Thursday, 28 May 2009

Still Walking, 歩いても 歩いても (2008) (SIFF 2009)

Happily families stop at ZERO

Families. Don't we just love them? Religious nutters see everything they object to as threatening the sanctity of the (fragile? endangered?) family. The Singapore Government desperately wants people to get married early and have more children, in a decades-long, unintentionally humiliating series of cloying, pollyanna-ish commercials. People living in advanced industrial societies (that includes Singapore nowadays) know better: it's an open secret that the family is one of the most upsetting and unpleasant social institutions to be invented. And better yet, we have an entire genre of eccentric family dramas from East and West to prove it, from Oedipus Rex to The Royal Tenenbaums.

I have no doubt that Kore-eda Hirokazu's film will yet receive a commercial release in Singapore, courtesy of its Ministry of Community Development. It is, after all, a warm family drama that optimistically reaffirms the value of the family. That said, Still Walking presents a quietist Asian take on the more familiar eccentric/broken family more often seen at Cannes and Sundance.

Taking place within the space of 24 hours of a family reunion and death anniversary, the Yokoyama clan - an elderly couple living alone are visited by their children's families - get together for some quality time, amicably chatting away while performing the mundane rituals of family: cooking, eating, looking at old photographs, reminiscing, and gossiping.

But (repeat after me!) it's a family and everyone has problems and resentments. The beauty of Kore-eda's script and dialogue is its naturalistic, anti-theatrical feel. Instead of building emotions to melodramatic crises that demand catharsis, the quotidian presentation of the generic fraying family is low-key and simmering - and very much more realistic than theatrical or deliberately fictional.

Aided by script and ensemble acting, long chapters of bonhomie amidst subtle tensions flare up for the briefest moments to demonstrate Kore-eda's understanding of why family life is resented and feared: Asian families operate on a fine balance between politeness and passive aggressiveness; behind every act of familial generosity is a potential moment of deliberate, tender cruelty and a lifetime of simmering resentment.

The beauty of Still Walking and Kore-eda's script is its optimism - even when the family is the site of passive aggression, people do turn out all right most of the time, despite their very rare and nasty moments.

Monday, 25 May 2009

Son of the Northeast, ลูกอีสาน (1982) (SIFF 2009)

The anxiety of influence

Ostensibly, Son of the Northeast is a historical drama set in the 1930s Thailand, in its Isan (Northeast) province, telling the travails of a small clan of subsistence farmers and their village as a particularly bad drought reduces them to bush living.

I suppose one could enjoy this movie on a literal level, which is encouraged by director Vichit Kounavudhi's moving, documentary-like presentation of this work of fiction. The story plays out like a Thai version of Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali (পথের পাঁচালী), but like many other films, history has caught up with Son of the Northeast, and we can no longer watch it with naive eyes.

I'm referring to the unfolding political turmoil in Thailand, where the source of the troubles hail from its Northeast province and its turbulent denizens - the only beneficiaries of the otherwise questionable reign of Thaksin Shinawatra, and understandably the only parties angry enough to derail the post-Thaksin political process.

And I'm also referring to the fact that the Northeast province has historically been troublesome for Bangkok: the last territory to be incorporated (or annexed) into the Kingdom during its final stage of expansion just prior to the 20th century, its culture, language, and people are more Lao and Cambodian than Thai, and politically rebellious. That the province was renamed "The Northeast" at the beginning of 20th century is a hint at the Bangkok's simultaneous nation-building agenda and anxiety of influence, under which the film actually operates.

While this story is set in the 1930s, the director behind the camera and the author holding the pen are strictly creatures of the 1980s, an era where Bangkok was already casting its nervous to the Northeast.

The nation-building message and its corresponding anxiety over Isan in the film becomes more apparent and unsubtle through time: the villagers (coded as Thai) are set against their ethnic Vietnamese, Chinese and Laotian neighbours (coded as foreigners), who fight a cold war between themselves. The villagers are entranced by a gramophone playing a nationalist song praising the monarch and the unity of the Thai state. They happily send their children to Buddhist temples that double up as schools for the Thai language - a function that came only with the region's annexation by Thailand. And best yet, they call themselves Northeasterners.

With that heavy a burden of historical revisionism and nation-building, it is no surprise then that the film does not end up being the Thai Pather Panchali. As a straightforward documentary-like drama, the film is more than watchable in its recreation of rich ethnographic detail of early 20th century life in Isan, but far more can be gleamed if one is aware of the political anxieties expressed inadvertently in this work.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

The Young Victoria (2009)

Playing at royalty

Before Queen Victoria was a size 50 matriarch, formidable Grandmother of Europe and the most powerful empress Britain had seen, she was an unremarkable princess whose tragedy was being the under-aged heir apparent to her uncle’s throne, and hence a powerless pawn in an aquarium of power-hungry monarchs, politicians, royals, and ambitious men.

The historical drama is 3 parts politics, 1 part romance. The intricacy of portraying power politics of Europe, the royal politics of British monarchy, and the popular politics in parliamentary Britain is tempered by the courtship of Victoria and her cousin and eventual prince consort Albert. As an impoverished minor royal, the prince is yet another pawn in the Great Game, and in a case of real life playing like a good story, the two meet, fall in love, marry, and solve their political problems.

The director's approach is commendable; in the age of trashy, sexed-up, more fictional than historical royal dramas (The Tudors, The Other Boleyn Girl) that The Young Victoria hews to decent storytelling and a reasonable level of historical accuracy. Julian Fellowes's script is respectful to its subject, and displays an ability to carry several simultaneous sub-plots coherently, a skill he last displayed to better effect in Gosford Park.

Alas, The Young Victoria is not the best that it can be. Fellowes may have turned in a competent script, but one does not attract praise for its middling performance: where the movie is a romance, it is not a captivating romance; where it is a political drama, it is not a riveting or engaging political intrigue.

This may not be the worst costume drama ever, but the researchers do make complete amateur-level howlers in their depictions of Victoria's coronation ceremony and royal protocol in the first 10 minutes of the film. In a movie where none of the actors end up speaking in an American accent, everyone speaks in too modern an English accent - and everyone except for the foreigner mispronounces the name of Lord Melbourne. This is disappointing, given that the co-producer is Fergie, Duchess of York. It's perfectly understandable why Queen Elizabeth II kept wincing during her premiere screening of the movie.

The Young Victoria is directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who turned in a brilliant C.R.A.Z.Y. a few years ago. It's clear that the costume period drama is not a forte of the director, and we wish him the best in his future endeavours.

An earlier version of this review was published at incinemas on 21 May 2009

Der Baader Meinhof Complex (2008)

The director wanted chicks with guns...

The Summer of 1969 was the closest the West had to its own Cultural Revolution, with an entire generation of students in open revolt against the political establishment in France, Germany, and the United States. It was a time of peace-loving young hippies, but it was also a time of student revolutionaries who blew up commercial buildings, police and state installations. We call them terrorists today, but these groups had the tacit support of a wide section of their societies. Here, director Uli Edel tells the gripping story of the founders of the German Red Army Faction, depicting their radicalisation from middle class roots, activities as an urban guerilla group, eventual capture, trial and suicides.

All this is too big to be told in a 2.5 hour film. The pacing of the movie suffers from the director’s decision to tell the entire story, spanning over 10 years, multiple generations of the RAF, the changes in its ideology and tactics, and the clampdown by different arms of the not-entirely-innocent German state.

If there is too much to be told, the director compounds his mistake by telling it in a cacophony of Hollywood genres, all badly executed: the Michael Mann action film with Michael Mann camerawork, the documentary on the brutality of German post-war authoritarian leaders, the Bonnie and Clyde criminals on the run film, the procedural noir film with a government agency dedicated to the neutralisation of the terrorist forces and ending the radicalisation of society, the Sophie Scholl prisoner of conscience film, and also the terrorist hijack film.

When a director throws in everything and the kitchen sink to tell everything there is to tell, he loses the overall coherence and flow of his story. By abandoning his directorial duty to set clear boundaries for the story he wishes to tell, Edel ends up skimming the surface of things in an attempt to tell everything.

The Baader Meinhoff Complex could have easily been shortened by an hour, the storytelling tightened and more focused to a laser-like precision. We see the potential for a very German movie about the RAF as the unfortunate inheritors of a strong national tradition of principled and moral defiance of unjust rulers. The bloat also obscures a darkly humorous noir procedural about an Agency man trying to capture and thwart a group that has lost its way despite its high principles, while half-realising his own government has lost its moral authority and purity through the downright dirty actions of its politicians, judges, and police. Quentin Tarrantino himself might have directed an 80 minute dark comedy about the botched training, botched plans, botched leadership, and botched thinking of a wannabe-terrorist group.

If not for the historical importance of his subject and its enduring significance to our times, this bloated and undisciplined movie would certainly try the patience of most audiences.

An earlier version of this review was published at incinemas on 21 May 2009

Friday, 22 May 2009

White Days (2009) (SIFF 2009)

Hell is other people, but when they're your friends, it's a divine comedy

Lei Yuenbing's debut feature film looks and sounds like any feature film from his self-professed director-idols Tsai Ming-liang and Hou Hsiao-hsien: there is minimal action on the screen, from the camera, and the actors in the film. While Lei's penchant for languid pacing, long shots, and completely unscripted dialogue may point towards yet another indie film's indie film-wannabe, this is more of an alibi for Lei's true project - to offer a parody and tribute to local indie filmmaking.

Three protagonists play more or less versions of themselves in real-life: Vel Ng is a translator with a life-long dream to travel to Taiwan to catch Hou and Tsai films where they are made; Chris Yeo is a talkative raconteur in search of a greater meaning to life; Daniel Hui acts out a depressed character from a short film he might have directed.

Bound together by the commonality of their yearning and their articulation of this yearning, the trio stand apart in solidarity from the rest of their world. What makes this film watching though is the commonality of their yearning and their conversations that ironically sets the trio apart from each other. We normally think of dialogue as a bonding process; here in this film, Lei's actors can just speak pass and above each other, building walls of isolation that leave everyone alienated.

Surprisingly, this is not a depressingly angsty film. Lei and his collaborators are fully aware of the ridiculousness of the indie genre as practised in Singapore, and they play up this sense of the ridiculous through their mutually alienating interactions, making even uncommunicative, thwarted, and self-thwarting dialogue sardonically funny.

Much of this film's good-natured ridiculousness comes from Chris Yeo's monologues. He plays his character like John Goodman's Jewish convert and macho man in The Big Lebowski, confidently making completely illogical and incoherent claims about life, the universe and everything while expecting his friends to convert to the saving grace of God. We are sure there's nothing like this character in film, but we certainly remember the hordes of well-intentioned but unwise and annoying Singaporeans doing the same thing in real life.

All in all, White Days is an experiment that is bound to fall either from the weight of its ambitions or its long, dialogue-heavy scenes. The vision of hell as other well-meaning friends, though, is one that you'd gladly pay the ticket price to watch.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Eid milad Laila (Laila's Birthday) (2008) (SIFF 2009)

You won't guess who I ran into today, dear

Students of international relations freeze up when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is raised. But naturally: even the United Nations, that force for global peace and reconciliation, is powerless to solve that most shameful and outrageous problem.

We're talking about a state whose existence was guaranteed as a form of blood payment by Europe for its apartheid and genocide of the Jews through the centuries, yet whose existence currently implies the apartheid of Palestinians and the destruction of their own state.

It's enough to drive anyone batty. Yet the beauty of Rashid Masharawi's short feature (weighing in at a restrained 74 mins) is its refusal to hurl itself into the abyss, to gibber mindlessly at the uncaring stars even when it documents, with a slowly ratcheting moral outrage, the hellish everyday life of citizens living in the Gaza.

In a series of vignettes, the film follows the work and travels of judge turned taxi driver Abu Laila on his daughter Laila's birthday. The fares he picks up form the director's investigation of everyday Palestinian life under Israeli state terrorism, Palestinian state corruption, and a populace struggling between madness and sanity, humiliation and dignity, anger and resigned humour.

While refusing to put on rose-tinted glasses, Rashid Masharawi still manages to avoid the typical liberal shrillness of fellow Middle Eastern directors dealing with the same topic (Amos Gitai et al), and eventually finds the sliver of optimism that fuels the continued existence of everyday Palestinians.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

The Uninvited (2009)

Momma dishes out tough love

Korean cinema is still recovering from the financial collapse and the flight of liquidity that began circa 2007. Let's just say that I'm not one to miss the recent 'heyday' of its films, fuelled by excess liquidity, banking solely on idols, and made with mass production cookie cutter plots.

It's ironic then that the recovery of Korean cinema has relied on the kindness of Hollywood remakes and adaptations of its second-rate offerings, often improving on them in the process (see The Lake House).

The Uninvited is a remake of third-rate K-horror flick A Tale of Two Sisters (장화, 홍련). The original is a typical K-horror flick, exhibiting the best and the worst of its national approach to film in general, and the genre in particular.

The crimes are innumerable. Overweening art house ambitions create a "so lurid my eyes hurt" set design (a twee overdecorated genteel 'English-style' house) just so director Kim Ji-woon can hammer the heads of his audiences with the European faerie tale/Wicked Stepmother motifs, as if they wouldn't get the allegory had he been more subtle about it. Had the script been less pretentious, more coherent, less over-directed, its attempts to make some form of social and psychological commentary might have been appreciated. But no... that commentary hammers its point home through yet another incomprehensible "can you top this?" surprise twist ending.

As the first film of directors Charles and Thomas Guard, this Hollywood remake attempts to take the best of the original film while jettisoning its worst excesses. They generally understand the expectations of non-Korean cinema audiences when it comes to cinematic grammar, script and storytelling, mostly through filming the movie in naturalistic tones and avoiding the over-directed antics of the original.

The result is a modest horror film that more than stands its ground against other Asian horror remakes as well as Hollywood's home-grown gore and shock fests.

Oh, if you must know: Young Anna survives a traumatic household accident that took the life of her invalid mother and is institutionalised in a hospital for several months, reliving that unfortunate night in a series of recurring ghoulish nightmares. The doctor says after 10 months of therapy, she’s ready to go home. Dad hasn’t actually told her she’s getting a new mum, Sis hasn’t actually told her what a bitch their stepmother is, and the director hasn’t actually told her she’ll be getting even more ghoulish visions and nightmares...

An earlier version of this review was published at incinemas on 14 May 2009

Henry Poole is Here (2008)

And all the time, I kept wishing this were directed by Monty Python instead

There's something perverse about Henry Pool is Here. A Sundance film, it technically has the prerequisite traits of a small Sundance indie - a depressed, terminally-ill man (title character, played by Luke Wilson), an assortment of eccentric neighbours with histories, secrets, and private hurts.

What's perverse is its take on faith and the idea of miracles: they do happen, and not in the metaphorical sense. All you need to do is believe. This may be the first ever entry for Sundance which plays like "When you wish upon a star" for adults.

While Henry Poole slowly wastes away from his illness while angsting in self-seclusion (please leave me alone!), a literal miracle happens literally in his backyard. A water stain on Poole’s backyard wall seems to be the face of Jesus, attracting the attention of his neighbours, the local parish pastor, and even more people. As all Henry wants is to be left alone.

If this were an indie film, hilarity would ensue (either in a dark or irreverent style - think of how Kaufman, Monty Python, or Kevin Smith would have approached this material), and a point be made eventually about the human need to believe in miracles.

Except every moment you expect the punchlines to begin, director Mark Pellington decides to play it straight, laboriously and unimaginatively making and reiterating how a childlike, trusting surrender to belief can heal people – both physically and emotionally. And every moment he does that, your bored mind will be rewriting the script according to how you think Monty Python might have written each scene.

By avoiding any critical approach to its subject matter, Henry Poole is a family-friendly, heart-warming film. It is also simplistic and too straightforward to really take on the issues of belief and disbelief. This may be indicative of how fraught with difficulty any discussion of faith is at this point in American history, and the film suffers for it.

While one may fault its approach and predictable script, Mark Pellington's training in making music videos does ensure that at least this film is beautifully shot.

Henry Poole is available on DVD at the Esplanade library as of 25 March 2009.
An earlier version of this review was published at incinemas on 14 May 2009.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Call if you need me (2009) (SIFF)

Still life, deep waters

In the digital age of filmmaking, a lone holdout stands firm. In an era where savvy indie filmmakers put out increasingly slick feature productions thanks to cheap DV cameras, Malaysian director James Lee insists on using a single basic video camera to tell his tales on film.

For his latest offering, Lee and his single video camera takes on the gangster film. As an indie director, he has something radically different to say about the genre, something that he has the guts to stick with and develop to its exquisite end. Lee's highly original premise - as a sort of weird counterpart to Ip Man - is that stripped away of the glamour of the big screen, really-existing street gangsters are just about as charming, dangerous, and pathetic as middle-aged chavs in a mid-life crisis.

The action centres on village boy Or Kia (Sunny Pang), newly arrived to the big city lights of Kuala Lumpur and his cousin and gang boss Ah Soon (musician Pete Teo). Presumably Soon runs some sort of a gang, but we're not sure what they do for a living. They're either a loansharks, debt collectors, or outsourced finance officers for a bank. They're good at what they do, without resorting to violence.

In another continent and another age, this would have been the launching point of a good noir or an anti-noir. There are the grey moral zones (the collectors sort of move in between the margins of legality, dealing with legit businessmen, lawyers, and down and out luckers), the cynicism (it is the police who initiate the first on-screen illegal violence), the world weariness (exemplified by the casting of Peter Teo, who looks like everyone's black sheep sad-eyed jailbird uncle), and the romance of it all...

Yet when it comes to the scenes where the middle aged men downs their ecstasy, downers, pills and beers - there is a sense of quiet, existential pathos than glamour. And their uneasy awareness of an asymptomatic rot in their lives. These are basically decent men in what might be a vaguely indecent world, especially Soon, who despite being a good employer and a nice family man (all that's missing is a tender scene where he pets a stray dog...) ends up being the one who stares into the abyss.

If the self-imposed limitations of short films are said to inspire beautiful filmmaking, James Lee's self-imposed limitations for his feature films have helped him to master the aesthetics of film, the strength of storytelling through long takes, and the parsimony of editing and cutting. While camera movements may be inexorably slow, each long shot is paced briskly, telling as much as it can.