Thursday, October 26, 2006

Pacing Asia -- Bicycles, Trains and Gangsters

Beijing Bicycle (2001 film directed by Xiaoshuai Wang): Rating 10/10

Emotional and beautiful cinema at its best! This is a movie which grabs you emotionally, forces you to root for the underdog, but then forces you to shift your viewpoint as it gives you a different perspective and then finally reaches a just rewarding end. A stubborn quiet villager comes to Beijing to earn a living. He finds his calling acting as a bicycle courier – it is a job which gives him happiness. One day, his bike is stolen. That shatters him as he had worked day and night to earn the bike and was only a day away from owning it outright (the bikes are owned by the courier company until an employee works enough hours to own the bike). The next segment introduces us to a young college kid with the same stolen bike. He is genuinely happy with this bike and it is form of his freedom. The villager finally finds his bike and takes it back. But the college kid’s friends beat the villager up and take the bike back. As it turns out, the school boy had paid for the stolen bike from the black market and feels he owns the bike. Finally after some more fighting, a compromise is reached between the two and they agree to share the bike every other day. The bike represents freedom to both males and how they go about their lives with a bike acting as a focal point is fascinating to watch.

We don’t need much dialogue in this film as the story moves along briskly. And the carefully timed expressions give us an insight into the characters motives and hence it is no surprize when the college kid’s jealousy and vengefulness ensures a final fight is in store. I was very impressed with this film and I am glad I got to watch it. No doubt the bike’s theft will point to another famous bicycle movie but this one is unique to the Chinese landscape.

The World (directed by Jia Zhang Ke): Rating 8/10

In some movies, a set can really steal the show. And that is just the case in this film as the location is just precious. The film is set in Beijing’s World Theme park where replicas of all the world’s monuments are on display – Taj Mahal, Eiffel Tower, Pyramids, London Bridge. One can see the entire world without ever leaving China!! And as one park worker observes, the park still has its twin towers in tact while the real ones no longer exist. That is an important element as it alludes to the film’s core – sometimes a fake replica can be more real than the real thing. The film follows some of the park workers and when the camera leaves the park, it gives us a peak into their lives. The setting leaves room for a rich story and for the first hour, it is completely engrossing. However, once the camera left the park, the film lost some its energy. I like Jia Zhang Ke’s recent Still Life a lot more but The World is still an important film. And as China’s economy continues to exert a bigger presence in the global market, this movie can be taken as a case study in how on one hand, globalization can shrink the world and on the other hand, trivialize cultures. Can one symbol really capture a nation? Not really but that how is what is used by all countries to define a nation.

I need to get more of Zhang Ke’s older films as his work gives a unique & refreshing look into China.

My Wife is a gangster (2001 film directed by Jin-gyu Cho): Rating 7.5/10

Will Hollywood finally go ahead and re-make this Korean movie? Apparently, this was supposed to be the first Korean movie to be remade by Hollywood but the project has not yet taken off. The story is easily adaptable for the commercial tastes catered to by both Hollywood and Bollywood.

The title really gives the plot away (innocent man does not know his wife is a gangster) and also points towards the film's genre -- comedy!! A tough woman gangster finally finds her long lost sister. Her sister is dying and one her final wishes is to see her tough sister married. This may be the gangster's toughest job but through a bizarre series of incidents she lands a husband. The humour in this film is run on familiar jokes such as the woman trying on heels for the first time. Despite being the run of the mill stuff, it ends up being funny. The best aspect of the story is the role reversal shown -- the gangster woman acts like a macho man, and the humble husband is left to cook, clean and cater to his wife's moods. For some reason, the side characters are given some subplots which really add nothing to the story but seem more like material to extend the film. Nonetheless, it was a fun watch. And the ending really left the door open for future sequels and sure enough, two more sequels have been made.

Café Lumiere (2003 film directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien): Rating 6/10

What is this movie? Is this what we are left to call art? The movie is HHH’s tribute to Ozu’s Tokyo. I am sure it is in some ways but since I am not too familiar with all of Ozu’s techniques, I wasn’t too thrilled. A café, a young girl and a man obsessed with recording sounds of Tokyo’s unconnected train stations! That is about it. Yes at times, the long takes are beautiful but not much happens. Maybe not much is supposed to happen but I rather go sit at a café or a train station on my own time!

Kilimanjaro (2000 film directed by Seung-ook Oh): Rating 4.5/10

Run of the mill film. Two twin brothers, one a cop, the other a gangster. The gangster dies and the cop goes to his brother’s hometown to find things out. He is mistaken for his twin brother and mayhem results. Fight. Blood. Guns. Yawn…

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