.

    Deterntion 返校 ("Back to School"), 102 mins., debuteed at Busan Oct. 2019, showing also at Taipei Golden Horse, Taipei, and Miami. At Golden Horse it won seven major awards and was nominated for five more. Screened for this review as part of the 2020 virtual New York Asian Film Festival (Aug. 28-Sept. 12).
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 09-03-2020 at 02:13 AM.

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    KIM JI-YOUNG: BORN 1982 82년생 김지영( Kim Do-young 2019)

    KIM DO-YOUNG: KIM JI-YOUNG BORN 1982 / 82년생 김지영 (2019)


    JUNG YU-MI IN KIM JI-YOUNG: BORN 1982

    A well off young woman seen as a victim of ingrained misogyny in Korean society

    Kim Ji-young Born 1982 is a conscientious issue picture. It's about female discontent and unfair male dominance even in upper middle class contemporary Korean society, and is based on the eponymous bestselling semi-autobiographical novel about a typical young woman: "Kim Yi-young" is like "Jane Doe" in Korean. These basics could not be more clear, and are familiar from other societies where situations and feelings are quite similar. In the film, the details - which it's said have aroused strong arguments or even caused breakups between couples in Korea - can be confusing to sort out. The film provides a sequence of scenes and flashbacks whose interrelationship isn't so easy to follow, though it is evident that despite advances, and well educated women working in executive positions, Korean society remains highly patriarchal, and older generation women can tend to reenforce that. And this is a film that obviously needs to be seen. The specifics may be elusive, the film may have failings, but the subject is so important the book has been translated into over a dozen languages.

    The message may be confused by the complexity of the protagonist's situation, or just be presented confusingly. Kim Ji-young has worked at a firm where some women have - well, one has anyway - a respected position, even though the males get promoted first. She may have found this work challenging and interesting - her female boss was encouraging - or a pain in the neck. Now she is at home to care for her new baby. The rigid relationships of dealing with her in-laws at holiday time may drive her nuts. She may simply be suffering from postpartum depression. She may just be tired of being cooped up in the house all the time (and this is why she thinks of taking a part time job at a local shop. Or she may just be losing her mental stability for reasons that have nothing at all to do with her current situation. But the story's point must be that the protagonist's experience of a totally male-dominated sexist world has driven her literally mad - as an only way out.

    Unfortunately, this immaculate-looking, well cast and acted film is a little opaque. It doesn't provide very many clear guidelines, particularly in indicating the chronology of scenes set at different times, and some "scene skips" are so rapid it's not clear who the new characters are. Through depicting the protagonist as largely a helpless victim, the film fails to show what's actually going on inside her, but perhaps she does not know.

    Then there is the prolonged issue of Ji-young's returning to work, when her husband offers to take a year of paternity leave so she can do it, but family members balk, and she won't be able to earn as much at the same level. Kim Ji-young's husband Jung Dae-Hyun(played by the rangy, serenely authoritative and sexy Gong Yoo) becomes ambiguous in all this. It's not clear what he really wants; he may not know. He promised to help when pushing to have a baby, he makes the paternity leave offer, but then he tells Ji-young she's not well, and proves she has acted strangely.

    Perusal of a Guardian review of the source book shows it is differently organized, being mostly a linear chronological account by the psychiatrist the woman goes to. This structure, the reviewer, Sarah Shin, argues, is used to convey a sense of a"claustrophobic" as well as "airless, unbearably dull world." That aim must explain the tidiness of all the interiors in the film as well, though sometimes they just feel glossy and bland.

    But the film may not convey some of the author, Cho Nam-joo's points as well as the her book, or the film's subtitles may lose subtleties that are embedded in the Koran dialogue. Korean is uniquely structured in its complex linguistic distinctions among generations and status levels. When the protagonist starts speaking like her mother at the family gathering and her father-in-law is outraged, subtitles can't convey this very well. Indeed some points (quoted in the review) are made by statement, "told" rather than "shown," e.g. "The world had changed a great deal, but the little rules, contracts and customs had not, which meant the world hadn’t actually changed at all." (This is a statement quoted from the book in the Guardian review.)

    The group scenes nonetheless are what work best, in themselves, even if they don't fit together into a cogent whole: they show the subtle tensions that may exist in all interactions where people aren't happy with their situation, but can't overtly show that - yet keep constantly almost showing it. The blurb for the festival presentation suggests Kim Ji-young (Yu-mi Jung) starts having visions or being possessed. But at the family gathering when her husband whisks her away, saying she's unwell, it merely seems she has spoken up out of anger and frustration. This is the kind of moment when a sense of alien family pressure seems at its most intense.

    The book came out at a particularly opportune time of much heightened Korean awareness of gender inequality (see theGuardian review). Non-Korean viewers should know particularly what happened in Korea when Kim Ji-young's mother's wish of a woman president came true - the worsening gender inequality, the patriarchal authoritarianism, the scandal and ouster, the counter reaction, the new movement for a feminist consciousness. The film may be less opportune, or serve a different audience.

    Euny Hong's New York Times review of the book is more blunt. She says the book shows the "banality of the evil that is misogyny," that the subject is "young stay-at-home mother driven to a psychotic break" (by that misogyny as it impacts her), and adds that this story forced her to confront her own "traumatic experiences" that she had pretended were "nothing out of the ordinary" (perhaps they weren't!). She also writes that the book became a kind oof Uncle Tom's Cabin for gender roles in Korea. She is astute and specific in highlighting details of the book's Korean dialogue that show how the accomplished and ambitious Ji-young is abused by men from childhood to the present. She likes the translator's choice of a word in the subtitles, suggesting they're well done. But as a non-Korean, one can't help feeling much of the heft and meaning of this film remain allusive. It's not entertaining and accessible to a western audience like a Hong Sang-soo film (especially when one has seen a dozen of those!).

    Sarah Shin, the Guardian reviewer, ties the book in with Bong Joon-ho's Parasite. Let's hope that the social commentary here is more subtle and precise.

    Kim Ji-young: Born 1982 / 82년생 김지영, 118 mins., opened in Korea in Oct. 2019, showed in the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival Nov. 2019, and opened in many other countries in Nov. and subsequently. Received a number of nominations and awards in Korea. Screened for this review as part of the 2020 virtual New York Asian Film Festival (Aug. 28-Sept. 12, 2020).
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 09-04-2020 at 10:32 AM.

  15. #15
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    RM (Tran Thanh Huy 2019)

    TRAN THANH HUY: RM (2029)


    TRAN ANH KHUA AND TRONG VAI IN ROM

    Running for lottery numbers in Ho Chi Min City

    Tran Thanh Huy wins the most intensely kinetic award for this film about a couple of Ho Chi Min City teenage street boys, a promising Slumdog Millionaire-esque debut whose inspiration was one of a series of shorts by the filmmaker that was a Golden Kite winner 16.30, shown at Cannes in 2013. The action here is central but its direction is immaterial. What counts is the propulsive movement and the fluid camerawork of dp Nguyen Vinh Phuc. Notably, the wide aspect ratio images are stylized by alternating left or right diagonal tilts, giving a kind of order to the chaos. Two boys are running around here, and at the end, they're still running: there's no resolution. More of a story-line is needed than this, but there is a lot of potential here, a light, comprehensive touch with urban life, if another time there is more of a script and some sequences that are allowed to breathe.

    This is all about two scrawny, energetic Ho Chi Min City street boys who survive (or do they just keep in motion?) through acting as intermediaries for bookies selling numbers tickets - and finding good numbers: this is an impoverished world where, as elsewhere on an overpopulated planet, the poorest of the poor live on dreams of sudden luck, and where there is much reliance on superstition and magic. The debut-burdened customers in run-down apartment complexes - trying to ward off their housing from being demolished - beat the boys if the numbers lose and give them a nice tip if they win. Both the boys, who look underage for there 14-15-16 chronological age, yet also ageless, are engaging as well as indefatigable.

    The initial focus is on Rm (Trần Anh Khoa), who says he once got a 25USD tip. It's the most money he's ever seen. Rom was abandoned by his parents after a demolition and failed relocation scheme, but expects them to come back to pick him up. He keeps waiting, and lives by this dream. Rom soon gets a rival in the nimble, penytailed Phuc (Nguyễn Phan Anh T), a fast talker who also does a mean back flip of a wall, or in the middle of the street if the spirit strikes him. Phuc, who's as fleet and acrobatic as a young Jackie Chan, tries to move in on Rm; his deviousness relies so much on speed he seems to outrun immorality. . Phuc says (is it a joke?) he adopted the name from an American client who kept losing and would say "Fuck!" ever time, which he thought sounded cool. It's one of many throwaway moments because this movie is in such a hurry it's all over in seventy-nine minutes.

    As Allan Hunter notes in his Busan Screen Daily review, this action, like Danny Boyle's Slumdog, Has "a Dickensian sweep" in the way Rom's life is "measured in the characters he meets" (at whose mercy he is from moment to moment, his survival, and the way he's "constantly at the mercy of fate." But we don't have a thrilling, satisfying Slumdog plot here. Rom is brfriended by the motherly lottery dealer Mrs Ghi (Do Nhu Cat Phuong), buteverybody's out for themselves here. There are many frantic fights, especially between Rom and Phuc. There is one sequence when Phuc takes Rom on a rid on a tiny grass-lined raft. Rom's afraid to get on, for good reason. They're constantly falling off, and one shutters to think what the water is like.

    The climactic action climax is a scramble where everything goes wrong, and the slum dweller customers and Rom both get cheated. There's no prize: the way to the prize is the prize. All the fun there is is in trying to get there, even if you don't. Some of the editing by Lee Chatametikool is pretty nifty in a Guy Ritchie kind of way, but even that kind of cheating survives because the vernacular realism makes almost anything seem real. Another reviewer mentions not only Boyle's Slumdog, but also City of God. But this film, for all its kinetic charm and neorealist grip on street life, doesn't have those kinds of grandeur, violence, or plot payoff.

    Rom, 79 mins., debuted at Busan oct. 2019 and released theatricallyl in Vietnam Jul. 31, 2020. It was screened for this review as part of the 2020 virtual New York Asian film Festival.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 09-04-2020 at 10:45 PM.

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