J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, June 30, 2017

NYAFF ’17: The Truth Beneath

What do you get when you combine high school bullying with dirty politics? A mother’s worst nightmare. Much to her horror, Kim Yeon-hong’s missing daughter becomes an issue in her husband’s national assembly campaign in director-screenwriter Lee Kyoung-mi’s The Truth Beneath (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Initially, the Kennedy-esque Kim Jong-chan is heavily favored to oust the old, entrenched incumbent No Jae-soon, until Kim Min-jin disappears. Kim Heon-hong is understandably alarmed, but she is also frustrated her husband and his campaign staff are not more concerned. They seem to merely consider it an annoying opportunity for No to chip away at his family-values image. The good news is developments make it impossible for No to further exploit Min-jin’s disappearance. The bad news you can generally imagine. When Kim sets out looking for answers, she discovers Min-jin’s fate might be tied to secrets within both her daughter’s school and her husband’s campaign organization.

Judging from their movies, South Korean public opinion currently esteems politicians roughly on par with serial killers and men caught exposing themselves in playgrounds. Although Lee generally portrays her characters in nonpartisan terms, she clearly implies they are all corrupt on some level. Politics is a dirty business that seems to contaminate everything it touches.

Kim Yeon-hong is not exactly the Korean “Good Wife.” Despite her enthusiastic campaigning in the first act, she becomes a loose cannon soon thereafter. In a vivid and visceral performance, Son Ye-jin expresses all of Ms. Kim’s rage, guilt, and sorrow, but she is arguably such a bundle of raw nerves, it is hard to believe she can simultaneously function so efficiently as an amateur sleuth/vengeance-seeker.

Regardless, it is a bracing performance. Son also develops some appropriately complex and ambiguous chemistry with Kim Ju-hyeok’s Jong-chan. For Korean fans, it is a bit of an ironic pairing, reuniting the leads of the 2008 Korean rom-com My Wife Got Married. However, even if their professional history together means nothing to viewers, they should still appreciate the ways their on-screen relationship crashes and burns.

As thrillers go, Truth Beneath gets about as dark as the genre can get without encroaching on horror territory. Human nature is nasty, brutish, sociopathic, and well-tailored in Kim’s world, but she is a force to be reckoned with, like few we’ve ever seen before on film. Recommended for fans of cynical political thrillers, The Truth Beneath screens this Monday evening (7/3) at the Walter Reade, as part of the 2017 NYAFF.

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NYAFF ’17: Wet Woman in the Wind

There were hard and fast rules for the making of Nikkatsu’s so-called Roman P*rn* series of films, sort of like a sonnet or a haiku. They had to be under eighty minutes, with a sex scene due every ten minutes. Having saved the studio from financial ruin in the 1970s, they have recently dusted the tried-and-true formula for old times’ sake as well as potentially lucrative territorial sales and back-end deals, so to speak. This time around, they have recruited some surprisingly well-known filmmakers, including Akihiro Shiota (Dororo), whose Wet Woman in the Wind (NSFW trailer here) screens during this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Shiori is trouble with a capital “T.” Where she goes, her elevated pheromones cause irrational sexual behavior, but Kosuke is determined not to play her game. The former womanizing playwright has sequestered himself in a remote cabin to detox and maybe find himself. Shiori is not part of his plans. Of course, she takes his resistance as a challenge. As fate (and Nikkatsu) would have it, his former theater troupe will come blundering along, bringing plenty of unwitting accomplices (of both genders) to help stir Kosuke’s jealousy.  Of course, he is not about to take all that lying down.

So yes, Wet Woman in the Wind is screening at the Lincoln Center, home of the Metropolitan Opera, The New York City Ballet, and the New York Philharmonic. Seems fitting, right? You could say there’s a lot of choreography in the film. There are certainly plenty of bodies in motion and physical comedy aplenty.

Frankly, Wet probably could have passed for brilliant cultural criticism in the early 1970s. It feels like it stepped out of 1969, with its lead character, a sort of nymphomaniacal Amélie breaking down square sexual inhibitions and Kosuke going back to nature to get in touch with his true feelings or whatever. However, as a throwback, it is more honest about its horndog proclivities.

Regardless, Yuki Mamiya is just an indomitable, irresistible force as the seductive pixie. To her credit, she throws herself into all the chaos and what-not her character unleashes.  There is no doubting her energy or commitment. Wisely, Tasuku Nagaoka opts for a more restrained approach as Kosuke, but he is still getting naked just the same. Recommended for nostalgic fans of the original romans, Wet Woman in the Wind screens at the Walter Reade on the Fourth of July, because obviously. However, if that all sounds fun to you, you really have to check out the ribald but endlessly inventive Suffering of Ninko, which screens on Sunday, July 9th, as part of the 2017 New York Asian Film Festival.

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Mali Blues: When Islamists Killed the Music

Timbuktu is sort of like the New Orleans of Mali. It is not the capitol or the commercial center, but it is the seat of the nation’s musical soul. Generations of musicians have lived there amid the storied city’s distinctive architecture, until armed Islamist terrorists forcibly occupied the city. Sharia law was proclaimed, shrines were razed, music was forbidden, and musicians were forced into exile within their own homeland. Although the occupation is over, the risk of Islamist violence remains for residents the regions musicians, many of whom remain in Bamako. Four prominent Malian musicians do their best to take stock and carry on in Lutz Gregor’s documentary, Mali Blues (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Remember Timbuktu and neighboring Kidal and Gao next time someone claims Sharia Law is really quite benign and it doesn’t really mean anything anyway. In accordance with Sharia, Taureg guitarist Ahmed ag Kaedi’s gear was burned by the terrorists, who then promised his parents they would break all his fingers when they caught him. Obviously, the oppression of Timbuktu was a profoundly dangerous turn of events for singer-songwriter-actress Fatoumata Diawara (simply called “Sia” by thousands of fans, in reference to her best-known film role), considering her use of music to protest female genital mutilation and to process her own history as refugee fleeing an arranged marriage.

Bassekou Kouyaté represents both the veneration of custom and the spirit of innovation, neither of which were acceptable to the Islamists, who prefer stagnation. He modernized his sound on the ngoni, an ancient ancestor of the banjo, with pick-ups and a wah-wah pedal. Kouyaté also happens to be a griot, so by silencing him, the Islamists silence a tradition that dates back centuries.

However, the most “Western” influenced is also the most outspokenly defiant. In his visceral protest rap, Master Soumy explicitly challenges the Islamists: “Torture, rape, thrashings, explain your Islam! Abuse and killings, explain your Islam! Kalashnikovs and bombs, explain your Islam!” That song takes some serious guts. Musicians have been killed for far milder lyrics—in Mali.

In fact, the four focal artists in Mali Blues represent profiles in courage, just by continuing to perform their music. Yet, Gregor often waters down the inherent drama of their lives with his quiet, long-take observational approach. Frankly, there are too many scenes of his subjects staring off in a mournful revelry, contemplating what has been lost to the forces of ignorance and intolerance. If ever there was a film that could use a bit more righteous indignation, it would be this one. Nevertheless, the dignity and talent of Diawara and company shines through and it is impressive. Recommended for its message and its music, Mali Blues opens today (6/30) in New York, at the IFC Center.

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Thursday, June 29, 2017

NYAFF ’17: The Road to Mandalay

It sounds exotic, but Hope & Crosby never traveled like Lianqing and Guo. The Burmese migrants will pay stiff fees and endure rough conditions, just so they can work like dogs in Bangkok. Things ought to be easier if they stick together, but it might not necessarily work out that way in Midi Z’s The Road to Mandalay (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Upon arriving in Bangkok, Lianqing gets a surprisingly frosty reception from her cousin. It seems the embittered Hua has recently lost her job due to lack of proper documentation and expects Lianqing will fare even worse. The only people to show her any kindness are their other roommate Cai and Guo, who took her place in the trunk during the arduous trek over the border. Although awkward, he is clearly determined to romantically pursue her—and she cannot deny his work ethic.

Unfortunately, they have different medium-term goals. She wants to attain Thai citizenship (or at least a passable facsimile) so she can ultimately work in Taiwan, whereas he would like to open a clothes-hawking stall in Bangkok. The more circumstance force them together, the more their conflicting goals cause tension in their relationship.

Probably no filmmaker has been more proactive documenting the experiences of refugees, migrant workers, and the generally dispossessed than Z has, in both his documentaries and narrative films. His star ought to be sky-rocketing right now, but the Taiwan-based Burmese expat has focused on his countrymen and other ethnic minorities in China. The sad truth is the world does not care about Buddhist immigrants from Burma. The professionally compassionate can only be bothered with Muslim immigrants, preferably from Syria. The Burmese need not apply.

Indeed, that is the reception that waits for Lianqing in Thailand. Of course, Bangkok being Bangkok, the threat of sexual exploitation always lurks in the background. Perhaps it is intended as a symbolic interlude, but when the film finally descends into the world of prostitution, it becomes bizarrely disturbing, in a way viewers will never expect.

Without question, Road is the most muscular and focused narrative of Z’s career. As usual, his regular muse Wu Ke-xi is absolutely arresting as the innocent-but-tougher-than-she-looks Lianqing. In a drastic change of pace, Tiny Times co-star Kai Ko plays the confused and brooding Guo, wearing his heart and his resentments on his sleeve. He and Wu convincingly show us the couple’s good days and bad.

Road will leave viewers angry but unsure at whom or what—possibly Z.  He certainly isn’t afraid of strong reactions, that’s for sure. He also shows an acute sensitivity towards the poor and marginalized, while Wu once again delivers a mature, eerily expressive performance. Recommended for patrons of topical art cinema and fans of Z or Wu, The Road to Mandalay screens this Monday (7/3) at the Walter Reade, as part of the 2017 NYAFF.

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NYAFF ’17: Double Life

Philosophy isn’t even a scientistic pseudo-social science like psychology or sociology. Yet, Tama Shiraishi’s dissertation advisor assigns her some field work anyway. Based on his suggestion, she will follow a random stranger with whom she has no prior connection, to learn about their daily routines and closely held secrets. That in turn should help shed light on what gives life meaning. At least that is the theory. Whether it pans out or not, Shiraishi will experience considerably more than she bargained for in Yoshiyuki Kishi’s Double Life (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Shinohara is the dread terror of the philosophy department, but he seems to have a soft spot for Shiraishi. Regardless, he has a keen interest in the results of her dissertation concept. Initially, Shiraishi was reluctant, but fate presents her neighbor Ishizaka as a perfect subject. He is a senior editor at a publishing house, who comes from family money. Outward appearances suggest he is a model family man with a pretty wife and a cute daughter. However, Shiraishi soon discovers Ishizaka has a somewhat jealous mistress on the side.

While Shiraishi is tailing the book editor, she witnesses a rather awkward argument between the secret lovers, even more awkward confrontation with his wife, and the downright ugly aftermath. Finally noticing his silent shadow, Ishizaka blames her for all his woes, which really doesn’t seem fair, but maybe there is a grain of truth to it. Yes, he should really look in the mirror first, but perhaps there is an element of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty at play here: particles act differently when they are observed.

In this case, French photographer Sophie Calle’s “following strangers” work is more of a touchstone than Heisenberg, Gödel, or any postmodernist theorists. Yet, ironically, viewers will never feel like they know Mr. Ishizaka very well, nor will they particularly care to. Instead, his case study becomes a mirror that reflects the loneliness and disappointments of other characters, particularly Shiraishi and Shinohara.

In fact, Shinohara emerges as one of the most significant, emotionally wrenching figures in the story, thanks to Lily Franky’s performance. It is a wonderfully subtle turn that gracefully evolves over the course of the picture. He also develops some acutely poignant chemistry with Aoba Kawai, as his romantic partner.

Yet, Mugi Kadowaki matches him step for step and then some (given her considerably greater screen time) as Shiraishi. It is a quiet but painful revealing performance. Frankly, she will leave viewers feel exhausted, but not bereft or deflated.

In some ways, Double Life is the polar opposite of The Circle, obviously starting with its vastly superior quality. Thematically, Kishi’s adaptation of Mariko Koike’s novel takes issue with the crudely moralistic notion we act better when we know other people are watching—or rather we need our grubby little secrets and betrayals to keep us human. It is a gently provocative, wonderfully mature and assured film. Very highly recommended, Double Life screens this coming Monday (7/3) at the Walter Reade, as part of the 2017 NYAFF.

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NYAFF ’17: Blood of Youth

Su-ang is living proof of the brutality of China’s orphanages, but not for long. He is slowly dying from the brain injuries he sustained while living in a provincial facility as a teen. However, he plans to go out with a vengeful bang in Yang Shu-peng’s Blood of Youth (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

You could also say Su-ang knows where the bodies are buried, because he just tipped off the cops to the location of a corpse buried in the woods over a decade ago. He also dropped a dime on a bank heist planned by Shen’s gang, then rather perversely warned Shen the cops had the drop on him. He is definitely playing a dangerous game, but he has an accomplice: Lin Qiao. He and Lin were orphans together and now she is cellist the orchestra conducted by Li Zhimin, who happens to be married to Su-ang’s doctor, Han Yu.

Of course, there are no coincidences in Blood. However, Su-ang, Yang, and his co-screenwriter Li Chenxi closely guard their secrets until well into the third act. It is a dark and twisted tale copper Zhang Jianyu will have to unravel the hard way. At least he will have a bit of (possibly unethical) help from Dr. Han Yu.

Wow, Chinese language cinema hates classical musicians. While not as spectacularly odious as Michael Wang’s hammy opera singer in Nightfall, Guo Xiaodong is still all kinds of sinister as the baton-wielding, sexually harassing Li. You can cut the tension and resentment brewing between him and Yu Nan’s Han Yu with a blunt butter knife. On the other hand, she develops weirdly ambiguous but compelling chemistry with both Zhang Yi and Oho Ou, as Zhang and Su-ang, respectively.

Frankly, it is not clear the big kahuna revelation really can be made to retrofit with everything that went before it, but at least Yang is swinging for the dramatic fences. In terms of category, Blood is a psychological thriller, but it has the tragic sweep of opera. It is a bold work, especially given its hints of social conscience. Highly recommended, Blood of Youth screens this Sunday (7/2), at the Walter Reade, as part of the 2017 NYAFF.

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NYAFF ’17: Mrs. B., a North Korean Woman

The sad truth is many refugees fleeing North Korean are sold into marriage with provincial Chinese men. The sadder truth is this is still usually an improvement in their lives. “Mrs. B.” would know better than anyone. After being sold by her traffickers, she became a trafficker herself. Her life has been grossly complicated by geopolitical factors outside her control, but she will still have to live with the consequences of her decisions in Jero Yun’s guerrilla-style documentary Mrs. B., a North Korean Woman (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Now fluent in Mandarin, Mrs. B. tries to pass for Sino-Korean. As traffickers go, she is one of the better ones out there. Obviously, she has empathy for her customers, some of whom have also been family. Using her network, Mrs. B. smuggled out her two teen sons and her first Korean husband. Somewhat to her own surprise, she now prefers her Chinese husband Jin, but she still misses her sons now residing in Seoul.

Once again, the trafficker becomes the trafficked, when Mrs. B. sets off on the arduous refugee route through China and Southeast Asia. The plan is for the fully-documented Jin to join her once she has established her defector status. However, things get rather more complicated once she arrives. Much to her regret, Mrs. B. finds she and her family are under suspicious of espionage and/or drug trafficking, which in fact she admits to some involvement with respects to the latter.

Mrs. B.’s life and circumstances are acutely dramatic, but they are maybe not as damning an indictment of South Korea’s Cold War mentality as Yun presents them to be. For the sake of survival, Mrs. B. has definitely cut ethical corners and embraced the grey areas of extralegal commerce—judging solely from what she is willing to cop to on camera. Frankly, she probably should be getting close scrutiny from the ROK intelligence service. On the other hand, her Korean first husband is such a broken man, it is hard to believe he could be any use to the North Korean terror apparatus.

To a far greater extent than his pleasantly humanistic short film Hitchhiker, Yun clearly advocates a détente in the Korean Cold War, presumably as a first step towards unification. However, his moral equivalency posited between the rigorous security vigilance of the South and the total state control of citizen’s lives in the North simply does not hold water. After all, the Kim Jong-un regime recently assassinated his half-brother Kim Jong-nam in the Malaysian airport, during broad daylight. Nothing is beyond the pale for the DPRK, so a little paranoia on the part of the South isn’t merely understandable. It’s probably necessary.

That leaves us with an intimate portrait of the fascinating, but flawed Mrs. B. It is very much a story of a divided Korea, but it does not have the wider implications of other defectors’ harrowing but more representative experiences, such as those of Yeonmi Park and Eunsun Kim. Narrowly recommended as an ironic human-interest story, Mrs. B., a North Korean Woman screens this coming Monday (7/3), at the Walter Reade, as part of the 2017 NYAFF.

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Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Reset: Directed by Chang and Produced by Jackie

This film is a Chinese movie studio’s dream come true, because it has multiple Yang Mis, the glamorous star of the smash-hit Tiny Times franchise. However, instead of an editorial assistant at a fashion magazine, she plays Xia Tian, a dedicated theoretical physicist and single-mother. That is true of all the Xia Tians. To save her son, the research scientist will jump back in time more than once in Chang (a.k.a. Yoon Hong-seung)’s Reset (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

There are two labs competing to develop alternate dimension wormholes as a means of time-travel. The one in America recklessly cut corners, resulting in wide-spread psychosis in its test subjects, who basically burned the joint to the ground. By the way, did we mention Reset was produced by Jackie Chan? It isn’t hard to see his influence, is it?

Of course, the Chinese lab is proceeding in a Steady-Eddie fashion, so the Western consortium hires Tsui Hu, a former guinea pig, to steal the NeXus group’s data and bomb their Metropolis-esque facilities back to the stone age. To circumvent security, Tsui Hu kidnaps Xia Tian’s son Doudou to force her to be the inside person. Being a real piece of human sludge, Tsui Hu kills Doudou as motivation for Xia Tian to complete the time travel experiment. That turns out to be a little too motivating. Escaping from Tsui Hu’s crew, Xia Tian comes back in time on her own, becoming a migraine-inducing loose cannon. Yes, this process will repeat again.

When it comes to logic, Reset simply couldn’t be bothered. Frankly, they never attempt to explain how Evil Corp hopes to make money off time travel. Seriously, are they spending all this time and effort to game the stock market or to pick every day’s trifecta at Aqueduct? It doesn’t really matter though, because Chang just carries us along with his lunacy. Yang has first class action chops (check her out in Wu Dang if you doubt it), which she gets to start exercising when the third Xia Tian comes along. We’ll admit it, watching bunch of Yang Mis running, jumping, and fighting bad guys is pretty much our idea of a good time.

To his credit, Wallace Huo also makes a surprisingly sinister villain. Honestly, you can practically see the black smoke coming out of Tsui Hu’s ears. Plus, Chin Shih-chieh is terrific in scenes that would be spoilery to explain.


Korean filmmaker Chang has an affinity for action (catch up with The Target for an armchair roller coaster ride) that never fails him in Reset. Granted, there is a lot of fudging and hocus-pocus in Cha Muchun’s screenplay, but it still presents a relatively fresh take on time travel that it then takes delight in complicating to high heaven. It’s a ton of unruly fun, but Yang still does some credible thesping as the distraught and driven parent. Highly recommended for fans of action and time travel movies, Reset opens this Friday (6/30) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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NYAFF ’17: Japanese Girls Never Die

Kilroy will be personified again, but instead of another ill-conceived Catch-22 sequel, it is two deadbeat Japanese taggers who have assumed the famous graffiti moniker. They are about to go viral for their use of a missing woman’s “wanted” poster. Is this the final appropriation of her dignity or are they keeping hope and her memory alive? To answer that question, we will flash forward and backwards through episodes of Haruko Azumi’s life in Daigo Matsui’s Japanese Girls Never Die (a.k.a. Haruko Azumi is Missing, trailer here), which screens during this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Azumi life is rather thankless. She works as an “Office Lady” for two Mutt and Jeff sexists and lives at home with her parents, who basically consider her their errand girl. When she runs across a former classmate living in her neighborhood, she quickly develops a romantic attachment, but Shoga the slacker is not worth her unrequited ardor. Inevitably, he two-times her with yet another former classmate. Indeed, class ties are a form of social destiny in Never Die.

In short, Azumi is rather entitled to feel resentful. However, it seems she is not the only one who feels this way. During the months leading up to her disappearance and the two years after, a gang of uniformed high school girls, led by the mysterious JK, has been stalking and beating unenlightened male pigs. In fact, we will see some of the everyday villains of the film get their painful comeuppance at their hands (and feet). Sadly, Yukio and Manabu, the taggers behind the exploitation of Azumi’s image probably are not on the side of the angels either, especially when it comes to their treatment of their third accomplice, Aina Kinami, whose desperate need for affection makes her easy to take advantage of.

There is a powerful film buried inside Never Die, but the constant skittering forward and back along the narrative time frame actually undercuts its potency. Arguably, it would be more effective to see the tragedies unfold and connections get made in a deliberate step-by-step fashion. It is also hard not to wonder what the film would have been like in the hands of a stylist like Tetsuya Nakashima. Thematically, it is dead-solidly in his wheel house, alongside Memories of Matsuko and Kamikaze Girls. Matsui, who previously helmed Wonderful World End, clearly has an affinity for youthful angst, but he does not have the bravura visual sensibility the material cries out for.

Nevertheless, Yu Aoi is so breathtakingly perfect as Azumi, not even the most heavy-handed director could undermine her portrayal. It is a heartbreaking turn, in large part because she never asks for or expects the least bit of sympathy. The irony of the former teen sensation so convincingly playing Azumi, the desperate thirtysomething, layers on further resonance. She defines and dominates the film, but Mitsuki Takahata is also quite poignant as the too cute Kinami.

Despite its ADD, Never Die really lowers the emotional boom down the stretch. To his credit, Matsui’s anger and empathy are palpable, which makes the film’s periodic grace notes so redemptive. Admittedly ragged along the edges, Japanese Girls Never Die is still recommended on balance for its passion and Yu Aoi’s remarkable performance when it screens this Sunday (7/2), at the Walter Reade, as part of the 2017 NYAFF.

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NYAFF ’17: Saving Sally

There are two things teen rom-coms get right: the girl always falls for the transparently pond-scummy dude and she treats her nice-guy best friend like dirt. Considering how many teen tearjerkers get released in the Philippines, Sally really should have known better, but her tastes run more towards geeky fare. However, poor Marty might turn out to be more resourceful than he looks in Avid Liongoren’s Saving Sally (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Like Roddy Piper in They Live, Marty can tell the world is mostly full of monsters, but Sally isn’t one of them. She is a cool, down-to-earth chick, who invents steampunky gadgets and shares his passion for geek culture. Despite their friendship, he secretly carries a torch for her, but he is too shy to express his feelings. He is also concerned for her in a more immediate sense. Her parents are so controlling, it always requires a fair degree of trickery for her to get out of the house for any length of time. Plus, he has a clear enough idea how she gets her bruises, even though he never challenges her alibis and denials.

Then one day, Sally suddenly announces she has a boyfriend, who is older and cockier than Marty. Of course, he can see Nick for who he is: a giant phallic-shaped organ. Nevertheless, he agrees to act as a go-between, giving him an opportunity to confirm all his suspicions. As a further complication, Marty’s heartburn comes just when a professional publisher starts to take notice of his work.

The way Liongoren integrates his live action actors (Marty, Sally, their parents, and sometimes Nick) with the animated backdrops and background monsters is wondrously idiosyncratic. Don’t call it quirky—this is some of the most comprehensive world-building you will ever see on film. This is the real world, not as it looks, but how it feels to live in it as a nebbish, artistic teenager.

Frame after frame of Saving Sally are works of art in their own right, but Rhian Ramos and Enzo Marcos are still quite winning as Sally and Marty, respectively. They shrewdly keep the angst restrained and understated, because excessive restraint is part of their problem. They can’t help getting up-staged by the amazing animation, art direction, and matte paintings from time to time, but they still make us care about and identify with these kids in a very personal and direct way.

Granted, Saving Sally tells a relatively simple narrative, but it is a universal story that never feels so simplistic to anyone sharing a similar experience. It is also an absolutely charming valentine to geek culture. Liongoren and co-screenwriters Carlo Ledesma and Charlene Sawit-Esguerra instill sly humor throughout the film, but they are not afraid of a little honest emotion. Very highly recommended, Saving Sally screens Saturday afternoon (7/1), at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

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NYAFF ’17: The Gangster’s Daughter

A teenage girl needs her father, especially one as headstrong as Shaowu. Granted, not having Keiko around spared her some awkward career days at school, but she really is a chip off the old block. They will finally get a chance to make up for lost time in Chen Mei-juin’s The Gangster’s Daughter (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Growing up on remote Kinmen Island, Shaowu is a bit of a wild child, but she has one true friend. Therefore, when a high school bully pulls a mean prank on her, Shaowu settles the score in a way the old man would appreciate (high noon, a pale of livestock dung). Unfortunately, the jerkweed is politically connected, so Shaowu is trundled off to live in Taipei with the father she only briefly reconnected with at her mother’s recent funeral.

At first, Shaowu has trouble making new friends, but the remainder of Keiko’s clan just adore her. He is sort of an emeritus gangster, who largely occupies his time managing the karaoke club hosted by his lover, Coco. She is still young enough to look good on his arm, but mature enough to take a mothering interest in Shaowu.

Of course, a gangster will be a strict parent, because of the things they’ve seen. Keiko is particularly old school when it comes to drugs. He won’t allow his associates to participate in the dirty business whatsoever and he certainly won’t stand for them in his house. Unfortunately, his recently returned senior has plans for a major new narcotics venture.

Gangster’s Daughter is a wonderfully wise and forgiving family drama that just so happens to have a good deal of gangster action and skullduggery. Frankly, it would pair up perfectly with the masterful Mr. Six, which is high praise indeed, but warranted. It is a poignant film in many ways, both for the genuinely engaging father-daughter relationship and the passing of an era and a value system.

Jack Kao has appeared in several Hou Hsiao-hsien masterworks, but Keiko might just be the role that defines him. There is nothing cutesy or predictable about his performance. He is hardnosed all the way, but also warm and humanistic. Likewise, Ally Chiu is fiery and vulnerable as Shaowu, whose normal teenaged angsts are compounded by circumstance. Stephenie Lim Mei-ching is also altogether engaging and grounded as Coco, the entirely cliché-free gangster’s girlfriend.

Gangster’s Daughter is too honest for easy quirkiness or cheap sentiment. Yet, it still manages to sneak up on viewers. First it charms and then it lowers the boom. It is probably one of the most accessible films at the festival, yet the diehards should still dig its gangster business. Affectionately recommended, The Gangster’s Daughter screens this Saturday (7/1) at the Walter Reade, as part of the eagerly anticipated 2017 NYAFF.

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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

2:22—Caught Up in Karma

You know what they say about karma. Contemporary art can be pretty sinister too. Dylan Branson will face both for the sake of the woman he loves (despite knowing her less than a week) in Paul Currie’s 2:22 (trailer here), which opens this Friday in select cities.

Branson is an air traffic-controller with a knack for keeping the arrivals and departures flowing smoothly through his aptitude for perceiving patterns. However, one fateful day, at 2:22 PM, Branson falls into some sort of cosmically-induced reverie, snapping out of it just in time to avert a mid-air collision. This near-miss is so conspicuously obvious, Branson is suspended for a month, pending an official review.

During his time off, Branson starts to notice weird patterns in his life. The people are different, but the same chain of events culminates in a rather chaotic 2:22 in Grand Central. Each time around, strange electrical short circuits plague the terminal, while Branson gets visions of a violent shooting in the rotunda. However, the time off isn’t all bad. Branson meets and quickly falls for Sarah Barton. It must be fate, since they share the same birthday. Unfortunately, Branson soon starts to suspect Barton is involved in the karmic happening he is struggling to understand—in a way that could be very dangerous for her.

It sounds kind of woo-woo, but screenwriters Todd Stein and Nathan Parker rather cleverly combine metaphysics and astronomy (dissipated energy from a distant supernova may also be a contributing factor) in what could be considered a Groundhog Day-style movie, but with a cumulative memory. Each day until Branson and Barton’s thirtieth birthday, his visions repeat, but his interpretations evolve in significant ways.

Despite often looking like an unshaven homeless person, Michiel Huisman still pairs up rather attractively with Teresa Palmer. There really seems to be some genuine electricity between them, which is critically important for us to buy into their immediate attraction and subsequent relationship turmoil. Sam Reid is also effectively slimy as her artist ex-boyfriend, Jonas Edman, in a vintage 1980s Richard Tyson kind of way. Plus, veteran Australian singer-character actor John Waters (not the Pope of Trash) gets to chew a spot of scenery as a sardonic rival gallerist.

Somehow, Currie manages to avoid dopey New Age sentimentality, even while he piles on the fickleness of fate. In fact, 2:22 is really a nice little package that looks appropriately slick and mysterious thanks to cinematographer David Eggby. Frankly, it is rather baffling the film is getting a wider distribution, because it is far better than a lot of flicks that escape into theaters. At least, VOD (including iTunes) is an option. Recommended as a pleasant sleeper-surprise, 2:22 opens this Friday (6/30) in limited release (the Gateway Film Center in Columbus).

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NYAFF ’17: Battle of Memories

When it comes to memory, we’re like Goldilocks. We always want a little more or a little less. It’s never exactly right. The temptation to start fiddling around with how memories are processed, stored, and accessed in that strange device called the human mind has taken on Frankenstein-like implications in speculative fiction and psychological thrillers. When bestselling novelist Jiang Feng has a few select memories extracted, it similarly leads him down a rabbit-hole he won’t soon forget in Leste Chen’s Battle of Memories (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 New York Asian Film Festival.

Pained by his upcoming divorce from Zhang Daichen, Jiang goes in for the Spotless Mind treatment. However, for reasons that will be revealed later, she insists he have them reinstated, before she signs the papers. This is a process that can only be done twice, so the next memory removal will be permanent. In a colossal mix-up, the wrong memories are re-inserted into Jiang’s noggin. Suddenly, he is getting flashbacks to murders he never committed.

Due to the suspense-enhancing circumstances of the process, it will take seventy-two hours for the memories to fully reconstitute themselves. He is also emotionally detached from the dramatic events in question, watching them unfold in his memory like a spectator. Yet, the killer’s identity remains unknown, because Jiang has no context for knowing it a priori. Instead, he will have to deduce it from clues within the flashbacks. The detectives investigating the latest murder, grizzled Shen Hanqiang and his eager junior Lei Zi, mostly believe Jiang, but they are not as proactive as he would like protecting Zhang Daichen. Logically, he figures if he has the killer’s memories, it stands to reason the unknown psychopath must have his.

Memories is the second serious-as-a-heart-attack psychological thriller Chen has made featuring a star of China’s blockbuster “Lost in” slapstick comedies, following The Great Hypnotist, featuring Xu Zheng. In this case, it will be Bo Huang carrying the film quite well as the increasingly disoriented and disturbed Jiang. In fact, his sad hound dog face is rather perfect for Jiang. He always looks like he is confused and suffering from a massive migraine.

NYAFF honoree Duan Yihong is terrific as the flinty Det. Shen and newcomer Liang Jieli (a.k.a. Patricio Antonio Liang) shows real breakout potential as Lei Zi. However, the film’s real not-so-secret weapon is Yang Zishan (star of the monster hit So Young) as police doctor Chen Shanshan, who will keep viewers guessing as her backstory is revealed.

The mystery Leste Chen and screenwriter Peng Ren have devised is devilishly clever and the murder scene flashbacks are stylishly eerie, while scrupulously adhering to their own internal logic. However, the film can be a bit confusing in terms of segues and transitions. Too often, viewers have to piece together on-screen context to get their bearings. However, Charlie Lam’s cinematography (soft, noir De Palma-esque color for the waking scenes and stark black-and-white for the inserted memories) is always visually dramatic and helpfully delineates the past from the present. Despite a few rough edges, Battle of Memories is easy to recommend for fans of psychological thrillers when it screens Saturday night (7/1) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

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NYAFF ’17: Extraordinary Mission

As we slowly steadily de-criminalize drug possession, China has doubled and tripled down on the drug war. Permissiveness just isn’t Xi-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed Jinping’s style. Tragically, the 2011 Mekong River Massacre of Chinese merchant sailors provided plenty of propaganda fodder. At least the war on drugs is explosively entertaining in Alan Mak & Anthony Pun’s Extraordinary Mission (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 New York Asian Film Festival.

Lin Kai, as he is now known, is an undercover cop, who has a very personal reason to crusade against the drug cartels. He quickly apprentices himself to Cheng Yi, the chief distributor in the depressed industrial city of Yunlai, but when a drug deal goes suspiciously sour, Lin Kai makes a play to ingratiate himself with the Golden Triangle supplier.

The Double Eagle Cartel is led by the erratic but charismatic leader, Eagle. His chief deputies are his surrogate son and daughter. With Cheng Yi under cloud of suspicion, Lin Kai makes a bid to replace him. Of course, Eagle’s vetting process is pretty harrowing. He even drugs the undercover into a temporary state of heroin addiction. However, our hero is made of stern stuff. Ordinarily, his handler, Li Jianguo is also highly disciplined. However, when Li learns Eagle has secretly imprisoned his presumed dead partner for ten years, all bets are off.

There is plenty of corruption and betrayal in Mission, but karma is the real killer. These characters have shared history and grudges worthy of classical tragedy. Everything and everyone is connected, in ways that simmer and burn.

Established HK director Mak knows his way around the underworld and its intersection with the realm of law enforcement, having co-helmed the Infernal Affairs and Overheard trilogies. Of course, working with Mainland and Southeast Asian settings frees his characters from any pesky constitutional restraints that could slow down the action. He and Pun (the cinematographer who shot the Overheards, making his [co-]directorial debut) put the pedal to the metal, especially during the maelstrom of the third act. Bullets fly, motorcycles fly, cars crash, and bodies go thud.

Xuan Huang is perfectly serviceable as the silently brooding Lin Kai, whereas Duan Yihong is flamboyantly villainous as the borderline psychotic Eagle. Zu Feng is awesomely steely as Li, while Lang Yueting is terrific as Eagle’s haunted and mysterious “daughter,” Qingshui.

Mission might be considered a Mainland picture, but there is a heck of a lot of HK talent behind the camera. That is a good thing, because Hong Kong cinema has a natural comparative and competitive advantage when it comes to making cops and gangster movies. This one emphatically delivers the goods. Very highly recommended for action fans, Extraordinary Mission screens Saturday night (7/1) at the Walter Reade, with Duan in attendance to accept the 2017 NYAFF Star Asia Award.

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NYAFF ’17: A Single Rider

We should all know this by now, but the terms “low-risk” and “high-yield” just do not go together. We they are associated, you should be suspicious. A broker like Kang Jae-hoon should have known better, but he let greed and arrogance crowd out his better judgment. As an inevitable result, he personally paid a stiff financial price, along with his friends and extended family. Fortunately, his wife and young son have been largely untouched by the scandal while living in Australia, but the time apart will make it even more difficult for Kang to reconnect in Lee Joo-young’s A Single Rider (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 New York Asian Film Festival.

After humbling himself before his investors and getting the “bugger off” treatment from the firm’s management, Kang books a one-way ticket to Sydney. Yet, shame and instinct prevent him from immediately knocking on his wife’s suburban door. Instead, he furtively observes Soo-jin in a technically chaste but undeniably affectionate moment with her good natured, blokey neighbor Kris. Kang quickly deduces their son and his daughter are friends at school—and one thing is very close to leading to another.

Over the course of days, Kang snoops through the house and shadows both Soo-jin and Kris. During the course of his wanderings, he meets Yoo Jin-ah (or Geena to Australians), who has just lost her entire work-abroad nest-egg to a group of fellow Korean expats. Kang tries to help her as best he can, but his own recent experiences make him grimly skeptical of justice.

Although Rider is a quietly observational film with a game-changer rug-pull that everyone will say they saw coming. Yet, if put under sodium pentothal, nine out ten will probably have to admit they just explained away all the tell-tale signs rather than following them to their logical conclusion. In fact, it is better that way, because it allows for a moment of massive grace.

This is Lee Byung-hun as most of his American fans have never seen him. As Kang he gives a quiet performance of careful shadings and deep power. He never resorts to cheap, Streepian histrionics, but you can see the pain in his eyes and slumped shoulders. Likewise, Kong Hyo-jin is tough, sensitive, and soulful as the semi-estranged Soo-jin. Yet, it is former K-pop star [Ahn] So-hee who is utterly heart-breaking as the naïve Geena Yoo.

Rider is the sort of smart, high quality tearjerker that South Korean cinema has always has a comparative advantage producing for an appreciative local market. It is also the sort of film Hollywood will buy remake rights for, but absolutely butcher the Westernized version (hello Lake House). You should always see the original article. “Original” is indeed a surprisingly apt description of this deceptively restrained and meditative family drama. Highly recommended for fans of Korean cinema and K-dramas, A Single Rider screens this Saturday (7/1) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

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13 Minutes: How Georg Elser Almost Changed History

Georg Elser did not look intimidating, nor did he sound particularly formidable. Yet, that is a major reason why he came so close to changing the course of world history. He nearly saved Germany from the continued waste of a destructive war and the profound dishonor of its crimes against humanity, but he missed his target by less than a quarter of an hour. The remarkable true story of his nearly successful attempt to assassinate Hitler is dramatized in Oliver Hirschbiegel's 13 Minutes (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Elser was a carpenter by training, but was competent in numerous forms of skilled labor and craftsmanship. He was decidedly not the heroic type, but he recognized how National Socialism was cannibalizing the civilian economy and encouraging open thuggery and prejudice in the streets. His growing resolve to take dramatic direct action compelled Elser to forego a life with his married lover, whom he accurately but honestly referred to as his “landlady,” for her own protection.

In flashbacks, we clearly see Elser is considerably less inclined to activism than his more radical social circle. Yet, he is not necessarily wrong to doubt the effectiveness of their street protests. To protect Elsa and his family, Elser resolves to work alone. Unfortunately, when his plot to bomb a National Socialist conference fails by the narrowest of margins, he is quickly rounded-up. Yet, his police and Gestapo interrogators cannot believe such a sophisticated plan was the sole work of one nebbish workingman.

Granted, we should all have a general idea of the shape of 13 Minutes’ narrative arc for reasons that hardly need belaboring. However, viewers will be surprised how many scenes reverberate with maddeningly tragic what-if’s. The interrogation sequences featuring Criminal Police (Kripo) Chief Arthur Nebe and Gestapo Chief Heinrich Müller are especially resonant. There have been attempts to rehabilitate Nebe’s image over the years, but screenwriters Léonie-Claire Breinersdorfer and Fred Breinersdorfer generally hold to largely accepted view that Nebe was far from a clandestine saint, but still not as vicious as his Gestapo (a low hurdle to clear if ever there was one).

Regardless, Burghart Klaußner (recently seen as Fritz Bauer) and Johann von Bülow are terrific conveying the frosty lack of chemistry between the awkwardly matched security chiefs. It is fascinating to witness the micro-Cold War unfolding between them. Likewise, Christian Friedel is so tightly wound as Elser, he is almost painful to watch. Yet, he convincingly portrays the complicated development of Elser’s formerly disengaged character.

Germany shortlisted 13 Minutes as their official foreign language submission for the 2016 Academy Awards, but Labyrinth of Lies got the nod instead. Frankly, 13 Minutes is emotionally deeper and considerably more powerful. Hirschbiegel is a talented filmmaker, who has a knack for wringing tension out of confined spaces and intimate situations. Everyone knows his work, thanks to the frequently meme’ed Hitler-in-the-bunker scene from Downfall, but 13 Minutes is leaner and more rigorously Spartan, like his under-appreciated Five Minutes of Heaven. Highly recommended for patrons of historical dramas and tragic fact-based thrillers, 13 Minutes opens this Friday (6/30), at the Lincoln Plaza.

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Limbo (short): Featuring the Voice of Sam Elliott

This is yet another reason why texting and driving is such a bad idea. When a man receives a troubling message, he pulls off the road to indulge the impulse to hurl away his phone. That will take him on a slightly surreal detour through the desert in Will Blank’s short film, Limbo (trailer here), which releases today on digital VOD platforms.

Limbo represents the sort of comic book/graphic novel adaptation that the major studios have largely foregone. It also might be the most faithful adaptation ever, considering how little Blank and co-screenwriter Richard Kaponas deviate from the words and spirit of Marion Churchland’s graphic novella, originally published in the Meathaüs anthology. Through interior monologue, the film and its source novella address themes of regret and compassion, making it ill-suited for a prospective tent-pole franchise, so unlike Green Lantern, Elektra, and Jonah Hex.

While we never learn the details, it seems clear the man has had a falling out with his girlfriend that was probably his fault entirely. He certainly regrets it now, just like he regrets throwing his cell phone at the strange, Gatsby-worthy billboard. Like a slightly mad Jodorowsky character, he ventures into the desert, where he stumbles across a dying dog. After mercifully slaking its thirst, the expiring canine offers to grant the man one wish.

Even though the poor dog is dying, we can hear the authority and character in his voice, because he is dubbed by Sam Elliott, the hero, Lee Hayden himself. The deep resonance of his voice is pitch-perfect for the fantastical beast—and should be good karma for The Hero during awards season, especially considering Limbo is kind of about karma.


Don’t worry, no animals were hurt during the making of Limbo. The eerie-looking dog was actually rendered through puppetry and practical effects. However, it looks real enough to send PETA off on a PR rampage. Visually, it is a really impressive production, well worth checking out when Limbo releases today on VOD including Vimeo on demand.

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Monday, June 26, 2017

NYAFF ’17: Bad Genius

As cheating scandals go, this one deserves credit for ambition. Unlike the rather pathetic Atlanta Pubic School scandal (involving teachers trying to cover up their sub-par performance), these Thai kids plan to make several million Baht and secure their futures by studying abroad. Lynn will be the brains of their operation and perhaps their conscience too in Nattawut Poonpiriya’s Bad Genius (trailer here), the opening film of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Lynn is a cute genius, but her father is a scrupulously honest school teacher and her mother pulled a disappearing act. Consequently, they do not have a lot of money, but her academic achievement earns her a full scholarship to a tony prep school. However, this is the sort of place where the incidentals can really add up. To cover those costs, she develops a method to signal multiple choice answers to her “tutoring” customers. It started with her pretty but ditzy new friend Grace, but it really starts to reach economies of scale when her well-heeled boyfriend Pat and his cronies get in on the deal.

Rather awkwardly, Bank, the school’s other, less socially skilled scholarship student blunderingly reveals the scam. Despite getting burned, the reluctant Lynn is convinced to take her game to the next level, targeting the STIC, the standardized test required for studying abroad in American universities. To pull it off, she will have to travel to Australia, the first time zone in which the test is administered—and she will also need Bank’s brain.

Bad Genius is a nifty caper film, employing elements that are cinematically fresh, but easy for viewers to relate to. Yet, it is also a surprisingly substantial examination of teen social peer pressure and societal corruption in general. The third act is totally serious, but ultimately quite richly satisfying in an unexpected way.

Of course, it is hard to overstate how terrific Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying is as Lynn. She is deservedly this year’s recipient of NYAFF’s Screen International Rising Star Award and in a more just world, you would start seeing her name lit up on extra-wide marquees. She is a fierce but fragile heroic anti-heroine like we’ve really never seen before. Likewise, Chanon Santinatornkul takes Bank on a dramatic but completely believable development arc. Eisaya Hosuwan is shockingly poignant as the popular but insecure Grace. Yet, it is Thaneth Warakulnukroh (who can be seen in Pop Aye, currently in theatrical release), who truly anchors the film and provides its moral polestar as Lynn’s decent plugger father.

Bad Genius clocks in at one-hundred thirty minutes, but it feels like Poonpiriya races us through it at record speed. It is tense, pacey, and wicked smart, featuring a ridiculously photogenic young ensemble, plotting and sneaking around like mad. Highly recommended for fans of capers or high school movies, Bad Genius kicks off the 2017 New York Asian Film Festival this Friday (6/30), at the Walter Reade.

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Darkness Rising: There’s No Place Like Home (Thankfully)

Surely, everyone has heard deaths come in three’s. Or perhaps you assumed things naturally came in four’s, like the Beatles and the Seinfeld cast. However, for some shadowy occult presence, it is all about five’s in Austin Reading’s Darkness Rising (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

We will have to piece together the full story over the course of the film, but it is pretty clear from the start Madison just barely survived a family massacre. Initially, it was her mother doing the killing, but her father was apparently institutionalized afterward, forcing her to live with her cousin Izzy for the rest of her formative years. The notorious house where it all went down is scheduled to be demolished so Madison convinces her fiancé Jake and Izzy to accompany her on a late-night salvage mission and trip down memory lane. Yes, that sounds like a lovely outing, doesn’t it? Especially considering how odd she has been acting lately, obsessing over the tally symbol for the number five.

It turns out all her family’s stuff is still there where they left it (any old LPs in there?). Of course, so is the evil entity or entities that drove her mother to madness. To their limit credit, the trio quickly decide it was a really bad idea to come. Unfortunately, whatever it is, won’t let them leave.

In terms of mechanics, Darkness Rising is a surprisingly eerie and claustrophobic haunted-all-the-way-to-Hell-and-back house horror film. Regrettably, it is marred by some spectacularly bad decision-making from its main characters. There’s not a lot of head’s-up play in Darkness. The wrap-around segments also make no sense in the context of the overall film, but they give us a chance to play hide-and-seek with cult favorite Ted Raimi, so, so be it.

Tara Holt, Bryce Johnson, and Katrina Law are all sufficiently credible as Madison and company. Christian Ganiere is also all kinds of creepy as a mystery child whose spectral presence will sort of be explained in due time. However, Darkness is defined more by its horror mise-en-scene than anything its cast can bring to it. The old shunned house and the abandoned bric-a-brac are indeed quite spooky.

Thematically, Vikram Weet’s screenplay bears some comparison to Darren Lynn Bousman’s Abattoir, but it is more narrowly focused (and less ambitious). Regardless, Reading keeps the tension ratcheted up and strikes some archetypal chords. It will not be remembered as a genre milestone, but for horror fans it serves up some nourishing red meat. Recommended accordingly, Darkness Rising opens this Friday (6/30) in New York, at the IFC Center.

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