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

MV5BODUyMzExM2UtMWZkOC00MThlLWIwY2YtNzVlN2MyMWIwZjFiXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyODUwNDcwMjc@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,936_AL_

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.

Advertisements

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

The-Bold-the-Corrupt-and-the-Beautiful-1-620x412

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.

VIFF 2016: After the Storm (Kore-eda Hirokazu, 2016)

6b2ee282-4e5c-11e6-ba91-9b331c0ddad9_1280x720

Beginning with a shot out of the canon, a small Japanese kitchen, mother and daughter at work, receding into the distance on the left side of the screen are a series of rectangular spaces, the right angles of doorways leading to doorways, director Kore-eda Hirozaku states his intention to work in the mines first exploited by Yasujiro Ozu in a series of domestic comedies and dramas from the 1930s through the 1960s. This seems to be Kore-eda’s increasingly preferred mode of work, it’s been a long time since the minimalist fantasy of Afterlife, or even the bizarre Doona Bae vehicle Air Doll (in which the one of the great actresses working today plays a sentient sex doll who learns what it means to be human, and to kill). Since that film, Kore-eda has been following the vein of his 2008 masterpiece Still Walking, with a handful of films about families told in a patient, superficially Ozuvian style (no director has ever made a film completely in Ozu’s style: his editing and framing system is simply too idiosyncratic, most, like Kore-eda, recall the shapes of his sets and seek to recreate the pace of his movies with longer shot lengths). If this period of his work is as strong as After the Storm, I for one am content to let Kore-eda keep churning out these movies indefinitely.

Hiroshi Abe plays an acclaimed writer who, blocked in the creation of his second novel and succumbing to his gambling addiction, is working as a shady private investigator. He’s recently divorced and trying to keep the affection of his young son and win his wife back as she moves on to another man. The old woman in the opening scene is his mother, played by Kirin Kiki, who was exceptional as the matriarch in Still Walking and just as good here, the woman was his sister, like him a mooch and a bit of a failure. Hanging over everything is their recently deceased father, a compulsive gambler, an unliterary man who nonetheless took great pride in his penmanship. The various threads weave together during the eponymous storm, the latest in an unusually large number of typhoons (I write in the midst of a typhoon here in Tacoma) to hit Japan that year. After the storm, things aren’t resolved, as they can’t ever be in movies like this, where the recognition of irresolvability is always the resolution, but the air is a little cleaner.

VIFF 2016: Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, 2016)

toni-erdmann4

The talk of the Cannes Film Festival, where it received as rapturous a critical response as any film is likely to get (no less than Amy Taubin said it was one of her ten favorite films of all-time on Film Comment’s festival podcast), Toni Erdmann is finally making its run through the fall festival circuit, and here in Vancouver it capped my first day at the festival. And what is surely a great surprise, it’s a film that lives up to the hype. A nearly three-hour screwball comedy about a father, a daughter, and international capitalism, it’s the best film made about parenthood since Yasujiro Ozu died, and surely the funniest German film ever made. Peter Simonischek plays the father, a large, gregarious and goofy older man, a music teacher with a penchant for pranks of the false teeth and bad wig variety. His daughter, played by Sandra Hüller, is a high-ranking consultant working in Bucharest to help a corporation outsource its workforce. She’s too busy to notice how miserable she is, but after a perfunctory visit home, dad drops in on her life unannounced, generally being foolish and weird and embarrassing. At the halfway point she sends him home, only for him to return in disguise as Toni Erdmann, a life coach who insinuates himself among her friends at parties and work functions. The film is a symphony of double takes, as every character, great and small, is stunned by Toni’s oddity, his eyes twinkling mischievously whenever someone plays along with his games. The final third of the film escalates, in classic screwball style, through a masterful series of set-pieces, as hilarious as they are devastating. It’s difficult to describe the achievement of this film to someone who hasn’t seen it, the way it impossibly negotiates the simultaneous absurdity and despair of life, the way it captures the pride we have in our children and our overwhelming sorrow when they’re in pain. Watching it at VIFF, in a 1,000 seat auditorium, feeling the entire vast room captivated and rapturous with every twist and shock and small poignancy, is one of the great movie-going experiences I’ve ever had.

The Frances Farmer Show Ep. 6: SIFF Preview, The Long Day Closes and Tokyo Sonata

With the Seattle International Film Festival fast approaching, we discuss earlier films by two prominent directors whose films will be bookending this year’s SIFF. Terence Davies will be kicking the festival off with his Sunset Song, while Kiyoshi Kurosawa will bring it to a close with Creepy, and so we talk about Davies’s 1992 masterpiece of poetic memory The Long Day Closes and Kurosawa’s 2008 surreal domestic melodrama Tokyo Sonata. We’re joined as well by Melissa to preview this year’s festival, running down some new obscurities, interesting documentaries, much-anticipated archival presentations and more. All that, plus cameo appearances from TS Eliot and Paul Verlaine.

You can listen to the show by downloading it directly, or by subscribing on iTunes or the podcast player of your choice.