Thursday, July 21, 2016

Making of a Monster in Brady Corbet's Accomplished Directorial Debut

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An allegorical tale set in the shadow of WWI Europe, The Childhood of a Leader is a very accomplished first feature from 27 year-old American actor Brady Corbet. Considering his face has been showing up in the films of who's who in European arthouse cinema over the years -- Haneke, von Trier, Bonello, Assayas, Hansen-Løve, just to name a few -- this exclusively European production (UK/Hungary/France) seems far less surprising.

The film sees an American diplomat (played by Liam Cunningham) working for President Woodrow Wilson to end the horrific war that the world has ever experienced after the industrial revolution. His newly transplanted family consists of an educated, worldly wife (Berenice Bejo, The Artist, The Past) and an effeminate young boy (amazing Tom Sweet) with a bobcut blond hair, holed up in an old chateau in rural France.

With his parents always busy, the boy is neglected and being brought up by servants and tutors. In the first segment of the film "A Sign of Things to come," the boy is seen throwing rocks at the fellow church goers after the Christmas mass. Their stern, but emotionally distant parents don't know what to make of his violent behavior but still too preoccupied to do anything solid about it.

The film is divided into the boy's 'tantrums' and builds up to its violent climax. These could be seen as minor outbursts of a normal boy his age, maybe a little more violent and erratic. He paws at the breasts of his French tutor (Stacey Martin, Nymphomaniac) and manipulates a sympathetic old servant (Yolanda Moreau), getting them both fired by his mother. The boy, whose name is revealed toward the end as Prescott, is a bratty, spoiled kid who can be seen as a result of bad parenting or Devil Incarnate, like Damien in the Omen movies.

Despite its allusions to the political dictators of the past, Corbet and cowriter Mona Fastvold set the film and the boy's age somewhat removed from the rise of Fascism and Bolshevism in order to not to make it an overtly obvious biography of someone in particular.

You can tell that young Corbet takes a lot from Michael Haneke in terms of theme and stoic presentation. Cinematically speaking, the film is an impressive feat: Lol Crawley (45 Years, Here), director of photography, is responsible for the seriously underexposed cinematography (practically lit interiors) and Scott Walker's stirring string score dominate the film's dark, jarring mood, comparable in its greatness to Jonny Greenwood's blood-pumping There Will Be Blood soundtrack.

There are many fine small moments that wink at immoral adults who surround Prescott. It seems that there are some amorous relationships occurring in the father and the tutor and mother and the family friend in the form of an expat (Robert Pattinson). He also hints that neither parent wanted Prescott in the first place: mother never wanted to be a housewife, father wanted a daughter.

Tonally restrained yet vigorously formalist, Corbet's directing debut definitely doesn't feel like the work of a first-time filmmaker. Corbet also gets uniformly subdued performances from the veteran actors involved. Bearded Robert Pattinson does a fine job playing a double role in two of the film's most enigmatic roles.

But The Childhood of a Leader owes big to its young star Tom Sweet. As a wide eyed, bratty kid, his brave performance alone will cause a string of nature vs nurture debates in the minds of many audience members long after leaving the theater.

After winning the Best Director and Best Debut Prizes at the Venice International Film Festival - Horizons, The Childhood of a Leader had its New York debut at BAMcinemaFest and will open theatrically in New York on Friday, July 22, as well as on VoD, before rolling out nationally.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Time Lost, Time Regained

El abrazo de la serpiente/Embrace of the Serpent (2015) - Guerra
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Gorgeously filmed in black and white, Ciro Guerra's film from the perspective of a native Indian deep in Amazonian jungle of Colombia is a rare beauty. The film centers around Karamakate (played wonderfully by Nilbio Torres in his younger years and by Antonio Boliva in later), the last of his tribe which is wiped out by encroaching white colonial rubber plantation in the early 20th century. First it was Theodore Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet), a sickly German scientist who came to find a rare medicinal plant that might cure him. His diary, published in Germany after his death inspires another botanical enthusiast Evan (Brionne Davis), retracing the steps of the journey with now older Karamakate who claims he doesn't remember anything anymore.

Embrace covers a lot of territories, not only geographically, but also the effects of colonialism thoroughly - religion, culture, language, spirituality, materialism, violence, etc. It's also very poetic and timeless in its presentation as the past and present, dream and reality overlaps each other. It strikes a good middle ground to be not too preachy nor too new-agey. The color part of the film is what Malick aspired to achieve in Tree of Life and Guerra does it with 1/1000th of a budget, I'm sure.

This made me to revisit Herzog's Ten Thousand Years Older, a ten minute documentary he made about Uru Erus of Brazil for Ten Minutes Older project which is Sublime. They go well together.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Japan Cuts 2016 Preview

Along with New York Asian Film Festival, Japan Cuts has become the cultural institution, a must see event in New York Summer tradition. Celebrating its amazing 10th year, the contemporary spread of the choicest Japanese cinema again opens its doors to the salivating public for two weeks at Japan Society. This year's lineup includes a new film from the always controversial Masao Adachi (Artist of Fasting), a couple from ever prolific Sion Sono (Love & Peace, The Whispering Star), a couple from Gakuryu Ishii (Burst City, Bitter Honey) and many more. More so than NYAFF, I find many gems that will eventually end up in my top films list at Japan Cuts every year. And this year is no exception. Japan Cuts 2016 runs July 14 - 24 at Japan Society. Without further a do, here are my take on some of the films presented this year.

Mother, I've Pretty Much Forgotten Your Face
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Michiro Endo, once the frontman of Japanese punk group Stalin, turned 60 in 2011. He decided to travel all around Japan and make a movie. Turning 60 in Japan which is called called kanreki, has a special meaning. They consider the birthday as a the day of your rebirth. That you are a newborn into the world again. While touring and performing solo and with a group, Fukushima happens. Being a Fukushima native and hasn't visited his mother regularly, Endo journeys back to his hometown with a Geiger counter. With other musicians, Endo creates Project Fukushima! and launches the festival on August 15, 2011. 'Japan suffered 2 atomic bombs (in August 15), and one nuclear meltdown- the latter one was our own fault' Endo explains, 'that maybe the way we led our country after the war wasn't really right.' The festival was not to make Fukushima another place with forever negative connotation.

Mother is a documentary of not only a poignant personal journey but a hopeful reflection of Japan after such national disaster. Endo cites small radio stations popping up amidst disasters, connecting people, young and old, people getting together and influencing each other. He's still kicking ass on stage though, with his guttural, expletive filled screams against imperialists, parents and capitalism still resonate. The documentary also showcases the beauty of Japan in different seasons as Endo travels around.

Artist of Fasting
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Masao Adachi, one of the key figures of the Japanese New Wave and definitely the most radical of the bunch, had to live most of his adult life in hiding because of his associations with the Japanese Red Army, a radical communist student group which took up armed struggle in Lebanon. Even after extradited to Japan in 2000 on some trumped up passport violation charges, the controversial writer/director still kept on making films. His turbulent past has been a subject of many adoring western filmmakers over the years (It Maybe that Beauty Has Strengthened Our Resolve, dir. Philippe Grandrieux and Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi and 27 Years Without Images, dir. Eric Baudelair). At age 77, marooned forever in Japan (Japanese gov refuses to issue him a passport), he turns his attention to contemporary Japan, the country in the midst of prolonged economic stagnation and reeling from Fukushima, where the militarism he was so opposed to is once again rising.

With that background, Artist of Fasting is a full blown, not so subtle protest against Japan's rising militarism than a movie, equipped with the footage of the Fukushima disaster, dying third world children, war atrocities, etc. His 'pinku eiga' background also comes to the fore with schoolgirl nudity and rape which will surely raise some eyebrows of modern movie going audiences. Appropriating Kafka's The Hunger Artist, Adachi tells a parable of a misunderstood man: our silent hero (Hiroshi Yamamoto) decides to sit down in the middle of the shopping district and fast. He is a non-emotive man, an empty vessel that everyone can reflect their desires upon. He soon becomes a media sensation and thoroughly exploited by 'entertainment' industry which puts him in a cage adorned with the infamous 'rising-sun' flags for arousing nationalistic fervor. The film ultimately raises a big middle finger to powers that be- current Abe government, religion, media, military, yakuza and just about everyone.

Burst City
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Without Gakuryu Ishii's seminal Burst City, there wouldn't have been no Tetsuo: The Iron Man, no Wild Zero and no Japanese cyberpunk culture for years to come. With his new film Bitter Honey playing at this year's Japan Cuts, this cult classic is making a North American theatrical debut and is a not to be missed! Never mind its almost incomprehensible narrative. But there are enough metal attire and rusty weapons to give you tetanus just by watching it. Starring who's who in punk rockers of the day (The Rockers, The Roosters, The Stalin, etc), this frenetic, handheld filmmaking is a dizzying mixture and excess of energy, attitude and absurdity, recalling anywhere from Mad Max to Rebel Without a Cause. It's mad fun!

Bitter Honey
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A fantasy love story set in post-war Japan, Gakyuru Ishii's Bitter Honey is a beautiful accomplishment in filmmaking. Loosely based on Saisei Muro's book of the same name, the film tells an old dying writer Saisei (Ren Osugi) and his very unusual muse, Akako (Fumi Nikaido), a goldfish named after her bright red color. Living with his bedridden wife for 19 years, Sai finds an inspiration in the company of child-like Akako, a ¥300 goldfish he bought from a sage-like fishmonger (Masatoshi Nagase), who says the fish has an ass like "Brigitte Bardot". Their love is consummated by her being swallowed whole by Sai, then swimming back up to his mouth. There are many double entendres to be had in her torn tail and him fixing it with his saliva and what not. But Ishii keeps everything classy with immaculate period set design, slick camera movement and fully committed acting from both Osugi and Nikaido. This balance is the key success of Bitter Honey.

Nikaido, always in her red dress with long billowy tail, prancing around making funny faces, somehow makes this muse of a writer who-is-a-goldfish work. She is naive, coquettish, emotional, defiant and more. Her Akako turns out to be a writer's creation he can't control. She turns out to be a thoroughly three dimensional character.

It was his psychological thriller Angel Dust that introduced me to Gakuryu Ishii (then Sogo Ishii). His masterful formalism and haunting images made an indelible mark in my brain. Bitter Honey is filled with equally stunning imagery. Coming from an underground punk filmmaking, Ishii came a long way to direct such a mature and masterful film without ever losing a sense of wonder.

The Actor
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Ken Yasuda plays the title role, a bit actor named Kameoka. He is one of those actors who you might recognize from countless movies but don't know the name. But Kameoka is a hard working fellow, whatever the role he takes - in yakuza or samurai films, he gives it all. His craft always gets recognized by his peers and filmmakers alike. When it comes to his work, he is a real professional. But he is a lonely, quiet, single man in life. After meeting an attractive single mother (alluring Kumiko Aso) at her small restaurant while on on the road for a film shoot, Kameoka has to reconsider what it means to be an actor in his own life.

It's good to see Satoko Yokohama's work again. Her goofy, good natured and highly original Bare Essence of Life was one of my favorites from Japan Cuts 2010. Here again, her unhurried, low-key film about an actor going about his life is completely unpretentious, agenda-less experience. There is nothing meta about The Actor despite its movie(s) within a movie premise, or actor playing an actor playing an actor. Veteran TV actor Yasuda with his sad, well-worn clown face gives a fine tuned, melancholic performance. It's his likability that makes the film. And we can't stop rooting for Kameoka's awkward attempt at romance. Even with the use of stage and goofy rare projections, nothing juts out in The Actor. Everything is well-rounded and tranquil. It's also very hard to categorize Yokohama's film one way or the other. It could be seen as many things or could be very simple. There are many humorous moments in this film. Albeit hushed, never laugh out loud funny but the gentle film puts a big smile on your face. I guess can be called a dramedy that puts a big smile on your face the whole time you are watching it. Yokohama is a rare, distinctive voice in a current Japanese cinema.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Three Kings

El cant dels ocells/Birdsong (2008) - Serra
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Albert Serra's minimalistic approach to a semi-literary figures doesn't really concern itself with its subjects much. The star of his films are its surroundings - the changing weather, drifting clouds that casts shadows upon what's below, the light and darkness. Shot on beautiful black and white, Birdsong tells a story about three kings crossing the desert and sea to pay tribute to the birth of the son of god. On their way, they complain about the rocky terrain and uncomfortable sleeping arrangements. Since everything is shot outside, Serra completely depends on the daylight. When the sun goes down, we can hardly make out the three figures. It's like Three Studges road trip on foot, only the presence of a short haired angel in cassock reminds everyone that this is the story of biblical Three Kings. Once they get to their destination, at the foot of Mary and the humble stone house in nowhere, the music swells, giving some sort of energy. But it dies down. Joseph says something about fleeing to Egypt before the Romans come, and it's time to go home for the trio. They talk about their absurd dreams in the woods while angels watch down from a tree. Beautiful, delightfully minimalistic, Albert Serra is one of a kind filmmaker.

Monday, July 11, 2016

LA Paranoia

The Invitation (2015) - Kusama
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As far as the paranoia thriller goes, The Invitation makes the grade. Will (Logan Marshall-Green) with his girlfriend (Emayatsy Corinealdi) are on their way to a dinner party thrown by his ex, Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her husband David. It's a reunion of sort with close friends who lost touch with one another over the years. The dinner party is all polite and cordial and stuff. There are two strangers who are present at the party too - a wild girl Sadie (Lindsay Burdge) and Pruitt (John Caroll Lynch, doing his usual creepy serial killer type), the recent acquisition by Eden and David. They met in Mexico and are following some sort of religious group. The dinner party is hampered by David showing everyone about a video of a dying woman surrounded by other members of the group, saying death is a natural thing and whatnot. Will, already on-edge about the whole dinner party with his ex whose child they shared died in some freak accident, questions David and Eden's weird motives - locking the doors, metal grate on windows and such. Then Pruitt tells a horrible story of him killing his wife and spending time in jail. At this point, party is really awkward and uncomfortable. But time and time again, Will is proven to be wrong (the door's locked and windows shuttered windows because of recent home invasion of the neighbors) and his doubts and outbursts were seen as him being completely out of the line.

Kusama does a great job building tension throughout the film. It seems that loss of a child is the basis of vast majority of horror movies or clutch for some melodrama these days (let's see...what could be the most traumatic thing that can happen to a grown up? Death of an offspring!!). So Will and Eden suffer from the pain and guilt of losing their son and whatnot but they are trying to get over that in their own way or whathaveyou. But the film's yet another sinister take on the city of Angels, a cautionary tale that can be grouped with Mulholland Dr, Starry Eyes and the recent Refn flick, Neon Demon. The Invitation is a thoroughly enjoyable ride.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Master Filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, 1940 - 2016

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Abbas Kiarostami, an Iranian master filmmaker, passed away from gastrointestinal cancer in Paris today. As an avid fan of his humanistic, genre transcending films, I can say with a certain conviction that we've lost one of the greatest artists in the world of cinema.

It was his film, Taste of Cherry, winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes Film Fest in 1997 that introduced poetic, meta-fiction laiden Iraninan cinema to the world and put many Kiarostami contemporaries (Jafar Panahi, Asghar Farhadi, Moshen makhmalbaf) on the world cinema map.

But it was seeing one of his Koker trilogy, Wind Will Carry Us, that was a watershed moment for me in my cinematic education. I've never seen such a humanistic and poetic cinema before and the film made me scramble for anything Iranian afterwards.

Over the years, even though his films were never overtly political (although they could easily be seen as Iranian sociopolitical fable), he found filmmaking increasingly difficult within Iran under the government censorship. I reckon it was exactly that transcending subtle artistry that fooled the censorship for a long time. Thankfully for us, it resulted in two international productions - Italy set Certified Copy in 2011 and Japan set Like Someone in Love in 2013.

I had an honor and pleasure to interview Abbas Kiarostami in 2013 when his film Like Someone in Love played at NYFF. As expected, he was the warmest, wisest, humbliest, most thoughtful artist I've ever encountered in my short career as a film critic.

Kiarostami was not only a film director, but a renowned poet as well. Succinct and deceptively simple, his poetry was very much akin to his cinema or vice versa. Ill leave you with one of his short poems from his book of poetry walking with the Wind, published in 2002:
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My interview with Kiarostami

Rest in Peace, master.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Los Angeles Eats Itself

The Neon Demon (2016) - Refn
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Once again, in David Lynch's absence, NWR carries the torch, delving more and more into flashy, neon-colored abstraction. If Lynch is a true artist creating certain mood with set design and texture (I'm grossly simplifying his artistry, forgive me), Refn is all about the use of lights. Still abiding by a thin narrative, he creates gothic fantasy/nightmare filled with the notion of beauty, fragile innocence and narcissism. The Neon Demon can easily be dubbed as Los Angeles Eats Itself, literally.

The paper thin story revolves around Jesse (Elle Fanning), a beautiful High School dropout from bumfuck nowhere in LA. Living out of a skeeziest motel, run by a menacing, predatory man (Keanu Reeves at his sleaziest- Refn's genius in casting), our wide-eyed ingenue is at first a bunny in a wolf's den. She befriends a pretty makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone) who introduces her to LA modeling scene. Jesse knows she can make money off of her looks. Her natural beauty soon finds her fame and causes her meteoric rise and in doing so accumulates number of enemies. Soon her success gets to her head.

Refn has grown as a visual artist. His use of shapes, namely triangles in this film, is pastiche of 70s psychedelia or 80s rudimentary video games than actual symbols with meaning. They trigger a certain uneasy mood. Some of the images here are really striking and unforgettable yet again, devoid of any meaning. One might argue that all these are empty symbols and skin deep but so does the subject Refn portrays. Just like Lynch's Mulholland Dr., the parodying LA is not the main draw here. It is certainly imbued in its view, but artistically it's much more. The Neon Demon is very much like a Dario Argento film in his haydays. You have to enjoy it for its aesthetics and mood. Let it wash over you and you will be richly rewarded.

Friday, June 24, 2016

When Desire Trumps Over Fear

Stranger by the Lake (2015) - Guiraudie
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A beautiful lake in the woods is the background for this simple yet effective thriller. Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), a good looking gay man comes to the lake, cruising, like many other men looking for a casual sexual encounter in the bushes. One man catches his eye. It's rugged, tanned, sexy mustachioed Michel (Christoph Maou). But it seems he is taken, as Franck has a run in with him in the woods while Michel is busy 69ing with somebody. Days go by, same routine and they share meaningful glances. Then even before they hook up, Franck witnesses Michel drowning the man he hooked up with previously. Perhaps the attraction is bigger now. He is falling in love.

The film's done with such a subtle minimalist grace, it has a neutralizing effect in its graphic depiction of gay sex. Franck got the bad case of desire over fear even though the result might be deadly. It's a great filmmaking.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Krays Story as Comedy

Legend (2015) - Hegeland
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The Krays, the notorious twin gangsters in swinging 1960s London are played by Tom Hardy. Ronny is the crazy homosexual one and Reggie is the smooth operator type. I don't know how truthful the Hegeland's script is to the true event, but unlike its gritty, more abstract the 90s predecessor by Peter Medak, simply called The Krays, Legend charts the more conventional narrative and plays out more as a comedy, not as a psychological drama. Even with its sporadic violence, the brothers never come across as scary. With his naturally nasally voice, Reggie resembles a torn down, romantic version of his Bronson performance while his Ronnie, always speaking his indecipherable, I-have-pebbles-in-my-mouth mumble is close to his Bane. Considering that they were identical twins, Hardy/Hegeland's decision to portray them completely separate is an odd choice. But it's always fun to watch Hardy. Legend comes down to Reggie being a faithful brother's keeper, even if that causes their eventual doom.

It gets more and more tiresome to watch films by so called Hollywood screenwriters. Hegeland has nothing much to offer other than relying heavily on Hardy's charm, so he insists upon meaningless/completely unnecessary voice over device by Reggie's young wife (Emily Browning). But all in all, it's a well crafted Hollywood movie with a lot of good British actors.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

NYAFF 2016 Preview

Alone - Park
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A hilly, labyrinthine shanty town in Seoul is perhaps the biggest star in Alone, a thoroughly intriguing Hitchicockian mystery by Park Hong-min. It starts out with a POV shot of our photographer protagonist Su-min (Lee Ju-won) on all fours scrubbing the blood splatter on the linoleum floor of his photo studio. Then we cut to him witnessing a woman bludgeoned by masked men from a faraway rooftop through his camera. The men notice him taking pictures, give him a chase and catch him. Then right before they kill him with a hammer, we cut to the next scene, where now naked Su-min wakes up at night in the same neighborhood. So begins his descent into a purgatory filled with suppressed childhood memories and guilt and shame of a ne'er do well artist. 

Comprised with mostly a handful of long handheld sequences, Alone is an amazing feat from a technical standpoint. But its thin narrative stretches out a little too long. But its Escher like intricate narrow staircases and alleyways are a site to behold as they reflect the mind-scape of our protagonist perfectly. It's a great intriguing puzzle piece by the first time director Park. 

Hamog (Haze)
- Jover
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Filipino writer/director Ralston Jover's Hamog (Haze) starts with 4 street urchins of Manila slowly waking up in a discarded giant concrete pipe near the filthy river. The little one keeps insisting that they go swimming. And you instinctively go, oh god, not another third world poverty porn. But what's great about Jover's gritty film besides stellar acting by its little protagonists, is its unpredictability. 
The kids subsist their living on stealing from drivers who are stuck in monstrous city traffic by distracting them as a team. After one such job, Jinky (Teri Malvar), the only girl in the group, gets taken by the angry taxi driver. Then another job cost them the life of Mo, the youngest. It's Rashid (Zaijian Jaranilla) who takes on the responsibilities of giving a proper burial to his friend. In the mean time, Jinky is pushed into a domestic servitude for the taxi driver and his always squabbling wife. But he has other ideas for Jinky to do. Jover concentrates on the strength and the resilience of these kids instead of depravity and ugliness of the streets. Shifting point of view affords Malvar and Jaranilla to shine in their respective roles. It’s a film with a huge heart that takes viewer to unexpected places. A great little film.

The Tenants Downstairs - Tsuei
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This sleek, black comedy, based on a book by Taiwanese celeb writer Giddens Ko (You are the Apple of My Eye, Cafe. Waiting. Love) about a passive peeping tom, quickly devolves into a mayhem- murder, incest, sodomy, cannibalism, etc. Hong Kong superstar Simon Yam, speaking Mandarin here, plays a landlord of an apartment complex occupied by- a divorcé with a young daughter, a haughty office worker, a P.E. teacher who loves her, a gay couple and an online gamer.

At first, it is business as usual, through hidden cameras in each apartment, the landlord monitors comings and goings of the each occupant with occasional sexual gratifications, but always from a distance. Everything changes when a comely mysterious new tenant, Yingru (Shao Yu-wei) moves in. With big bulky suit cases adorning the living room seemingly unpacked, Yingru's calm demeanor lures our landlord in to her apartment to snoop, only to discover her American Psycho style habits (complete with a clear plastic raincoat).

They develop an unspoken understanding after she suggests him to set himself and others free from daily routine of ordinary life. So the landlord starts actively messing with the tenants' lives. Pitting them against each other in the most sinister, vile ways, he relishes in his god-like power.

The Tenants Downstairs is depraved, dark comedy that questions the true human nature. Tsai Ming-Liang's regular Lee Kang-sheng also stars as an older gay tenant whose love life becomes a little more complicated by Yam's character's shenanigans.

What’s in the Darkness - Wang
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The film is an interesting melding of a serial killer genre and a coming-of-age story set in the early 90s rural China. Su Xiaotong shines as Jingjing, a curious Middle Schooler on the cusp of puberty. While her college-educated, but ineffectual police officer father grapples with unsolved murders of women (possibly by a serial killer, marking his victims with a cross sign on their upper thighs) in their small town, Jingjing slowly learns about opposite sex and how to behave in a society that is still steeped in old ways. It's the 90s China which is still a very conservative, authoritarian society where the country's one-child policy is bearing a new generation of bratty, insolent children.

With this complex backdrop, What's in the Darkness gives up being a police procedural in the middle since the police has no clue on what's going on. Instead the film concentrates on Jingjing's life, as she juggles the school, working at an old folks home, attentions from boys and her clueless parents. Bong Joonho’s Memories of Murder comparison is unavoidable and it’s a hard film to measure up to. But except for some technical issues and pacing, the film is a commendable fine first feature by first time director Wang Yichun.

Ten Years - Au, Ng, Chow, Kwok, Wong
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It's hard to believe the handover of Hong Kong from 150 years of British rule back to communist China took place almost 20 years ago, in 1997. As one of Asia's biggest economic powerhouses, the peaceful handover of HK signaled the beginning of China's rise to the global economic superpower status. So what happened to 7 million Cantonese speaking Hong Kongers? After the initial jitters, the things have been relatively quiet. So the West largely ignored and have forgotten the fact that it was as much a cultural annexation as a political, economic one.

Reflecting the uneasy mood of many inhabitants of HK after massive sit-in demonstrations against Beijing's restrictive electoral reform in 2014, known as Umbrella Revolution- a non-violent, pro-democracy protests, 5 filmmakers envision what if scenarios in varying degrees of plausibility in 2025 Hong Kong, where ethnic minorities are used as a pawn for the political gain, housing shortage pushing people into self-sacrificing artifacts, speaking Cantonese is discouraged or worse, self-immolation is contemplated and acted upon as a political statement and children starting to spying on adults.

Ten Years is a contemplative, sobering reflection of what Hong Kongers are feeling now. No wonder it beat out Star Wars: Force Awakens at the HK box office last year and is banned in China.

You don't need to leave to see the world

The World (2004) - Jia
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The World Park, a never ending expo/theme park in the suburbs of Beijing is the setting for Jia Zhangke's masterful take on, what else, rapidly changing China. The motto of the park is, 'you don't have to leave to see the world'. As usual Zhao Tao plays the central character Tao, a worker at the park, donning many different costumes- Indian, Japanese, African, etc and dance around on a brightly lit stage every night. All her friends and co-workers and would be lovers are transplants from rural China, trying to eke out a living any way they can. Jia patiently observes and explores every part of the changing society in episodic storytelling, reminding the viewers that behind all the garishness and excess, there are human stories hidden in there, obscured and overwhelmed by the 1/3 actual size Effel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Piramides and camels and space ship-like karaoke bars. He leaves nothing unturned - a sad story of Russian prostitution, fake brand clothing manufacturers, construction workers working dangerous conditions for overtime pay and of course, some on/off love stories thrown in for good measure. This unhurried, soft, fine tuned, long film has many poignant moments that never turn corny. It's one of the best films I've seen in a long while.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Lighthearted Romantic Entanglement

Princess of France (2014) - Piñeiro

Another slice of Shakespearean comedy by Matia Piñeiro. All his regular actors are back to play assortment of characters, romantically entangled among themselves. This time, everything revolves Victor (Julián Larquier Tellarini), who came back to Buenos Aires after spending a year in Mexico. He wants to do a radio project, doing the bard's Love's Labour's Lost with the group of his friends. In the absence of his girlfriend Paula (Agustina Muñoz), Victor flirts with every girl who is going to take part in the project.

Using mutiple takes on same scenes and settings with slightly different outcomes and a copy of Love's Labour's Lost working as a clever communication device, Princess is all about little details. After watching a couple of Hong Sang-soo films last couple of months, I was thinking about his equivalent in the world cinema. And I think I finally found Hong's match in Piñeiros. They are equally distinctive and very regional in their own way, but have a lot in common presenting lighthearted romantic entanglement and its infinite number of possible outcomes.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Na Hong-jin's The Wailing is a major disappointment

The Wailing (2016) - Na
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With two taut, impeccable thrillers (Chaser, The Yellow Sea) under his belt, Na Hong-jin shoots for something bigger and grander and falls on his face hard here with The Wailing, an overlong, exorcism/policier movie taking place in rainy rural Korea. Na's great at creating unsettling mood but extremely under-equipped to handle a logical narrative. Obviously your enjoyment in watching a film depends heavily on what you are looking for on a warm sunny Saturday afternoon in June, but The Wailing is so directionless and shallow and muddled while still trying to abide in genre norms, it crumbles at a mere seconds of afterthought and leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth.

The film concerns a strange illness and multiple grisly murders going around in a rural Southwest Korean mountain town named Goksung. The townsfolk are spreading rumors that it all started after an appearance of a reclusive Jap (Jun Kunimura) that many saw him roaming around the forest naked, eating dead deer and having glowing red eyes. Jong-gu (Kwak Do-won), a local bumpkin cop, tries to make sense of everything but odd things are happening and happening too fast, he just goes along while making his emotions getting the better of the situations. When his own daughter falls ill with the same symptoms, Jong-gu summons a renown shaman to exorcise his daughter.

Extreme xenophobia aside, this premise could have gone many different, interesting route. But Na keeps stacking up more and more intriguing elements that don't pay off. With multiple unearned plot twists and overstretched ending in almost 3 hours running time, The Wailing is a muddled jumble of mess that is completely underwhelming and unsatisfying on every level.

Thursday, June 9, 2016


Hill of Freedom (2014) - Hong
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The film starts with Kwon (Seo Young-hwa), a suit case in her hand, picking up a thick letter then dropping it on the floor. The multi-page letter was written by Mori (Ryo Kase), a Japanese man who came to Korea to look for her with the intention of confessing his love for her, without knowing she is away. As she picks up the letter all jumbled now and starts reading it, consequently the film too, is jumbled, timeline completely out of wack. With Hong's typical zoom in, we know that there will be some gaps in the storyline too, since she missed picking up some of the pages on the floor. Hill of Freedom is a gentle misadventure of Mori: as he waits for Kwon to appear, he meets people, talks and even have an affair with the cute cafe owner with a dog. It's perhaps the gentlest of all Hong films I've seen that it barely registers. Mori is a sweet, direct man who doesn't suffer from any of Hongian neurosis and selfishness of his usual boorish drunken characters. Dialog is mostly in heavily affected English- since Mori doesn't speak any Korean, and it adds to the overall disarray. I know what Hong is going for- a kind of dissonance and playfulness in structure, but some of the segments doesn't really go with the over all mood of the film, especially the scene with Jeong Eun-chae (of Our Sunhi), as she throws a loud fit for no apparent reason. It is a lesser Hong for me.

Atmospheric Netherworld in Tikkun

Tikkun (2015) - Sivan
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Shot beautifully in black and white, Israeli artist and filmmaker Avishai Sivan's Tikkun tells a story about a young orthodox Jewish man, embodied astonishingly here by first time actor Aharon Traitel, slowly losing his faith after a near-death experience. With impressionistic visuals, Sivan paints nighttime Jerusalem as a Lynch-ian netherworld, shrouded in fog, where past and present exist side by side. The result is a hallucinatory tale of urban alienation, invoking the films of Antonioni.

Haim-Aaron (Traitel) is a devout Yeshiva student, seen praying and fasting in the begining. He is not a talkative type and keeps things to himself. His father (Kalifa Natour) is a hard working kosher butcher. Bad plumbing in their cramped apartment causes Haim-Aaron to fall and suffer cardiac arrest while taking a shower and touching himself. EMTs arrive but are unable to resuscitate him, pronouncing him dead after 40 minutes. Haim-Aaron's father, unable to let his first son go, continues on the CPR, and to everyone's surprise, revives him.

This near-death experience is a both a blessing and a curse for father and son. Father struggles with the guilt of undoing god's will by reviving his son. He falls into deep self-doubt and is shunned by many of his ultra orthodox community members.

For Haim-Aaron, being undead affords him a freedom to venture out of his community and confront his hidden earthly desires for the first time in his life.

Unable to sleep, Haim-Aaron wanders the streets at night, hitching rides to anywhere these nocturnal strangers will take him. For him, outside his immediate surroundings is a completely different world: Jerusalem, a cosmopolitan city with just under a million inhabitants, is a wondrous and scary place for him. He meets many strange people and even gets to have a sexual encounter with a street worker. These activities put a strain on his studies, family and community.

Tikkun is, in many ways, an unsettling film. The uneasy tone is accentuated by Haim-Aaron's father's recurring horrific nightmares: evil crocodiles in the toilet, putting a knife to the back of his son and dumping the body in a monster-infested ravine.

Like Sivan’s previous feature The Wanderer, the urban alienation and repressed sexuality figure prominently into Tikkun. The film unveils the ultra-orthodox Jewish community, which is seldom portrayed in film, and perhaps somewhat unflatteringly here: with rigid traditions and rules, the community seems to be permanently stuck in the past.

In the hands of Sivan and his cinematographer Shai Goldman (The Band's Visit, The Kindergarten Teacher), Jerusalem has a look and feel of the lonely, unnamed industrial town in Eraserhead. With sparse dialog and strong visuals, Tikkun is intense, moody filmmaking and signals Sivan as one to watch for in the world of arthouse cinema.

Tikkun screened earlier this year at New Directors New Films series. It opens in New York on Friday, June 10, via Kino Lorber.