Saturday, April 29, 2017

My unequivocal reaction to the too ambiguous Personal Shopper (film review)

 Personal Shopper's director-scriptwriter at the Hong Kong 
International Film Festival's post-screening Q&A

Personal Shopper (France-Germany, 2016)
- Screening as part of the HKIFF's Galas program
- Olivier Assayas, director and scriptwriter
- Starring: Kristen Stewart, Sigrid Bouaziz, Nora von Waldstätten

Less than 24 hours after I viewed multiple Berlinale award-winner On Body and Soul at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, I was back at the same venue for the Hong Kong International Film Festival screening of the offering that -- rather inexplicably to my mind -- won its helmer the Best Director prize at Cannes last year.  Charmingly, among my fellow audience members was ldikó Enyedi.  And given how wonderfully thoughtful and articulate she came across at her film's post-screening Q&A, I must say that I would have given quite a bit to hear her thoughts on Olivier Assayas' moody offering: which, like hers, mixes together reality and imagination but, to my mind, less successfully.

At one level, the protagonist of Personal Shopper is indeed a personal shopper, whose job is to pick and pick up high end fashion clothing and accessories from stores like Chanel and Gucci for her jetsetting hardly-ever-home fashionista boss Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten).  An American in Paris, Maureen (Kristen Stewart) also fancies herself to be a medium, like her twin brother Lewis, who recently died from a congenital heart condition that his twin sister also possesses.        

Rather than begin by showing Maureen going about her work, the film actually opens with the titular character being dropped off by Lara (Sigrid Bouaziz) at the now empty house which the latter and Lewis had called home prior to this death.  There, she awaits a visitation from Lewis, as per a pact agreed-upon by the siblings some time back that whoever died first would attempt to communicate with the other from beyond the grave.  

While Maureen does have a paranormal encounter that night, she is unable to tell whether she had been contacted by her late twin or some other supernatural being.  And later on in Personal Shopper, when she receives messages over the phone from an unknown source, she again is unsure whether the sender is Lewis or somebody else, and also whether that somebody else is dead or alive!

This uncertainty on Maureen's part also seems to be echoed on the part of the film's director-scriptwriter: in that Olivier Assayas seems of two -- maybe more -- minds as to whether he wants Personal Shopper to primarily be a critique of our overly-materialistic, soul-threatening contemporary society, a psychological thriller centered on a young woman depressed by the loss of a loved one and drifting unhappily through life, a crime drama involving a rejected lover out for blood or a supernatural horror with some pretty scary spirits moving about -- and maybe even stalking particular humans even as they move about from one country to another.  

Much clearer, however, is that Olivier Assayas considers Kristen Stewart to be his current muse, and that -- as he divulged in the post-screening Q&A I attended -- he allowed her considerable leeway to improvize when making this ambiguous-feeling movie.  For better or worse, one result of this close collaboration between filmmaker and lead actress appears to be her ending up having a lot more screen time -- and the vast majority of it alone -- than the star of a more conventional cinematic creation would have.  

Definitely less of a good thing as far as this (re)viewer is concerned is that Personal Shopper can sometimes feel like a case of "too many cooks spoiling the broth" or the designated helmer ultimately not wanting to take full control.  The generous might conclude that this film is consciously, even admirably, equivocal.  Those less inclined to be so -- frustrated, among other things, by the ending of the film being way too inconclusive -- will tend towards the opinion that by trying to be different things to different people, this work ended up dissatisfying quite a few of us.

My rating for the film: 6.0

Thursday, April 27, 2017

On Body and Soul appeals to heart and mind (film review)

The HKIFF screening of my favorite contemporary offering of the fest 
was followed by a Q&A session with its wonderful director-scriptwriter :)
On Body and Soul (Hungary, 2017)
- Screening as part of the HKIFF's Galas program
- Ildikó Enyedi, director and scriptwriter
- Starring: Géza Morcsányi, Alexandra Borbély
Every year at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, local cinephiles are treated to screenings -- sometimes Asian premieres, like the case with this entry from Hungary -- of a number of films that had their world premieres at the Berlin International Film Festival which took place earlier in the year (as well as at Cannes the year before).  And while it's usually the case that this selection includes the Berlinale's Golden Bear winner, it's not at all uncommon that the work in question would also have garnered three other awards at the same fest.    
So expectations were pretty sky high for On Body and Soul, since this offering from director-scriptwriter Ildikó Enyedi had come away from this year's Berlinale with the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury, FIPRESCI Prize and the award from the "Reader Jury of the Berliner Morgenpost" as well as the fest's absolutely top award.  And in view of this film hardly being a conventional commercial production, it's actually also pretty amazing to learn that it was a box office hit in its native country too.
Upon viewing this quirky but crowdpleasing work though, I now understand why this quirky romantic effort can appeal both to those who like to think about films and also "just" be entertained: for On Body and Soul is the kind of movie with moments that will get its viewers thinking, shocked, laughing and also feeling like they have been touched to the core.  A quietly magical work, it is awe-inspiring in terms of how original is its story, how well made it is, and how its helmer is able to use an audio-visual medium to not only show that still waters run deep but also reveal the passion lurking in the hearts of those whose exteriors seem cold and faces look blank to those who don't know better.
Endre (Géza Morcsányi) is the financial director of the abattoir on the outskirts of Budapest where Maria (Alexandra Borbely) has been newly assigned to be the quality control inspector.  At least ten years different in age, they appear to have little in common beyond their both being people who take their work at the slaughterhouse seriously and are more likely to spend time watching TV (him) and playing with LEGO minifigures (her) in their leisure time than socializing with other people.  
Amusingly as well as improbably however, it gets revealed that these two solitary individuals both regularly have dreams in which they are deer in a forest with a round pond and a companion of the opposite sex.  Even more unbelievably, they are incredulous to find out, it turns out that they -- who, by the nature of the dreams, are revealed to be more lonely souls than loner types -- have the same dream as the other each night and, in fact, are the other's mate in those dreams!
A lesser filmmaker would be able to milk elements of fantasy or farce out of this plot point.  Ildikó Enyedi shows her genius by being able to make those dream sequences beautiful even while amusing post their fantastical nature having been revealed to the audience, and the often awkward interactions between Endre and Maria after their discovery that they share those same dreams sometimes funny but other times bordering on being sad and tragic.
Also amazing to me was the revelation during the post-screening Q&A session I attended that On Body and Soul's cast was a mix of professionals and amateurs; with the latter including Géza Morcsányi (whose first film appearance this was, and probably last, and is better known in Hungary as the head of an eminent publishing firm) and the old stag that Endre appeared as in his and Maria's dreams!  For, in all honesty, they produced outstandingly natural performances as this (re)viewer was concerned in a mesmerizing work that is very special in terms of its tale and also the quality of its technical execution.     
My rating for the film: 9.0 

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

An enjoyable hike on a cloudy gray but actually dry weather day (Photo-essay)

The 2017 Hong Kong International Film Festival which began back on April 11th drew to a close last night.  While I feel generally pretty happy at my viewing selection,  there's a part of me that does look forward to going out hiking again on free afternoons rather than spending time in darkened rooms watching movies.

Especially on dry weather days, I often feel drawn to the hills (to make a movie analogy, a la The Sound of Music's Maria).  And even when the sun's not fully out, I've often been able to get quite a bit of enjoyment out of venturing over to such as the Tai Lam Country Park out in northeastern Hong Kong and trying out sections of trail that I hadn't previously gone on, like yet one of the many trails that take one from the Tai Lam Forest Track down to Ho Pui irrigation reservoir and the village downhill from it, from where one can get on a green minibus to Yuen Long, where many good eats await! ;b   

Yes, one can see Lion Rock and Kowloon Peak, not just
Tai Mo Shan, from the eastern section of Tai Lam Country Park!

Also in the area can be found a number of
entrances to now disused mines

Off the beaten path in Hong Kong's 
second largest country park

A nice view of Ho Pui Irrigation Reservoir that
I imagine few people actually have seen

There were points in the hike when the cloudy gray sky and 
landscape combined to make for quite the dramatic sight

At other times though, the scene looked 
less threatening and more idyllic! ;b

There's almost always a welcome breeze when you stand
atop the dam of Ho Pui's reservoir :)

Toppings for Tai Wing Wah's famous lard claypot rice
stand next to a delicious dish of pork ribs with plum sauce
that was the highlight of the post-hike dinner :b

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Black Code should be a "must watch" for anyone who values freedom and the internet (film review)

Canadian filmmaker Nicholas de Pencier (with an HKIFF 
interpreter by his side) at his film's Q&A session

Black Code (Canada, 2016)
- Screening as part of the HKIFF's Reality Bites program
- Nicholas de Pencier, director, scriptwriter, producer and cinematographer  

After many years of resisting the impulse to do so, I finally joined the Facebook community a few weeks ago.  In so doing, I've been witness to how people can seem willing to reveal so much about themselves via the posts they put up, share and like on that social media platform; many of which tend to be on the light-hearted side but some of which are also are seriously political in nature.

How many Facebook users, I wonder, really do realize and care that they are leaving a super detail-filled information trail out on the internet for such as various government agencies to see?  And can they envision that even seemingly innocous comments could land one in big trouble and result in one getting tortured and forced to flee one's homeland?

To be sure, the Facebook user in question who recounted his having undergone precisely that experience in the disturbingly thought-provoking Black Code is Syrian (rather than, say, American, Japanese or living in some other country whose citizenry tend to trust their government).  And it's also true that the vast majority of cases that Canadian filmmaker Nicholas de Pencier has chosen to focus on in his work are Third World ones.  

But, as the cinematographer turned documentary director sought to make clear in a Q&A session after the Hong Kong International Film Festival screening of his film that I attended: he's by no means intending to say that the Chinese, Ethiopian, Pakistani, Syrian, Brazilian and other national governments shown monitoring the moves of their citizens in his documentary are the only ones out there engaging in internet surveillance along with censorship and cyber espionage.  (Also, he pointed out, it's not like he's unaware of companies also engaging in activities that threaten free speech and privacy on the internet; instead, it's just that the subject is so vast that it's worthy of a whole different film.)

Inspired by Black Code: Inside the Battle for Cyberspace, a book by University of Toronto political science professor Ron Diebert, whose Citizen Lab has been examining government actions designed to disrupt and/or control the internet for more than a decade, Nicholas de Pencier travelled the world to chronicle diverse examples of state surveillance, political activism and citizen journalism to show how governments seek to crush political dissent but individual citizens also are seeking to fight back. 

Certain segments of his powerful documentary are disturbing and horrifying, with real deaths being shown on film and also being shown having been preceded by violent threats and other inflammatory comments against the eventual deceased posted online.  And there are points when watching Black Code that one might feel tempted to just give up on the whole internet thang and get out of cyberspace.  

Probably realizing how his often alarming work would make many thinking people feel, Nicholas de Pencier consequently also goes out of his way to not only emphasize how brave many of the people (political activists, content providers, journalists, etc.) who feature in his documentary are but, also, that there are indeed netizens out there who have managed to strike blows for free speech, freedom, justice and a whole plethora of human rights.  

Something else that Black Code makes clear is that there really are some benefits to our world being increasingly interconnected, by the internet and otherwise.  For example, Brazilian citizen journalists can better do their job using an app that previously was only popular in Japan.  And here in Hong Kong, people watching a documentary by a Canadian filmmaker can see parallels, say, not only between what the Mainland Chinese government is trying to do in Tibet and Hong Kong but also people protesting political injustice and economic inequality in Brazil and participants in -- and those who continue to be sympathetic to -- the Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement.  

My rating for this film: 8.5

Monday, April 24, 2017

Stonehead paints a problematic portrait of China, particularly its left-behind children (film review)

There are hundreds of screenings to choose from 
at the  Hong Kong International Film Festival!
Stonehead (Mainland China, 2017)
- Screened in the HKIFF's Young Cinema Competition program
- Zhao Xiang, director and co-scriptwriter (with Liu Dan)
- Starring: Zhu Hongbo, Cai Jiakun
The tragedy of China's "little emperors" -- only children without siblings -- has been pretty well documented internationally.  Less known, and no less of a tragedy, is that many of the "little emperors" are also "left-behind children": young boys usually (more so than girls, as the country's "one child policy" also has spawned a severe gender imbalance) who have been left to be raised by their grandparents in rural areas, sometimes for years at a time, while their parents go off to the cities in search of work. 
Such sibling-less and also effectively parent-less children are the focus of Stonehead, a documentary-style drama set for the most part in a small village in Guangxi province that I could well imagine being pretty representative of many around Mainland China.  And Stonehead is also the nickname of the film's 10-year-old protagonist, who shares the same name (Zhu Hongbo) as the young actor who plays him but is referred by pretty much everyone, bar for his class teacher, by his strange nickname.  
On what was one of the happiest and proudest days of his prepubescent life, the class' top student was given a certificate of merit and also a football from the area's education director.  Prizing the football as much, if not more, than the merit certificate, Stonehead yearned to show his new possession to his father, even determining that it wouldn't get played with until that anticipated event occured (presumably the next time Chinese New Year -- when many of those working in far away cities would make annual trips home -- came around). 
But things don't work out as planned, with his class teacher deciding that the football actually was given to the school rather than a single student and the ball being found to have a leak after being kicked just once.  Worse the boy who kicked the ball, Stonehead's best (and maybe even only) friend, known as Pouchy (Cai Jiakun), is deemed by the cabal led by a popular classmate referred to as Monkey (Deng Shou) to have damaged it; and is consequently subjected to bullying as punishment for his "sin".
With few adults around and seemingly none willing to help inculcate morals, ethics and general good behavior in the children, the schoolyard and the village as a whole turns out to be quite the cruel place indeed.  In addition, it's instructive to find that the student decreed by his teacher to be the worst in the class is the top dog among his classmates whereas the one officially deemed a county-level model student is not at all popular among his peers.        
As can be seen by such as the existence of newly erected bigger houses strewn about the landscape and material gifts galore brought back on their rare return trips home, those who left the village to make money look to have been fairly successful in doing that.  But the price they and their families, particularly the young generation, pay for their having gone away to take part in the nation's economic development looks to be damagingly high socially and psychologically.  
Watching Stonehead, I felt sad and frustrated for the put-upon titular character and also the unfortunate Pouchy.  And because so much of what is depicted in the film comes across as all too real, I also got to feeling pretty pessimistic, fearful even, about the future of China: a country which looks to be getting increasingly economically wealthy but morally bankrupt.
My rating for the film: 7.5

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Walter Hill's Revenger is not your standard issue revenge movie! (film review)

During the Hong Kong International Film Festival, I spend 
far more hours indoors in darkened rooms than usual ;S

Revenger (USA-Canada-France, 2016)
- Screening as part of the HKIFF's Gala Presentation program
- Walter Hill, director
- Starring: Michelle Rodriguez, Sigourney Weaver, Tony Shalhoub

Of all my Hong Kong International Film Festival screening picks that (already) had entries on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) and Rotten Tomatoes websites, Walter Hill's Revenger (aka Tomboy, and The Assignment) had the lowest ratings by far.  Yet I felt compelled to check out what its director has deemed to be strictly a pulp fantasy because it stars one of my favorite Hollywood actress and possesses a novel scenario involving an expert surgeon who exacts a revenge on the hired gun who killed her beloved brother that's so singular that many might be convinced that the idea could only come out of a deranged mind.

Sigourney Weaver is imperiously cool as Rachel Jane, a cosmetic surgeon who had her medical license revoked some time back and now, for a different transgression, finds herself incarcerated in a loony bin.  Deemed so dangerous that she has to be in a straitjacket when meeting a prison psychiatrist (Tony Shalhoub) she obviously considers to be her intellectual inferior, the disgraced doctor proves to have a sharp tongue, piercing stare and steely demeanor of someone you'd be most unfortunate to cross.

Without realizing he had done so, criminal lowlife Frank Kitchen (Michelle Rodriguez) did just that; and for his sins, gets turned by Rachel Jane into a biological woman.  Even with a significant prosthetic penis, Michelle Rodriguez doesn't appear convincing as a biological man but makes up for it with an eye-catching portrayal of an angry gunman trapped in a nubile woman's body.  

More than incidentally, I find it interesting that the men that actresses like Brigitte Lin Ching Hsia have played in Hong Kong movies tend to be on the refined side of the male equation but that in this Western cinematic offering, the attempts to emphasize male-ness looked to involve providing the actress with what unfortunately proved to be too artificial-looking chest and facial hair along with male reproductive organs.  Two other technical aspects of Revenger that I thought notable are its copious amounts of flashback scenes and use of voiceovers that, when combined, make it so that Frank Kitchen dominates the picture visually but it's Rachel Jane's voice, and narrative, which feel most influential.     

For the most part though, this is the kind of film where it's probably best not to overthink things and just enjoy the wild ride that's offered up.  In retrospect, I'm surprised that it wasn't part of the HKIFF's Midnight Heat program (even while having been accorded a late night screening slot).  If nothing else, it could show (up) the likes of The Sleep Curse that B-movies involving demented doctors (especially those with A-list actors and/or actresses playing them) can indeed be wickedly entertaining without needing to descend into the realm of the seriously distasteful.    

My rating for this film: 7.5

Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Posterist shines a light on a master illustrator (film review)

The unassuming director of a documentary
on a famous film posterist 

The Posterist (Hong Kong, 2016)
- Screening as part of the HKIFF's Hong Kong Panorama 2016-2017 program
- Hui See Wai, director

More than 20 years ago now, I walked into a Philadelphia Chinatown video store and discovered hundreds, if not thousands, of movies that had been made in Hong Kong that I hitherto did not know existed but which I would eventually grow to love.  Among them were films in videotape boxes featured distinctive illustrated images of people with bigger heads than in real life and often frozen in some kind of comic pose.  

These illustrations, I got to quickly figuring out, were for comedies, many of which -- like The Private Eyes, Aces Go Places and All the Wrong Spies -- were wacky, highly entertaining efforts.  But it wasn't until I watched The Posterist that I came to learn who was their creator.

Between 1975 and 1992, Yuen Tai Yung designed and created -- by hand -- posters for more than 200 Hong Kong movies, a number of which were big box office hits.  Among them were the posters for Bruce Lee's The Way of the Dragon, Enter the Dragon and Game of Death, and all 16 films starring one or more of the Hui Brothers (Michael, Sam, and Ricky).

The Posterist is an informative tribute to Yuen Tai Yung which happens to be have been made by Michael Hui's son, Hui See Wai.  In a Q&A session after its Hong Kong International Film Festival screening, the younger Hui talked about having actually originally made the film for just his family and friends to enjoy.  In particular, he hopes that a still younger generation of Huis, who include his preteen daughter, will appreciate the contents of this documentary about the artist who Hui See Wai credits for helping him gain a genuine appreciation for his relatives' work, and what a number of people belatedly realize was the heyday of Hong Kong cinema.

The Posterist is the first -- and possibly only -- film directed by Hui See Wai, who actually has no film training and didn't envision becoming a professional filmmaker.  And its director has few illusions about it being a pretty modest work; one that's workmanlike in style, with lots of talking heads and few bells and whistles.   

But among the aces in his hand are the many posters of Yuen Tai Yung whose beauty and creativity can take the breath away as well as get one smiling.  Not to be discounted too are the family connections which undoubtedly helped Hui See Wai to gain access to -- and the cooperation of -- the likes of not only Michael Hui but also singer-actor Kenny Bee, master illustrators Ma Wing Shing and a major fan of Yuen Tai Yung who's collected several of his works over the years in addition to Yuen Tai Yung himself.  And it really was quite the bonus that the subject of the documentary turned out to be a great conversationalist, willing not only to share lots of stories but also give a demonstration of his unique way of creating his works of art.

Zhejiang-born and Shanghai-raised, Yuen Tai Yung moved to Hong Kong as a teenager to find work.  In the 1990s, he emigrated to New Zealand and, from all accounts, went for years without creating a single piece of art until around 2007, when he returned to Hong Kong after the untimely death of his beloved wife.  Amazingly, these days, he's actively creating once more, and also active on social media such as Facebook, where Hui See Wai contacted him.  And long may all this continue for someone who looks to get quite a bit of joy from producing art (which, these days, also include realistic portraits along with cartoon-style illustrations) but also hanging out and sharing with his many fans, young as well as old!         

My rating for the film:7.0