SIFF 2018: The Widowed Witch (Cai Chengjie, 2018)

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A woman survives the explosion at the makeshift fireworks factory that kills her third husband. Now homeless, she wanders in and around the wintery Northern Chinese villages she has called home alongside her young, deaf-mute brother-in-law. The villagers decide that she has magical powers, and she might, but whether she does or not, and whether she believes it or not, the results are much the same: everything goes wrong and everyone is out to screw over everyone else.

As a stark black and white journey through the dark side of society, it recalls Dead Man in style, but more cynical and hopeless. Director Cai Chengjie makes sparing but deft use of color, sometimes highlighting objects (usually light) within the black and white image, other times brightening into full color (the opening sequence, for example, which may be a dream or may be the afterlife). The evocation of a persistent (resurgent?) pre-Taoist, animist worldview existing alongside the deprivations and struggles of contemporary China recalls other recent films that fuse mysticism with the documentary realism and social problem focus of the previous, Sixth Generation filmmakers. Chai Chunya’s Four Ways to Die in My Hometown for example, and Yang Chao’s Crosscurrent.

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SIFF 2018: Girls Always Happy (Yang Mingming, 2018)

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Yang Mingming edited Yang Chao’s Crosscurrent, but this film is almost nothing like that one. She stars as well as directs, playing a young woman who has a rough relationship with her mother, with whom she lives (off and on) in ramshackle house in a Beijing hutong (an kind of neighborhood built out of narrow alleys). The two women are both aspiring writers, and they alternate between vehement arguments (over things both big and small) which can get devastatingly cruel, and happy times sharing meals and shopping trips. It’s a fascinating relationship, we don’t normally see a family filled with such evident love and hate. The film never really evolves, and in its stasis, both women are stuck both professionally and romantically in addition to being continually forced back together, it finds a unique kind of misery. It might be a dark comedy, and there are moments of delightful whimsy (in the devouring of food, in Yang’s rides around town on her scooter), enough that the suffocating relationship never feels unbearable.

Ocean’s 8 (Gary Ross, 2018)

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Ocean’s 8, the latest film in the celebrity heist movie series, was not directed by my personal boogeyman Steven Soderbergh, and so it was safe for me to watch. And safe is a good word to describe this wholly artificial construct of Hollywood froth: it is entirely what you’d expect it to be and mostly harmless. Like the first Ocean’s (I haven’t seen 12 or 13), the new one gathers an impressive array of movie stars for some glitzy thievery, the primary pleasure of the film residing in watching beautiful people hang out and enjoy the beautiful objects that accompany fame and fortune. As a heist film, and also like Ocean’s 11, it trades suspense for surprise, and thus is a shallower, less interesting film than it could be, and it also avoids the cynical cool that made the original, 1960 Ocean’s 11 such a classic. It’s the very definition of crowd-pleasing, eminently forgettable Hollywood product.

Sandra Bullock plays Debbie Ocean, brother of George Clooney’s apparently deceased Danny. She gets out of jail and immediately puts in motion her plan to steal a diamond necklace worth $150 million from the Met Gala (Cartier surely contributed a hefty sum to the film’s operating budget for its glamorous product placement). To this end she puts together a team of woman (all women, she insists, for reasons): Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham Carter, Rihanna, Sarah Paulson, Mindy Kaling, Awkwafina. They are to convince a movie star played by Anne Hathaway to wear the necklace to the gala, where they will lift it off her under the eyes of security cameras, hired goons, dozens of fashionably famous folks and the ever-present media. The team-gathering and heist preparations are slickly scored with faux-Mancini beats and accompanied by half-felt split-screen wipes. One gets the impression that director Gary Ross is merely imitating Soderbergh’s stylistic flourishes, a paint-by-numbers facsimile of what was already an empty imitation. But the stars, gorgeous and charming as every one of them is, carry it along with infectious goodwill.

The heist itself plays out with a decent amount of tension, less reliant on surprise twists than in Soderbergh’s film. The best heist movies are built on suspense: they tell you exactly what the plan is going to be, then drag you second-by-second through every step along the way, filling the audience with dread at every misstep or every accident, necessary improvisations taking on a life or death importance. Ocean’s 8 never really explains its plan, though most of it is easy enough to figure out. There are some annoying twists, and half-baked attempts at giving Debbie a revenge motive to make the plot somewhat interesting on a personal level (which in truly pointless Hollywood style Blanchett adamantly opposes in one scene only to beamingly approve of in the next). The insurance investigator played by James Corden is kind of funny, but seems to miss some blindingly obvious evidence. The movie is best when it focuses on the crime and is blessedly free of the kind of non-sequitor improv humor that dominates contemporary comedy (save for a brief scene of Awkwafina explaining to Kaling how Tinder works). But whatever. Ocean’s 8 is a perfectly pleasant way to spend two hours in an air-conditioned room and in a week I will have forgotten everything about it.

SIFF 2018: Dead Pigs (Cathy Yan, 2018)

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As overstuffed with ideas both political and cinematic as any debut feature you’re likely to see this year is Cathy Yan’s film about the intersecting lives of a family in Shanghai and its environs and their war with both capital and the very concept of property itself. Vivian Wu plays a hair salon owner (her employees gleefully begin the day with a self-affirming song and dance) who doesn’t want to sell her family home to a big corporation, which has plans to develop the area it into a giant Spanish-themed apartment complex surrounding a replica of the Sagrada Familia. Her brother is a pig farmer who finds himself over-extended with a local loan shark after he falls for an investment scam and all his pigs die in a mysterious plague that sweeps the city (eventually some 16,000 pigs end up dumped in local waterways). His son is a busboy working in the city who meets and falls for a rich girl who becomes disillusioned with her club life after a car accident. The brother needs money and so tries to get his sister to sell her house, and alternately appeals to his son (who he mistakenly thinks is earning big money with a real job) for help. The sister refuses: the house is hers, the property is a part of herself and she cannot conceive of relinquishing it. The son tries to help, but all he can come up with is scamming cash off of driving by running into their cars with his bicycle.

Yan skips deftly between the stories, and the drama is leavened by a light touch and a great deal of comedy, ably waling the line between maudlin and silly. The satire is pointed, both in the amoral greed of the corporation and the sympathetic unreasonableness of the sister. But it’s also brightly colored (thank God for Chinese cinema, one of the few cinemas in the world that has yet to abandon pink and green and red in favor of gray and teal and orange) and knows how to bring everything together for a musical sequence, Magnolia-style.

Yan, who was born in China, grew up in Hong Kong and Washington DC, went to Princeton and got both an MBA and MFA from NYU, clearly has a unique insight into the contradictions of global capitalism in an ostensibly class-free society. While most of the characters are recognizable types (the sister as a variation on Yuen Qiu’s landlady in Kung Fu Hustle, the brother as an older version of the striving workers of Jia Zhangke’s films, the girl in the city a wealthier version of Shu Qi’s club girl in Millennium Mambo), the one that seems to resonate most for her is an American architect, from rural Minnesota, who finds himself in charge of this massive project on the other side of the world, where he doesn’t speak the language and may not even be qualified for the job. He’s the human face of capital, muddling along just like the rest of us, increasingly aware that things in our world are all out of whack.

SIFF 2018: People’s Republic of Desire (Hao Wu, 2018)

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Evan is right that there’s nothing in the aesthetic (PBS plus CGI) to match the radical transformations of a life spent online, but I think that’s kind of the point. That despite the newness of the technology and of this form of celebrity, of an economy built solely on loneliness and “prestige”, all the same old principles of exploitation and alienation apply. The virus of capitalism replicating itself anew. Pair it with All About Lily Chou-chou and The Human Surge and then go into the woods and read some Thoreau.

SIFF 2018: The Bold, The Corrupt, and the Beautiful (Yang Ya-che, 2017)

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The winner of this past year’s Golden Horse Awards Best Picture is shockingly bad. Generally considered the top awards body for Chinese language film, The Golden Horse has a sterling reputation, though perhaps that is unearned. Looking back over recent winners reveals more than one questionable decision (2013’s win for Ilo Ilo over A Touch of Sin, Drug WarStray Dogs and The Grandmaster in particular stands out). The Awards are based in Taiwan, and tend to favor Taiwanese film, but considering that two of The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful‘s top rivals for the 2017 award, Sylvia Chang’s Love Education (also playing here at SIFF, along with another Best Picture nominee, Angels Wear White) and the grimy indie The Great Buddha+ (which has inexplicably yet to appear on Seattle Screens) are also Taiwanese, that can’t be the reason for it’s win. Honestly, I’m baffled.

A convoluted story of political corruption and its parallels in the corruption of a family, the film almost exclusively focuses on women, led by Kara Hui, who began her career as a martial arts star in a series of films directed by Lau Kar-leung in the late 70s and early 80s (Dirty Ho, My Young Auntie, The Lady is the Boss) and has in recent years become one of the more respected actresses in Chinese film (The Midnight AfterMrs. K). She picked up the Golden Horse Best Actress Award, which unlike the Best Picture win was well-deserved, playing an antique dealer with ties to local officials who are engaged in some kind of land speculation deal. All the corruption is opaque, taking place in coded exchanges at parties and meals, with the trading of a statue of the goddess Guanyin meaning. . . something. The details of the scam, and its undoing after a betrayal and the slaughter of one of the involved families, aren’t particularly important, but neither do they make the least bit of sense. The film instead focuses on the corruption in Hui’s family, as her daughter (Wu Ke-xi) and (spoiler I guess but like every supposed twist in the film it’s blindingly obvious from the beginning) grand-daughter (Vicky Chen) become involved to various degrees in Hui’s scheming, leading one to drug addiction and promiscuity and the other to a general kind of psychosis.

Director Yang Ya-che throws a lot of bells and whistles at his basic scenario: cutting indiscriminately around in time, deliberating excising exposition in favor of dreamy montages of people looking pensive, adding a goofy narration by an elderly couple who play stringed instruments and sing the story as it unfolds maybe in a TV studio, but none of it really works. All the officials are corrupt in the same ways, and the extent of Hui’s involvement is treated as a major reveal but isn’t the least bit surprising. The youngest girl for the most part is our window into the world, which might explain the inexplicability of many of the crimes, as we wouldn’t expect her to know it all. But then it turns out she actually does know everything her elders are up to, and anyway, we get also a bunch of scenes that she couldn’t possibly have witnessed that don’t really explain anything but instead just further cloud the plot.

The film is bright and colorful, with deep yellows and reds that are a welcome respite from the orange and teal and gray that infests so much contemporary cinema. And there’s a kernel of an interesting idea here, in that the film focuses its admirably nasty crime family/political corruption saga entirely on the women, not just Hui and her family but the wives of all the officials involved are the real drivers of the schemes, negotiations and power plays, their husbands blank slates receding into the background. But with no likable women or heroic figures (the only stand-up person in the movie is a man, a cop who fruitless investigates), the story we ultimately get is of a gang of greedy, amoral harpy women who have too much power in the workplace and have therefore ruined both society and their families with their independence.

SIFF 2018: The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018, Desiree Akhavan)

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Note: as this film is under embargo until its release in the Seattle area, here are exactly 90 words.

For whatever reason, The Miseducation of Cameron Post feels like the sort of film that suffers from a clash in sensibilities, though it was directed and co-written by the same voice, Desiree Akhavan. This story of the film’s eponymous character’s stint in a gay conversion camp at the behest of her Evangelical aunt comes off alarmingly often as too pat and resolved for its own good. But a more sensitive sensibility sometimes shines through, and the film occasionally comes to life through an assortment of little, carefully considered interactions.

SIFF 2018: Le Redoutable [GODARD MON AMOUR] (2017, Michel Hazanavicius)

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Simply put, the Jean-Luc Godard caricature presented in Le Redoutable, played by Louis Garrel in Michel Hazanavicius’s toothless broadside against not only one of cinema’s true artists, but seemingly all of film that even attempts to be intellectually responsible, never made a single film or put a word of criticism to paper. The film (retitled Godard Mon Amour for American audiences) depicts the auteur at a turning point, struggling with his radicalism and his filmmaking in the atmosphere before, during, and after May 1968, purportedly through the viewpoint of his then-wife, actress Anne Wiazemsky (Stacy Martin). But Hazanavicius can never seem to decide where he lands specifically on Godard and his legacy: the film seems to simultaneously attempt to worship at his feet and excoriate him, supposedly for his mistreatment and neglect of Wiazemsky but in actuality for his politics and turn away from “conventional” cinema.

I am by no means attempting to claim myself as a total expert on Godard (or even his ’60s period), but from seeing Le Redoutable, I can’t help but wonder if Hazanvicius himself has seen more than three Godard films, or if he has even seen La Chinoise, the Wiazemsky-starring film from which he (badly) recreates a scene. How else to explain the “experimental” techniques that feel as if they were picked out of a hat, including some devices that (if I’m not mistaken) aren’t in any of Godard’s ’60s films? Even the techniques that do feature in Godard’s work – to name just one example, the studio rendering of driving from Pierrot le fou, with the camera placed too close to register – seem half-hearted and completely lacking in any of the exuberance, thought, or rigor of the original.

So much of Le Redoutable is immensely wrong-headed at best, offensive and anti-historical at worst, but all of its flaws and follies can be summed up in an actual chapter title featured without a hint of irony or self-awareness in the film: Pierrot Le Mépris.

SIFF 2018: Matangi/Maya/MIA (Stephen Loveridge, 2018)

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Documentary portrait of the Sri Lankan/British pop star and activist MIA, compiled largely out of footage she shot herself over the past twenty years. Telling her own story about her family (radical Tamil separatists) and her art (though how she dropped filmmaking for dance music is tantalizingly untold), she explores but ultimately cannot resolve the inherent contradiction in being a politically-committed pop artist in a culture that simply doesn’t care about meaning, especially when the voice speaking out is female and non-white. Funny, poignant, frustrating, but with some sick dancing.

How Long Will I Love U (Su Lun, 2018)

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It’s been awhile since we had a Chinese release of interest here on Seattle Screens, but this time-travel rom-com certainly fits the bill, the kind of clever, unique popular cinema that the Mainland film industry will hopefully start churning out in greater numbers, as opposed to cartoonish action films packed with stars who have little to offer but a basic ability to look cute on camera. A weird temporal anomaly smushes together a single apartment, occupied by a man in 1999 and a woman in 2018. Lei Jiayin plays the man, a down on his luck young aspiring developer with big dreams for the outskirts of Shanghai and a boss engaged in shady business. Tong Liya is a former rich girl who has fallen on hard times and is desperately in search of a husband to lift her out of poverty.

The special effects and design of the squished apartment (mirror images colliding in a chaos of broken lamps and crushed furniture) united by a door that opens onto one time or another depending on who opens it, are especially striking, a unique twist on the premise of something like The Lake House, to which the film bears a superficial similarity. Like another recent Chinese time-travel film, Duckweed, it hearkens back more to early 90s Hong Kong comedies like Peter Chan’s He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Father, in exploring the ways Chinese culture has, and hasn’t changed during an era of more rapid than can reasonably be comprehended modernization. Tong’s grasping materialism is as much a sickness of the 21st Century as it is her own character flaw born of a privileged childhood, while Lei’s more proletarian attitudes and values prove less durable than he’d like to believe when the couple encounter his 21st Century self, a real estate magnate with a dark past.

The couple have a nice chemistry, though Lei, at 34 years old, seems miscast playing a callow 25 year old. In some shots he looks positively middle aged. Tong though is delightful, as she was as the landlady in Detective Chinatown. Director Su has a fine eye as well, she knows enough to just let the colors and actors pop and not drag down the conceit with too much science (the mad scientist who caused the problem (time travel in China as to be result of either a dream or science, no magic allowed). A fun, well put together movie with an interesting approach to an old formula, as with last year’s This Is Not What I Expected, China is rapidly becoming home to the best romantic comedies in the world.