Liz and the Blue Bird (Naoko Yamada, 2018)

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Shunji Iwai’s Last Letter wasn’t the only tear-jerking teen romance to sneak onto Seattle screens this past week. Naoko Yamada’s anime Liz and the Blue Bird, based on a novel called Sound! Euphonium by Ayano Takeda that has already been adapted into two seasons of a TV series and a couple of movies by Tatsuya Ishihara, is playing at the Varsity and the Grand Illusion, where it will be held-over for a couple more shows this coming weekend (the 24th and 25th of November). It’s about the relationship between two girls in the school band. Nozomoi, a flautist, is lively and gregarious, while the oboist Mizore is shy and withdrawn. After a brief prologue, we follow the two girls on their walk to school for practice on a Sunday morning, Mizore following behind, her gaze, at Nozomi’s feet, her legs, and, most of all, her gaily swishing ponytail, brilliantly establishing the obsession that is her crush. The two girls are assigned a duet as a part of the band’s end of the year competition, and their negotiating that piece, and their interpretations of the children’s story on which it is based, is the vehicle through which the delicate negotiation of teen love and self-actualization will be realized.

More muted and intimate than the other high-quality Japanese animated films that have played here this year, specifically the bombastically inventive Night is Short, Walk on Girl and the generationally-expansive Mirai (coming soon to a multiplex near you), Liz and the Blue Bird is no less breath-taking, both to look at and in narrative. Interspersed throughout the slice of life real-world story are the girls’ imagining of the eponymous fairy tale, given a story-book smudginess and an orange and yellow glow that contrasts sharply with the steely blues of the classroom interiors and rainy sidewalks of the city. But most of all it’s Yamada’s focus on small gestures and behaviors, the way Mizore tugs at her hair when she’s nervous, or how the camera, when adopting her point of view, tends to face downwards, like it’s afraid to face the world, that marks Liz and the Blue Bird as one of the most keenly observed romances of recent years, animated or otherwise.

Big Brother (Kam Ka-wai, 2018)

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Into the hallowed tradition of high school movies wherein juvenile delinquents are straightened out by an unconventional teacher steps none other than Donnie Yen, his furious fists solemnly taking up the mantle of Blackboard Jungle, Stand and Deliver, and Dangerous Minds. It’s clearly a project that means something to Donnie, built around his persona as a deeply felt act of giving back to his community, which is why it hurts so much to say that it is the corniest movie I’ve seen in a very, very long time.

Donnie drops into a high school teetering on the edge of closure. Its graduates haven’t been going to college and local developers are eager to seize the land, both of which would be interesting social problems were they to be explored at all, in particular the complicity between developers, local gangsters and the local school board. Instead we’re introduced to five kids, four boys and a girl, each of whom is failing at school. Donnie, with his bright smile and wacky methods (he truly does break all the rules) spends the first half of the movie getting to know each kid in turn and solving their problem for them. One boy, whose family emigrated to Hong Kong three generations ago, wants to be a singer but suffers from stage fright caused by years of discrimination. Donnie helps him by just having him sing in public, which solves racism. The girl wants to be a race car driver but her dad thinks she’s worthless, because she’s a girl. And so Donnie reunites them by having them race minicars through the streets of Hong Kong (Donnie alone does not wear a helmet). This solves sexism. And so on to cure alcoholism, poverty, gangsterism and study-drug addiction.

In the second half of the film comes Donnie’s inevitable downfall, with first a brawl in a locker room before a big MMA match, and then when a student falls victim to a tragic plotline from Dead Poets Society. There’s a showdown with a gang and a last-minute race to take a standardized test. It’s all well-meaning and extremely shallow, with no understanding of or interest in either the institutional problems of the education system, the social environment of underprivilleged students, or any idea of what real reform would look like. Donnie’s solution is basically that everyone just needs to communicate better and try harder.

Coming on the heels of Weeds on Fire, which was similarly plagued with cliché but at least had a strong sense of place, or Bad Genius, which managed to both seriously explore the real class conflicts at work in contemporary high schools while also being a first-rate thriller, let alone an incendiary masterpiece like Ringo Lam’s now 30 year old School on FireBig Brother is at best a hollow gesture, of interest mostly for its star’s performance, and what it tells us about how he regards himself. In the middle of the film is a flashback montage showing how Donnie ended up at this school, taking him from his delinquent days through moving to America, joining the Marines and seeing combat in the Middle East. The horrors of war lead him on a further montage of world travel, discovering humanity to the plaintive sounds of a James Blunt tune. The result of his enlightening journey is his commitment to giving back to his community, which is surely a noble impulse. But it’s one that requires more than this movie to fulfill. But at least it makes me want to see Donnie remake of The Razor’s Edge.

Bad Genius (Nattawut Poonpiriya, 2017)

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Fresh off of wide acclaim both at film festivals across North America (the New York Asian Film Festival, Fantastic Fest in Austin and the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal as well as here at VIFF) and at home, where it was just edged out as Thailand’s submission to the Academy Awards (in favor of SIFF favorite (and veteran of last year’s VIFF) By the Time It Gets Dark, Nattawut Poonpiriya’s cheating scandal/heist film is one of the most enjoyable, smartest genre films of the year. Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying plays Lynn, the eponymous Bad Genius, who allows her pretty, but dumb, friend Grace and Grace’s pretty, but dumb and super-rich, boyfriend Pat to convince her to help them cheat on tests at their high school, an exclusive (ie expensive) private school. Lynn lives modestly with her father, a divorced teacher, and only attends the school on what she believes is a full-ride scholarship. When she learns the school is still charging her father money he really can’t afford, she decides to stick it to the system by snagging as much money from her wealthy classmates as she can. Eventually she ropes in the school’s other star scholarship student, Bank, who’s as smart as Lynn but even poorer. Years of cheating eventually lead them to try to cheat the STIC, the standardized test given to students all around the world who hope to study abroad.

The whole film, and especially the cheating sequences, are hyper-kinetic, with camera movement and on-screen graphics bringing life to what is essentially a group of kids filling in bubbles with a #2 pencil (there’s even a killer chase sequence, in a film about test-taking!). But Nattawut also deftly delineates the economic landscape of the school, with the rich kids pressured by their families to succeed at all costs: their exploitation of the poor, smart kids is merely following the logic of their parents’ ideology. And the poor kids, recognizing how the system is rigged against them, are motivated to sell their labor to the highest bidder, regardless of the ethical consequences. The ultimate moral crisis in the film is not so much the cheating, everyone knows that’s “wrong” and everyone does it anyway. Rather it’s in the differing ways Lynn and Bank chose to act within a society in which everyone cheats. Bank, fully internalizing the demon logic of capitalism, is never content, he’s constantly out to squeeze another million baht out of his marks, always in need of a new grift. For Lynn though, ultimately, enough is enough. She alone has the imagination both to create the scheme to cheat the system, and to see a way out of it.

Weeds on Fire (Stevefat, 2016)

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One of the three new films playing at SIFF this weekend as part of their miniseries commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China, along with Mad World and Cook Up a StormWeeds on Fire was one of the surprise hits of 2016 in Hong Kong. The based on true events story follows the founding of the Shatin Martins baseball team, and plays as a more or less conventional, and conventionally uplifting sports story, albeit with a harder edge to its story of high school youth than we see here in America. Think of it as A League of Their Own, but for the kids from Dangerous Encounters – First Kind (the English title is consciously recalling such rebellious Ringo Lam films as City on Fire and School on Fire, the film’s Chinese title means “Half a Step”, which is more generically sports-centric.)

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