VIFF 2016: Beautiful 2016 (Hideo Nakata; Alec Su; Stanley Kwan; Jia Zhangke, 2016)

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There are always one or two duds in these omnibus things, so let’s get those out of the way. Beautiful 2016’s first short is an embarrassing Ozu homage that repurposes his hometown (Kamakura) and his one-time actress (Kyoko Kagawa), though if you’re going to steal from the master, at least do us the favor of making off with some of his good humor. A dull banality best left forgotten. Dama Wang Who Lives on Happiness Avenue is quite possibly already forgotten. An indistinct void focused on a spritely, well-coiffed older woman jazzercising her way through Shangahi, Alec Su’s debut short is mercifully, well, short.

A real sense of artistry kicks in with One Day in Our Lives of…Director Stanley Kwan crafts some lovely images of nocturnal Hong Kong, his sense of texture undiminished even after a decade or so out in the wilderness. Distorted Wongian clocks, vertiginous tilts, and a weirdly haunting pop song provide the primary pleasures, though the Day for Night behind-the-scenes antics feel a bit stale. Kwan, once an inheritor of Hong Kong’s art-film tradition, seems to have lost opportunities as the industry shifted production modes this century, though it’s perhaps equally plausible that Kwan’s open life as a gay man curtailed his early promise. Whatever the case, One Day in Our Lives of… should prod those who’ve ignored Kwan for a decade or more (guilty as charged!) to give films like Everlasting Regret a belated look.

Jia Zhangke, on the other hand, is at the apex of his career. He comes swinging into Beautiful 2016—and I do mean swinging—with the swagger of a filmmaker who recognizes his own mid-career mastery. That self-knowledge is not, however, a straight-jacket for Jia. If anything, he’s discovered a more elastic vision of himself as an artist, willing to let in a kind of looseness that he kept at bay with the more static, calling-card early films. Last year’s Mountains May Depart proved that definitively, so it’s not coincidental that The Hedonists begins with a snatch of melancholic score from the prior feature. The presence of Jing Dong Liang as Liangzi, the poor miner destined for destruction in Mountains May Depart, also reiterates that we’re in a pre-established world. But without wasting time, Jia reconfigures the melodrama of his 2015 masterpiece into a buddy comedy. The transition plays subtly at first, until an uproarious cameo from the director himself, equipped with cigar and sunglasses and shouty bravado, brings down the house. Jia’s sense of play extends to the camera too, which he mounts on a newly acquired drone. Given that Jia helped reorient the Chinese film industry around digital technology, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he employs the newest tech better than just about anyone else. But when a standard tracking shot suddenly achieves lift off and ascends to the heavens, a genuine sense of wonder sets in. At this point in Jia’s career, you can only marvel at the corporeal and artistic weightlessness.

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Operation Mekong (Dante Lam, 2016)

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Opening this week at the Regal Meridian is the latest action film from director Dante Lam, whose Beast Cops and Jianghu: The Triad Zone were two of the better Hong Kong films to come out during the industry trough that followed the colony’s handover to China in the late 1990s. More recently, his MMA film Unbeatable earned a handful of acting prizes for its star, Nick Cheung, back in 2013. Operation Mekong is a procedural programmer based on true events, starring Eddie Peng (Rise of the Legend) and Zhang Hanyu (The Taking of Tiger Mountain, Mr. Six). Thirteen Chinese citizens are killed on the Mekong River, in the notorious no-man’s land known as the Golden Triangle, the intersection of Burma, Thailand and Laos that has long been the headquarters for the drug trade and action movies using the drug trade as a plot motivation (see, for example, John Woo’s Heroes Shed No Tears from way back in 1986). It’s meth now, rather than heroin, but the more things change, the more they’re exactly the same. Suspecting drug lord involvement, the Chinese government convinces the other three nations to cooperate, and sends in an elite squad of heavily-armed cops to expose, capture and, if necessary, kill the bad guys.  Zhang heads the squad, all of whom are given code names from Greek mythology, except for their remarkable German Shepherd, who is named “Bingo”. Peng serves as their local contact, an intelligence officer who has been working the area with an impressive array of fake mustaches for five years.

What follows are all the familiar beats of a high-explosive action film. Strong extended set-pieces packed with carnage, leavened with stretches of exposition and character-building. There’s a scene where every member of the team introduces themselves around a communal meal, a scene where one muses about his daughter back home, another one where a cop has a tragic backstory relived in flashbacks which will come back to haunt him at a narratively-convenient time. The remarkable thing about Johnnie To’s Drug War is that he didn’t bother with any of this stuff, trusting the tightness of his plot and sequence construction to carry the audience through the running time of the film. Lam and his team of screenwriters though settle for the typical, thus no matter how good the actors and the action is, and they’re pretty good for the most part, the movie is ultimately is just treading water, doing everything we’ve seen before, just a bit louder, and with more drone-mounted cameras. As an homage and update to the heyday of Cannon Films-era actioners, it doesn’t get much slicker.

VIFF 2016: The Unknown Girl (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2016)

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The architecture of the thriller suits the Dardennes more comfortably than it might first appear. In spite of their naturalism, the Belgian brothers construct intricate scaffolding for their films to rival many of their more outwardly formalist peers, and The Unknown Girl is perhaps more open about the structural blueprint than anything they’ve produced recently. A generic—in every sense of the word—tale of bad conscience gets the trademark handheld treatment in the dreary world of Liège, but it could just as well emerge from the wet streets of a 40s noir.

Guilt comes knocking, as it must, at the door of Dr. Jenny Davin. An unidentified African girl running from something sinister pleads entry into the safety of Davin’s clinic, though the young doctor is too busy lecturing her intern on the finer points of the profession to bother with the noise down the hall. The girl’s body is found nearby, and distraught at the consequences of her indifference, Davin hits the detective beat, searching for the girl’s name in an effort to offer her a modicum of dignity in death that the final moments of her life denied. Ratiocination unveils a web of guilt ensnaring everything in the doctor’s orbit, as if all of Liège harbors some complicity in this original sin, which, given the ethnic lines that divide here, suggests a reckoning with Belgium’s colonial past and present woes, though the capital ‘C’ Catholic Dardennes make it clear that no one escapes the fearful symmetry of guilt’s trap.

Trapped, certainly, but not unmovable. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne may be clandestine formalists, but they’re also heart-on-the-sleeve humanists. The maze-like geometry of The Unknown Girl points towards noirish cynicism only to refute it. An embrace—with responsibility, with other people—is enough to open up a way out.