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

  1. #16
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    DEAR LONELINESS 致親愛的孤獨者 (Lien Chien-hung, Sunny Yu, Liao Che-yi 2019)

    LIEN CHIEN-HUNG, SUNNY YU, LIAO CHE-YI: DEAR LONELINESS 致親愛的孤獨者 (2019)


    LIU KUAN-TING IN DEAR LONELINESS

    Girls on their own

    There is more: a TV series and a novel are tied in with these three short films about young women and sexual fantasy commissioned by a Taipei production company called Dream Image. Surprisingly, they shorts draw inspiration from a two-part documentary on 80 of Taiwan’s independent bookstores. The bookstore is in the first short and the third but only as a resting place in the second. Loneliness is a common theme, but in quite different ways. These three shorts are fine, but, being by different directors, are different in theme and feeling. If there's a common literal object, it's not so much books but cell phones. Not for that reason, or not alone for it, the three shorts' cumulative impression is very sad.

    Why did the first of the three remind me of Gaspar Noé's wife Lucile Hadžihalilović? Because there's something at once extreme and creepy and sensuous and pretty about it. The girl (Lin Chi-en?), whose name Xiaoyu (Cih En Lin) is as unspellable as Hadžihalilović, doesn't look twelve, though her boy classmates do. She's a little plain, but also a seductress. Strangely, her erotic fantasies of sexy Teacher David (Chung Cheng-Chun), licking him all over, etc. have nothing to do with reality, and yet she somehow does manage to get him fired for inappropriate behavior just the same. She has little real inner life, so we don't know what she might have felt about what happens. The other teacher is a monster. He gives Chinese poetry a bad name. His screaming commands are hysterical. The girl Xiaoyu is very sly. What is she doing on the smartphone she steals and hides in the bathroom, with its Turkish-style toilet seen from high above? This is a strangely tense and economical piece and a reminder that depictions of school life are one of the best ways to make films about weirdly warped and frustrated human behavior. This is an excellent short film and its mix of fantasy and reality is just right.

    Second short's girl establishes more sense and control. She arrives in town with pink daypack and roller-blade suitcase with simple questions. "Where is the girls' dorm?" "Is this room 2019?" Her name is easy: Chan Kai Han (Angel Lee). This is a tale of alienation and bureaucratic hassles and Chinese meanness that is first Kafkaesque and then violent and finally bitterly ironic. Wow! Another excellent short film that's sure to leave memories. Imagine going away to college and when you get there, they have no room for you, and your parents blame you for it. A very sardonic world vew is here.

    Third and longest short focuses on Xun or Hsun (Janine Chang or Chang Chun-ning or ‎Ning Chang or Zhang Jun-ning: there is little hope of getting a grip on a Chinese name if you're not Chinese), a twenty-something newcomer to Taipei from the provinces who ekes out a living, after a worse sex worker job, off playing flirtatious visits to lovelorn inmates. They are paid for this. Really? How does this work exactly? Instructions from the girls' 'boss' (who of course like any pimp has designs on the girls, prior access) are to open your jacket and show cleavage, act happy, and say you'll "wait for him" and be his girlfriend when he comes out. Second inmate she sees is #2923 (Liu Kuan-ting), a big young man with a sensitive face and sad eyes - he reminded me of one of Claire Denis' great regulars, Grégoire Colin. He does not speak at all the first visit, but asks for her for next time. The relationship continues. There's no use trying to cheer up the prisoner, and Hsun becomes honest. #2923 sees through her cheeriness. He speaks in favor of loneliness and - here comes the tie-in: when she asks where she can go for a quiet escape, he recommends she spend the day in a bookstore. The Grégoire Coin lookalike has rapidly become adorable. But also a little predictable, and this segment doesn't quite justify its extra length. The bookend of the three, a writer-bookstore owner and his musings, and the closing song, are trite and unworthy of the vivid short stories. If you're looking for a short film collection, this presents three promising young filmmakers.

    Dear Loneliness 致親愛的孤獨者, 99 mins., was released in Taiwan Sept. 2019. It was screened for this review as paort of the NY Asian Film Festival 2020 virtual edition (Aug. 28- Sept. 12).
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 09-05-2020 at 05:33 PM.

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    LUCKY CHAN-SIL / 찬실이는 복도 많지 (Kim Cho-hee 2019)

    ]KIM CHO-HEE: LUCKY CHAN-SIL (2019)


    KIM YOUNG-MIN AND KANG MAL-GEUM IN LUCKY CHAN-SIL

    Woman at a crossroads

    At a drunken wrap-party, the director collapses and dies. Producer Lee Chan-sil (Kang Mal-geum), a middle-aged, never-married woman who has so long worked with him, finds herself out of a job and questioning her life. This is the premise of a new Korean film by a woman director, a collaborator of Hong Sang-soo (who has in fact herself co-produced eight of his films in the last decade), that's been seen as a riff off Hong or a lighthearted parody nodding at and perhaps chiding Hong's male point of view.

    The reference to films and filmmakers and focus on one of the latter in difficulties come straight out of Hong Sang-soo. This certainly seems self-referential, and by indirection a reference to Hong. It's harder to detect a parodic, satirical, or comedic aspect referring to Hong or of any kind. This seems primarily a warm-hearted female professional midlife-crisis film, small and based on conversation like Hong, but more like a conventional film than like one of his. Pleasant and not very demanding (which might fit Hong, but his films are complexly self-referential by now), this has a bittersweet quality.

    The constant presence of Granny (Yoon Yuh-jung), an old lady with philosophical observations from an end-of-life position, heightens the focus on self-reflection. Likewise a young man in underwear (Kim Young-min) who identifies himself as the ghost of Leslie Cheung, the Hong Kong megastar and regular of Wong Kar-wai films, who committed suicide in 2003. He serves as a quiet cheerleader and contributes to the meditative mood - and sense that Producer Lee is at the end of her tether.

    She has gone to stay with an actress friend she calls Sis, Sophie (Yoon Seung-ah), does housekeeping for her, and helps Granny with her "homework." Granny can't read, it turns out, because in her day girls weren't allowed to learn because it would make them uppity - one more sign of Korea's deep misogynous bent whose current manifestation is shown in another 2020 NYAFF film, Kim Do-young's Kim Ji-young: Born 1982.

    But the main self-realization comes through a would-be romance. Sophie has a man giving her French lessons, Young KIm (Bae Yu-ram) who's also an aspiring filmmaker. Producer Lee has some friendly conversations with Young Kim; both are single and have little to do, they share some meals, and Producer Lee gets ideas which eventually Young Kim sets straight. He thinks of her more like an older sister. A rude awakening for Producer Lee. But she has Granny and the ghost of Leslie Cheung to consult with. And when Producer Lee finds Young Kim found Ozu's Tokyo Story boring and prefers Christopher Nolan, she's relieved of her illusion they might be compatible. Only trouble is she's realizing now she's missed out on love by being work-driven and never entering into couple-hood. Granny warns her not to regret the past, to enjoy each day: you know the drill.

    Yes, this does have a "transition from female sacrifice to female empowerment." Simply being a film about someone (formerly) involved in making films doesn't, however, make it a "smart metanarrative on the art of filmmaking," though the film may be a comment on the filmmaker's own life. It's a more conventional one than Hong Sang-soo's. It does have the one opening drunken scene, too short for Hong though; and Hong-like exterior scenes, perhaps duplicating actual locations he's used, though I can't be sure of that. I might have enjoyed it more had I not been asked to see complexities and cross-references I couldn't find.

    Lucky chan-sil / 찬실이는 복도 많지("There are many corridors in the cold room"), 96 mins., debuted at Busan Oct. 2019, also showing at Seoul, Independent Film Festival, Osaka and Pyeongchang festivals in 2019 and 2020. It won Best Picture at Seoul and the CGV Arthouse Award, the KBS Independent Film Award, and the Director’s Guild of Korea Award. Screened for this review as part of the virtual 2020 New York Asian Film Festival (Aug. 28-Sept. 12).
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 09-06-2020 at 01:39 AM.

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    DANCING MARY ダンシング・マリ (Sabu 2019)

    SABU: DANCING MARY ダンシング・マリ (2019)


    AINA YAMADA AND NAOTO IN DANCING MARY

    Before remodeling, an exorcism is sometimes needed

    Some of the scenes in this genre mashup are delightful, perhaps especially ones that have nothing essential to do with the plot. I liked when some young office drones finish an urgent conversation in the cafeteria and one says, "Good lunch!" And when the protagonist Kenji Fujimoto (dancer-rapper Kataoka Naoto, known as Naoto) is in a hospital for the spirit medium he's recruiting and two women with cancer in the ward mercilessly rag him for being a cowardly loser. It's not essential to the action, but the rhythm is great. The government agency for which the normally lazy Kenji works has put him in charge of a nightmare job - the demolition an old showa-era dance hall to be converted into a mall and offices. There's a serious snag: the ugly old building is haunted and people are afraid to go in. So the yakuza, the Japanese mafia, is called in as well as some ghosts who can help out. And Kenji, who never stops being comically frightened, enlists the medium he hears about (who's being bullied for it, by the way, the class "Carrie"), a high school girl called Yukiko ((Aina Yamada)). It doesn't hurt that to channel the ghost connection, Kenji has to hold hands with Yukiko all the time. A dancer called Mary (dancer model Bando Nozomi. haunts the building. (The involvement of Naoto and Bando Nozomi is due to a contract Sabu (Hiroyuki Tanaka) has signed with a talent agency.)

    A plane ride take Kenji to an all-out battle of dead guys in limbo. An aim is for lost souls to be allowed to go to heaven (So: ghost story meets martial arts.) He and the medium go over with a slaughtered yakuza full of swords from "death by a thousand" - or a dozen anyway - cuts. They come back with the wild Johnny (Kaito Yoshimura), a scruffy, rambunctious ghost of a rocker Mary's lost boyfriend, who hopefully will free Mary of her entrapment in the dance hall building. Johnny is a laugh all the way. Notice his wild reaction to being in a plane; and his demands after landing, en route to see Mary - chewing gum and a boutique outfit - and his critique of the boring modern car - lots of fun, throwaway moments come with Johnny.

    Jason Maher, whose review in VCinema elucidates details of the narrative that had eluded me, is one of several who note, in his case admiringly, that the style Sabu evokes here at times recalls the early Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Sabu acted in Kurosawa's 2001 Pulse). Maher notes that Sabu exchews "jump-scares and gore," and adopts (I liked this) a "texture" that is "damp and cold." Refreshing on a hot day! Maher describes the sensory atmosphere of the movie admirably : "Shrill strings, wailing winds and melancholy music are heard while cobwebbed corridors, abandoned abodes, decrepit danchis and the mouldy dance hall provide the settings." There are several supple ballet sequences too, by the way.Ghost-communication scenes are in black and white. Maybe it doesn't all hold together because there are so many disparate genre elements. But if you hang on for the ride, fun is to be had.
    Dancing Mary ダンシング・マリ, 96 mins., released Japan Oct. 2019, Imagine Film Festival (Netherlands) Sept. 5, 2020. Screened for this review as part of the virtual 2020 New York Asian Film Festival.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 09-07-2020 at 12:08 AM.

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    FORBIDDEN DREAM 천문: 하늘에 묻는다 (Hur Jin-ho 2019)

    HUR JIN-HO: FORBIDDEN DREAM 천문: 하늘에 묻는다 (2019)


    HAN SUK-KIU, CHHOI MIN-SIK IN FORBIDDEN DREAM

    A period celestial bromance with complicated consequences

    This is the story of the extremely important 15th century Korean scientist-inventor-engineer Jang Yeong-sil (Choi Min-sik) and King Sejong the Great (Han Suk-kiu), who nurtured his talents. Hur Jin-ho has made a grand and glorious costume drama out of this well known part of Korean history featuring two of the nation's most distinguished actors (united for a second time, the first being for the 1999 thriller Shiri). Korea's dominance by China hangs over this story. Since Yeong-sil's most notable inventions were astronomical, his work was bound to violate the Chinese rule that the skies were a sacred region Koreans were forbidden to broach. Yeong-sil also caused local hostility in the royal court because the free-thinking Sejong had made him, a person of lowly status, a high-ranking advisor. This is the story of the complications of this important relationship, which is both enhanced and diluted by costume drama pomp.

    The West has stories like this, like Galileo's, which comes a century or so later. One wants this film to be more intellectual, richer in the science of the time. But perhaps it does the best it can. In any case it is handsome to look at and the moments of intimacy are unique and touching if a bit schmaltzy at times, especially on the part of Choi; Han is more wont to laugh, as if being a radical Joseon dynasty king was all a lark.

    In the film it's said that Yeong-sil was initially a slave. Elsewhere he is described as one of the Cheonmin or "vulgar commoners." In any case his discovery and elevation to the status of a court counselor is an important and controversial event. This King Sejong is egalitarian, and also grandiose. In one gesture he selects a star and tells Yeong-sil it's his, that social status doesn't restrict who can own a star, and goes on to say all the stars rank as his personal servants. Perhaps, for his time and place, they truly seemed to be. The grand operatic string orchestra rings out in the background. Yeong-sil and Sejong lie down beside each other and contemplate the stars. By this point, if not before, this has become a real sentimental bromance. During the honeymoon period, Jang designs a special clock and astronomical globe, and many other things not fully described in the film. I wish they were, that one got more of a sense what it was like to be the Leonardo of Korea.

    In these activities competition with or defiance of Ming, the Chinese emperor, have to be somehow implied. And this is a great danger, since China is far more powerful and Korea owes fealty to the Chinese emperor.

    When King Sejong asks Yeong-sil what reward he would like for his achievements, he answers, "Always to be with you, Sire."

    Naturally this can't last. There are courtiers who never liked the raising of a person of such low status to such a high position nor his having the ear of the king - though it's insinuated that years pass before the trouble comes. Yeong-sil has made numerous positive contributions to the country having to do with time and water as well as the stars, and he has advocates in the court. Sejong never personally, fully, turns against him until Yeong-sil forces him to.

    Through pressure from the Chinese, Yeong-sil's largest device is torn down - his celestial globe, a grand device, yet primitive by modern standards, of course - and King Sejong himself torches it. Others are afraid to, perhaps disagreeing with its destruction or afraid Sejong is not truly in favor of it. Now King Sejong heads out for Incheon to recover from ill health.

    The extended turning point is the collapse of the gama, a large carriage designed by Yeon-sil, in rain and mud and muck while King Sejong is riding in it. This is probably the most demanding of a number of complicated physical reenactments in the film involving elaborate reconstructed period machinery. Miraculously, the king is alive. All the very many royal servants who are found surrounding the crashed gama bow down in the muck - from which King Sejong has emerged chanting in unison, begging to be put to death. Members of the court regularly chant in unison. It's disconcerting; also one of several things that make one feel the film, with its color-coordinated court uniforms, is about to morph into a musical. It's assumed by all that the collapsed wheel of the gama was sabotage: everyone agrees that a I]gama[/I] designed by Yeong-sil simply could not collapse. This seems mistaken, though it shows what regard the man is held in. But if tragedy could strike at Cape Canaveral, why not a broken carriage wheel in the 15th century?

    In the wake of this, when the quartet of royal maintenance men are tortured and jailed and Yeong-sil is under investigation and eventually sent to the same cozy cell, it's discovered that he has had in his quarters a little wooden box with some odd squares in it. He professes to know noting of it. This is the beginnings of Hangul, another great innovation during the regime of King Sejong. It's made very clear (though students of Korean culture would not need to be informed) that Hangul was part of Sejong's democratizing, liberal moment by ending the necessity of using Chinese characters, which effectively made literacy in Korea a thing of the aristocratic and powerful. A system of letters (though to us they look like characters), it was created to replace the complicated use of Chinese characters. But use of Chinese writing kept literacy firmly in the hands of the aristocracy. Hangul would make ordinary people able to become literate with easy and writ their own language. So this is part of the story of the period, though how it relates to the relationship between the King and the commoner-sage is a bit complicated, and perhaps a little dry. As Yoon Mitn-sik says in his Korea Herald review, the film "mixes it up" at this point. It blends the bromance, the conflict with China, the carriage accident scandal, and the creation of Hangul and the mix creates tension but not a sense of narrative logic. .

    Yeong-sil and King Sejong have another intimate meeting. But Yeong-sil is held with the four maintenance officers for the gama accident. We know Yeong-sil was flogged, but nothing more. An online biography says it's possible he may have survived into the next regime. There's material for another, more purely invented story, perhaps, a great inventor living out his last days in obscurity - like Tesla? But the best part of this film comes early, the star-gazing and bromance moments, where the interaction of these two fine actors is most effective.

    Forbidden Dream, /천문: 하늘에 묻는다 (2019), 132 mins., released theatrically in Korea Sept. 2019, and in Japan Dec. 2020. It was screened for this review as part of the virtual 2020 New York Asian Film Festival (Aug. 28-Sept. 12). It's currently available for rent on Amazon.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 09-07-2020 at 10:10 PM.

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    VICTIM(S) 加害者,被害人 (Layla Zhuqing Ji 2020)

    LAYLA ZHUQING JI: VICTIM(S) 加害者,被害人 (2020)


    POSTER FOR VICTIM(S)

    A lurid movie about bullying full of ugly scenes of abuse

    This debut feature about school bullying, murder, and bad parenting from mainland Chinese director Layla Zhuqing Ji shot in Malaysia for greater freedom is ambitious, but confusing, and doesn't shed new light on the subject. It seems overly busy, too much sliding toward horror movie genre, lacking in emotional depth, particularly after seeing another, much better new film about bullying in the NYAFF, Naito Eisuke's touching Forgiven Children.

    Ji indulges energetically at first in in multiple platforms - present action, kids' group chats and messaging, individual interviews, flashbacks - conveying the busy media-dense atmosphere of such situations, but the action drops back to a simpler two-pronged narrative approach later with emphasis on flashbacks; the crime of murder somewhat falls by the wayside. The flashbacks show that the murder victim was a chief bully, the killer mercilessly bullied by a small group of vicious class misfits to which the victim belonged.

    But things are further complicated by there being homosexuality in two of the main boys - though this is a theme not followed through on. And yet, though, anyway - how does this make sense, exactly? - they both seem interested in and in competition for the same new girl, an art school transfer. She it turns out was molested by a teacher, and she too is soon mercilessly bullied and teased at the new school for that by the girls. Both the girl and the boy are subjected to having their mistreatment filmed on smart phones. She and the bullied boy, the top student, become comrades in misery. (It was at this point, 45 minutes in, that I discovered this is a coed boarding school.)

    The boys' social statuses and mothers are contrasted. The murdered boy's is a lowly masseuse with a drunken husband (not followed through on),while that of the killer, who was cruelly bullied, is a woman well off from the sale, we're told, of violent video games. Everyone seems to hate the "rich" boy for being uppity. I'm not sure the filmmaker is aware how ambiguous and confusing a lot of details are, such as the sexuality of the boys; the uppityness of the killer's mom.

    Her interest seems more in shooting violent encounters and sudden actions, scary, penumbral scenes, shadowy interiors alternating with bright street or schoolroom exteriors, some of which are beautiful as lensed by dp Eunsoo Cho.

    The school and the authorities come in for some harsh depiction. No one is ready to step in and prevent bullying, or make the classroom a human space. The classroom scenes are crudely stylized things out of a comedy film. The system is stark. Students are seated in order of GPA, top in front, lowest in back. All emphasis is on test score and rote knowledge. When the group bullying sessions come they're depicted in horror movie mode. They are trying to observe, and the mode they're in makes it hard to take them seriously, though not hard to be disgusted by them. The grasp on tone is very uneven.

    While undeniably effective as crude fiction degenerating for a while into misery porn with hideous torture scenes, this film has too little sense of reality to work as a comment on current events, on which it's only an impressionistic riff, in any case. Since it's approach to these events is so crude, it also can't be taken seriously as cinema. But that doesn't mean it won't contribute to discussions of these issues, especially by Chinese audiences. An uncertain beginning for Layla Zhuqing Ji, who studied in the US but plans next to make a film in China, which she says has rich opportunities for independent cinema. That's all except for the censorship, I guess.

    Victim(s) 加害者,被害人 ("Perpetrators, victims"), debuted at Udine (Udine Far East Film Festival) June 2020. 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; 09-08-2020 at 06:15 PM.

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    IWeirDo 怪胎 ( Liao Ming-yi 2020)

    LIAO MING-YI: IWeirDo 怪胎 (2020)


    NIKKI HSIEH AND AUSTIN LIN IN IWEIRDO

    How becoming normal can be alienating for the odd

    Liao Ming-yi, emerging from a new generation of filmmakers from Taiwan out of music videos and using an iPhone XS Max (or actually a bevy of them), has produced a troubling and some think uniquely timely delight. AmandaTheJedi observes on Letterboxd, "I don't know if I've experienced something so delightfully quirky get so horrendously bleak so fast," and that is also true. Eye candy that takes us to a magical place and then makes staying there suddenly complicated when all it had been was safe.

    In this vein we meet Chen Po-Ching (Austin Lin) and Chen Ching (Nikki Hsieh), a cute couple in the making except they both suffer from OCD, which includes mysophobia, fear of contamination and dirt, causing them to suit up in gloves, surgical mask and raincoat (or as one urgently contemporizing blurb has it, "PPE") whenever they go out and to spend a lot of their time scrupulously cleaning house when at home, as they consider it far safer to be. They know they're two of a kind when they see themselves outside - at a grocery store, where Po-Ching spots Ching outfitted just like him and follows her from the subway car to the supermarket where he sees her compulsively shoplifting. (They also repeat rituals all the time, and stealing chocolate she can't eat is one of her regular ones). Po-Ching understands. They start dating. They move in together. They go out for challenges, like a recycling center or cleaning up outside. He is a translator who works at home. She is an occasional model in an art class.

    The images are simple and eye candy bright, the two actors click and are cute and special. I love the delicate glimmer of violet in Hsieh's hair. Lin has a Spock peaked haircut and broad Magic Marker eyebrows, is tall and ripped but boyish, appealing but not a conventional bland Asian male cutie (we see one later).

    Remember in De Sica's Chaplinesque Tuscan fantasy Miracle in Milan there is a couple in love, he is black and she is white. The day arrives when magic comes to the squatters' camp where they live and each makes a wish and rushes off happily to find each other with hope, then disappointment, the man now white, the girl now black? This story is something like that.

    The shooting with an iPhone isn't so much a thing as it was with Sean Baker's Tangerine five years ago. You don't even notice it and as Maggie Lee notes in her Variety review, when midway the phone is turned and goes from confining academy ratio suited to the couple's restricted life to a "widening frame size (aspect ratio 1.85:1)" that matches one protagonist's expanded, but thus alienating world.

    This is very clearcut theme-developing. But the parts that matter are the little details, the vigorous joint teeth-cleaning when preparing for a kiss and cleaning up after it, the glorious moment of picking up a tiny piece of dirt and not minding it. Liao enters this world of shared oddness and limitation with deepest sympathy and pictures it for us with effortless charm. He has a little trouble toward the end knowing how, well, to end, and falls into repeats and reversals that are themselves OCD-ish, but unsatisfying. But we can excuse that because this is such an original, artful, cherishable product. Except for that flubbing at the end the writing is very, very good. Bravo! Not to be missed.

    (As for those who feel like Maggie Lee that this movie's especially relevant because it "plays out like Love in the Time of Corona," that's fine if it works for you: but this couple unites because they they're unlike, not like, everybody else as we with our masks and lock-down and social distancing are forced to be.)

    Weirdo* 怪胎, 100 mins., debuted at Udine June 29, 2010, showing at Taipei Aug.7, with a theatrical release in Singapore Sept. 17. Screened for this review as part of the virtual New York Asian Film Festival (Aug. 28-Sept. 12, 2020).
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 09-21-2020 at 11:41 PM.

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    WILD SPARROW 野雀之詩 (Shih Li 2019)

    SHIH LI : WILD SPARROW 野雀之詩 (2019)


    CHEN SHU-FANG, LI YI-CHIEH, KAO YI-HSIA IN WILD SPARROW

    Beautiful losers

    In his little feature debut Wild Sparrow Shi Li has made a partly beautiful and graceful film, with poetic moments but also dissoluteness and ugliness. The handling of images, scenes largely without music and a major character who rarely speaks, is elegant and minimal. But the story told is largely ordinary and uninteresting, a little short on distinctive storyline and with parts that never quite fit together.

    It's a film of jarring contrasts and tonal unevenness, though its clashes are largely the point, one supposes: between the fey, mystical rural mountain world and the disheveled, corrupt world of the city, between being a mom and being a whore. The little boy, Han (Kao Yi-hsia) caught in the middle, whose point of view is central to the tale, is discovered living an idyllic life in the mountains with his great-grandmother (Chen Shu-fang). A slim, graceful waif, as it were a numb, Asian Peter Pan, Han is brilliant in school and a sensitive observer of nature, who can stand and watch the insects and birds for hours and then write poetry about them.

    But as Han Cheung points out in his Taipei Times review, the Taiwanese countryside is mostly a place of poverty and old people, the younger ones having all gone to the city for work. So not surprisingly Han's school is shutting down and during a visit from his mom, Li (Lee Yi-chieh), it's decided that he will join her in Taipei City to go to school. But Han is as lost as a sparrow, a caged wild one that, in the titular metaphor, has to be set free for money, a way of exploiting Buddhists.

    He travels to the city on his own. He is silent and shy, but the young actor is good enough to convey his reactions while maintaining an enigmatic exterior. The boy is obviously not enthusiastic about leaving his observations of sparrows (one of which he has ceremonially buried) and the quietude and the warmth and folk wisdom of his great-grandmother in the mountains. And we soon see how right he was. In the tiny apartment he is forced to hear his mother, the pretty, also waif-like Li have noisy sex with an ugly old man, her current date, in the next room. This unpleasantness is all the uglier became of the delicate touch of what has led up to it, the first big shift of tone. It almost makes you sick, or ready to walk out of the virtual theater. But we're meant to feel Han's shock. The city world is a harsh, ugly place of dirty alleyways and neon. One of the few attractions is boys break dancing out the window, whom Han sometimes tries to imitate.

    Li is soon disabused of the notion that this "Uncle" may become Han's new "father. Though he spends some time with Li and Han, teaching Han how to cut a piece of steak, buying him gifts and Li a nice dress and playing carnival games with them, he receives some complaining calls on his cell phone and soon heads out for the country to tend to his factory, and presumably his family, and is not seen again. Li has to return to her job as cocktail waitress/call girl again, and there's more loud sex Han has to listen to. There's also a similarly pretty and waif-like young man (Teng-Hung Hsia), a waiter at the bar who lusts for Li and also wants to be her pimp. Their involvement gets him fired. His pimping soon leads to conflict with Li.

    Han is a largely silent victim of these activities, constantly taking refuge in his room. His mother loves Han like a friend, or like a pet. She wants to care for him, but she's a child herself, and her lifestyle gets in the way. There are no fights, no reproaches, except between Li and the waiter.

    All these events are beautifully staged and shot, but don't seem especially memorable. There is one scene, though, when Li returns to the apartment drunk, not for the only time, and confronts Han, who's up late working on a poem about the souls of animals. Li begs him to read it to her but he won't. In her drunkenness she seems to chide him and at the same time exclaim at his specialness. Is she mad at him, contemptuous, or in awe? Her drunken raving makes it hard to tell. She raves on about him as he retreats to his room, then he returns and recites his poem to her. But she can't listen. This is a troubling and distinctive moment with an originality the others lack. Here but elsewhere too Li comes across as a complicated and confused person and Lee Yi-chieh sparkles in the role enough to have won an acting prize at the Taipei Festival.

    Also unusual is the last part of the film, which completely drops the problems of the earlier part. In the summertime Li sends Han back on the bus by himself to see his great-grandmother and when he gets there she's lying dead and he just lies down beside her. In a dream sequence, he meets with her for a talk and ramble in the woods and slopes. She tells him the sparrows (repeatedly shown in flocks flying overhead in the mountain sequences) are dead souls that return to watch over the living, as she will come back to watch over him. This is followed by the wake for the great-grandmother, with Li and the pimp, who're apparently back together on good terms now, making paper lotuses to be burned by Han in a bowl for the great-grandmother. The ghostly great-grandmother hobbles off into the rain, and the wild sparrows flock in the sky. All very nice, but I have the distinct feeling that these are all parts of a whole that doesn't fit together. The poetry and the sparrows don't resolve the mother's disheveled life and this boy's uncertain situation. Maybe he'll get a scholarship and go to Eton? Shih Li has a delicate and beautiful vision and thinks up some provocative characters and situations. Better luck at integrating them next time.

    Wild Sparrow 野雀之詩 ("Poem of the Wildfinch"), 94 mins., debuted at Taipei June 2019, nominated for several awards there, with Lee winning Best Actress, then showed at Busan, Vancouver, Kaohsiung,and Chicago in Oct. 2019. It opened in Taiwan theatrically in July 2020. It was screened for this review as part of the virtual 2020 New York Asian Film Festival (Aug. 28-Sept 12).
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 09-12-2020 at 01:49 PM.

  8. #23
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    SOUL / ROH (Emir Ezwan 2019)

    EMIR EZWAN: SOUL / ROH (2019)


    SCENE FROM ROH

    Horror at jungle's edge

    Emir Ezwan's Malaysian art house horror film explores folkloric ideas of invasion, possession and witches in a remote edge-of-the-jungle village setting whose beauty in itself well compensates for the low budget - though some will find the action a little too low-key. (The low budget style is the trademark method of the Malaysian-based Kuman Pictures, who had an international success with James Lee's film Two Sister last year.) Limitations are also offset by the beautiful droning-rising score by Reunchez Ng, which is the first thing that greets the viewer as the film begins. Lovely cinematography by Ahmad Saifudd does justice to every leaf of the rich jungle growth and the dark spaces under the green canapy. The horror fan who looks for something low-keyed and original should be the best audience for Soul. Those in search of a complex narrative will come up short. This is above all a gloomy, foreboding mood piece. It's no coincidence that it's dominated by the unchanging but satisfyingly enveloping score.

    You have to be into the trip Ezwan takes you on. If not, the quiet, relaxed pace and absence of the usual horror-film shocks might make the action seem to lack energy and drive. I have to admit that while I appreciate the film's beauty (even the closing credits are a marvel of elegance and precision a bigger budged film would admire), it failed to engage me fully. My opinion may parallel that of Letterboxd contributor Colin McEvoy. He gives Soul three stars after a NYAFF 2020 viewing and describes it as "Atmospheric and creepy," saying financial and artistic restrictions gives it "a distinct sort of charm." But he concludes he can "not honestly say" it held his interest all the way through.

    This is the story of a mother, Mak (Farah Ahmad), and her son , Angah (Harith Haziq) and daughter Along (Mhia Farhana) living remote from anything. The film takes them through states of increasing dread. The brother and sister bring home a strange girl, Adik (Putri Syahadah Nurqaseh) they find in the woods. They should have known better. There mother warns them of a slain deer they find hanging from a tree, in effect, "What happens in the jungle stays in the jungle." Next day the girl warns this family they'll all soon die. Troubles begin from there. The girl kills herself and bleeds out. A gray-looking woman called Tok (Junainah M. Lojong) then comes, said to be a local healer, also warning, and offering to help. Guess what? (Spoiler alert!) Tok is only the ticking clock of doom. She is not there to help the little family, who know they should flee, but don't get around to it in time.

    More obviously sinister is Pemboru (Namrom), a strange man in tightly-wrapped clothes who comes looking for a mysterious girl. And there is also a spear-wielding hunter (Nam Ron). By this time Mak and her two children are aware that where they are is indeed an area where evil hovers. Strange, scary rituals are going on, animal are being mysteriously slaughtered. It's a curse, it's bad magic - or someone is after their souls. Perhaps one may come around to the view that where folkloric superstitions reign, people start to get what they wish for.

    The writer for the Malay Mail, Zurairi AR, recounts his astonishment that the first feature he'd go to see when cinemas reopened after the Coronavirus lockdown would be a horror movie. Zurairi AR is learned and helpful and has provided an exceptionally fine analysis and explanation of this film that I wish I'd read before watching it. He points out the rudimentary tenor of the cast names: "Mak" is Malay for "mother," "Along" for "first born," "Angah," "second born, "Adik," "little child, and so on. He directs our attention to the film's epigraph from the Qur'an, referring to Iblis (as associate of Satan) who warns that he is made from fire, and ordinary men from clay - two elements that thread through the film. Blood is another key, linking element. But he points out that this film isn't overtly Muslim like many Malaysian horror films but refers more to a pre-Muslim time in Malaysia and hence has characters who must find help within themselves and not from above, making this "more hard-hitting than many preachy, Islamic-themed Malay horror films." On the other hand, in Zurairi AR's analysis, is that this film does have an ultimately Islmic, healing message: that "one should not isolate oneself when facing great evil and trying to save one’s soul. Help is just one prostration away, one submission away to the divine."

    The Malay word for "soul," "roh," is also the Arabic word. However, knowing Arabic, I could not recognize one word of the Malay dialogue.

    Soul / Roh,, 82 mins., debuted at Singapore and the Indonesia Jogja-Netpac Asian Film Festival in November 2019. It was screened for this review as part of the 2020 virtual New York Asian Film Festival (Aug. 28-Sept 12).
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 09-12-2020 at 08:07 PM.

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    MY PRINCE EDWARD 金都 (Norris Wong 2019)

    NORRIS WONG: MY PRINCE EDWARD 金都 (2019)


    STEPHY TANG AND CHU PAK-HONG IN MY PRINCE EDWARD

    Pre-marital squabbles over a bridal shop make for a delightful, realistic farce

    Norris Wong Yi Lam's directorial debut is a feisty, fun new film that seems unbound by Hong Kong movie traditions. Its cutting edge points toward the current status of women in Hong Kong. Far more than a romantic comedy, in the foreground it's an entertainingly specific tale of divorce, marriage and relationship squabbles and discoveries with a semi-farcical plot-line. Beyond that it may be one of the most fresh and original films to come out of Hong Kong in some time.

    The protagonist is Cheung Lei-fong, known as "Fong" (Stephy Tang) a young woman who works as a clerk in a small bridal store in Golden Plaza, a mall in the Prince Edward district known for its affordable yet elegant wedding merchandise. Nearby her problematic boyfriend Edward Yan Chun-win (stage actor Chu Pak-hong), whom she's lived with for seven years, has a little wedding photography shop, and they live together in a small flat over the bridal shop.

    Stephy Tang, though perhaps a tad more recessive than necessary for my taste, delivers an engaging and subtle performance as a woman who is shy and tight-lipped, but by no means weak, and now coming to a time of major decisions. She may deserve a generous share of the acting awards, but Chu Pak-hong, as Edward, is a revelation and delight as a loud-mouthed man-child who is dominated by and dependent on his tiny but iron-willed mom (Nina Paw), who wants to keep the couple in the flat Fong doesn't even really like.

    Edward is the kind of lazy multitasker who may be arguing with Fong, talking with a client on the phone, and playing a video game at the same time in their tiny flat. Chu isn't handsome, or particularly young: he's real, but also funny. Behind Edward's macho outbursts and sputtering complaints one senses there is always tenderness and warmth. He's possessive and obnoxious, but we can believe that Edward loves Fong. We have to discover whether Fong loves Edward. She doesn't not love him. But the way Edward searches through Fong's stuff and bombards her with text messages is borderline abusive, and makes you wonder if she should.

    Also to be mentioned, herself a significant statement since she leads to a discussion of the topic of gay marriage, is the lively bridal shop assistant, Yee (Eman Lam), wno's pretty openly lesbian. But the other main personality we need to be acquainted with appears a little later when chance leads him to find Fong, whom he's been looking for for years. He is Yang Shuwei (Jin Kai-jie), a Mainlander. Ten years ago Fong entered into a sham mariange with him, using the money ("chump change," she now realizes) to afford to move into her own apartment. (Hong Kong flats are costly as well as small.) Yang wanted to be married to a Hong Kong woman to apply for a Hong Kong ID so he could eventually move to Los Angeles, his dream. Well, he has not acquired a Hong Kong ID or gotten to L.A. Now he wants to get married.

    And it has turned out that the divorce Fong left with the agency to arrange for her never took place because the agent got arrested, and she and Yang are still legally wed. Bad for both of them since Yang has a girlfriend (who will shortly turn out to be pregnant) and Edward wants to marry Fong, and his mother wants the event to happen in a mere matter of months. Arranging the divorce alone might take Fong a year or two. It seemed both Fong and Edward favored a low-keyed affair, but Edward's mom has other ideas. A fancy surprise public betrothal ceremony (see photo above) makes Fong feel the pressure.

    Just as in Noah Baumbach's wonderful recent movie Marriage Story (the 2019 NYFF Centerpiece Film), this is really all about the lively, amusing scenes and dialogue, including some virtuosic verbal battles, but is also, importantly, quite specific about legal requirements and where all this happens. The sense of place comes from director Wong's having lived near Prince Edward all her life.

    Yang is still young, and it may come as a surprise to find that he, with his trendy hairstyle and free-ranging ambitions, turns out to be both hipper and more progressive than the film's Hongkongers. His spirit may make Fong aware of the limitations of her life and her relationship. There are moments, even in the final sequence, when you wonder if Fong may drift toward him. But I don't think there is really a chance of this on either side; it's just a sign of director Wong's skill at keeping every moment of this enjoyable film and its characters open and interesting. Director-writer Wong has made a film that's a prime example of Hong Kong's move away from blockbuster actioners toward lifestyle and relationship pictures - one that's not only amusing but smart and grown up.

    When listing the main characters we must not forget the smallest one, the little turtle Fong brings home from an aquarium shop on Goldfish Street (another local feature) because she sees it flipped over in the tank, and then gets expelled by Edward's bossy mom over an issue of feng shui. The whole relationship almost collapses over turtles, and Edward hopes to restore it through them. At film's end, we don't know if he'll succeed.

    My Prince Edward 金都, 92 mins., debuted Nov. 17, 2019 at the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival, showing next day at Taipei Golden Horse fest, and the end of Nov. at Seoul Independent Film Festival. It won many nominations and awards including screenplay and new director awards for Wong. Theatrical opening it Taiwan May 22020. Screened for this review as part of the virtual 2020 New York Asian Film Festival (Aug. 28-Sept. 12). It has a country-wide North American release, and you'll soon probably have the opportunity to see it.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 09-14-2020 at 01:23 AM.

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    HEAVY CRAVING (Hsieh Pei-ju 2019)

    HSIEH PEI-JU: HEAVY CRAVING (2019

    Ying-Juan (Tsai Jia-yin) is spunky, smart... and 230 pounds. She cooks at a preschool where the kids call her Ms. Dinosaur. Even her mom, who’s also her boss, constantly fat-shames her. But she just doesn’t give a damn… until an unwanted membership to a weight loss program and an encounter with two misfits prompt her to change and put her on an uphill path to self-acceptance, paved with crash diets and boot camp workouts. Pei-Ju Hsieh’s poignant debut cleverly flirts with screwball comedy conventions while embracing an unorthodox body positivity message, and ultimately delivers an uplifting, sobering moral.



    It's closer to a TV movie than a movie for the big screen, but it's a complete mature work. Of course, I can say that it would have been better and more impressive if the director had explored more deeply and criticized this and that, but in retrospect, I am grateful that the film tells the story in such a gentle way, without chicken soup and without preaching, because after all, it is not easy to be "seen" in this kind of story. I'm glad to see the story of an ordinary fat girl, and I look forward to the director's future works and hope that more similar stories will be seen.

    Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)



    Audience Choice Award, Taipei Film Festival International New Directors Competition

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    HEAVY CRAVING 大餓 (Hsieh Pei-ju 2019)

    HSIEH PEI-JU: HEAVY CRAVING 餓 (2019


    TSAI JA-YIN IN HEAVY CRAVING

    Being oneself

    Hsieh Pei-ju, who gained her MFA at Columbia University and here delivers her feature film debut as a director, taking us on a rocky road to putative self-acceptance in Heavy Craving, screened for this review in the New York Asian Film Festival. This is an uneven film, but one that makes a lively and generally pleasant impression. There's cuteness, also emotional shocks, also violence and surreal moments. Some plot details are left hanging, and psychological details aren't delved into too deeply. Luckily it's all anchored by Tsai Jia-yin, the actress who plays Ying-juan, who's at the center of the action. Tsai's naturalness and air of good nature reassure us whatever her character is going through. The message is, forget "normal," and outliers are not alone. Whenever I am feeling this movie has become silly or extreme, I remember that it's entertainment. In teaching, it sugars the pill.

    Ying-Juan's evident talent and zest as a chef seems more than what's needed for the preschool her demanding mother Shu-fen (Samantha Ko) runs. The kids gobble up her productions but make fun of her for her weight and call her "Ms. Dinosaur." She doesn't hesitate to punch a kid playfully if he acts up. Ying-juan tips the scale at 230 pounds, making her decisively "obese," though she carries the weight around in a sprightly fashion. It also gives her a decisive advantage in hand-to-hand combat, as we shall see.

    But her mother gives Ying-juan a birthday present that's a sign of disapproval, enrollment in a weight loss program for which we've seen the ad in the opening sequence, Action Weight and Body Wellness Center. This is the kind of outfit where the boss singles somebody out and passes around a plate of fat to show how much the subject is overweight, and shaming is combined with talk of "will power." (Can we say that the Brits - witness Phoebe Waller-Bridge's "Fleabag" - far outrank the Taiwanese in social satire?) On the side are slim maidens in uniform with neck scarves ready to sell Ying-juan expensive diet supplements or interest her, if all else fails, in gastric bypass surgery. (Ying-juan eventually submits to the latter, but neither the surgery nor its aftermath is explored in detail.)

    While Ying-juan is submitting to this, which she does in a bargain to be allowed to plan the school meals, she makes two illustrative friends. There is Xiao-yu (Chang En-wei),a little boy who likes to cross-dress. He happens to be a top student. His wealthy mom knows but does not approve. There is Wu (Yao Chang), a handsome young man who works for the Golden delivery service. We soon find out why he befriends Ying-juan, after bringing her a diet pack delivery: it's because he used to be a fat boy, so fat he broke two seats at the pizza shop. He''s cute and now his physique seems quite perfect. But he has a guilty secret as to how he keeps the fat off, and when Ying-juan discovers it, Wu, in his embarrassment, disappears for a while. What other issues does Wu have? He goes to a movie with Ying-juan, and we can imagine how exciting it is for her to have such a handsome date, but we blanch to see her eating movie theater snacks. Apparently, a sugar-free drink on this occasion is what causes her to gain weight this week, to the great disapproval of the diet programmers, especially Fitness Coach Allen (William Hsieh).

    Ying-juan becomes frustrated and goes on an extreme diet, to more disapproval, and people say she looks pale. Eventually she has the surgery - and the only clear result is that she loses her sense of taste. It is one of the surreal moments to see her uselessly stuffing herself with fried stuff at a fast food restaurant, findin even the sauce is tasteless to her. This is a low point for the usually ebullient Ying.

    I don't know if Ying-juan's encouraging little tranny honor student Xiao-yu to wear a shimmering dress and blue wig to perform in a school show can be seen as a wise move, but it's a boldly indulgent one, and this may be a place where director Hsieh is expressing new and emerging attitudes in Taiwan. He looks fabulous, but his mother is furious with him and Ying-juan's mom knows she's responsible and is likewise enraged. This, with the apparent failure and disastrous effect on her olfactory system of her surgery, sends Ying-juan into a violent tailspin of acting out where she gets drunk and does damage to the Action Weight and Body Wellness Center. When any slim woman attacks Ying-juan, the latter's considerable avoirdupois enables her to toss away her opponent like a rag doll, as happens in a surreal imaginary battle with a "perfect" woman staged inside a stomach. The wreckage Ying has done at the weight loss clinic seems to be forgiven. Her mother finally seems to see something is wrong. A later scene shows a comfortable Ying-juan riding with Wu in his delivery truck. Not a resolution, a sketchy ending, but a pleasant sight, at least.

    Ying-juan has learned to be herself. We must not put too fine a point on it. Obviously this film doesn't delve deep into the psychology of Ying-juan, Xiao-yu, or Wu. But there's laughter and good nature here, the moment of deep unhappiness doesn't drag on too long, and the message is an affirmation of self-acceptance, particularly of a range of body types, message delivered, as Letterboxd writer Becky Chen says, in "a gentle way, without chicken soup and without preaching." Tsai Jia-yin stands out for her authenticity and originality. As another Letterboxd writer says, this is "maybe not a fully formed piece," but its "bright color palette" providing a "sunny feel," with topics "tackled within" that are "dark and sensitive" but "balanced with many laughs, smiles and positivity," engage and instruct. This is what Hsieh Pei-ju contributes to the subject of self-acceptance.

    Heavy Craving 大餓 ("Hungry"), 90 mins., debuted at Taipei Jun. 2019; international debut at Busan Oct. 2019. At Taipei it won the Audience Choice Award at Taipei Film Festival International New Directors Competition. Other fests included Taipei Golden Horse, Nov. 2019. Screened for this review as part of the virtual 2020 New York Asian Film Festival (Aug. 28-Sept. 12).

    Reviewed by Elizabeth Kerr at Busan for Hollywood Reporter.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 09-15-2020 at 09:22 PM.

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