Thursday, October 29, 2009

(East + South East) Asia Spotlight

Ten films covering four countries:

China -- Fujian Blue, Fish Eyes
South Korea -- Rough Cut, Daytime Drinking, My Love Yurie
Malaysia -- Call If You Need Me, Karaoke, This Longing
Philippines -- Independencia, Adela

Call If You Need Me, Karaoke, Daytime Drinking, Rough Cut and Fish Eyes were mentioned previously in CIFF previews I & III. These five films are included here with shorter comments.

So in order of preference:

Call If You Need Me (2009, Malaysia, James Lee)

A visually sharp film that combines the style of diverse film-makers such as Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Pen-Ek Ratanaruang and Quentin Tarantino while still retaining a unique Malaysian flavour. Hou Hsiao-Hsien elevated a gangster film to an art form with Goodbye South Goodbye and James Lee does a very job in carrying on that tradition. Call If You Need Me is about gangsters and kidnappings but there isn’t a single gun or drop of blood to be found on screen. All the violence is kept out of the frame and we are instead shown events that precede or succeed a violent act. Because there is no violence shown on screen, we can instead focus on the characters and their day to day lives, including their love interests and their choice of food and drugs.

Karaoke (2009, Malaysia, Chris Chong Chan Fui)

This beautifully shot film attains a level of beauty normally associated with the cinema of Thai film-maker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, especially Tropical Malady. While the images are mesmerizing, one must also pay careful attention to all the sounds that can be heard. The lyrics of the Karaoke videos are also important as they provide a clue to the film’s three act structure.

This Longing (2008, Malaysia, Azharr Rudin)
Original title: Punggok rindukan bulan

The minimalist style of This Longing will frustrate some viewers but patient viewers will be rewarded with moments of beauty spread throughout the film. There are two stories here which are loosely tied and both show the gradual decline of an apartment complex in Johor Baru which is slated for destruction. The 90 minute long first segment is about the relationship between a young boy (Sidi) and his father. The second segment (about 30 minutes) features a completely different character, Riza, who returns home to have another look at the place where she grew up. After she arrives, Riza finds that the complex is almost empty as most of the residents have been relocated. Her walks through the same halls that Sidi passed through makes one question all the scenes in the first segment and whether Sidi and a younger Riza had crossed paths.

This Longing blurs the line between documentary and fiction not only because of its style but also because it was shot in a real apartment complex which was about to be destroyed. Seeing the cranes crunching away at the building at the film’s end (without any background sound) lends a haunting perspective to the story.

Fish Eyes (2009, Korea/China, Zheng Wei)

Zheng Wei makes an impressive debut with this well shot film that does not burden the screen with needless dialogue. The minimalist style works to perfection here as we witness the everyday events of a father and his son. Their daily routines are altered when a mysteriously girl shows up. While the father cares for the girl, the son sees the girl as someone who can be used to gain an advantage with the local gang.

Fujian Blue (2007, China, Weng Shou Ming)

The film takes place in the Fujian province and observes a slice of the human trafficking operation. On one hand we witness the methods of the local gangs seeking to profit from people wanting to leave China and on the other, we see the reasons for these people’s departure. Leaving one’s country illegally isn't easy and not without danger, but it isn't any easier to carve out a respectable living at home when crime and poverty are close-by. In this aspect, the film shares sentiments of Italian films set in the port cities during the 30's-50's when Italians sought to leave for America.

The vibrant look of Fujian Blue makes for a very calm watching experience despite the negative characters and situations on display. Overall, a worthy debut film and it is easy to see why it won the 2007 VIFF Dragons and Tigers award.

Independencia (2009, Philippines co-production, Raya Martin)

Raya Martin has certainly carved a unique style for this film with the studio sets, black and white film mixed with some staged newsreel shots. The controlled set environment allows Martin to play with the lightning (example, a studio light serves as the shining sun) and sound, thereby providing some of the film's best moments. The story spanning two generations is set against the backdrop of the island's historical aspects between the departure of the Spanish and the arrival of the Americans, with the American involvement in the Philippines growing steadily during the course of the film. The film's title proclaims Independence but that is an elusive concept as depicted by the film. Even at the film's end, we get a clue to impending blood shed that will take place on the islands when two foreign countries (America and Japan) will go to war.

It took me two viewings to appreciate the beauty of Independencia but I still missed out on some of the symbolism on the second viewing. When I saw the film the first time, the controlled set surroundings didn't produce a natural reaction in me because I could not bounce any emotional resonance off the stage settings. Only after the news reel appeared around the 30 minute mark, did I being to appreciate the film's humour and pokes at history. The second viewing was far more rewarding and allowed me to observe things with a different perspective.

Independencia could form an interesting double-bill with Kon Ichikawa's Fires on the Plain. While Independencia ends with the Japanese yet to arrive on the Philippines, Fires on the Plain shows the American and Japanese soldiers locked in brutal war on the islands. Atleast, in Independencia we see the local Filipinos but the locals are hard to come by in Ichikawa's masterful work.

Daytime Drinking (2008, Korea, Noh Young-seok)

A delightful film that provides plenty of laughs with its sincere tale of love, friends, alcohol and good food. When I was not busy laughing, I was craving hot ramen noodles with cold beer just like the characters in the film.

Rough Cut (2008, Korea, Hun Jang)

Rough Cut is a fascinating no holds barred action film that puts a new spin on the traditional gangster genre. Some aspects of the film within a film story are similar to the extraordinary Korean film Dirty Carnival but Rough Cut has gone in a far more gritty direction with good effect. Kim Ki-duk's screenplay is different from anything he done before, and that includes the gangster film Bad Guy that he directed early in his career.

Adela (2008, Philippines, Adolfo Alix Jr.)

The film resides on quite an emotional and powerful performance from the 85 year old actress Anita Linda. The usage of the slum location adds to the film's realism and invites a glimpse into the character's lives. In this regard, the film is similar to other recent fascinating Filipino films set in real slum/shanty town locales such as The Bet Collector (directed by Jeffrey Jeturian) and Foster Child, Slingshot (Brillante Mendoza).

My Love Yurie (2008, South Korea, Ko Eun-Ki)

Donga falls for his neighbour Yurie but he can't have her because of one tiny problem -- Yurie’s father is the devil! To complicate things, Yurie's father forces his daughter into prostitution, something which further torments Donga. Desperate to gain Yurie's love, Donga has no choice but to make a deal with the devil. After the deal is made, Donga is happy but his happiness has restrictions because a deal with the devil always has consequences.

The film has a creative take on Goethe's Faust tale and the interesting set-up of two houses in the middle of nowhere is a great idea as it gives the film a timeless look. After a very good opening, the film goes off track around the point when Donga makes a deal with Yurie's father. As part of the deal, Yurie's father gives Donga a picture book which shows his future with Yurie. The scenes that follow do not sit in the film's previously developed ideas of the purity of love that Donga wants and the devilish nature of the trade that Yurie is involved in thanks to her father. Instead, these picture book scenes halt the film's flow and grind the story to a halt.

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