Monday, June 22, 2009

NYAFF - One day, six films (part one)

I intended to do this all at once, but I try to do TWIT on Mondays and it is one of the more daunting pages of the calendar in recent memory, and there are other things I'm going to write this week. So the rest of this is going to get pushed off a little bit.

(I also intended to write more of it between screenings, but my pen and my notebook seemed oddly incompatible when it counted. At times, the ink would only take when I was scribbling in the margins to make sure the pen wasn't dried up. This was later solved by my buying pencils, but by then it was almost time for my last film of the night and I was just a couple paragraphs into Dream's review)

New York is just far away enough to make day trips something I tend to hem and haw on, as I have a rule of thumb that you shouldn't spend more time traveling to something than you spend doing it. Especially if it's guaranteed to wreck you the next day, because you're catching a 3:30am bus. Last year, I crammed one movie from NYAFF in between my first and only visit to Yankee stadium and seeing Nathan Lane in "November", and that was well worth it; this year, I went for the six movies. Not really a bad one in the bunch, although the really good stuff was later in the afternoon and into the evening.

Bi-mong (Dream)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 June 2009 at IFC Center #1 (New York Asian Film Festival)

Although reasonable people may disagree on just what constitutes "good freaky" versus "bad freaky", they will most likely acknowledge that there is a difference. Many of those familiar with the work of Korean auteur Kim Ki-duk will further agree that he is good at hitting both within the same movie, which is certainly the case with Dream.

"Good freaky" is the basic plot of the movie: Jim (Joe Odagiri) is far from over the girl who dumped him, and has vivid dreams about seeing her. Ran (Lee Na-yeong), on the other hand, is quite over the ex she dumped, thank you very much, although she sleepwalks. Somehow the two conditions are connected, with Ran acting on Jin's dreams, and even if this circumstance didn't lead to things like Ree being charged for a hit-and-run that was Jin's fault, she doesn't want anything to do with him.

This is a nifty premise; it's easy to see how it could be spun into a romantic comedy/fantasy, a horror movie, a drama, or some mixture. The trouble is not that Kim jumps between these approaches, but that he's seemingly so hot to get to the "bad freaky" that he overlooks the obvious way that the situation could be managed. After all, both Jin and and Ran appear to be working for themselves, from home, so barring attempts to actually figure out how this works, it must be easier to sleep different hours than cut oneself to stay away. And that's before things get really out-there in the end.

Of course, "really out-there" is Kim Ki-duk's stock in trade, and before he gets to the stuff that feels just gratuitous, he does a fine job of playing with all the neat and nasty ideas that the situation offers: The loss of control, the attempts to regain it, the growing closer out of necessity, the way Jin's instinct is to blame Ran even though her body is the one that's been violated. The only thing really missing is much in the way of playing with the idea that Jin is dreaming when Ran does, rather than Ran doing what Jin dreams. For all Kim's (and the fim's) faults and excesses, the parts of Dream that are on-target are pretty darn brilliant, and worth the other parts.

Aside from kim, the two stars are big contributors. Joe Odagiri performs his part in Japanese (versus the Korean spoken by the other characters) for no reason noted within the film, but he never seems to be different or separate from the rest of the cast. He's got a nice way of being both forceful and guilty, and managing to make charm from the two. Lee Na-yeong adds a bit of brattiness to Ran's victimhood, as well as finding the right mood for the somnambulent Ran. It's a pleasure to see her when she gets a chance to open up, and maybe a bit happy for a moment.

That moment could even last; cinema has seen stranger relationships that somehow work without even the fantastical element in this one. The film actually has several straight-ahead funny bits, which helps to sell the premise, although it does seem sort of light on supporting characters - Jin and Sun do seem to exist in a sort of bubble.

It does seem a little odd to complain that a movie with this premise is too weird, but that is its problem. The weird that grows organically from the idea is great stuff, but the rest is grotesque - and worse, seemingly random - enough to fritter a lot of that excitement away.

Also at HBS.

Kei Tung Bou Deui: Tung Pou (Tactical Unit: Comrades in Arms)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 20 June 2009 at IFC Center #1 (New York Asian Film Festival)

The popular PTU series returned to Hong Kong cinemas this January after an installment or two went direct to video. Even for folks like myself who have not seen the original or the other sequels will likely find it enjoyably familiar, both for its cast of Milky Way regulars and crisply told police story.

We're filled in quickly as the film begins: Sam (Simon Yam) and May (Maggie Siu) each lead a team of four uniformed officers in Hong Kong, and there isn't a whole lot of love lost between the two teams: May started out as Sam's subordinate, but the upcoming duty roster has her promoted over him, with Sam's team grumbling that Inspector Ho (Wong Chi-yin) is showing favoritism toward May and her obnoxious second-in-command Roy. Another former team-mate, "Fat Tong" (Lam Suet), has been demoted to driver and is becoming bitter and lazy in that role. With just a couple days to go before starting their new assignments, the teams are dispatched to track down a group of armored-car robbers who have headed into the woods and mountains surrounding the city.

Though the original Police Tactical Unit premiered in 2003, the four sequels have all come out within the last couple years, at a rapid-enough clip that Yam, Siu, and Lam are likely as comfortable in their roles and with each other as the cast of a TV series that has settled into its groove. Writers Yau Nai-hoi and Au Kin-yee toss close to a dozen cop characters at the audience, but trust the cast to make their characters' personalities memorable without having designated subplots that have their own character-revealing resolutions. This is mostly a day in the life story, with that day including a fair amount of action.

As an action movie, Brothers in Arms works well enough once the action starts. Director Law Wing-cheong (taking over from Johnnie To) does nifty things with the camera, and cranks the tension up nicely within the sequences. Law and the writers take good advantage of the network of tunnels in the area. The trouble is that getting to the action sequences is sometimes not done well. It's fine that much of the time the PTU seems to wind up in the soup because of their own bad judgment, but it makes the later scenes where they are suddenly focused and the bad guys' equals look a little unlikely. Plus, after spending a fair amount of time establishing that the wooded mountains are large enough to get lost in an separate the teams, the last act involves a lot of groups just happening to converge on the same location.

That doesn't undo the good work by the cast, though. Simon Yam and Maggie Siu are excellent as mirror images of each other, both hard-headed and driven, unwilling to give an inch. We're inclined to Give Yam's Sam a little more sympathy than Liu's May, because they seem closer to being lovable outcasts than the other team, but Yam makes Sam very hard to love unconditionally. I'm curious how I would react to the characters' evolution in the rest of the series. Lam Suet is, as often, a delight to watch, serving as the movie's laid-back (and kind of disreputable) comic relief much of the time while still being able to make us believe when Tong turns clever.

Comrades in Arms is both part of a series that has much of its original team intact and a product of the well-oiled Milky Way machine, so when it gets down to business, it manages to do things right. It's a little bit lazy getting those pieces together at times, but it's a quality snapshot of the struggles of being this sort of cop, both in the field and in politics.

Also at HBS.

Dangkou (Plastic City)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 20 June 2009 at IFC Center #1 (New York Asian Film Festival)

Plastic City was presented as part of the "Hong Kong Film - New Action!" series... So one might be a bit surprised to find that one of its main characters is Japanese and it is set in Brazil, of all places. Despite all that, it tells a familiar tale of shifting loyalties in a dangerous underworld that many Hong Kong film fans should enjoy.

Meet Kirin (Joe Odagiri). He and his father Choi Chi "Yuda" Leung ("Anthony" Wong Chau-sang) are big names in selling knock-offs in São Paulo, operating entire shopping centers. They're about to feel the squeeze from both sides, though: A slick new operator calling himself "Mr. Taiwan" has arrived in town, offering new wares made in the same factories as the real thing after hours, thus being "not fake, but not authentic". The corrupt city official who always made sure to look the other way, Coelho (Antônio Petrin) is getting visits from people in government, saying that globalization requires them to show some results of cracking down on the knock-offs - far enough to cut into Kirin's and Yuda's business, which they really cannot afford.

The first half of the movie isn't quite standard crime, but it does seem kind of like writer/director "Nelson" Yu Lik-wai has mostly put a fresh coat of paint on known gangster tropes: You've got the son who is perhaps not quite so ruthless as the father was at his age, the new competition moving in, the clubs that are seedy once a thin veneer is scraped away. It's a highly enjoyable new coat of paint, though: The business of knock-offs lets the audience initially look at the characters in a slightly more sympathetic light (cheap consumer goods aren't exactly heroin), and a Brazilian busy, crowded city is more colorful and obviously multi-ethnic than what we usually see in Hong Kong.

The second half gets weird. A street fight so bloody and bizarre that I was convinced that it had to be some sort of dream sequence is the first obvious signal that Yu isn't just going to play out the standard gritty gangster tropes. It becomes about personal loyalty and self-destruction, or maybe redemption, or maybe the line between those last two is very easily blurred. The story takes a lot of weird turns, but to Yu's credit they don't wind up feeling random; even before he's filled in all the facts, it does feel like the various bits of strangeness come from someplace internal.

"Anthony" Wong Chau-sang, in particular, sells how much complexity may lie under Yuda's surface. He puts very slight variations into the character's body language, slumping ever so slightly when he gets to something where he may feel a bit guilty or vulnerable, but never enough to make the character appear over his head. His momentary breakdowns later in the movie are impressive; we believe he has seen something profound but don't need any speechifying or over-emoting to get the point.

Joe Odagiri has a somewhat less complicated character. We see that Kirin is not burdened by the experience and weight of history that Yuda is, and he's still somewhat naïve (in an interesting change-up, he appears to be the one more resistant to changing with the times, as opposed to the older Yuda). Odagiri does a nice job of projecting a lot of surface savvy and then growing in response to his difficulties.

(One thing I'd be interested to know is how well Wong and Odagiri handle their Portugese dialogue - both in terms of whether it was good enough to sell that the pair had lived in Brazil for 25 years, and because I saw this not long after Dream, where Odagiri spoke Japanese in an otherwise Korean-language film)

Yu has an interesting filmography; both the films he's made as a director of photography and writer/director are often a bit on the unusual side. He puts that experience as a cinematographer to good use, capturing the environment without a lot of "hey, check out how pretty the rain forest is" helicopter shots. He also does a fine job of transitioning the movie from being about Kirin and Yuda, purveyors of knock-offs, to something about them as father and son, without it ever feeling like a bait and switch.

Not without bumps - the main characters could sometimes stand to be a little more talkative, especially when making strange decisions - but well enough. Even as someone who is usually more curious about the procedural details than gangsters' personal lives, I found it an impressive bit of work.

Also at HBS.

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