Sunday, April 22, 2018

Enjoying kaito rides in different parts of Hong Kong

An idyllic kaito ride in Hong Kong

The kind of scenic views to be had while riding a kaito 
Rural Hong Kong can feel like a world away from urban Hong Kong :)
Just as many visitors to Hong Kong don't realize that there are more ferries in the Big Lychee than just the Star Ferry, many of those folks who live in Hong Kong but don't venture out much beyond the sections of the city covered in tourist maps aren't aware of the existence of kaito which usually serve the more remote parts of the territory.  
This seems a great pity to me because, apart from being the only mode of transportation to some of the most scenic locales around (e.g., Hong Kong's southernmost island of Po Toi, and also the similarly named -- but actually pretty far apart from each other -- Tung Lung Chau and Tung Ping Chau), leisure rides of these small vessels, whose at least partially-open-to-the-elements top decks are great spaces for catching breezes as well as drinking in the passing scenery, can be such a pleasure on days of beautiful weather.
There have been occasions when I've been inclined to consider the short kaito ride from Chek Keng over to Wong Shek Pier to be the highlight of a day which also invariably included a hike through a scenic part of the Sai Kung Peninsula.  I also think highly of the kaito rides to be had between the Chi Ma Wan Peninsula (where I've gone for beach clean-ups as well also to do some hiking) and Mui Wo, and enjoy those between Aberdeen and Ap Lei Chau even though they last just a few minutes.
Each additional time that I've been on it though, I've come away thinking that the kaito ride from Sham Chung to Wong Shek Pier is my favorite of the kaito rides still on offer in Hong Kong.  Lengthier than my other favorites, especially when the tide is strong and going against this vessel whose motorized engines can seem to be not particularly super horsepowered, the best thing going for it is that it takes one through parts of Hong Kong that one otherwise would not be privy to if one doesn't own one's own private boat!
If one is so inclined, one can stop off -- or pick the boat up -- at Lai Chi Chong, Tap Mun, Ko Lau Wan or Chek Keng on the way from Sham Chung to Wong Shek Pier.  Actually, one could even board the kaito over at the pier at its starting point over at Ma Liu Shiu, close to the Chinese University of Hong Kong.  Thus far, I have yet to do so but maybe one day before too long, when all I want to do is take a scenic kaito ride just for the hell of it -- as opposed to hike and then ride back to "civilization" -- I will! ;b    

Friday, April 20, 2018

Announcing the end of an era at Arsenal Football Club and sharing hopes for way better days to come!

The old Arsenal crest I way prefer to the current one

For most of this blog's existence, I had included a "Gooner since 1978" line in my "About Me" profile.  A year or so ago though, I deleted it as a statement of how I had ceased to look forward to watching The Arsenal "live" on TV (since, for much of my life, I've not lived on the same continent, never mind in the same country as the football team/club I've supported for the better part of my life) and decided to stop doing so after realizing that it often was causing me a lot more stress and anguish than much of the rest of my life.

While my frustration and ire during matches were often caused by the actions of individual players, I got to realizing with each passing year that the bulk of my agony and anger in recent years stemmed from the actions, policies and ideas of the manager of Arsenal Football Club since October 1st, 1996: one Arsene Wenger, whose reign had initially brought Arsenal F.C. so much success and fans like myself so much joy.  So it was great delight, even euphoria, that I learnt earlier today that Arsene Wenger will resign from the post that he's held for close to 22 years now at the end of this season

Here's the thing: Arsene Wenger did Arsenal a lot of good in the first decade or so that he's been at the club.  (We're talking here of double-winning seasons in 1997-1998 and 2001-2002, and a whole entire season unbeaten in the English Premier League in 2003-2004, among other things!)  But he also looks to have done much damage to the club in the past decade or so -- with Arsenal's Arsene Wenger-instigated move from Highbury to the Emirates Stadium not having yielded the footballing dividends it was supposed to even after all these years, and a change of football tactics and player recruitment effected to give Arsenal greater European success not only not having yielded success in Europe but also causing the team to fare less well against domestic opposition.

Between the FA Cup wins of 2005 and 2014 were frustratingly fallow years where Arsenal not only didn't win any trophies but gradually ceased to play with the élan we had come to expect of teams managed by Le Boss.  And while Arsene Wenger did manage Arsenal teams to FA Cup victories in 2015 and 2017, he really should have gone after winning the FA Cup in 2014 -- and I reckon that if he had done so, he really would have been looked upon far more fondly by Gooners than he has been for the past four years.

As it is, it can feel like people's respect and affection for Arsene Wenger have increased exponentially in the hours since he announced his impending resignation; not least because they can finally see light at the end of the tunnel for a team and club that they follow, and may passionately love once more with a new man at the helm rather than what has felt for some time now like a dead man walking.  For my part, I want to say to him: thanks for some really great memories but I now look forward to a brand new era at Arsenal Football Club, and sincerely hope that it'll bring far more success to the Emirates Stadium than Arsene Wenger has managed to do.         

Thursday, April 19, 2018

From Pak Sha O to Sham Chung one fine spring day (Photo-essay)

I know people for whom spring is their favorite season of the year.  None of these people live in Hong Kong though -- and given how short and unpredictable weather-wise the season is here, and also how it invariably gives way to a long, super hot and humid summer, I reckon there are solid reasons why this is so.  

Every so often, however, we get a fine spring day: with bright blue skies, high visibility levels, temperatures that are cool or warm (rather than uncomfortably cold or deathly hot) and humidity levels that are acceptable (in that you won't feel like you've been rained on after walking outdoors for about 10 minutes).  Throw in the prospect of cool critter spottings galore and that's a pretty ideal hiking day as far as I'm concerned! 

And it was on one such bonus of a spring day, a friend and I took advantage of the pleasant weather conditions to repeat a Sai Kung Peninsula hike I've done a few times before and really enjoyed.  Going from the still occupied village of Pak Sha O over to the largely abandoned village of Sham Chung (where kaito still stop to pick up as well as drop off passengers), we passed scenic countryside -- and, yes, did catch sight of a number of pretty interesting bugs... ;b

 Cultivated fields at Pak Shao O 
(Yes, there still are farmers in Hong Kong!)

Not the usual pose that I see dragonflies in :)
Light reflections on stream water
A spidery predator and its butterfly victim :O

A rugged section of hiking trail
The kind of view worth scrambling uphill to see --
especially when it reveals that our destination is within sight :b 
previous Sham Chung excursion, I never imagined (never mind knew) 
this type of creature existed until I caught sight at it mid hike! :O
Our hike's end: a beautiful place which a lack of vehicular
access has thus far managed to keep pretty idyllic :)

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Last Recipe touches the heart as well as whets appetites (film review)

The Hong Kong poster for Japanese film
Rasuto Reshipi: Kirin no Shita no Kioku 

The Last Recipe (Japan, 2017)
- Yojiro Takita, director
- Starring: Kazunari Ninomiya, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Yoshi Oida, Wakato Kanematsu, Aoi Miyazaki, Go Ayano

After I viewed Yojiro Takita's Oscar-winning Departures some years ago, I found myself filled with a desire to try a delicacy I saw being prepared in the movie -- which I later discovered to be fugu shirako.  Put another way: despite it being a drama about a cellist turned undertaker, I came away from a viewing of that sublime movie wanting to eat blowfish sperm!  

So when I learnt of the same filmmaker's latest offering being a drama revolving around a gifted chef able to re-create any dish he's tasted even just once, I figured that The Last Recipe would be the kind of movie that would be filled with lots of appetizing food scenes and get me hurrying off to a restaurant post-viewing even if I went into the screening with a full stomach!  And so it proved, and quite a bit  more.

After his extreme perfectionism causes his foray into the restaurant business to fail, Mitsuru Sasaki (pop idol-actor Kazunari Ninomiya) turns to personally cooking up meals for people, including those on their deathbeds, who are able and willing to pay 1 million Yen for the privilege.  Willing to travel anywhere to do so, he goes to Beijing after being offered 3 million Yen -- only to encounter an elderly man named Yang Qingming (Yoshi Oida) who tasks Mitsuru with finding the recipes for, and recreating, an over 100 dish legendary Great Japanese Imperial Feast concocted in 1930s Japanese-ruled Manchukuo by a former Japanese Imperial Household chef named Naotoro Yamagata (Hidetoshi Nishijima). 

The assignment leads Mitsuru to different parts of Japan and also over to Harbin, China, where he meets with various individuals with ties to Naotoro Yamagata.  As they take it in turn to relate key information about the chef celebrated for being able, like Mitsuru, to re-create any dish he had tasted, the chef turned sleuth gets to realizing that the ethnic Manchu Yang Qingming (played as a young man by Yoshi Oida) was one of Naotoro's two assistants in Manchukuo and that there are important secrets that he's being used to unearth, some of them unsavory.

In an interesting departure from convention, The Last Recipe's nominal main character may actually be its least sympathetic for much of the film.  Perhaps due in part to this, its contemporary scenes initially are much less absorbing than those set in 1930s Manchukuo, which not only feature a number of compelling characters -- including Naotoro's wife, Chizu (Aoi Miyazaki), and young Japanese assistant, Shotaro (Daigo Nishihata) as well as Naotoro and the young Yang Qingming -- but also the bulk of the movie's seriously food porn-ish cooking and dining scenes.

It's also interesting to note that a good bulk of this film is set in a place that may have been a Japanese puppet state but really was much more culturally and geographically Chinese.  And while there may be fears that its filmmakers are not sensitive of the fact (due to such as a key Chinese character being portrayed by Japanese actors), their turning out to actually be is one of the things that makes The Last Recipe genuinely moving as well as appealingly bittersweet.

My rating for the film: 8.0

Sunday, April 15, 2018

A threat of drought in Hong Kong's future?

The water level is so low at Tai Tam Upper Reservoir
that it's off the scale! :O

Even more eye-opening is how people can walk on dry land
that's usually underwater over at Aberdeen Lower Reservoir! 
In recent months, I've been hearing from various friends about how the weather has been on the weird side in their parts of the world; with those living in various parts of Japan, London, New York and even Chicago complaining about how they've been getting much more snow than usual.  In turn, I've reported about how we've been having unusual weather in Hong Kong too; with it having been a good deal drier this spring as well as recent winter than I'm used to.        
There are those who'd argue that I shouldn't complain about getting finer weather than usual -- and it's true enough that I've felt rather blessed at times by how many sunny days of (relatively) low humidity Hong Kong has had thus far this calendar year.  But while out hiking in the likes of Aberdeen Country Park and Tai Tam Country Park in recent months, I've been shocked to discover how low the water levels of the reservoirs within those country parks have got -- and reckon that this is something people should be concerned about.
If Hong Kong were still largely reliant on the reservoirs for its water supply, then we would be in deep doo-doo.  Even so, there is a sense that something's seriously wrong when one sees how low the water levels are at the likes of Tai Tam Upper Reservoir -- and also how dirty brown-looking the water there has become.  
So low have the water levels gotten in such as Aberdeen Lower Reservoir that sizable sections of dry bed have now been exposed -- which people have taken to feeling that they can safely as well as casually walk onto!  When doing so, it still feels rather novel -- and I hope that this remains the case.  Put another way: It surely would not bode well for Hong Kong if one of the consequences of climate change is for there to be drought in this part of the world since, among other things, it's not as though the territory is getting water from places so far away that they won't be similarly affected like the Big Lychee!     

Saturday, April 14, 2018

A rare as well as seasonal sighting of a flowering Birdwood's Mucuna! :)

Birdwood's Mucuna buds and flowers
The kind of sight that makes admiring
nature lovers stop and stare :) 
With the blossoms turning brown-black after just a few hours,
the white flowers really are a pretty rare sight!
As pretty much every Hong Konger as well as Japanese person appears to know, it's currently sakura season in the Land of the Rising Sun.  And around this time of the year, especially over the Easter holidays, it can feel like half, it not more, of Hong Kong is over in Japan taking photos of cherry blossoms (and sharing them on Facebook -- which I finally joined a little more than a year ago).
As yet, however, I've not seen a single photo shared on that social media platform of flowering Birdwood's Mucuna, a large vine native to Hong Kong whose flowering season takes place around the Ching Ming festival (which tends to fall close to Easter every year) -- and whose buds as well as blossoms can present quite the sight, should you be fortunate enough to be in a part of Hong Kong where the plant is in bloom.

Real life sightings of Birdwood's Mucuna flowers and buds have been almost equally as rare for me.  In fact, until I came across a veritable treasure trove of them along Mount Parker Road in Tai Tam Country Park a week before Ching Ming fell this year, I had only caught sight of them when hiking around Ho Pui Irrigation Reservoir with my mother way back in 2009!

On that earlier occasion, I must admit to having found them to be on the creeepy side since they are pretty distinctive looking and unlike few other flowers and buds I've ever seen.  Indeed, descriptions found in one of the two books I own on Hong Kong wild flowers make the Birdwood's Mucuna's blooms sound more like fauna than flora.  To wit: "Appearing in varied postures, the flowers have an extremely animated look.  The buds look uncannily like chicks waiting [to] feed, while [the] flowers look like brds fluttering in preparation for flight" -- and, if anything, I actually find the buds to resemble claws more than cute chicks!
Still, I count myself very fortunate to have come across an elderly man happily clicking away at the flowering plant lodged in the shadow of a clump of forest trees while out hiking one afternoon late last month.  Otherwise, like those people walking briskly past us along the popular trail, seemingly without any interest in what had caught our attention, and caused us to stop and fish out our cameras, I'd have missed out on the sight of this actually rather rare sight; not least because flowers only appear on Birdwood's Mucuna that are over 30 years old and its creamy white blossoms turn brown only a few hours after blooming!       

Friday, April 13, 2018

Relics from the past, rocky landscapes and more at Cape d'Aguilar (Photo-essay)

Blogging about hiking yesterday's hiking got me realizing that the last time before last night that I blogged about hiking was close to two months ago -- and that it's been around *five* months since I last put up a hiking photo-essay!  Still, those of you who know me will realize that I've continued exploring Hong Kong's countryside these past few months: which means that I've accumulated even more photographs of scenic Hong Kong and the territory's wild life to add to the already very sizeable archive that I reckon is worth sharing.

So, with further ado, here's sharing some snaps and memories of the cloudy but rain-less and still rather pleasant spring day that a good friend (who has since left Hong Kong) and I ventured down over to Cape D'Aguilar, and found much to get excited about over on the southeastern tip of Hong Kong Island.  And, when viewed in retrospect, I reckon the fact that it looked like there was a storm brewing adds some drama and tension to these photos... ;b

On the way down to Cape d'Aguilar proper, we spotted 
a ruin by the sea that I'm sure has interesting stories behind it
A radio station looked to stand in the way of one's getting down 
to the southernmost tip until we noticed the trail along
one of its sides created by hundreds of pairs of hikers' feet... ;b
Some sections of this part of Hong Kong clearly are
still out of bounds to the public though

is to be found at Cape d'Aguilar!
So too is a whale skeleton! :O

Still, what amazed me the most at Cape d'Aguilar was 
the beautiful views and geology to be found there :)
The pretty scary waves crashing onto the rocks also
made for quite the impressive sight!
All in all, it's the kind of place which I just knew
that I'd be returning to again... :)

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Unique-to-Hong Kong hiking views from a hill above Kowloon

Urban vista on a hike in the Kowloon hills
Buildings catch the eye more than greenery there!
And on this hike, it's true enough that I saw more
artificial "canyons" than natural ones ;b
Since the 42nd Hong Kong International Film Festival officially concluded with the world premiere of Yoji Yamada's What a Wonderful Family! 3: My Wife, My Life last Thursday, I've been on more hikes than I've viewed movies.  To be precise: I've not viewed a single film in the past week while I've gone hiking twice over the same time period!
My most recent outing saw me make a rare foray into the Kowloon hills, an area of Hong Kong I don't often venture to because parts of it fall within the area of "Asia's World City" that's infested with monkeys.  My preference to spend time outdoors in other parts of the territory also stems from the chances of getting clear views from there, especially when looking down over the Kowloon Peninsula, seeming to be lower than elsewhere, thanks to a good amount of air pollution often emanating from as well as covering that super high density part of the Big Lychee.
But on the first ever hike I've been on that began in Cheung Sha Wan and took me up Eagle's Nest (Tsim Shan) -- specifically, sections of the Eagle's Nest Nature Trail located within Lion Rock Country Park -- and over to Kowloon Reservoir via Crow's Nest before looping back down to the part of Kowloon whose name translates into English as "Long Beach Bay", the group I was with found ourselves treated to fine vistas that stretched for miles and southwards all the way over to Hong Kong Island and even Tung Lung Chau!

I know Hong Kong residents who don't like seeing buildings, especially high rises, when out hiking.  And I do love that there are indeed parts of Hong Kong that I hike to and in where not a single building is visible as far as the eye can see.  At the same time though, I reckon that the veritable forest of highrises visible from certain high elevation viewpoints can make for an attractive and impressive sight in its own way -- and also one that taking in such views from within a green country park is one of those unique-to-Hong Kong experiences that should be appreciated rather than abhored! :)

Monday, April 9, 2018

A 42nd HKIFF report that includes a big Brigitte Lin Ching Hsia-related rave and rant!

All of these 42nd Hong Kong International Film Festival
tickets have now been used up!

The 42nd Hong Kong International Film Festival officially came to a close last Thursday, April 5th, with the world premiere of Yoji Yamada's What a Wonderful Family! 3: My Wife, My Life.  Unlike at such as the screenings of fest opener Omotenashi or Kazuo Hara's The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On, no one associated with the film put in an appearance before or after the screening -- which, I must admit, came as somewhat of a surprise since the work was being screened in public for the very first time ever.  (And yes, I know no guest appearances were announced but there have been instances in the past when, to the great delight of the assembled audience, filmmakers have turned up unannounced for a screening of one of their films.)

So I reckon that there's some validity to the suggestions that have been made about this year's HKIFF having had less star power and presence than previous editions of Asia's oldest film festival; with things not being helped by there having been very few, if any, world premieres of Hong Kong movies at this year's fest.  On a related note: this year's Hong Kong Panorama program looked to have been one of the smallest and least star-studded in decades.

On a brighter note: the likes of Werner Herzog (whose films -- among them, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, were showcased in the HKIFF's The Estatic Truth of Werner Herzog program, and who gave a Master Class after the screening of his Into the Inferno) and Brigitte Lin Ching Hsia (this year's Filmmaker in Focus) were around to lend star power to the event; with the Face to Face seminar with the actress some friends and I have taken to calling "The Great One" having been this year's most anticipated event of the fest.       

Another grouse I've heard more than once was that there weren't that many films that interested them.  I, on the other hand, ended up attending 22 HKIFF screenings, more than in the past few years (where I've averaged around 15-16 screenings over the course of the fest).  This was in no small part due to 14 films starring Brigitte Lin Ching Hsia being screened during the festival; and despite my having viewed all of them before (and a good bulk of them on a big screen), I still went ahead and re-viewed four of them at this year's HKIFF -- and if I had known earlier that the version of Outside the Window that was screened at the fest was a longer one than that which I viewed on VHS tape some years back, I most definitely would have added it to my HKIFF viewing schedule!

While I did generally enjoy viewing all my HKIFF picks this year, the absolute highlights of this year's fest for me were my re-viewings of the films starring the woman who remains my favorite actress of all time.  To be sure, my latest viewing of Cloud of Romance (1977) has not caused me to change my rather low opinion of the Taiwanese weepie.  But it turned out to be quite the treat to watch it in a cinema with folks who were very obviously fans of Brigitte Lin fans (and who, I was intrigued to see, includes people decades younger than me, people decades older than me, men and women, non-Asians as well as Asians)!

In addition, while I've seen Peking Opera Blues (1986) and Swordsman II (1992) on a big screen before (the former in Washington, D.C., New York (twice!) and Hong Kong (twice -- maybe thrice! -- now!!) and the latter at the predecessor of what's now become the New York Asian Film Festival and at the Hong Kong Film Archive), the versions screened at this year's HKIFF appear to have been remastered and possess amazingly clean and clear visuals.  And thanks in part to everything being so much clearer to see, I cannot overstate how expressive Brigitte Lin's face gets shown to be in Peking Opera Blues and how powerful her eyes are; and I really am telling the truth when I say that Asia the Invincible's stares were so intense that the sense that her eyes were boring into me actually resulted in my physically recoiling in my seat during this latest viewing of Swordsman II

About my only major gripe about these films is that their English subtitles still leave much to be desired.  Meanwhile, my most major gripes about this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival involve the fest's Brigitte Lin: Filmmaker in Focus catalogue being in Chinese only (rather than bilingual Chinese-English as was the case for its previous publications covering the likes of Eric Tsang, Herman Yau and Edward Yang) as well as the Face to Face with Brigitte Lin Ching Hsia seminar (whose moderator, more than incidentally, was Nansun Shi) having been predominantly in Mandarin (with no English translation being provided unlike, say, in the case of the Kazuo Hara Masterclass)!

I didn't realize that the HKIFF's Brigitte Lin book would not have any English in it until I went to get a copy of it -- at which point, I asked the HKIFF staff at the counter whether they realized that Brigitte Lin Ching Hsia does indeed have fans outside of Taiwan, Hong Kong, Mainland China and Macau.  If they had not known this prior to the fest, they really should know now.  Because I've no doubt that there were non-Chinese Brigitte Lin fans at every screening of a Brigitte Lin Ching Hsia film at this year's HKIFF.

Just at the screenings that I -- a Hong Kong permanent resident but also a Malaysian citizen -- attended, there were friends from Canada (Cloud of Romance), Japan (Peking Opera Blues and Swordsman II), South Africa (Swordsman II) and South Korea (Cloud of Romance and Red Dust) present.  And I know that my Canadian friends also went to the HKIFF's screenings of Outside the Window and Ghost of the Mirror, my Japanese and South Korean friends likewise also attended the screenings of Outside the Window, and an English friend went and checked out Starry is the Night.

I suppose I should take consolation in the HKIFF having finally decided -- 24 years after her last screen appearance -- to honor Brigitte Lin with a retrospective program that did contain worthy selections (all of which did have English subtitles).  And the inclusion of Red Dust, in particular, did make me very happy indeed since it had been one of those Brigitte Lin movies that I had hankered for years (decades, actually!) to view on a big screen but hitherto had not been able to do so.  (This is particularly so since this multi-Golden Horse award winner -- including a long overdue Best Actress accolade for its female lead -- is not available on DVD, for some inexplicable reason).

To be honest though: If I didn't have Akiko Tetsuya's The Last Star of the East: Brigitte Lin Ching Hsia and Her Films to re-read to help satisfy my thirst for matters Brigitte the past couple of weeks, I would have been filled with serious rage at the Hong Kong International Film Festival folks -- for essentially whetting my appetite and allowing me some nibbles but not allowing me to partake of the whole Brigitte feast they had put on.   Thank goodness someone realized that there are non-Chinese speaking Brigitte Lin fans out there.  But isn't it sad that it appears to need someone to be one in order to know of the existence of what I'm sure are actually thousands of others?!

Friday, April 6, 2018

A Mainland Chinese restored classic and the latest offering from a veteran Japanese filmmaker at the Hong Kong International Film Festival (Film reviews)

The Closing Film of the 42nd Hong Kong International Film Festival
Struggling (Mainland China, 1932)
- Part of the HKIFF's Restored Classics program
- Shi Dongshan, director
- Starring: Zheng Junli, Chen Yanyan

There are some movies whose very existence can seem like an achievement.  Made in 1932 and with at least one complete set of prints having survived into the 21st century, then being gloriously restored by the China Film Archive, Shi Dongshan's Struggling is one such work.

Of course, age is no guarantee that a film will be a classic or even truly watchable.  Still, I felt obliged to check out, at the minimum, for its historical value, this melodramatic saga revolving around a young woman named Swallow (played by then 16-year-old Chen Yanyan) with an abusive adoptive father but caring neighbors, including a young man named Xiao Zheng (Zheng Junli), who she ends up running away with after her adoptive father tries to sell her into marriage with a middle-aged stranger. 

So imagine my delight as well as surprise to find that Struggling is one of those rare cinematic gems that stands up very well to the test of time!  Featuring masterfully composed scenes and smooth pacing that never sags, this offering which begins with domestic troubles but then expands its focus to paint a picture of a nation battling against the Japanese invaders is emotionally involving throughout and the "silent" film's tinkling music that I originally feared might send me to sleep actually ended up being rather pleasant accompaniment for the dramatic action that unfolded on screen.

Somewhat puzzled as to how come I, for one, had never heard of this film before (unlike, say, Sun Yu's Little Toys (1933) or Fei Mu and Luo Mingyou's Song of China (1935)), I read up on its director and two stars and may have found reasons why based on their fates.  While lead actress Chen Yanyan went on to lead a long life (passing away only at the age of 83 in Hong Kong in 1999), director Shi Dongshan was persecuted by the Communist Chinese government and committed suicide in 1955 while star actor Zheng Junli suffered severe persecution during the Cultural Revolution and died in prison in 1969.

My rating for the film: 8.0

What a Wonderful Family! 3: My Wife, My Life (Japan, 2018) 
- Part of the HKIFF's Gala Presentation program
- Yoji Yamada, director and co-scriptwriter (with Emiko Hiramatsu)
- Starring: Isao Hashizume, Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Masahiko Nishimura, Yui Natsukawa, Tomoko Nakajima, Shozo Hayashiya, Satoshi Tsumabuki, Yu Aoi 

This morning, I heard the sad news of Studio Ghibli auteur Isao Takahata having passed away at the age of 82 years.  The night before, I had been present at the world premiere of the latest work by prolific filmmaker Yoji Yamada, born four years before Takahata and whose output I have come to cherish even while worrying each time that I view a new offering that it will be his last.

The third and perhaps final film in his What a Wonderful Family! series (whose different Japanese title pays tribute to Mikio Naruse's Wife! Be Like a Rose (1935)), this latest look at the three-generation Hirata family takes Yoji Yamada fans into familiar territory.  And even while a couple of the characters (namely family patriarch Shuzo (Isao Hashizume) and his elder son Konosuke (Masahiko Nishimura)) are apt to cross into cantankerous territory, the audience knows full well that what they will be presented with will be a largely gentle offering, replete with good hearted characters (with Yu Aoi's Noriko being partly saintly in the manner of Setsuko Hara's Noriko in Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story).    

This time around, drama and tension come primarily from Konosuke's long-suffering wife Fumie (Yui Natsukawa) deciding to leave the Hirata abode after feeling insulted and unappreciated by her salaryman husband, who his mother laments is becoming more and more like his old school father.  As their sons worry about their parents divorcing and feeling moved to declare whose side they're on as well as wonder if their parents had ever been in love and/or still had genuine affections for each other, the other members of the family take various actions that make one realize how much they really do care for one another individually but also as a unit.

The movie's outcome is never in doubt.  It's also patently clear that What a Wonderful Family! 3: My Wife, My Life is a tribute to wives (and women in general) along with a paean to the family.  But even though I generally prefer a film to be more unpredictable in nature, the fact of the matter is that viewing this effort leaves one with wonderfully warm emotions that are enhanced, rather than distracted, by the humorous moments that this offering also offers up in spades.        

My rating for the film: 7.5

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Two films showing different reactions to oppression at the Hong Kong International Film Festival (Film reviews)

The Empty Hands: bloodied but unbowed
Black Kite (Canada-Afghanistan, 2017)
- Part of the HKIFF's Global Vision program
- Tarique Qayami, director, scriptwriter, cinematographer and co-editor
- Starring: Haji Gul Aser, Masoud Fanayee, Hamid Noorzay, Hadi Delsoz
Ten years after a film adaptation came out of Khaled Hossaini's The Kite Runner comes another cinematic work set in Afghanistan with the word "kite" in its title.  Tarique Qayami's Black Kite tells the story about the son of a Kabul kite-maker who loved kites and passed on his love to his young daughter.  Normally, this would not be all that big a deal.  The problem is that, for a good part of his life and all of hers, they lived in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, where kite-flying was crime punishable by death.
Like The Breadwinner, the other offering set in Afghanistan that I viewed at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, Black Kite shows how idyllic this troubled country used to be as well as how terrible life there became.  It's noteworthy too that both films focus on the relations between parent and child, and how the imagination is enlisted to try to escape from everyday realities.   
But whereas The Breadwinner's lead character is a child throughout the film, the protagonist of Black Kite is shown growing from a young boy (played by Hamid Noorzay) to young man (essayed by Masoud Fanayee) and then a bearded older man (Haji Gul Aser).  Or, rather, Arian physically ages but he seems to stay rather child-like for much of the movie, to the point of seemingly unwittingly invite bad things to happen to him, and consequently makes its harder than one would like to whole-heartedly empathize with.  
At the same time though, it's hard not to not want to mourn for Afghanistan after viewing this film which conjures up enchanting images of the past, including a magically beautiful one involving lots of kites flying up in the Afghan sky, as well as shows scenes of menacing Taliban members hitting -- and, even in one case, shooting in the head -- women covered from head to toe in their burqa and the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan.  And while Arian's daughter is in only a few minutes of Black Kite, it's enough to make this member of the audience want to cry when contemplating her seemingly inevitably dark future.

My rating for this film: 6.0
The Empty Hands (Hong Kong, 2017)
- Part of the HKIFF's Hong Kong Panorama 2017-18 program
- Chapman To, director and co-scriptwriter (with Erica Li)
- Starring: Stephy Tang, Chapman To, Yasuaki Kurata, Stephen Au, Dada Chan
The only contemporary Hong Kong production that I've viewed at this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival (with the other Hong Kong movies being classic movies starring the great Brigitte Lin Ching Hsia), The Empty Hands had a theatrical run a few months ago which I somehow missed.  Since receiving five Hong Kong Film Awards nominations (for Best Actress, Supporting Actor, Cinematography, Art Direction and New Director) though, there's now enough buzz about it to officially attract a "full house" crowd for its fest screening (though, as has come to be the norm, there still were some empty seats in the theater).
After being black-listed by Mainland China for his support of the Umbrella Movement, its director (and co-scriptwriter cum co-star) has reacted by making a very Hong Kong movie with: shooting done in some very recognizable Hong Kong locations (including the abandoned quarry at Lei Yue Mun); a cameo appearance by a pro-democracy politician; and a main character willing to shed blood to own a 1,200 square foot apartment in Wan Chai and harbour plans to sub-divide it into 10 units in order to make a killing in the real estate business.  And in what must be seen as a (further) "up yours" to Mainland China, Stephy Tang's Mari Hirakawa is a Japanese-Chinese Hong Konger whose Japanese karate sensei father (Yasuaki Karuata) raised her by himself after his wife abandoned the family.  
Shocked to discover after her father's death that he's left majority share of his karate dojo (which takes up the bulk of the space of their apartment) to former disciple Chan Keung (Chapman To) rather than her, Mari Hirakawa is startled into action when Chan Keung tells her that if she takes up karate again (after abandoning it in her youth despite having shown an uncommon talent for the Japanese martial art) and is able to last three rounds of a match against another female fighter, he'll hand over his share of the inheritance to her.
Stephy Tang reportedly trained in karate for six months for The Empty Hands, and her efforts look to have paid off tremendously in terms of her action scenes looking painfully realistic and respect having rocketed for the former Cookies member as a serious actress (since this film is actually much more of a drama at heart than martial arts actioner).  Together with the emergence of Chapman To as a directorial force to be reckoned with, this sends a message to those too ready to count Hong Kong cinema out: that there is fight as well as life still in it.
My rating for this film: 7.5 

Monday, April 2, 2018

In the Intense Now and The China Hustle at the 2018 Hong Kong International Film Festival (Film reviews)

Chinese language banners for the Hong Kong International 
Film Festival and touting Hong Kong as "Asia's World City"
In the Intense Now (Brazil, 2017)
- From the HKIFF's Reality Bites program
- João Moreira Salles, director and scriptwriter
- Featuring: Daniel Cohn-Bendit
The late 1960s saw political turmoil in France (which saw a period of civil unrest that included labor strikes and students regularly taking to the streets to protest), Czechoslovakia (where the Prague Spring was followed by the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact troops led by the Soviet Union) and China (with the Cultural Revolution beginning and lasting all the way into the 1970s), among other territories.  
Born in Rio de Janiero, Brazil, in 1962, João Moreira Salles and his family were living in Paris in May 1968 but has no memories of those events even while retaining childhood memories of the holidays he spent back in Brazil during the same period.  Instead, he draws on the memories of others and a mixture of archival footage and precious "found footage" shot by unnamed private individuals (sometimes surreptiously, at what can be imagined to have been at no small amount of risk to their personal safety) to look at and consider how things were and must have felt to witnesses to history along with those who had a hand in making history in Paris and Prague while making use of amateur film footage that his mother shot while travelling in China the same year.

While there are some who might consider In the Intense Now lyrical, poetic, even profound, I feel obliged to admit my feeling disappointed by this essay film not being as, well, intense as I was expecting a documentary with that word in the title -- as well as the type of subject matter it addresses -- to be.  Also, I feel rather perplexed, even disturbed, by the way that Maoist China ended up serving as a bucolic backdrop for his mother's personal journey rather than be accorded the kind of socio-political analysis that was granted to France and Czechoslovakia in the documentary.
It's not just that this made In the Intense Now's China sections seem less interesting than the others in the film.  Rather, it shows up a cultural ethnocentrism that privileges the West over the East whose exoticism appears to overly enchant but also render less human and meaningful.  In this context, it says a lot that while individuals like French student activist Daniel Cohn-Bendit are explicitly named and focused on, along with then French president Charles de Gaulle and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, not a single Chinese person is actually named and otherwise rendered individually distinct at any point in this offering.
Then there's the matter of his perspective on Brazil in the film.  Serving in the main, like China, to tell a more personal story seemingly intended as a counterweight to historical events taking place around the same time in Paris and Prague, there's no mention of Salles' home country being under military rule -- a rule that came after a 1964 coup d'état and which only came to an end in 1985 with the election of its first civilian president since 1960.  In short: Even while much of what ended up being covered in In The Intense Now was intriguing watching, I found myself thinking of what Salles omitted and feeling the film suffered as a result of what he chose to leave unmentioned even while going on and on about events in other lands.
My rating for the film: 6.0 
The China Hustle (U.S.A., 2017)
- Also from the HKIFF's Reality Bites program
- Jed Rothstein, director and scriptwriter
- Featuring: Dan David, Matthew Wiechert, Carson Block, James Chanos, Soren Aandahl, Wesley Clark
Back in the 19th century, P.T. Barnum was moved to observe that "There's a sucker born every minute".  More than one hundred years on, we keep on being reminded of that, including by makers of documentaries such as Inside Job (2010), the Oscar winning work about the 2008 financial meltdown, and now also The China Hustle, which shows that various lessons have stayed unlearnt in the years since.
An economic suspense-thriller whose jaw-dropping last act effectively points to the show not being over yet by a long chalk, this documentary looks at American financial operators who conspire with businessmen in China to poach billions of (American) dollars from regular American investors who mistakenly place to much trust in their government and financial institutions, including big-name auditing firms and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.  But while it does feature a number of "talking heads", its use of film footage shot over in various parts of Mainland China as well as Hong Kong and American locations as diverse as Flint, Michigan, and Wall Street gives an idea of its ambition as well as reach.
Early on in The China Hustle, its de facto protagonist, investor turned short trader Dan David, announces that "There are no good guys in this story, including me."  In a story like this though, he and his fellow "bulls turned bears", including Matthew Wiechert, and the likes of fellow whistleblower James Chanos and his colleagues, are the fellows you'll find yourself rooting for -- even while what they do can destroy the fortunes and reputations of others (including personalities like General Wesley Clark, who, at first glance, seems to be the personification of a straight arrow guy) and financially enrich themselves.
Unearthing scams so large and bare-faced that it's a shock not only to realize that they're going on but that they're not punishable as a result of their perpetrators having figuring out how to take advantage of certain legal loopholes, The China Hustle is the kind of film that had me leaving the cinema all abuzz and eager to discuss what I had seen with somebody else who had seen it too.  Fortunately, in my case, I have such a friend -- whose review of the work had whetted my appetite to check it out even while admirably allowing for me to make my own discoveries along the way! 
My rating for the film: 8.5