Johnny To and the art of non-disclosure
Day 1: Well the 30th Hong Kong International Film Festival started off with a bang on opening night, although it might be a little more appropriate to say it started off with a grind, considering that one of the two films on show was the premiere of Johhny To’s latest offering, the sequel to last year’s gritty gangster hit Election. Now, that might sound like a criticism but when it comes to bang, neither Election nor its astonishingly good follow up, Election 2, favor the gunplay typical of gangster films. Instead, triad members seem to take a cue from the ancient oaths of their secretive Shaolin origins and come up with new and inventive ways to kill people that involve very few, if any, bullets. The ‘grind’ in question is in fact a reference to a highly memorable scene in the world premiere sequel that involves a dog pound and several incarcerated rival gang members of upwardly mobile gangster/businessman Louis Koo, and needless to say it’s not a scene for the faint of heart.
Neither is the film itself. To has exceeded himself building something that with this second part is starting to rival Coppola’s The Godfather, and all I can say is after seeing Election 2, I can only hope and pray there is an Election 3. When Election closed, Simon Yam’s charmingly chilling Lok had succeeded the throne of Chairman and Koo’s background businessman Jimmy was being advised to either ‘get out now’ or else become a Chairman with absolute power. A large part of the interest in this continuation is the fact that it is quite clear that Koo’s character isn’t interested in becoming Chairman, but that his interests lead him in that direction despite his best intentions. Koo makes a good case for the ambitious, cornered Jimmy who, when push comes to shove, is every bit as merciless as his godfather and rival who is attempting to retain the seat for a second term.
And To might have changed his tune a little in terms of the glorification of heroic gangster violence, but he certainly hasn’t lost his sense of humor. Playing on some of the more crucial moments in the first film, the director’s signature right-place-wrong-time plot twists are darkly humorous counterpoints to the recurring themes of loyalties going haywire under pressure. Whatever you do, don’t let anyone tell you how this film ends, because the impact from the surprise collision of machinations versus traditions is like being dropped off a height. Of course, having seen it, you’ll want to tell people about it, but I wouldn’t if I were you; when Mr To introduced the film and asked the audience to keep the ending to themselves afterward, he asked very nicely. And somehow one gets the feeling that when Mr To asks nicely, it’d be a bad idea to ignore him.
Surprise Wu or Your fu is better than my fu
Day 2 sees me kicking around TST with nothing to do, despite the way my schedule is starting to look coming up on the weekend. So I sit down for a coffee in the air conditioned comfort of the nearby Starbucks and check the program and lo, right next door in the Space Museum they’re about to start screening Andrew Lau’s Initial D and I think, well, I’ve got no other movies on and I’m already on this side of the Harbour, I might as well. And yeah, I was thinking I was probably going to regret that, and found myself thoroughly surprised when actually I didn’t. Adapted from one of the biggest manga and anime in Japan (yeah, I know. They’re all big, but this one really is big; the director had a fight on his hands for several years trying to get the copyrights from Japan in order to make the film), Initial D was pretty, shiny and engaging enough to entertain for an hour and a half, and despite the fact that everything else was wrong about Japan – everyone, including actors I know to be Japanese, dubbed in Cantonese and blatant disregard for the Japanese names that were actually showing up in the subtitles – at least they got the drift racing part mostly right. And Jay Chou didn’t suck nearly as much as I expected him to, and Edison Chen was unfairly cool for such a small part, and Anthony Wong makes the funniest old drunk you’re ever likely to see. I hear the director of Fast and the Furious is doing a version of this film. If they can beat that combination, then good luck to them, but I kind of think that for all its flaws, this vehicle is going to be the one to place your bets on.
And that whole concept of surprise ended up being a bit of a trend for the day, because later that night I turned up for Film Surprise, a slot in the program which was exactly what it said, although in retrospect it was probably the festival’s worst kept secret. But not knowing what we were going to see (technically), the surprise was that it was actually good; really, really good. Actually, it was hysterical, and am I the only person who thinks it’s patently wrong that someone as attractive as Daniel Wu, who already proved in last year’s great One Nite in Mongkok that he really isn’t just a pretty face, should actually have directorial talent as well? Yep, you heard right. Daniel Wu’s directorial debut film – The Heavenly Kings – was good.
Part parody, part reality TV, part talking heads on the state of the music industry in Hong Kong, The Heavenly Kings was the Cantonese Spinal Tap. No, really. See, a little while ago, Mr Wu started a boy band (well, man band; they’re too old to be boys) with Terence Yin, Andrew Lin and Conroy Chan. And filmed it almost 24/7. And what he ended up with was a fantastically funny mocumetary about the four of them starting a band. Now, if you think that sounds about as amusing as watching grass grow, I assure you it’s not. Merely the fact that he can poke such good fun at himself and the other mega-star members of the band ‘Alive’ is serious kudos right there, but he actually also managed to come up with some cutting commentary on the way things work in the industry in Hong Kong. Interspersed with some genuine reflection by peers, most scenes are a riot a minute – the MP3 scandal, the dance instruction, the styling session, their first live gig – but possibly funniest of all, the question of how any one of them managed to keep such straight faces during so many truly hysterical moments.
And how one talentless band can go so far on the strength of a single song ought to be beyond understanding, but Wu’s almost-indie film makes it clear that the irony involved shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. If the enthusiastic guffaws from the theatre audience were anything to go by, surprise was the least they were feeling. Myself, I have a new-found respect for Daniel, and I hereby solemnly swear never to call him Hong Kong’s Keanu Reeves ever, ever again.
Bad is good, and vice versa
My third festival day is quiet. After a last minute, late night write-up for Asian Kungfu Generation’s new album Fanclub (which is brilliant, by the way) to help out a friend, it took me a while to get moving. I discovered that Island trams are slow only when you want them to be fast, and that it’s only cold when you dress light and forget to take a jumper, and I almost missed Fearless as a result. Lucky thing I didn’t, because wow. Talk about a return to form, and it’s like Jet never left the mainland medium he’s so very, very good at.
Fearless is end to end an amazing kungfu spectacle, but what really made it for me was Jet’s narrow-visioned, self-aggrandising character in the first half of the film. It’s almost painful to watch when you’re used to him playing nothing but the most admirable and virtuous of men, or else sweet geeks with good souls, and he did it very convincingly. The only thing I would have called this film on was the ridiculously one-dimensional villains, but then one can’t have everything I guess. It was more than made up for by the unexpected departure from the standard Boss Fight Syndrome at the end; despite his brief screen-time, Jet’s final rival is the most likable Japanese in Chinese kungfu cinema history, and the outcome of the bout has more in common with something like Hamlet than it does with Fists of Fury.
And from Mainland wu shu we move to Korean woe, and Daisy (which wasn’t actually part of the festival, but a premiere I attended at the AMC at Festival Walk). Shot in Amsterdam and directed by Andrew Lau with an all Korean cast, it had all the makings of a reasonably good film, and yet inexplicably fell somewhat short of that mark. There are plenty of recognizable Lau moments, and the slow first third of the story turns out to be an acceptable measure when the action starts to ramp up, but somehow this film never quite manages to focus the way a Hong Kong film with the same premise might have.
Basically, it’s a love triangle between painter Jun Ji-hyun, cop Lee Sung-jae and assassin Jung Woo-sung, and not that I have a thing against love triangles, but this film just didn’t seem to have quite enough of the kind of tension that makes such complicated situations messy and therefore fascinating. I would have said it was the structure – almost the same story from three different points of view, narrated in the past tense by each character and returning to the point where their paths cross, but actually that same symmetry was probably one of the strongest part of the film. The other aspect of it worth mentioned was probably the twist on the bad-guy-against-good-guy-girl-in-between theme, where Jung’s character was refreshingly deviod of menace and actually as bit dorky and harmless, except for that thing about his profession.
What made this film disappointing in the end was not the fact that each of the three characters get a moment in the narrator’s seat, nor the fact that it had the same overly sentimental melodrama that most Korean love stories have, nor even the fact that it featured about a half a dozen points at which it could have stopped but didn’t. No, in the end, it was disappointing because it had the potential to be so much better. The tension between the characters was a little too virtuous to be truly engaging, and the time typically spent generating animosity between the two men in the triangle seemed too minimal to be effective. Such small and yet fundamental flaws left me hoping, possibly for the first time in my life, that Hollywood might actually make an American version.
Renegade stars and tormented teens
Day 4, and the weather is back to balmy again. Hong Kong always looks like it’s going to rain to me, but people assure me that’s just the smog. I figure regardless of what the locals say, if I keep my umbrella in my bag then the likelihood it will actually rain should drop to zero. So far this theory seems to work.
After the minor panic of rushing to see Fearless (and get this, they might say 12.30 on the program, but what they actually mean is 1 o’clock when the Space Museum actually opens) I jump on a Star Ferry with plenty of time and this is honest to God one of the best ways to get across the harbour. It’s fast, cheap, the rocking of the boat makes me feel like I could happily go back to sleep, and the view of either shore is incredible. Today the ships in the distance look like they’re sailing off the edge of the world. Of course, as pretty as it is, I have a date with the dark interior of a cinema, so I quickly swing by the Festival Office in the Cultural Centre for an internet fix, and then front up for SPL, otherwise known as Sha Po Lang, knowing pretty much nothing about it.
And sometimes I wonder if the proliferation of corrupt cop films in HK cinema doesn’t have some weird side affect on the general population. They don’t seem that paranoid about their law enforcement, so perhaps the good cops balance out the bad cops and everyone is able to maintain a certain degree of ambivalence about it. Not so Simon Yam’s cop-on-a-mission, and Simon’s so great in anything he does, not even going up against a powerhouse like Sammo Hung playing a well-to-do triad boss can tarnish this man’s shine.
Sammo himself was understated evil, looked suave with long hair and a goatee and had a mean golf swing he wasn’t afraid to use. And as soon as I discovered Donnie Yen was in it as well, well I kind of knew what I was in for, that being something somewhere between serious police drama and action spectacle, which funnily enough was exactly what director Wilson Yip and Mr Yen were aiming for. Hung’s Triad boss gets away with murder, literally, Yam’s cop discovers he has nothing to lose, also literally, and proceeds to go after him any way he, his loyal team and new captain Yen can in the two days before he retires. Highlights include the surprise tumor (and the offhand way the news is relayed), Simon Yam’s driving, the slicing dicing action of Wu Jing, Sammo’s ring tone, and Donnie’s ability to emote. And also fight. Man, he’s fast. I could watch him work almost all day.
Someone else I could watch work all day would undoubtedly have to be Japanese director Sabu, and several hours and one bizarre meal at a Times Square KFC later (a Teriyaki Chicken burger with these weird waffle fries, if you must know), I’m in line for one of my most anticipated films of this festival – Dead Run. And Sabu might be one of the best filmmakers in Japan at the moment, but the fact that he’s now made two films with Johnny’s Boys boy-band V6 was obviously a large draw card for the under 20’s fangirl crowd. I say this not because I don’t think fangirls aren’t able to appreciate a Sabu film for its non-V6 qualities, but because they had some truly bizarre responses at weirdly inappropriate moments during the film. It felt like I was on a theme park ride, and considering Dead Run is perhaps the lease frantic of Sabu’s work so far, it made for a somewhat surreal viewing experience when, hive-mind like, they all ‘oohed’ or ‘aahed’ in unison during what most would consider the dramatic key points.
An increasingly dark coming of age tale, Dead Run follows Shore kid Shuji (Tegoshi Yuya), who learns from a very early age that there are some questions that just don’t get answered, and that he must make his way through life regardless. As in all Sabu films, there is a fascinating range of right-angle characters (the always scene-stealing Susumu Terajima as a mysterious maybe-gangster for one) but what really makes this particular film worth talking about is the way in which the director’s normally blinding points of convergence and change are much more subtle. This film reminded me a little of Kore-eda’s work, and a little of Shunji Iwaii’s All About Lily Chou Chou. It had that same sense of isolation, the same critical longing and confusion between what is seen and what adults say is seen, and in it, Shuji has the same need to reach out blindly despite not being equipped well enough to fall. The adults in this film, in Shuuji’s life, are dangerous in degrees both subtle and brutal, and perhaps that’s what the director is trying to say in the end; that growing up is an obstacle course full of traps that to the unprepared can be fatal.
Certainly don’t except wacky hijinks from this film like I suspect the V6 fangirls did, but do expect to be moved, and even shocked, in ways that few films this year will be able to manage. This is probably Sabu’s finest work to date, and considering his track-record so far, that’s really saying something.
Stop motion and backwards in time
Day 5 starts off with me deciding I’d rather sleep in than catch Perhaps Love, not that Takeshi Kaneshiro isn’t a big draw card in that respect but musicals at 10 in the morning are just asking a bit too much, no matter how good they are reported to be. So I haul myself down to the ferry after a couple more hours snooze to see the animated Japanese film The Book of the Dead at the Cultural Centre which, okay had no handsome Japanese actors/popstars, but I’m still pleased to say wasn’t so uninteresting that I wished I was back in bed.
I make it a rule when I’m at a festival to make sure I see at least one experimental film, and by experimental I mean something that I’m not likely to want to see at any other time of the year. And so far, Book of the Dead is that film. Making a nice follow up to Into the Picture Scroll, which I caught at BIFF 05, it’s an allegorical tale based on a old story from the 7th century brought to life by one of the oldest (although not quite that old) animation techniques known to man. The charm of something like this, providing you’re already down with the pace of traditional Japanese stories, lies in the details, where everything, from the princess’ silken shawl and her long, straight hair, to the weaving of cloth on a loom, provides the sort of precise and intricate visual display rarely experienced any more. For that reason alone it’s worth seeing, regardless of the lack of riveting drama or gratuitous death scenes.
And of course, I get my share of gratuitous death during my next two films. After an hour or so chilling at a Pacific Coffee (and why oh why can I not get a decent cup of coffee in this town?!) it’s off to the Arts Centre for a well-chosen Milkyway Image double bill – Too Many Ways to be Number 1 and The Longest Night.
First up, Too Many Ways to be Number 1 was Milkyway Image’s first production, and is also my obligatory ‘DOP: Christopher Doyle’ film of the festival (there’s always one at every festival, and if there isn’t, well, I’m not going). The opening sequence alone is enough to get the circulation going and as if that isn’t enough, Wai Ka-fai’s direction is brilliant and unrelenting, bringing us back to that same starting point over and over again; a palm, a watch, a cafe and the entirely under-appreciated Lau Ching-wan who is trying to make it through to the next level without dying. Clever, concentric, funny and surprising, it’s easy to see how Milkyway made a just-add-bullets name for themselves with this picture.
Straight out of Too Many Ways, straight back in to The Longest Night, and this is possibly one of the most underrated films Milkway has ever made. Tightly plotted, twist-ridden like no one’s business and it’s impossible to say who’s cooler: Tony Leung Chiu-wai’s nasty cop or Lau Ching-wan’s even nastier hitman. There might be films since that feature the intricate machinations of opposing criminal forces, surprise endings out of left field and two leading men sparking off each other like flash fire, but if the locker, the sports bag, Lau’s 70’s denim suit and Leung’s tendency to smash suspects’ hands into pulp with found objects does not put this film on your top 10 Best Gangster Films of All Time list, then we gotta talk. How about I send da boys round to help you reconsider?
More human than human
I really doubt there’s any of you out there who don’t yet know about Advent Children. Follow-up to the technically brilliant but mostly boring Final Fantasy: Spirits Within (2002), Advent Children is what the first film should have been all along: ode to one of the biggest most popular console games in history and every bit as glossy as its descendants (FFVIII, IX, X, ad infinitum).
And you know it’s not HKIFF unless you’ve seen some anime on the big screen and there was no way in hell I was missing this. It’s Day 6 and I’m on the MTR to Kwai Fong and the Kwai Tsing theatre, on the Kowloon peninsula about 30 minutes out of Central, which is a fair distance in the greater scheme of things and far enough that I can knock over a decent chunk (ie a dozen pages) of the book I brought with me. Even off-peak, the MTR is crowded, but it’s amazing what joy an iPod brings under such circumstances.
And what do you know, when I arrive, nothing but young locals, and some of them even in cosplay, bless ’em. Funny how something like this doesn’t attract the normal festival crowd, and how it probably would have been a different story altogether had it been a Mamoru Oshii film or something else people could get all snotty about. Me? So not complaining. Advent Children has almost everything that makes my life worth living – angst by the truckload, impossibly pretty characters, great music, uber-evil villains and hands down some of the most glorified, heart-stopping action sequences ever rendered. If John Woo in his heyday had taken up digital special effects and a Japanese aesthetic, he still wouldn’t have made a film as cool as this. Never played the game? Don’t have a clue what’s going on? Who cares; it’s so shiny it’s almost blinding!
From blinding to mystifying, my next film is Rampo Noir, yet another highly anticipated film of the festival and I deliberately avoided all and any exposure to what people thought this film was about merely to avoid confusing the issue. As it turns out, I needn’t have bothered; there’s probably nothing anyone can tell you about Rampo Noir that will even come close to its level of bizarre beauty. Japanese gothic gone beautifully wrong or hallucinogenic love stories, each of the tales are based on the writings of Edogawa Rampo (the Japanese transliteration of Edgar Allen Poe), each with their own director. From experimental soundscapes and interpretative almost-dance to the relatively straightforward disintegration of a man’s grip on sanity, this quartet of films is the whole reason why I go to a film festival – to remember what filmmaking can be, rather than what it is.
Warm and Fuzzy, Suzuki style
Day 7 must be Hassle the Heroic Cinema Correspondent day. First, I get conned by a faux-Buddhist on the way to Wan Chai ferry, then on the TST side, I’m hassled by some Indian guy who isn’t trying to sell me a copy suit or watch or handbag. This is unusual because normally they don’t speak to you unless they are trying to sell you a copy suit or watch or handbag. Needless to say I don’t stop to see what he wants, but apparently I have a lucky face…
Editor’s Note: Lucky you, Deni, you’ve been propositioned by one of Hong Kong’s ever-hopeful gigolos. Something to tell the grandchildren.
At least I got a decent cup of coffee today.
And as I am soon to discover, Princess Raccoon is caffeinated enough to substitute for decent coffee if I’d been able to wait that long. There really is nothing like a Seiijun Suzuki film, because too much of his peculiar brand of stage-play-on-happy-drugs approach and I think I’d possibly develop the shakes, but just the right amount leaves me feeling strangely buzzed without quite knowing why. This film is easily the fluffy flip-side to Rampo Noir‘s surreal tension, accessible without being usual. Its folk-tale-esque features, combined with a mixed genres musical sensibility and classically theatrical sets make for a mix that shouldn’t have worked, but really did.
And unlike Pistol Opera, I didn’t feel the need to read into it any more than was there – it was just enjoyable, and a bit weird, brightly coloured and occasionally pretty damn funny. Joe Odagiri was attractive and cool, the support cast was great, and I also surprised myself by not completely hating Zhang Ziyi. Ever since someone tried passing her off as Japanese, I’ve been less inclined to give her the time of day purely on principal alone, but obviously the director realized his audiences might not be able to suspend quite that much disbelief, and so didn’t try to pull the same trick. She got about two lines in Japanese and then promptly switched to Mandarin, which for all that it was conveniently explained, really didn’t cause too much of an upset – Princess Raccoon is weird enough that a Mandarin-speaking animal spirit from Japanese mythology is just par for the course.
Days of being full or I wonder what the peasants are doing today?
Welcome to Day 8 – my day of rest, which involves no dark cold cinemas and lots of walking, and more importantly eating, around possibly the only place cooler than Hong Kong – Macau.
To start with, the Macanese know how to make coffee. They’d want to, having been part-Portuguese for so long, and to prove this to me, the minute we step off the HK to Macau ferry, we’re on a minibus to some part of town with a little Portuguese coffee shop on a little Portuguese lane and that was about when I decided I wasn’t going to go back to Hong Kong. Ever. Because they don’t know how to make coffee. I’ve mentioned this, right?
So after several coffees and some Portuguese egg tarts, we decided it was time to start our eating tour, which is a lot like a sight-seeing tour, only you break up the walking and taking photos with sitting and eating. First stop, the ruins of St Paul’s Cathedral and the Mount Fortress, which has amazing views allmost 360 around Macau island but poses the question, How did those cannons ever reach invading Dutch with all those skyscrapers in the way? After that, we’re hungry and parched so it’s African chicken, chourico, duck salad and a pitcher of sangria at a lovely restaurant in a Portuguese villa on the water. Then the Gardens of Lou Lim Ieoc followed by some sardines, more chourico (cause it’s so yummy) and beer in a cafe on Taipa. Then the cable-car, lighthouse and park at Guia Fortress, followed by dinner at another restaurant in what was possibly the coolest part of Coloane. This involved more African chicken, a plate of the best garlic king prawns in the world, another pitcher of sangria and a couple of unexpected guests in the form of neighbourhood pets and the friendly ‘uncle’ who has owned the place for the last thirty-five years and likes to shake hands with all the customers. And to finish the day, beers at the tacky height of Macau nightlife – the Sands Casino – before the ferry home and Portuguese egg tart snacks while in transit. And home by midnight! All in all a very civil day.
And I must say, the Macanese sure are a happy, friendly bunch of people, and the islands have this quaint, European-Chinese feel to them that takes all of the good parts of Hong Kong and leaves all the bad, like the inability to truly relax. There’s traffic, sure (about a million mopeds) and the mini-buses are equally crazy and life-threatening rides, but everything else is about taking it slow, laid-back and with as much enjoyment as possible.
Or maybe that’s just me in holiday mode.
How to do a proper murder mystery
Day 9 and after spending pretty much all day in a zombie-like, post-Macau state, it’s back out to the Kwai Tsing theatre at Kwai Fung for the long awaited Miike film, Big Bang Love, Juvenile A.
And it’s actually raining. Well, not raining so much as misting, but that’s okay because the temperature has also dropped and the cooler the better in Hong Kong as far as I’m concerned. I’ve already got the flu from going in and out of blasting air con all week. At least it’s not bad, and I’m grateful for that because I’m not sure if I can wear one of those health masks, but I’m not sure I can stand to feel like I’m spreading my flu to an innocent, and more to the point an air-con impervious, population.
So the milder weather means the Kwai Tsing isn’t the freezer it normally is, and also, it’s packed. Absolutely everyone wants to see this film and it’s no surprise. Miike is one of the most inventive filmmakers of this or the last century, and whatever else can be said about him, he knows his craft enough to be able to take the murder mystery genre, a story involving a couple of young guys who may or may not be involved with each other, some interpretive modern dance and the kind of sets and symbolic prose more often suited to the stage, and make it work so well it’s like having a religious experience.
Ryuhei Matsuda is perfectly cast as the seemingly vulnerable, waif-like Jun, and Masanobu Ando as the irreversably violent Kazuki has the kind of powerful allure that is literally breathtaking, and really these two performances would have been enough to carry the film. Miike however then weaves into this almost-love story themes of masculinity, madness, responsibility and salvation and he does it so exquisitely, so poetically, and yet so meaningfully, it barely does it any justice to talk about. Forget Brokeback Mountain (apologies to Ang Lee of course); the relationships in Big Bang are hardly certain, let alone explicit, but there’s more passion in it than any amount of carefree cowboy grappling.
And considering the director’s usual tendencies (and he hasn’t abandoned those, as Imprint later proves), Big Bang Love is the most un-Miike-like film Miike has ever made. Surprisingly, at least for dedicated Miike fans, that is very, very far from being a problem.
An aversion to red wine and people who talk too much
The only session of Penek Ratanaruang’s new film Invisible Waves, starring Tadanobu Asano, that wasn’t sold out all festival was Day 10, and the Awards Gala. And it’s hard to say what’s worse – sitting through an hour of speeches (some of them not as concise as they possibly should have been) or sitting through the first five minutes of a film during which someone behind me thinks it’s actually okay to continue the conversation they were having before the lights went down.
I should count myself lucky on both issues though – missing Invisible Waves would have sucked, and for a sold out film I wanted to see, I can put up with all manner of film-wank. And the person behind me could have been answering a phone call instead of just talking, which at last year’s HKIFF seemed to be a bit of a trend and is probably the ultimate in cinema-rage.
Mind you, Invisible Waves turned out to be a little bit of a disappointment in the end. Too much like Last Life in the Universe to seem like an intentionally distinct film, and yet not enough like it to make nearly as much impact; there was something a little bland about it. The devices employed – the repitition of motifs like the wine Asano’s character Kyouji used to kill his lover, the beaten monk who runs as go-between for Kyouji and his employer, the mysterious, panama-hatted, hawaian shirt-wearing lurker – had the potential to be deeply affecting, but just didn’t seem strong enough to really pull the film together the way it needed to.
Of course, as quiet, thoughtful but not overly emotive films go, Invisible Waves was still enjoyable. There are some nice moments, the sort of quirky, sedate irony Last Life had so much of, most of which happen on the ship Kyouji boards early in the film, and most of those involve his somewhat nightmarish cabin room and his inability to explain to the ship staff that he is locked inside it, not out.
And there is certainly that same sense of tension, that something is going to go horribly wrong at any moment, and yet never really does. Perhaps that’s what was most frustrating, that low-key, unrealised sense of sleepwalking through danger. Even Christopher Doyle as DoP seemed to feel it, which is surprising since his vibrancy is what makes him stand out so much. Lucky thing the director is a nice enough guy that at the after-party later that night in the funky foyer of the Cosmo hotel in Wan Chai, it was much easier talking about the way the festival was becoming a bit of a blur, rather than the way I thought his film did.
The art of getting in touch
Day 11, and there is usually a point in any festival where I know. It’s no different this time; this is the movie of the festival, my pick of the year. Better than anything I’ve seen so far, and better than anything I am going to see in the time remaining, for so many reasons and despite seriously heavy competition. Scrap Heaven.
A bold statement I know, but five minutes into the film, it’s not only that I love it already, but that I know I’m going to love it, with complete confidence. And I’m never wrong when it comes to things like that. We’re in the UA Cinema at City Plaza in Taikoo, a monster shopping centre which is almost as big as a small city (and about as confusing to navigate), with a yummy dinner from the crowded eatery in UNY under out belts and a bag full of snacks from Justco in our possession (strawberry Kit Kats let it be said, are unreasonably good), and it takes me that long to realise that Scrap Heaven is going to be the film for me.
Cool, a bit funky, darkly humorous and disturbingly meaningful without ever losing its grip, it ends up being just meaty enough to sink my teeth into a bit without settling too heavily in my gut. And with mega-stars like Jou Odagiri pulling a Daniel Wu and proving he can really act, with the understated, harmless salaryman appeal of Ryo Kase, and the cold and yet innocent Chiaki Kuriyama, how it could go wrong was hard to imagine. I never anticipated that it would go so right though.
A series of disillusioning events triggered by a random bus hijacking eventually lead to Tetsu (Odagiri) and Shingo (Kase) teaming up to start a revenge business, where they accept assignments based on whether they think the person involved needs to be ‘woken up’ a bit. Their methods are both funny and alarming, until Shingo starts to get at the true centre of his frustration against the world, and then it’s all a downhill ride that he can’t control and which has consequences he never wanted.
And the way in which the director focuses and keeps together the disparate threads of the characters, and therefore the overall story, is perhaps one of the things most worthy of praise about this film. Yes the performances are great, and the story is inspired, fresh and contemporary, and the soundtrack hit my Must Have list almost immediately, but this is a film that could have been a complete shambles without the sort of direction it had, it’s actual message buried beneath gloss and sparkle that smothered its meaning. Not so however, and Niigita-born Korean Sang-il Lee is a Japanese director to keep an eye on, make no mistake. Scrap Heaven is Sabu at his best, only shinier; is Iiwai’s cool, calculated tragedy and yearning only with a light-hearted sparkle; is the kind of film that makes me realise I don’t know nearly enough about film, but I still know what I like.
It’s all fun and games until sombody gets snap frozen
Sabu. Sabu, Sabu, Sabu. You are really, honestly the coolest guy on earth right now. Day 12 and I’ve been holding out for the Cultural Centre screening of Hold Up Down because I know there are enough seats to go around, and hopefully everyone else has already seen it at the previous sessions anyway and if I don’t get in, I might have to throw myself of the HSBC tower: it’s really that important.
Lucky it doesn’t come to that, and lucky too that unlike Dead Run (which I loved, don’t get me wrong), Hold Up Down is exactly what I needed – some light, clever comedy with some great, snappy direction, some decent actors and a kickass soundtrack. Thank God for Sabu, but oi, when did V6 learn to act? Actually, I shouldn’t say that, because half of them regularly appear in theatrical productions and the other half have their own shows and they’re not the himbos you’d expect them to be, regardless of (or perhaps due to) being hand picked by Johnny & Associates. You’ve certainly got to admire them for the fact that they can carry their roles off so well, especially Junichi Okada, who is probably the most popular (and dare I say most talented) of the boy band sextuplet, who plays a homeless and gungy busker and spends over half the film frozen solid in a crucified position. How this comes to be is something just too hilarious to spoil but needless to say its Sabu through and through, and the director is at ease and in control of his material without ever making it seem like he’s just walking through it towards the paycheck at the end.
Which is what I might have expected from a second V6 film, but it’s in no way stale, nor indeed all that much like the first film aside from the trademark Sabu devices of cause, effect and casualty. There’s some superb scenes to watch out for (particularly the Police Box scene) and some great peripheral characters of course, and Sabu plots a brilliant end that’s part The Shining, part Shaw Brothers, part Keystone Cops and even his normal proclivity for inevitable tragedy can’t take the grin off my face leaving the theatre afterwards.
About all good things, and the bright centre of the universe
My last festival day in HK is day 14. Things are a little bit of a blur in between the last film and this one, Miike’s Imprint, but highlights include trawling the markets in Mongkok, eating garlic wontons in Mongkok and being involved in a minor police raid on DVD pirates in the Sino Centre in Mongkok (where I was ejected bodily from the shop by one of the pirates in question so that he could flick off the lights, wrench the roller door down and make himself scarce before the plain clothes cops turned up about 10 seconds later). I also had a few very nice meals and did a bit of shopping elsewhere, but really, Mongkok is the centre of the universe and hardly anything else is worth mentioning.
Anything but Miike of course. About 24 hours before the festival finished Imprint was by necessity watched in one of the screening rooms at the festival office. The film had been sold out solid at every screening available, possibly because of the controversy involved, or maybe just because it was Miike.
And after seeing it, I can understand why Showtime in the States pulled this final Masters of Horror segment from its scheduled screening. What I can’t understand is how they could have possibly commissioned this director for a piece in the first place and not hazarded a wild guess that it might be challenging, at the very least! Did they not actually watch any of his other films first? Or read anything that even remotely associated Miike’s name with the words ‘major squick’? Apparently not.
So consequently, this is one of those films you hear a lot about before you ever get a chance to see it, making it easy to believe you probably won’t sleep for a week after you do, and yes it was hard to watch, but perhaps no harder than any other given Miike moment. A retro-ish period piece involving an American journalist returned to Japan looking for the woman he loved, it was well conceived and lovely to look at. The repetetive plotline, where each layer of truth is uncovered beneath the one before it, becomes increasingly nasty with each iteration, but knowing Miike (providing you do), the final revelation is not really so bad. By the time the torture scene was over, I was fairly content that it wasn’t going to get much worse. See? You learn your limits when you watch Miike films, and that’s the way it’s supposed to work. Hopefully, US television has learnt its lesson there. Try before you buy, you dorks!
And that is it for me and HKIFF06, and if you can’t tell from this report, I enjoyed every amazing, wonderful, smoggy, smelly, sultry, frozen, delcious, mad, crowded minute of it. Yeah, I took it relatively easy, and I could have seen a lot more films than I did, but I also enjoyed being in Hong Kong, hanging out, eating and gadding about and seeing stuff. And shopping. And also eating. And watching movies. I mentioned that, right?
Very, VERY big thanks go to mega-babe Liz, for giving me a place to stay for almost three weeks, for being great dining and shopping company and one of the best movie buddies in the greater oceanic region. Thanks too to the the lovely Rebecca, Macau tour guide extraordinaire.
And lastly congratulations and thanks to the HKIFF Office people, who were all great, friendly, and helpful despite the mad, I’ve-not-slept-in-days gleam to their eyes. Great job and see you next year!
Now, get some sleep. I’m going to.