J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, June 24, 2016

NYAFF ’16: Maverick

There is usually a good reason why those “unwritten rules” are not officially codified on paper. The specifics are rather awkwardly embarrassing, but the benefits usually assure compliance. Rookie copper Yeh Ming Xian is not inclined to play that game. He still has his idealism and his self-respect. Consequently, most of his bent colleagues bitterly resent him, but his earnestness might bring Yang “Brother Ming” Cheng back from the dark side in Cheng Wen-tang’s Maverick (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 New York Asian Film Festival.

A little bit of hazing is not so shocking, but several of Yeh’s seniors get rather boorish about it. They clearly realize how bad he makes them look. The die is probably cast during the first operation Yeh participates in. He thought they were taking down a gambling den, but when they encounter “Black Money,” the powerful city council president’s entitled son passed out in a pool of drugs and cash, the cops decide they were just out for a scenic drive. Nothing to see here, move along.

Of course, Yeh is not inclined to go along with their corruption. To make matters worse, he turns up evidence linking the politician to a number of crimes as part of his clerical archival work intended as punishment. Brother Ming better understands the kind of people Yeh is antagonizing. He has assumed the loan shark debts of his hostess girlfriend Ann’s deadbeat brother. Brother Ming has been thoroughly compromised for years, but he might decide it is finally time to cowboy up when he sees the consequences Yeh faces.

Maverick is sort of like a Taiwanese Walking Tall or High Noon, except Yeh’s defiance is portrayed in much more matter-of-fact, workaday terms. Rather than a crusade against injustice, it is more about his refusal to debase himself and the slow reawakening of Brother Ming’s principles. Yet, that sort of makes the film even more satisfying.

You Sheng and Kaiser Chuang are both low-key understated brooders, but they still make a terrific buddy-cop pairing. Chuang’s Brother Ming in particular has a bit of that gritty, old school 1970s Sidney Lumet thing going on. He also develops some shockingly poignant chemistry Jian Man-shu’s Ann. Their world-weary relationship darned-near steals the picture. However, Yang Lie’s sinister scenery chewing as the council president consistently pulls us back into the crooked cop narrative.

Maverick is considered the second of Cheng’s planned thematic trilogy addressing problematic criminal justice, following up Tears. Frankly, it is utterly baffling and altogether unjust that film did not screen more widely in North America, because it is also a quiet knockout punch. Perhaps when all three films are available they will reach some sort of critical mass. Although Maverick is more upbeat, it is just as smart as its predecessor. It should leave viewers eagerly anticipating the third film. Highly recommended for fans of sophisticated policiers, Maverick screens this Sunday (7/26) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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NYAFF ’16: Tekkonkinkreet

They are Dickensian street urchins, but the young boys named Black and White think they run Treasure Town. The old school cops and Yakuza do not necessarily disagree, but the new breed of young turk gangsters lack the proper respect. They will just have to learn the hard way. Unfortunately, the hard way will be hard on everyone in Michael Arias’s Tekkonkinkreet (trailer here), which celebrates its tenth anniversary with a special screening at the 2016 New York Asian Film Festival.

Tekkonkinkreet represents the first major Japanese anime feature helmed by a westerner. Happily, Arias is no mere footnote in animation history. He continues to be a force in the industry, having recently directed the top notch Project Itoh adaptation, Harmony. Transferring Taiyo Matsumoto’s three volume manga to the big-screen, Arias creates a richly detailed by hard-to-define urban fantasy world. In terms of its feel, it is somewhat akin to Streets of Fire, but it looks like 1950s Times Square given a now sagging Rococo facelift by a compulsive packrat.

Black and White soar above the clutter and bric-a-brac like Spiderman or Daredevil. Black is the older brother, who has a quick temper and a brooding dark side. However, he has devoted his life to protecting the innocent-to-the-point-of-delusional White. Recently paroled gangster Suzuki (a.k.a. Rat, but not because he did) understands Black and White’s place in the Treasure Town ecosystem, as well as the importance of its traditional landmarks. Unfortunately, the flamboyant Snake is willing to bulldoze them all for the sake of his development project.  That definitely includes Black and White.

Arias’s ornate cityscapes are quite striking and the mortal superhero action is appropriately rip roaring. The bond between Black and White is as poignant as anything you will see from Pixar. There are also a number of fully realized, psychologically complex supporting characters. Tekkonkinkreet’s only drawback is the whooshing and roiling inner turmoil anime climax that is almost impossible to follow, despite the quality of the art.

Ten years later, Tekkonkinkreet holds up like a champ. It is still a stylish and muscular action-driven anime milestone that is far more sophisticated than its youthful protagonists would suggest. Recommended for all animation fans, it screens this Sunday (6/26) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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Thursday, June 23, 2016

NYAFF ’16: A Bride for Rip Van Winkle

From the needlessly apologetic, soft-spoken voice of its heroine to the almost fetishistic maid uniforms she eventually dons, this strange three-hour film clearly sets out to explore the far corners of Japan’s collective psyche. At its core, it challenges viewer assumptions regarding what Nanami Minagawa thinks she wants and what she needs. Yet, it also invites us to challenge its right to make such judgments. It can be difficult and even cruel, but it is worth engaging with the substance of Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Shunji Iwai’s A Bride for Rip Van Winkle (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 New York Asian Film Festival.

Minagawa is a part-time teacher, whose mousy voice eventually gets her fired. Consequently, she resigns herself to a housewife’s life married to Tsuruoka, a fellow teacher she met online. However, the impending ceremony presents the first of a series of crises he will face. Minagawa and her divorced parents simply do not have enough relatives for the ceremony. In a fateful turn of events, she is referred to the mysterious fixer Masuyuki Amuro, who regularly provides fake relatives for weddings, among his other services.

Alas, the honeymoon period will not last long. Soon Minagawa suspects Turuoka of infidelity and turns to Amuro for help. Initially, the mysterious mastermind stokes her doubts, while secretly framing her for an adulterous affair of her own. Shamed, humiliated, and abandoned, Minagawa comes to rely on Amuro, even working as one of his fake wedding relatives. That is how she meets the free-spirited Mashiro Satonaka, who might be the first real friend she ever knew. However, their relationship will be quite complicated.

Based on Iwai’s own novel, the rather obscurely titled Rip Van Winkle can be reasonably construed as a tale of vicious game-playing or unlikely empowerment. At times, the trials Iwai showers on Minagawa are almost Job-like. Frankly, some of Amuro’s darker moments are hard to reconcile with the more edifying interpretation, but the ultimate destination is rather profoundly humanistic. In many ways it directly compares to Tetsuya Nakashima’s Memories of Matsuko, but it does not leave viewers feeling so bereft.

As Minagawa, Haru Kuroki is a like a radiant, exquisitely sensitive Candide. She feels each injustice deeply, yet she carries on. It is a necessarily understated performance, given her character’s painful shyness and meek voice. Yet, she expresses a vast array of emotions with great depth and sincerity. Pop-star Cocco gives the film a much needed lift as the wildly charismatic and outgoing Satonaka. She and Kuroki develop some wonderfully rich and ambiguous chemistry together. Former Japanese AV star Nana Natsume is also terrific as Saeko Tsuneyoshi, Satonaka’s AV agent. Go Ayano’s Amuro similarly brings plenty of energy to the film, but he is almost too inscrutable. It is hard to fathom why he inspires such trust from Minagawa.

There is a two-hour version of Rip also kicking around the festival circuit, but NYAFF is not inclined to do things by halfsies. The three-hour cut often feels genuinely punishing, but that also makes the subtle cathartic releases feel more powerful. It will be highly divisive with audiences, but it is clearly the work of a serious auteur. Recommended for those who can take its unabashedly raw emotions, A Bride for Rip Van Winkle screens tomorrow (6/24) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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NYAFF ’16: Lazy Hazy Crazy

Despite its intentions, this film will make any man over twenty-one feel like a creepy “uncle.” In this context, an uncle is not just an older man. They are clients of the two part-time high school prostitutes. There will be plenty of voyeuristic opportunities, but there are also very real emotions underlying Luk Yee-sum’s Lazy Hazy Crazy (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 New York Asian Film Festival.

Initially, Chloe and the Malaysian Alice consider each other rivals, but they eventually bond over their shared experiences as after-school Uncle-daters. Their third friend Tracy clearly feels intimidated by their superior sexual confidence, but she is still reluctant to join them in the uncle business. Tracy’s inferiority complex is always a factor in their joint friendships, even when the three girls become de facto roommates, moving into Alice’s flat.

Parents are even scarcer in LHC than in your typical John Hughes movie. Alice’s father has been working in Thailand indefinitely, leaving her on her own to pay the rent, so what does he expect? Tracy still has her grandmother, but that relationship is problematic. Frankly, the after-school prostitution is presented as a reasonable economic decision for the girls, but it eventually causes scandal within their judgmental high school social circle. Yet, Luk always makes it clear this is not an isolated phenomenon only affecting Chloe, Alice, and maybe eventually Tracy, bu a wider real world trend.

At times, LHC is uncomfortably frank, especially considering its characters’ youth, yet it always feels more honest and serious than Eva Husson’s sensationalistic Gallic teens run amok. Everything Tracy, Chloe, and Alice do can be logically attributed to hormonal confusion and a lack of parental structure. The girls’ interpersonal dynamics also feel realistically real—one day they are BFFs, the next they are frienemies. Sounds a lot like high school, right?

Luk’s three co-leads are all potential future stars, particularly Kwok Yik-sum, who has the look and the vibrant presence to be an HK Jennifer Lawrence. On the other side of the spectrum, Fish Liew displays unexpectedly potent slow-burning intensity as Alice, whereas Mak Tsz-yi is the grounded one, who really anchors LHC. They are the film, but Gregory Wong makes it even trickier to take stock of the picture with his charismatic and sympathetic portrayal of Raymond, a patron who takes Tracy under his wing through an exclusive month-long booking (her first).

There are no easy answers or snap judgments in LHC. There are also very definitely physical, emotional, and psychological consequences for all of the girls’ decisions. However, the film is ultimately more hopeful than the downbeat opening narration suggests. Luk deftly walks a tightrope, getting explicit without feeling excessively prurient, while Jam Yau gauzy, sun-drenched cinematography lives up to the film’s title. NYAFF digs films about HK youth gone wild, having previously programmed films like May We Chat and High Noon, but LHC is more accessible and less depressing than those previous selections. Recommended for mature, socially conscious viewers only, Lazy Hazy Crazy screens this Saturday (6/25) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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Intruder: Wake Up and Smell the Stalker

Granted, Elizabeth is a classical symphony musician rather than a jazz improviser, but you would still expect her to be sensitive and attuned to the presence of others around her. Instead, she has the intuition of canned spam. Unfortunately, that will cost her dearly in Travis Z[ariwny]’s Intruder (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

When not being sexually harassed by Vincent, her misogynistic conductor, Elizabeth (judging from the press notes, women don’t need last names in Portland. You can just refer to “Elizabeth” and people know you mean the mousy cellist) withdraws into her rather spacious duplex cocoon. However, unbeknownst to her, someone has violated her space. He creeps around spying and prying and leaving his germs in disgusting places. Clearly, escalation is steady and increasingly perilous, but the only one who tweaks to his predatory behavior is the unhelpful cat Elizabeth is sitting.

What a difference an “s” makes. Adam Schindler’s Intruders with an s, which hit theaters in January, was a subversively inventive home invasion thriller that delivers plenty of vicarious payback. In contrast, there is absolutely nothing cathartic about Intruder (singular). Frankly, Travis Z’s climax could only be considered a pay-off by stalkers and registered sex offenders, which makes you wonder what sort of target demo he had in mind.

One thing is for sure—this film isn’t much fun to watch. That is because there are no reversals of fortune or any kind of arc to it. Elizabeth’s prospects simply slide down a flat, steeply declining straight line. There isn’t even any suspense, since she is so staggeringly oblivious to her situation. Seriously, most coma patients are better attuned to their surroundings than she is.

At least Moby, the pretentious dance music guy, is absolutely convincing as the odious Vincent. For what it’s also worth, probably no one else ever worked so doggedly hard at finding ways to look in the wrong direction than Louise Linton’s Elizabeth. Of course, the invader’s identity is blindingly obvious due to the relatively few named characters. It is either the suspiciously creepy guy or the super-awkward dude.

There is really nothing going on with Intruder, but it makes one perversely curious how Travis Z pitched it: “…and then this spoilery violence happens—the end.” Not recommended, Intruder screens after midnight this Friday and Saturday (6/24 & 6/25) at the IFC Center in New York.

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Wednesday, June 22, 2016

NYAFF ’16: The Bodyguard

These boots were made for kicking your butt and that’s exactly what Wu-lin is going to do. His master instantly recognized he was the only one skilled and virtuous enough to wear the Iron Boots. Years later, this is still a sore point for Wu-lin’s former fellow disciple, Jiang-li. Wu-lin has yet to remove said boots over that same period of time, as per tradition, which sounds pretty fragrant. Perhaps that explains why his boss’s daughter is less than thrilled to have him tagging along. However, she will soon be quite happy to have him handy in Yue Song’s The Bodyguard (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 New York Asian Film Festival.

Initially, it looks like Wu-lin lives off tips for doing the Van Damme-style splits, until chance reunites him with Jiang-li. Knowing his skills, Jiang-li hires his former brother for his bodyguard company, even though they seem to subscribe to the Enter the Dragon/Kill and Kill Again calisthenics programs. Much to everyone’s consternation, the wealthy Li Jia-shan immediately hires Wu-lin to serve as his daughter’ bodyguard, partly because he saved Li’s bacon in an earlier action scene, but mostly because looks honest (he certainly doesn’t dress like bribed-up turncoat).

So basically Li hires Wu-lin to protect Fei-fei from the rest of his own company. Sure, that makes sense, just like it makes sense to have a paramilitary looking bodyguard agency fronting for a Kung Fu death cult with shadowy financial interests. Frankly, it is never clear just how their evil business plan works, but messing with the Li family seems to be a big part of it.

Regardless, Yue has got killer moves and a reasonably engaging screen presence. His debut The King of the Streets was appealingly grungy, but The Bodyguard represents a considerable step up in filmmaking skills. The scale is larger this time around and the action sequences are more ambitious. Becki Li also elevates her thesp chops as Li, developing some nice platonic chemistry with Yue. Yet, maybe most notably, the actor-director also recruits some big name sparring partners, including former Shaolin monk Xing Yu (a.k.a. Shi Yanneng), who crushes it as Jiang-li.

You’d better take off your pedantry cap, because Yue does not have a lot of time to waste on logic. Instead, he is putting his iron boots in bad guys’ faces. There also happens to be an iron fist, but it definitely plays second banana to the boots. It is all kind of silly, but also pretty awesome. Recommended as a good old fashioned, old school Kung Fu beatdown, The Bodyguard screens this Saturday night (6/25) at the Walter Reade, where the presentation of the Daniel A. Craft Award for Action Excellence Award to Yue will be part of the festivities.

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Refn’s Neon Demon

These models have practically zero percent body fat, but they can still produce plenty of body horror. That’s “horror,” as in scary movies. If you’re looking for vicarious thrills and chills, a Nicolas Winding Refn joint really isn’t for you, but if you want to gawk at lurid strangeness, the Danish director delivers more than ever. There are indeed dire consequences in store for a small town catwalk ingénue, who descends into the darkly sexualized, increasingly surreal fashion world in Refn’s Neon Demon (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Fresh off the bus from Bumbletucky or wherever, Jesse immediately falls in with Ruby, a conspicuously interested lesbian makeup artist and her two evil blonde model pals, Gigi and Sarah—or is it Sarah and Gigi? Much to her new model frienemies’ shock, Jesse is immediately signed by a high-power agency and starts booking what they consider “their gigs.” Her boss admits she is raw and undeveloped, but she just has “the Look.”

Within the context of the narrative (such as it is), Elle Fanning’s Jesse is a sixteen-year-old not really passing for nineteen. However, she looks like a fourteen-year-old zonked out on Nyquil. If that “Look” revs your engine, you should probably be on some sort of registry.

Regardless, guys seem to swoon over her like she is the second coming of Marilyn Monroe. That includes the loyal Dean, who follows her around like a neutered hound dog and Hank, the predatory junkyard dog who manages the fleabag Pasadena motel she is still staying in after being signed to a modelling contract by Mad Men’s Christine Hendricks, one of the few women in the film who does not look like a malnourished heroin addict.

There is some creepy tension and some bat-scat lunacy in Neon, but there are also plenty scenes fixated on Jesse as she bites her lip and stares into her navel. Frankly, it is about a focused as Only God Forgives (meaning not very), but it lacks the electrifying presence of Vithaya Pansringarm. Perversely, it is Keanu Reeves who makes the strongest impression as Hell’s own Motelier. He is so unsettling, Refn should have called an audible and rearranged the film into a more conventional Bates Motel-style horror movie.

Refn being Refn, he frequently bombards the audience with barrages of tripped out imagery. Some of it is admittedly quite weird and original, but the film needs a more solid foundation for his regurgitated subconscious to wash over. It is just not enough to be subversive and out there. There also needs to be a there there. Not recommended, Neon Demon opens this Friday (6/24) in New York, at the Angelika Film Center.

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Tuesday, June 21, 2016

NYAFF ’16: Seoul Station

Zombies do not have discerning palates. They will eat anyone, including the dirty, smelly homeless. In fact, tramps and hoboes are particularly attractive zombie fodder, because they tend to cluster in group and are unlikely to carry equalizers. Unfortunately, the huddled masses that regularly spend the night lounging on the lower concourse of Seoul’s commuter train station are about to be overrun by the walking dead and it will not take them long to come shambling out for the rest of the city in Yeon Sang-ho’s chillingly dark animated feature Seoul Station (clip here), which screens during the 2016 New York Asian Film Festival.

The homeless man looks peaked even by homeless standards. Judging from his bloody wound, he is not that far removed from zombie zero. However, it will take a while for him to turn. In the meantime, we meet Hye-sun, a runaway reluctantly turning tricks for Ki-woong, her geeky gamer wannabe pimp. Frankly, she has worked for far worse than him, but she is still tired of supporting the useless dweeb on her back. Of course, they angrily part company just as the zombie apocalypse dawns.

Hye-sun considered crashing with the homeless beneath the station, but obviously that was a bad idea. Barely surviving the initial rampage, Hye-sun constantly goes from frying pan to fire to even more scorching blue-flamed fire. At least the remorseful Ki-woong is out there looking for her, as is her old man, Suk-gyu, who picked a heck of a time for a reunion.

Without question, Yeon is one of the most distinctive animated filmmakers working today, due to his uncompromisingly pessimistic narratives rather than his visual style. He calls and raises the bleak naturalism of King of Pigs and The Fake, with Station’s bitter indictment of human nature. This film is guaranteed to be divisive, because it really knocks viewers back on their heels. You might think you know dark zombie narrative turns from Walking Dead, but Station will absolutely turn your stomach to ice-water. Yet there is value in such a strong reaction.

While Yeon absolutely drives his unsubtle political messages into the ground in the first act, he builds the tension quite effectively once the zombie apocalypse begins in earnest. In fact, the climax is rather masterful. Ryu Seung-ryong (The Piper, War of the Arrows) is also perfectly cast as the steely voice of Suk-gyu. Yeon does zombies with an ideological zeal worthy of George Romero—and its animated form makes it even more effective. Highly recommended, Seoul Station screens this Friday night (6/24) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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NYAFF ’16: Apocalypse Child

It is sort of a cross between the existential Japanese Sun Tribe films and the American Independent beach party movies, but it couldn’t exist without the apex of Hollywood 1970s auteurism. According to legend, after finishing the famous surfing sequence, the crew of Apocalypse Now left behind a few surfboards, inadvertently seeding a local surfing scene in Baler. According to family legend, Francis Ford Coppola did something similar with Ford’s mother. The moody surf instructor does not like to talk about it, but the rumors still dog him in Mario Cornejo’s Apocalypse Child (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 New York Asian Film Festival.

Ford has been getting pretty serious with Fiona, a formerly troubled runaway, as even his free-spirited, permissive mother Chona notices. Unfortunately, just when things start to get real, his well-heeled childhood friend Rich makes his triumphant homecoming as Baler’s young new Congressman, with Selena, a beautiful fiancée in tow. Ford has plenty of reasons to resent Rich and perhaps vice versa, but the incredibly attractive foursome starts partying together, to keep up appearances. Periodically, they become a quintet whenever Chona brings over weed. However, all the time Ford and Selena are spending together for her surfing lessons is bound to lead to jealousy and temptation. There is actually some surfing too.

Regardless of its cinematic merits, Apocalypse certainly makes Baler look like a veritable paradise on earth. Apparently, you can surf and sun all day and then eat roast pig in the evening. It sounds great, even if there is a district mandate requiring neurotic co-dependent relationships.

Essentially, Apocalypse is part angsty indie drama and part sun-drenched guilty pleasure. Most of us probably prefer the latter (its summertime, after all), even though the five principles are all pretty good. In fact, Annicka Dolonius (also quite impressive in What Isn’t There) plays the more-vulnerable-than-she-wants-to-let-on Fiona with exquisite subtlety. Sid Lucero can definitely surf and brood, so he has Ford buttoned-down well enough. Gwen Zamora is a luminous presence as Selena, but it is hard to believe an up-and-coming politician would get involved with someone with her back story. Frankly, RK Bagatsing’s Rich is problematically whiny, while Ana Abad-Santos probably wins cheap audience points with her Susan Sarandonish portrayal of Chona.

Even what things get messy and awkward, Apocalypse always sparkles thanks to cinematographer Ike Avellana’s bright, inviting lensing. It is the sort of film that works just enough to keep viewers invested and potentially inspire repeat home viewings. This is one you will want to take to your shore house when it comes out on DVD. Recommended for what it is, Apocalypse Child screens Thursday (6/23) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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The Call Up: British Gamers Getting Played

Everybody thinks Virtual Reality is the next big thing in entertainment. Get ready to have your enthusiasm tempered. It turns out first-person shooters are not so cool when they get really real. For a group of unsuspecting beta-testers, the game turns out to be all about killing and not about fun anymore. To survive, they will have to play through in Charles Barker’s The Call Up (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

They only know each other by their screen names, but each are die-hard (hopefully) gamers. They were recruited online for a mysterious test game, despite their vastly different levels of gamer cred. Eventually they discover they are all rather solitary and will not be missed.

Initially, they are psyched to put on the VR body suits that transform them into special forces commandos and transport them to some sort of urban battlefield. However, when their team-members start to die in the physical world from gunshots sustained in-game, they realize the gravity of the situation. Yet, the resentful unstable sociopath keeps acting like an unstable sociopath. Regardless, they will have to continue advancing to each successive level, or face the VR Sergeant’s wrath for “desertion.”

Yes, this is some reasonably familiar ground, but Barker puts the cast through their paces rather snappily and actually gives us an ending that pays off rather than bringing us down and leaving us with a feeling of futility, which far too many genre films are inexplicably inclined to do. The special effects are also decent and the design of the suit looks credibly forty-eight or seventy-two hours ahead of current technology.

Morfydd Clark (do you think she’s Welsh?) is having quite a year, following up Love & Friendship and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies with The Call Up. She is reasonably solid as Shelly the rational gamer, but only Christopher Obi and Boris Ler make lasting impressions as the Sergeant and Zahid, the expat Bosnian gamer.

It already seems too late to call Call Up science fiction and it isn’t gory or macabre enough to be horror. Action is as good a label as anything, especially considering how much time they spend in the special ops world. It will look antiquated in a matter of weeks, but it is a decent genre fix for Southern Californians (in contrast, lucky New Yorkers should have more than they can handle with NYAFF). Sort of recommended accordingly, The Call Up opens this Friday (6/24) at the Laemmle Royal.

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I, Anna: Charlotte Rampling Rocks a Trench Coat

Architecturally, there are two Londons of note. There is the Old England of Big Ben and Buckingham Palace and the glass and steel London of Norman Foster and the Barbican. The latter is becoming increasingly more recognizable, thanks to structures like “The Gherkin.” This is the world Anna Miller and DCI Bernie Reid uncomfortably inhabit in Barnaby Southcombe’s moody noir, I, Anna (trailer here), which releases today on DVD, from Icarus Films.

Anna Welles is a divorced grandmother with misgivings—about the fractured union, not her granddaughter or her single-mother grown-daughter Emmy. In fact, all three live together, with Welles sleeping in the living room New York studio style, while the two younger generations share her one bedroom. Encouraged by Emmy to do a spot of speed-dating, Welles winds up accompanying a mature player named George Stone to his tony flat. Things get a bit haywire from there, especially for Stone, whose noggin is bashed in by a blunt object.

To viewers, Welles looks like an excellent suspect, who even returns to the building to retrieve her umbrella from the lift. However, that is not how DCI Reid initially sees her, but he definitely notices the stylish woman. Stone’s resentful stepson with extensive drug debts seems like a far more likely perp. Of course, the investigation will inevitably turn toward Welles just as she and Reid make an unusually deep emotional connection.

Southcombe adapted Elsa Lewin’s one-hit wonder mystery novel, which was also inspired the late 1990s German film, Solo for Clarinet. Presumably, the clarinet was a bit of German seasoning. In its present screen incarnation, the narrative sort of resembles Looking for Mr. Goodbar, as if James M. Cain had rewritten it. Yet, first and foremost, Southcombe clearly conceived the film as a star vehicle-character study for Charlotte Rampling, who also happens to be his mother.

It should also be immediately conceded Rampling and her co-lead Gabriel Byrne do not look anywhere near the seventy and sixty-six years their Wikipedia pages admit to. Still, they are indeed mature adults, which makes their romantic relationship rather refreshing, even though it is obviously doomed. Together, their chemistry smolders, while individually Rampling implodes spectacularly and Byrne absolutely personifies rumpled angst. Bond and Avengers fans will also enjoy seeing Honor Blackman kill it with a tart-tongued extended cameo. Similarly, Eddie Marsan gives the film additional mystery cred playing DI Frank Towers (frankly, it is about time somebody programmed a Marsan retrospective).

In all likelihood, Southcombe probably did not intend I,A as a commentary on contemporary architecture, but it is baked in nonetheless—and more successfully than in Wheatley’s artlessly didactic High-Rise. They both orbit ultra-modern neighborhoods like Canary Wharf, but they are uneasy in their navigation. Reid seems to be a respected guv’nor (or at least he was), but he prefers to patrol the streets at 5:00 rather than spend time in his fishbowl office with floor-to-ceiling internal windows. Likewise, Rampling’s ageless sophistication looks out of place traversing the endless external concrete stairways of Stone’s complex.

As a mystery, I, Anna is not all that mysterious, but Ben Smithard’s cinematography is seductively noir. Essentially, Southcombe’s film is all about style and Rampling, with some Byrne thrown in for good measure. For most genre fans, that will be more than enough. Recommended for mature mystery/thriller patrons, I, Anna is now available on DVD from Icarus Films.

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Monday, June 20, 2016

NYAFF ’16: Twisted Justice

Mike Bloomberg would approve of the way Chief Inspector Yoichi Morohoshi takes care of business in Hokkaido. The questionable copper will make alliances with the Yakuza, deal speed, and completely disregard civil liberties in order to “keep guns off the streets.” Don’t you feel so much safer knowing he is based on the real Yoshiaki Inaba? The convicted cop’s memoir has now been adapted as Kazuya Shiraishi’s Twisted Justice (trailer here), the opening night selection of the 2016 New York Asian Film Festival, starring Rising Star Asia Award Winner Go Ayano.

The only reason the Hokkaido police recruited Morohoshi was for his judo skills. He held up his end of the bargain, leading their team to its first championship. However, if he hopes to make it on the Sapporo force, he will have to start scoring better on the competitive point system. The highest points are awarded for the recovery of any sort of gun that can be directly linked to a criminal. That obviously creates an incentive to plant guns on random lowlife fall guys. Of course, to do that, Morohoshi will need an illicit source of firearms. Fortunately, a local small time Yakuza and his Pakistani contractor are more than willing to help, in exchange for Morohoshi’s protection.

Following this strategy, with some degree of wink-wink-nudge-nudge approval from his superiors, Morohoshi rides high for years. Inevitably, the party will end, most likely with a bang rather than a whimper. Nevertheless, Morohoshi will survive to be banished to the Yubari hinterlands, but this corrupt cop just doesn’t know when to quit.

Beyond the spot-on period trappings, Twisted has a gritty, grimy 1970s vibe that recalls classics like Friedkin’s The French Connection, Shohei Imamura’s Vengeance is Mine, and Kinji Fukasaku’s Cops vs. Thugs. However, there is nothing glamorous about Morohoshi’s debauchery. In fact, Shiraishi makes it uncomfortably clear Morohoshi’s corruption leads to debasement rather than empowerment. Seriously, you do not want to be him.

Still, you have to admire the way Ayano dives into Morohoshi’s depraved and erratic persona. He fully commits to all the excesses and humiliations. Thanks to his work, Twisted becomes an epic of personal self-destruction. However, Pierre Taki scene-stealing reaches kleptomaniacal levels as the hedonistic Det. Sadao Murai, the old, slightly crooked salt, who first shows Morohoshi how to bend the rules to his advantage. Likewise, the performance of Gravure (pin-up) Idol-turned actress Haruna Yabuki as the hostess-lover Morohoshi leads even further astray is nakedly open and honest, in every sense.

It really is mind-boggling how much gangster behavior is condoned and even committed all for the sake of confiscating a few firearms. You do not have to be a member of the NRA to consider it madness, but you might consider joining by the time Shiraishi’s epic concludes. Living up to its title, Twisted is a sweeping indictment of public safety claims used to justify terribly venal forms of graft. It is also a relentlessly slick barn-burner that never compromises or waters-down its ripped-from-the-headlines subject matter. Highly recommended, Twisted Justice screens this Wednesday (6/22) and next Tuesday (6/28) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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Blue Note Jazz Festival ’16: Playing Lecuona

No special effect is as impressive as Chucho Valdés fingers chewing up the piano keys. Yet, believe it or not, Michel Camilo and Gonzalo Rubalcaba might just edge him out in this first class performance documentary. Of course, it is not a competition per se, but we’re talking jazz here, so there’s always an element of competitive drive. At the risk of sounding corny, we can definitely say viewers and listeners are the real winners when Pavel Giroud & Juan Manuel Villar Betancourt’s Playing Lecuona (trailer here) screens during the Blue Note Jazz Festival.

Ernesto Lecuona lived an eventful life, but the audience will mostly have to pick that up through osmosis. There is not much in the vein of traditional biography, but the three titans of Latin Jazz piano certainly do right by his compositions—and then some. At least the charismatic Camilo gives us some handy nutshell context, explaining Lecuona brought the rhythms and colors of Afro-Cuban musical forms into classical composition in much the same way George Gershwin did with jazz and blues. Like Gershwin in America, Lecuona’s tunes have provided fertile ground for Afro-Cuban Jazz re-interpretation, as our rotating musical hosts amply illustrate.

Playing Lecuona is probably the best jazz documentary since Calle 54, which makes a certain amount of sense, since both Camilo and Valdés appeared in Fernando Trueba’s modern classic, as did Valdés’ late father Bebo. Sadly, the senior Valdés died before the filming of PL started, but his presence is felt throughout. Buena Vista Social Club member Omara Portuondo certainly attests to that.

Each pianist plays several Lecuonda pieces with ensembles and they accompany a vocalist at least once. Valdés takes us on a frustrating tour of Havana, with only a neglected plaque to commemorate the towering (staunchly anti-Communist) Cuban composer. Rubalcaba explores Lecuona’s Flamenco inspirations in Seville, while Camilo follows in the maestro’s footsteps in New York and Tenerife. The time spent with all three is quite enjoyable, in a laid back, anecdotal sort of way, but the music is the thing here and it is terrific.

Everybody knows Valdés has technique coming out of his nose, but Camilo and Rubalcaba will unleash some flurries that will surprise and delight Chucho die-hards. There is some spectacular piano being played—and Queens residents will be proud to know they are Steinways. In fact, the film also offers a valentine to the traditional hand-crafted piano manufacturer, which so many jazz musicians truly seem to prefer. While we are on the subject of coolness, it is also rather gratifying to see Rubalcaba tooling around in a Porsche. Good for him.

When Valdés, Camilo, and Rubalcaba dig into Lecuona’s music, they all produce genuine “wow” moments. Santiago Torres’ stylish cinematography well suits the elegant sophistication and ecstatic energy of their performances. The film always looks great and sounds absolutely incredible. Frankly, there is probably more talent captured on-screen in this doc than any other film you will see this year, especially when you consider the Flamenco musicians Rubalcaba collaborates with, including Flamenco-Blues guitarist Raimundo Amador. Very highly recommended for anyone with ears, Playing Lecuonda screens this Thursday (6/23) at the IFC Center, as part of this year’s Blue Note Jazz Festival.

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Johnnie To’s Three

The title comes from a truncated Confucius quote regarding humility that sort of works in the original Cantonese Chinese context. In Western markets, it vaguely seems to relate to the central trio of characters, whose pride most likely will cometh before a fall. However, knowing fan favorite Lam Suet has a considerable supporting role will probably be much more interesting to American audiences than the participation of C-pop star Wallace Chung, especially considering this is a Johnnie To film. Although it is smaller in scope than his gangster classics, To still delivers the goods in Three (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

It has been a bad day for Dr. Tong Qian —and it will soon get far worse. She has had a string of unfortunate surgeries, including the now partially paralyzed young man, who constantly berates her whenever she walks through the recovery ward. Of course, she is hardly the sort of doctor to admit a mistake. This is all beside the point to her latest hard case patient.

Frankly, Inspector Chen hoped his prisoner would never make it to the hospital. That bullet wound to the head was no accident. Yet, in a freakish turn of fate, the bullet became precariously lodged in the perp’s skull. The prognosis would be decent if he would consent to surgery, but the armed robber refuses. Instead, he bides his time fully conscious, waiting for his gang to break him loose. Inspector Chen figures they are coming, but they are actually already there.

Granted, Three isn’t Election or Drug War or [insert your favorite Johnnie To movie here], but it is a lean and mean, finely tuned thriller machine. It also further demonstrates To’s ability to get the best out of HK superstar Louis Koo, who broods like a monster as the hard-nosed but slightly neurotic Inspector Chen. Vicki Zhao Wei really plays against type, out-angsting Koo as the insecure doctor with the sub-par bedside manner. Chung chews the scenery with cinematic glee, more than exceeding expectations, but Lam Suet makes the film as the sad sack member of Chen’s task force. He starts out as comic relief, but gets serious as a heart attack in the second act.

Any HK thriller set in a hospital is bound to bring to mind John Woo’s Hard Boiled, but To goes for more of an intimate Desperate Hours kind of vibe, pulling it off quite nicely. Still, he must be cognizant of the echoes, since he throws in a Battleship Potemkin reference for good measure. Regardless, it all adds up to a lot of fun. Recommended for fans of the action auteur and his big name cast, To’s Three opens this Friday (6/24) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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River: The Fugitive in Laos

You have to feel for the consular officers who will be forced to work on Dr. John Lake’s case. The American doctor is wanted in Laos for the murder of an Australian senator’s entitled son and the rape of a local. Unfortunately, a one-armed man was not seen fleeing the scene of the crime. Lake more or less dispatched the ugly Australian, but everything else was the dead man’s handiwork. Due to the victim’s misunderstanding, Lake opts to make a desperate run for the Thai border in Jamie M. Dagg’s River (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Lake was volunteering with a medical NGO, but his supervisor sent him off on two weeks leave following the triage work they did for a truckload of accident victims. He decides to visit the picturesque southern islands in the Mekong River Delta, as do two hard-partying Australian lads. Lake tried to dissuade them from plying the petite Nang Chanh with liquor, but he has no qualms about partaking himself. Later drunkenly stumbling over the unconscious girl and her predator, Lake sort of snaps. Rather inconveniently the girl comes to just in time to misconstrue Lake’s blood stains.

Ordinarily, taking flight is a very bad idea, especially sans passport and cash. However, it is tough to blame him in Laos, a state still ruled by a Communist regime, where trials are considered a formality and executions are an inevitability. In fact, it makes you wonder why he is there is the first place. Regardless, Lake’s crisis disperses any wishful thinking he might have had, which leads to full galloping panic.

In fact, River should jolly well dissuade most viewers from visiting Laos, just as Midnight Express probably temporarily depressed Turkish tourism. Still, the humid delta and surrounding rainforests are an evocative locale. Cinematographer Adam Marsden makes gives the film an appropriately swelteringly noir look, while Dagg nicely compounds the tension of being a fugitive in a foreign land.

As Lake, Rossif Sutherland (terrific in Hyena Road and not bad in Helions) is convincingly sweaty, but his performance largely confines itself to a narrow zone of guilt and paranoia. At least the dependably cool Vithaya Pansringarm offers some charismatic support as the friendly bartender who befriends Lake that fateful night. It is a comparatively small supporting role, but Pansringarm is apparently incapable of being dull on-screen.

All things considered, River is quite fair to the Laotians. In fact, Dagg really should have more fully explained why standing trial in Laos for a crime you did not commit is such a perilous proposition. It is also seems rather strange Lake and his NGO boss are Americans, considering River is a Canadian production, helmed by a Canadian filmmaker, featuring several Canadian cast-members (Sutherland, as well as Sara Botsford, Ted Atherton, and Karen Glave—the latter two playing U.S. Foreign Service Officers). Regardless, Dagg gives viewers a pungent sense of the region and ends on a graceful note. Recommended as a future video pick, River opens this Friday (6/24) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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Sunday, June 19, 2016

Mark Lee Ping-Bing at MoMA: Eighteen Springs

Many suspect Eileen Chang was snubbed by the Nobel committee due to fear of angering Communist China. After all, she emigrated first to Hong Kong and then to America, having done some translation work for the U.S. Information Service along the way. However, her novels were rather apolitical, focusing instead on universal themes like love, loss, and even more of each. It is therefore rather logical that Hong Kong auteur Ann Hui (one of the most accomplished women filmmakers of any nationality) and Taiwanese cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bing would have an affinity for her work. The resulting adaptation of Eighteen Springs (trailer here) appropriately screens as part of Luminosity, MoMA’s retrospective tribute to Lee.

In the serialized novel, the lovers are star-crossed and separated for eighteen years. Chang shortened that span to fourteen years for the bound-up novel, but that still constituted roughly half a lifetime in Republican era Shanghai, as the new title suggested. It was a rough and tumble place, but there were also opportunities for educated men and women to find professional work and maybe fall in love. Such is the case for Gu Manjing and Shen Shijun, a junior manager and an engineer working for one of the city’s widget factories.

Shen is almost painfully shy, but he comes from a well to do family. Gu is also somewhat reserved but comparatively more outgoing. She is also a proper young woman, but her sister is decidedly not. To support their large extended family, Gu Manlu has worked as a ballroom hostess. Supposedly, she never truly did anything untoward in that capacity, but those reassurances have the ring of protesting too much. Regardless, the elder Gu sister will continue to be an issue for Shen’s uptight family if Manjing ever consents to his marriage proposal. Of course, fate and the machinations of family and rivals will conspire to cleave them apart and rather desperate developments will keep them separated and out of communication.

Hui and Lee deliberately tried to emulate the looks of 1930s and 1940s Chinese melodramas, going for an almost dogme-like hazy, dark visual style. Nevertheless, the print might be due for some restorative work, because it looks a little too dim in spots, but never to the point of breaking the film’s spell.

Regardless, Eighteen Springs is an exquisitely romantic tragedy that takes an almost gothic left turn, before bringing it home to a wise and mature resolution. Jacklyn Wu Chien-lien anchors the film in a career performance as Manjing, spanning the complete emotional gamut, but with rigorous discipline and tremendous nuance. Leon Lai tries to keep up as best he can, but he has trouble comparably projecting past Shen’s protective shell. Frankly, Huang Lei often out-shines him as the couple’s mutual friend, Xu Shuhui. However, nobody upstages Anita Mui’s diva-turn as the diva-ish Gu Manlu.

It is a credit to Hui, Chang, Wu, and even Lee that Eighteen Springs always feels like the earnest literary story of a star-crossed couple rather than a melodrama. They are plenty of potentially lurid excesses lurking in the narrative, but the filmmakers and cast keep it all scrupulously grounded and psychologically real. Very highly recommended, Eighteen Springs screens just the one night this Wednesday (6/22), as part of MoMa’s Luminosity.

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Saturday, June 18, 2016

Mark Lee Ping-Bing at MoMA: Crosscurrent

The Yangtze is the river of rivers. It probably facilitates more commercial traffic than the Mississippi and definitely carries more ancient baggage than the Nile. Gao Chun also has his share of both. His slightly dubious delivery up-river will take a massively allegorical turn in Yang Chao’s beautiful but obscure Crosscurrent (trailer here), which had its American premiere as the opening night film of Luminosity, MoMA’s retrospective tribute to cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bing.

They say sailors have girl in every port, but Chun has the same mysterious woman at every stop along the way from Shanghai to Yibin. He has inherited his captaincy from his late father as well as the shadowy client, whose undisclosed cargo Chun is delivering. In accordance with tradition, he also carrying a black carp, whose death should signal the end of Chun’s morning period. However, he will get understandably sidetracked by An Lu.

Sometime she appears as a prostitute. Other times she is a Buddhist Stylite of sorts. Yet it is always unmistakably her—and their connection remains highly potent. Guided by a mysterious book of poetry discovered on-board his inherited river barge, Chun seeks out further encounters, at the expense of his time table.

Evidently, Gao Chun and An Lu are traveling up and down different temporal streams of the same river. That means she is getting younger as he is getting older. Fortunately, the narrator pretty much tells the audience this straight out, because you would not glean it from looking at the actors.

Lee won the Silver Bear at this year’s Berlinale for his cinematography—and it is pretty clear why. Visually, Crosscurrent is a masterwork of light and color. He frames some awe-inspiring river vistas, yet also gives the film an indescribably uncanny look. However, Yang’s maddeningly diffuse screenplay is not likely to rack up a lot of awards. Granted, Crosscurrent is supposed to be meditative, but at times it is better described as slack.

Still, there is a there in there, somewhere under all crushing symbolism. Nor can you fault Yang’s ambition, when he stages a struggle between the sacred and the profane, which culminates on the Tibetan Plateau. The symbolism is heavy, but rather spot-on when the massive Three Gorges Dam becomes the man-made behemoth that cleaves the two lovers apart. Despite Yang’s unsubtle portents and Lee’s overwhelming visuals, Qin Hao and Xin Zhilei develop some smolderingly mysterious chemistry together. Most folks would also take detours to renew their acquaintance.

You should realize what you are getting into when the cinematographer absolves the audience before the screening starts in the event they might nod off. You also have to give credit to Lee for being a reasonable sort of chap. Yet, despite issues of pace and pretension, you really feel like you have been on an odyssey by the time Crosscurrent finishes. It is somewhat akin to Bi Gan’s Kaili Blues, but lusher and more archetypal. Regardless, anyone who values the art and craft of filmmaking will appreciate an eyeful of Lee’s work here. Sort of recommended for hardcore cineastes, Crosscurrent is sure to have significant festival play, following its American premiere kicking off Luminosity, the Mark Lee Ping-Bing retrospective now underway at MoMA.

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Friday, June 17, 2016

Parched: Gujarati Women and the Men Who Abuse Them

The men of this provincial Gujarati village all seem to have the own unique style for being boorish, misogynist, freeloading sexual predators. Each is as different as a snowflake, but they make the women around them just as miserable. Worst of all, the put upon women are supposed to take it and be grateful. However, four women start to question tradition in Leena Yadav’s Parched (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Rani’s rapey husband was no door prize, but when he keeled over, literally dead drunk, he left her as the sole provider for their entitled son Gulab and his wizened old mother. For the record, she was sixteen years old at the time, having survived three years of wedded bliss. Her best friend is the sweetly optimistic Lajjo, who is routinely beaten by her husband for being infertile, even though we immediately suspect he is the one shooting blanks. Basically, the only alternative to being an abused house wife is to be a prostitute, like Bijli, who befriended Rani and Lajjo through an unlikely chain of events. That is how things have always been in the village and the chauvinist elders intend to keep it that way.

Rani has always followed the rules, but she starts to doubt when she buys her gangster-wannabe son a wife. It is called a dowry, but it’s the same as purchasing chattel. When the union starts on a sour note, she immediately lashes out at the innocent Janaki, but she eventually realizes she is just continuing the cycle of abuse. Meanwhile, Gulab the red light district-patronizing defender of traditional values and his running mates decide to take out their frustrations on Kishan, the village’s sole progressive, who offers the local women empowering work as a shirt manufacturer.

It is impossible not to be profoundly moved and deeply angered by Parched, but Yadav hardly plays fair. She uses every manipulative trick in the book, while completely eschewing subtlety. At times the film feels like a frontal assault. There are only so many times you can watch a cowering woman endure a potentially crippling assault without getting sick to your psyche. However, you have to admire the in-your-face honesty, which makes the tacked-on happy ending feel so weird, sort of like if Thelma and Louise had safely driven off into the sunset in a clown car.

As Rani, Tannishtha Chatterjee basically rips the viewer’s heart out and stomps on it. Yet she looks downright aloof and detached compared Radhika Apte as the acutely naïve and vulnerable Lajjo. Arguably, Surveen Chawla gives the fullest performance as the sultry but self-defeating Bijli. Unfortunately, Lehar Khan spends too much time buried under veils and shunted into a corner to make much of an impression as Janaki, but Riddhi Sen is thoroughly detestable, yet still sadly believable, as the monstrous little Gulab.

Yadav is definitely pushing hot buttons and using agit-prop theater techniques, but the film mostly still works on a basic dramatic level. In this case, her heart also happens to be in the right place. She does make us care about these characters’ fates—and she makes us suffer it. Recommended for those in the mood for a blood pressure-rising social issue Parallel Cinema, Parched opens today (6/17) in New York, at the AMC Empire.


Thursday, June 16, 2016

Mark Lee Ping-Bing at MoMA: The Vertical Ray of the Sun

Lien and her two sisters never made a fuss over their parents’ birthdays while they were living, yet they will prepare lavish feasts for the memorial anniversaries. The irony is not lost on the sisters, because in most respects they embrace life in the moment. However, their romantic entanglements become distractingly messy in Vietnamese-born French-naturalized filmmaker Tran Anh Hung’s The Vertical Ray of the Sun (trailer here), which screens as part of Luminosity, MoMA’s retrospective tribute to cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bing.

Vertical is sort of like the lushest, most sensual film Yasujiro Ozu never made. You might say “nothing happens,” but the truth is an awful lot of life transpires for the Vietnamese sisters. However, that late summer vibe will lull viewers into a sort of listless bliss, just as it does to the characters. That would be Lee at work.

Lien’s parents died one month apart. That should be romantic, but the circumstances were complicated. Lien and her married sisters, Suong and Khanh have mostly come to terms with it. As a result, the family café bustles with activity as they prepare for the first feast. As usual, they tease and cajole their reluctant young brother Hai into helping. That is especially Lien’s M.O. She and Hai are roommates who always start they day together bantering, exercising, and dancing to Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground.

Frankly, Lien and Hai might be so close, they could be crowding out potential romantic interests. Still, their mornings certainly look like a lot of fun. In contrast, Suong and Khanh must manage highly imperfect spouses and suspicions of infidelity. In one case they are justified, but not the other. Some viewers might be frustrated with the lack of closure for these subplots (as well as others), but Vertical is rather scrupulously focused on the period between each memorial feast. It is a somewhat arbitrary time frame, but a significant one.

Good golly, just about every aspect of Vertical is visually arresting, starting with Lien and her ridiculously photogenic family, but also most definitely including Lee’s rich, verdant cinematography. It is the sort of film you just want to soak in, like a hot tub. Consequently, viewers face the potential danger of losing sight of Tran Nu Yên-Khê’s acutely sensitive and utterly seductive performance as Lien. Likewise, Nguyen Nhu Quỳnh and Le Khanh have moments of pure beauty as Suong and Khanh, respectively.

For those who find Vertical uneventful, we just don’t know what to tell you. The truth is you will be hard pressed to find another film that is this emotionally mature and yet so sexually charged. If that bores you, you’re on your own. Highly recommended for sophisticated viewers, The Vertical Ray of the Sun screens this Sunday (6/19) and Tuesday (6/28) as part of Luminosity at MoMA.

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