Sunday, June 15, 2014

Enchanting New Cinema from Hong Kong: Unbeatable & Bends

Big turnout Thursday night for the MFA's first screening in what they hope to make an annual event, with what seemed like half the auditorium set aside for sponsors and presenting organizations. Not quite so much the case on Friday, suggesting that watching people fight is always what's going to bring people out to a Hong Kong movie, even at the more sophisticated venues.

A bit of a shame, that, as Bends was actually a better movie, and like I said in the review, it really can only take place at the Shenzen/Hong Kong border. That we still talk about such a thing fifteen years after the handover is interesting, although part and parcel of having this series is that Hong Kong and China are still somewhat distinct entities. It is, however, kind of nice to see movies with the distinctly HK point of view, since it's no secret that playing in Mainland China has a whole list of requirements, and while Johnnie To was able to work around them well in Drug War, it often has the effect of diminishing Hong Kong. I don't think any of the movies in this series are really in the Vulgaria "we don't care if the rest of China can see them or not" mold, although Bends is closest.

It does, once again, shine an interesting light on the "one child per family" law, mostly in terms of how people near Hong Kong try to bend it to the breaking point while others try to make a buck from doing so. There's a big part of me that wonders how Chinese society is changing without brothers and sisters - given how long it's been in effect, uncles, aunts, and cousins may be becoming rare. There's an interesting scene where a kid doesn't see what the big deal is about being one of the only people in his class to have a sibling, but that just indicates that this is the new normal.

Anyway, good start to the series, and I'm heading back out for the Johnnie To double feature (one by him, one about him). Hope to see it busy again!

Ji Zhan (Unbeatable)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 12 June 2014 in the Museum of Fine Arts Remis Auditorium (Enchanting New Cinema from Hong Kong, DCP)

There's not a whole lot in Unbeatable that's new; this very combination of a raw young fighter, a coach who has seen better days, and a kid who doesn't take any guff has probably shown up on screen a time or three. It may be somewhat formulaic, but director Dante Lam is a guy who can do something with a good formula, and it certainly doesn't hurt to have Nick Cheung as one of the ingredients.

It starts out in all corners of China: Lin Si-Qi (Eddie Peng Yu-tan) is visiting a friend in Beijing when he learns that his father has vanished after his investments collapsed; Ching "Scumbag" Fai (Nick Cheung Ka-fai) is driving a taxi in Hong Kong until some gangsters come to collect his gambling debts; and single mother "Gwen" Wong Ming-kwun (Mei Ting) is tragically stretched too thin in Macau. That's where the other two end up, with Fai sharing an apartment with the unstable Gwen and her take-charge ten-year-old Dani (Crystal Lee Hing-hau) and taking a job at the gym where he used to train, where Si-Qi convinces the former boxing champion to train him for an open mixed martial arts tournament.

Right away, it's clear that Lam and his team know that they are playing with somewhat familiar pieces, and they do the audience the huge favor of hitting the ground running, setting the characters and their backgrounds up in quick but not perfunctory ways in the pre-title sequences and then jumping forward a few months to when Si-Qi has found his father (Jack Kao Hou-hsin), Fai has cleaned his act up enough to be embarrassed by his nickname, and Social Services have reunited Gwen and Dani. And while that's skipping over some potentially good material without much explanation in some cases, it also gets the story to the point where the characters' paths are crossing without needing much in the way of side-stories or characters who would have little to do from the middle on. It's efficient storytelling on the part of Lam and his co-writers.

Full review at EFC

Guo jie (Bends)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 June 2014 in the Museum of Fine Arts Remis Auditorium (New Films from Hong Kong, digital)

Half of this movie could happen anywhere, and Bends is hardly the first quiet, thoughtful film to look at an economic downturn from the point of view of a wife taking prosperity for granted. The other half is what sets it apart; as near as I can tell, it can really only take place on the border of Shenzen and Hong Kong, although it should translate to most audiences.

Fai (Chen Kun) is a Hong Kong citizen, but he lives on the Mainland side of the border with his wife Tingting (Tian Yuan) and daughter Hoi Hoi. Tingting is pregnant with their second child, which means hiding her in the apartment while saying she is away visiting relatives, lest they get slapped with a huge fine for breaking the one child per family law. There are ways around it, such as to give birth in Hong Kong, but they are tightly regulated. Fai is working to solve that issue, but despite spending his days in the former colony as the personal driver to Anna Li (Carina Lau Ka-long), he's not having much luck. Mrs. Li, meanwhile, is feeling pressure of her own, with her wealthy husband's time away growing longer and a refused credit card just the first sign that his business may be a house of cards.

Writer/director Flora Lau starts things off with Fai's story, and it's kind of a brilliant job of setting the mood, just on the other side of playful as Hoi Hoi almost gives the game away, but planting the idea early that trying to live life in a manner that many might find normal and reasonable might lead to ruin. That's a vice she figures to tighten on both sides of the border, bit by bit, as the movie goes on, and it's impressive how plainly she lays the situation out while leaving herself room to maneuver.

Full review at EFC

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