Thursday, March 31, 2016

Remember is not a movie I'll be forgetting any time soon (film review)

If you live in Hong Kong, grab a 2016 HKIFF program 
and go check out a movie at the fest while you still can!

Remember (Canada-Germany, 2015)
- Screening as part of the HKIFF's Auteurs program
- Atom Egoyan, director
- Starring: Christopher Plummer, Martin Landau, Jürgen Prochnow

Too many times for my liking now, I've seen a movie begin brilliantly, only to disappoint by finishing weakly, undone by a plot unravelling too messily or looking like its filmmakers plain ran out of good ideas midway through.  All too rarely has it been the case that a film starts off steadily, even promisingly, and keeps on delivering surprise after surprise before producing such a dramatic climax that upon its conclusion, you're left gasping for breath, your heart pounding hard and fast, your throat dry and your hands sore from applauding the cinematic effort.

With respected veteran talent in its cast, it always was a pretty good bet that Atom Egoyan's Remember would be a well-acted film.  While those of us whose strongest memory of Christopher Plummer involves him portraying Captain Georg von Trapp in The Sound of Music may initially be shocked and distracted by seeing him as a frail, elderly man suffering from dementia, soon the thespian will have us viewing him only as Zev Guttman, a 90-year-old Auschwitz survivor intent on tracking down the concentration camp block commander responsible for the murders of his family members while he's still physically able to do so.

Two weeks after the death of his beloved wife Ruth, his fellow nursing home inmate and Auschwitz survivor, wheelchair-bound Max Rosenbaum (Martin Landau), sends Zev on his way to meet four men named John Kurlander living in different parts of North America.  One of this quartet, Max tells Zev, actually is Otto Wallisch, a Nazi masquerading as a Jewish concentration camp survivor.  And when Zev finds out which one he is, he is to shoot him (with a gun that Max directed him to buy, just as he directs Zev to do so much else with the aid of a letter with step-by-step instructions that Zev reads whenever he forgets -- which is often! -- what he's supposed to be doing).   

As Zev goes along his quest, one's feelings for him change from pity at how pathetic he seems to fear to how he will fare, and so on and so forth.  At the same time, the more he interacts with various individuals he encounters along the way (including a young boy on a long-distance train they both take as well as the Kurlanders), the more the film's viewers will see things and people from Zev's perspective -- so that many of our emotions we feel while beholding certain scenes will mirror his. 

Still, this is not entirely Zev's show (or that of the incredible actor who portrays him so poignantly), as those individuals that Remember's elderly protagonist ends up having extended discussions with -- among them a former soldier who fought with Rommel in North Africa, and a state trooper with far more intolerance and hate within him than his Everyman persona belies -- will leave indelible impressions in one's memory too.  Taken together, they also serve to emphasize that it really may not be a case of things being clearcut in terms of who's good and evil -- even when we're talking about people who served the Third Reich during the Second World War.

Since viewing this work, I've been surprised by the number of negative reviews of Remember I've found online.  Even worse are those writings, such as the film's Wikipedia entry, which contain unbelievably major spoilers about its story.  I'm so glad I went into the screening of this cinematic offering at the Hong Kong International Film Festival with so little prior knowledge that I even was shocked to discover from reading the closing credits who Martin Landau had played in the film (since he's another actor who played a favorite character of mine from childhood -- in his case, Space: 1999's Commander John Koenig -- and now is so much older than I had envisioned, and still able to disappear into a very different role!)!

While some critics consider Remember's plot too contrived and implausible, I found what ensued in this film to be believable and within the realms of possibility.  To my mind, Benjamin August's script also impressed in being far more nuanced and intriguing than one might expect upon reading that the work's a geriatric revenge tale.  Haunting as well as riveting, I have little doubt that this is one movie that I'll not be forgetting any time soon.  

My rating for this film: 10.0

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Intolerance is a lengthy, black and white silent movie worth spending a beautiful day indoors to watch! (film review)

Who'd go watch a 167-minute-long, black and white
silent film on a beautiful spring afternoon? ;)

- Screening as part of the HKIFF's Restored Classics program  
- D.W. Griffiths, director and co-writer 
- Starring: Constance Talmadge, Alfred Paget, Robert Harron, Mae Marsh, Frank Bennett, Margery Wilson, Howard Gaye, Lillian Gish, etc.

After taking a day off from viewing movies on Saturday, I returned to the Hong Kong Cultural Centre on the first blue sky Sunday in weeks to take in another Hong Kong International Film Festival offering.  Arriving, as is my wont, about 40 minutes before the screening, I was astounded to not be met with the usual line to get into the screening venue -- and upon getting into the Hong Kong Cultural Centre's Grand Theatre, found it to be the least filled I've ever seen for a show.  

A friend postulated that many of the people who had bought tickets to this screening of D.W. Griffith's Intolerance: Love's Struggle Throughout the Ages had decided, upon seeing how beautiful the day had turned out to be, that they'd rather be outdoors rather than inside a darkened auditorium watching a close to 3 hour length black and white silent movie made in 1916.  Doubtless some of those folks would have considered us fools for not having taken full advantage of a rare sunny spring day in Hong Kong.  In turn, I have to ask whether they knew what they were missing by not taking the chance to see this classic film restored to prime condition and playing on my favorite screen in the Big Lychee? 

The grandly ambitious response of D.W. Griffth to charges of racism and historical falsification levelled on his The Birth of a Nation, this mammoth production employs a cast of thousands to showcase humankind's intolerance along with struggles to love against the odds over the ages.  Intolerance: Love's Struggles Throughout the Ages focuses on four particular sections of world history and intercuts back and forth between -- rather than episodically narrate -- their parallel but different stories.

That which takes place in Babylon during the reign of Belshazzar depicts how the fate of what was then, in 539BC, the largest city in the world was sealed by a high priest's intolerance and jealousy of a rival god's popularity even while showing the adoration of The Mountain Girl (Constance Talmadge) for her ruler (Alfred Paget).  Along with a female character far feistier than women to be found in films made close to a century later, this section of the film has incredibly impressive scenes whose scale has to be seen to be believed!

The segment centring on the Messiah (Howard Gaye) seems more mythical than historical, particularly since Jesus of Nazareth is portrayed as the kind of individual who is much more admirable and charismatic than any genuine human should be.  The shortest of the four interwoven stories, its most evocative images involve Jesus on the road to Calvary.  Although I could see it appealing to Christians, I feel that it's liable to play into negative stereotypes of Jews for those who are apt to forget or overlook that the individual the Bible named as the son of God was actually born a Jew, as was his mother, disciples and other followers.

The third of the four stories which collectively cover more than 2000 years of history takes place in 16th century France and details how the hatred of Roman Catholic Catherine de Medici (Josephine Crowell), the scheming mother of King Charles IX (Frank Bennett), for the Protestant Huguenots led to the terrible events that came to be known as the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre.  The story whose tale of intolerance is most clearly shown, it depicts so much politicking going on in court that the love story between a female character known as Brown Eyes (Margery Wilson) and her swain (Eugene Pallette) doesn't come across as all that strong.

While the three other segments have conclusions that those who know their history already would know in advance, the story set in what was then the present day (i.e., circa 1916) is able to be suspenseful and perhaps also surprising.  Although it has by the far the weakest lead female character -- one referred to as The Dear One (Mae Marsh) but whom I found far from cute or all that lovely! -- it is very strong in its depiction of how working class lives can be threatened and ruined by the lack of understanding and empathy, and consequently intolerance, of those who should know better.

Watching this century old film, it's impossible to not come to the conclusion that its helmer possessed filmmaking skills that put the vast majority of filmmakers who've come after to him to shame.  And even while Intolerance: Love's Struggles Throughout the Ages actually reveal many of D.W. Griffith's prejudices, I also am perfectly willing to believe that he was just a man of his time in this regard; specifically one during which, lest we forget, much of the world actually was at war (even if the U.S.A. didn't enter the fray until one year after this historical epic was released for the first time).

My rating for this film: 8.0

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

E J-Yong's The Bacchus Lady is uncommonly mature and adult (film review)

The Bacchus Lady's poster hints at it 
being a dark offering

Director-writer E J-Yong was on hand for a 
brief Q&A after the film's HKIFF screening

The Bacchus Lady (South Korea, 2016)
- Part of the HKIFF's Galas program
- E J-Yong, director and scriptwriter
- Starring: Youn Yuh Jong, Yoon Kye Sang, Choi Hyun Jun, An A Zu 

As I made my way to attend the Asian premiere of E J-Yong's The Bacchus Lady, I received a text from a friend who had been at the same screening of Doctor Zhivago earlier that day as me.  In it, he expressed his happiness at being able to float on the cloud of enchantment that the experience of viewing the David Lean film had put him on for the rest of the evening since he wasn't attending another Hong Kong International Film Festival screening until at least the next day.  

Although I knew how he felt, I already had committed to checking out this other HKIFF offering which I knew would be quite different from David Lean's romantic epic; not least because it's a Category III-rated contemporary South Korean drama about a so-called Bacchus Lady -- elderly prostitutes who approach elderly men in public parks in Seoul and ask them if they wish to purchase a bottle of Bacchus energy drink -- by the director-scriptwriter whose filmography includes Untold Scandal, the Korean film adaptation of Les Liasons Dangereuses.   

Existing on the unglamorous -- and surprisingly multicultural -- fringes of South Korean society, 65-year-old So Young (Youn Yuh Jong) ekes out a living offering sexual services to men around her age or even older, many of them lonely -- rather than particularly randy -- widowers and retirees who get no love from their remaining family members, children and grandchildren alike.  Prone to catching gonorrhea from customers as well as needing to stay alert to avoid being arrested by the police, she and her fellow Bacchus Ladies nonetheless advertise their wares in broad daylight in public venues such as the park next to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Jongmyo Shrine.   

As scandalous as her life sounds, E J-Yong actually makes it look down-to-earth and quietly desperate.  Similarly, although So Young's neighbors have more unusual traits than most, The Bacchus Lady actually depicts one-legged figurine maker Do Hoon (Yoon Kye Sang) and transgender nightclub singer Tina (An A Zu) as acting much like regular folks who love a good feast and, even while given to slinging barbs at one another, often willing to be there to help out when called upon to do so.

Ironically, when trouble comes into So Young's life, it stems from impulsive acts of kindness on her part -- be they towards a "Kopino" boy (Choi Hyun Jun) whose Filipina mother is arrested by the police after she stabs her Korean doctor lover or elderly men who had been among So Young's regular customers before being beset by the kind of serious ailments that come with increased age; with the latter involving her turning from giver of sexual satisfaction to someone who helps to take lives!

Again, rather than play up these actions, E J-Yong opts to go for a nuanced depiction which  underscores how normal it can seem for people in certain unhappy situations to want to die rather than go on living.  Much more damning is The Bacchus Lady showing that these elderly souls' situations now look to be common, even widespread, in South Korea: the result not only of medical "developments" having prolonged life without necessarily improving, or even maintaining, its quality but also of socio-cultural changes having made it so that the elderly now tend to live alone rather than in extended households, as traditionally was the case.

Even though The Bacchus Lady is less than two hours long and moves along at a pace that one would associate more with seniors than younger folk, it manages to pack in commentary on a lot of variety of weighty issues, in ways that often are far from heavy-handed.  A mature, adult film in the very best sense, it benefits immensely from adept helming, and a bravura as well as brave performance by its veteran lead actress.

My rating for this film: 8.0

Monday, March 28, 2016

David Lean's Doctor Zhivago is one epic film that stands the test of time (film review)

It's the second week of the Hong Kong International
Film Festival but I've not even been to half of the
screenings that I've got tickets for yet! ;O

Doctor Zhivago (Britain-USA-Italy, 1965)
- Part of the HKIFF's Restored Classics program
- David Lean, director
- Starring: Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, Geraldine Chaplin, Rod Steiger, Alec Guiness

Looking back at my childhood in Penang, Malaysia, I've come to realize that I grew up in an era when going to watch movies in cinema was a regular as well as family affair. For although neither of my parents would consider themselves to be major film fans, my preteen memories include going to see Shaw Brothers actioners, Taiwanese weepies starring a certain Lin Ching Hsia before she acquired a Western name, and mammoth Hollywood epic such as Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago with them along with more conventional family fare like The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins

As might be expected, I can't remember every one of those films' plot detail.  But certain scenes have stayed lodged in my memory all these years -- and in the case of the two epic works directed by David Lean, the certainty that these were great works with grand scenes that are best appreciated on a truly big screen.  This view was confirmed when I saw Lawrence of Arabia at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre's Grand Theatre at the 38th Hong Kong International Film Festival two years ago.  Consequently, I knew I would be in for a great show when Doctor Zhivago screened at the same venue as part of this year's HKIFF.

Based on a novel by Nobel Prize-winning Russian writer Boris Pasternak which was refused publication in the USSR and consequently first published in 1957 in Italy, where the manuscript had been smuggled, this film adaptation begins with a Soviet general (Alec Guiness) searching for the daughter of his late poet half-brother, one of whose published works contains a poem about -- and a photo of -- the great love of his life.  A bumper 200 minutes in length, this epic work takes its sweet time to set the scene for its grand romance and not only introduces its audience to a large number of characters but leisurely lays out their backstories in substantial detail -- none more so, of course, than in the case of its titular protagonist.  

After his mother's death makes him an orphan, Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif) was taken into the family of friends of his mother and brought by them to Moscow, where he led a privileged life and was studying to be a doctor but also was already a published poet.  Although it looked for a time like his future had been mapped out already for him, with a place in high society awaiting him along with marriage to Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin), the lovely daughter of the noble family who had taken him in, Yuri's life is radically changed -- along with those of millions of his countryman and -women -- when Russia enters the First World War and, even more so, by the Russian Revolution.
 
While serving as an army doctor at the front, he befriends and falls for his nurse, Lara (Julie Christie), despite her being married and a mother to a young girl, and his also being married and the father of a young son.  Entreated by Lara to not make any moves they'll both regret, they part after their services are no longer required at the field hospital they had been working in.  But although Yuri faithfully returns to his family in Moscow, you just know that's not the last time he'll be seeing the bewitching Lara -- and not just because Lara's Theme plays so often in the movie that its romantic tune is one of the things about Doctor Zhivago that even a preteen viewer can never forget!

Two other elements of the film that I remembered all these years was that there were many snow scenes and a long train ride in grim conditions but often through incredibly beautiful scenery.  Seeing Doctor Zhivago more than three decades on, I realize how gorgeous many of the former scenes are and how truly epic that train journey is.  And, actually, "gorgeous" and "epic" could well describe this film as a whole.

At the end of the screening, I walked up to a friend and said, "Now that's what I call a movie!"  We both laughed, so giddy with joy did we feel at having watched a film that felt utterly momentous in scale yet infused with personal emotions at the same time.  Back in 1965, some of Doctor Zhivago's critics accused it of trivializing history.  Watching the movie in 2016, I think it actually made certain historical events in a distant foreign land relatable by showing their effects on people's lives even while showing that life goes on -- and people consequently can love -- even in adverse conditions.

My rating for this film: 9.5

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Wayne Wang's While the Women are Sleeping is a veritable snoozefest! (film review)

While the Women are Sleeping producer Yukie Kito
(on the left in the photo) with translator extraodinaire Joanna Lee

- Screening in the HKIFF's Gala Presentation program
- Wayne Wang, director
- Starring: Takeshi Kitano, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Shiori Katsuna, Aya Shimizu

More than once when viewing Hong Kong-born helmer Wayne Wang's Japanese language adaptation of one of Spanish novelist Javier Marias' short stories, I wondered how much had been lost in translation.  At the very least, after reading the English translation of the short story (published in a 2009 issue of the New Yorker), I'm inclined to conclude that scriptwriters Michael Ray, Lee Shin Ho and Mami Sunada moved to make certain elements of the tale more mysterious and hard to fathom as well as sought to flesh out the short story so that there's sufficient content for a full length feature film.

Like its written source, the cinematic version of While the Women are Sleeping tells the story of a hotel guest who is a writer who becomes uncommonly intrigued, obsessed even, with a physically attractive teenaged female and her decades older male companion who, age-wise, could be her father but turns out not to be -- and is revealed to have a puzzling tendency to film the nubile lass while she is sound asleep.  

However, the movie's transposes the story to Japan; with the bulk of this psychological drama being set in a luxurious beach resort on the Izu Peninsula.  Additionally, more so than in the written story, a considerable bulk of the film does take place when the young woman, Miki (Shiori Katsuna), and the writer's editor wife, Aya (Sayuri Oyamada), are sleeping but the film's two main male characters, Miki's male companion Sawara (Takeshi Kitano) and novelist Kenji (Hidetoshi Nishijima) are awake.

While sunning themselves by the hotel pool one day, Aya and Kenji notice the odd couple that is Miki and Sawara.  Although Aya it was whose attention was initially caught by the pair, it's Kenji who becomes so interested in figuring them out that he effectively becomes a voyeur who does such as resort to tailing them as they walk around in town, and goes and peeks through their window to see what's happening in their hotel room in the middle of the night.

Although this set-up promises to fascinate, the glacial pace and tone that Wayne Wang has opted to give While the Women are Sleeping sent more than one of the viewers at its Hong Kong International Film Festival screening in the cavernous Hong Kong Cultural Centre to sleep!  And I have to admit that having been among those who dozed off a couple a times during the screening!  

In the same spirit of honesty: I don't think it was only my having missed a few minutes of the movie while I was sleeping that made the surprisingly un-erotic work appear disjointed at times.  Rather, I blame the problematic editing and the directorial decision to belatedly show that certain scenes which initially play out like the other "real" ones were just dreamnt up or imagined by Kenji.  And while the idea behind the latter's inclusion may have been to help make the overall story more absorbing, my feeling is that it just made plot developments and sub-plots more confusing, murky and, well, boring than they really should and ought to have been.  

My rating for the film: 4.5

Friday, March 25, 2016

Herman Yau gets political as well as Category III with The Mobfathers (film review)

A large number of cast members turned up for the world premiere
 of The Mobfathers at the Hong Kong International Film Festival!
 
Among those who said a few words before the screening
were stars Anthony Wong Chau Sang and Chapman To
 
The Mobfathers (Hong Kong, 2016)
- Screening as part of the HKIFF's Hong Kong Panorama 2015-16 program
- Herman Yau, director
- Starring: Chapman To, Anthony Wong Chau Sang, Gregory Wong, Philip Keung
 
After the disaster that was Nessun Dorma the previous evening, I wondered what I was getting into by going to watch a second Herman Yau movie in two days.  And my trepidation increased upon discovering that not only was the film's director again not being present for its world premiere but that the also Category III-rated The Mobfathers shared the same principal scriptwriter (Erica Li), cinematographer (Joe Chan), editor (Azrael Chung) and music composer (Mak Chun Hung, AKA Brother Hung) as the exploitation flick!
 
Things began looked up though when lead actor-producer Chapman To read a long message from director Yau to the audience; one that referenced Hong Kong's current political situation (which has seen the likes of To and fellow cast member Anthony Wong Chau Sang put on a Mainland Chinese blacklist of Umbrella Movement supporters) and discussed how it had informed certain of the plotlines of this triad drama which, like Johnnie To's Election (2005), sees gangsters bidding to win a contest for a top underworld position that is voting upon.  
 
The distinct feeling that this HK Film Company offering is closer to Yau's heart is matched, if not surpassed, by the sense that for many of the crew and cast, this being a Hong Kong film rather than co-production with Mainland China allowed as well as compelled them to do much more than they otherwise could or would.  Among other things, the squeamish should take note that the violence shown is of the kind that can cause such as the woman seated to my left at the screening to turn away from the screen in horror and curl up in a fetal position!  In addition, there are a number of lines as well as visuals that surely would not pass the Mainland Chinese censors.
 
Never one to shy away from controversy, Chapman To puts in a full-blooded performance in The Mobfather as Chat (Seven in the Chinese subtitles; Chuck in the English ones!), a gangster in the thick of a bloody battle when his ex-model wife (Bonnie Xian) finds out that she's pregnant, and encarcerated at Stanley Prison for the first five years of his young son's life.  The first night out of jail, he has sex with a fortune-telling seductress who fills him with ambition to become his gang's power-wielding Dragon Head. 
 
In order to turn his dream into reality, Chat first has to win the approval of the Godfather (a menacingly growly-voiced Anthony Wong Chau Sang) and his elderly cohort of Uncles who determine who are the nominees for the contest.  Actually, while he was in prison, they already had decided that this year's nominees would be Luke (Philip Keung), Chat's lieutanant and the fellow who had looked after his family as well as his men while Chat was in prison, and Wulf (Gregory Wong), a pretty boy police informant turned genuine gangster.  But after Luke readily agrees to step down in favor of Chat, who had saved his life in the same fight that had resulted in Chat going to jail, the path is cleared for Chat to directly compete with Wulf for the Dragon Head position.
 
Initially, Chat seeks to make an impression and gain favors in traditional ways such as showing his fight prowess and bribery.  But what with his being a colorful Chapman To character, less orthodox ways to win votes also end up getting enacted.  In addition, with this entertaining entertainment personality in the equation, you just know that there's going to be some funny scenes in the movie.
 
For all the comedy, family scenes and political references that get thrown into the mix though, there's no question that The Mobfathers is first and foremost a triad drama.  Still, rather than glorify the gangsters, it shows how rotten the underworld is -- albeit while also pointing out that there is the rare triad fellow with a conscience and heart, and that the "good guys" are definitely not as clean as we would want for them to be either.
 
My rating for this film: 7.5

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Herman Yau's Nessun Dorma is less shocking than it's schlocky (film review)

From left to right: Andy Hui, Janice Man and 
Gordon Lam Ka Tung star in Nessun Dorma

Cast members present at the film's world premiere, 
flanked by producer Paco Wong and scriptwriter Erica Li 

Nessun Dorma (Hong Kong-Mainland China, 2016)
- Screening as part of the HKIFF's Galas program
- Herman Yau, director
- Starring: Andy Hui, Janice Man, Gordon Lam Ka Tung

The day after attending Trivisa's Asian premiere at the Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF), I was back at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre's 1,734-seat Grand Theatre for the world premiere of another Hong Kong movie whose "English" title isn't all that English sounding!  As it so happens, Nessun Dorma also stars Gordon Lam Ka Tung, who had been seriously excellent in the cinematic offering I had viewed on the opening day of the film fest.  

And the character actor turned leading man again appeared on stage before the film's screening along with his fellow cast members -- along with scriptwriter Erica Li and producer Paco Wong -- to say a few words to the expectant audience, who cheered particularly loudly after it was announced that the version of the movie being screened that evening was an uncut Category III version that would be more complete than that which will be screened during the film's upcoming theatrical run. 

Directed by Herman Yau (the 2008 HKIFF's filmmaker-in-focus), Nessun Dorma purports to be a psychological thriller but ends up playing more like a exploitation film, with scenes that involve people being tied up and tortured (either psychologically or physically), rape and bloodshed.  At the same time though, while its scenes of sex and violence may trouble in theory, they're often enacted and shot in ways that diminish their impact -- at least for this viewer who may have become hard to disturb after having seen her share of over-sexed characters and ultraviolent scenes over the years -- and make the movie more schlocky than shocking.  

After an innocuous opening scene in a hospital, the film goes back in time to when the patient shown lying unconscious on a bed was attending a performance of Puccini's Turandot and being moved to tears by the opera's Nessun Dorma aria.  Young and seemingly pretty innocent, Jasmine (Janice Man) is engaged to shady businessman Vincent Lee (Gordon Lam Ka Tung) but seems to care far more for the dogs in the pet shelter she runs than her randy fiancé, who has a lot of sex before marriage but not with her.
    
On the way home from the opera, Vincent announces that he's actually going to stay out, saying he's got some work to get done that evening.  For her part, after getting dropped off at their apartment complex, Jasmine finds an envelope from a friend (Andy Hui) waiting for her and decides to head out to his modest abode rather than upstairs.  

As it soon becomes apparent, Jasmine and this other man have stronger feelings for each other than she has for the rich fellow she's engaged to.  But rather than be satisfied to spice things up with a love triangle, the filmmakers opt to make the story far more dramatic by having Jasmine run into major trouble on her journey home.  Sadly (for the film's audience), the plot "development" that they went for effectively derails the movie by, among other things, involving several improbable actions and requiring a far better actress to make Jasmine's behavior understandable and sympathetic than Janice Man. 

To be fair to Nessun Dorma's lead actress: I think that scriptwriter Erica Li should shoulder part of the blame for the film's main female character being so weak and pathetic.  In all honesty, I'm pretty shocked that a female scriptwriter could create such a feeble female character.  And my sense of betrayal further deepened upon finding out that despite Jasmine featuring in the bulk of the movie's scenes, it's actually a male character who turns out to be its emotional heart.   

My rating for this film: 4.0

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Trivisa shows what delusion, desire and fury can lead to (film review)

Two of the stars, all three of the directors and one of the producers
of Trivisa attended its Asian premiere at the
Hong Kong International Film Festival last night

Close-up shot of Gordon Lam Ka Tung (on the left)
and Richie Jen (on the right)

Trivisa (Hong Kong-Mainland China, 2016)
- Screening as part of the HKIFF's Galas program
- Frank Hui, Jevons Au and Vicky Wong, directors
- Starring: Richie Jen, Gordon Lam Ka Tung, Jordan Chan

Until I saw him on stage before the screening of Trivisa at the 40th edition of the Hong Kong International Film Festival yesterday evening, I hadn't realized that co-director Vicky Wong is actually male (rather than female).  And until I read reviews of the crime drama -- which had its world premiere at this year's Berlinale -- by those who I assume had been provided with publicity and explanatory notes for the film, I didn't know that its English title alludes to the Buddhist notion of "three poisons" (delusion, desire and fury) leading to suffering. 

Equipped with this knowledge, the viewer can read this Milkyway Image production's implicit, damning message as being that those three toxic emotions have led to Hong Kong being in a less happy position -- particularly in relation to Mainland China -- since July 1, 1997.  Without it, the evocative historical footage that bookends the main body of this cinematic offering which is set in the years and months prior to Hong Kong's Handover can seem incongruous, or quite a bit of a stretch at giving deep political meaning to the at times laughable actions of three very different major underworld figures that, regardless, are very intriguing to watch.

After killing a couple of cops who had stopped him for a random identity card check, Kwai Ching Hung (a menacing Gordon Lam Ka Tung) vanishes off the police radar by assuming the identity of the kind of innocuous fellow you'd fully believe is making a modest living by selling mobile phones.  Meanwhile, fellow "king of thieves", Yip Kwok Foon (Richie Jen), really has given up his machine gun-toting ways to become a "petit bourgoise" businessman hawking such as TV sets and VCD players in Mainland China, albeit with the help of corrupt officials who look the other way so that he and his men can smuggle those electronic wares from Hong Kong over across the border.

In contrast, the flamboyant-acting and -dressing Cheuk Tze Keung (Jordan Chan) thinks nothing of commiting major crimes, including kidnapping a tycoon's son, and openly defying the police; buoyed by the belief that the people he deals with will be too afraid of the consequences to press charges.  But while these three men appear to have very little in common, Cheuk is convinced that if they were to work together, they'd pull of a criminal act for the ages -- and consequently seeks to get in touch with Kwai and Yip, improbably by setting up a phone hotline of sorts and offering lots of money to people to provide him with information as to their whereabouts!

With each of the alternately intriguing, intense and absurdist film's three directors being responsible for telling the story of just one protagonist each, it probably would have worked -- and more easily -- if the three individually interesting tales were told in three separate episodes; and this especially since they also each had different scriptwriters, cinematographers, etc.  Instead, the makers of Trivisa have made them sub-plots in one larger, more ambitious narrative -- and their having ended up fitting so well together to make one mesmerizing whole is a tribute to the filmmaking abilities of not only its three helmers (two of whose first feature film Trivisa is -- and one of whom, Ten Years' Jevons Au, is receiving just his second directorial billing) but also the work's producers (Johnnie To and Yau Nai Hoi) and editors (Allen Leung and David Richardson).

Full of Milkyway Image regulars behind and in front of the camera, Trivisa falls squarely into the Milkway Image crime film oeuvre even while managing to avoid having the stylistic tics that can make certain Johnnie To- and Wai Kai Fai-helmed works feel unnecessarily over the top.  Wonderfully replete with faces that will be familiar to fans of Milkyway Image and other Hong Kong crime movies, this emotionally powerful movie also has provided Jordan Chan with his best film role since the Young and Dangerous series' Chicken, and benefits from another improbably steely performance by singer-actor Richie Jen and spellbinding acting by the increasingly influential Gordon Lam Ka Tung. 

My rating for this film: 8.5

Monday, March 21, 2016

Scenic views and cool critter spottings on an alternative hike route from Wan Chai Gap to Wong Nai Chung Gap (Photo-essay)

Among my favorite hiking routes is that which takes one from Wan Chai Gap to Wong Nai Chung Gap along Stage 4 of the Hong Kong Trail.  One beautiful Sunday afternoon however, a friend and I elected to vary things a little by first going down from Wan Chai Gap to the Aberdeen Upper Reservoir, then going along Lady Clementi's Ride before meeting up with the Hong Kong Trail and going along it for a kilometer or so eastwards to Wong Nai Chung Gap.

Although there was a bit of groaning from both of us when ascending a steep flight of vertical steps connecting Lady Clementi's Ride to the Hong Kong Trail, we generally were pretty happy with that day's chosen hike route.  For one thing, it's always pretty cool to go along a trail one had not been on before; this not least since this often results in one getting views from angles one wasn't previously familiarly with.  For another, this turned out to be another of those Hong Kong Island hikes where one's able to appreciate Hong Kong's biodiversity; notably by way of our spotting a large snake swimming in a catchwater and a beautiful skink hanging out in the same area! ;b

  What Hong Kong reservoir doesn't have a tortoise 
(or more) that calls it home? ;b

 The southern side of Hong Kong Island doesn't get photographed
as often as the north side even though it's quite attractive too

No, there aren't any critters in the above picture -- 
I just like the play of light and shadows on the water! :)

A view of Shoushon Hill and beyond from Lady Clementi's Ride,
and a lower elevation than I normally am used to seeing it

Especially after having seen more than one snake in a catchwater,
I really don't want to fall into these large, deep drains!

It's amazing to think now that before coming to Hong Kong,
I wasn't aware of the existence of such creatures as skinks! ;b

Golf fans will disagree but I often think "what a waste of space"
when I see golf courses, especially those in scenic areas :S

 
Don't the Ocean Park cable cars look like 
bubbles from a distance?

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Hello Kitty and friends :)

No, your eyes are not deceiving you! ;)

Yep, that's one majorly Hello Kitty-fied motorbike! :D

"Every time I see Hello Kitty, I think of you."  This is something I've been told more than once -- and, in fact, was told this by two different friends this past week alone!  

Seeing as I appear to be so strongly associated with the kawaii feline character, I feel remiss about not having put up a photo containing her visage in over the year (though, in mitigation, I have mentioned Kitty Chan in blog posts as recently as last month and the month before that).  So here's sharing a couple of photos of an amazingly Hello Kitty-fied motorcycle that I happened to come across while walking about in Hong Kong one evening!

Lest there be any doubt: my Hello Kitty radar is still very much working -- in that I do appear to be able to notice objects with Kitty Chan's face more frequently and quickly than most other people.  Also, I'm still attracting Hello Kitty items -- in that quite a few of my friends appear unable to resist getting me a variety of Hello Kitty-themed objects, including plushies but also such as note pads, lip balm, mobile phone straps and even an eye mask!

Of course, I too have been known to gift Hello Kitty-themed items to friends (as well as family members, including my young nieces who I'm happy to learn have learnt to adore her).  I'm sure Kitty Chan would thoroughly approve.  After all, long ago, I learnt that one of her more famous mottos is "You can never have too many friends" and I'm sure she'd think it a good thing to have her visage on more than one token of friendship. ;b

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Not your usual Victoria Harbour sights on a super foggy day!

Cloud city, Hong Kong!
 
Fog rolling in from Victoria Harbour to partially obscure
sections of some of the buildings next to it
 
"I don't want a sea view."  When I told property agents this years ago when I was looking for a flat to move into, they often looked surprised or assumed that what I was implicitly saying was that I wanted cheaper options (since views of Victoria Harbour and/or its neighboring bodies of water are premium flat features in the eyes of many Hong Kongers).  
 
Actually though, as I explained to those who asked why this was so, this was because I had experienced too many days with air so polluted that one couldn't see across to the other side of Victoria Harbour.  And, in all honesty, I could imagine that sight depressing me so much that I'd not want to leave my apartment, or even the bed, if I were to come across it first thing in the morning! 
 
Put another way: one of the few things I really dislike about Hong Kong is the air pollution that makes me unable to take beautifully high visibility days for granted.  And when I saw such as the top of the International Commercial Centre look like it was floating in midair and heard the sound of multiple foghorns blasting away when I was walking near the Central Ferry Piers this afternoon, my initial reaction was to fear that I was breathing super polluted air once more.
 
Upon looking closer though, I realized that the low visibility actually was being caused by low-lying clouds rolling in from Victoria Harbour onto the land on both sides of it.  And while I have to say that I wouldn't have felt that good if I had been on a ferry or another boat sailing in the harbor or the waters surrounding it that afternoon, I -- who had her feet firmly on shore -- did indeed feel able to breathe a sigh of relief as well as enjoy the pretty unusual foggy sights! ;b  

Friday, March 18, 2016

A spring day hike from Lau Shui Heung to Fung Yuen via Sha Lo Tung (Photo-essay)

Earlier today, I emailed my hiking buddies to cancel our hike plans for this Sunday because the fog and rain we've been having for much of this week (and the week before) looks set to continue for a time.  Put another way: spring -- with its attendant high humidity and unstable weather conditions -- has arrived in Hong Kong!

Although I've been known to go out hiking on rainy afternoons, I definitely prefer to tramp about in drier conditions; with the ideal being those days with beautiful blue skies, and super high visibility too.  On such occasions, one not only yearns to be outdoors but feels able as well as willing to tackle longer distances.  

As an example: on a previous spring day with such optimal conditions, my pedometer registered my having walked over 18,000 steps -- the bulk of which took place on a scenic trek that took two friends and I from Lau Shui Heung down to Fung Yuen via Sha Lo Tung.  And, of course, if there are interesting bugs to spot and take photos of along the way, so much the better! ;b

Believe it or not, the hills in the background and also the buildings 
in the distance actually are over in Mainland China! 

 Looking down on the Hok Tau Irrigation Reservoir 

 
Thanks to a Society of Hong Kong Nature Explorers bug book, 
I now know this is a Handmaiden moth (Syntomoides imaon)! :)

Maybe I'll get a caterpillar book some day but for now,
I'll contend myself with thinking this a colorful creepy-crawly! ;)

A pretty Peacock Pansy spotted in the vicinity of Sha Lo Tung

I, for one, sincerely hope not

Cloudy Hill wasn't that cloudy looking that day for a change ;)

Instead, it was Tai Mo Shan whose top was obscured by clouds!

Thursday, March 17, 2016

After dark in Hong Kong's Central District

Night time view of one of the HSBC lions and the area around it

 Don't these entrances to the Old Bank of China Building
look enticing?

but it's still a very impressive local landmark

"None of you live anywhere on the map!"  That was what an American friend who relied on a tourist map while visiting Hong Kong exclaimed when two of our mutual friends who live here and I told him where we actually reside.  (And for the record: it's not as if we're living out in the boonies either!)

On a related note: when an American acquintance who was thinking of moving to the Big Lychee asked me how different living in Hong Kong was compared to visiting it, I told him that most Hong Kongers live and work in those parts of the Big Lychee which don't appear in detail on the tourist maps given to, and used by, tourists visiting this part of the worldA case in point: the Central District may be so called -- and appears to be, well, pretty central on Hong Kong maps -- but a fair amount of the local populace of Hong Kong doesn't work, live or play there.  

But while I -- who nonetheless do reside in a pretty high density part of the Big Lychee -- neither work nor live there, it's true enough that my favorite sake bar is located in that area along with a few eateries.  Consequently, I am occasionally in the area after dark -- and after dinner on one of those evenings, I decided to stroll around and take some pictures which, I think, show a different view of the area from the usual ones that are seen and photographed: after which my conclusion is that after dark, certain familiar landmarks can look more attractive and enticing even while others look more intimidatingly impressive.  

At the same time, I was struck once more by how safe (as in crime free) it felt to stroll about the streets of Hong Kong's Central District -- and beyond -- late at night.  And after having lived in parts of the world where this is not the case (e.g., Philadelphia, where I rarely ventured out at night by myself), I truly can appreciate how wonderful this is! :)

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

More than just visual delights at the Hong Kong Flower Show

They may not look like much but Osmanthus flowers 
smell ever so lovely :)
 
 With Iron Cross Begonias, it's their leaves 
which are most eye-catching
 
I looooved how these Lamb's Ears felt to the touch;b
 
I've been a big fan of the Kadoorie Farm & Botanical Garden ever since I first visited the 148 hectare facility located on the northern slopes of Tai Mo Shan on a beautiful blue sky day back in 2011.  While my two friends' and my main concern on that occasion was to hike up the 546-meter-high Kwun Yam Shan located within its grounds and also check out a memorial pavilion located over 600 meters above sea level, we still came away with an appreciation of it as a place where one could get up close to a wide variety of cultivated and wild flora and fauna. 
 
Despite this New Territories facility being accessible by public transport, there are many people who think a trip to its expansive site is not worth the bother.  So it's good to see the Kadoorie Farm & Botanical Garden folks doing such as having a booth at the Hong Kong Flower Show held at Victoria Park each year.  And, as it so happens, the education and conservation center's exhibit was my favorite one at the floral extravaganza this year!

While most of the other displays looked to focus on catching the eye, the Kadoorie Farm and Botanical Garden's served up reminders that we can -- and should -- make use of others of our five senses to enjoy what's on offer.  For one thing, guides were on hand at the booth to verbally communicate with visitors (though those who preferred to get their information by reading text also were catered to).  More unusually, visitors were encouraged to touch the plants on display and smell the flowers on show in the area.   
 
If truth be told, if I hadn't been told that it was okay to touch them, I wouldn't have dared to touch the leaves of the Iron Cross Begonias -- which looked spiky enough to draw blood but actually turned out to feel rough but not all that sharp.  And after I touched the Lambs' Ears, I'm not sure how I managed to wrest my hands away from them -- because they were so wonderfully soft that, if I closed my eyes, I could easily have thought that I was stroking a cat's paw or silky suede plushie!  
 
On the other hand, I tend to not need all that much encouragement to put my nose close to flowers and sniff -- this even after I've read more than one story of someone getting stung by a bee while doing so!  And although such as the roses at the Kadoorie Farm and Botanical Garden's booth smelled lovely, nothing could beat the sweet scent of the Osmanthus flowers that were blooming in another part of Victoria Park that day.   

Years before I moved to Hong Kong, I learnt of the existence of Osmanthus flowers from watching 1987 Taiwanese drama Osmanthus Alley.  But it's only after moving to the Big Lychee that I found out what those blooms smell like -- and also how good Osmanthus jelly desserts are!  (And yes, I don't need to be told that certain flowers taste good since I've long loved rose syrup drinks, chrysanthemum tea and eldeflower wine, among other things! ;b)