Climb every mountain. Films reviewed: Abominable, Monos

Posted in Animation, Canada, China, Colombia, Kids, Tibet, Uncategorized, violence, War by CulturalMining.com on September 27, 2019

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

The majesty and beauty of mountains makes some people stare in awe, while others see it as a personal goal – something to climb, claim or conquer. This week I’m looking at two new movies about mountains. There’s a group of kids in China on their way to a mountain as they protect a mythical beast; and a group of kids in Colombia holding a hostage on top of a mountain as they fight an inner beast.

Abominable

Dir: Jill Culton, Todd Wilderman

Yi is a teen who lives with her mom and her grandmother Nai-Nai in a downtown Shanghai apartment. She’s saving the money from three parttime jobs to travel across China in the path of her late father, a musician. But her life is turned upside down when an enormous furry creature appeared on her roof. He has white hair, a huge mouth and pale blue eyes that stare longingly at a nearby billboard advertising Mount Everest. It’s his home, and he wants to go back.

Standing in his path are Mr Burnish a billionaire CEO, and a zoological scientist named Zara. Everest is a Yeti, the legendary Tibetan creature, never captured until Beamish enterprizes nabbed him. They want their specimen back, dead or alive. But Yi has other plans. Along with her two neighbours – the selfie-obsessed Jin and the basketball dribbler Peng – they set out on a journey across China. Can they save Everest and bring him back to his homeleand? Or will they all end up captives in a corporate lab in Shanghai?

Abominable is a fun and exciting animated movie for little kids. It’s full of cultural references, from the classic Ming Dynasty novel Journey to the West (西遊記), to the classic ’80s film ET: Yi lures the creature with a trail of steamed dumplings instead of Reece’s Pieces, and the alien creature is “Yeti” not “E.T.”. But it’s also fun and original in its own right, with exciting magic, humour, action and the sentimental bits you need to make it worthwhile. I saw it with an audience of small children and they loved most of it, but were frightened when it looked like the heroes were going to die (Spoiler Alert: they don’t die… ’cause it’s a kids movie!)

Voices include Chloe Bennet (Crazy Rich Asians) as Yi, and Tenzing Norgay Trainor as Jin. Fun fact: if the name sounds familiar it’s because he’s the grandson of Tenzing Norgay, the Nepali-Tibetan Sherpa who climbed Mt Everest with Edmond Hillary.

Abominable is fun movie for kids that grown ups can enjoy too.

Monos

Dir: Alejandro Landes

On a mountaintop somewhere in Colombia a multi-ethnic, multi-gendered group of “monos” – cool, cute teenagers – are fooling around. They’re stylin’ with hip hairstyles and military outfits. They play games like blindfolded soccer, where you kick a ball with bells attached, into a net that makes noise. Or one-on-one wrestling matches, combining martial arts, modern dance and Capoeira. Everyone has a nickname reflecting something about them: Smurf is young and cute, Lady is pretty, Rambo’s a fighter, Swede is light-skinned, Lobo is wolflike… plus Dog, Bigfoot, and Boom Boom. Some even pair off as couples.

Their only contact with the outside world is a staticky two-way radio and a diminutive, muscular man who visits them every so often. He’s from The Organization, a cryptic paramilitary group fighting the government. Their assignment is to guard an American woman they call Doctora. The girls braid her hair and the boys invite her to play in their games. The problem is she’s a hostage of The Organization, and a potential source of power and money. So when things go wrong, the monos take sides and start fighting each other. And when the enemy bombards them with missiles. things turn into a co-ed Lord Of The Flies. Can they stick together in peace and harmony? Or will outside pressure, internal divisions, and harsh military culture lead to harm and even death?

Monos is an aesthetically beautiful look at a period of violence and death in Colombia. The ensemble cast play it as part melodrama, part dance performance, plotted against breathtakingly lush scenery. From sexualized wrestling, to scenes of struggle filmed underwater, to an exquisite pantomime of soldiers walking in the jungle covered in different colours of mud, this highly-stylized movie is as pretty as a Vogue fashion spread, but just realistic enough that you care about the kids and their fate.

Good movie.

Monos starts today at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and Abominable also opens in Toronto; check your local listings.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

Hot Docs 2019! Films reviewed: Bellingcat, The Corporate Coup D’Etat, American Factory, One Child Family

Posted in 1980s, China, Clash of Cultures, Corruption, documentary, Economics, Journalism, Ohio, Politics, Unions by CulturalMining.com on April 26, 2019

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Toronto’s Hot Docs International Documentary Festival is on now. These films tell us what will be news in a year or two, and goes behind the scenes of stories we only think we know about. Hot Docs is showing hundreds of documentaries from around the world, way more than I could ever talk about, but let me briefly tell you about a few I’ve seen that might interest you.

These capsule reviews are shorter than usual, but hopefully long enough for some of it to sink in. This week I’m exposing you to amateur journalists influencing world politics, multinational corporations taking over governments, foreign-owned factories replacing local ones, and government control reaching into women’s bodies.

Bellingcat: Truth in a Post-Truth World

Dir: Hans Pool

With the explosion of Photoshop, propaganda and fake news, how can we find the real truth? A new news source called Bellingcat offers an alternative. It is similar to Wikileaks but functions as an original news source, rather than a publisher of leaked documents. Founded by Eliot Higgins, a UK “vigilante journalist”, Bellingcat uses Open Source investigations to determine whether what we see on the news and online is what is really happening.

Composed of a network of digital news geeks spread across Europe (all men), Bellingcat’s investigations range from responsibility for the Malaysia Airline plane shot down over the Russia/Ukraine border, to a look into bombings in Syria, and identifying neo-nazi faces at the Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville. Using an ingenious combination of satellite footage, snapchat images, and uncensored, online discussion groups of soldiers wives, they find convincing evidence that conventional journalists – and government propaganda – ignore. I would have loved to have seen more about Bellingcat’s investgations into malfeasance within its own country – not just about Russians – but their work is fascinating, valuable and so clever.

You can find Bellingcat’s most recent investigations here)

Moving on now from journalism to governments themselves…

The Corporate Coup D’Etat

Dir: Fred Peabody

Do we still live in democracies, imperfect though they may be? Or has there been a corporate coup d’etat, a virtual takeover of our government? Well this filmmaker says, at least in the United States, the answer is a resounding yes. Widespread incarceration, congressmen and senators with corporate ties, and the phenomenal number of paid lobbyists working in Washington. New laws with extreme libertarian views are often written in total not by politicians but by ALEC a private body associated with the Koch Brothers.

Talking heads include Chris Hedges, Cornel West, Maude Barlow, and John Ralston Saul — who coined the term corporate coup d’etat.

But it also takes us into the heart of the problems by talking with the people of Camden, NJ., a city allowed to decay, and Youngstown Ohio, a former engine of the steel industry, where some people switched their votes from Obama to Trump… not because they love him, but because everyone else had failed to rescue the steel industry, so why not try someone from “outside” the system? This is a great doc, filled both with smart pundits and unknown but unforgettable ordinary people who tell it like it is. Corporate Coup d’état is another politically astute doc from Fred Peabody (whom I interviewed about All Governments Lie in 2016).

Youngstown Ohio may look bleak but how are things in Dayton? The next doc looks at both sides of an…

American Factory

Dir: Steven Bognar, Julia Reichert

Dayton Ohio is the longtime home of Moraine, a major General Motors plant. But when it moved south, the burgeoning middle class started to collapse.

Enter Fuyao Auto Glass, a China-based multinational that manufactures windshields for a large percentage of the world’s cars. Formerly struggling workers with decades of factory experience are offered a new chance. The only problem is GM payed $29 an hour, Fuyao pays $12. Workers are flown in from China to “train” already skilled labourers in the company’s philosophy. Can formerly unionized factory workers adjust to an autocratic, and some say unsafe, shop? Or will they succeed in unionizing the plant? American Factory is great look at changes in a Midwest factory town. It talks to the people on the shop floor and in their homes. It also follows some American managers visiting the mother plant in China. And it speaks directly both to the American and Chinese workers and management (including the odd, billionaire owner) and the cultural roadblocks they meet on the way. Another great doc from Bognar and Reichert!

And finally, a highly personal doc set in China that exposes some dark secrets…

One Child Nation

Dir: Nanfu Wang, Jialing Zhang

Nanfu Wang is a young American filmmaker, originally from Jiangxi, a desperately poor, landlocked province in southeast China. She was born in the 1980s right when the One Child Family policy comes into force. (It lasts officially until 2013.) It says city people can only have one child, but peasants can have a second child if their first one is a girl. Why? It’s simple economics: peasant families depend on their son to stay in the family home and provide for the parents in their old age. Girls move away once they marry.

But the film shows a dark side of this policy. Wang returns to her home village and finds evidence of parents abandoning baby girls to die, foetuses scattered in garbage dumps, and a trafficking ring that sold babies to orphanages to be adopted abroad. There are even cases where village chiefs dictated whether pregnant women must abort their foetuses. I don’t know how much of the film applies to a huge country with 1.4 billion people, but what the filmmaker uncovers in her own area really makes one wonder. One Child Nation is a heartfelt but disturbing documentary.

You can catch all of these films — One Child NationAmerican Factory, The Corporate Coup D’Etat, Bellingcat: Truth in a Post-Truth World — at Hotdocs over the next ten days. And remember, students and seniors can get in free to daytime screenings!

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

Daniel Garber talks with Jia Zhang-ke about his new film Ash is Purest White

Posted in 1990s, 2000s, China, Crime, Migrants, Movies, Romance, Women by CulturalMining.com on March 22, 2019

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Photo of Jia Zhang-ke (left) by Jeff Harris.

Qiao is the girlfriend of a smalltime hood in a dingy mining city in northern China. She is confident, pretty and fiercely loyal. But after a violent showdown on a downtown street, she ends up taking the fall for him. She serves five years in prison. When she is released she discovers her one-time lover has abandoned her.

Will her journey across China — to find her ex-lover and reestablish her reputation — bring her what she wants?

Ash is Purest White is a new Chinese feature that played at Cannes and TIFF. It’s a passionate melodrama that chronicles China’s changes as it modernizes, as seen by a gangster and his moll. It is written and directed by one of China’s best and most famous filmmakers, Jia Zhang-ke.

I spoke to Jia Zhang-ke in New York City via telephone from CIUT 89.5 FM in Toronto.

Ash is Purest White opens today in Toronto.

Noisy or quiet? Films reviewed: Mission Impossible: Fallout, Angels Wear White PLUS #TIFF18

Posted in Action, China, CIA, Corruption, Crime, Drama, Espionage, Migrants, Thriller, Women by CulturalMining.com on July 26, 2018

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Summer is when the blockbusters come out but there are also great arthouse pics to watch, too. So this week I’m giving you a choice. A Hollywood action thriller that takes you to world capitals, and a moving Chinese drama set in a quiet seaside resort.

But first, here’s  some news about what’s coming this fall to theInternational film festival.

TIFF

TIFF held its annual press conference this week, about the first wave of festival choices coming up. If you’re going here’s how to navigate through the hundreds of movies playing. A few that look terrific, are Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, about a gang of child thieves that operate like Fagins fake family. This year a full third of its movies will be directed by women. French director Claire Denis is always a good bet. she has one called Highlife… Did you see Moonlight two years ago? Barry Jenkins is premiering If Beale Could Talk. based on James Baldwin’s novel. And look out for Canadian films by Donald McKeller, Kim Nguyen, and Patricia Rozema, among many, many others they’ll be announcing soon.

And a warning: if you want to avoid potentially bad movies stay away from remakes, movies about movies, and movies directed by movie stars.

Mission Impossible: Fallout

Wri/Dir: Christopher MacQuarrie

It’s present day Europe, and the Mission Impossible team is together again. There’s the indestructible Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), he faces any crisis by saying “we’ll burn that bridge when we come to it.” yHe’s supported by the always affable Luther (Ving Rhames) and the nervous Benji (Simon Pegg). And Ethan’s onetime lover Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson), late of the MI6, will pop up every so often when they least expect it. Their mission: to recover three high grade plutonium balls before terrorists use them to destroy large parts of the world.

The bombs are in the hands of The Apostles, devotees of cult leader Solomon Lane. And the IMF – Impossible Mission Force – is further hampered by their own government: The CIA doesn’t trust them. Ethan has to work beside a CIA agent named Walker (Henry Cavill) who looks more like Sgt Preston of the Yukon than a spy. But the team has a bag of tricks of their at their disposal: digital trackers, rubber masks, and the die hard resilience of the members themselves. Can they trick the bad guys out of their info, smoke out the traitors in their midst… and save the world?

Mission impossible:Fallout has its good points and its bad points. It has beautiful shots of tourists sites in Paris and London… but no actual local people – just criminals, cops and more spies. Parisians and Londoners are just scenery. (And in scenes supposedly set in Kashmir there wasn’t a single Kashmiri.) There are fast -moving fist fights, shootouts and relentless chase scenes… but you never know why they’re doing what they’re doing. The chases are there just for the spectacle.

The script is bad, the acting is mediocre, but the stunts and special effects are amazing. This is an action movie with a cliffhanger (literally) and a ticking bomb (also literally). I love the helicopter fights, the mountain-side fights, and the rooftop chases. I just wish there was something there there. Mission Impossible: Fallout never leaves you bored, just feeling empty inside.

Angels Wear White

Dir: Vivian Qu

Xiaomi (Wen Qi) is a teenaged girl in eastern China. She works as hotel maid at a seaside tourist spot. She spends her free time wandering the beach, paying daily visits to her mentor – an enormous statue of Marilyn Monroe in a white dress. She seeks comfort curled between the goddess’s towering legs. Her life is simple until she witnesses a crime at the hotel and saves a copy on her cell phone. The criminal? A high-ranked party member. The crime? He forces himself on two little girls he lured to the hotel.

She is horrified at what happened but when the police come by she clams up. She’s undocumented, a migrant from a poor area, so she has to keep a low profile, especially around cops. (But maybe she can sell the video for enough cash to buy an ID card?)

Meanehile the two victims Xiao Wen (Zhou Meijun) and her best friend go back to school as if nothing happened – “to save their reputations.” They are scolded by teachers for being late, bullied by other students, and finally Wen’s bitter divorced mom blames her own 12-year-old daughter for the attack. Why is your hair so long, why do you wear clothes like this? So she runs away, ending up at her dad place inside a splash park. His boss says he’ll fire him if he does anything to embarrass powerful official. The parents of the other girl are hoping for a big cash payoff for keeping quiet.

Only the state attorney, an honest lawyer named Hao (Shi Ke) wants justice. So she doggedly pursues the witness and the victims to build an airtight case. But can one woman — and some little girls – fight the power of a rich corrupt official and all his cronies? Or can only the powerless statue Marilyn Monroe come to their rescue?

Angels Wear White is an excellent film about a loathesome crime. She handles it with skill and compassion, showing the results through the eyes of three girls and women: the victim, the witness, and the lawyer. No exploitation here. It’s also about corruption and all its tentacles, the status of women – terrible – and the plight of the quarter of a billion migrant workers in China. Angels Wear White is a powerful, heart-wrenching story.

For more info on TIFF films go to tiff.net. Mission Impossible: Fallout and Angels Wear White both open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

Shells. Films reviewed: Journey’s End, Ready Player One, The China Hustle

Posted in 1910s, China, Class, Corruption, Darkness, documentary, Drama, Games, Movies, Poverty, Science Fiction, Wall Street, War, WWI by CulturalMining.com on March 30, 2018

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

It’s a holiday weekend filled with eggs, whether hard boiled or made of chocolate with a prize inside. So this week I’m looking at three new movies about… shells. There are VR gamers looking for a hidden easter egg, Wall Streeters investing in shell corporations, and WWI soldiers dodging mortar shells.

Journey’s End

Dir: Saul Dibb

It’s March, 1918, in the WWI trenches of northern France. Underground, where the officers stay, it’s dark, dank and smelly. Up on the surface its deadly dangerous, with snipers aiming at your head. Four British divisions rotate their stays at the front at one week per month. It’s like a lottery – with a one in four chance of dying. And the soldiers in Company C are just trying to stay sane and alive. There’s the fatherly Osborne (Paul Bettany) who everyone calls “Uncle”, the indefatigable cook Mason (Toby Jones), and the shell-shocked Hibbert.

So no one can understand why the green, idealistic Lt Raleigh (Asa Butterfield) pulls strings to join this benighted group. Why? His upper classman Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin) is stationed there and he wants to see him again. But he doesn’t realize the level of death and despair that has taken hold there. And that his hero, Stanhope,

is now a mean and bitter alcoholic. The soldiers there are forced to make pointless raids in daylight so as not to interrupt the dinner schedule of far-off Generals. And things reach a boiling point when word gets out the Germans are about to attack on Thursday, right there. They’re essentially sentenced to die at the front. How do they all handle this?

Journey’s End – based on the classic play – is a tense retelling of an old war story, exactly 100 years later. It deals with the futility of war, the rigid British class system, and the male comeradery of life in the trenches. The acting is very good, and the camera wonderfully captures a world lit only by flickering lanterns. Even so, it was hard to sympathize with the stuff-upper-lip, tally-ho language of the script. The long theatrical conversations might might work on stage but not on the screen. The main emotions I got from this movie were depression, disgust claustrophobia and fatalism. It all felt too long, too slow, and too distant, especially once you know their fate… Just die already!

Ready Player One

Dir: Steven Spielberg

It’s 2045 in Columbus, Ohio and the world is a mess. People live marginal existences in ramshackle towers beside huge corporations. Wade (Tye Sheridan) is an 18-year-old orphan who spends most of his time online in a wildly- popular VR fantasy world called Oasis. Its creator left a trillion-dollar prize to whoever can solve the puzzles hidden within this digital world. First they must complete three levels of games and collect three keys  and claim the hidden easter egg. Wade he surprises the world by appearing on the boards as Player One, the top ranked player in the world. But he’s not the only gunter (egg hunter) trying to win. His closest virtual rivals are Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) a fiery red-head, Aech, a muscular giant and genius mechanic; plus Daito and Sho whose avatars look like a samurai and a ninja, respectively. Wade calls himself Parzival. Like the Wagner opera character, he’s searching for a holy grail. And he’s in love with the lovely Artemis. But as best-bud Aech keeps telling him: you only know her avatar – that’s not what she’s like in real life. And lurking in the shadows is the rich and evil Sorrento, (Ben Mendelssohn) the head of IOI, the corporate rival to Oasis’s company. He pretends to be a champion gamer, but he’s actually a fake who hires employees to play for him. But he’s out to win — and take over the world — at any cost. Which of the hunters will figure out the puzzle and find the easter egg? And can they defeat the villainous Sorrento?

Ready Player One is an incredibly fast-moving sci-if action movie. Oasis’s inventor, whose puzzles they’re all trying to solve, was obsessed with the 80s, so the movie feeds you a random hodgepodge of Back to the Future and Iron Giant, Gandam and Street Fighter, New Order and Van Halen, a non-stop shower of pop culture, to the point where you can’t tell self-referential jokes from cheap product placement. (Maybe they’re both?) But why would kids in the 2040s care about the 1980s? I can’t call this a good movie; it’s incredibly commercial, felt more like a theme park ride than a film, and parts were like watching a video game with someone else holding the controls. But you know what? I still enjoyed it. And it does have that classic Spielbergian look and sound.

China Hustle

Wri/Dir: Jed Rothstein

After the Subprime Mortgage crisis, American investors, pension funds, and ordinary moms and pops were looking to make some money. But where? Chinese people were making millions investing in their red-hot companies, but those stocks weren’t traded on Wall Street. Until, suddenly, they were. Hundreds of Chinese startups were being bought and sold and making big bucks. And companies like Roth Capital were holding lavish parties known as “investment conferences” to reel in buyers. They were backed by reputable auditors like Deloitte. It’s a win-win proposition – everyone makes money. Until, that is, some suspicious investors fly to Shanghai and looked around.

Turns out, many of these companies operate as “Reverse Mergers”. Existing Chinese corporations buy shell companies already registered in the US, take them over, change their name, and they’re open to make money.

But their books here don’t look like their books there. Idle factories in China are said to be making ten times what they’re actually earning. And no one’s checking up on them.

So a few maverick investors decide to short sell their stock (like in that movie The Big Short) counting on its value crashing soon. And they speed this along by publicising the corruption and questionable accounting of the parent companies back in China. The result, riches for a few, terrible losses for many.

The China Hustle is a fascinating documentary looking at the shady practices behind deregulation, auditing and investments, as told by three American short-sellers. I thought its view of China as a monolithic villain was superficial and rather one-sided; for example, it shows how these fraudulent investments affect ordinary Americans’ lives, but not how they affect ordinary Chinese.

But it does expose in detail a huge scandal I knew nothing about.

Ready Player One opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. Journey’s End and The China Hustle are in theatres and Video On Demand. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

Cultural Revolution Nostalgia? Film reviewed: Youth

Posted in 1970s, Bullying, China, Movies, Music, Vietnam, War by CulturalMining.com on January 5, 2018

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

We’re in the midst of a cold wave, and it’s so cold, I feel like extending my New Year’s holiday by a few more days. So I’m keeping my review very short. This week, I’m looking at an historical drama from the Peoples Republic of China.

Youth

Dir: Feng Xiaogang

It’s the early 1970s in China, in the midst of the Cultural Revolution. In the 1960s, fanatical members of the Red Guard tried to purge the entire country of “bourgeois elements”. There’s widespread upheaval. Millions of educated youth, the zhishi qingnian, have been sent down to the countryside to work on farms. And because it’s a Cultural Revolution, only a handful of operas and ballets are allowed to be performed anywhere in China.

Enter He Xiaoping (Miao Miao) a young woman with pigtails from a poor family. She has been chosen to join an illustrious art troupe that performs these productions as part of the PLA, the Chinese Army. She is escorted from the train station by the always helpful Liu Feng, right into the middle of a rehearsal, with rows of leggy women in extra-short gym shorts and clingy tops are running about the hall in perfect formation. He Xiaoping is in awe, but also self-conscious and intimidated. She’s naïve, unsophisticated, and unskilled… the exact opposite of two beautiful young women who are leading the group: Dingding (Yang Caiyu) and Suizi (Elaine Zhong). They are both relatively rich, come from big cities and look down on her simple ways. They say she sweats like a farm girl. But the director thinks He Xiaoping has natural talent. She tries to fit in but is constantly mocked and bullied. Will she ever succeed as a performer?

Liu Feng (Huang Xuan) is a kind and generous young man, modest, hardworking and always ready to help other people. So much so that they start to call him Lei Feng, not Liu Feng. Lei Feng was an ordinary soldier who died in the early 60s, but whose name and face is known to almost everyone in China. He’s on posters everywhere, and he’s a role model for everyone to follow. Liu Feng is seen as the living version of Lei Feng… but will his wholesome image stop him from showing his attraction to one of the women? At the end of the cultural revolution the group disbands and the members go their separate ways, becoming soldiers, journalists, and medics.

The story picks up later, during the time of the Sino-Vietnamese war, where some of them meet again, and again much later in a more modern China. Who ends up doing well, and who is left behind? And has anyone changed their ways?

Youth is an unusual look back at the Cultural Revolution. It works as a broad, epic romantic drama. The director Feng Xiaogang does Big Hollywood-style movies really well, with action, love, and as much gratuitous near nudity – steamy shower scenes, etc – as the censors will allow. I just had problems with the history. He sees it as a happy, nostalgic time of simple thoughts and good people. Sort of a Cultural Revolution-Lite. There have been many other movies about Chinese performers in the Cultural Revolution (Jia Zhangke’s Platform, Zhang Yimou’s Coming Home) but this is the first one I’ve seen that paints it as a happier time. Then there’s the war – like any good war movie with lots of explosions, valour and “war is hell” feeling. But this is Vietnam, which China attacked to “punish” them. Why? Because they drove the genocidal Khmer Rouge out of power in Cambodia!

Even so, the director tempers the movie with a bitter-sweet ending that makes you think about present-day China in a new light.

Youth – in Chinese with English subtitles – is playing now in Toronto: check your local listings.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

 

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Daniel Garber talks with producer Jason Charters and director Larry Weinstein about Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas

Posted in China, Christianity, Christmas, Christmas songs, Cultural Mining, documentary, Eating, Judaism, Music, Toronto by CulturalMining.com on December 22, 2017

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

It’s the 1960s. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire… outside the snow is falling and friends are calling yoo-hoo… it’s Christmastime in the city. Mom, Dad and the two kids get in the car to go out for their traditional family dinner. Is it ham? Turkey? No… it’s Chinese food! Beause these folks are dreaming of a “Jewish Christmas”.

Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas is a new documentary that looks at the secular celebration of a religious holiday in North America and how it’s reflected in popular culture – especially in Christmas songs. It re-eneacts a 1960s dinner in Chinatown with new performances of classic Christmas songs by Steven Page, Dione Taylor and Aviva Chernick.

The film was produced in Toronto by Jason Charters and Liam Romalis at Riddle Films and directed by Oscar nominee Larry Weinstein.

I spoke with Jason in studio at CIUT and with Larry via telephone.

Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas is playing on CBC Documentary Channel on Dec 24 and Dec 25.

Daniel Garber talks with director Tiffany Hsiung about The Apology

Posted in Canada, China, documentary, Korea, Philippines, Slavery, Women, WWII by CulturalMining.com on December 3, 2016

img_1617Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Japan joined the European race for colonies late in the game. But they took to it with a vengeance, expanding ever southward. First Taiwan, Korea, and Manchuria, and by the the-apology1930s they began to seize territory in Eastern China, Southeast Asia and Islands of the Pacific and South China seas. And at the vanguard of all this was the Japanese Imperial Army. To keep the soldiers free from disease they initiated a program of Comfort Women (従軍慰安婦). Over img_1619200,000 girls and young women from Japanese colonies across Asia were forced into sexual slavery to serve the troops. Because of the shame involved, the survivors remained silent for fifty years. What happened to them, what are their stories, and what apologies do they seek?img_1621

The Apology is a new NFB feature documentary that follows three elderly Comfort Women – from Korea, China and the Philippines — who survived that horrible ordeal. It is a highly personal film, seen through Hsiung’s eyes as she documents the three Grandmothers’ lives while they still have a chance to tell their stories.

The Apology opens in Toronto today. I spoke with Tiffany Hsiung in studio at CIUT.

Eurasia. Movies reviewed: Mountains May Depart, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Sing Street

Posted in 1980s, Afghanistan, China, Ireland, Journalism, Musical, Romance, Science Fiction by CulturalMining.com on March 11, 2016

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Europe and Asia, despite what some people think, are part of the same continent: Eurasia. This week I’m looking at movies set on the Eurasian landmass, from the far east to the extreme west. There’s a love triangle set in a rapidly westernizing China, a true story about expat journalists in Afghanistan, and a coming-of-age musical set in Ireland.

48V7xJ_MOUNTAINSMAYDEPART_03_o3_8667537_1438094807Mountains May Depart

Wri/Dir: Jia Zhangke

It’s 1999 and a mining town China prepares for the new millennium. Especially Tao (Zhao Tao) who is a pretty, young performer. She’s being courted by two men. Liangzi (Liang Jingdong) is a brash but nice guy, brimming with confidence. He works in the mine store. Equally confident, but self-centred and vengeful, is Zhang Jinsheng (Zhang Yi). He’s rich and Liangzi isn’t. She wants to be friends with both of them. But she has to choose, and she chooses the one with money over vgRA2n_MOUNTAINSMAYDEPART_04_o3_8667554_1438094737the one she loves.

They have one son they name Daole or “Dollar”, named after the US dollar, what Zhang desires most. Tao stays in the mining town, while her husband moves to the city to rule his burgeoning financial empire and satisfy his perverse obsession with guns. And their son, Dollar, is sent off to a private English-language boarding school in far-off Shanghai.

GZzj65_MOUNTAINSMAYDEPART_01_o3_8667519_1438094794The second part of the movie jumps to the near future. Dollar lives in Australia now and only speaks English. He has distant memories of his country and his mother and transfers his feelings onto a rootless, Chinese-Canadian teacher named Mia (Sylvia Chang).

The movie then reveals what has become of Liangzi, Jinsheng and Tao – the original three characters.

Jia Zhangke is one of the best filmmakers in China, and a personal favourite. He has a unique style and feel that exposes the flaws and idiosycracies of modern China. But always in a funny satirical or shocking way. What other Chinese director would start his movie with people dancing on a stage to the Village People? It looks like one of his first movies Platform (2000). That said, this isn’t his best work. The first half is a good classic Chinese melodrama, but the second half, with its prediction of China’s future, feels empty in comparison.

12803308_192044051164344_2982674369886159417_nWhiskey, Tango, Foxtrot

Dir: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa (based on Kim Barker’s memoirs)

It’s the early 2000s. Kim Baker (Tina Fey) is a network TV newswriter whose career is going nowhere fast. So she jumps at the chance to relocate to a place grabbing all the headlines: Kabul, Afghanistan. She says goodbye to her boyfriend and takes off. But as soon as she arrives she sees it’s not what she expected. She’s shocked by the unvarnished crudity of the other expats. But she also exalts in her new status. She has, at her disposal, a buff kiwi bodyguard, a smart Afghan translator, and a local fixer, to name just a few. A blonde Aussie reporter named Tanya (Margot Robbie) takes her under her wing.  She says, “In New York City you’re a 6 or a 7, but here you’re a borderline ten.” Tanya also tells her who to get to know, and who to avoid. And above all, to watch out for12362989_139342373101179_5125622253715911362_o the womanizing lush Iain (Martin Freeman: The Hobbit) a Scottish journalist.

Aside from drinkin’, dancin’, cussin’, and screwing around, she also has to file stories. She’s embedded with a Marine battalion, under the misogynistic General Hollanek (Billy-Bob Thornton.) But she manages to find some real news, even venturing out of the insular, foreign enclave in Kabul (or “Ka-bubble” as Tanya calls it). Will her new digs bring her fame and fortune? Or is it a bottomless pit that swallows journalists whole?

This movie is a fictionalized account of print journalist Kim Barker’s stint as an expat in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It’s an enjoyable movie and Tina Fey and company give a good sense of what it’s like to live there as a foreigner. What it doesn’t give is what it’s like to be an Afghan. There are some good scenes of an Afghan wedding, and she has a bit of professional contact with locals like Sadiq (Alfred Molina) a sleazy government minister, but nothing that challenges existing stereotypes.

And the Afghan women in burqas? Completely silent.

12771938_228217334192440_5486446044202041047_oSing Street

Wri/Dir: John Carney

Cosmo (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is a middle-class kid at a private Jesuit school in Dublin in the 1980s. He lives at home with his parents, his little sister and older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) a pothead who dropped out of college. But when his family falls on hard times he is sent to a rougher school run by the Christian Brothers. (Canadians know the name from the Mt Cashel orphanage in St John’s, Newfoundland, notorious for its horrific abuses.) The school is run by men in black priestly gowns from neck to feet, pgo441_singstreet_02_o3_8934407_1453302712and who are not adverse to corporal punishment. They make it their goal to crush every hint of non-conformity. Cosmo gets bullied from day one, especially by a skinhead. But all is not lost. Because across the street he sees a beautiful girl who looks like a model who just stepped out of a Duran Duran video. She even has a proper model’s name: Raphina (Lucy Boynton). Thinking quickly, he invites her to star in his band’s video for their next song – and she agrees. Only problem is, there’s no video, no song, and no band. Somehow Cosmo has to make it all happen. He meets Eamon (Mark McKenna) and together they start writing songs. Soon, they turn into new wave rock stars complete with appropriate make-up and frosted hair. But will they have it all ready in time for the school prom and before Raphena leaves for London?

Something about this movie grabs me – I really like it. It’s your basic boy-meets-girl/ coming-of-age story, and it’s set in the 80s, but there’s nothing old or tired about it. Sing Street feels fresh and new featuring young actors and musicians who are all amazing.

Sing Street, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, and Mountains May Depart all open today in Toronto: check your local listings.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

Cracks in the Foundation. The Continent, Rocks in my Pockets, Rosewater

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

From far away, porcelain looks smooth, shiny and flawless, but look too close and fine cracks appear. This week, I‘m looking at movies that expose the cracks in faraway Latvia, China and Iran. There’s an Iranian man who wants to leave prison; three Chinese men who want to leave their island, and a Latvian woman who, at times, wants to leave life altogether.

TheContinentThe Continent
Dir: Han Han

Three young men have lived their lives on a tiny, windswept island off the east coast of China. But they decide it’s time to check out the continent. Like in the classic Chinese novel, they set out on a “Journey to the West. They each have a different reason. Jianghe (Chen Bolin  [陈柏霖], who also starred in Buddha Mountain [觀音山] — read my review here) a school teacher an”d eternal optimist, is transferred by the government to a remote location far, far away. Haohan (Feng Shaofeng [冯绍峰]) is a blustering young man dying to see the world. He longs to stand on a determined mountaintop and shout to the world about the size of his dick. And he has a childhood pen-pal Yingying TheContinent_still2(Yolanda Yuan [袁泉]), a pretty girl he’ll finally meet face to face. And true love will soon follow. Their third friend, Hu Sheng, is mentally challenged, and depends on the other two to tell him what to do.

But they soon discover life outside their tiny island is bewildering and confusing. They stumble onto a movie set in WWII. And at their first hotel Jianghe is approached by an escort named Sumi, immediately followed by knocks on the door from aggressive police. Bewildered, he plays the hero, HanHanbusting out through a barred window and “saving” Sumi from a fate worse than death. Or so he thinks. And a sketchy, Cantonese hitchhiker helps them with their navigating – but can he be trusted? Maybe not, in a place where anything that you don’t hold onto with both hands when you gp to sleep will likely be gone by morning. But it’s also a country with stunning and empty vast vistas, rockets flying to outer-space, and cool and savvy people at every turn.

The Continent is writer-director Han Han’s (韩寒) first film, but he’s far from unknown. His blog is the best-known one in China which automatically makes him one of the most famous people in the world. This is not just a simple, picaresque road movie. It’s also a slyly humorous — if bleak — cautionary tale about life in contemporary China.

RocksinMyPockets_Poster_MediumRocks in My Pockets
Wri/Dir Signe Baumane

Signe is a Brooklyn artist, originally from Latvia, with a hidden family past. She wants to find out the truth behind the family matriarch, her late grandmother. On the surface, she was a preternaturally hard-worker, known for her Sisyphean feat of carrying endless buckets of water up a steep mountain. She had retreated to a backwoods cabin with her husband, an eccentric entrepreneur, to escape the difficulties of life in the city. But, after a bit of digging, Signe discovers a streak of depression, suicide and mental illness in her family stretching back three generations. The title refers to her grandmother’s attempted suicide by drowning – she was unsuccessful because she forgot to fill her pocket with rocks. Even if the mind wants to end it all, the body – until the last breath — will fight against dying. At the same time, Signe realizes that the many children and grandchildren managed to survive and succeed despite harsh time. In this film, Riga is imagined as a rocksinmypockets-1024x576place with enormous human faces on their buildings, within a country filled with animistic creatures with long tails, dog ears and goggly eyes that lurk everywhere, just out of sight.

Her odd family history is portrayed in a series of short, animated episodes, using panels of sketched characters moving against brightly-tinted Linda_Sc_080_with_WS_Thumbnailbackgrounds. These are interspersed with super-imposed stop-motion images made of rope and papier-mache figurines. This giuves the whole movie an unusual three-dimensional feel, combining classic drawing with computer-manipulated mixes. And omnipresent is the wry and funny –though at times grating – voice of the narrator telling and commenting on her family history. The director shows the deleterious effects of Soviet era psychiatry – one where cures consist of medicinal corrections to chemical imbalances – and how it makes some people long to “erase themselves” and ceasing to exist. A poignant, fascinating and great animated feature.

RW_LM_20130810_0238.jpgRosewater
Dir: Jon Stewart

Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) is an Iranian-Canadian journalist based in London. He lives there with his beautiful (and pregnant) wife. He is assigned to cover the upcoming elections in Iran, but quickly runs unto trouble as soon as he arrives. He quickly makes friends with a politically active and sympathetic taxi driver who takes him to areas fertile with dissent. But after witnessing a potentially explosive event he is arrested. His charge? Spying.

Ironically, a comic TV interview he had given to an American comedian on the Daily Show is used as evidence of his wrong doing. He is quickly thrown into solitary confinement in a notorious prison. He is psychologically tortured until — says the warden — his will is broken and he will lose all hope.

His family, it turns out, is no stranger to death and imprisonment for RW_NK_20130729_0700.jpgpolitical views under earlier regimes. Both his father and his sister had gone through it, and appear, in his mind, to convince him to hold on. But will he make it?

Rosewater is Jon Stewart’s first film, and it shows it. Stewart is known for the brilliant and funny The Daily Show that skewers mass media from a left-ish perspective. But a feature film is not a three-minute sketch. The movie starts out great with exciting scenes of news-gatering, but it starts to drag, heavily, once it moves to the prison. While it conveys the loneliness and suffering,  solitary confinement does not make for good cinema. Bernal and the supporting actors are fine, but the buffoonish prison guard and the sinister administrator seem too much like the evil twins of  Schultz and Klink to take seriously.

The Continent played at the ReelAsian Film Festival which continues for another week (reelasian.com), Rosewood played at TIFF this year and opens today in Toronto, check your local listings; and Rocks in my Pockets opened the Rendezvous with Madness Film Festival (which features films on addiction and mental health – with an additional screening tomorrow: go to rendezvouswithmadness.com for times. Also opening: next week at Hot Docs there’s the great documentary called Point and Shoot about a young American traveler/journalist who, despite being non-religious and non-radicalized, nevertheless joins the rebel armies fighting in Libya (listen to my review here). And a surprising story about the Life of Pigeons on CBC’s the Nature of Things.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

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