Monday, February 23, 2015

Asian Express: C'est Si Bon & Triumph in the Skies

It's a shame "Orient Express" is right on the border of sounding not right, because it's an easy name to give to what is probably one of the most interesting cinema trends in the past couple of years which has really accelerated in the last few months: A great many movies from Asia are now opting to bypass the process of getting picked up by American distributors after their initial runs at home entirely and being booked in North American theaters nearly-simultaneously with their releases back home.

This has been happening for a while - it's standard procedure for Indian movies, for instance, and China Lion has been arranging that sort of run a bit over four years now. But where it used to be an every-few-months thing with Chinese movies, it has been an almost weekly occurrence in 2015, between China Lion, Well Go arranging for quick releases of the action/adventure things they pick up, and various other bookings within weeks of their Chinese openings. This isn't the first time Korean distributor CJ Entertainment has done this kind of release, but I'm having a hard time remembering one that made it to downtown Boston.

I suspect that there are two things motivating this. The first, naturally, is that the Chinese studios in question and CJ Entertainment in Korea are big companies that have reached the point where expansion means breaking out of their home territories. There has been lots of Chinese investment in Hollywood, and while it seems that much of CJ's foreign investments have been closer to home (China, Japan), they have had an American presence for years, both as a distributor and a co-producer, and from the number of times I've seen their logo at Fantasia - and from the way a host there actually commented upon their ubiquity in passing while introducing a film - I suspect that they are viewing festivals like that as a strategy. They want their movies out in front of North American audiences and are being very aggressive in doing so.

The flip side, though, is that these things have to be booked in theaters that have, until recently, been fairly resistant to foreign films. Boston really doesn't have a lot of screens for a city of its size, and the fact that I saw both of these at Regal Fenway during the same weekend (when it also held over Somewhere Only We Know) means that Asian movies were taking up 2.5 out of 13 screens in a downtown multiplex, despite three new American films being released, a couple of strong holdovers from the previous week, and various Oscar nominees keeping a foothold. And from the great crowd for Triumph and the good one for C'est Si Bon, they're putting butts in seats.

Why is that? I suspect that it's in large part a community viewing thing - where most moviegoers are finding reasons to stay home, seeing these movies gives expatriate communities a reason to hit theaters en masse. Theaters need something that draws people to them when the draw toward home viewing is otherwise so strong, and that people in Boston can be sharing an experience with their friends and families in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Mumbai, or Seoul which they'll be instant messaging about right away, without resorting to piracy, has to be pretty great.

That guys like me who love movies from all over the world get access to them too is just a side benefit, although I'm sure that everyone involved is certainly looking to grow the North American audience for their movies. That can be the long game, though - the student/immigrant audience in major cities is just big enough and enthusiastic enough about coming to the movies that the rest of us are just nice to have. Maybe there won't ever be that much crossover here, and maybe it doesn't say great things about what's going on with the American movie industry that playing Chinese movies in places that wouldn't have considered them a few years back is now a viable option. But, hey, I've been able to see the new movies from Johnnie To, Pang Ho-cheung, and Wilson Yip in the last few months. I'll take it.

On a lighter crossing-borders note, if you pay attention during the 1990s segment of C'est Si Bon, much of which takes place in a California airport, you'll see signs for Oceanic Air. I seem to remember Lost being fairly popular in Korea (Yunjin Kim was an established actress there and still does films there in between her American TV projects), and I kind of wonder how often Korean filmmakers who have an excuse to do so make that reference.

C'est Si Bon (Sseshibong)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 20 February 2015 in Regal Fenway #4 (first-run, DCP)

There is a little bit of Korean text at the start and end of C'est Si Bon left untranslated (at least on the local theater's DCP) that likely says something along the lines of it being based upon a true story or describes how many liberties have been taken. If that's the case, it's okay, and maybe even desirable for those of us who knew pretty much nothing about the Korean folk music scene of the 1960s before seeing this movie: If it plays as a fun little musical romance for us, why ruin that with any extraneous complaints over accuracy?

If you liked Western folk music in Seoul during the late 60s, the "C'est Si Bon" café was the place to be, especially if you were young and into the weekly student championship, where bookish medical student Yoon Hyeoung-joo (Kang Ha-neul) was the champion eleven weeks running until scruffy vagabond Song Chang-sik (Jo Bok-rae) showed up. The two formed an instant dislike, but the club owner saw potential in them working together, although they'd need some sort of buffer. Fortunately, another club regular more intent on becoming a producer, Lee Jang-hee (Jin Goo) has discovered a country kid with a complementary voice, Oh Geun-tae (Jung Woo). He also introduces them to an old school friend of his, aspiring actress Min Ja-young (Han Hyo-joo), and all the members of the "C'est Si Bon Trio" become infatuated more or less instantly. Small wonder, then, that the group would later become famous as "Twin Folio".

Actually, that's a somewhat unfair characterization - writer/director Kim Hyun-seok actually dispenses with the love n-angle material fairly quickly, with the main love story being Geun-tae and Ja-young in fairly short order. It's a fun pairing to watch; Jung Woo plays Geun-tae with an awkward innocence that doesn't prevent him from being able to parry Hyeong-joo's snotty jibes, making for an easy relatability. Han Hyo-joo, meanwhile, is instantly crush-worthy in 1960s fashions and projects an easy charisma as Ja-young, always finding just the right balance between city-girl confidence and a bit of self-doubt. Together, they do a nice job of falling into each other's orbits quickly but taking a while to completely draw together, making for a relaxed, charming story.

Full review on EFC.

Chung seung wan siu (Triumph in the Skies)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 21 February 2015 in Regal Fenway #3 (first-run, DCP)

There's a shiny new Shaw Brothers logo among the vanity cards before Triumph in the Skies, likely because it's a spinoff of a TV show that ran on Hong Kong's TVB network, which was also founded by the late Sir Run Run Shaw, about ten years ago. It's the furthest thing from the grindhouse action that the name conjures for Western audiences, a slick modern-day drama that plays well enough for those who haven't seen the series and probably a bit better for those who have.

Apparently, that show was built around the tension between Jayden "Captain Cool" Koo (Julian Cheung Chi-lam) and Sam Tong Yik-sum (Francis Ng Chung-yu), but as the series starts, they've gone their separate ways, with safety-conscious Sam one of Skyline Air's top pilots and Jayden flying a private jet. The airline is merging with another headed by the father of pilot Branson Cheung (Louis Koo Tin-lok), who has a history with Skyline flight attendant Cassie Poon Ka-sze (Charmaine Sheh See-man). Meanwhile, Sam is stuck being a consultant to a commercial starring pop star TM Tam (Sammi Cheng Sau-man), while Jayden has caught the eye of party girl Kika Sit (Amber Kuo Cai-jie).

In the background, there's another couple - Tony and Winnie - that I presume must have been part of the show but who wind up very far in the background of the Jayden/Kika story. Despite all three (or four) threads spending a lot of time in England, they almost never intersect except for a couple of conversations between Sam and Branson, and the thread about the merger is not just superfluous but seems odd - why is a presumptive executive of the merged company being moved into the cockpit during what seems like it would be a crucial period for the business? It's often three short films interrupting each other.

Full review on EFC.

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