Tuesday, May 09, 2017

May Day Movies: This Is Not What I Expected & Battle of Memories

Around this time of year, a friend grumbles on Twitter about the rest of the world getting Marvel movies before the United States, and I don't know that I've actually proposed the idea that May Day being an important holiday in the rest of the world but probably a little less important than Free Comic Book Day here - and that's not a big deal, really.

But, apparently, May Day is a big movie weekend in China, enough so that the day-and-date releases in the U.S. had to be spread out - Love Off the Cuff and Battle of Memories that weekend, with This Is Not What I Expected and Shock Wave coming out the next week (although the latter didn't make it to Boston, which is a bummer). Helpful for me, that - I would have been even more overwhelmed IFFBoston weekend otherwise - but an interesting reminder that the schedule we always think of in U.S.-centric terms here can be really different elsewhere.

Anyway, of these two, I liked This a lot more than expected, but found myself kind of disappointed by Battle of Memories. Chinese sci-fi is a tricky thing; I'm enjoying the Three-Body Problem books, but they're it's worth noting that they are grand-scale things, not particularly reflecting the present much. There was something that caught my eye, though:


I've been racking my head for the past couple of days, trying to think if I've ever seen a gay character in a Chinese movie before; heck, it's rare to see gay people mentioned. So it raised my eyebrows a little bit in this one when I saw that Shanshan seemed to be awfully close with Huilan, and later seemed to get friendly with Daichen quickly. It was kind of a disappointing set-up when Huilan seemed to say Shanshan was disgusting, seeming to seal Shanshan's motivation as the murderer.

That didn't wind up being the case - the movie suddenly pivots to someone I didn't realize was even a possibility because I don't recall any scenes that hinted at him knowing Huilan before investigating her murder - and it's kind of a weird mixed bag. Sure, on the one hand, the only gay person in the film doesn't wind up being the murderer, but, then, the "disgusting" comment makes a little less sense, and it erases half the evidence that Shanshan might like women. Which is weird, because they off-handedly shoot her in the head rather than risk her having more chemistry with Daichen in the last scenes than Jiang does.

I guess this sort of queer-baiting might be seen as progress in Chinese cinema, considering that we're less than a year removed from them making Rupert Everett's iconic Gay Best Friend character straight for their remake of My Best Friend's Wedding. It's weird to watch, though, almost like the filmmakers wanted to go that direction with Shanshan but didn't find out that it wouldn't fly with the censor board until they were actually shooting. Or maybe this was a trial balloon to see what audiences and censors would or would not freak out about.


Interesting, if nothing else. Anyway, here's hoping we do get Shock Wave this weekend, because who doesn't want to see Andy Lau defusing bombs in a Herman Yau film? Terrible people, that's who.

This Is Not What I Expected

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 5 May 2017 in AMC Boston Common #11 (first-run, DCP)

I feel marginally less guilty than usual for eating some less-than-great mozzarella sticks during a movie about delicious and beautiful food than usual here, what with this being a somewhat faster-paced and less food-porn-y flick than something like Cook Up a Storm. Instead, it's a simple but no less enjoyable romantic comedy, with opposites attracting and trying to keep their identities secret, stretching things out a bit but mostly working out.

The Rosebud Hotel in Shanghai is not a particularly impressive one, but it is one of several in the city that has been targeted for purchase by the VN Group whose CEO, Lu Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), is making his customary visit to scope them out. It's not going so well - as he's leaving the previous hotel, he comes upon Gu Shengnan (Zhou Dongyu) vandalizing his car on behalf of a dumped friend (it turns out that there are a lot of black Audis in the garage) - and the notorious foodie is unimpressed by the six dishes room service sends up. Desperate to please, the hotel's general manager (Yo Yang) has a young but creative sous-chef prepare him a dish before he checks out at noon. Lu is impressed enough to stay and try more dishes, unaware that it's Shengnan - who has found a number of ways to inadvertently make his life difficult - that is cooking for him.

Like most romantic comedies, This Is Not What I Expected is built on the cast, with Takeshi Kaneshiro giving an especially hilarious performance as the wealthy food-lover. Most of his Chinese-language career has been somber dramas and historical epics, so it's a bit of a surprise to see him in a comedic role, but he brings a perfect combination of imperiousness and fussiness to Lu. Though it's something that should be seen in a lot of films of this genre, not many actors manage to plant a seed of being easily flustered within their pushiness, and it not only leads to getting a laugh where one might otherwise think "what a jerk!", but it lets a decent guy emerge later on when we need to buy that Lu and Shengnan might actually have something besides a mutual interest in good food.

Full review on EFC.

Battle of Memories

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 6 May 2017 in AMC Boston Common #10 (first-run, DCP)

For all that box office reports will often lead off with how China has made a sci-fi movie that didn't do that well in America something of a hit, they don't export seem to export many. There are plenty of potential explanations for why China makes relatively fewer and they don't tend to cross the Pacific, and that's before you get to how, if Battle of Memories is typical, they're not great; the filmmakers had a neat hook to set up a futuristic murder mystery, but are often so set on twists, turns, and misdirection that a story that makes sense never emerges, and they can't dazzle their way past that..

The time is the near future; the place is "Nation T", the only place in Asia where "Masters of Memory" has a location. Famed writer Jiang Feng (Huang Bo) is there to have the detailed memories of his failed marriage removed - he won't completely forget wife Zhang Daichen (Xu Jinglei), but those experiences will be more like a book he read some time ago than his own memories. This seems to be what's happening with the couple whose confrontation ends in a murder-suicide, during which time the memory unit containing Jiang's memories is damaged. Once he gets back home, though, Daichen refuses to sign the divorce papers while he's in this condition, and while the memories can be restored for 72 hours, there are consequences to that, as the memories will either be present or gone for good. There's also a bigger problem - the memories re-implanted are not his own, but those of the murderer of battered wife Li Huilan (Wang Zhen'er). Of course, when he goes to the police, Detective Shen Hanqiang (Duan Yihong) and Lei Zi (Liang Jieli) aren't exactly sure what to do with a guy who claims to remember a murder he didn't commit, especially since his subjective memory offers few clues as to the real killer and some of what he says contradicts what medical examiner - and friend of the victim Chen Shanshan (Yang Zishan) - discovered in her autopsy.

When making Minority Report, Steven Spielberg hired Scott Frank - who writes great thrillers and crime but felt out of his element doing science fiction - and told him to come up with the best mystery he could, and he'd handle the futuristic material. If there was a similar dynamic between director "Leste" Chen Zhengdao and his co-writer Ryan Ren here, it's somewhat less successful. The murder of Li Huilan initially doesn't seem to offer the sort of complexities that require extraordinary measures to solve it, and when following them up does reveal a more complicated story, that doesn't necessarily make it more interesting, especially since the film opens with a scene that points so firmly in one unorthodox direction that the way Leste dances around it is frustrating. The direction things ultimately go seems random, especially compared to some of the other options presented earlier.

Full review on EFC.

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