Friday, April 28, 2017

It's Only the End of the World (2016)

Review #1,440

Director:  Xavier Dolan
Cast:  Gaspard Ulliel, Nathalie Baye, Vincent Cassel, Marion Cotillard, Lea Seydoux
Plot:  Louis, a terminally ill writer, returns home after a long absence to tell his family that he is dying.

Genre:  Drama
Awards:  Won Grand Jury Prize & Prize of the Ecumenical Jury (Cannes)
Runtime:  97min
Rating:  M18 for some homosexual content and drug use
International Sales:  Seville International

“We'll be better prepared next time...”

While French critics raved about it, their American counterparts largely detested it.  Such is the divisive nature of Xavier Dolan's latest, It’s Only the End of the World, that its unexpected Grand Jury Prize win at Cannes left most flabbergasted.  He is a filmmaker that I find myself liking, after winning me over big time with possibly his finest film to date, Mommy (2014). 

Dolan, however, thinks he has made his best film yet with World because he finds it the most complete.  In a way, his sentiments ring true.  This is the most contained, tightly-structured work of his brief if envious filmography, based on a play originally written by Jean-Luc Lagarce. 

Starring a fine cast with Vincent Cassel, Marion Cotillard, Lea Seydoux and Nathalie Baye, World depicts the intimate if implosive world of family feuding.  When thirty-something Louis (Gaspard Ulliel) returns to his family for a visit after more than a decade absent from their lives, his benign presence and Zen-like demeanour, both painful and a blessing, hides a devastating message that he wants (or hopes) to convey—that he is dying. 

This extra detail afforded to us from the get-go creates tension in a ‘will he-won’t he’ scenario, escalating whenever the aural-visual motif of a ticking cuckoo clock recurs.  Through tight close-ups and the sparing use of wide shots, Dolan creates a sense of claustrophobia, a choking feeling exacerbated by the tiring (and tireless) arguments that plague most of the film. 

World is intensely bleak, but it makes a fine point or two about the state of dysfunctional, incommunicable families.  The two main flaws, however, are that the film is not exactly emotionally rewarding, and the sound mix is suspect.  Firstly, we don’t quite care how the characters feel, even if Dolan has taken pains to express the loss of time—and the little time that remains—for Louis. 

Secondly, not sure if the sound was deliberately mixed in an amateurish fashion, such that each voice, ambient sound and diegetic music has no clear distinction.  It all becomes muddled, yet there are some parts of the film, specifically the use of non-diegetic music, that show great sound clarity. 

World may be his weakest film to date, a dip in form in what has been a near-perfect career.  But it is not a full-blown travesty that some critics have made it out to be. 

Verdict:  Not exactly a rewarding film, but this intensely bleak and implosive drama makes a fine point or two about the state of dysfunctional, incommunicable families.


Click here to go back to Central Station.



Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Woman Is the Future of Man (2004)

Review #1,439

Director:  Hong Sang-soo
Cast:  Yu Ji-tae, Kim Tae-woo, Sung Hyun-Ah
Plot:  Two college friends get together and reminisce on the woman they both fell in love with at different times in their past, and are thus propelled to find her.

Genre:  Drama
Awards:  Nom. for Palme d'Or (Cannes)
Runtime:  88min
Rating:  R21 for sexual content, nudity and mature theme
International Sales:  Unikorea (Asia) / MK2 (Rest of the World)

Hong Sang-soo's fifth feature came at a time when he was beginning to catch the attention of cinephiles internationally.  Those who had discovered Hong as a filmmaker of great promise years before with films like The Day a Pig Fell into the Well (1996) and Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (2000) might have felt that they were losing a best kept secret. 

In competition at Cannes, and for the first time in the prestigious Palme d'Or category, Woman Is the Future of Man is an attempt to be more accessible, while retaining the freewheeling if tragicomic screenwriting that would inform most of his films.  It has been a quality that has served Hong well in his prolific body of work, which like the films of Ozu, Rohmer, and to an extent, Antonioni, recycle thematic concerns in infinitely refreshing ways. 

In this film, we are privy to the conversations of two men, one a struggling filmmaking graduate who’s back from the States, and another a professor who teaches art at what he thinks is the best university in Korea.  It is a reunion of sorts after many years, and what seems like the typical conversational humdrum between friends slowly reveals memories and past connections. 

Hong's skill is in caressing us to peel the hidden layers in both characters’ personal and shared histories, which not only tell us more about the men's personalities, but allow us to reach into something deeper—and something elusive—about the existential crisis of masculinity and male interdependence (on women). 

The two buddies share a romance with the same woman before, at different times and contexts.  Over chicken, beer and cigarettes (always the case for Hong's characters), and set against the backdrop of the wintry cold, they decide to make a trip to visit her.  The film gives us flashbacks of their separate sexual encounters with the woman, which Hong shows us in explicit detail, with the natural eroticism neutered by its deadpan execution. 

Woman Is the Future of Man moves along leisurely, like a casual stroll in the park, but there’s enough stimulating material to last the course.  Much of the film is also emotionally ambiguous, and there’s no closure for anyone.  Life is empty and unfulfilling—is happiness a myth?

Verdict:  Hong’s fifth feature is all about seeing what lies beneath the surface: life is empty and unfulfilling, but his film lets us peel the layers to reach into something deeper—and something elusive.


Click here to go back to Central Station.



Sunday, April 23, 2017

Dekalog: Six (1988)

Review #1,438

Director:  Krzysztof Kieslowski
Cast:  Olaf Lubaszenko, Grazyna Szapolowska, Piotr Machalica
Plot:  A teenage poster worker, Tomek, routinely spies on his older neighbour Magda, a sexually liberated artist who lives in the apartment across the courtyard from his.  As their private worlds merge, fascination turns to obsession, and the line between love and curiousity becomes violently blurred. (from The Criterion Collection)

Genre:  Drama
Awards:  Won FIPRESCI Prize & Children and Cinema Award (Venice).  Official Selection (Cannes).
Runtime:  60min
Rating:  Not rated (likely to be PG13 for some sexual references)
Source:  Telewizja Polska S.A.

Dekalog: One
Dekalog: Two
Dekalog: Three
Dekalog: Four
Dekalog: Five

“Thou shalt not commit adultery.”

Content-wise, there’s nothing remotely adulterous about the sixth episode of Dekalog, but as the sin of adultery almost always revolves around the intertwining nature of love and lust, the film loosely suggests that humans are vulnerable beings in need of connecting with someone.  This notion is dramatized in the affecting story of a young man, Tomek (Olaf Lubaszenko), who spies on an older woman, Magda (Grazyna Szapolowska), who lives opposite his block. 

Through a voyeuristic setup that immediately calls to mind Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), Kieslowski’s film explores love, passion and sex with a potent sense of emotion and human connection.  This is, without a doubt, one of the finest episodes of the series.

Tomek doesn’t hide his stalking actions from Magda, and the duo forms an unlikely if awkward relationship.  Magda, the more cynical party, shuns the idea of love, declaring it impossible and unattainable—for her, sex is the consolatory substitute for love, of which she actively engages with a male partner (of similar age), whose relationship with her is unclear. 

Tomek, on the other hand, is attracted to Magda, but is he naïve to think that love is as what he feels?  One might read Dekalog: Six as Tomek’s coming-of-age tale, where he finds sexual awakening, but also confusion and frustration toward his own feelings.   

What makes the film intriguing is how the tables are turned in the final twenty minutes or so, adding thematic and emotional complexity to the proceedings.  Tomek slits his wrist after an upsetting encounter with Magda, an act of rashness that sends him to the hospital.  In the absence of Tomek, Magda cuts a desolate figure, plagued by guilt.  She spies on Tomek’s apartment, hoping to find him back home, perhaps spying on her again. 

The final scene, which I’ll leave you to savour, is one of the truly standout moments of the series, imbued with a nuanced touch of Kieslowskian ambiguity that suggests either reconciliation or indifference towards the future of their relationship.  Whichever way you read it, the constant is that both characters have grown through the course of the narrative.  But are they none the wiser about love? 

Verdict:  One of the standout episodes of Dekalog, the sixth film explores love and sex through a voyeuristic setup, but not without a potent sense of emotion and human connection.


Click here to go back to Central Station.



Friday, April 21, 2017

Summer Is Gone, The (2016)

Review #1,437

Director:  Zhang Dalei 
Cast:  Kong Weiyi, Zhang Chen, Guo Yanyun, Zhang Kun
Plot:  12-year-old Xiaolei enjoys summer with his father, who works at a film studio, and his education-minded mother.  But life is rapidly changing, as stable jobs at state-owned companies disappear.

Genre:  Drama
Awards:  Won 2 Golden Horses - Best Film & Best New Performer.  Nom. for 4 Golden Horses - Best New Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Sound Effects
Runtime:  106min
Rating:  PG13 for some coarse language
International Sales:  PAD International 

The Summer Is Gone had the honour of nabbing Best Film at last year’s Taipei Golden Horse, over favourites The Road to Mandalay and Godspeed.  Just like Anthony Chen's Ilo Ilo (2013), which won the same award three years ago, this is a debut feature.  The director is Zhang Dalei from Mainland China. 

Something of a love letter to his own childhood, Zhang pays tribute to the generation that toiled to make sure his generation would live a more comfortable and respectable life.  It is with this context that one could better appreciate the film. 

Without it, The Summer Is Gone, however, still roughly works as a family drama, made in a style loosely influenced by neorealism, though I wouldn’t describe it as a raw or gritty film.  In fact, it is polished and features indelible black-and-white cinematography, which is the film’s strongest suit. 

It is summer in Western China (of the Inner Mongolia region), and Xiaolei the young protagonist anticipates a carefree period until school reopens.  His parents, a sensible mother who’s a teacher, and a rough-edged father who works as part of a film crew, want him to study for his future, a point of consternation for the family as there are limited places in good schools.

Xiaolei sometimes dreams in his sleep, and this provides the film with its more surreal moments, accompanied by ethereal classical music.  I can’t say that these dream sequences work effectively, and tonally they seem off, but Zhang’s intention, I believe, is to juxtapose a child’s natural optimism (be it having a crush on a girl opposite his apartment, or having a blissful time with his father) with the collective pessimism of the adults.

The summer coincides with social and political reformations of state-owned companies, causing uncertainty over the stability of jobs.  This is the early 1990s, somewhat a foreshadowing of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis (coincidentally the backdrop of Ilo Ilo), when a similarly-felt uncertainty infected the masses. 

The evocation of a lost time through Zhang’s craft comes across as meaningful and poetic.  However, the issue for me is that it doesn’t quite engage as it should, especially emotionally.  I can’t pinpoint whether it is because of the performances, characterizations, or its tone.  But at the very least, The Summer Is Gone should have enough in its visual tank to pique your curiosity. 

Verdict:  Doesn’t quite engage as it should, this poetic Golden Horse Best Picture winner does however feature indelible black-and-white cinematography.  


Click here to go back to Central Station.


Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Small Talk (2016)

Review #1,436

Director:  Huang Hui-Chen
Plot:  A family story of a very special kind. The mother earns a living as a spirit guide for the deceased at their funerals: she was never at home, always out and about with her girlfriends instead. The daughter now goes to great lengths to attempt to understand her mother.

Genre:  Documentary
Awards:  Won Teddy Award (Berlin).  Nom. for 2 Golden Horses - Best Documentary, Best Film Editing
Runtime:  88min
Rating:  R21 for homosexual theme
International Sales:  Small Talk Productions

Huang Hui-Chen, the director of Small Talk, is an astute filmmaker.  Featuring herself in the documentary so that she could interview her mother (a stranger to her for decades), Huang encourages her mum to make small talk, if only to bring her to a state where she could confront the past, and share her hidden regrets and deepest desires. 

A winner of the Teddy Award for Best Documentary at the Berlin International Film Festival, Small Talk is an intimate ‘family’ documentary, operating as a first-perspective piece on a conflicted soul that also masquerades as a psychoanalytical exercise. 

In her 70s now, the elderly woman has lived under the same roof with Huang and her young daughter, but finds herself unable to communicate with them.  The cathartic process of filmmaking illuminates the connection between maker and subject, thus revealing the inseparable bond between mother and daughter, characterized by shared history and memories.

For a documentary that centers on the filmmaker’s mother, one might immediately pre-judge it to be a bore-fest.  But Small Talk is a very nimble work, finely-edited with images of both urban and rural spaces of Taiwan, yet it is the digging into the past in several one-to-one interviews that gives the documentary its raw emotional power. 

The setup is no frills: a camera, a table, Huang on one end, her mother on the other.  They converse in Hokkien, a language I’m familiar with, which for me is associated with a distant time—of the ‘90s when I was growing up with my grandparents. 

The reluctance to share one’s feelings is especially deep-rooted in conservative Chinese families.  In a way, one can see Small Talk as a film that one can dream of living through vicariously, a kind of realist fantasy where there is always an urge to want to know more about your parents (and likewise, parent-to-child), yet it is never satisfied.

It is no secret to Huang, or anyone else, that her tomboyish mother is a lesbian.  She also used to be a Taoist priestess working at funerals.  While Small Talk doesn’t go into the controversial debate of religion in relation to LGBT issues (a strategy that doesn’t do it any disservice), there is enough material in response to Huang’s mother’s sexuality to elicit a soul-searching feeling of wanting to understand something innate if elusive: how does one live as/with a lesbian mother? 

Verdict:  A finely-edited first-perspective Taiwanese documentary that explores the relationship between ageing mother and adult daughter—intensely personal, emotional and illuminating.  


Click here to go back to Central Station.


Monday, April 17, 2017

Lost City of Z, The (2017)

Review #1,435

Director:  James Gray
Cast:  Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, Tom Holland
Plot:  A true-life drama, centering on British explorer Col. Percival Fawcett, who disappeared while searching for a mysterious city in the Amazon in the 1920s.

Genre:  Drama / Adventure / Biography
Awards:  -
Runtime:  141min
Rating:  PG13 for violence, disturbing images, brief strong language and some nudity
International Sales:  Sierra/Affinity
Singapore Distributor:  Cathay-Keris Films

“To look for what is beautiful is its own reward.”

On paper, James Gray has had an unbelievable career.  Making his feature debut with the Venice Silver Lion winner Little Odessa (1994), each of his next four films competed for the Cannes Palme d’Or, most recently with The Immigrant (2013).  His latest breaks this string of “successes”. 

Premiered at the New York Film Festival, and landing a less noteworthy slot as a Berlinale Special Gala title, The Lost City of Z is, however, a great film in the traditional biopic sense.  It has the allure of a classic prestige picture that unfolds slowly, mesmerizing with its visuals and storytelling. 

Adapted from David Grann’s non-fiction book of the same name, The Lost City of Z is about the great British explorer Col. Percival Fawcett, whom we learnt from the history books as the man who, in 1925, mysteriously disappeared in the Amazon while looking for an ancient lost city.  He had made several trips to the hostile jungle prior to 1925, obsessed with finding a tribal civilization that predated the European colonialization of South America. 

Gray captures both his journey and obsession with a clear eye, and in the process, rekindles the magic of moviemaking in relation to exploration and mystery.  Shot largely in the natural forests and rivers of Colombia by the outstanding Iranian cinematographer, Darius Khondji, the film is bewitching to behold, reminding especially of Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and parts of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). 

Charlie Hunnam—of Pacific Rim (2013) fame—plays Fawcett in a capable performance.  He is backed by the almost unrecognizable Robert Pattinson, who sports a thick beard as Fawcett’s sidekick.  Siena Miller, who plays Fawcett’s wife, is also very good, providing the emotional anchor of the film. 

The Lost City of Z is beautiful and polished, no doubt a remarkably-realized film, yet it is Gray’s patience with pacing that is most rewarding about the experience.  One might see it as an inspired tone poem—and perhaps feel an inconspicuous undercurrent flowing through the movie, like a koi gliding in a pond.  It tells the story in this manner, where time, image and themes are interwoven, cumulating in its haunting final shot.

Verdict:  A remarkably-realized film about the great British explorer Col. Percival Fawcett, yet it is James Gray’s patience with pacing that is most rewarding, with the film unfolding like a traditional biopic in the mould of an inspired tone poem on obsession and mystery.


Click here to go back to Central Station.