Monday, September 30, 2013

Nature vs. Nurture

Like Father, Like Son (2013) - Kore-eda
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It seems Kore-eda Hirokazu is incapable of making bad movies. The babies-switched-at-birth premise in films is nothing new. But he just makes it so darn affecting and poignant, avoiding all the clichés that go with this kind of blurry-eyed family drama. Him getting unbelievable performances out of his child actors is already legendary since, then 12-year old Yagira Yuya won the Best Actor Award at Cannes in 2004 for his film Nobody Knows. But it really stumps me how Kore-eda manages that with kids every time. Like Father, Like Son is no exception. For example, I really need to know how he captures moments where child actors shrieks in true delight while maintaining themselves in character. HOW? If Kore-eda's last film I Wish was more focused on childhood, Like Father, Like Son is more about parenting.

Ryota Nonomiya (Japanese TV star and pop idol, Fukuyama Masaharu) is a hard working architect who pushes his adorable, well-behaved son Keita a little too much to excel at everything. It's not that he doesn't love his son, but because he's always been pushing himself hard all his life to be successful- so naturally that's the way it is supposed to be with everyone around him. But married to his career, he doesn't have much time for his family. When he and his wife Midori (played wonderfully by Ono Machiko, Eureka, Mourning Forest) gets an urgent message about the switcheroo from the country hospital where Keita was born 6 years ago, their tranquil life gets turned upside down. They meet their counterparts, Saikis - Yudai (Franky Lily) and Yukari (Yoko Maki) a country bumpkin couple managing a small electrician's shop. They have three adorable children including Ryusei, Nonomiyas' real son. They happen to be a very loving, warm family. Both parties decide that it is best to switch them back before they get too old. Either way, it is going to be a scarring experience for both families.

In a funnily awkward scene, Ryota in his arrogance of the well-to-do, unknowingly insults the Saikis by offering money to take both children in. Astonished by this suggestion, Yudai, a little older than his counterpart, walks up to him and with a moment of hesitation, bonks Ryota in the head. Midori apologizes profusely for her insensitive husband's behavior of course. After that, they slowly agree to do family get-togethers and sleepovers to a permanent switch-over. Even though Ryota says that the switcheroo is not a clear-cut matter, he makes up his mind never to see Keita again.

The children are confused and don't really know what's going on. Ryusei is often left alone in their posh, hotel-like, apartment with Midori who is having hard time getting used to him. She still feels guilty about sending Keita off and starting to love Ryusei. It bothers Ryota that Ryusei's unruly behavior and table manners are not like that of Keita's. It is quite apparent Ryota has been mostly absent and quite terrible at being a father to Keita in many ways compared to affable, warm, funny Yudai.

How could one just ignore your child of 6 years and take up another just because he is your own flesh and blood? The good old, Nature vs Nurture debate aside, Kore-eda makes you think about what it means to be a good parent. Ryota's own daddy issues float up to the surface during the process and him realizing his faults plays out beautifully and naturally as the families reunite with their children who grew up with them.

It's another warm, life affirming film by Kore-eda with the help of pitch perfect acting from everyone involved. One of the best films I've seen this year so far.

Like Father, Like Son plays as part of NYFF. For showtimes and tickets, please visit FSLC website.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Wind Rises...We Must Live

The Wind Rises (2013) - Miyazaki
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'Follow your dream' is the theme of The Wind Rises, the latest, decidedly grownups oriented film by master Hayao Miyazaki. The setting is different too. It's the 1920s-30s Japan: The Great Kanto Earthquakes, The Great Depression, unemployment, poverty and tuberculosis. It's also politically very pointy. From early on, we see a boy's tranquil dreams of flying get overshadowed by ominous war planes adorned with Nazi crosses and Italian flags. There are talks of thought police following engineers. Based on the real life character who ended up designing the Zero fighter plane, the main character Jiro grows up to be an idealistic engineer who dreams of creating a beautiful aeroplane in the midst of national turmoil. But as usual, he is as generous and selfless and heroic as any other Miyazaki protagonists. There is a love story there too, albeit a sad one. Jiro and Nahoko meet during the fateful earthquake and fate would have it, meet up again later on. Nahoko is suffering from tuberculosis and frequents a sanitarium to recuperate.

We all know Miyazaki's completely capable of creating exciting battle scenes. It seems he greatly strains himself from portraying any kind of man-made violence in The Wind Rises. There is a poignant scene where Jiro walks through the graveyard of wrecked planes: the horror of broken dreams. Some of the stylistic choices and especially innovative sound design separates the film from his previous ones too. Mostly the color palette of The Wind Rises is more like sunny impressionist paintings. The title comes from Paul Valéry's poem and characters quote it in French. The complete line is: "The wind is rising...we must attempt to live." The country still reeling from The Great Eastern Japan Earthquake, Miyazaki at once finds parallels in the past and also don't shy away from criticizing Japan's military ambitions. It's definitely the saddest Miyazaki movie I've ever seen. As he announced his retirement, The Wind Rises is a fitting finale of the one whose remarkable carrier not only serves him the title of a master filmmaker, but a true humanist.

The Wind Rises plays part of this year's New York Film Festival. Please go to FSLC website for tickets and showtimes.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Stranger than Fiction

A Touch of Sin (2013) - Jia
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A Touch of Sin is an anomaly for Jia Zhangke. Or at least it feels like it. Known for his blend of documentary and fiction observing China's transformation with critical eye and nostalgia, here he bases the film on 4 different violent recent news flashes. 4 people resort to violence to express their discontent in 4 corners of rapidly changing China. It's an interesting one- first half tells gritty, violent, senseless killing sprees, the second half turns a little giddy in its style. The fact that they are based on recent news events adds another layer to this sprawling, ambitious film. In A Touch of Sin, Jia's version of real life veers dangerously toward glossy fiction.

A Touch of Sin plays part of this year's New York Film Festival. Showtimes and tickets, please visit FSLC website.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Enigma of Harry

Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction (2013) - Huber
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There are only a few actors I can think of whose faces alone speak volumes without uttering a word. Harry Dean Stanton possesses one of those. He always looks like hell. Having appeared in more than 200 feature films, even my Korean grandma recognizes his weathered face: he meowed into his demise in ALIEN, got to have Adrienne Barbeau all to himself in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, taught Emilio Estevez some codes to live by in REPO MAN, failed to seduce Warren Oates in TWO LANE BLACKTOP and made Nastasha Kinski and everyone else cry in PARIS, TEXAS.

Swiss filmmaker Sophie Huber's portrayal of Harry Dean Stanton isn't exactly a revealing documentary per se. Because the 86-year old character actor, isn't really a talkative fella. Rather, most of the doc is filled with Stanton singing his favorite songs -- Country Westerns, Mexican songs and Danny Boy. He happens to be a very good singer. And PARTLY FICTION happens to be a great documentary on one of the great living American actors.

There is some background information revealed, but not that much: born in Kentucky, a war veteran who fought in the Battle of Okinawa and forever bachelor and womanizer. Debbie Harry wrote a song about him and hooked up with him once. Many of the questions are answered without further elaboration: Was his mother proud of him after he got famous? "Yes," (followed by long silence)

Huber lets Stanton's famous friends do the talking. David Lynch tells him how many movies they've done together because Harry doesn't remember ("Well, I'll tell you Harry!"). There is a funny bit with Lynch reading a list of questions (presumably Huber's) off of a piece of paper. "Have you ever been married?" "No. But I was really close once...," "Oh, the next question would have been, how did you meet your wife?"

In Partly Fiction, more than any other characters he's played, Stanton resembles Travis from Paris, Texas the most - a world-weary man with his gaze always fixed toward the yonder, deep in regret. This is confirmed by Wim Wenders, who got the veteran actor his first lead role in 1984. "He brought a lot of himself in the character. It's a brave thing to do to be that vulnerable."

Kris Kristofferson shows up and reminisces his first encounter with Stanton who recruited him and did a screen test with him in Cisco Pike. Harry chimes in, telling us how he held a broken bottle, just to intimidate the then young Kristofferson. Stanton regrets a little not to pursue his real love - music. "I avoided the success and fame...gracefully." He tells his friend with a wry smile. KK performs the song He's a Pilgrim in which the title of the doc originates. This is how the chorus goes:

He's a poet, he's a picker
He's a prophet, he's a pusher
He's a pilgrim and a preacher, and a problems when he's stoned
He's a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction
Talking every wrong direction on his lonely way back home

Stanton's view on life is that of a zen Buddhist - a total detachment. He gets into a conversation with a driver about how the earth travels around the sun at 11,000 miles per hour while driving around Sunset Blvd at night. The mere thought of it makes him uneasy. When asked how he wants to be remembered by, he says, "Nothing." Life is a fleeting dream. Love is when you are not attached.

Only counterpoint to this comes from Stanton's spry personal assistant, Logan Sparks. According to him, the actor's nonchalance in his life and career is all bullshit. Sparks says that if Stanton didn't do anything, he would be still sitting in a rocking chair at home in Kentucky. He got to where he is now by hard work. That's why he is so well regarded and respected in Hollywood after all these years.

Gorgeously shot by Seamus McGarvey (Atonement, Avengers) in part monochrome and color, the scope of Partly Fiction feels very much like a passion project with everyone involved. We get to know the real Harry only as much as he wants us to know. His enigma is still intact. Huber as a fan, respects his subject enough not to overdo it. The result is still more than enough for us to appreciate Harry.

Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction gets a national US theatrical release on Sept. 27th.

*I attended the New York Premiere of the film with Stanton, Huber, McGarvey and producer Chiemi Karasawa present. Karasawa announced that there is a soundtrack coming out. I'm definitely getting that!

Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on the world can be found at

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Late Term

After Tiller (2013) - Shane, Wilson
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The decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a woman's life to her well being and dignity. When the government controls that decision for her, she is being treated as less than a full adult human responsible for her own choices.
(Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg)
We all can agree that no one is really pro-abortion but I believe that what women do with their bodies is not for public debate. It amazes me that this day and age this is even an issue, especially in this country. Documentary filmmakers Martha Shane and Lana Wilson are not here to engage the religious nuts in conversations. Late-term abortion is not an attractive subject and not many people want to touch the subject. But After Tiller an essential film for anyone who is interested in women's rights issues who needs a little more convincing.

George Tiller, a physician and the medical director of Women's Health Care Services was gunned down at his church in Wichita, Kansas by an anti-abortion activist. Tiller was a mentor/friend to the four remaining doctors in the country featured in this film, who still performs late-term abortions. They do it because they are first and foremost, medical doctors concerned about the health of their patients. They do it under the constant death threat from violent, so called pro-lifers. There are many searing anecdotes told in the film: one of the doctors decided to provide abortion services because when he practiced his medicine in Peru, there were one maternity ward and two wards for women recovering from attempted self-induced abortions and the fatality rate in those wards was about 50 percent. There was a young rape victim who, after urging of the doctors, went to the police to report.

Their patients, many of them couples, with their faces blurred for protection, make difficult decisions to terminate the pregnancy because of severe defects in their fetuses. They can't bear to carry the term and see their baby live in agonizing, torturous short life. These defects are usually not detectible until the 20 weeks in. Then there are others- poor, young.... the thing is, there are many different circumstances why women end up seeking the procedure. These compassionate doctors are there to help them make informed decisions.

This film isn't a requiem but help to inspire other doctors to take up the cause and I hope they do.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Other Side of Mexican Cinema

Duck Season/Temporada de Patos (2004) - Eimbcke
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A charming little debut film of director Fernando Eimbcke. Unlike the current crop of modern Mexican directors who tend to go for broke, Eimbcke chooses to be smaller and quieter in scale and scope - and it's refreshing. The awkward comedy of human connection, black and white photography, static long shots and fadeouts have more common with the world of Jim Jarmusch than that of Iñarritu. Young actors here are very good and natural. It tells the lives of two 14 year old boys left alone without adult supervision on one lazy sunday, which is meant to be a pizza and videogames duderthon, interrupted by a sexy 16 year old neighbor and a pizza deliveryman. They are middle class, ordinary people soaked in American culture, not miserablists in some poverty porn. It's a slacker comedy (which I usually hate), but a good, charming one. I enjoyed it.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Fairytale for Adults

Vendredi Soir/Friday Night (2002) - Denis
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With tinkling orchestral score and a couple of unobtrusive and brief CG effects, Claire Denis creates fairy tale for grownups with Vendredi Soir. Without much dialog, it tells a one-night-stand taking place amid of a transit strike in Paris. Laure (Valérie Lemercier) is first seen in her flat, packing up all her belongings in boxes. She is moving in with her boyfriend the next day. She is on her way to her friend's house for dinner. But with the strike, the traffic jam is severer than the one in Week End. Laure picks up a handsome stranger Jean (Vincent Lindon) with the urging of radio broadcaster's plea to carpool. The attraction between the two is palpable.

Denis makes the most of the City of Lights through the car window. Agnes Godard's fluid camera captures pulsating street and intimacy of the confined space. With ordinary looking Lemercier is our guide to the fairytale, Denis suggests that this particular night, anything is possible. Laure asks a young man who happens to be Gregoire Colin if he needs a ride. He politely declines. The camera focuses on a lovely blond in a car for a while. But Jean chooses Laure's car. Even after their hook up, there are sequences suggesting other possible scenarios. Laure's personal problems or insecurities are never discussed, nor Jean's background. Vendredi Soir treads on the subject of one-night-stands very lightly with maturity, avoiding all the pitfalls of crass Hollywood romance or tortured realistic drama. I couldn't get into the film when I first attempted watching it. I suppose you have to be in a certain mood for it.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Life's Rich Pageant

35 rhums (2008) - Denis
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A family drama so understated yet deeply affecting, 35 rhums showcases Claire Denis's versatility as a filmmaker. It presents the life of an extended Parisian family consists of long-time neighbors in the same building. They are Lionel (Alex Descas), a stoic metro conductor and his daughter, Jo (Mati Diop), a college student, Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue), a cab driver and a one time lover of Lionel who still has feeling for and Noe (Grégoire Colin), a loner who lives up in the penthouse & has been a best friend/love interest of Jo since their childhood.

Times are changing. Lionel's buddy Réne, kills himself after retirement from his longtime metro job. Jo is getting too old to be a daddy's girl anymore. Noe is selling the house and leaving the country because his 17-year old cat just died and nothing in Paris is holding him back(?). Denis weighs each characters equally and the cast is marvelous. Each small gesture, each unspoken moment has profound resonance.

But the film's largely about Lionel and Jo. It's perhaps the tenderest father-daughter relationship I've seen on screen. As they embark on a short road trip to visit the grave of Jo's mother in Germany, they know that they are spending time together like that for the last time and we know this too, even though no words are ever uttered between the two about it.

Said to be an homage to Ozu, 35 rhums comfortably slips in to the universality of human conditions. Paper lanterns in Germany, rice cookers in an African household in France are completely in harmony with their surroundings. It's a beautiful film. I might have to try Vendredi Soir again.