Friday, March 6, 2015

 

CAAMFest 2015

For the third year, Center for Asian America Media (CAAM) presents its annual CAAMFest featuring film, music, and food. Similar like past two years, CAAMFest 2015 continues to provide a platform to exhibit CAAM's productions, as well as new works by Asian American filmmakers and emerging filmmakers from Asia.

CAAMFest 2015

This year's festival contains 109 films and videos representing twenty countries and territories. There are total 46 feature-length films, eight shorts programs, as well as a few musical and foodie events. The festival opens with a crowd-pleasing comedy "Seoul Searching" (USA 2014) at Castro Theater on March 12 and closes 10 days later on March 22 with PBS series "Lucky Chow" at New Parkway Theater.

One of the festival's most anticipated sections is CinemAsia. However, it doesn't contain any high profile film from Asia this year, and most films are either filmmakers' directorial debuts or their sophomore features.

CAAMFest 2015 takes place March 12-22, 2015 in San Francisco at Sundance Kabuki, New People Cinema, Castro Theater, and Great Star Theater, in Berkeley at Pacific Film Archive, in Oakland at New Parkway and Oakland Museum of California, and at other venues around the Bay Area.

Here are my reviews of a few films in the programs. As always, each film's title is linked to the festival program where you can find the film's showtime and venue information. Each film's still image is linked to a film's official Web site if it's available. In random order:


  • Seoul Searching (USA 2015 | in Korean/English | 105 min.)

    Based on his personal experience back in the '80s, the director Benson Lee's new crowd-pleasing comedy "Seoul Searching" is a perfect choice to open the festival and push us into the festive mood. Inspired by "The Breakfast Club" (USA 1985), this funny film is more entertaining than expected when it blends in political-incorrectness and Korean-style high melodrama.

    The story is set in the '80s when the Korean government sponsors a summer camp for Korean teenagers living abroad to learn their heritage and Korean culture. That creates a golden opportunity for these rebellious kids to party together without their parents' supervision. When boys meet girls and the East clashes with the West, these youngsters have their best time while learning more about themselves.

    Seoul Searching Official Site

    The most lovely and hilarious character in the film is scene-stealing smooth-talking Sergio Kim (Esteban Ahn) who is from Mexico. With his charming personality, it's no surprise that he is one of the boys who win over a girl's heart during the summer camp.

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  • Partners in Crime (共犯 | Taiwan 2015 | in Mandarin | 89 min.)

    Two years ago, the Taiwanese director Chang Jung-chi's (張榮吉) first narrative feature "Touch of the Light" (逆光飛翔 2012) tells an uplifting story about a blind musician and a dancer who follow their dreams. It was selected as Taiwan's foreign-language entry to the Academy Awards. However, his second narrative feature "Partners in Crime" tells a complete different kind of story. Despite its stylish look and fine performances by its cast, the film is neither compelling nor convincing.

    One morning on their way to school, three students run into the body of school-mate Hsiao Wei-chiao (Yao Ai-ning 姚爱宁). The trio are quite different—Huang Li-huai (Wu Chien-ho 巫建和) is a bully victim who desperately wants to make a friend; Yeh Yi-kai (Cheng Kai-yuan 邓育凯) is an athletic popular boy at school; and Lin Yong-chuan (Deng Yu-kai 郑开元) is a nerdy book worm.

    Although they don't know each other earlier, but the horrific tragedy brings them together and creates an unlikely bond. They are determined to find out how Wei-chiao died. Just when they think they are about to find out the truth, the course takes an unexpected turn.

    Partners in Crime Official Site

    The beginning of the film terrifically builds a mysterious atmosphere and introduces its intriguing protagonists. But the film doesn't hold on the momentum and is unable to deliver the final act of the magic. The more twists it adds, the more ludicrous it sounds. In the end, none of these characters hold our interests.

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  • My Fair Wedding (South Korea 2014 | in Korean | 94 min. | Documentary)

    You might have seen plenty same-sex weddings in the US and other countries lately. But I am sure that you have never seen one in South Korea, unless you attended the one and only very public same-sex wedding which was held on the historical Gwangtonggyo Bridge (광통교 廣通橋) on September 7, 2013. The grooms were the Korean filmmaker Kim Jho Gwang-soo (김조광수) and film producer Kim "Dave" Seung-hwan (김승환) who had been together for nine years on that wedding day—D-day.

    The outgoing and vocal couple announced their wedding through press conferences and social media. The director Jang Hee-sun (장희선) documents the couple's process leading to their "D-day" in the documentary "My Fair Wedding" and conducts a series of interviews about the couple's motivation for the wedding and their relationship.

    Despite the 19 years age difference between Gwang-soo and Dave—Gwang-soo was 48 and Dave was 29 at the wedding time—they claimed to be very much in love and wanted to show it to the entire country, even to the world. Yet, the intimacy they expressed on screen seems extremely limited even when they are in private. When they are sitting on a couch during an interview, the space between them is clearly noticeable and their body language shows little affection. That makes me wonder if their wedding is just to put up a show and simply to make a public statement rather than to celebrate their love and commitment.

    My Fair Wedding Official Site

    It's also not a secret that they indeed want their wedding to be an entertainment event and they have a production team to produce the wedding ceremony. Clearly Gwang-soo and Dave were performing at the wedding with an extensive wardrobe (they could have taken some singing lessons). But how much are they performing in front of the camera of this documentary when they talk about themselves? That's hard to grasp.

    But one thing is certain that they do talk like a married couple who nag each other constantly, especially the more outgoing and flamboyant Gwang-soo. They all talk very fast and it's very hard to keep up with the tiny English subtitle. The frequent Korean-style pop-up text not only doesn't explain who is who better, but also becomes distracting and adds more chaos to the busy screen.

    The film is an eye-opening display of the same-sex marriage movement in the socially conservative South Korea. Unfortunately, the over-staged and heavy-orchestrated wedding production overshadows the very message that ceremony tries to deliver.

    I cannot find a trailer for the documentary, but many scenes in the following news footage also can be seen in the film:

    Go back to the list of titles


  • In Her Place (Canada 2014 | in Korean | 115 min.)

    The Korean-Canadian filmmaker Albert Shin's captivating sophomore feature "In Her Place" is a must-see at this year's festival. It patiently unfolds a heartbreaking story that revolves around three unnamed yet mesmerizing women.

    The film opens when a woman (Yoon Da-Kyung 윤다경) and her husband (Kim Kyung-Ik 김경익) arrives in their Mercedes at a modest farm house in a desolate village. A hard-working widowed mother (Kil Hae-Yeon 길해연) lives in the house with her shy teenage daughter (Ahn Ji-hye 안지혜) and a lovely dog. The woman is going to stay with the mother and the daughter for a few months.

    Gradually, it becomes clear that the girl is pregnant by a local boy (Kim Chang-hwan 김창환). To avoid the shame brought by the pregnancy, the mother plans a secret adoption by the woman once the baby is born. Meanwhile, the woman tells her friends that she is away to a relaxing vacation place to give birth.

    It seems a perfect plan to benefit everyone involved if everything goes according to the plan. But "life is full of surprises," as the mother tells the woman at the beginning of the film.

    In Her Place Official Site

    In this beautiful film, the director Albert Shin terrifically captures the complex and overwhelming emotions of his gripping characters. As if to fit the quiet and scenery countryside, he never rushes to explain the plot in his eloquent storytelling. He allows the characters to develop naturally and let the story progress to a stunning climax.

    Superbly performed by three fine Korean actresses, the three arresting protagonists are all good in nature and full of love. But one way or the other, they are also suffering. They are also full of hope, until the hope is crushed.

    Although Ahn Ji-hye (안지혜) is not a professional actress, she made her excellent screen debut playing the girl and wonderfully conveys the girl's inner-world with tremendous sensibility and subtlety.

    This unforgettable film is definitely the best film at this year's festival and is likely to be on my top-ten film list for 2015 even it's only March and nine more months to go.

    Go back to the list of titles


  • My Voice, My Life (爭氣 | Hong Kong 2014 | in Cantonese | 91 min. | Documentary)

    At last year's CAAMFest, Wu Hao's documentary "The Road to Fame" (成名之路 2013) tells a story about a group of talented students from a prestige drama university in China through the casting process of making a musical. This year, Academy Award-winning documentarian Ruby Yang (楊紫燁) brings her new film "My Voice, My Life" to the festival. Although this is also a film about the "making-of-a-musical," but her subjects can't be any more different—they are underprivileged or disabled students from four Hong Kong high schools.

    The film focuses on a few students including a handsome and rebellious Jason Chow who often causes trouble, a shy but optimistic Tsz Nok Lin who became blind last year, an academically challenged Ho Yin "Fat Yin" Hui who learns to communicate with his parents, and a talented Coby Wong who struggles with her self-confidence.

    These kids work hard under the direction and support of dedicated educators to make the musical a tremendous success. Along the process, they come of age and transform themselves and others around them.

    My Voice, My Life Official Site

    The director Ruby Yang is well known for discovering touching stories that reflect the social and economic reality in China which often escape the radar of mass media reporting. Her short film "The Blood of Yingzhou District" (颍州的孩子 2006) won her an Oscar for exposing the devastation of AIDS orphanages in a poor village in Anhui, China.

    This new film is no exception. The voices of these underprivileged teenagers are often buried by the noise of the fast-moving metropolitan life in Hong Kong. The film takes an up-and-close look at these youth and gives them a voice to express themselves, to bring awareness, to ignite hope, and to inspire the audience. It's impossible not to be moved by what these kids were experiencing in the film. When the soft-spoken Tsz Nok gives a heartfelt speech at the end of the musical to tell his mom that he is going to be alright even he becomes blind, there won't be any dry eye in the audience.

    You might not remember what the musical is called ("The Awakening 震動心炫" according to the press material) and what the musical is about (I did recognize a tune from the musical "Les Misérables", but it's not). However, it's the process of making the musical so meaningful for these teenagers and for the audience—thanks to this documentary in bringing the remarkable story to light.

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  • 0.5 mm (0.5 ミリ | Japan 2014 | in Japanese | 198 min.)

    Adopted from her own novel, the Japanese writer-director Andô Momoko's (安藤桃子) second feature "0.5 mm" tells a story about a quirky young woman's unorthodox way to make a living. This could have been a cute entertaining film if the film's running time were cut in half by only keeping the first half of the film.

    The young woman is the happy-go-lucky and clever Sawa (Andô Sakura 安藤サクラ—the director's younger sister) who works as a home care specialist for the elderly. She appears to be very nice and unable to refuse anything, even a very unusual request by her patient's family. However, when that doesn't go as planned, she loses her job and becomes homeless.

    But she quickly finds a new way to survive. Like a hunter with a sharp vision, she can easily spot lonely older men in public places. Once she finds her target, she uses both her charm and her natural-born con artist skill to blackmail these old folks so she is able to find a place to stay.

    Although that makes her sound like a criminal, Sawa is not a bad person at all. Quite contrary, she is caring, funny, and helpful to most of the old men she encounters.

    0.5 mm Official Site

    Sawa certainly is an interesting and colorful character. She could have been more endearing if the director Andô Momoko handled better with her material and cut some of her encounters off the film. It becomes repetitive when the film shows that she meets one old man after another with little connection among them. The routine never ends until more than three hours have passed without any new development to the character.

    Then the tone of the film takes a dramatic turn toward the end, as if the filmmaker cannot figure out a way how to end the film. After three hours, you are probably worn out and don't care what Sawa is doing in the end.

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Friday, February 20, 2015

 

Leviathan (Левиафан)

Leviathan official site Depicting human suffering often results great cinema. If the suffering is not due to a nature disaster, a war, or a religion, but due to government corruption and bureaucracy, it provokes more anger and despair with the audience and more irritation with the authority. That doesn't explain the irony about acclaimed Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev's (Андре́й Звя́гинцев) latest gripping film "Leviathan" (Левиафан | Russia 2014 | in Russian | 141 min.). Its bleak story about a working family's struggle to hang on with their livelihood is a sharp critique to the status quo of Russia's corrupted local government system. Yet, the film is partially financed by the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation, and it's selected as the Russia's entry for the Oscar for best foreign-language film.

The film opens with impeccably framed seashore of Barents Sea in Northern Russia, while Philip Glass's unsettling music score is played in the background. When the music stops, we see a modest home overlooking the sea where abandoned shipwrecks lying around. This is the home of hot-tempered mechanics Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov Алексей Серебряков) who lives with his second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova Елена Лядова) and his teenage son Roman (Sergey Pokhodaev Сергей Походаев) from his first wife. This piece of property also becomes the prey of the corrupted Mayor Vadim Shelevyat (Roman Madianov Роман Мадянов) who wants to build a mansion for himself at this prime location.

In order to fight with the Mayor, Kolya seeks help from his childhood friend Dmitri (Dmitriy Seleznyov Влади́мир Вдовиче́нков) who is a lawyer from Moscow. But during a comical court proceeding, Kolya learns the inevitable that he is no match in combating the unfair system. To make the matter worse, not only he is going to lose the house that his family calls home for generations, but also he is going to face more tragedy in his life.

Leviathan Official Site

In his forth feature, Andrey Zvyagintsev straightforwardly tells a sad story with plenty black humor. It's a sharp contrast to his previous films because this film makes a clear social commentary jabbing at the current Russian society while his previous films kept certain distance from Russia's reality. It pokes fun at flawed justice system and vents the outrage at the grim outlook for ordinary citizens.

I was completely awestruck by Andrey Zvyagintsev's amazing directional debut "The Return" (Возвращение 2003) and I was captivated by his engrossing story in "Elena" (2011). Although I am less overwhelmed by "Leviathan," I am both surprised and impressed when the film unflinchingly zooms in people's lives in today's Russia. Its social relevance and sarcastic tone makes me wonder if Andrey Zvyagintsev was drinking vodka with Jia Zhangke (贾樟柯) all night long before he made this film. The difference is that Andrey Zvyagintsev's film gets selected to represent Russia in the Oscar race, while Jia's "A Touch of Sin" (天注定 2013) cannot be shown in China.

Speaking of vodka, that transparent liquor appears almost in every scene in the film and it is drunk by almost every character, heavily and absurdly. While the vodka creates plenty comic moments, it has less effect on the storytelling than on the bodies of those characters. If I were Russian I would be offended by the stereotype portrait of the heavy drinking tradition in Russia. The subplot about Dmitri is also unfortunate and unconvincing.

Despite the minor flaws, the film achievement is remarkable and its story is devastating. Its striking imagery will linger in your head long than the whale bones on the seashore.

"Leviathan," a Sony Pictures Classics release, opens on Friday, January 20, 2015 in San Francisco Bay Area, and it will win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film on Sunday, January 22, 2015.

(Well, I was wrong, it didn't win.)


Friday, February 6, 2015

 

Red Army

Red Army official site The mix of sports and politics is hardly new in history. Arguably called China's national sport in the '70s, ping-pong thawed the U.S.-China relation. In the formal Soviet Union, ice-hokey is more than a national sport, it's a national pride and a magnet for patriotism, and it's at the center of the directory Gabe Polsky's fascinating and entertaining documentary "Red Army" (USA 2014 | in Russian/English | 85 min.). However, the film's true subject is not about the sport, but about its players—the legendary Red Army Team, and the politics surrounding them. Just like a fast moving ice-hockey game, the filmmaker sleekly presents a remarkable story told by the charismatic team captain Viacheslav "Slava" Fetisov ( Вячеслав "Слава" Фетисов).

Confident, intelligent, cocky, tough, articulate, and funny Slava is more than just a gifted hockey player, he is a national hero. After years of intense training by Viktor Tikhonov, he led his five-member Red Army Team to become the National Team and won numerous titles around the world. The fluid harmony and impeccable coordination they exhibited on ice earned them the reputation as the best hockey team ever existed. The harsh training they received not only intended to build their skill and strength, but also to eliminate their individuality and to melt them into one unbeatable unit.

But that was during the Soviet era while the team's medals were regarded as a vindication of socialist's superiority. When the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991, the team also fell apart. The team's players became hot commodity sought by the National Hockey League (NHL) in the US and Canada. Would they shine their glory like when they were together before?

Red Army Official Site

Born in the US to his Soviet immigrant parents, the filmmaker Gabe Polsky apparently knows his material comprehensively. He seamlessly blends amusing animation with a vast amount of historical footage to clearly and rapidly present the story behind the legendary hockey team. Despite the beautiful and nostalgia melodies (including the most familiar "Подмосковные вечера") in the background, the film isn't about recalling the old time when the Red Army Team ruled on ice. It's a compelling study about the relationship between sport and politics, individualism and collectivism, socialism and capitalism, patriotism and opportunism, loyalty and apostasy. Although the subject matter is ambitions, the film doesn't contain a single dull moment regardless you are a fan of hockey or not, and it has plenty delightful humor, high drama, and surprising excitement.

Slava's candid interviews also greatly contribute to the film's success. His strong personality, his enormous sacrifice, his remarkable talent, and his political instinct made himself a mesmerizing and fascinating character. This film offers a rare opportunity for him to tell his side's story, which is not to be missed.

"Red Army," a Sony Pictures Classics release, opens on Friday, February 6, 2015 in San Francisco Bay Area.


 

The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water

The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water official site If First Lady Michelle Obama's campaign to fight the epidemic of childhood obesity made any progress in children's mind during the past few years, it might all evaporate when these kids flock to theaters with salt and butter soaked popcorn in hand watching "The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water" (USA 2015 | 93 min.). This time-travel 3D adventure is about how sugar brained SpongeBob and his ice-cream addicted pals try hard to get back a stolen recipe for making heart-attack friendly but delicious burgers. The film is probably more effective to advertise burgers to the kids than anything Michelle Obama has been preaching.

The burger is called Krabby Patty, named after a restaurant owner Mr. Krabs (Clancy Brown). Although it sounds like crappy patty, it's a fond delicacy to residents living in Bikini Bottom, an undersea utopia. Krabby Patty's success is due to its secret recipe which is closely guarded by SpongeBob (Tom Kenny).

When Mr. Krabs's rival Plankton (Mr. Lawrence) attempts to steal the secret recipe, SpongeBob fights back, but soon they realize that the recipe is missing. Without Krabby Paddy, the entire Bikini Bottom enters a stage of apocalypse. To save the "world," joined by a starfish Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke), an octopus Squidward (Rodger Bumpass), a squirrel Sandy (Carolyn Lawrence), and Mr. Krabs, SpongeBob comes out the sea into human's world to recover the recipe. To do so, they have to fight a pirate Burger Beard (Antonio Banderas) who may be responsible to the recipe's disappearance.

The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water Official Site

I admit that I have not done my homework, because I have never seen anything about SpongeBob prior to this film. Thus, I certainly don't qualify as a fan of director Paul Tibbitt's bizarre creation of a square faced yellow block, and I can't recognize other strange looking characters either. Yet, the film's humor is amusing, its charm is undeniable, and its animation is dazzling. Obviously, not all jokes is geared toward young children. For example, how many children would smile at a food truck that sells burgers made from the Krabby Patty recipe for $6.99? Things like that distinguish the film from being a 3D version of TV's Saturday-morning cartoon program, so the film can be enjoyed by adults who take the kids to a theater as well.

However, this is still a children's film no matter how many subtle adult jokes are sneaked in. Therefore, its overly structured plot has more layers than a Krabby Patty for a child to consume. Luckily, most kids couldn't care less about it because they are certain to be enchanted by the kindergarten cuteness and lovely animation. It's like a Krabby Patty, even it's loaded with many strange ingredients, kids are going to love it.

That makes me wonder why the First Lady didn't think of making a cartoon film like this to spread her idea about healthy diet. Now it's too late—like the residents living in Bikini Bottom, kids who watch this film might think that a burger is the most delicious food in the world because they believe in SpongeBob more easily than the First Lady. Ops.

"The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water," a Paramount Pictures release, opens on Friday, February 6, 2015.



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