4.0, Hong Kong/China

Beijing Blues

New York Asian Film FestivalAlt Citizen Magazine2012 / Gao Qunshu > Beijing vs. Shanghai is always a fascinating study. It’s as if the higher ups in the government decided to draw a line between fun and no fun, between smiling and being a square, between the West and the East. And no matter how adventurous the barrage of insects on a stick outside Tiananmen Square is compared to The Bund, Beijing still comes off as the cold, bitter and smoggy brother of its brethren.

Maybe that’s why Beijing Blues is so incising: the city that holds itself like a cold, locked down safe is cut in half. It shows its weaknesses through the eyes of a police captain like anyone and everyone. Sure, he has a certain conviction to do good, but that doesn’t keep him from telling his wife to stay in the kitchen. That’s not surprising, though: People excel in some areas and are weak in others, balancing out their humanness. And Beijing is, regardless of the attempts by its government superiors, a city of such humans.

Beijing Blues is a character study, both of the police captain Zhang as well as the city in question. In their humanity, there are details of self-preservation instilled: certain thieves, for example, only chase after non-Beijingers. And justice, it is said, should not come at the expense of breaking the law. The film undfolds as a police procedural though without the glamour of Johnnie To’s crime epics. Mood-wise, it’s hard to pinpoint it as a comedy or drama as some scenes are just plain ridiculous. Then again, a city as big as Beijing surely has such moments. With its near-sterile, calculative approach to storytelling, one could argue that this is a Jia Zhangke film with cops and robbers. It could even be dubbed an “action contemplative” film filled with long shots of the capital’s streets against the backdrop of local pop music, including a particularly gorgeous scene where Zhang is followed through the night by a man of mystery.  Why is he chasing Zhang? He’s not violent, but he’s obsessive.  It’s one of the film’s small mysteries that gets answered at just the right time.

Unique to the film is the cast list: When the credits roll, not only do we find out the names of the actors, but also their real-life professions.  Our police captain is played by Zhang Lixian, a “well-known publisher.” Others include “a security guard in Shuangyushu Police Station in Beijing,” a “well-known TV presenter” and a “director and playwright of experimental modern drama.”  In short, a cast of non-professionals filling out the roles of characters in the city they inhabit.  Is this simply a love letter to Beijing?  Maybe, but one thing’s for sure: Its victory at Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards for Best Picture was both shocking and impressive.  Though one would hope Beijing Blues was rewarded for its filmmaking, there’s undoubtedly a foundation of respect for getting the mainland capital to tear down its facade, showing its people to be like you and me, getting its humanity out in the open.

3.0, Hong Kong/China

Drug War

New York Asian Film FestivalAlt Citizen Magazine2012 / Johnnie To > Remember the self-righteous Hays Code (( It ruined the ending of many great films, including the otherwise perfect Witness for the Prosecution from the incomparable Billy Wilder.)) that plagued American cinema for over thirty years from the mid-30s into the late 60s? It’s alive and well now in Hong Kong thanks to the Chinese censors. With a population of only 8 million, the island depends on the earnings from a vast mainland audience, but in order to get there, it needs to appease the bodies that control their morality. And after Felix Chong and Alan Mak of Infernal Affairs fame (the film that The Departed was based on) failed at the task with their corporate thriller Overheard, one had hopes that the great Johnnie To would succeed.

In following up Life Without Principle, his most mediocre crime film in years, there’s ample evidence in Drug War to show that he was hamstrung by fear of censorship and general working conditions in the mainland. Gone is the tragic beauty of his Election duology and The Mission, films that are gritty, bleak but fantastic cinema due to their absurd realism—films that also could not be made with Chinese funding.

Fear not, though, Drug War is still a To film, which means it’s better than most cinema out there. The master pumps out a film a year with ease at a quality that’s unheard of. Even at its weakest points, the film is enjoyable—just not great or relatively memorable. The worst may be that we only get a couple of complex set pieces, for which To is known and much admired, and the simpler of which stands out for its efficiency and impact. But don’t compare this to the incredibly curated Exiled or the cinematic extravagance of Vengeance. In its effort to keep the story streamlined for a wider audience, Drug War misses out on too many of To’s staples and ends up brazenly two-dimensional.

The best part is Sun Honglei playing a shape shifting police captain who charms multiple sides of the coin. It’s a common plot tactic made great by his acting. Sadly, it’s the kind of performance you’d wish to see in a more memorable film. Add in the fact that nearly every other character in the film feels absurdly stock, it also devalues the performance of the seemingly overachieving Louis Koo, who still hasn’t matched his coolness factor from Accident.  Again, it’s hard to not wonder if the flatness of the characters is to match the black and white moral codes of the censors.  It’s frustrating to see the work of a heralded director pushed to the edge for potentially commercial purposes, but if it’s going to lead to Election 3, biting the bullet may end up being a worthy venture.


3.5, Japan

The Kirishima Thing

New York Asian Film FestivalAlt Citizen Magazine2012 / Yoshida Daihachi > In many ways, Gus Van Sant’s Elephant is the best satirical parable about teenage high school life ever put on film. It worked because it was intensely believable even when it went overboard because the tiny details surrounding the giant “laughs” were real, based on experience.  However, the fact that it had to utilize the Columbine Massacre was an unfortunate side effect of what it took to get the point across. (( If you want a more literal (and serious) depiction of a similar topic, you can’t go wrong with Denis Villeneuve’s Polytechnique.))

In The Kirishima Thing, winner of the Japanese Academy Award for Best Picture, it seems a lot simpler: The captain of the high school’s volleyball team suddenly decides to quit. And all hell ensues.

It may strike the average viewer as an event of irrelevance, but in the microcosm of a small school, consider them losing LeBron James to not even free agency but boredom.  Cleveland burned jerseys, but these kids are about to chow down on effigies. Someone symbolic to the culture of a world so miniature leaves and a hole is discovered inside that needs to be filled.  But can it be filled?  Who will fill it?  And how will it affect the balance of that world?

People who follow a person like this, regardless of form and function—are they worthy of one’s attention? Are they, maybe, possibly, the contemporary definition of a zombie? Interestingly enough, that’s what our director is getting at. It may ultimately be a fairly shallow statement, but the so-called losers of this world know one simple thing: This is the world they have to live in. Talented people, such as our MacGuffin Kirishima, believe there is a way out of whatever hellhole they are stuck in. But others need to accept and move on. And often, it just so happens, that comes in the form of fiction—through literature or film or song—a solution outside reality that people insist on.

Those who feel predestined due to their beauty, athletics or traditional intelligence are the ones who are stuck. Those who know no other path are content in finding a way under the radar.  It works not only as an analysis of high school social hierarchies but also class subcultures throughout the world.  Like the boys and girls of mumblecore who whine about their middle class existence (( Best experienced in Joe Swanberg’s Hannah Takes the Stairs. )) while still succeeding in life beyond the average Joe, it’s always the people who have options to rise up or fall who find themselves in states of jealousy or at odds with their paths.  Those who have nowhere to go but up know the direction they must take.

3.5, Hong Kong/China


New York Asian Film FestivalAlt Citizen Magazine2012 / Lou Ye > Nowhere do we struggle with the nature of good and evil more than when it comes to money.  And in an ever-expanding Chinese economy, such dilemmas fly in the face at breakneck speed.  So, it’s of little surprise that at the center of Lou Ye’s return to mainland filmmaking (( While it didn’t get a big release locally, Suzhou River is one of the better introductions to modern mainland cinema. )) is the changing subculture of China where corruption and lust intersect to ruin lives, loves and families.

At its core, Mystery is a solid thriller about infidelity, with twists that are genuinely unexpected and satisfying as long as the viewer doesn’t venture into spoiler-filled reviews.  What’s impressive—as noted by the film winning best screenplay as well as best picture at the latest Asian Film Awards—is its ability to subtly shift its emphasis from a blatant and obvious (if entertaining) genre film into a social statement.

The beautiful Hao Lei (of Summer Palace fame) stars as a well-off housewife who discovers that all is not proper in her seemingly ideal household, and that her husband may or may not be playing hooky with a girl of bountiful youth.  And then the wheels fall off, resulting in an analysis of a curiously amoralistic character who is so not due to nature but rather her circumstances.  Surrounding her are pawns of the landscape: A mother with an adorable son whose father seems perpetually absent.  A spoiled, rich boy who believes that money buys apartments, fast cars, freedom and innocence.  A mother who’s lost her daughter and wants someone to pay for the crime—maybe even literally.  And a husband who, sitting next to his wonderful and loving wife, can look deep into her eyes and lie.  But why does he lie?  Because by all counts, he seems like a good man.

All is not what it seems in this new world of fancy coffee shops and haute shopping malls.  But then again, one has to wonder how much of this is China, how much of this is globalization or capitalism, how much of this is the world changing around us.  Isn’t this just human nature?  Will we always find a way to please that part of us that wants to act on instinct and wantonness, ravaging an otherwise content life?

This is Lou Ye’s first film to premiere in China since he received a five year ban (( Though he did take his skills to France to craft a tragic international love story starring A Prophet’s Tahar Rahim in Love and Bruises.)) for screening the sexually explicit Summer Palace, capturing a dreamlike love affair against the backdrop of Tiananmen Square, at Cannes without the government’s permission. Here, his commentary isn’t focused on the government that has become a shell of itself.  Instead, it’s about the country’s progression towards a market economy where an individual’s sense of freedom comes at the expense of a widening wealth gap.  It’s a world where the rich sneak past the one-child policy and daughters are buried in cash—sometimes just to keep a little face.

3.0, Japan

Guilty of Romance

2011 / Sion Sono > With Suicide Club and its mass schoolgirl suicides ((Watch the brilliant intro to Suicide Club.)), Sono exploded onto the international scene.  But the problem that plagued that film has continued to persist: A potentially grand concept that don’t translate into a satisfactory cinematic experience.  It’s not surprising that Cold Fish, my favorite of Sono’s, is less conceptual and more focused while still taking advantage of his directorial prowess.  In contrast, Guilty of Romance is a desert of mediocrity with some oases of wonders sprinkled about.

At its gut, the film is trying to tell us something about the private nature of sexuality, and it starts off spectacularly with detectives discovering a murder victim whose body parts have alternatively been replaced by those of a life-size doll.  Setting into motion character studies of three women, Guilty shines the most when we follow the path of a quiet housewife of a respected poet as she begins her road to self-discovery.  Played by the gorgeous Megumi Kagurazaka ((Kagurazaka is now married to Sono.)), her transformation is what will resonate the most with most viewers.  The details of her everyday routine, its minor shifts followed by a scene of masterwork in front of a mirror sadly shows the film peaking in the first act.  As often happens in Sono’s films, things derail in a manner that some would consider abstractly brilliant while others like myself just find frustrating to no end. Guilty of Romance’s triptych of female sexuality descends into a kind of madness that makes the analysis moot at the expense of a near-rudimentary thriller finale.

3.5, United States/Canada

The Place Beyond the Pines

2012 / Derek Cianfrance >  A generational crime saga back-ended by a coming-of-age story of discovery and loss, The Place Beyond the Pines is a confluence of genres that don’t often see each other at the cinema.  And if you take into effect its headliners—current A-listers Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper—you’re in for a bigger shock considering the pace at which the film plays out.  Unlike Cianfrance’s last effort, the painful-to-watch but ultimately impressive Blue Valentine (( Our 6th favorite film of 2010. )), Pines flows fairly smoothly, but it’s also not as snazzy as mainstream filmgoers would expect.  It’s a slow burn (clocking in at almost 2.5 hours) that’s heavily dependent on meditating upon the past.  The nature of forgiveness, a topic the Dardennes (( The Son is a particularly great example. )) have nearly perfected, is at the forefront as we see fathers and sons come to terms with who they are.  In fact, the film sets forth a “manly” proposition in defining the roles of sons through their paternal spirit at the expense of loving but ignored mothers.  Whether you buy that premise or not, one thing that’ll stay with you is the performance of Dane DeHaan (( Soon to be famous as Harry Osborne in The Amazing-Spider Man 2. )), whose turn as a fatherless teenager will pour sympathy out of your guts.

1.5, South Asia

Paan Singh Tomar

2012 / Tigmanshu Dhulia > Bollywood continues to baffle: How can such amateur filmmaking be a critical darling? The fundamental problems of Paan Singh Tomar, a loose biopic of an army-athlete-turned-bandit, exist regardless of nationality or historical context. The barrage of constant, heavy musical cues, awkward cuts with rough pacing and obsessive use of shots that have no relevance all take away from the central story. On top of these, a solid performance by a miscast Irffan Khan is negated by shoddy character development that lacks consistent direction. (Do we ever really care about him?) And all of this is made worse by downright terrible performances by minor actors. Neither budgetary constraints nor lack of technical expertise are excuses for such a subpar production.

India has done well not to select Paan Singh Tomar as their entry into the Oscars for 2013. (Barfi! deserves it considerably more, and the quality difference between the two films are day and night.) The problem, however, persists: Bollywood moviegoers are too easily amazed by “new” cinema their country produces, even if similar cinema has been done before better elsewhere. And while being derivative isn’t necessarily a negative as long as proper due is given and quality is controlled, praising mediocrity devalues the perception of the whole industry.

3.5, United States/Canada


2012 / Ridley Scott > Michael Fassbender is the best android ever: This, sadly, is the one true takeaway from Ridley Scott’s return to the Alien universe. If forced to admit another, it would be that the elder Scott brother has now further cemented himself as arguably the single most overrated director working today. For him, style over substance has become par for course, and while that isn’t a bad thing, it’s consistently kept him from being great since 1982. His ability to generate such incredible hype based on the success of two films made 30 and 33 years ago is a testament to the power of the Hollywood hierarchy.

Much of this is incredibly frustrating because, while I prepared for Prometheus with lowered expectations, there were still enough moments of complete awe for me to start hoping that, by the end, there would be some kind of pathos that made the experience complete. But there wasn’t, not really. Not the kind of thing that you remember for years on end and harken back to as a point of continuous reference. Who could forget “tears in the rain?” Isn’t that scene what made Blade Runner click? I’d argue that scene alone is responsible for half of the film’s cult following. It perfectly encompassed everything, thematically and spiritually, and completed both the characters’ and the audiences’ emotional arc. In other words, it’s exactly what Prometheus was missing.

Visually, it’s gorgeous, spellbinding. The vast landscapes are easy on the eyes but creeping on the nerves. There’s tension built into every shot, every angle. In fact, it’s so beautiful that I even excused the presence of a few obviously stock characters. Then again, the film is so concerned with looks that Noomi Rapace, giving her best performance since The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, has full make-up on while on exploration missions deep inside alien caves. Still, maybe she’s just that type, right?

There’s no nitpicking here: The film clearly lacks rationale for quite a few of its climactic sequences. This, of course, shouldn’t be surprising since it’s written by the mastermind behind the con that was Lost: Damon Lindelof. His outline is simple: Create mysteries, throw down an emotional smokescreen and walk away without answers. And I’m not even suggesting that we need anything concrete—the best films leave room for our imagination—we just need context. Context allows us to connect the dots and make films personal. This film, it’s not personal. It’s a hollow shell with beautiful, gorgeous explosions and even prettier eye candy. With more restraint, Prometheus could—and should—have been amazing, but instead we’ll just have to settle for a forgettably good time.

3.0, United States/Canada

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

1982 / Nicholas Meyer > A lot has been said about The Wrath of Khan, but mostly that it stands, on its own, as the best that Star Trek has to offer. So, do we view the film as a movie in its own right or contextually as a Star Trek, sci-fi genre piece? Ultimately, it depends on tone. When a film follows genre thematics, it should be blessed in a similar light. But when it jumps the rope into competition with anything and everything, a whole slew of additional criteria come into factor. The Wrath of Khan attempts the latter, but doesn’t do it particularly well.

There’s a certain level of Star Trek lore one needs to know to fully appreciate the context of Khan, a character who had previously appeared in an episode of the original series some time ago. Not knowing the backstory doesn’t exactly hurt, but it does mitigate his “wrath” factor. The film, though, is broader than its title. It’s really about the characters—How’s Captain Kirk? What’s Spock up to? Again, all this requires some elementary knowledge of the players. Most of us have grown up to some degree with these characters amongst our midst, but often a lot of our peripheral knowledge comes off of caricatures in mainstream media (think Saturday Night Live, et al). Thus, the gravity of the storyline doesn’t hit home, and viewers like myself are left wondering what the big deal is. Essentially, it fails to resonate because its seriousness isn’t backed up by greater context, and its finale tries to touch upon aspects that a fan familiar with the world would appreciate considerably more.

3.5, Korea


2011 / Lee Han > Punch is not a blockbuster. It’s about a poor high school kid growing up with a disabled father hellbent on dancing at a cabaret. It’s about mothers and being an outsider in a closed off world. It’s about fathers and sons and teachers and students. Most importantly, it’s about knowing that one cannot separate all these, that in the evermore complicated world we live in, everything converges at once, and we must learn to find solace in such traffic. And yet, maybe that’s why the film sold 5.3 million tickets in South Korea (or a tenth of the population). In every aspect of the film, there’s something to identify with. And while Punch isn’t glossy, Lee’s direction has shadows of Ozu’s Floating Weeds in its relatively gentle approach to otherwise serious matters.

Centered around a subdued effort by Yoo Ah-in, who himself was a drop out and rose through the ranks as an independent actor, Punch successfully converges the aforementioned topics into a calming, enjoyable piece of work that touches upon, most interestingly but within respectable context, the institution of international marriage. Wan-deuk, the film’s Korean namesake, discovers that his mother is Filipino. Combined with a hunchbacked father, the duo is a troubling mix for any teenager. Yet with the guidance of a teacher (who also happens to be his next door neighbour), he pushes through while learning some kickboxing along the way. At its weakest, it’s charming. At its strongest, Punch exposes a sizable majority of the Korean population to the optimistic end of broken homes. All this being said, it does one thing more…

Choi Min-sik (Oldboy), Song Kang-ho (Memories of Murder) and Sol Kyung-gu (Peppermint Candy): For the last decade plus, these three have been the male triumvirate of Korean cinema. Their range, skill and ability to carry films even with minimal screentime have been a gift to moviegoers, but now we must work on adding a fourth: Kim Yun-seok. Active throughout the 2000s, Kim truly broke out as the morally melted cop-slash-pimp in Na Hong-jin’s The Chaser in 2008. He followed that up with a grinding, fearless performance in Na’s follow-up, The Yellow Sea, where he’s a Korean gangster from across the waters. And now comes his turn as an enigmatic teacher whose moral compass seems a bit off. It’s a role that’s vastly different from the hard-edged nature of his previously noted efforts, but it’s one that he owns. Yoo and Kim’s back-and-forth rapport is a joy to watch and keeps the film from becoming an out-and-out melodrama.

To fully capture the impact of Punch in the Korean mindset, it should been noted that Filipino immigrant Jasmine Lee, who plays Wan-deuk’s mother, has been shortlisted by the majority-controlling Saenuri Party as a potential candidate. Whether this is smoke and fog doesn’t matter. The fact that this is even a possibility is significant in Korean culture and politics and speaks to the impact of the film.