Hong Kong International Film Festival 02

Episode 0: What Else I Did On My Holidays

First up, for anyone who doesn’t know, I was lucky enough to weasel my way into a private dinner with Johnnie To, director of various funky films and boss of Milkyway Image. Given the frisson I get whenever that cool logo sizzles its way across the screen, signalling the onset of another fine snippet of cinema, you can imagine how chuffed I was. And I somehow managed to be seated next to Da Man, who chainsmoked his way through a truly great dinner of epic proportions (I somehow managed to restrain myself from trying to bum a smoke from him, but it was a close thing).

And I have to tell you that JT is a captivating man: he’s very passionate about his work, and wants to keep improving and stretching his skills. He also takes care to surround himself with very smart people, such as the 3 who accompanied him that evening. His plan is to make them the second or third generation of Milkyway filmmakers (although Yau Nei Hoi, the scriptwriter, is already in there, having written the script of The Mission).

I even had a lasting souvenir from the evening: I chipped a tooth eating crab. Rather appropriate, I thought, given one of his recent movies (FYI I’m talking about Love On A Diet, where Andy Lau Tak Wah claims to have chipped his tooth eating crab). Ha ha. I referred to it as “My Johnnie To tooth”, at least until I had it fixed.

I had one tricky moment, that I’d like to share with you (in the interest of you-all maybe getting a laugh out of my embarrassment). Towards the end of the evening, after many courses of extremely scrummy food and much fine (Australian) wine, everyone got very talkative, and I made some undoubtedly fatuous comment about artistic integrity and using his talent, and he turned to me and said, in a rather doubtful voice, “Am I talented?”

To which, gentle reader, I believe I responded with an inarticulate gurgle, which was a pity, because what was in my head was along these lines: “Is Johnnie To talented? Undoubtedly! You just have to look at The Mission: a superb piece of cinema, which I can’t find sufficient adjectives to describe (especially after that amount of red wine). Even the light fluffy commercial movies are made with panache and a fine attention to detail, while the exceptional works show a clarity of vision rarely found. And of course one can’t win a sackful of awards at film festivals around the world by being a talentless hack.”

In other news, I also managed to get to the Anita Mui Fantasy Gig concert, which was a bit of a thrill for me. It was in the Coliseum, which I’d seen in some concert DVDs, and which feels rather like being inside the spaceship from Close Encounters: hovering above the ground, and strangely lit. The concert was a hoot, and Anita was in fine form.

Episode 1 – What’s The Matter With Kids Today?

I’m going to break the films that I saw at the HKIFF into 3 groups, more or less arbitrarily, so I can have a bit of a waffle about all of them. I’ll start with five films that deal, more or less, with issues faced by kids (“young people”, if you prefer that nomenclature).

First up, there’s All About Lily Chou-Chou, directed by Iwai Shunji. I loved it. I run out of superlatives trying to describe it. And that’s from someone who doesn’t often run out of words.

The film is a loose collection of episodes in the lives of several students at a Japanese high school, and takes us through the lives of the students without offering any answers to their problems or judgements on their own solutions. I found the behaviour of the kids highly credible and realistic, but also free of the appalling banality often associated with cinematic children. They dealt with all of the crises and traumas of teen life without complaint, where a lesser filmmaker would have constructed plastic teens who “talk about issues” with parents, and “arrive at solutions” that work for all. Alas for us and the world, in teen life, as in adult life, there’s no real way to convince a bully to change his ways, or to undo an outrage.

Because of this, I found myself very involved with the characters for most of the film, and oddly so, considering that the kids talked so little (compared to most films) that it was hard to really like any of them. Perhaps the strength of this minimal dialogue approach was that the emotions had to shine through, without the words to prop them up: a true case of the writing maxim “Show, don’t tell”.

The skill of the child actors and the talent of the director/scriptwriter are supported by a haunting soundtrack and some of the most evocative cinematography I’ve seen in a long time. And for once, the internet was used effectively: one of my private gripes is that, far too often, anything related to computers is dealt with very shabbily, using a sensationalist viewpoint that’s often ignorant about the real issues. Unsurprising, since the director did his research (memo to others: for gods’ sakes, *don’t* take a tabloid newspaper as your source of information about computer issues. You’ll only make yourself look like a tosser).

Downsides are the opening sequence, which nearly pulled out my eyeballs and had them revolving at speed, and an overly long holiday sequence. Otherwise a flawless work, which I encourage everyone to see, but don’t believe what’s in the brochure, since what was in the HKIFF brochure, at least, bore little resemblance to the film.

Next on the block is Shanghai Panic, directed by Andrew Cheng. Lordy lordy lordy, I’m almost lost for words here, but for a different reason. Man, this one was a bummer. My companion for this ordeal came out of the cinema fuming that she’d just lost 87 minutes of her life that she’d never get back. Style and content both lacked any positive attributes. Handheld DV made me feel nauseous, while the utter banality of the script, and the total lack of any likeable characters, made me want to take an axe to the screen. Where the kids in Lily Chou-Chou dealt with the truly rotten hands that life dealt them, those in Panic sat around and whined interminably about nothing: their problems were tiny, but their abilities were even smaller. Don’t see this, if it ever comes to a cinema near you. Or if you do, don’t blame me.

A more balanced view of life, in a rather odd way, was provided by My Life As McDull. This animated “pig’s life”, directed by Toe Yuen, offers a surprisingly moving view of what it’s like to grow up in Hong Kong. The scenes of city streets will give you a fine idea of how Hong Kong feels at times: grey, cold, and heartless. But at the same time, there’s some touching interactions between the young pig and his mother, and even a few life lessons along the way. Harmless fun, with a glimpse into the Hong Kong spirit, and I recommend it if you get the chance. If you’ve been to Hong Kong, you’ll appreciate the artwork even more.

Take Care of My Cat is an offering from Korean director Jeong Jae-eun, and deals with the upper edge of teens. This gentle film follows five girls, and meanders quietly around the city of Seoul and nearby Incheon (yes, preens Alison, I’ve been there). Nothing here is startling, but it was a worthwhile journey. I ended up liking all of the girls but one: Miss Executive got right up my hooter, while all the others grew on me slowly. I guess life’s like that: most people you can get along with, a few you like, and one or two really piss you off.

My final offering for today, still on the theme of youth, is Princess Blade, by Sato Shinsuke. This live action manga is enjoyable in a low key way: no flashy sets, a fairly thin plot, but if sword fights are what you’re looking for, then look no further. The lead actress (Shaku Yumiko) apparently did all her own stunts, and comes off surprisingly well for one who looks so soft and young. Life in her neck of the woods is clearly a lot more difficult than most of the tribulations we have to endure, and I can’t help but wish I could see the whining wastrels from Shanghai Panic dropped into the middle of said woods.

I particularly liked the costumes. Not because they were flashy and gorgeous, but because they weren’t. The bare-bones utility of the costumes added a dose of realism, especially given the penchant of many filmmakers to reason thus: “It’s set in the future, right? So we’ve got to have either Ming The Merciless beads and sequins, or Mad Max rags and tatters. Flash or flutter, what’s it to be?” I hate to disappoint some of you, but yer average fightin’ blade-babe ain’t gonna be showing a lotta leg in a chamois bikini: she’s gonna wear something that might provide a bit of protection against the blades that go whizzing around her soft parts (i.e. anything encased by skin).

Episode 2: Hey, It’s a Living…

This week’s collection of films is tied together by the theme of work. It’s a rather arbitrary form of aggregation on my part, but I’m sure you are a kind audience and will let me get away with such things.

I’ll deal with the opening night show first: Hollywood Hong Kong, by Fruit Chan. Perhaps it was because this was my first Fruit Chan flick, but I felt a vague unease for most of the time, as though the screen was going to come over all Greenaway on me. It failed to do so, but by then the moment was tarnished, although I was quite chuffed at making it into the opening night film (courtesy of David Bordwell, who, for those who don’t know him, is the author of Planet Hong Kong, possibly the finest book on Hong Kong movies. And a jolly fine chap, too, seeing as he’s responsible for not only getting us into this film, but also for the dinner with Johnnie To. Perhaps I’ve mentioned that).

Anyway, I found the film worthy but not especially likeable. A family of corpulent pork butchers, a teenage pimp, and a manipulative prostitute didn’t combine to produce any character that I cared much about, although there were a few amusing moments. My favourite of these concerned the butchers’ breeding sow, rather ominously named “Mother”. Partway through the film, Mother wanders off, and is seen heading purposefully along the highway, leaving in her wake the grieving providers of porkage. At the close, Mother returns, having been to the big city and gotten a tattoo.

My next film, though, is going to get a rave or two. Anyone who’s known me for more than about 30 seconds will know that I wax lyrical about several people in the Hong Kong movie scene, and one of those people is Stephen Chiau Sing Chi, who’s responsible for Shaolin Soccer.

I have to say right here that I came rather late to a full appreciation of Sing Chi. Possibly because the first film I saw featuring him was most assuredly not one of his best, or possibly for the same reason that it takes some time to develop an appreciation of fine shiraz. But come to said appreciation I have, and I feel it my duty to lecture you lot, so sit still and no fidgeting.

No, sod it all, I won’t after all. I’ll just say that, with Shaolin Soccer, Chiau has once again demonstrated his skill at capturing the vulnerabilities of human life. The film contains moments of absurdist humour, and moments of rather heart-rending pathos, and somehow manages to make all of its characters both laughable and likeable: we can identify with their weaknesses and their triumphs, and I think this is one of the prime reasons for Chiau’s continued success. He creates characters that we care about, similar to Ben Elton’s “Farties”, and allows us to laugh at them in the same way we’d laugh at our friends (although none of my friends can manage Mighty Steel Leg. Nor can they get their leg over their head, but that’s another rant…).

In keeping with my theme of making a living, Chiau’s characters are all trying to eke out a meagre living in Shanghai, a sort of sister city to Hong Kong for this purpose. His common theme of redemption is right up front here, probably to dispel the cold of a Hong Kong post-meltdown. It was interesting for me that this film screened in the Space Museum Lecture Hall, which, for those not familiar with Hong Kong (just imagine me smugly guffawing to myself here), is a fairly small cinema, of the order of the Chinatown Cinema 3 in Melbourne, or the Mercury in Adelaide. No, probably even smaller. Anyway, the cinema was only half-full, and so I started the screening with my feathers ruffled that all those festival-goers had so lost their senses as to miss a Chiau film (after having glared around at those present, as if they’d been responsible). But as the film progressed, the audience loosened up, and I was gratified to hear most of the audience laughing, and at the right moments no less.

I’d also like to note that Shaolin Soccer scored 7 awards at the Hong Kong Film Awards in April this year, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actor for Wong Yat Fei, who played First Big Brother. And I don’t know about you, but I find it rather sweet that Chiau, certainly one of the biggest stars in Asia, arrived at the awards ceremony in a taxi.

Hey-up, on to the next, and another of my favourites from this fest: Edmund Pang’s You Shoot, I Shoot. Just a bunch ‘o’ fun, and quite a delight to watch. This was his first directorial feature, and I’ve got to say I”m eagerly awaiting his next. I also procured the film on disc before I returned, so’s I could watch it at my leisure. Brilliant costumes, snappy cinematography, and Eric Kot showing that he can be charming as well as gittish.

You probably know the story, but I’ll give you my 25-words-or-less: Kot plays a hitman caught in the economic downturn (a polite phrase for the state of affairs which is otherwise known as “the Asian meltdown”). He’s offered a job which involves filming the hit, and when he proves himself shall we say not so talented in this area, he begins a partnership with a similarly out of work director, played capably by Cheung Tat Ming. Both actors are stylish and assured in their respective roles, and both invest their characters with warmth and depth, as do some of the minor characters, both comedic and serious.

On to the next: Born Wild, a Patrick Leung work with a fine young cast. Louis Koo (apropos of nothing, I’m still reeling from the fact that my DVD of Dry Wood, Fierce Fire lists him as Louise Koo. I’m sure he’d not be pleased) plays an underground boxer who gets beaten to death in one of his fights, while Daniel Wu plays his brother “seeking after the truth”, and Jo Kuk plays his girlfriend, another elemental creature like Koo’s character.

All fade into the background, however, alongside Patrick Tam, playing the minor-league triad who acts as Koo’s manager. Tam is undoubtedly one of the most wildly talented actors in Hong Kong films today, which probably acts to his detriment, because it denies him the chance to develop a recognisable screen presence. Think of popular on-note actors who always present the same character: Tam can’t do that, because he submerges himself in each role. And he eats this one up.

And the last for this week: Fulltime Killer. Johnnie To’s stylish assassin flick doesn’t deal with the economic and personal aspects of the killing business. No, this one is all about flash and tragedy. I must say that it looks good, and with Andy Lau striding about in leather and self-confidence, it contains most of what I consider essential ingredients of a fun movie (that is, Andy Lau and leatherwear). Lau revels in his first chance to play a villain, and To exercises his usual talent for interesting visual compositions.

It’s a trifle wordier than most To works, however. Usually, To, with Wai Ka Fai and Yau Nei Hoi (scriptwriters), trims the script to the lean minimum, and makes the actors work hard, and this style has produced such masterpieces as The Mission and Running Out Of Time. Perhaps that’s why Fulltime Killer is not as successful. It’s not his best, but then again it’s not his worst either.

Episode 3: Life and death, time and tide, things and other things

I’ll start with the group of films I’ve categorised as “life and death”. First up is Visible Secret, a nice ghost story from Ann Hui that was surprisingly effective despite containing only a smidgeon of visual effects. This was the director’s cut, and featured the excised scenes with Jo Kuk and Eason Chan on the MTR. I have to say that these scenes worked very well, and contributed to the film, although the MTR management disagreed.

The rich colours and moody locations of Visible Secret contrasted vividly with those of Lily Festival by Hamano Sachi, which used settings as undramatic as you could find. This lovely watercolour of a film dealt with a group of ladies in retirement flats in a tranquil village, whose lives are disrupted by the arrival of an aging Don Juan into their midst. The care with which the characters were brought to life, and the gentle and somewhat surprising treatment of what ensued, made this a truly delightful film. And although I seem to be descending into cliche, the film never did, and with You Shoot, I Shoot and All About Lily Chou-Chou it made the best of the fest for me.

Back to Ann Hui, and another realistic film, although this one was not at all delightful. Boat People, starring George Lam and his mustache and Andy Lau, follows a photographer (Lam) who gradually realises that what he’s being shown by Party cadres in Vietnam is not the whole truth. It’s a gruelling film, told in a stark and relatively schmaltz-free manner. In particular, the scene showing Andy and his fellow camp inmates clearing mines nearly made me lose my lunch: if you think your work day is stressful, try theirs.

Where Lily Festival is gently humorous, and deals with death in its due season, both Visible Secret and Boat People treat the subject of death that comes out of turn and unwelcome. All three films, in their respective ways, delve into human responses to, and feelings about, death. Tokyo X Erotica, on the other hand, offers no such human perspective. Instead, we’re given a series of episodes featuring much bonking followed by death, and I can’t say I really gave a toss about a single character. In fact, life would have been a trifle more pleasant if they’d all died in the first five minutes so we could have left early.

I must rant here just a tad, so be prepared. Where Russell Hoban, in his superb novel Pilgermann, gave us the grotesque Bruder Pfortner (sorry, no umlauts), he gave us a personification of death that revealed the inevitable indignity. This character was used as a counterpoint to the human interactions in the story, resulting in a view of human life that was both sublime and tragic, and undeniably moving. Tokyo X Erotica director Zeze Takahisa strips away the meaning and leaves the grotesquerie, giving us Death in a bunny suit. Annoying pretensions to significance combined with a salacious but entirely unerotic sex made this film a fine companion piece to Shanghai Panic.

Onto “time and tide”, with a third Ann Hui: Starry is the Night, with Brigitte Lin, George Lam and his mustache again, and David Wu. The story follows Brigitte, from a university student who becomes involved with her professor (Lam) to a social worker who gets involved with a young man (Wu). The two men turn out to be father and son, angrily estranged. I’d call this a watchable but unremarkable film, which would also describe my next offering, Running Out Of Time 2. The combination of Johnnie To and Lau Ching Wan failed to work the usual magic this time, which To readily admits: he’d intended the film to have a somewhat allegorical nature, to foster optimism in a depressed Hong Kong, but it didn’t quite come off.

The last film in this group was Second Time Around, by Jeff Lau. Like some of Lau’s earlier works, such as Days of Tomorrow and A Chinese Odyssey 1 and 2, this treats the issues of time and regret. Since this was my second time around for this film, I was able to follow it a little better: it’s confusing as hell the first time around. This viewing, however, I was able to relax and appreciate the finer features, such as, I must confess, Ekin Chen’s startling jacket. Honestly, if anyone has any strings they can pull, I’d kill for that purple, fringed, patent leather creation, and don’t see how anyone could watch anything else with that on screen.

One of the bonuses of this film, I might add, aside from the aforementioned item of sartorial splendour, was the opportunity to see Cecilia Cheung in a likeable role. Or perhaps swaggerin’ Ekin and his eye-popping jacket temporarily stunned my senses, although I wasn’t quite stunned enough to miss the inconsistencies in the casino activity: once you’ve been in the biz, you tend to notice things like that. To be fair, the scene where Ekin deliberately burns past the card he knows, to get the one he doesn’t, was pretty impressive, but again I think you have to have the context.

That about wraps it up. Did I mention that I am going back next year?

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