In This Corner of the World (Sunao Katabuchi, 2016)


The obvious point of comparison for In This Corner of the World, an anime set on the home front during World War II, is with Isao Takahata’s 1988 Ghibli film Grave of the Fireflies. But in spirit it’s more akin to Takahata’s later work: the world-dissolving subjective images of memory in Only Yesterday and the episodic focus on the family of My Neighbors the YamadasFireflies is about devastation, about the terrible consequences of war and, more specifically, of the cruel pride that makes for such wars, but Corner is about resilience, about a people to whom war is happening, with or without their complicity: it’s more Mrs. Miniver than anything else. Beginning before the war and skipping quickly through the early life of Suzu Urano, an artistic girl who lives near the city of Hiroshima. After short episodes from her childhood, the film settles down once she gets married and moves to Kure, a nearby town that is a center of naval manufacturing, in 1943. In these early scenes, the war is merely a background element: characters speak of the navy, the construction of a factory displaces the family’s seaweed business, ships are seen in the distant harbor, new ration recipes with variable results are tried, while the drama centers on Suzu’s integration into her new family and her rivalry with her new sister-in-law. But the war plays a bigger and bigger role as we proceed through time: a wrong turn into a red light district populated by displaced young women, air raid drills followed by actual bombardments, a visit from an old school friend who admonishes Suzu to “stay ordinary, stay sane”. Finally, in the summer of 1945, the horror of war becomes nigh unbearable, culminating the the atomic bombing of the city on the other side of the mountain. But even in the blasted hellscape that follows, the loss of so much humanity, Suzu and her family endure.

Our Time Will Come (Ann Hui, 2017)


The most anticipated, and almost assuredly the best, World War II film of the summer, by one of the greatest filmmakers of the past forty years, opens here tomorrow exclusively at the Pacific Place: director Ann Hui’s Our Time Will Come. Based on true events in the resistance against the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, the film is so effective at its generic thrills, the suspense and action sequences and quiet moments of melancholy patriotism and laments for lost comrades that form the core of the resistance/war film, everything from For Whom the Bell Tolls to Army of Shadows, that one almost doesn’t notice that she’s radically revised one of the most masculine of genres into a story about the unbreakability of women.

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Railroad Tigers (Ding Sheng, 2016)


January is the greatest movie month there is. Not only are we in the lesser metropolises of America finally granted access to tardiest of the previous year’s award hopefuls (see this week’s Silence), but via studio counter-programming logic, we also get Hollywood’s most interesting action films. The bloated prestige actioners get released in the summer (your Marvels and Nolans), while a handful of unstoppable forces stake their claim to winter break (the Star Warses and Camerons), while the suits and bean-counters push the films they don’t know how to exploit to the shadow of Oscar season. This is the month of Paul WS Anderson (his Resident Evil: The Final Chapter opens at the end of the month). It’s also blockbuster season in China, with big titles being released at Christmastime and especially at Lunar New Year, which falls between the end of January and the end of February (it’s January 28 this year). Two years ago the big early January Chinese import was Tsui Hark’s The Taking of Tiger Mountain, last year it was Donnie Yen’s Ip Man 3. This year, we’ve got Railroad Tigers, opening this week at the Pacific Place.

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The Wasted Times (Cheng Er, 2016)


The Wasted Times was originally slated to be released in October of 2015. The film’s trailer has been playing before presentations of Chinese-language films here in North America for at least that long, but the film kept getting pushed back. There was speculation it might make the rounds of the fall film festivals (Vancouver, Toronto, etc) but when that didn’t happen, the film simply dropped off my radar. Then, when putting together the listings for this week, there it was, playing on a single screen, at the AMC Pacific Place, distributed by the good people at China Lion Film. And the movie provides exactly what that trailer promised: a ravishingly odd tale of 1930s Shanghai, interwoven stories of gangsters, actresses and the Japanese military, with superstars Zhang Ziyi and Tadanobu Asano looking impossibly cool and fashionable, all tinged with a self-conscious meta-humor. That last element is provided by an exchange in the middle of the film, reproduced in full in the trailer, when one of the actresses is describing the movie she’s working on to a friend:

Friend: I don’t get it.
Actress: Neither do I. The Director never wants us to get it. This is an art film, made for the 21st Century.
Friend: We’ll all be dead by then. It has nothing to do with us.
Actress: You’re right.

We’ll, fool that I am, I’m going to try to make sense of it anyway. Spoilers ahead.

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For a Few Bullets (Pan Anzi, 2016)


Opening yesterday here in Seattle after debuting a week ago in China, For a Few Bullets is a goofy adventure film, mishmash of references as haphazardly assembled as its not-quite Leone title. Set in 1940, it’s a treasure hunt chase, with a con man enlisted by a Chinese secret agent to prevent the Japanese military from stealing a MacGuffin, the imperial seal used by the first Qin Emperor. Influenced by decades of knock-offs of the Indiana Jones and Mission: Impossible films, it mixes a series of elaborate heists with a budding romance between the toothy, supercilious Lin Gengxin and the tough, serious-minded agent, Zhang Jingchu. She’s the best thing in the film, tightly-coiled and super-competent in the first half, but, inevitably, sadly, melting into a flowing-tressed, red-dressed, damsel in distress in the second. She literally spends the climactic scene chained to a rock like Andromeda facing the Kraken, while Lin faces-off against the film’s master villain. He’s a monster straight out of a comic book, gas-masked and leather-jacketed, a WWII-era Vader with unexplainable supernatural powers and a collection of severed heads to rival the Faceless Men of Braavos.


After a dizzying opening twenty minutes, with exposition and character background flashing on screen in comic book panels, text captions and quick, almost sensible actions scenes, the film settles down to a hectic, but comprehensible rhythm. Lin and Zhang meet up with the long lost King of Hustlers, played by Mongolian singing superstar Tengger. He’s a likable presence, an Eric Tsang type, smirking and smarter than he looks. The three travel from Northwest China across the country to Shanghai and Nanjing, trying to capture the MacGuffin as it is transported by train. This gives ample opportunity to show off some stunning locations, desert landscapes and Central Asian steppes that have only rarely been seen on-screen, the colors digitally-enhanced to fantastical levels, a slick, luminous beauty that’s as insubstantial as it is picturesque. The humor is broad, the action quick and polished, if not particularly athletic, and a healthy amount of anachronism, most obviously some elaborate Scooby-Doo-style mask work. This is film as confection, a cotton candy picture that looks neat, has some fun action-heist sequences, pretty pictures, prettier people and nothing of any real substance. Last year’s Mojin: The Lost Legend attempted to tap this same treasure-hunting vein, far less successfully as an adventure, done in as it was by murky special effects. But that film also reached back to the Cultural Revolution and forward to immigrant life in America in creating some depth for its central romance. For a Few Bullets has no such ambitions. It’s nice enough though, and everyone looks like they’re having a good time. We can tell because they’re smiling all through the movie, and in the end-credits blooper reel.

Francofonia (Alexander Sokurov, 2015)


Playing for the next two weeks at the SIFF Uptown is Russian director Alexander Sokurov’s look at The Louvre, a companion piece to what remains his most well-known film in this country, 2002’s Russian Ark. That film, shot in an elaborate and still impressive single-take, weaved through The Hermitage, the museum in St. Petersburg, crossing seamlessly through Russia’s past and present, a guided tour of the fluidity of culture and the ways art, and our collections of art, keep the past alive into the future. Francofonia is no less thematically ambitious, though the single-take approach is abandoned in favor of more conventional shifts between documentary-style glides through the galleries, dramatic recreations, and meta making-of looks at those recreations. The film is framed with a film director (Sokurov himself) in the editing stage of the movie we’re watching, attempting to talk to a ship’s captain caught in a storm at sea (Captain Dirk, seriously). The ship is apparently transporting precious works of art, an extension of the final image of Russian Ark, with the museum as a ship floating in seas of time. Captain Dirk has a bad Skype connection, so the director ruminates about the museum itself, covering, in somewhat random order, its founding as an anti-Viking fortress, its various expansions and decorations, its transformation into a museum filled with the spoils of imperialism and finally its modern state. Taking up the bulk of the film is the story of how the museum’s director (Jacques Jaujard) and the Nazi in charge of cultural artifacts (Franz Wolff-Metternich) kept the collection safe and out of Hitler’s hands during the Second World War.

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