Monday, May 29, 2006

Simply Taiwan!

One Country, 3 directors, 6 movies! A diverse collection ranging from the colorful past to the murky present!!!

Hou Hsiao-hsien

Until a few months ago, I had never heard of this talented director. But after seeing three of his movies in quick succession, I can understand why he has such a huge following around the world! I first cracked the world of Hou Hsiao-hsien with his highly acclaimed beautiful 2005 flick Three Times which illustrated the director’s full control over every frame as every movement on screen was perfectly orchestrated. Yet, I felt unconvinced about the second (1911 segment) of the three shorts in that movie and felt that it could have been better if it had been shot in black and white as opposed to being rich in color. The first 1966 segment was in simple colors (not too bright) and the final 2005 segment was grayish. I could not understand the bright colors in the middle segment and thought having black and white would have been a better bridge between the two other segments. But all my doubts were banished when I saw the director’s earlier work – the visually scrumptious The Flowers of Shanghai . This is because the 1911 segment in Three Times is along the same lines of the colorful brothel love story shown in The Flowers of Shanghai . That same story was touched upon again in the 1911 segment and it had to be in color, otherwise the richness of the story would have been lost. And within the context of Three Times the 1911 segment had to be without dialogues and had to be with text cards. One of the connecting elements of the three stories in Three Times is the usage of text messages as a form of communication. All the characters use one form of the written word to express their feelings, be it via letters, scrolls or SMS text messages. The audience needed to be brought in the loop as well and the sure fire way to convey that was to let them read the messages itself. And in the case of the 1911 segment, the audience had to do precisely that, whereas in the other two segments, it is the characters doing the reading.

As far as the story of The Flowers of Shanghai is concerned, it centers around the brothels in 1880’s China. Food, drink, games and love is all that takes place. Games are played, the losers have to drink up, food is served and then after that, someone leaves with a girl of their choice. Problems arise when love comes into the equation. A man wants to buy a woman’s freedom but that does not go as per plan. Jealousy and doubts set in, and in the end, heartbreak follows. Sounds simple but it is much more complicated than that. And each emotion, each feeling is captured perfectly. What more can I say? Only that this is an absolutely stunning visual cinematic feast!

Goodbye South, Goodbye

Gangsters go through their complicated lives trying to etch out a better deal and a better future for themselves. At times the movie has shades of Hong Kong gangster/Japanese Yakutza movies but this one stands completely on its own. I quite liked it but not as much as the director’s other two movies. The film gives a glimpse into the lowest rungs of gangster business, a tier where negotiations are made over the kind of chickens to be traded, gambling rackets, family inheritances and other back-room deals. Slow, yet never dull. The camera just waits patiently and allows us to observe what the characters will do next, how they will react and how they will cope.

So overall ratings: Three Times (now updated to 10/10), Flowers of Shanghai (10/10) and Goodbye South, Goodbye (8.5/10)

Tsai Ming-liang

What Time Is It there?

Tick tock. The clock slowly ticks away. Taipei. Paris. What time is it really? Does the time matter? Because what is there to do really? Sell Watches! Wait for things to get better! And wait for the love to return! These things take time, they don’t change overnight. But the expectation that the next hour will be better, that the next day will be different enable the characters to go on. They sit, they wait and they hope. And when they start losing hope, they cling onto something else, something which they feel is better, something which will give them a better chance of happiness. That something might not make sense to an outsider but for the main characters, their lives depend on it. On one side is the boy who sells watches. One day he meets a girl who insists on buying his watch. The girl is leaving for Paris the next day and wants his watch only. She eventually convinces him to sell it to her. After the boy’s father dies, his mother finds it difficult to let go. The boy is afraid of the dark and tries to stay locked up in his room. If he leaves his room, he encounters his mother trying to come up with schemes to welcome the dead father’s spirit back. Meanwhile the girl is lonely in Paris. She longs for home and is relieved when she meets another woman who can speak the same language as her. Meanwhile, the boy is feeling more detached with his life. So he longs for the girl who left for Paris. In hoping to establish a connection with her, he changes the times on all the watches he sells to show Parisian time. In fact, wherever he finds a clock (be it in a hallway or mounted on a building), he tries to switch the time to Paris time (hence the title). He then seeks French movies so as to be closer to her. And his introduction to French cinema starts with 400 Blows . Meanwhile, the girl meets the real life grown up version of the boy from 400 Blows. In a way, sitting on two separate sides of the planet, the two of them connect in a strange way. Different times, but same feeling. The movie moves extremely slowly with long uninterrupted shots of nothingness. But that is exactly the point the movie is trying to make. Nothing happens in these people lives yet they keep waiting for something to happen. The clock on the other hand keeps ticking away.

Rating: 9/10

The Wayward Cloud

A long empty corridor. A woman carries a watermelon across it. Next scene, we see that watermelon cut open in half lying in between a woman’s open legs. A man approaches the watermelon, licks it and ends up achieving penetration of a different kind. The main character is the same who used to sell watches in What Time Is It There but he now acts in porno movies. He meets the returned girl from Paris, who moves into the same apartment block as him. The two of them don’t hook up but continue to admire each other from a distance. Each of them is initially busy trying to beat the heat wave that has covered the city. Water is a scarce resource and the tv news informs the public that it is cheaper to drink watermelon juice as opposed to water because of the abundant supply of watermelons as opposed to water. And this also explains the watermelon motif that keeps reappearing throughout the movie, be it as a song prop or as a sexual tool. The film contains a handful of songs which are very well orchestrated with completely unique props (sexual triggers and even a watermelon beast). The same slow technique as the Ming-liang Tsai’s previous movie is used but the songs lend a different mood to the movie. A bit of comic relief in some cases and in others just a melancholy commentary on the state of things. Overall, I didn’t find this film as interesting as his previous effort but this is a completely unique endeavor with a truly ‘climatic’ ending.

Rating: 8/10

Leon Dai

Twenty Something Taipei

A different shade of Taiwan from all the other movies. On face value, the modern Taipei shown is not as lonely as the other director’s efforts. The capital city is shown to be a vibrant, fast moving metropolitan city complete with drinks, drugs, clubs and liberal sex. Someone hooks up with one person, then another, switches partners and continues. While the fast paced music continues to throb in the background. In between is a sweet budding romance. The characters aren’t unique to Taipei but could easily inhabit Mumbai, New York, London or another major city. And despite the differences this movie has with the above 5 movies, there is a tiny segment which overlaps with Hsiao-hsien Hou’s Three Times . His 2005 segment has a lesbian love story which is clearly found in the middle of Twenty Something Taipei. Now, it may seem like a stretch to try to connect these two separate movies but it goes to show that both directors had a similar source which they worked off and both wanted to show a modern view of their city where a newer generation is growing up.

Rating: 7.5/10 . Not a bad movie. Cliched, yes! But entertaining nonetheless!!

Sunday, May 21, 2006

CIAFF Festival wrap-up notes:

It is over, finally!! So was the festival worth is? Yes. When does one get a chance to build a film festival from ground up? And this festival was indeed started from nothing. Movie invites were sent to Asian movies all around the world. Plenty of responses were received and as expected many chose to not send their movies over. Money kept a lot of established movies out of reach (like Three Times) and on other occasions the smallness of the film festival kept a lot of distributors away. Some movies pulled out because they were selected for TIFF and wanted to have their Canadian premier there instead. But in the end, despite all the hurdles, the movie lineup was fantastic. Strong features included Red Doors, Kiều, Electric Shadows . The docs were powerful and eye-opening -- China Blue, Bombay Calling, Continuous Journey, In the Shadow of Gold Mountain, Slanted Screen . The shorts were carefully selected and put together in segments which complemented each other. For example, The Beyond Asia Selection was so named because it contained works which stretched the traditional Asian themes normally shown on screen -- Hiro, Wake, Shui Hen, System of Units, The Time is Now, Aunty Gs and Three Sisters of Moon Lake were all perfect selections. There was another short segment aimed towards Food and Memory themes with Grace Lee’s Best of Wurst being the pick of the lot.

But the biggest problem with starting a new film festival is getting the word out. And the crowds were very disappointing for some of the bigger features. The good weather, the theatre locations (hard to find parking) might have been other factors but the simple truth could have been is that people were just not interested. When the words ‘Asian Film Festival’ are mentioned, people might get an aversion to what is shown. The truth is that the festival covered movies from Pan Asian countries or movies from people of Pan Asian decent. This meant the pool to select movies from ran as deep from Iran to Japan, India to Indonesia and even included Canada, US and the UK. And as it turned out, the movies selected were quite diverse in their Asian themes – the films selected were either by Asian film-makers or North American film-makers of Asian decent or even movies which contained Asians in leading roles (and not stereo-typical 20 second roles that Hollywood offers). The cinematic showcased countries were Canada, US, Singapore, Germany, Scotland, UK, China, Taiwan, Vietnam, India, Japan, Korea and Philippines -- hardly an easy to label batch of films. But it is a learning experience and hopefully next year, better pre-planning would result in better turn-outs.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The Return of Recreational Movie watching

Having finished programming movies for the Asian Film Festival, I finally have the time to again watch movies subjectively. Here is a quick score-card of some recent talkies:
(note: because of restrictions with publishing in this blog, I can't use my html table and have to present the data in this ugly format)

Film : (Year, Director, Rating out of 10)
15 Park Avenue: (2005, Aparna Sen, 10)
Three Times : (2005, Hsiao-hsien Hou, 9)
Sitcom : (1998, François Ozon, 8.5)
The Weather Man : (2005, Gore Verbinski, 8)
Secuestro Express : (2005, Jonathan Jakubowicz, 8.5)
Goal! : (2005, Danny Cannon, 7.5)
The Statement : (2003, Norman Jewison, 6)
The 40 Year Old Virgin:(2005, Judd Apatow, 4)
Phantom of the Opera: (2004, Joel Schumacher, 6)
Marebito: (2004, Takashi Shimizu, 5)
Il Mare: (2001, Hyun-seung Lee, 6.5)
Myth: (2005, Stanley Tong, 6.5)
Bridget Jones,EOR: (2005, Beeban Kidron, 5.5)

15 Park Avenue was a movie that I was looking forward to for a while. And that was only because I had loved writer, director Aparna Sen’s last effort -- Mr and Mrs. Iyer. In my mind Mr and Mrs Iyer was a perfect Indian movie which did justice to the complex and diverse Indian landscape. So after a gap of almost 3 years, Sen returns with a stellar cast in 15 Park Avenue, bringing back her talented daughter Konkana and Rahul Bose from Iyer and adding talented veterans such as Shabana Azmi to the mix. In terms of a story, 15 Park is almost identical to Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mera. Both movies deal with a schizophrenic character and their turbulent familial relationship. But the most striking difference in the two movies is in the ending. Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mera’s ending tries to find a solution and ends on a hopeful note. But 15 Park’s ending is open ended with no possibilities of an attempted solution. In reality, 15 Park’s ending reminded me of the final shot in the smart French film, Caché. Even though the two movies ending consisted of continuous shots, there is a not so subtle difference. In the last shot of Caché, the viewer has to look closely past the assembled crowd to make sense of a possible clue or something. But in 15 Park, the final shot is devoid of any crowd. As the final frame comes on the screen, the crowd has disappeared. We are shown a long shot of an empty street, with an empty house. The absence of any activity might be the clue, whereas in Caché, the activity in the final shot was the clue. My theory on 15 Park’s ending is probably as far fetched from any reasonable meaning but here goes – Shabana’s character teaches Quantum physics in the movie and that is where I believe lies the clue to the ending. If a character is searching for a non-existent address in a city, then what does it mean if the character finds that address? Does it mean that character has ceased to exist or has their character crossed a space-time warp into an alternate reality? But there is a problem with the space-time ending. Rahul Bose’s character cannot be present in two places at the same time, so if he is present at the fictional address then that means the ending signifies that the main character has ceased to exist. In Caché, the ending does not come as a surprise. This is because the entire movie is built on still images and long continuous shots. But 15 Park is based on conversations and chatter (both real and imaginary) throughout the movie and the ending signifies utter peace, complete silence. The silence is broken only for a few seconds when a boy walks by whistling but it is a peaceful noise. Other than that, all is silent. Finally, the voices can be heard no more!

I admit I didn’t know of Hsiao-hsien Hou until last year when I heard about Three Times. Now having seen that movie, I can understand why he has such a following. Three Times is a gorgeous movie. 2 actors, 3 different love stories in 3 different eras – 1911, 1966 and 2005. I found the 1911 segment the weakest but it is also very inventive. Hsiao-hsien Hou recreates the silent movie era complete with placards shown on screen after the characters talk. Instead of having the segment in black and white, Hsiao-hsien Hou opts for vibrant colours. I do wonder what affect having the segment in black and white would have had to the movie’s flow. Would it have broken the flow or would it have formed a bridge in between the semi-colorful 1966 opening segment and the grayish 2005 segment? But this is a minor niggly point in such beautifully shot movie. In all 3 segments the lovers communicate with written words. In 1966, they use hand written letters. 1911 features written scrolls and in 2005, the words are exchanged via SMS text messages. The end result is the same in all 3 methods – the need to communicate and express one’s feelings for the other. My favourite segment was the 1966 segment which clearly had the feel of a Wong Kar-Wai movie like Chunking Express or Days of Being Wild (only the first 20 minutes or so). I decided to get a few of Hsiao-hsien Hou’s older movies and once I am done those, I will put up a separate article on him.

The only reason I rented Sitcom was because of François Ozon. Ozon’s movies are so interesting (8 Women, 5 x 2, Swimming Pool) as they represent different facets of human emotions. And I was not disappointed with Sitcom. It is such a hilarious take on the complicated familial dynamics that it makes American Beauty look like a simple and plain movie. In Sitcom, we meet a somber quiet father, a bubbly aging mother, a quiet introvert son and a young vivacious daughter. Added to the mix are the rich maid and her black husband. And then there is the evil hamster who in reality is a personification of the evil father who is out to ruin the family. Not like the family need any help in messing things up for themselves. Presenting Exhibit A -- the son claims to be gay, the maid’s husband checks to see if the boy is really gay by kissing him (and other stuff unseen by the camera), the mother tries to make the son normal by sleeping with him, the daughter attempts to kill herself. Truly a sitcom with a twist!

The Weather Man – gloomy yet bright. Huh? As Bill Murray has perfected the dead pan look, Nicolas Cage seems to be right at home with the depressive aging man. The only question I have is whether weather men are paid as much as shown in the movie? (upwards of a million dollars).

Secuestro Express – Express Kidnappings in Caracas! I had expected this movie to be much worse but I ended up liking it. A well to do middle class couple get kidnapped for some fast cash but their kidnapping does not go as per plan. Nothing earth shattering about the movie but it moves at a brisk pace.

Goal – An American movie about Soccer! Is that a joke? And that too a rags to riches story about a Mexican kid who moves from LA to play for Newcastle United. No wonder this movie was ripped to shreds in the British Press. I seriously expected a typical clichéd Hollywood movie. And yes it is indeed clichéd. But after the first 20 minutes, I ended up liking it. It has a good heart and a few scenarios made the movie feel a bit genuine, like the digitally altered scenes and the Manager character. The digitally altered soccer crowd scenes looked good and having real players on display made it seem a little bit genuine; having a soccer manager clearly modeled after Arsène Wenger was something that I appreciated. If in real life Arsenal's manager, Wenger took on an unknown player such as Kolo Toure from the Ivory Coast only based on what his friend told him, then it is not that far fetched that in the movie Santiago could get a try out with Newcastle. Yeah it still sounds improbable but in the movie, it seemed to work. The movie is not a work of art but it is pure fun.

The other movies were mostly passable. 40 Year Old Virgin is boring and plain dull. My biggest problem with that movie was that the lead was horrible. If they had gotten Ben Stiller for the title role, they maybe the movie might have been better. Oddly, after finding the first 35 minutes horrible, I ended up not disliking the rest. Either I got used to the dullness or I was able to channel out the dumbness. Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason is identical to the first movie expect with different locales. The first movie was funny but the second one is not! The Jackie Chan movie Myth is essentially about a male Tomb Raider running around searching for famed treasures. The only newsworthy thing in the movie might be the quick topless shot of the Bollywood actress Mallika Sherawat. She can’t act in a Bollywood movie and in Myth she actually manages to be worse. But she is finally able to display her topless front side to the camera whereas only her naked back makes it on Bollywood celluloid. Ofcourse, the typical stereotypical image of India is shown in the movie – a land of spirituality, sensuality, dancing women ready to shed their clothes off, snake charmers and cheating saints.

That’s a wrap!