‘A Hidden Life’: A Film for the Season

For over 10 years at Ripple Effects around this time, I’ve a Christmas post entitled Reading the Season. That’s when I post a book or collection of poetry that I find relevant for Christmas. This year I’ve something different. It’s a film that could offer some quietude among the cacophony of the season.

I first saw A Hidden Life at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. It’s now showing in selective cities.

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Written and directed by Terrence Malick, A Hidden Life is the story of an unsung hero, Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), a conscientious objector who refused to take the oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler to fight for the Nazis in World War II, for he saw Hitler’s war unjust and evil.

A Hidden Life
Valerie Pachner and August Diehl in the film A HIDDEN LIFE. Photo Courtesy of TIFF.

The title alludes to George Eliot’s ending of Middlemarch:

…for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

A quest for spiritual meaning is the signature of the reclusive director’s works. They are often expressed in whispered voiceovers from the characters, revealing their doubts and questions, anguish and insights.

Days of Heaven (1978) establishes Malick’s aesthetic style of using natural light to shoot his films, every frame exudes cinematic poetry. The Thin Red Line (1998) begins his signature whispering voiceovers to express inner thoughts and spiritual quests. But it’s The Tree of Life (2011) that makes such whispers monumental as Malick situates the microcosm of a Texan family within the cosmos, and asks questions of the Creator the problem of pain and death, the struggle with human nature, with love and hate, and despite all human failings, the presence of grace.

Since The Tree of Life, Malick has produced several ‘misses’, films that are not well received as they are elliptical and experimental but visionary no less. To the Wonder (2012), Knight of Cups (2015) and Song to Song (2017) all point to one common quest: in the materialistic world of the rich and famous, what makes life meaningful? And, can true love be found?

A Hidden Life is Terrence Malick back to his form in a more traditional style of filmmaking, and more explicitly spiritual as he tells the story of a faithful, historic figure, Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter of St. Radegund, a village in Upper Austria. Before Germany’s ‘annexation’ (Anschluss) of his country, family life is blissful and easy for Franz. He farms the land among natural vistas, stays rooted in a close-knit community, happily fathers three young daughters, and is deeply in love with his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner). The arrival of a conscription letter in 1943 changes everything.

Franz knows he cannot join Hitler’s military, but the refusal to do so means certain death and the risk of endangering his family. He struggles hard to deal with the dilemma and seeks guidance from his Catholic church, but his priest tells him patriotism is what’s demanded of him. His village folks ostracize him; the mayor urges him to comply with Hitler’s demand, for one traitor among them can endanger them all. But Franz stands his ground even with the consequence of execution, a stance reminiscent of the Christian pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer who died under Nazis hands for refusing to let Hitler’s doctrine to supplant his church.

In this way, A Hidden Life offers an opposite stance different from Martin Scorsese’s Silence (2016), adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s novel. Here we have a courageous conscientious objector willing to suffer the loss of everything and the risk of harm to his family and kinsfolks in defying a ruthless ruler. A Hidden Life is a real-life testimonial of a believer while in the face of persecution, still refuses to step on the Nazi fumie to renounce his faith.

After incarcerated in the German military prison near Linz then transferred to Berlin to await trial, Franz is allowed to write one letter to Fani every month. The love the couple share in the film has its basis on these poignant letters which have since been compiled and published by Orbis Books. Franz’s absence from home brings Fani back-breaking hardships on top of social ostracizing. Her mother and sister come to live with her to offer whatever support they can give.

Capturing mainly natural light for his filming, Malick contrasts the idyllic family life in the beauty of the natural landscape of Franz’s home setting with the harshness of his imprisoned existence. What’s more tortuous though is his internal struggle. While in prison, his captor Captain Herder (Matthias Schoenaerts) says to him: “What purpose does your defiance serve? No one knows about you.” Yet Franz is convinced that his action isn’t to please others or to glorify himself, but to do what’s right in the eyes of his God. Franz’s own hidden spiritual life empowers him to stay strong.

In his trial, again he is being challenged: “Will anyone outside this court hear you? No one will be changed.” Yet he says nothing in his own defence, an allusion to the One who had stood trial in front of a ruler and said nothing in the face of death.

In a voiceover we hear these inner thoughts, Franz’s words to Fani:

“Time will come when we’ll know what all this is for, and why we live.”

There are plenty of quiet moments, long takes and slow pacing for viewers to think and ponder. The 174 minutes of screen time offers an opportune respite from the hustle and bustle of the Season, a quietude to evaluate, if you will, now that we’re at the end of another decade and in a time of tumultuous change.

The soul-stirring music is another reason to sit down in the theatre and quietly let the story unfold. Film composer James Newton Howard has created a full orchestral score complementing the cinematography, not only in capturing the beauty of the vistas but in his own words: “… to focus on the emotional journeys and crises of conscience of the characters—writing music to reflect their story.” Listen for the solo violin representing the sentiments of Franz and Fani, masterfully played by the Canadian violin virtuoso James Ehnes.

What’s hidden could be more precious, like treasure in jars of clay. And these words came to mind as I give A Hidden Life further thoughts:

… we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

 

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Reading the Season Posts:

2018: Madeleine L’Engle’s Poem The Irrational Season

2017: A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle

2016:  Silence by Shusaku Endo

2015: The Book of Ruth

2014: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

2013: Poetry by Madeleine L’Engle

2012: Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis

2011: Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle

2010: A Widening Light, Luci Shaw

2009: The Irrational Season by Madeleine L’Engle 

2008: The Bible and the New York Times by Fleming Rutledge

2008: A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis

For my review of The Tree of Life and Silence, click on the links embedded in the titles.

 

Literary Adaptations at TIFF19: The Goldfinch

Two book-to-film adaptations were on my watch list while I was at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this September: Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Goldfinch and the Dickens classic The Personal History of David Copperfield, both had their world premiere at TIFF. The two make such interesting contrasts that it would be good to discuss them together in one post, but that would be a long one. As I covet your attention, I’ll split them into two reviews. 

I listened to the audiobook of The Goldfinch in 2014, a year after the novel was published. My impression was: this one’s written for the screen. There are Dickensian characters and storylines transposed into present day. 13-year-old Theo is visiting a NYC art museum with his mother when she is killed in a bombing. In the aftermath, stunned and traumatized, he follows a mysterious track to an antique shop where the owner Hobie takes him in. There he meets Pippa, a girl he finds affiliation as she’s looking at the same painting with him in the museum when the bomb goes off. Later Pippa moves away and Theo goes to live with a wealthy Park Avenue family, the Barbours, only to have his stable life interrupted by the sudden reappearance of his long-gone, alcoholic father claiming full guardianship and taking him to live in Nevada, where he becomes friends with Boris, another boy lost in the sandy void.

Later, fleeing from his abusive father, Theo returns to the antique shop in NYC. Under the mentorship of Hobie he learns the skills of the trade. Years later, by chance and fate, Boris shows up again in his life, pulling him into the underworld of art dealings that eventually leads to a violent end, but that’s where the closure begins. “The Goldfinch” is the painting Theo takes with him after the museum bombing and hides it for himself, for it is a physical reminder of his last memory with his mother. They were looking at it when disaster struck; it was his mother’s favorite painting.

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Nicole Kidman and Ansel Elgort in The Goldfinch. Image Credit: Courtesy of TIFF

That’s the main book story in a nutshell, and it appears that screenwriter Peter Straughan is keen to remain as faithful to the source material as possible. When the task at hand is loyalty to the original 784 page novel, the 149 minute screen time can feel like a laborious effort to create a replica, thus losing its flavour as an art form of a different medium, breathing, living cinema. The characters and major plot points are there, but what’s missing are the emotional depth and sparks of life.

Tartt’s novel has its Dickensian characters, and I can’t help but see parallels between The Goldfinch and The Personal History of David Copperfield. Theo and Davy, Boris and Steerforth, Theo’s father Larry and Davy’s stepfather Mr. Murdstone, Pippa and Agnes. The two features, however, represent two ends of possible choices for film adaptations.

Director John Crowley, who helmed Brooklyn (2015), a beautiful adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novel, has a good cast to work with for The Goldfinch. Oakes Fegley (Wonderstruck, 2017) gives us a mature performance as young Theo. Nicole Kidman plays Mrs. Barbour decades apart, two roles that don’t give her much to say. Luke Wilson as Theo’s volatile father Larry and Sarah Paulson as his girlfriend Xandra are the livelier contrasts to other characters. Maybe Crowley focuses too much on the theme of grief that the overtone is sombre throughout. Ansel Elgort as adult Theo may not be a miscast but is boxed in by the only emotion he can express, gloominess. I can’t remember he has flashed a hearty smile once. That goes for other characters as well. The Goldfinch is a story of grief and Crowley has painted the mood in stark realism.

Thanks to the venerable cinematographer Roger Deakins (2018 Oscar winner Blade Runner 2049), we get to see some sunlight and energy in the Nevada desert days of  friendship between young Theo and Boris (Finn Wolfhard, TV Stranger Things). For most of the film, however, the color is a greyish cyan of dolefulness. While the museum bombing scene is dramatic, watching it over and over again––as Theo is drawn into guilt-ridden memory––could diminish the effect. But then, this would be an editing issue. And like Theo, don’t we all want to see the face of his mother, whose death is the cause of the grief, but that only comes for a short moment towards the end.

In an early scene, antique shop owner Hobie (Jeffrey Wright) shows young Theo how to tell a piece of furniture by touch to feel its authenticity. Too smooth has to be fake. Furniture that has weathered years of usage would be rougher and uneven. The character of adult Theo could have been a wiser man, more seasoned and worldly, but he remains static and stiff. The poignancy of fate with its power over one’s life comes late in the film and exerts little effect on the emotional connection with viewers. Unfortunately, Hobie’s antique lesson for young Theo is a metaphor for the adaptation. Other than a visual representation of the major plot of the novel, the film is a reproduction that lacks authenticity and liveliness.

 

~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

 

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Toronto International Film Festival 2019

In the coming weeks, I’ll be in Toronto covering the 44th TIFF taking place Sept. 5 – 15. TIFF is my annual destination away from the Pond, my chance to immerse in the celebration of film arts, world premieres of new works, festivities on King Street, and be swept up by the excitement of crowds catching a glimpse of the talents and filmmakers converging there.

For those inclined towards numbers, here are some figures: TIFF19 will screen 333 titles in total, including 245 features, 86 shorts, and 6 series, selected from 6,866 international and 1,059 Canadian submissions. There will be 133 World and 71 North American Premieres. 84 countries are represented with 36% of titles directed, co-directed, or created by women.

It’s a major task to organize one’s own viewing schedule. Films that I want to watch have time conflicts. After several days of juggling and regretful eliminating, I’ve finalized my list, more or less.

The following are some of the feature films on my To-Watch List (All images courtesy of TIFF):

A Girl MissingA Girl Missing directed by Koji Fukada (Japan) North American Premiere. Fukada’s previous film, Cannes’ Un Certain Regard Jury Prize winner Harmonium (2016) grabbed me as a concoction of Hitchcockian suspense and poignant family drama. Excited to see his newest work at TIFF.

A Hidden Life (1)A Hidden Life directed by Terrence Malick (USA, Germany) Canadian Premiere. Based on the true story of Austrian farmer and conscientious objector Franz Jägerstätter, who refused to join the German army in WWII. I expect this newest Malick film to be another soul-stirring work.

The AuditionThe Audition directed by Ina Weisse (Germany, France) World Premiere. Women play major roles in this production as director, screenwriter and cinematographer. But the main attraction for me is actor Nina Hoss, whose riveting performance won her high acclaims in the German films Phoenix (2014) and Barbara (2012).

Coming Home AgainComing Home Again dir. by Wayne Wang (USA/Korea) World Premiere. Wang brought Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club to mainstream cinema in 1993, telling generational stories of Chinese-Americans. His newest is based on a personal essay by acclaimed writer Chang-rae Lee about a son coming home to his ailing mother. 

David CopperfieldThe Personal History of David Copperfield dir. by Armando Iannucci (UK) World Premiere. As a book-to-movie enthusiast, I won’t miss this one. What more, the cast looks impressive, and postmodern. Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire (2008) fame will play Davy, Tilda Swinton as Betsey, Hugh Laurie as Mr. Dick, and Ben Whishaw the villain Uriah Heep. Turning a 800+ page classic into a two-hour movie is as daunting as Davy’s life journey. But I reserve my judgement.

THE GOLDFINCHThe Goldfinch dir. by John Crowley (USA) World Premiere. The adaptation of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is helmed by the same director as Brooklyn (2015), with adapted screenplay by Wolf Hall and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy scribe Peter Straughan. Looks like a top-notch collaboration.

Hope GapHope Gap directed by William Nicholson (UK) World Premiere. This is Nicholson’s second directorial feature which he also wrote. His other screenplays include Les Misérables (2012) and Gladiator (2000) among many others. But what draw my attention are the duo who play a couple at the brink of a marriage breakdown, Bill Nighy
and Annette Bening.

Parasite (1)Parasite directed by Bong Joon-ho (S. Korea) Canadian Premiere. This year’s Palme d’Or winner at Cannes. From the description, it echoes Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, last year’s Cannes winner. But Bong’s audacious and creative styling could make this a fresh approach to the subject of social inequality. Lee Chang-dong’s Burning (2018) also comes to mind.

Varda by Agnes (1)Varda by Agnès directed by Agnès Varda (France) Canadian Premiere. After watching the late French New Wave auteur Agnès Varda’s documentary Faces Places (2017), I’d been looking for this, her last work. Excited to know there will be a special event at TIFF 19 with the screening of Varda by Agnès plus a bonus post-film discussion by a panel of filmmakers.

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For the full lineup, schedule, and tickets go to tiff.net

My reviews of the above plus other TIFF titles will be published on the websites Asian American Press, Vague Visages, and here at Ripple Effects.

 

‘An Elephant Sitting Still’ is a last outcry of a young talent

ElephantSittingStill

I watched An Elephant Sitting Still while covering the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival in April. It remains one of the most unforgettable films in my recent memory, the directorial debut of Hu Bo, a Chinese writer-turned-filmmaker. Hu’s incisive narratives of the human condition won Best First Feature and the FIPRESCI Prize at Berlin International Film Festival in 2018. Sadly, this is the young director’s first and last film, for his career trajectory ended abruptly in October, 2017. Hu took his own life during post-production. He was 29. The feature has since played in numerous international film festivals garnering accolades which Hu himself would never have known.

Hu Bo graduated from Beijing Film Academy majoring in directing. Later went to Taiwan to further his training and came under the mentorship of the venerable auteur Hou Hsiao-hsien (The Assassin, 2015) and subsequently the Hungarian art film director Béla Tarr (The Turin Horse, 2011). Other than making short films and writing screenplays, Hu had authored short stories and an award-winning novella. His debut feature An Elephant Sitting Still was adapted from his short story of the same name.

Hu BoAt the 55th Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan last November, An Elephant Sitting Still won Best Feature Film, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Audience Choice Award. The Best Film prize was presented to Hu’s mother by the Taiwanese American director Ang Lee (Life of Pi, 2012; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000) who reached out to her with a poignant embrace.

 

An Elephant Sitting Still is a 230-minute cinematic allegory wrapped in haunting realism. In an unnamed town in Northern China, four characters struggle with their own personal predicament too messy to untangle, all in a day’s time. The four narratives intersect in Hu’s incisive screenplay.

A high school student, Wei Bu (Peng Yuchang), while defending a friend, accidentally pushes a school bully down the stairs leading to his death. Even more tragic, Wei later finds out he has been deceived by the very friend he tries to protect. Wei has to run away as the bully’s older brother Yu Cheng (Yu Zhang), a local gangster, is out looking for him. Yu himself is a man riddled with guilt as he has just witnessed his best friend dash out of the window to his death upon finding out Yu has been sleeping with his wife.

Meanwhile, Wei tries to persuade his unrequited crush, schoolmate Huang Ling (Wang Yuwen) to leave with him. Huang herself has to deal with her alcoholic single mother and is further troubled by the reverberation of her scandalous relationship with her school’s vice dean. The fourth character is a grandfather, Wang Jin (Li Congxi), who is pushed out of his son’s home as the young family needs to move to a smaller apartment in another place so to register their daughter for a better school. A dismal future awaits him away from his granddaughter.

Hu parallels the dilapidated urban environs with the inner world of his characters. Long takes and tracking shots place viewers right in the midst of relational conflicts. A Steadicam follows their uncertain footsteps; blueish-grey overtone transmits the bleakness of their situation. Hu takes time to let the camera linger on his characters’ faces, capturing their troubled psyche. Their seemingly emotionless appearance is reminiscence of Bresson’s ‘non-actors’. Often, their reticence conveys depths that words deem unnecessary.

There’s still another character which is mentioned but remains invisible, and that’s the Elephant. We’re told at the start of the film that it sits very still in a circus in the city of Manzhouli, a distance away. It’s indifferent to people’s taunting and objects thrown at it. The Elephant’s quiet composure exudes a mythical element these characters seem to yearn for. Here, realism is mixed with a touch of magic. As the four-hour film draws to an end, the sequence transcends rationale. Two young people, Wei and Ling, together with the grandfather Wang and his granddaughter depart on a journey to Manzhouli in search for the Elephant.

The ending shot is mesmerizing as the bus to Manzhouli stops temporarily in the night, the passengers get down for a stretch. From a distance, we see our protagonists stand in front of the beam from the bus and start playing hacky sack. The long stay of the camera on them is surreal but needed. The quest for the mythical being is motivational zeal for life, even just for a momentary pleasure. Then we hear off screen the sound of an elephant braying.

The Book Big Crack

Big Crack.jpgIn April I took a trip to Hong Kong and there in a bookstore I found the source material for the film, Big Crack*, written by Hu under his pen name Hu Qian. The book is a compilation of short stories, one of them being ‘An Elephant Sitting Still’, as well as Hu’s award-winning novella Big Crack’. I was eager to explore Hu’s worldview and compare his writing with his cinematic work.

‘An Elephant Sitting Still’ is a 15-page short story. Its protagonist is Yu in the movie, having slept with his best friend’s wife and struggling with guilt as he’s the reason for his friend’s suicide. Yu is drawn to search for the Elephant in Manzhouli, maybe for a redemptive reason. Towards the end, he finds the mythical beast, jumps into its cage and submits himself to let it deal a deadly blow to him, a fate he’s all too willing to accept, a soul that has been hinged on a meaningless existence. The other film materials are mostly philosophical concepts from the novella ‘Big Crack’

Hu’s writing is more direct and visceral than his cinematic creation. In the novella ‘Big Crack’, his characters are students in a bottom-tiered art college somewhere near a remote northern town. The term ‘waste land’ is used to refer to the campus and its adjacent town. The term is also used in the movie. In the book, the words ‘waste land’ are ubiquitous, together with Existential, nihilistic concepts like having no exit and nauseating stenches – as in the beginning of the film with Wei’s father’s furious complaint. In the novella, rampant violence is frequent among different dormitories of the school, often exploding in bloodshed. Violence is more restrained in the film, but often leading to tragic end.

I presume Hu’s use of the phrase ‘waste land’ is an allusion to T. S. Eliot’s epic poem. Eliot wrote ‘The Waste Land’ after WWI as the poet lamented the cultural and spiritual breakdown of Europe. Physical ruins could be rebuilt, but the collapse of moral and spiritual values was hard to replaced.

In what I think is a defying act in a country that monitors and censors Christianity in the public arena, Hu quoted the following verses from the Bible, words printed in bold:

“The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time…. Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways.”

The Invisible Elephant

Hu is piercing in his observation of the moral void and dry, cracked condition of the human soul; the meaninglessness of life as he saw it could have become too overwhelming for him. But what about the Elephant? Is there a sliver of light coming through that crack?

Some had interpreted the Elephant as a symbol of the government, but considering the way that the beast appeals and draws the protagonists to seek for it, almost like a pilgrimage, that parallel just isn’t probable. Some critics had attributed it to the endurance needed to forsake the world and confront troubles with passive resistance.

When I first came across the mention of the Elephant sitting still, the Beatles song “The Fool on the Hill” came to mind. The lyrics point to a similar quietude and peaceful being, some see the lyrics as a reference to God, “He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth…” I incline to interpret as this, for evidence is overwhelming in Hu’s writing that he was troubled by the depravity of the world as he saw it and wanted to seek for what or who could have been the redemptive way.

As the closing credits roll to the end, we hear the mood has changed from the past three plus hours. We hear jubilant singing voices mixed with the theme music ‘Elephant’, sound of joy for the first time. And in the credits the following acknowledgement appears, ending the whole film:

“Original Acappella, Laomudeng Church Sunday Service Hymn”**

Before his death, a second feature was on the drawing board. Hu named it The Gate of Heaven. The spiritual yearning of this young talent is achingly apparent.

 

 

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

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*It’s my understanding that the book comes in only its original Chinese edition. There has yet been an English translation.

** Upon online research, I found that the Laomudeng Christian Church is serenely situated on the top of a mountain in Yunan, famous for its secluded and peaceful environs. The high-pitched A Cappella singing of its congregants is well-known.

Photo Sources:

Film still from Ripple file originally from MSPIFF
Hu Bo photo from Festival Scope Pro
Big Crack book photo from Amazon.com

 

‘Ramen Shop’ is a delicious tale of reconciliation

This is not your ordinary foodie flick, for it touches on a subject that is not likely to be found in a culinary film: WWII memory lodged in the mind of those who had lived through Japanese occupation, a generation of victims and witnesses of a horrific chapter in Asian history. That is the backstory. Acclaimed Singaporean director Eric Khoo offers us a slow cooked, savoury broth, using ingredients that are comforting and heartwarming to present a scenario of reconciliation.

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A scene from Eric Khoo’s “Ramen Shop”, screened at SFFILM earlier this month, now in selective theatres. Courtesy of SFFILM.

Screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival earlier this month, Ramen Shop is now released in selective theatres. Unlike the ramen western Tampopo (1985), Khoo’s concoction is of a gentler nature, melodramatic moments that are quiet and tasteful, including a moving denouement. Ramen Shop also shows how ordinary folks live and cook, much less spectacular than what we have seen in Crazy Rich Asians (2018), but delicious in a down-to-earth way.

Young ramen chef Masato (Takumi Saitô) from Takasaki, Japan, goes on a root-searching quest to Singapore where his late mother Mei Lian (Jeanette Aw) came from. She died when Masato was still a child; the boy grew up missing his mother sorely, especially her Bak Kut Teh, Signapore’s signature Pork Bone Soup.

Masato’s father Kazuo (Tsuyoshi Ihara) is a notable chef and owner of a ramen shop. To those not familiar, this is a good alternative if you’re reluctant to befriend raw fish (sushi and sashimi). Ramen are thin noodles in a long-cooked broth, usually goes with slices of braised pork, half a soft-boiled soya egg, scallions, sea weeds and other veggies. A trendy eat nowadays so the movie is timely.

Since his wife’s death, Kazuo has been too grief-stricken to notice Masato shares the pain no less; instead, Kazuo practically ignores his son.

“Sometimes I wish I were a bowl of ramen. At least that way, he’d show more interest in me,” Masato laments.

After Kazuo’s sudden death, Masato decides to go on a personal quest to search for his mother’s Singaporean roots, to find his long-lost Uncle and through him, his Grandmother who had estranged him since his birth. Taking with him faded childhood photographs, his mother’s journal written in Chinese and sweet memories of his mother’s comforting Bak Kut Teh, Masato heads to Singapore. On screen, the childhood scenes are presented with a washed-out colour, blending into the present effectively as we follow Masato walk down memory lane to re-live his early experience with his parents.

Food blogger Miki (Seiko Matsuda) whom Masato has been following online now acts as his personal guide while in Singapore. A chance encounter leads him to reconnect with his uncle, his mother’s younger brother. Played by Mark Lee, Uncle Wee is an animated and humorous character. He welcomes Masato into his home where he lives with his wife and two daughters, Masato’s new-found cousins.

More importantly, Uncle teaches Masato how to make Bak Kut Teh, literally meaning Pork Bone Tea. It’s called ‘tea’ because after finishing the ingredient-rich and savoury noodle soup, people usually drink tea as a wrap to the satisfying meal.

Upon Masato’s urging, Uncle brings him to meet Grandmother (Beatrice Chien). Realizing Masato is her late daughter’s son, Grandma rejects him outright; acknowledging a half-Japanese grandson would be too painful for her as her husband died in Japanese hands during the war.

The animosity his Grandmother holds against him shatters Masato but does not deter him. In a museum visit, he learns about Singapore’s wartime history. Eventually, he figures out a way to show his sincerity: what better way to reach out to Grandma than a delicious bowl of Japanese and Singaporean fusion, thus creating ‘Ramen Teh’ to bring to Grandma. Blending the favourites of both countries of his parental heritage, ‘Ramen Teh’ becomes the broth of reconciliation and the name of his new ramen shop when Masato returns home to Japan.

If a bowl of fusion noodle soup can melt away bitterness and long-held grievances among peoples, the world would be a better place. We have Khoo’s imaginary tale to thank if we move even one step closer to that ideal.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

 

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San Francisco International Film Festival offers an eclectic selection

The San Francisco International Film Festival (SFFILM) will take place April 10-23, 2019. The longest running Film Festival in the United States, this is the 62nd edition of their annual celebration of films from all over the world.

SFFILM 2019 will showcase 163 works of various forms, from narrative features to documentaries, shorts to family-friendly animations, including 12 world premieres and 5 North American premieres. 52 countries are represented in 36 languages. Among SFFILM 2019 selections are 72 works directed or co-directed by women. This year’s Special Tribute will honor Laura Dern, Laura Linney, Claire Denis, and John C. Reilly.

The Special Interests Categories range from arts, design and architecture to social, legal, and environmental issues, to food, philosophy, crime, and science … just to name a few. Click Here to view their various Sections and Spotlights.

Here are two features I have previewed and highly recommend:

Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders (Marquee Presentations)

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Toni Morrison, subject of Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’s TONI MORRISON: THE PIECES I AM, playing at the 2019 San Francisco International Film Festival, April 10-23, 2019. Courtesy of SFFILM.

An inspiring biopic piecing together a multi-faceted life brimming with fearless convictions. At 87, Toni Morrison’s voice is intimate, her words far-reaching. Photos and footages tell not just the life story of a writer but that of America. She writes for all, transcending racial barriers, impacting readers globally. Angela Davis, Hilton Als, Fran Lebowitz, Oprah Winfrey and others lend their voices to present a portrait of the Nobel laureate with a gentle, personal touch.

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Ramen Shop directed by Eric Khoo (Global Visions Program)

 

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A scene from Eric Khoo’s RAMEN SHOP, playing at the 2019 San Francisco International Film Festival, April 10-23, 2019. Courtesy of SFFILM.

 

Acclaimed Singaporean director Eric Khoo’s latest feature is not your ordinary foodie flick. A young Japanese ramen chef goes on a root-searching journey to Singapore to find his mother’s family and seek reconciliation with his grandmother who has long estranged him. Painful WWII memory lodged indelibly in the older generation for Grandfather died in Japanese hands. A fusion of Japanese ramen and Singapore’s signature pork rib soup is the melting agent in Khoo’s moving concoction.

 

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Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am will be screened April 14th and 20th, Ramen Shop April 12th and 14th. For details of SFFILM 2019 programs, CLICK HERE .

38th Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival (MSPIFF)

The Film Society of Minneapolis St. Paul will be presenting the 38th annual MSPIFF April 4 – 20. Every year, MSPIFF showcases more than 250 film works of various forms coming from as many as 70 countries.

On their ‘About’ page, the MSP Society states:

“We promote the art of film as a medium that fosters cross-cultural understanding, education, entertainment, and exploration.”

The more I watch films from international film festivals, the more I appreciate this  statement. It’s unfortunate that nowadays the term ‘foreign’ carries an unfavorable stigma. This I’ve found from watching foreign films: listening to languages I don’t know means I need to adapt to reading subtitles, which in itself is a conscious act of trying to understand. Just that simple act of attempting to listen is of value. Of course, many works are from English-speaking countries, so it’s not all strenuous workout all the time. I can’t think of a better way to be transported to another place and time by a story, as my empathy is honed (subliminally) while I sit back and munch on popcorn.

Back to MSPIFF. Here are a few selections from the various programs with my succinct, capsule review:

The Accountant of Auschwitz by Matthew Shoychet (World Cinema Program)

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‘The Accountant of Auschwitz’ Photo courtesy of MSPIFF

Canadian director Shoychet sets up an informative background leading to the trial and sentencing of German SS Officer Oskar Gröning, the man who tallied all the properties confiscated from the prisoners as they entered the Auschwitz death camp. Holocaust survivors recall their experiences, seeking justice and closure. However, bringing those responsible to account for the atrocity remains an elusive task. Only 49 Third Reich officials out of 6,500 had been brought to trial. Many got away with just 3 years in prison during the post-war period. Currently, time is running out for the victims. Major obstacles for the prosecution: the old age of those accused, continued evasion, and proof of complicity. Shoychet’s documentary is a poignant reminder that a tragic chapter in human history still remains unresolved.

 

An Elephant Sitting Still by Hu Bo (Asian Frontiers Program)

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‘An Elephant Sitting Still’ Cast. Photo courtesy of MSPIFF

The 230-minute feature is an incisive depiction of the human desolation in an unnamed, northern Chinese city. Director Hu Bo’s cinematic capture of the inner void of his characters is intense and nuanced. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” is alluded to, that piece of cracked soil deep in the human soul. Hu’s tracking shots place viewers in the midst of relational conflicts, from bored high school students to aimless adults to the despondent elderly. Random strangers somehow connected casually in Hu’s astute screenplay. And the elephant among their midst remains invisible, sitting as a metaphor for the resignation of life as well as a fantasy of hope. This debut feature sadly speaks as a last testament of a lost talent: Hu took his own life during post-production of the film. He was 29.

The Third Wife by Ash Mayfair (Women & Film Program)

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‘The Third Wife’ Photo courtesy of MSPIFF

Inspired by true events in 19th century Vietnam, 14 year-old May is married into a rich landowner family. She is the third wife of the patriarch’s son. Her sole purpose is to produce a male descendent for him, as the first two wives have only daughters. A film with minimal dialogues, The Third Wife is a visual story. Its aesthetics and sensual, dream-like sequences wrap a harsh reality: the plight of women in a patriarchal society. Mayfair was born and raised in Vietnam, an Oxford and NYU Tisch School of the Arts graduate. This her debut feature is a quiet and potent voice in the #MeToo awakening.

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For the full program of the 38th MSPIFF, CLICK HERE to their website.