Missbehavior (Pang Ho-cheung, 2019)

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This week’s snow has certainly thrown a wrench into my Lunar New year movie-watching plans, but fortunately my kids’ school actually started on time today so I was able to make the long drive to the Pacific Place to catch an early morning show of Pang Ho-cheung’s latest before it disappeared forever. Famous as the director of the Love in a. . . series of films, the first of which, Love in a Puff, was a vibrant breath of fresh air into the mostly moribund Hong Kong romantic comedy genre. Notoriously given a Category III rating (the equivalent of our NC-17) because of its use of foul language, it captured life among the disaffected professionals of an urban metropolis, at once highly culturally specific in its language and references while universal in that its story could take place in any highly developed center of global capitalism. The sequels continued in this vein, along with the fine but unrelated 2014 rom-com Women Who Know How to Flirt are the LuckiestMissbehavior does as well, though it is not a romance but rather an ensemble farce. And while it’s a great deal of fun, it’s Pang’s least interesting, and least essential film to date.

Reportedly put together in just two weeks, Missbehavior is about a group of old friends, all young urban professionals who have grown estranged from each other for various reasons, who band together to help out a friend who is in trouble at work. She managed to misplace her boss’s bottle of breast milk, and every works together to find a replacement by the end of the day so she doesn’t get fired. The plot alternates madcap schemes for milk retrieval with flashbacks that explain how various pairs of the friends became alienated from each other. It’s little more than an excuse for Pang (and us) to hang out with a bunch of fun actors goofing off, and on that level the film is a delight. Occasionally it gets bogged down in lesson-learning and hugging, which feels extremely heavy-handed in a film so packed with ridiculous gags (from wordplay which is pretty funny even in translation to the basest body humor).

Gigi Leung heads the cast and seems the most like a real actor. But the best performance, no surprise, comes from Lam Suet, as the world’s worst waiter. Other familiar faces abound: Isabella Leong, Miriam Yeung, Derek Tsang, June Lam, Roy Szeto, Susan Shaw, and many more.

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VIFF 2018: Asako I & II (Ryūsuke Hamaguchi, 2018)

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In keeping the same minute attention to the smallest details of human routine and interaction that so distinguished his intimate 2015 epic Happy Hour, but trapping them within the familiar confines of a romantic comedy, Ryūsuke Hamaguchi has created something remarkable, a genre film as alive to the possibilities and contradictions of the human psyche and its dealing with other souls as we’ve seen in some time. It’s certainly the best romantic film since Hong Sangsoo’s Yourself and Yours, with which it shares a certain surface similarity. But in every important respect it is sui generis, very much its own thing.

Asako and Baku meet-cute at an art gallery. It’s love at first sight, the two are wordlessly drawn together and stay that way for some time, in the pure romance of youth, impervious to the outside world and not only unafraid of death but turned on by its impossibility. Until, one day Baku disappears. Five years later, Asako meets cute again, this time with a young businessman named Ryôhei, who looks exactly like Baku and is played by the same actor (Masahiro Higashide, from Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Before We Vanish). The bulk of the film tracks their relationship, growing from awkward avoidance to friendship to love with the rhythms of the everyday and in parallel to the romance between their respective best friends. The friends’ antagonistic first meeting over a performance of Chekov, is the best of the films several digressions, with an unexpected natural disaster and an idyllic montage in a fishing weekend providing other highlights.

The inevitable conflict comes in the final third, as Baku returns. If Hamaguchi doesn’t resolve The Case of the Two Bakus (or rather, the Two Asakos, the first crazed with the freedom of youth, the second safe in the benign contentment of maturity) with as much bald-faced ingenuity as Hong did, he can be forgiven. The solution he does find is as emotionally confused and true as real-life. We are unlikely to see a more open and all-embracing film this year.

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.

Love Off the Cuff (Pang Ho-cheung, 2017)

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Love Off the Cuff starts with a horror movie, a tale set in the recent past about a village terrorized by a monster that eats children. As creepy as it is ridiculous, it functions as a none-too-subtle allegory for the crisis at the heart of the relationship between Cherie (Miriam Yueng) and Jimmy (Shawn Yue), which we’ve seen grow from its beginnings at shared cigarette breaks in Love in a Puff to the inevitable break-up/reunion cycle in Love in the Buff. Seven years on from the first film (which remains arguably the best romantic film of the decade), Cherie and Jimmy are comfortably living together back in Hong Kong, but visits from long-lost family members serve to highlight the rut they’ve found themselves in. Cherie’s father, who abandoned her, her mother and her brother years ago, shows up with a very young bride-to-be and looks to party with Jimmy. While Jimmy’s visiting godmother turns out to be a much younger woman (“She’s from Canada, they’re very liberal there. What if she prances about in her bra?” Cherie fearfully exclaims). The two visits inspire insecurity in Cherie: she’s jealous of the younger woman and fearful that Jimmy will turn out like her lecherous father, but more devastatingly they highlight the degree to which she was already dissatisfied with Jimmy’s childishness.

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This Is Not What I Expected (Derek Hui, 2017)

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One of two romantic comedies that tried and failed to unseat the powerhouse Fast & the Furious 8 at the Chinese box office this past May Day weekend, This Is Not What I Expected opens here on Friday, a week after its counter-part Love Off the Cuff. It’s a totally pleasant film that surfs gently on the charm of its lead actors, recalling at times the softer screwballs of the 1930s, or more exactly the modern imitations of those classics. It’s essentially You’ve Got Mail, but where the two leads secretly communicate not via letters or emails, but through food. Zhou Dongyou, who was exceptional last year in Derek Tsang’s SoulMate, plays a manic pixie who repeatedly runs afoul of aloof billionaire Takeshi Kaneshiro (aging nicely more than 20 years after Chungking Express and Fallen Angels). Kaneshiro is a fastidious foodie, a buyer and seller of hotels who checks into an aging inn somewhere in Shanghai and finds all of the food lacking. Except, that is, for a soup made by Zhou, known to Kaneshiro only as the woman who mistakenly vandalized his truck in an act of revenge for her roommate. Kaneshiro and the chef refuse to meet each other, instead using the peculiar qualities of food to bond.

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Yourself and Yours (Hong Sangsoo, 2016)

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Yourself and Yours isn’t the latest film from South Korean director Hong Sangsoo, that would be On the Beach at Night Alone, which premiered a few weeks ago at the Berlin Film Festival (where it picked up a Best Actress award) and which Evan wrote about here last week (Evan has also written here about both Yourself and Yours and its trailer). Yourself and Yours may still come to Seattle Screens, Hong’s Right Now, Wrong Then played here last summer, almost a year after its festival premiere in 2015. It’s probable that if it does, it won’t be until after another new Hong movie plays the Cannes Film Festival, as his Claire’s Camera is rumored to be finished by that time. With a director this prolific (since taking a year off in 2007, Hong has directed thirteen feature films in ten years) it’s easy for a film here or there to get lost in the mix, especially given the lethargic pace at which films today move from the festival circuit to the theatrical art house. The system simply isn’t designed, at present, for a director who releases a new film every nine months. This isn’t unique to Hong (the similarly prolific Johnnie To has had equally haphazard distribution) nor is it unique to the present (take a look sometime at the distribution schedule of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960s period). But don’t let these institutional vagaries obscure the fact that Hong is in the midst of one of the great cinematic winning streaks, a frenetic burst of creative energy that comes along only a few times in a generation. And Yourself and Yours, seemingly already forgotten though it premiered just six months ago, epitomizes the greatness of that streak as well as anything.

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VIFF 2016: Yourself and Yours (Hong Sang-soo, 2016)


A comedy of remarriage as only Hong Sang-soo could imagine it, Yourself and Yours rearranges the familiar building blocks of social anxiety, sex, and—most of all—soju to tell the story of one couple’s breakup and reunion. Or, given that this is Hong’s protean world, perhaps it’s not a reunion at all but a new couple, newly formed. Key to this Hongian puzzlebox is Minjung, a young woman with a well-known love of drink recently sworn off the sauce at the behest of her boyfriend. Rumors of soju recitivism split the couple up and Minjung encounters two different men who profess to know her from the past. Minjung, for her part, claims no memory of them, offering up a suspicious twin sister look-a-like story or blank stares in response. The exact nature of these  misidentifications forms the film’s core mystery. It’s certainly possible that Minjung’s penchant for drink has obliterated these men from her mind, though it’s equally plausible that the self is an infinitely branching set of traits, often repeated and therefore identifiable, but always shifting emphasis, shape, and order, so also essentially unstable. Sounds like Hong’s movies.

Unlike his other recent features, Yourself and Yours offers no structural blueprint at the outset. Hill of Freedom‘s jumbled letters explain that film’s disorganized narration and Right Now, Wrong Then‘s initial title card (the inverted Wrong Then, Right Now) clues the attentive Hong viewer into the game being played. The dissipated dreaminess that governs Nobody’s Daughter Haewon comes closest, but with a crucial difference: Minjung does not appear to be dreaming. None of the strange happenings emanate from her consciousness. If anything, the unblinking earnestness of actress You-Young Lee’s performance ensures that Minjung remains a fixed point, no matter the cognitive dissonance she inflicts on the men around her. She is a mystery to others but never to herself.

That self-assurance allows Minjung to act the Hongian sage, the one character with sufficient wisdom to proffer extra-filmic advice: “Knowing is not as important as we think.” Perhaps that’s the only explanation for this hall of mirrors, though if this is a Stanley Cavellian comedy, as the final moments suggest, it’s one that takes his idea of transformation literally: “I am changed before your eyes, different so to speak from myself, hence not different. To see this you will have to correspondingly suffer metamorphosis.” Is Minjung’s mutable personhood just a screwball game to win back her lover, to make him transform? He can’t deny his partner’s true self (I drink therefore I am) and expect to keep her. So she wins. Is her victory a consequence of drunken forgetfulness, a spatiotemporal rupture, farcical roleplay? The beauty of Hong’s cinema lies in never having to choose.

Digging for Fire (Joe Swanberg, 2015)

maxresdefaultIf there’s an equivalent to Hong Sangsoo in contemporary American cinema, I guess it may as well be Joe Swanberg. Both directors are wildly prolific, churning out tales of middle class ennui and relationship anxiety with frightening regularity. Both work with extremely low-budgets and high-quality actors, the result of the curious mix of critical acclaim and lack of box office their films achieve. Their films have a relaxed, naturalistic vibe in pace and performance, with lengthy scenes of actors seemingly just hanging out (and, more often than not, drinking). Of course, Hong is know for his structural experimentation, each film taking the form of a new exercise in narrative unreliability, where dreams and waking life, the past and the present, and multiple versions of reality all coexist in an unstable, purely cinematic universe. Swanberg, on the other hand, seems allergic to structure, shying away from anything that could be construed as plot, what can charitably be called an experiential vision of narrative. Hong always knows precisely where to place his camera, and once there, rarely moves but for an occasional ostentatious quick-zoom that serves to reframe the image and functions  as a stand-in for the emotional impact of editing. Swanberg apparently is aware that a camera is essential for the making of a motion picture.

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Two Screwball Comedies: Mistress America (Noah Baumbach, 2015) and She’s Funny That Way (Peter Bogdanovich, 2014)

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The third of Noah Baumbach’s collaborations with actress/writer Greta Gerwig, following 2010’s Greenberg and 2012’s Frances Ha, Mistress America is their best film yet, and possibly the best work Baumbach has ever done, with or without her. For the first time in his career, he’s made a film that feels loose, free from the strained serious grasps at artistry that have plagued his career from the beginning, ranging from endearingly awkward in his debut, 1995’s Kicking and Screaming to really kind of irritating in what nonetheless remains his most critically successful film, The Squid and the Whale. A pure screwball companion to While We’re Young, the 2014 film that graced Seattle Screens just a few months ago, the two films form a hilarious portrait of our culture’s obsession with a certain kind of youth, a Manhattanite companion to Sylvia Chang’s brilliant exploration of Hong Kong womanhood, 20 30 40, in which the idiosyncrasies of three women of the eponymous ages are compared and contrasted. Where While We’re Young followed an older couple’s attempts to match coolness with a much younger pair while also somewhat clunkily exploring the interplay between authenticity in life and authenticity in art, this one focuses on a college freshman’s infatuation with her older future stepsister, a free spirit who makes New York seem as magical as it should be, while much more deftly exploring the oft-contentious relationship between an artist and the people who inspire their work. In both cases, the idyllic figure is a creative powerhouses in their early 30s, stable enough to enjoy a certain standard of living, but not so rooted as to avoid taking risks. It’s the age of sitcom heroes. Gerwig is a powerhouse as always (she’s already a three-time Endy Award winner, for her work in the Baumbach films and Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress) dogged in pursuit of her ideals and not nearly as ridiculous as she might first appear, her effervescence contains unfathomable depths and Lola Kirke is excellent as the younger woman, wide-eyed but with a steely determination that’s more than a little unnerving, the coldness of youth. There’s no fat in the film, it’s Baumbach’s tightest, most-focused work, for the first time he demonstrates the ease, the lack of apparent effort that marks a truly virtuosic film. The lengthy set piece at a Connecticut mansion is a classic of screwball escalation, as Baumbach ably piles a Sturgesian array of characters and relationships into a few crowded rooms.

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More consciously seeking to recreate an old Hollywood vibe is the latest from Peter Bogdanovich, the refugee from the first golden age of cinephile directors who has found film work increasingly hard to find in recent years (this is his first theatrical fiction feature since 2001’s The Cat’s Meow). In fact, his new film is pretty hard to find as well, with an under-the-radar nationwide release (it opened on Seattle Screens with little fanfare last week at the Varsity, we’re it continues on a reduced schedule this week), a far cry from his generation-defining 70s masterpieces like The Last Picture Show, What’s Up Doc? or Paper Moon. Combing a theatrical farce reminiscent of his 1992 film Noises Off with the cosmic screwball romanticism of his 1981 masterpiece They All Laughed, She’s Funny That Way is a story told by a young woman (Imogen Poots) to a reporter (Illeana Douglas), the story of how she was discovered and her life changed from that of a hooker (with a heart of gold, naturally) to star of stage and screen. The story is wildly improbable, its reality questioned every step of the way by the reporter, but so seductive in its interconnections and coincidences as to be irresistible. The conflation of cinema as real life is charmingly seductive (print the legend), and the myth-making power of star cameos only adds to the glowing unreality. Familiar faces abound: contemporary icons like Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson, older relics Austen Pendleton, Richard Lewis and Cybil Shepard, and up-and-comers like Poots, Will Forte and the always marvelous and perpetually under-utilized Kathryn Hahn and Rhys Ifans. Douglas herself provides a link to the old world the film idealizes: her grandfather Melvyn, in a different Lubitsch film, told Greta Garbo an even better joke than the one from Cluny Brown that serves as a key line for Owen Wilson’s character. While the film isn’t as existentially radical as They All Laughed, in a weird kind of way it’s Bogdanovich’s Hong Sangsoo film. Like with the greatest modern director of romantic comedies, She’s Funny That Way questions the very nature of the cinema’s relation to reality, reveling in the idealized illusions while simultaneously undermining their spell by pointing out their unreality. But where Hong relentlessly deconstructs his narratives, laying bare their artifices and exposing the lonely needs that drive us to invent them, Bogdanovich the classicist is content to faithfully recreate the form of the old (his zooms are subtle and patient, not Hong’s wild, drunken lurches), with nothing but a sly wink to the audience to remind us of the precariousness of our ideals. We know it’s all a lie, but we happily dream away nonetheless.

Mistress America is now playing at the Guild 45th, SIFF Uptown and Cinemark Lincoln Square.

She’s Funny That Way is now playing at the Varsity Theatre.

Two Romantic Comedies: Trainwreck (Judd Apatow, 2015) and The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941)

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The latest release from the Judd Apatow empire opens tomorrow here in Seattle, written by and starring comedian Amy Schumer and directed by Apatow himself. Schumer plays a magazine writer with commitment issues and a fondness for wine and weed. Much to her surprise, she falls for a dweeby sports surgeon (Bill Hader) and must choose between growing up and reforming her ways or losing a swell guy. The film thus deftly flips the gender roles of a typical Hollywood romantic comedy, as it’s been practiced in film and television of the past 30 years or so. That reversal is the motor of the funniest parts of the film: Schumer’s assertiveness with her boyfriends (an agonizing attempt at dirty talk from John Cena) and Hader’s heartfelt exchanges with his athlete friends (LeBron James and Amar’e Stoudemire). Filled with the surreal-improv style comedy from the supporting players that defines the Apatow brand (it’s no surprise that the clear winner this time is Tilda Swinton), the film is dragged down by the shambolic, disjunctive approach to narrative that has also come to define Apatow’s work.

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