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.

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SIFF 2017: Mr. Long (Sabu, 2017)

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The SIFF program describes this as “Yojimbo meets Tampopo“, which definitely has an “I can only think of two Japanese movies” vibe, in that it isn’t really like either of those movies except its main character is a man who slices up people for hire and also sometimes makes noodles. It’s more akin to Johnnie To’s Where a Good Man Goes, but I’m probably only saying that because I’m the kind of person who compares everything to a Johnnie To movie.

Chang Chen’s a hitman in Kaohsiang who gets sent to Japan to kill someone. The job gets botched and he barely escapes. Recovering in a dilapidated slum, he’s befriended by a young boy (whose mom is a junkie) and eventually a whole community of locals, who figure out that he’s an excellent cook and, in like two days, build him an apartment and a noodle cart, while at the same time he helps the mom kick her heroin habit. It’s a story of rebirth fostered by community, and its portrait of the unity of people living on the margins recalls the spirit of no less than Sadao Yamanaka’s Humanity and Paper Balloons. The fairy tale approach is leavened by a harder edge, but director Sabu (last seen here as Samurai #1 in Scorsese’s Silence) keeps things brisk and light, with long wordless stretches scored jauntily by Junichi Matsumoto. Chang’s deadpan performance is a delight, even as his hair comes perilously close to “Gary Oldman in The Fifth Element”. Befuddled as to why the locals seem to like him, the kid explains “it’s because you keep cool and don’t say anything”. Taiwanese actress Yao Yiti is unconvincing as a junkie (she cleans up into super-adorable way too quickly), but shines in her extended flashback, providing the unlikely link between her and Chang. That that link should go undiscovered by the characters involved is one of the many small idiosyncrasies of Sabu’s storytelling, one which defies both Hollywood notions of causality and Hong Kong traditions of cosmic coincidence.

One Night Only (Matt Wu, 2016)

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An Aaron Kwok movie is opening on Seattle Screens for the second time in three weeks, as the now venerable pop star/actor follows up his taciturn performance as the cooly rational police bureaucrat in Cold War 2 with a turn as a compulsive gambler with unresolved family issues in Matt Wu’s One Night Only. It’s the Taiwanese Wu’s directorial debut and also stars his wife, Yang Zishan, who starred in Three actress Zhao Wei’s directorial debut So Young a few years ago, an unrelated sequel to which called Never Gone opened last week at the Pacific Place. Like a lot of debut films, One Night Only is positively bursting with ideas and influences, its a work of exuberant cinephilia, pulling together elements of films as disparate as Nights of Cabiria, Rebel Without a Cause, 2046, One Night in Mongkok, the Fast and the Furious series and what I imagine Nicholas Sparks films are like into a movie that resolutely refuses to simply be one thing, but rather changes shape every reel or so in a way that never quite holds together, but is nonetheless fascinating in its audacity. It recalls last year’s under-the-radar gem of diasporic Chinese cinema, Go Away Mr. Tumor, a film that juggled the demands of the cute CGI rom-com and the cancer melodrama far more successfully than it had any right to. One Night Only doesn’t hang together quite as well, or at all even, but it’s got more energy than almost any movie you’re likely to see at the multiplex this summer.

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SIFF 2016 Report #3: Disintegration (The Bitter Stems, Thithi, Trivisa, The Mobfathers, Tag)

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Proving once again that no film festival should ever last longer than an Olympic Games, the 2016 SIFF limped to its conclusion this weekend after a soul-crushing 25 days. While the festival had run impressively well over its first two weeks, organized and on time and with nothing in particular for a picky festival-goer like me to complain about, the last week saw an inexplicable series of outrages.

This began on Sunday night, when the programmer tasked with introducing the Johnnie To-produced film Trivisa managed to be both disrespectful, mildly offense and factually inaccurate when he claimed To was the “Roger Corman of Hong Kong”, a producer who would make any movie you had in mind as long as it had “guns or titties”. That same presenter ran the Q&A with actor/producer Chapman To the next night, which was largely unobjectionable (To was the one who mentioned “titties” at least), but the programmer did at one point refer to Mr. To as “Chapman Ho” and later, “Herman”.

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SIFF 2016 Preview Week Three and Beyond

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The Seattle International Film Festival races into it’s third week (has it really only been fifteen days? With only a mere ten to go?) and here we have some titles you won’t want to miss. We’ll link to our reviews of the titles listed here as we write them, as we’ve been doing with our Week One and Week Two Previews. We previewed the festival back on Frances Farmer Show #6 and discussed it at its midway point on Frances Farmer #7. We’ll have a complete wrap-up of the SIFF just as soon as it ends.

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Episode 5: A Brighter Summer Day, SPL 2 and Purple Rain

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With Mike on vacation this week Sean is joined by Seattle Screen Scene writer Melissa Tamminga to discuss Edward Yang’s long sought after 1990 epic A Brighter Summer Day, which has just recently been released by the Criterion Collection, and Soi Cheang’s action film SPL 2: A Time for Consequences, starring Tony Jaa and Wu Jing, which will be released here in the US as Kill Zone 2 in a couple of weeks. They also pick their essential Violent Youth films, take a look ahead to what’s coming soon to Seattle (and Bellingham) Screens and talk about Prince’s classic 1984 film Purple Rain.

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

Links:

Adrian Martin on Purple Rain

The Boys from Fengkuei (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1983)

6a014e86c28c66970d01675f0c40cb970b-800wi Seattle’s Hou Hsiao-hsien Retrospective kicked off last night with his fourth feature and self-proclaimed “first real film”. It followed a trio of totally pleasant romantic comedies starring Hong Kong pop star Kenny Bee, who was then trying to make it as an actor in Taiwan. Already in those films Hou was demonstrating some of the tropes that would recur in his later work, most especially an emphasis on space and the placing of characters within their environments, explicitly the theme of two of those films, Cute Girl and The Green, Green Grass of Home, with their contrasts of rural and urban life. But after a pair of fortuitous and near-simultaneous meetings (with author Chu Tien-wen and the young directors that would make up the New Taiwanese Cinema) that would turn into career-long collaborations, Hou began a sharp move away from the generic and formal strictures of mainstream cinema toward a more personal and idiosyncratic vision.

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The Seattle Hou Hsiao-hsien Retrospective

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My pick as one of the Top Three Greatest Living Motion Picture Directors, Hou Hsiao-hsien, gets the retrospective treatment over the next ten days at a trio of terrific venues across Seattle. It’s a truncated version of the complete retrospective organized by Richard I. Suchenski (Director, Center for Moving Image Arts at Bard College), in collaboration with the Taipei Cultural Center, the Taiwan Film Institute, and the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of China (Taiwan), that has been traveling the world for the past six months. The Grand Illusion and the Northwest Film Forum have joined forces to present five of Hou’s very best films on 35mm (each movie plays one night at each theatre), while Scarecrow Video supplements the series with five additional movies, presented on video free of charge in its Screening Lounge. I’ll even be there introducing movies at each venue, covering six movies in total over the next nine days.

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