East Asia. Movies reviewed: The Assassin, Miss Hokusai, Port of Call

Posted in Animation, Art, Crime, Cultural Mining, Hong Kong, Japan, Movies, Sex Trade, Taiwan by CulturalMining.com on November 7, 2015

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

Toronto’s fall film festival season continues in November. 2015-rwm_logo-with-bg2Rendezvous with Madness opens tonight, featuring films and documentaries made by or about people with mental health or addiction issues. Each screening is followed by a reelasian-headerpanel discussion. And don’t miss the ReelAsian International Film Festival which started last night. I find movies from East Asia doubly interesting, not just for the story, acting and cinematography, but also for the cultural insights. This week, I’m looking at three Asian movies: a true crime drama set in contemporary Hong Kong, a martial arts epic set in Tang dynasty China, and Japanese anime set in 19th Century Edo.

0gEJM3_assassin_01_o3_8674043_1439243554The Assassin
Dir: Hou Hsiao-hsien

Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) is a young woman in Tang dynasty China born into high-ranked family. As children, she and Tian Ji’an – a first cousin (Chang Chen) — are given matching disks carved from yellow jade, as a symbol of their future marriage. But destinies change. So to save her life, her mother sends the 10-year-old away to study with a Taoist nun.

But what does she study? She leaves there with a moral drive to defend the empire against all foes, both inside and at its fringes. With her long black vgRE5n_assassin_02_o3_8674110_1439243572hair hanging down, the beautiful Nie Yinniang now dresses in black robes to remain unseen, a veritable Chinese ninja. She can handle a sword like none other. Her profession? Assassin. The kind who can take down an official on horseback in the midst of a royal retinue and disappear a second later.

But does she have the mental toughness to kill on command? She refuses to kill a target when she sees him protecting his child. The nun says “to be 0gEJB5_assassin_04_o3_8674243_1439243607a true assassin, first kill the one that victim loves, then the victim himself.” And she sends her back to her beginnings with a mission. Kill the one she loves most — Tian Ji’An!

This sounds like just another martial arts movie, and it does have some excellent sword fights, battles and chase scenes. But don’t go to this movie expecting an ordinary action film. Cause it ain’t. It’s by renowned Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien, known for his stunning visual and musical style, cultural sensitivity… and sloooow pace. Cloak and dagger politics, sumptuous costumes, stilted language, they’re all there, but without the driving music and non-stop action of most Wushu movies. This is suitable for Hou Hsiao-hsien fans, but anyone looking for a crouching tiger or a hidden dragon will search in vain.

MISS_HOKUSAI_main_01Miss Hokusai
Dir: Hara Keiichi
Based on the manga Sarusuberi by Sugiura Hinako

O-ei is an accomplished painter in 19th century Edo (now called Tokyo), known for her scary images of hell, and erotic portraits of women. She spends her days painting in her father’s studio, or trolling the lanes of Yoshiwara, the red light district. She lives in the floating world of actors, sex workers, geisha, samurai and nouveau-riche merchants. And she visits her blind little sister, sent away by their dad who doesn’t like being near disabled people. The movie follows episodes from her life, both realistic and fantastical: painting her first MISS_HOKUSAI_main_02dragon (the spirit has to possess you), seeing demons, even witnessing a long-necked geisha’s out-of-body experience. And her first sexual experience with a man, an onna-gata kabuki actor, who spends his life dressed as a woman.

Based on a true story, you may be wondering how come you’ve never heard of her? The answer is simple: she lived under the shadow of one of MISS_HOKUSAI_main_03the most famous Japanese artists of all time, Hokusai. His ukiyo-e block prints of mount Fuji and his big blue cresting wave are still ubiquitous images when you think of Japan. He was quite the showman, creating the world’s largest brush painting of Zen Buddhist monk Daruma, using a brush bigger than he was.

Miss Hokusai is both faithful to, and a victim of, Japanese anime based on manga. It follows the winding pace and endless variations of Japanese manga, not the neat beginning/middle/end of a western graphic novel. I like its non-judgemental view of the pre-Meiji demi-monde, and it’s all-around Japaneseness. Just wish it had a more linear plot.

IMG_1682Port of Call
Dir: Philipp Yung

Wang Jiamei (Jessie Li) is a student at a Catholic high school in Hong Kong. Originally from Hunan on the mainland, she arrived with her ambitious divorced mom and her innocent little sister. Her dad is a layabout gambler who makes his money whenever Manchester United loses a game. She picks up the local language but can’t fit in. She feels cold and detached inside, alienated. When a girl at the next desk slits her wrist in class, she doesn’t even blink. She drops out and drifts from job to job. A modelling agency sends her to one gig – she becomes the poster girl – literally – in an ad warning about domestic violence. Prophetic.

Ting (Michael Ning) is a friendless, chubby boy whose mother was killed inIMG_2338 a truck accident when he was a kid. After online chatting, he had hired Kama (Jiamei’s name she uses as an escort.) But their meeting leads to a series of horrific events. And when she completely disappears her mother calls the cops to investigate. Detective Chong (Aaron Kwok) quickly determines she’s not missing, she’s dead. But her body is nowhere to be found. Until Ting walks into a police station and confesses all.

Through a series of flashbacks and courtroom testimony, the three C1D31722characters – the murderer, the relentless detective and the dead victim – all reveal their secrets, feelings, histories and surprising motivations. What starts out as a simple police procedural turns into a moving — and at times shocking – drama of a case that had Hong Kongers glued to the tabloids just a few years ago.

Port of Call is a bit long and has some truly disgusting scenes. But it captures a feeling unique to parts of Hong Kong: gritty, grimy, cramped and crowded. The great performances by two unknown actors (plus veteran singer/star Aaron Kwok), its indie soundtrack, the unmistakable images of HK cinematographer Christopher Doyle, plus a surprise ending, all place this film a step above most true crime movies.

The Assassin is playing now in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and you can catch Miss Hokusai and Port of Call at the ReelAsian Film Festival. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website culturalmining.com.

November 16th, 2012. Up and Down. Movies Reviewed: Floating City, Pusher

Posted in Clash of Cultures, Crime, Cultural Mining, Drama, drugs, Finance, Fishing, Hong Kong, Racism, UK, Uncategorized, violence, 中国电影 by CulturalMining.com on November 17, 2012

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

We’re nearing the end of the fall festival season here in Toronto. But there are still a few you can catch.

ReelAsian shows movies by and about people in or from East and Southeast Asia. The festival continues this weekend with movies shown north of Toronto in Thornhill. It’s a great place to see current films from Asia that don’t normally make it to Toronto theatres. Rendezvous with Madness, which shows movies aboiut addiction and mental health is notable for it’s offbeat, rare and creative works. They’re each followed by panel discussions by the filmmakers, experts, and, here’s what’s different… psychiatrists! And I’m going to be moderating a panel of some great Canadian local films (North of Normal: A Collection of Canadian Shorts) so be sure to check that out series out this Saturday at 4 pm! SAD NEWS: ALL SCREENINGS AT RENDEZVOUS WITH MADNESS THIS WEEKEND HAVE BEEN CANCELLED DUE TO ROOF COLLAPSE.

The EU festival shows one movie from each country in the European Union chosen by representatives from each country’s diplomatic corps. Aside from the great films… it’s also completely free! It’s at the Royal Cinema on College street all week. And finally don’t miss the best named festival in Toronto: that’s Darryl’s Hard Liquor And Porn Film Festival at the Projection Booth on Gerrard St East. It;’s actually funny short films made by indie movie makers — not so much porn, but lots of funny adult topics.

This week I’m looking at two dramas about the fortunes of two ambitious but rudderless men whose fortunes rise and fall within the tides of the former British Empire.

Floating City

Dir: Ho Yim

When a desperately poor woman loses her son in childbirth she buys a newborn to replace him – a Eurasian Chinese boy with bluish eyes. She raises him as her own and guards him with her life on a little fishing junk in the fragrant harbor of Hong Kong. He grows up literally barefoot, illiterate, beaten by his father, in debt, and bullied. His light-coloured hair marks him as an outsider. And the local corruption and bribery makes it very hard for a poor person to leave the underclass.

But one day he sees one of the legendary taipans – the ruling business oligarchs of Hong Kong – and vows to join their ranks. A missionary priest teaches him to read and write. And Bo is ambitious; rather than becoming a labourer or a fisherman, he manages to join the legendary East India Company. Despite the racist bully businessman Dick, his boss, he swallows his pride, even letting Dick call him “mixed” and “halfbreed”.

This movie – based on actual people – shows the rise of Bo (Aaron Kwok) against the history of post-war Hong Kong. It stretches from the social unrest uin the 60s through the panic in the 80’s and the ultimate signing of the British colony to the People’s Republic. It also shows his eternal question – who am I? – as he tries to find love, to fit into European society, always pondering is that all there is? And will any loss of pride to kowtowing pay-off in the end? Or will he always be considered “second class”.

I liked the story and the characters, but it seemed more plodding than moving or thrilling. And the film seems a bit dry for such a monumental topic. Still, Floating World gives a comprehensive view of Hong Kong’s history and its people and its bitter-sweet role as a loyal British colony that was never accepted by the mother country.

Pusher

Dir: Luis Prieto

Things are going well for Frank (Richard Coyle). He’s got a nice arrangement with a sleazy dry-cleaner (Danish actor Zlatko Buric) to supply him with drugs that he sells in dubstep nightclubs alongside his skinny, toothy side-kick Tony (Bronson Webb). And he is sleeping with a beautiful, ice-blond stripper (Agyness Deyn).

He decides to expand – he sends a woman to Amsterdam to pick up some coke, and — after a chance meeting with a casual acquaintance he met in the big house – he decides to go for an easy deal that will make him lots and lots of money.

But things are not what they seem. The Amsterdam deal isn’t working, his buddy seems to have turned on him, he suspects the set-up guy might be a narc, and all the money he borrowed from Milo The Dry Cleaner… has disappeared. He’s forced to accompany a violent enforcer to reclaim some of the money he is owed, knowing all the while that he might well be the next one crushed by the big time criminals.

Will he dig himself out if his hole, get back his money, avoid prison, escape the low life, and maybe find a quiet existence with his lover?

Pusher (a remake of Nicolas Refn Wilding’s film) is extremely violent, gritty, low-budget and depressing. It has some good intrigue and action, it’s fast moving and tense, but it’s not a fun movie. The acting is pretty good and you get to like the characters (even though they’re loathsome criminals)… but they’re all so beaten down by the even nastier bosses that you mentally want it all just to end already.

Pusher is playing now, Floating City is playing at reelasian.com this weekend in Thornhill; Rendezvous with Madness, Hard Liquor and Porn, and EUtorontofilmfest.ca all continue through the weekend.

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

November 11, 2011. The Real ReelAsian Film Festival. Movies Reviewed: Bleak Night, Full Metal Alchemist, Saigon Electric, Buddha Mountain, Amphetamine

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies, for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference

As Rome burns and Europe crumbles, and Wall St is pre-Occupied, and the planet is teetering on the brink… all eyes are on Asia. So now’s your chance to get a feel of what’s going on across the Pacific. The Reelasian Film Festival (“reel” as in reel to reel, Asia as in East and SE Asia) is on now in Toronto, and it’s showing great, new, popular, festival and experimental movies from that region as well as some Canadian films. That means dramas, comedies, documentaries, anime, and shorts. There are also lectures, workshops and master classes for actors, scriptwriters, and producers — even events where you can pitch your own movie proposals. So this week I’m talking about films from China, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam.

Bleak Night

Dir: Yoon Sung-hyun

This is a movie about a group of three friends at a private boys’ high school in Korea. Only they’re not exactly all that friendly. One is the undisputed leader of the group, and lords it over the rest of them. He’s more of a bully than a friend, and pressures and intimidates the others, who go along with it. The encounters turn into physical abuse and name calling – “you’re my bitch” he says – but no one questions him.

It’s not until one boy stands up to him – and even tries to sever the friendship – that the power-dynamic changes and the pressure builds.

I like Bleak Night, but it gets bogged down with a slow-moving plot, and too many repetitive scenes with ten-minute-long two-man conversations about what happened off-screen and what they really mean to one another.

Full Metal Alchemist (鋼の錬金術師)

Dir: Murata Kazuya (based on the comics by Arakawa Hiromu)

If you’ve never seen Japanese anime before this is a good place to start. But keep in mind, anime are based on manga and so have very long and complex plots with tons of past references and ongoing twisted story lines.

This movie (one chapter of a long saga) takes place in a fantasy setting that looks like the American southwest in the 1930’s, except the country is under martial law. Ed Elric, the full metal alchemist, is a master scientist-cum-magician with bionic limbs of steel. He teams up with his rival Crichton, his sister Julia, and her robot and companion to try to discover the secrets of Milos, find the stars of fresh blood, and gather any clues that might bring them closer to the Philosopher’s Stone. Watch and learn, grasshopper.

Saigon Electric

Dir: Stephane Gauger

Mai, an innocent girl from the sticks, comes into Ho Chi Minh city to make it as a dancer. But she’s strictly old-school: she doesn’t wear make-up, and doesn’t have a fashionable haircut or city clothes. And her dancing style is traditional too – using a ribbon, no less. But then she falls in with tuff-girl Kim whom she meets working in a restaurant. She’s a break dancer who’s being wooed by a rich guy whose family owns an expensive French restaurant. Kim hangs with her crew – Saigon Fresh — painting graffiti art on city walls, bustin’ moves to American hip-hop, and challenging the Northern Killaz to win the city championship so they can compete in the International contest In Korea. They become close friends, and when Kim finds herself homeless she moves into the room Mai rents from the scarecrow, a grumpy old musician. Mai starts teaching ribbon dancing at the same community centre where Kim is break dancing with her crew – a place where orphans and homeless street kids find shelter.

But trouble awaits: Kim and her boyfriend go off to a seaside hotel, where he promises her the world. But back in the city, some rich developers are threatening to close down the community centre where they all hang out and turn it into a hotel. What’s going to happen? Will all the characters find true happiness or will all their dreams be lost? Will the club be closed down?

This Saigon really is electric, shot in supersaturated colours, of people zooming around the city on motorbikes and skateboards. Even though it’s a age-old story, I like this very modern but distinctly Vietnamese style combined with a good dramatic plot and lots of that excellent 80’s street dancing with head spinning, sometimes even combined with classic Vietnamese drumming. (in Vietnamese).

Buddha Mountain (觀音山)

Dir: Li Yu

Mrs Chang (Sylvia Chang) a former Peking Opera star living in the city of Chengdu, in Sichuan China, is angry, hostile, bitter and depressed, since a tragic death in her family around the time of the earthquake. But she rents out a room in her home to three street-smart kids. Nanfeng (Fan Bingbing) is a pretty girl from a small town who can smash a bottle of beer on her forehead or kiss another girl on the lips – just for the hell of it. She’s trying to earn a living as a bar singer; Fatso (Fei Long) is a chubby, round-cheeked guy who didn’t get into University, but likes practicing Michael Jackson’s moonwalk as he looks for love; and Ding Bo (Chen Po Lin) is a self-centred but free-spirited youth with family troubles and too much time on his hands. They are adventurers – riding the rails, driving around town, rescuing each other from local gangs. Madame Chang orders them around like they’re her servants, and they steal from her and feel no guilt. A real generational divide. She looks down on them for their lack of culture, but for the kids she’s just a screeching fossil from a lost era.

But when one of the characters almost dies the others all rally round to help. They travel up to a Buddhist shrine on a mountain to repair damages from the earthquake and perhaps to fix the damaged parts of their own lives.

Buddha Mountain is a beautiful, touching, interesting and mainly realistic film about rootless youth in urban China.

Amphetamine / 安非他命 (Hong Kong)

Dir: Scud

Kafka (Byron Pang) — named after the Murakami novel, not the Czech writer — is a swim coach, a nude model, and a dyed-blond kung fu expert. His parents are dead, his brother is disabled, and he’s nearly penniless, but he can still do a complete split and support himself with his feet on opposite walls. Then he meets Daniel (Thomas Price), a young and ambitious Cantonese-speaking financier working for an Australian multinational. It is love? Kafka dumps his girlfriend when they seem to be falling for each other, even though it’s a first gay romance for both of them, and Kafka isn’t sure he can handle it.

They go bungee jumping, travelling, living the high life. But things get bad for poor Kafka when he starts doing too much crystal meth, and he begins to lose his grip with reality, falling into strange dreams and scary flashbacks, and beginning to think the white feathered wings he sometimes wears on his back mean he can actually fly. Is their love true? Can a poor but tough man accept the loving gestures of a Chinese-Aussie millionaire?

Definitely don’t see this movie if you’re at all uncomfortable with male nudity, since in practically every scene – I don’t care if it’s a street brawl, a love scene, a hospital, a mental ward, a police interrogation  — they find some excuse to strip down. OK maybe not the bungee jumping scene, but other than that, it’s Naked! Naked! Naked!

Amphetamine is unusual for a Hong Kong movie: a stylized and partly dreamlike gay, erotic melodrama about drugs. In Cantonese and English.

Saigon Electric, Buddha Mountain, Bleak Night, and Full Metal Alchemist, are all playing tonight through Sunday at the Reelasian festival. Check the times at reelasian.com. Amphetamine is also playing this weekend at anotherr toronto festival dealing with mental health and addiction: check times at rendezvouswithmadness.com Also opening today is Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. This is a two part movie, about a wedding with the bride (Kirsten Dunst) heading toward disaster and a post wedding depression with whole planet possibly colliding with a planet called Melancholia. First opart good, second part just so-so. And Charlotte Gainsbourg as the bride’s uptight, beleaguered sister is such a let down after her tour de force in Lars von Trier’s last movie, Antichrist.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies for CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site Culturalmining.com.

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