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.

Sons of Women. Films reviewed: Good Men, Good Women: The Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien, The Boys from Fengkuei, Flowers of Shanghai, PLUS Seventh Son

Posted in Cultural Mining, Fantasy, Movies, Realism, Taiwan, Uncategorized, Witches, 中国电影 by CulturalMining.com on February 6, 2015

JZlDk2_cafe_lumiere_dir_CJ_29_cmyk_o3_8519520_1421267395Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Hou Hsiao-Hsien was born in Canton, China in 1947. His family fled to Taiwan with the Nationalists when he was just an infant. Since then he has emerged as one of postwar Taiwan’s most famous directors (along with Ang Lee and Tsai Mingliang).

His movies tell a fragmented history of his country, one story at a time. He deals with ordinary, working-class people, often dislocated and trying to make their way. His characters struggle with differences of 0gOqw3_City_of_sadness-1_o3_8520087_1421267398language, status, age, class and money. But his films also includes love, sex, jealousy, conformity and insecurity.

Most of his films take place in Taiwan, though there are some exceptions, such as Flight of the Red Balloon (France) or Café Lumière (Japan). The times range from the 19th Century (Flowers of Shanghai), to the 1940s (City of Sadness), to the present day, or even in three eras simultaneously (Three Times).

Some critics call him one of the most important and influential wjZpZJ_GoodMenGoodWomen_(CMIA)_o3_8520899_1421267449directors, anywhere, comparing the style he helped pioneer – the Taiwanese New Wave — to movements like the French New Wave and Italian Neorealism. He’s known for his minimalism, slow pace, long takes and an avoidance of quick editing and obvious special effects.

More often than not, he sets up a nicely-arranged tableau and lets the action take place within that frame. Sort of like a stage play but within a shifting proscenium arch.

Well, there’s a retrospective playing this month in Toronto called Good Men, Good Women: The Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien. It was put together by Richard I. Suchenski, Amber Wu and Teresa Huang and is on a world tour. The series projects pristine prints, rarely seen.

This week I’m looking at two of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s movies. One’s an early film about good men, the other a later film about good women. And, in keeping with my commitment to highbrow/ lowbrow films, I’m also reviewing a fantasy-drama about a medieval guy who hunts for witches… but ends up falling in love with one.

k5DQ0E_BoysfromFengkuei_o3_8519490_1421267388The Boys from Fengkuei (1983)

Three small-town boys — Ah Ching and his two friends — live in a tiny windswept island off the coast of Taiwan. They should be doing their homework but they’d rather be outside gambling and carousing. But after a big fight goes wrong they flee to an abandoned seaside shack. They make their way to Kaohsiung, a big city on the main island. But they soon find life in the big city is not what they expected. They get poorly paid jobs, and their money making ventures – like selling tapes on the street – don’t earn them much money. Their parents expect them to return home to work at an easy factory job. And they soon find themselves victims of conmen, gangsters and sophisticated city folk. But can they find true love in the big city?

I found this movie fascinating, not just because of its realistic coming-of-age portrait of life in Taiwan. It also goes against what I thought was Hou Hsiao-hsien’s directing style: slow, stationary, and dominated by long takes of seated conversations. This movie has fights and chase scenes, crowds and a lot of movement. As programmer Richard I. Suchenski pointed out in his introductory lecture on Hou (Jan 29, 2015), The Boys of Fengkuei fits closely within his oeuvre. It shares the long takes, carefully composed scenes and the stationary, framed shots of his later films.

1jQw4R_FlowersofShanghai_(CMIA)_o3_8520678_1421267414Flowers of Shanghai (1998)

It’s late 19th century Shanghai. Rich men hang out in the entertainment parlours, gambling, drinking, smoking opium and courting the courtesans there. These entertainers the so-called flowers of Shanghai. are known for their beauty and poise. They are carefully trained from an early age, brought up inside the houses. They have their own servants, and answer to the middle aged “auntie” the Madams who rule the business. They cultivate relationships with the rich men who visit them gradually saving up the money they earn. Eventually, they either marry their favourite boyfriend or purchase their independence outright and set up their own businesses. This line of work was one of the few allowing girls to advance from penniless orphan to rich, powerful and socially advanced woman.

The scenes alternate from the men all drinking and dining at a common table to the interiors of the individual houses and the women behind closed doors. The stories are simple: women in rival houses competing for the lovesick but fickle male patrons; discussions of their worth and wealth — both the businessmen and the women; and anger over arranged marriages and love.

In this movie the camera slowly pans back and forth but almost never cuts away from the scene in each brothel. The lighting has a golden glow, generated from the oil lamps on set (portraying scenes without electric lighting). What I found most fascinating was the language – you rarely get to hear dialogue spoken in Shanghainese – another example of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s commitment to realism. This is a beautiful film but like many if his movies, one that requires concentration and commitment to appreciate.

And on a entirely different note…

Seventh Son Ben BarnesThe Seventh Son
Dir: Sergei Bodrov

It’s the dark ages in Europe, a time of dragons, knights and witches. Tom (Ben Barnes) is a young man who slops the pigs at his remote family farm. There’s gotta be something better than this, he thinks. So when Gregory – an odd man with a pointy yellow beard – comes by seeking an apprentice, Tom jumps at the chance. Gregory (Jeff Bridges) is a knight and (like Tom) is the seventh son of a seventh son which gives him special powers and a sense of commitment. He’s an arrogant, foul-mouthed alcoholic. He’s also a Spook, a man who fights the creatures of darkness. He promises to teach Tom how to fight these demons and witches. Tom can’t wait. But before he leaves, his mother places a special charm around his neckIMG_0924.dng that she says will protect him from evil.

The first witch he encounters is Alice (Swedish actress Alicia Vikander) – a beautiful young woman. And when they first hold hands sparks fly… literally! A blue flame shoots out from their hands. Hmmm… But what he doesn’t know is she works as a spy for Mother Malkin (Julianne Moore). Mother Malkin is the evil queen a witch who can turn herself into a dragon. And when the red moon rises, something that happens only once a century, she and her evil cronies plan to take over the world. Will the knights beat the witches and slay the dragons? Or will Tom be slain like all the other apprentices that proceeded him? And what about Alice… is she a good witch or a bad witch?

Julianne Moore Seventh SonThe Seventh Son is an OK fantasy with a very predictable plot too much CGIs, very long battle scenes, and bad Twilight-style romantic element. There are at least four cliffhangers in this movie – and I mean people literally hanging onto or falling off of cliffs. I guess that’s what you get with 3D and IMAX as the main attractions. Jeff Bridges emotes wildly,  Julianne Moore is wonderful as the evil queen, while Ben Barnes is a dull leading man. Most interesting thing is the sets. The women (a.k.a. the evil Seventh Son Jeff Bridgeswitches) live in a celebration of Orientalism, replete with Persian rugs, lapis lazuli tiling, and geometric screens. They recline on pillows beside incense burners. The men all dress in rough-hewn burlap and carry rusty swords. The battle of the sexes told in 100 minutes in 3-D.

Seventh Son opens today in Toronto—check your local listings; and the films of Hou Hsiao-hsien: Good Men, Good Women continue all this month at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Go to tiff.net for times.

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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