‘Parasite’ is an Entertaining Wild Ride

Parasite won the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes this May. I watched it at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and reviewed it for Asian American Press in September. I thank AAPress for the permission to re-post my full review here on Ripple Effects. The film is now released in selective theatres.

Parasite
Brother and sister seeking Wi Fi reception in Parasite. Image Credit: Courtesy of TIFF19

South Korean director Bong Joon-ho can make social statements in the most unconventional ways, like through the friendship between a child and a giant pig in Okja (2017) to draw awareness to our meat-obsessed economy, or, environmental warnings in the apocalyptic action thriller Snowpiercer (2013).

His latest work, the 2019 Cannes Palme d’Or winning Parasite, has its Canadian Premiere at the 44th Toronto International Film Festival in September. Its subject matter––the gap between the rich and the poor in contemporary Asian society––had been covered by two acclaimed productions at Cannes last year, Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Palme d’Or winner Shoplifters, and Burning, which brought South Korean Lee Chang-dong a Best Director win. Under Bong’s helming, the subject matter is approached with a fresh, new take showcasing his signature audacious and inventive handling.

With Parasite, Bong has surpassed himself by delivering a genre-fusing feature, confronting economic disparity in his home country of South Korea. It opens as a dark comedy filled with funny tricks and clever twists, then develops with rising suspense while still keeping its comedic styling, eventually rolling into a chaotic mayhem of an action thriller.

Living in a cramped and squalid semi-basement unit, the Kim family takes up odd jobs to scrape by. They are father Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song), mom Chung-sook (Hyae Jin Chang) and their adult son Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi) and daughter Ki-jung (So-dam Park). The son has failed the university entrance exam four times. As we learn in the film, in a society where an opening for a security guard position could attract 500 university level applicants, the Kims have no luck but to share the plight of unemployment.

One day Ki-woo meets an old school friend who is going away for a short while. He recommends Ki-woo take over his tutoring job at the rich Park family to help their daughter with English. Mr. Park (Sun-kyun Lee) is the president of a high-tech company. Ki-woo accepts the challenge with apprehension, but knowing the opportunities this could open up, he forges ahead. With a little help from his artistically inclined sister, Ki-woo heads to the Parks’ residence and presents his best self to the lady of the house, Mrs. Park, the beautiful but naive wife Yeon-kyo (Yeo-jeong Jo). Ki-woo is hired on the spot and thus begins a life-altering adventure and mishaps for both families.

The Park family of four lives in an architect-designed residence, with lush grounds and gardens. As he gets to know the teenaged Park daughter Da-hye (Jung Ziso) and her younger brother Da-song (Jung Hyeon Jun), the quick-thinking Ki-woo begins to pave a path for his own family members to benefit from his new position. Anything more mentioned here will be spoilers to some clever and funny plot lines.

Another crucial character living in the luxury abode is the housekeeper Moon-Gwang (Lee Jung Eun). A long-time resident in the estate as she has been working there since the previous ownership. She is an indispensable help to the Parks’ daily living. Moon-Gwang gives the impression of a Mrs. Danver type of character as in Hitchcock’s Rebecca. With Bong’s script, there’s always something more than the appearance conveys.

A distinguished feature of the film is the original soundtrack by Korean composer Jaeil Jung. Classical styling from full orchestral to piano, harpsichord, strings, and percussions, the music in Parasite is a major force augmenting the suspense and the overall storytelling, as well as enhancing the production with a touch of elegance. Just listening to the soundtrack is an enjoyment in itself.

Parasite is slick and smooth-pacing, towards the end, it turns into a Bong-style action thriller, bloody and graphic. Snowpiercer comes to mind. Can the rich and the poor live peacefully together? No answer is offered here, for nothing is as simple as it appears. What Bong presents with Parasite is a scenario provoking the imaginary. The bottom line could well be just the wild wide of pure entertainment.

 

~ ~ ~ Ripples

 

***

 

My other related reviews on AAPress:

Shoplifters

Burning

 

TIFF19 Review: Military Wives delivers a soothing tune

If being called a ‘feel good movie’ would right away make you think of a thoughtless and syrupy offering aiming just to please, Military Wives would shatter that myth. The reason for the ‘feel good’ effect in this case is largely because it is based on inspiring, real-life events. The spouses and partners of a British military base band together for mutual support and socializing when their loved ones are deployed to Afghanistan on a 6-month tour. At first just for coffee and a sip of wine, later they discover the joy of singing together as a choir. The subsequent events lead them to the Festival of Remembrance at Royal Albert Hall, deep friendship, and healing beyond their expectations.

Military Wives
Kristin Scott Thomas in Military Wives. Image Credit: Courtesy of TIFF.

The Military Wives Choir phenomenon had inspired the development of the BBC TV series The Choir. And now its movie version Military Wives has just world premiered at the 44th Toronto International Film Festival. According to their website: There are over 2,000 women with a military connection in 74 choirs based across the UK and in British military bases abroad, including Cyprus, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands. As well, other countries’ military wives have followed suit, organizing their own choirs. Those with no prior knowledge of this global movement would find this a fresh and interesting subject to put on screen.

Directed by Peter Cattaneo (The Full Monty, 1997) and written by Rosanne Flynn and Rachel Tunnard, Military Wives touts an effective cast to augment their singing. Kristin Scott Thomas is perfect as Kate, the Chair of the social committee on the fictional Flitcroft military base. As the wife of a Colonel, she comes with certain prescribed authority but her bossy personality denies her genuine friendship. Kate has to work together with the leader of the women’s social group, the casual and congenial Lisa (Sharon Horgan). During a brainstorming session, the idea of a choir comes up, something which neither of them has the expertise, or that the group is particularly well-tuned for the task. But living in an isolated military base, the two leaders have to take up the challenge on their own.

Scott Thomas and Horgan are lively foils playing off each other with spot-on comedic timing, both trying to lead the choir in their own way at the same time. Kate is formal and traditional; Lisa is spontaneous and contemporary. While hymns are Kate’s choice for their repertoire, Lisa has no trouble getting the group to belt out pop songs and spark up camaraderie.

Their story however, is deeper than just the catchy tunes. Kate’s son was killed in a previous deployment. Despite her gung-ho and cheery surface, deep down she is still grappling with her loss, and now her husband has gone off to a war zone yet again. Scott Thomas has no trouble bringing out the complexity of her character.

While Kate has to deal with personal loss, Lisa has to raise a rebellious teenaged daughter at the brink of endangering herself. Clashes between Kate and Lisa are inevitable. But instead of telling a mundane, formulaic story, Military Wives succeeds in eliciting genuine emotions and poignancy. These words from a young wife well express their precarious daily life: “every time the phone rings and the doorbell goes, I feel sick.” So, when one of them does meet such a tragic fate, the story gets especially real and poignant.

The ‘feel good’ element is how the women deal with their own personal issue and accept each others’ foibles to work together in harmony, reaping mutual support and deep friendship. The motto of the Military Wives Choir is ‘Stronger Together’. The movie brings out this credo movingly.

 

~ ~ ~ Ripples

 

***

 

Read my other TIFF19 Reviews:

Coming Home Again directed by Wayne Wang

Interview with director Wayne Wang

Parasite directed by Bong Joon-ho

A Girl Missing directed by Kôji Fukada

 

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.

***

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

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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

***

 

*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

 

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)

Toni-Morrison-2
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.

**

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.

 

***

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)

ElephantSittingStill
‘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.

***

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

 

 

 

 

‘Hotel Mumbai’ captures both terror and resilience in the tragic attack

On November 26, 2008, the City of Mumbai, India, was under siege by terrorists in a co-ordinated shooting and bombing attack that lasted four days. For long hours until security forces arrived from outside of the City, twelve sites in Mumbai were attacked and civilians were gunned down defenceless or taken hostage.

An Australian production, Hotel Mumbai had its world premiere at the 43rd Toronto International Film Festival in September, 2018. Director Anthony Maras in this his debut feature captures the horrific attack ten years ago with a pace that is intense and sweeping, leaving viewers breathless as they watch terror unfold on screen, acts after acts of senseless violence. But don’t let this drive you away.

The setting of the thriller Hotel Mumbai is the luxury heritage Hotel Taj Mahal Palace, or the Taj, where many foreign, renowned personalities had frequented. It was one of the twelve targets of the terror attacks, for obvious reason. Gunmen armed with AK-47 assault rifle and hand grenades took foreigners hostage at the five-star hotel and shot point-blank many others. In the aftermath, 31 in the hotel were killed, almost half were staff refusing to escape but stayed to defend and assist the trapped hotel guests.

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Dev Patel as Arjun in “Hotel Mumbai”. Photo courtesy of TIFF.

The storylines following several guests in the hotel are particularly gripping, like Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) hiding in a closet caring for a baby who wouldn’t stop crying as the baby’s parents David (Armie Hammer) and Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi) are trapped somewhere else in the hotel, trying to get to their infant son.

Dev Patel plays staff server Arjun. The turban he wears makes one of the guests fearful. A crisis situation could tip either way, as an opportunity for understanding and the breakdown of barrier, or an incendiary fuse leading to deeper hatred and animosity. In a volatile situation as the hotel is besieged, complications could be deadly. But Arjun exudes ample dignity and generosity. That turban will later become a symbol of selfless grace.

The consoling breathers and the meaningful elements in the film then were these acts of kindness and courage. Maras captures the human foibles in the face of dangers, as well the strength of the hotel staff in protecting their guests. Their sacrificial, heroic acts render the film not merely a record of atrocity, but a gratifying chronicle of resilience and bravery.

The bullet-riddled and fire damaged five-star hotel was fully reopened after only twenty-one months. A special commemoration was held and a monument set up to honor those who died.

 

TIFF Hotel Mumbai Press Conference (1)
“Hotel Mumbai” Press Conference at TIFF. From left: Director Anthony Maras, actors Dev Patel, Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Nazanin Boniadi, Anupam Kher, Jason Isaacs, and Armie Hammer (back). Photo by Diana Cheng

There was a good representation of main cast members at the press conference of the film, moderated by Richard Crouse of CTV. Present were director Anthony Maras and actors Dev Patel, Armie Hammer, Nazanin Boniadi, Jason Isaacs, Tilda Cobham-Hervey, and Anupam Kher. They all commended the hotel staff for their extraordinary courage, some they had met in person who were survivors of the attack.

Upon talking with hotel staff and understanding the actual events, the actors were impressed that small acts of kindness were the essence of resistance. There were staff who had escaped but went back to save hotel guests. Some in the kitchen would put cookie sheet inside their clothes as shield to protect themselves in order to cover guests as they escape. One particular poignant observation they all felt was the breakdown of barriers as both staff and guests were all victims of the horrific act of violence. All racial and financial barriers came down in the face of crisis.

The cast also stressed the point that the perpetrators were all misguided and brainwashed young men. Nine of the ten gunmen were killed. But the mastermind, called “the Bull” in the film—who was in constant contact, directing the attackers throughout by means of their cell phones—was never caught.

 

***

 

Diversity Wins at TIFF 2018

It’s a wrap for the 43rd Toronto International Film Festival as the awards were handed out on Sunday, September 16, 2018, at the TIFF Bell Lightbox Theatre 1. The top prize, the Grolsch People’s Choice Award went to Green Book, a world premiere at TIFF18. Directed by Peter Farrelly, the comedy-drama stars Mahershala Ali as classical pianist Don Shirley and Viggo Mortensen as a working-class Italian-American bouncer getting the job to drive Ali on the road in the American South during the 1960’s. Ali won an Oscar for his role in Moonlight (2016), Mortensen is a two-time Oscar nominee. Looks like the film has just got a huge boost with this win and will travel far in the upcoming Awards Season.

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Viggo Mortsensen driving Mahershala Ali in “Green Book”. Photo courtesy of TIFF.

If Beale Street Could Talk, a world premiere at TIFF18 and director Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to Moonlight (2016) was the People’s Choice Award First Runner-Up. Based on the novel by James Baldwin, the film tells the love story of a young African American woman trying to prove her imprisoned lover’s innocence. In the TIFF webpage, the film is described as a ‘gorgeous tone poem on love and justice.’

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KiKi Layne and Stephan James in “If Beale Street Could Talk”. Photo courtesy of TIFF.

Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma (my review) came third in the People’s Choice Award. A Canadian Premiere at TIFF18, it is an artistic rendering of a young maid’s experience in a middle-class home in Mexico City during the 1970’s. Of note is the black-and-white film is regarded as a semi-autobiographical account of Mexican director Cuarón, the first Hispanic and Mexican to win the Academy Awards for Best Director with his sci-fi work Gravity (2013).

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Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo in Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma”. Photo courtesy of TIFF.

The high-profile contenders First Man directed by Damien Chazelle with Ryan Gosling as astronaut Neil Armstrong, and Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s A Star is Born did not place.

TIFF’s People’s Choice Award winner is often regarded as a predictor of the next Oscar Best Picture. Past winners that went on to capture the Oscar include Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech, and 12 Years A Slave.

Capturing the People’s Choice Documentary Award is Free Solo, International premiere at TIFF18, directed by E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Chinese-American mountaineer/photographer Jimmy Chin. The duo chronicled the renowned rock climber Alex Honnold’s scaling free solo — without safety ropes — up the 3,000-foot cliff of El Capitan in California’s Yosemite National Park.

People’s Choice Award from the Midnight Madness program went to the The Man Who Feels No Pain, World Premiere at TIFF18, directed by Vasan Bala, one of the young, new wave filmmakers in India. This is a cinematic fusion throwing in Hong Kong martial arts comedy Stephen Chow styling, the agility of Jacky Chan, the Bollywood sensation, the American Superhero momentum, and the inspiration of Buster Keaton. Fits right in the Midnight Madness program of introducing new works by a new generation of filmmakers.

Platform Prize went to Cities of Last Things, directed by Ho Wi Ding. This world premiere at TIFF18 is a collaboration of filmmakers from Taiwan, China, USA, and France. From TIFF’s webpage, “a seamless blending of genres, from sci-fi to noir to romance, the Malaysian-born Ho commandingly employs cinematic language as a tool to discuss the root of our collective sadness, which is perhaps the very thing that makes us human.”

NETPAC Award for the world premiere of international and Asian film went to The Third Wife from female writer-director Ash Mayfair of Vietnam. A film about a 14-year-old girl’s struggles after she becomes the third wife of a wealthy landowner, set in 19th century rural Vietnam.

 

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Seattle International Film Festival 2017

The Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) is the largest film festival in the United States, with an annual average attendance of 155,000. The 43rd SIFF kicks off tomorrow, May 18. For 25 days until June 11, film lovers in the Seattle area will be treated to a smorgasbord of films to whet their appetite: features, documentaries, shorts, premieres, competitions, from archival to avant-garde, and any genres to match their mood. SIFF 2017 offers close to 400 titles coming from over 70 countries.

What’s the difference between watching films in a Film Festival (FF) and watching movies in a theatre? You might ask. First off, in a FF, the international aspect is emphasized. True, you’ll have to read subtitles for those not in English, but watching foreign language films is one of the easiest ways to appreciate another culture and expand empathy. You’ll likely find there are more things in common than differences among us all.

Another special feature about FF is that many of the productions are from independent filmmakers. Hollywood and blockbuster movies are the mainstay in our Cineplexes, but in FF’s, we can savor the creative fruits from individual artists. Every year, SIFF receives over 4000 independent film submissions. It is therefore an honor for a film to be an ‘official selection’ at a major FF.

Some of them have come to compete, in other words, you will see quality productions. The SIFF website notes that more than 70% of the films screened at the Festival will not return to theaters. Many of these are works of film arts that are not distributed in commercial theaters. Of course we wish them all the best, especially quality ones and competition winners, as film industry buyers and distributors will be eyeing for good films at FF’s, ready to distribute them for the largest exposure possible later in theatrical releases.

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In the Seattle area this weekend? Love French films? I’ve a recommendation for you. Here’s my capsule review.

The Midwife

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Two venerable French actresses in one comedy drama is a major attraction from the director of Séraphine, Martin Provost. Claire (Catherine Frot) is an expert midwife, the encourager of new births. Her personal life though isn’t as up-lifting. One day her deceased father’s former mistress reappeared in her life, hurtful memories re-emerge. She is Béatrice, played by the legendary Catherine Deneuve. Their reunion sparks off comic and dramatic clashes. Béatrice is everything Claire avoids: booze, cigarettes, red meats, frivolity. Yet reconciliation is the only way to deal with their lot in life.

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The Midwife will screen in Seattle this Friday and Saturday May 19, 20, and Tuesday, May 30. CLICK HERE to SIFF’s webpage for more info, trailer and tickets.

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Related Post:

Séraphine and the Wrought-iron Chair

Paterson: Of Pug and Poetry

Some movies are like the roaring ocean, waves mounting upon waves rousing up excitement, eliciting continuous, sensational reactions. Some are like a bubbling brook, smaller but still boisterous, teeming with life and sounds. The film Paterson is a quiet stream, water gently flows along, seemingly uneventful, and yet, you can sit there by its side and just watch its quiet swirling.

Paterson has been screened at many film festivals this year. I missed it at TIFF, glad I could catch it when I came home to CIFF. For a film about poetry and a loving couple (not dysfunctional, for a change) with a British bulldog named Marvin, a character in his own right, and helmed by a Palm d’Or winning director, it’s got to be a unique experience.

Director Jim Jarmusch has been garnering accolades at the Cannes Film Festival since 1984, with his early feature Stranger Than Paradise. His most commercially known work probably is Broken Flowers (Cannes Grand Prize of the Jury, 2005) with Bill Murray and Julie Delpy. This year, Paterson has once again brought the director to Cannes as a nominee for the prestigious Palme d’Or. 

Jarmusch ought to be applauded for making a film on poetry, for who in this day of mega explosive, blockbuster productions would think of turning Williams Carlos Williams’ poetic notion into a movie. Yes, WCW himself was a resident of Paterson, New Jersey, and his 5-volume epic poem Paterson must have been the source inspiration for Jarmusch.

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The movie Paterson is about an admirer of WCW and an aspiring poet whose occupation may be furthest from the creative process. But that’s exactly the point. Where do we get inspirations and ideas? What kickstarts our creative process? Do we need to climb to the top of the mountain, soak up a magnificent sunrise to unleash our creativity? Apparently not.

We see in the film that the most mundane of everyday objects, like, a box of matches, can spark off a new poem. Jarmusch has his own style of cinematic poetry making: the deadpan, casual expressions of his main character, thus, embedding humour in the serious. Adam Driver (While We Were Young, 2014) is probably the best person to star in this film, not only in name, but in his demeanour. He is Paterson, a bus driver with a daily route of driving bus route no.23 around the small town of Paterson, New Jersey.

We follow Paterson for a week. He gets up at the same time, around 6:20 am, plus or minus 5 minutes, eats his breakfast cereal, carries his lunch box and goes to work. He drives his no. 23 route around town, overhearing passengers’ small talks, brewing in his mind thoughts and ideas, writing down lines in a note book when he has a chance, has his lunch sitting on a bench overlooking the Great Falls of the Passaic River, then back to work. After work he goes home, has dinner with his loving wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), walks the pug Marvin, ties him outside the bar, goes in and have his beer, chats with bartender Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley), meets the regulars Everett (William Jackson Harper) and Marie (Chasten Harmon) and listens to their stories, then walks Marvin back home and sleep.

As viewers we see this seven times over. Reminds me of Groundhog Day (1993). But Jarmusch is clever in sprinkling subtle humour and surprises, quite like life. Paterson is a contented soul, driving a bus may be as fulfilling as writing poetry. Wife Laura is more experimental, and takes charge of her creative expressions more explicitly, like learning the guitar to reach her dream of being a country singer, like interior decorating her home according to her obsession with black and white, or baking cupcakes in her own signature style as a step to opening her own cupcake store. Whatever, the two are a loving, contented couple. Creativity manifests in various ways.

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And then there’s Marvin, who may be the best pug in pictures. He has a role to play too in this mundane plot. His story line is, again, life as well.

That’s about all I’ll reveal about the movie without giving out the spoiler, yes, even for this seemingly uneventful film. But as I write, I’m thinking of another matter. This film is probably screened only at very limited cities, at arthouse, independent cinemas. So, why am I writing about a film that not many of you will actually be able to see? What exactly is the relevance of writing something that few may relate to? Or… is the review a piece of writing that readers can respond to despite not experiencing the film itself?

If you have some thoughts on this, I’d appreciate your input. Throw your two pebbles into the Pond and create some ripples so I’d have an idea.

Having poured out this puzzling thought that has been troubling me for some time, I’m reminded of Paterson’s poetry writing in the basement of his home, his notebook filled with his private thoughts and lines, which nobody has ever or will ever read. What’s his purpose then?

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

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Other Related Reviews on Ripple Effects:

Silence the Movie Arrives in the Most Unwelcome Time

While We Were Young: Wearing the Hat of Authenticity 

A Quiet Passion (2016) at TIFF16

TIFF16 Review: After The Storm

“After the Storm” was screened at TIFF in September. Next week, it will be at BFI London FF and after that, the Chicago IFF. My review was first published on Asian American Press. I thank the editor for allowing me to post my review here on Ripple Effects.

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Japanese auteur Koreeda Hirokazu graced the Toronto International Film Festival once again this year with his new feature, “After the Storm”. Since 1995, with his multiple award-winning feature “Maborosi”, Koreeda has been a staple at TIFF, which has screened every one of his feature films. His recent works are still fresh in many viewers’ minds, “Still Walking” (2008), “Like Father, Like Son” (2013), and “Our Little Sister” (2015).

With all the avant garde and experimental, new waves of filmmaking bursting out at film festivals every year, Koreeda’s traditional style of storytelling offers a fine balance and an affirming voice. His films focus on the contemporary Japanese family, bringing out themes arising from the individual and extending to the universal. Humanity is what Koreeda is interested in, and his treatment of human foibles and failures is kind and forgiving. “After the Storm” is no exception.

Ryota (Abe Hiroshi) used to be an award-winning author. But for years he has not produced any more works. Divorced from his wife Kyoko (Maki Yoko) and sorely missing his 9 year-old son Shingo (Yoshizawa Taiyo), Ryota is at the bottom of his life. Months behind in his child support payments, he is laden with debt, entrapped by a gambling habit that’s hard to kick. It runs in the family it seems, for his late father had also been a gambler. With his work at a detective agency, Ryota would try all means to squeeze extra cash out of his clients, including deception and even extortion.

Koreeda’s dealing of Ryota is gentle and sympathetic. While he may look unkempt, the six-foot-two actor Abe Hiroshi has his charm and charisma. We see the nasty side of Ryota as he slips into his mother’s cramped unit in a housing project, looking for anything of value he could lay his hands on for pawning. A moment later, Koreeda lets us have a glimpse too of the other side of Ryota, that of a son to an ageing mother Yoshiko (Kiki Kilin). The mother-son portrait is witty and tactful, punctuated with heartwarming humour. It is a reunion of the two actors, also as mother and son, from Koreeda’s 2008 feature film “Still Walking”.

Mother knows best, even when your son doesn’t live with you any more. Deep in her heart, Yoshiko wishes to see her son reunite with her daughter-in-law Kyoko whom she is very fond of. She also treasures the affectionate bonding with grandson Shingo. If only they could get back together as a family, that would be a big relief and comfort, growing old can then be much bearable.

One evening, a passing storm keeps them together in Yoshiko’s home for the night. The impromptu reunion, though awkward, is probably gratifying for every one of them. Koreeda is, alas, a realist. Life is full of disappointments. However close they have come to bonding once again, the moment is short-lived. But the reminiscence and dynamics of the small family’s once intimate relationship regurgitates enough to spark off a renewal for Ryota. While they may continue on with their own separate ways, a new perspective has subtly wiggled in. Perhaps, there’s hope after all. The young, green grass covered with raindrops the morning after the storm is a refreshing metaphor.

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The film was shot in the housing project where Koreeda had spent his youthful years. That was where his mother lived after his father had passed away. In the Q & A session, Koreeda admitted that certain incidents in the film did happen in the director’s own family. When writing the script though, once he has created his characters, Koreeda would let them run free and so they would develop themselves. Their stories just came out naturally.

Answering questions in Japanese with a translator beside him, Koreeda humbly thanked his Toronto audience, whom he had in mind when he made his films, as TIFF had screened every one of his features. He noted that as we grew older, we had to deal with disappointments, for life often didn’t turn out to be what we’d like to see. “After the Storm” shows us that Koreeda has dealt with his characters’ life disappointments with a forbearing spirit. As for viewers of his films, Koreeda does not disappoint.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

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Other reviews of Koreeda films on Ripple Effects:

Our Little Sister: A Respite from Summer Superhero Movies

Like Father, Like Son: Parent and Child Reunion 

A Quiet Passion at TIFF16

“A Quiet Passion” is a biopic of the reclusive 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson. It is written and directed by the esteemed English auteur Terence Davies, who brought us the adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel “The House of Mirth” in 2000, “The Deep Blue Sea” based on Terence Rattigan’s play in 2011, and last year’s “Sunset Song”, a beautiful cinematic rendition of Scottish writer Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s work.

Literary filmmaking is Davies’ repertoire. If a movie is about a poet, under his helm, it is only natural that it would be crafted like poetry. In this sense, “A Quiet Passion” is a fine example. Every frame is meticulously composed and lit, the atmosphere dense with meaning. We also hear lines from Dickinson’s poems read out as voiceover. We experience poetry in sight and sound.

However, not all poetry is of the Romantics, roaming vales and hills, dancing with the daffodils. Davies’s Emily Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon) is confined in her father Edward’s (Keith Carradine) Amherst house. Her main human interactions are with her immediate family, a stern father, a depressed mother (Emily Norcross), an attorney brother Austin (Duncan Duff), and her younger sister (Jennifer Ehle). If she ever felt claustrophobic, there’s her sister-in-law Susan Gilbert (Jodhi May) and her close friend Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey). Too narrow a social circle? Not really, for they are all responsible for sharpening her views and words. And they make a wonderful cast.

 

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Terence Davies, Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Jodhi May, Catherine Bailey
Under the direction of Davies, Cynthia Nixon (of ‘Sex and the City’ fame) portrays Emily Dickinson with an austere persona restrained by social mores and troubled by unrequited romantic pursuit. She might have been a rebel with a just cause in confronting restrictive societal norms, but I was surprised to see Dickinson here as a verbal combatant, a bitter and belligerent soul. Somehow from my limited reading of her poetry, that image has not set in my mind.

“A Quiet Passion” is a mixed bag of oxymoron. In an austere setting, characters deliver ornate speeches like you only hear in a stage play. Shrouded in a confining milieu, you hear comedic exchanges and humorous, deadpan facial expressions, even LOL moments. While the cinematography is meditative and calm (as in Davies’ last work “Sunset Song”), the feeling evoked is unsettling anticipation.

Emily’s supportive and devoted sister Lavinia (Vinnie), well played by Jennifer Ehle (of Elizabeth Bennet fame), gives me a breath of fresh air, for often she is the quiet passion supporting the poet, a gentle strength and a moral compass. Vinnie is the pragmatic and rational voice, like reminding Emily that Rev. Wadsworth—on whom Emily has a romantic crush—is a married man. But she is ever so sweet and pleasant as Jennifer Ehle is, even when admonishing.

The sisterhood between Nixon’s Emily and Ehle’s Vinnie makes me think of another literary sisterhood, that of Jane and Cassandra Austen. But what a difference. I long for Jane’s joie de vivre, something that’s missing here in this relatively harsh portrayal of Emily Dickinson. Further, I couldn’t help but compare this film with another that’s also about a poet: Jane Campion’s “Bright Star” (2009), a beautiful cinematic rendering of the English Romantic poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and his muse Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish).

The last scenes are as severe as they are heart breaking. Death may be a frequent motif in Dickinson’s poetry, as Emily had experienced the passing of her parents, but the constant pounding of her own illness makes me think of another oxymoron: superfluous suffering. The repeated scenes of seizures Emily goes through in the last section of the film may be a bit too much to watch for some, although Nixon has certainly given us a true-to-life performance. I can’t imagine all the takes she had to repeat, acting out those excruciating seizures on her bed.

When asked about the seizures in the Q & A after, Nixon replied that she had not done any research or specifically prepared; she just went ahead and did it. All the research had been done by Davies. He had read up on volumes of Dickinson’s biographies for the film.

What “A Quiet Passion” has done for me is stirring up my curiosity in finding out what Emily Dickinson the person was really like, and, I want to delve into more of her poetry. I have to remind myself though that the cinematic portrayal here is only Davies’ own interpretation and personal response to her poetry. I just like to explore on my own.

~ ~ ~ Ripples