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.

Interview: Avishai Sivan Talks Tikkun

 photo 2cce4372-f5a7-475d-8a67-42b57eec7260_zpsv8cmwid1.jpgSet in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem, Tikkun gives a unique glimpse into a highly reclusive world where tradition and religion dominate private lives. With its haunting imagery and thought provoking subject matter, Tikkun left me a lasting impression long after I left the theater. I had a chance to talk briefly with its fiercely cerebral director Avishai Sivan when he was in town for the New Directors/New Films series in March.

There seems to be a theme going on here, with your first feature WANDERER and TIKKUN, both featuring the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem. Is this because of your background? What’s your fascination with the community?

It’s not my background. But I am interested in those communities, I think, in an almost romantic and stupid way, because they have this strict way of living. They dedicate their whole lives to a simple way of belief. I think you can find this belief not only in Judaism but it can be found everywhere - seeking and exploring. As a filmmaker and an artist, I try to reach that sublime of next masterpiece in films or fine art. Sometimes I have this inner battle, like the theme of this film Tikkun - the battle between mind and body…

What does TIKKUN mean in Hebrew?

It means to rectify, to fix something that went wrong but in Judaism, it has a deeper meaning: when a person dies and something went wrong in his life, his soul needs to go back to his life to fix it. Tikkun is the act of doing so, crossing over to the other life as a true believer of Jewish faith.

It’s interesting. I live in the part of Brooklyn which is a predominantly Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. Even though we are living right next to each other, I feel they are living in a very different world. What was the reaction of the community when it came out in Israel?

Had several screenings in Jerusalem Film Festival last year. It won almost all the awards there (Best Film, Best Actor, Best Cinematography, Best Screenplay) and also small festival in Tel Aviv called Utopia, but that’s about it. It will be out in September in Israel. Those film festivals attendees are film geeks, so I don’t think they (the Ultra Orthodox Community) had a chance to see the film yet. I am assuming they will see it in the future when its widely distributed. And am also assuming their reaction will be not good. (Laughs.) But I’m not doing films to please anybody.

How did you find Aharon Traitel, who portrays Haim-Aaron?

He’s not an actor.

Right. How did you get to cast him?

It took almost two years to find him for that role. It’s not like you can call an agent or find someone who wants to act. Usually the people who come out of religion are very vulnerable and don’t really want to expose themselves. They are also wracked with guilt - usually they left their family and the family is understandably angry with them.

I advertised Haim-Aaron’s role in this on-line community of people who left the religion. I think he was the only one who answered the ad and luckily he was the only one that fit the role.

The film is shot beautifully. I understand your background is in painting and video art. What made you to decide to shoot film on black and white? THE WANDERER was in color.

When I was writing it, I knew instantly that it would be in black and white. From that point on, I tried to reach the vision in black and white. The story is about life and death - the big battle/contrast. I tried to investigate that grey area in-between. Color wouldn’t have worked in that sense. B&W matched perfectly with the big theme of the film.

Haim-Aaron’s journey - his faith is shaken after the near-death experience. It struck me as the story of Golem - the undead. Does he think he is a dead person? Is that why he has a freedom to explore the outside world? Or is he looking for regaining his faith?

I don’t think he is looking for regaining his faith again. I think he wants to deepen his faith after he was re-born. All of sudden he can see much better than before. His physical experience is getting much more vivid. And he is feeling like God is testing him. He is a bit confused and trying to find his way. He is still sticking with his community. He is not shedding his clothes or anything. He is trying to find his true path within himself- how he is supposed to act as a believer, even in these radical, extreme places that I put him in as a screenwriter.

One of the most interesting aspects of both your films is the father-son relationship: how they see things differently. It was his father who revives him but also feels guilty that he did something against God’s will. Is this relationship an important theme for you?

Yes. It’s a not so sophisticated, not subtle way of seeing my relationship with my father. Because my father is a very enigmatic character. He speaks very little but he is...a very good person. He can break your heart with how good he can be. He is that kind of person. At the same time he is not very communicative. So his goodness can be seen as problematic.

You mean for you.

Yeah. This element is strongly reflected in Tikkun: he is trying to give his son love but in doing so, he is causing more and more problems. At the end, the accident happens by one of the cows he releases. He is inadvertently causing all the negative things that happens in the film.

That’s very interesting.

Your art and the elements of your films are sexual in nature. Can you tell me a little about that?

It’s human nature. What more can I say? It doesn’t matter what kind of background or environment you are living in, it’s still all there. I just reflect what’s already there.

I also saw some of your drawings of Jean-Luc Godard pleasuring himself on your website. I don’t know what to make of them since I am a big Godard fan.

I have more drawings of Godard. I’d love to compile them as a book and present to him!

Monday, June 6, 2016

Ali the Greatest

Muhammad Ali would laugh at my feeble attempt at an eulogy since he was the most charming, eloquent, charismatic speaker ever. Here is one of the most beautiful speeches he gave:

R.I.P. champ.