Saturday, January 27, 2007

Notes on recent films & emerging voices in Asian cinema

United 93 (Writer, Director: Paul Greengrass): Rating 9/10

I had avoided seeing this movie until now because I didn’t see a need for making a movie about the most televised event in recent history. Surely, an event that had gotten way too much press coverage and had resulted in more violence around the world didn’t need to be glorified by a movie? I held my belief despite all the positive film reviews. In the end, I changed my mind and I am glad I saw this film. The movie attempts to recreate that morning, first from the point of view in the air-traffic control center and then from events on United 93. The opening hour is spent mostly on the confusion in the air traffic control center when the two planes hit their target. The next 40-50 minutes showcase how an attempted hijacking of United 93 was thwarted. How true are the events shown in the movie? How accurate is the confusion in the air-traffic control center and army facility? We won’t know the true answer but that does not take away from this film’s efforts.

It is a gripping movie that moves at a fact pace. Shot in documentary style, the film does not attempt to judge or glorify anything. It tries to show events as they might have unfolded. And the fact that we know what is going to happen next only adds to the film’s tension. No matter what the reason, or which side is correct, killing of innocent people is not justified. Man is a devilish beast and if he continues his violent ways, then eventually everything will be destroyed. History might show events that started out with United 93 will eventually end with the future shown in Children of Men.

Calvaire, The Ordeal (Director, Fabrice Du Welz): Rating 8/10

I knew nothing of this movie when I picked it up. But what a film it is! The DVD cover is in bloody red indicating scenes of horror. However, the horror is not what I expected.

Marc Stevens (Laurent Lucas) is a traveling music performer who performs at a range of venues like senior homes. At a particular senior home, he attracts the affection of an elderly woman. He finds that inappropriate and quickly tries to leave when he finds that even the nurse there has feelings for him. On route through lonely and desolate Belgian country side, his vans breaks down. He finds Boris who takes him to Bartel’s Inn, about 3 km away. Boris’s words to Bartel are an indication of things to come. As opposed to merely saying that he has brought Bartel a tenant, Boris shouts "I have brought you someone." From then on starts Marc’s hell in a village populated by only older men. The movie is jam packed with odes and references to several films that director Fabrice clearly admires (Psycho to name just one). And the centre piece of all these references is Marc himself, a confused character who is hard to read. At the start of the film, he was the fancy of older women and then later on, in a mysterious village, he becomes the cause of feuding among the men. And the audience is left to wonder, why Marc is so helpless and weak at all this obvious insanity? De Welz has certainly made a unique first feature despite including quite a few horror film clichéd scenes.

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (Director, Adam McKay)

How can one rate this movie? It is one of those films that one either hates or one loves. But I seem to fall somewhere in the middle. I didn’t entirely dislike the film but was not convinced by everything shown. Adam McKay and Will Ferrell are certainly creating a different kind of humour genre in Hollywood. On a positive side, their dry humour with a few touches of satire is refreshing to see compared to all the brain-dead clichéd Hollywood films. Overall, I enjoyed moments of the film and did laugh out loud at quite a few scenes. At other scenes I either smiled or shook my head at the stupidity of the situation. The introduction of Sacha Baron Cohen as the French driver adds to the film’s bizarre energy. Now I want to see a film with Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller, Sacha Baron Cohen and Adam Sandler! Rating 6/10

Emerging Voices in Asian cinema…

I was fortunate enough to preview these film as part of the Pan-Asian film festival.

Todo Todo Torres (Philippines, Director John Torres)

I was in Vancouver last year when John Torres picked up his prestigious “Dragons and Tigers Award for Young Cinema” at VIFF. The series programmer Tony Rayns mentioned that Torres’s film proves that home video can be captivating to watch. John’s feature is certainly an interesting blend of home video footage, video diary entries and scripted film. It gives a glimpse into the turbulent life of Manila where teenage angst combined with a police state can lead to acts of terrorism.

The next 6 films are part of Andy Lau’s production company, Focus Films, which is trying to give new talent an opportunity to make movies.

After this our exile (Hong Kong, Director, Patrick Tam)

This was the best of the six films with a lot of raw emotion. The story dives into the life of a troubled couple and how their breaking marriage impacts their child. The wife eventually leaves the husband who is forced to look after the child. Unemployed and having to pay off his gambling debts, the father teaches his son to steal so as to survive. This leads to an emotional ending which I don't want to give away. I felt this film is 20-30 minutes longer than it should be, but the emotional ending gives a nice soothing feel for the movie. Also, the movie contains a beautiful passionate love scene between the father and his girl-friend which is tenderly shot (shades of Wai-Kar Wong).

Joni's Promise (Indonesia, Director Joko Anwar)

This is a cute romantic comedy about a film reel delivery man who is responsible for shuttling film reels in between theatres because each theatre can’t afford to rent its own print. It starts off nicely but after a while, the overdrawn idea wears thin and some substandard acting ruins the movie.

Mukhsin (Malaysia, Director, Yasmin Ahmad)

I have to admit that I am starting to like Yasmin Ahmad’s refreshing approach to families and love stories. I adored her 2005 film Sepet which was just wonderful. Mukhsin is not as good as Sepet but contains enough wonderful moments to warrant interest. Also, some of the some characters from Sepet can be found in Mukhsin , including a touching cameo from the love-struck Sepet couple. Also, the name Orked is used for the leading love interests in both films.

Rain Dogs (Malaysia, Director Yuhang Ho)

Yasmin Ahmad makes a starring role in this film which really feels inspired from Hou Hsiao-hsien's Goodbye South, Goodbye. It is a movie that requires quite a bit of patience as the pace is very relaxed.

Crazy Stone (Hong Kong, Director Hao Ning)

A gangster heist comedy that has taken its inspiration from quite a few Hollywood films like Snatch. Even though at times the acting feels substandard, it is a well shot film.

Love Conquers All (Holland/Malaysia, Director Tan Chui Mui)

Made with partial fund from Holland, this is another independent film that I felt tried to imitate HHH's style, especially in the closing scenes. The main story follows the love-affair of a young woman who falls for the wrong man, despite all the warning signs (which includes a story narrated by the man about a scam where men trap girls like her). Despite the slow start, there is always a shade of darkness underneath the film which starts to unfold when we realize that the woman’s affair has gone all wrong. And we watch her sink into trouble, slowly and slowly.

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