Friday, April 14, 2017

 

The Fate of the Furious

The Fate of the Furious official site If you are a fan of the Fast and Furious franchise, or simply enjoy watching car racing and explosion type of spectacle, nothing can stop you from rushing to the theater and being completely delighted by the latest installment "The Fate of the Furious" (USA 2017 | 136 min.), directed by F. Gary Gray. For the rest, this high-energy film doesn't fail to entertain with its outrageously exhilarating action sequences, amusing characters, and of course, many nice looking cars.

As the first studio film shot in Cuba, the movie opens with an exhilarating car chase on the scenic streets of Havana, where Dom (Vin Diesel) is taking a honeymoon with Letty (Michelle Rodriguez). But Dom is also under surveillance by a poised and capable hacker Cipher (Charlize Theron) who blackmails him into becoming an accomplice against Dom's gang, or the "family" as he calls it.

The ambitious Cipher isn't a small time terrorist. She wants to use Dom's extraordinary talent to acquire nuclear weapons, which she plans to use. A government official Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) and his assistant (Scott Eastwood) recruit muscle men Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Deckard (Jason Statham), who have been holding grudges toward Dom and each other, to join Dom's crew in defeating Cipher's evil plan.

Let the fun begin.

The Fate of the Furious Official Site

Given the jaw-dropping level of action sequences involving cars, trains, tanks, and airplanes in the previous Fast and Furious franchise films, the bar is exceptionally high for this new installment. You wonder what kind of new spectacles the director F. Gary Gray might be able to deliver. It turns out there are plenty.

F. Gary Gray surely doesn't disappoint. Even when you think you have seen enough flying cars in previous films of this franchise, he came up something that is ingenious, hilarious, and awe-striking such as turning cars into zombies. You will chuckle with both the silliness and cleverness of many scenes in the film. When cars and tanks are not enough for him, he deploys a submarine. Despite how inconceivable it sounds, he makes it look fun and as credible as another car chase on the streets.

No one is expecting the actions in this film to pass a reality test, and probably no one cares about such a test either. In fact, you feel content to be able to escape the depressing reality and prefer to be in the middle of a chaotic war zone where the heroines actually fight the Russians. The film is made to entertain its fans and to gain new followers. You cheer when huge fireballs go off one after another; you gasp when cars run through busy sidewalks; and you giggle when the characters throw one liners at each other between their fast moves within split seconds. (How could you forget that insulting line involving teeth and toothbrush?)

In the end, if you feel reluctant to leave the party when the credits start to roll, you will be glad to know that the 9th and 10th installments are already in the works and they are scheduled to be released in 2019 and 2021 respectively.

"The Fate of the Furious," a Universal Pictures release, opens on Friday, April 14, 2017.


Sunday, March 26, 2017

 

The 60th San Francisco International Film Festival (SFFILM Festival)

As if it cannot wait any longer to celebrate its 60th-birthday milestone, the longest running film festival in America, the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFFILM Festival), is held couple of weeks earlier than usual this year, April 5 - April 19, 2017.

This beloved festival has been an iconic fixture in the city's film culture, and a significant element to the city's rich diversity and history. Year after year for six decades, the festival embraces, enriches, and celebrates the creativity and excellence in cinema art, and it affirms that art is essential to us. Now, the festival stands out as a strong voice in resisting the Trump administration's anti-art, anti-culture, and anti-humanity rhetoric.

In this monumental edition, the festival showcases 173 films, including 66 narrative features, 36 documentary features, 75 shorts in 39 languages representing 51 countries and regions.

The 60th San Francisco International Film Festival

Instead of the traditional Thursday, this year the festival opens on a Wednesday, April 5 with writer-director Gillian Robespierre's second feature "Landline" (USA 2017 | 97 min.), a comedy about two sisters from a dysfunctional family in the '90s Manhattan.

A week into the festival, on Wednesday, April 12, the festival's centerpiece presentation features this year's smash hit at Sundance, Geremy Jasper's directorial debut "Patti Cake$" (USA 2017 | 118 min), about a twenty-something hip-hop singer's quest to stardom in New Jersey.

Although the festival runs through April 19, its closing night presentation, "The Green Fog - A San Francisco Fantasia with Kronos Quartet," is scheduled on Sunday, April 16. In this new commission by the SFFILM and Stanford Live, the world-renowned Kronos Quartet will perform composer Jacob Garchik's new score accompanied by a visual collage directed by celebrated filmmaker Guy Maddin and his collaborators Evan Johnson and Galen Johnson. It promises to be an endearing tribute to the city and a love song to the SFFILM Festival's 60th birthday.

Opening Night: Landline Centerpiece: Patti Cake$ Closing Night: The Green Fog - A San Francisco Fantasia

Besides these Big Nights, the Festival groups its films into the following sections:

  • Marquee Presentations includes 12 narratives and 8 documentaries that have recently captured the headlines and populated the social media sphere of independent filmmaking. This year's selections include many award winners at the Sundance Film Festival. Winning the best director award at Sundance, writer-director Eliza Hittman's second feature "Beach Rats" (USA 2016) about a New Jersey teenager is highly anticipated. Also a Sundance winner, Amanda Lipitz's documentary "Step" (USA 2016) about a high school girls step dance team is surely to be an inspiring crowd pleaser.
  • Masters consists of 9 narratives and 1 documentary from a few influential filmmakers around the world. Yes, Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo (홍상수) is back with another episode of soap about man-women relationship in "Yourself and Yours" (당신자신과 당신의 것 | South Korea 2016). The Belgium brothers Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne tell a story about a young doctor who tracks down the identity of a dead woman in "The Unknown Girl" (La fille inconnue | Belgium/France 2016).
  • Golden Gate Award (GGA) Competition nominates 10 narratives, 10 documentary features, and short films in six shorts programs for the generous cash prizes totaling nearly $40,000. Many emerging filmmakers around the world tell compelling stories in this category, even though many stories in this year's films seem gloomy (perhaps reflecting on the stage of the reality around the world).
  • Global Visions assembles 21 narratives and 6 documentaries that give us a taste of the most contemporary world cinema. Japanese writer-director Miwa Nishikawa (西川美和) adapts her own novel into a family drama "The Long Excuse" (永い言い訳 | Japan 2016). The Russian writer-director Kirill Serebrennikov (Кирилл Серебренников) provocatively tells a chilling story about a religious fanatic running amok in "The Student" (Ученик | Russian 2016). Already a winner of a few awards in Asia, Hong Kong director Wong Chun's (黃進) feature directorial debut "Mad World" (一念無明 | Hong Kong 2016) tells a story about a stockbroker with bipolar disorder.
  • Dark Wave has 4 films including one documentary that continue to feed the appetite of midnight horror or kung-fu action thrill seekers.
  • Vanguard shows 4 experimental films including two documentaries that break the norm in watching a film and challenge your brain either in connecting the dots in the filmmakers' storytelling, or in finding those dots in some cases.

Throughout the festival, besides film screenings, there are also awards and special tributes, live & on stage performances, as well as three Master Classes.

The 60th San Francisco International Film Festival takes place April 5 - April 19, 2017 in San Francisco (at the Castro Theater in the Castro; the Dolby Cinema, SFMOMA's Phyllis Wattis Theater, and the YBCA Screening Room around the downtown area; the Alamo Drafthouse, the Roxie Theater, and the Victoria Theatre in the Mission neighborhood), Berkeley (at Pacific Film Archive), and other locations around the Bay Area.

Here are my reviews (or capsule reviews if they are under hold-review status) of a few films at this year's festival. As always, each film's title is linked to the festival program which has the 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:

  • Sieranevada (Romania 2016 | in Romanian | 173 min.)
  • Life After Life (枝繁叶茂 | China 2016 | in Chinese | 80 min.)
  • The Student (Ученик | Russia 2016 | in Russian | 118 min.)
  • Half Life in Fukushima (Switzerland/Japan 2016 | 61 min. | Documentary)
  • The Next Skin (La propera pell | Spain/Switzerland 2016 | in Spanish/French/Catalan | 103 min.)
  • Motherland (USA/Philippines 2016 | in Tagalog | 94 min. | Documentary)
  • Maudie (Ireland/Canada 2016 | 115 min.)

  • Sieranevada (Romania 2016 | in Romanian | 173 min.)

    If you think your Thanksgiving dinner gathering is too dramatic to endure, wait until you sit through almost three hours of Romanian writer-director Cristi Puiu's "Sieranevada" (Romania 2016 | in Romanian | 173 min.) in which an extended family gathers to commemorate the death of a family member.

    Forty days after the death of Emil, father of neurologist Larry (Mimi Branescu), Emil's wife Nusa (Dana Dogaru) summons the entire family back to her small apartment for a ritual that is administered by a priest and followed by a feast.

    Even before Lary arrives at the apartment, his argument already started in the car with his wife about trivial matters. And once he enters the apartment, other people's non-stop arguments completely take over. While waiting for the delayed priest to come, they argue just about everything from 9/11 to communism and from adultery to suit sizes. I am sure Trump would be included in the discussion if the film were made today. The priest comes and goes, but the arguments never stop.

    After almost three hours, by the time they can finally sit down to have some food, they look exhausted, just like the viewers. Then they get up again because new crises arise. What's new?

    Sieranevada Official Site

    Like a little kid that has been dropped off at the intersection of a busy market, the film's camera is often placed in the central corridor of the apartment. What a place to be! The doors of different room open and shut constantly, and people get in and out while talking without a break. You are dazzled by the carefully orchestrated chaos. If you surrender to your patience, you will eventually learn many details about these characters.

    Perhaps the chaotic family gathering is a metaphor for today's society in Romania. Much of these characters' arguments appear to be blown out of proportion and result in little resolution. Sometimes the quarrels don't make sense, just like the film's title that the director Cristi Puiu randomly made up. Life can often be messy and you need to patiently wait for your family dinner to be over; Cristi Puiu skillfully makes that point with this film by purposely stretching-out its length.

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  • Life After Life (枝繁叶茂 | China 2016 | in Chinese | 80 min.)

    Many people believe in the doctrine that after death, one's soul will come back to life by reincarnate anew in the body of another human or animal. That's what the English title refers to in Zhang Hanyi's (张撼依) directorial debut "Life After Life" (枝繁叶茂 | China 2016 | in Chinese | 80 min.). This gloomy slow-paced film follows an unusual quest of a pair of father and son, plus the ghost spirit of the dead mother in an remote village in China. However, it neither has the philosophical depth of "After Life" (Japan 1998), nor provides any new outlook about contemporary China.

    On a gray winter day in a small village surrounded by heavy industries and mining, Mingchun (Zhang Mingjun) and his discontent son Leilei (Zhang Li) collect branches in the woods to heat their crumbling house. Then the script on the screen tells us that the soul of Leilei's deceased mother Xiuying suddenly possesses Leilei's body. Leilei's voice changes to Xiuying's and Mingchun starts to communicate with the soul of his wife who died young in an accident.

    Xiuying feels sad about the disappearing of their village and asks Mingchun to preserve the tree in the yard that they had planted when they got married. To fulfill her wish, Mingchun makes extra effort to relocate the tree with Leilei/Xiuying in a desolate rural landscape.

    Life After Life Official Site

    In addition to the depressing yellow and gray hue that reflects the mind-set of his characters, the director Zhang Hanyi frequently uses long shots from a distance to quietly observe his characters. That certainly creates a grim look, but it also keeps us detached from these characters. As a result, it's almost impossible to make any emotional connection to these characters. The viewers become merely onlookers who are just passing by.

    Yes, China is changing rapidly, including the rural regions. As a consequence, such changes have taken a devastating toll to the environment and traditional culture. The lives of millions similar to Mingchun and Leilei have been changed forever, for better or worse. However, we are able to witness all of it in plain sight even without the perspective from a ghost.

    The film's Chinese title "枝繁叶茂" means "profuse branches and bountiful leaves"—often used to describe a thriving and prosperous family. Obviously Mingchun's family presents anything but. Replanting the tree may not bring significant changes to Mingchun and Leilei's lives, but it might plant a little hope for a better future.

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  • The Student (Ученик | Russia 2016 | in Russian | 118 min.)

    Religious fanatics are not hard to find, just go to a war zone nowadays. But one who is a teenager in a Russian high school? That's exactly what Russian writer-director Kirill Serebrennikov (Кирилл Серебренников) portrays in his latest captivating film "The Student" (Ученик | Russia 2016 | in Russian | 118 min.).

    The Student Official Site

    When Veniamin (Pyotr Skvortsov is asked why he refused to go to swimming class, his answer is that it is due to his religion. He isn't kidding. With a bible in hand, he provokes debates in school while citing scriptures as his reasoning. He declares war on anyone who disagrees with his ideology, especially a determined atheist teacher Elena (Viktoriya Isakova).

    From start to finish, the director Kirill Serebrennikov unflinchingly confronts the issue and tells an extraordinary story with arresting performance from a fine cast.

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  • Half Life in Fukushima (Switzerland/Japan 2016 | 61 min. | Documentary)

    It has been five years since the devastating Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster happened, and there is still no relief in sight. Extraordinarily, some people still live in the highly contaminated red zone. A striking "Half Life in Fukushima" (Switzerland/Japan 2016 | 61 min.) from directors Mark Olexa Francesca Scalisi provides us with a rare look into the post-apocalyptic region and the lives that remain.

    Naoto Matsumura and his aging father perhaps are the only ones left in the radioactive zone after everybody else fled following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. Even though there seem to be nobody on those once thriving streets, he patiently waits for the traffic lights to change at an intersection, perhaps to retain a little sense of normalcy. He occasionally feeds the starving livestock with the limited food he can find, and attends to the neglected grave-yard of his ancestors.

    Half Life in Fukushima Official Site

    Even though the filmmakers surprisingly accessed the forbidden dangerous zone, they seem to be unable to get more stories out of their main subject, Naoto, as if he has put up an emotional red-zone himself. We know little about his family and his past, or the motivation for him to remain in the radioactive zone without regard for any health concerns.

    It looks bleak no matter which direction Naoto turns. Even the sound of the ocean resembles an elegy being sung. What have they done to his hometown? What's next? Has any lesson been learned? Is there any hope for the future?

    No one has an answer.

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  • The Next Skin (La propera pell | Spain/Switzerland 2016 | in Spanish/French/Catalan | 103 min.)

    Even though you have to take a leap of faith to believe the setup, you won't be able to escape the engrossing storytelling in "The Next Skin" (La propera pell | Spain/Switzerland 2016 | in Spanish/French/Catalan | 103 min.), co-directed by Isa Campo and Isaki Lacuesta. You can't help but to speculate constantly about what the truth really is beneath the inked skin of the enigmatic teenage protagonist.

    Troubled 17-year-old Léo (a little older looking but a terrific Àlex Monner) has been suffering from amnesia since he became a missing child eight years ago. When his social worker Michel (Bruno Todeschini) tells him that they have found his mom Ana (Emma Suárez) in a ski mountain town in the gorgeous Pyrenees in Spain and that his name was actually Gabriel, Léo is nervous about the reunion because he doesn't remember his mom, his family, his hometown, and what happened eight years ago.

    Judging from Léo's presence, if you suspect whether Léo actually has amnesia, you are not alone. Ana's brother-in-law Enric (Sergi López) also thinks Léo is an impostor and not the real Gabriel who went missing, and wants him to go away and leave Ana and the family alone. However, Léo seems to remember Enric's son Joan (Igor Szpakowski) very well from their childhood, perhaps for some personal reason.

    The Next Skin Official Site

    Is Léo really Gabriel? The film intentionally makes you ask that question and playfully makes it more and more ambiguous as the story unfolds. Meanwhile, the more we know about the personalities and secrets of these characters, the more questions are raised as the air of truth becomes foggier.

    Watching this film is like watching a well-delivered magic performance, while you are intrigued by what happens during the show, you are also entertained, despite the fact that you know too well that you have been tricked.

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  • Motherland (USA/Philippines 2016 | in Tagalog | 94 min. | Documentary)

    Five years ago on the closing night of the 55th SFFILM Festival, documentarian Ramona S. Diaz brought down the Castro Theater with her energetic "Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey" (USA 2011) which tells an extraordinary story about a Filipino singer Arnel Pineda. Now she returns the festival with an arresting "Motherland" (USA/Philippines 2016 | in Tagalog | 94 min. | Documentary). With compassion and empathy, the film gives us a jaw-dropping and intimate look at the operation behind the walls of the Dr. Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital in Manila, nicknamed "Baby Factory."

    Motherland Official Site

    On any given day, the hospital delivers 60 to 100 babies for the poor. It's remarkable to see how the doctors and nurses move smoothly to care for these women in a chaotic environment. What's even more remarkable is the compelling stories about a few new mothers who deal with poverty and hardship while facing the new daunting challenge of caring for and raising their new-born babies.

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  • Maudie (Ireland/Canada 2016 | 115 min.)

    Without any doubt, Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis's life story is nothing but extraordinary, and her story is affectionately presented in the biopic "Maudie" (Ireland/Canada 2016 | 115 min.), directed by Aisling Walsh. A warm, talented, and strong-willed Maud Lewis is exceptionally performed by Sally Hawkins, who deserves another Oscar nomination.

    Maudie Official Site

    The film chronicles the adult life of Maud (Sally Hawkins), who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis. After she responded a help-wanted flier, she moves in to the shabby house of rugged fish-delivery man Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke), who speaks short sentences in a deep voice like Billy Bob Thornton in "Sling Blade" (1996). Gradually, Maud warms Everett's heart. They find comfort in each other's company and get married. Meanwhile, Maud gains fame as her painting becomes more and more popular.

    In addition to telling a remarkable story about the duo, the film provides a canvas for Sally Hawkins to convincingly portray the heart and soul of Maud. Her performance is everything worth seeing about this arresting film.

    As part of the tribute to Ethan Hawke, the film's screening is followed by a conversation with Ethan Hawke on stage about his career.

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Thursday, March 9, 2017

 

CAAMFest 2017

We are in an unprecedented era characterized by the turmoil of alt-right movement, refugee crises, racial tension, widened inequality, terrorist threats, and environmental disasters around the world. Promoted by the disturbing Trump administration, the xenophobic and hateful "climate of fanaticism and nationalism" poses great threat to democracy, freedom, liberty, and even humanity. It's more urgent now than ever for us to learn lessons from history, to cherish our multi-culture heritage, to remember the struggles of immigrants, and to stand up and resist the outrageous conduct by the Trump administration against the underrepresented and underserved. It cannot be more relevant and timely to celebrate American history, Asian heritage and Asian immigrants, and participate in the most current edition of CAAMFest, to be held in San Francisco and Oakland March 9-19, 2017.

CAAMFest 2017

Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) has been a leading force in bringing Asian Americans' stories to light and conveying the richness and diversity of the Asian American experience to the public. For the fifth year, or the thirty-fifth year if you count the festival's former name San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, CAAMFest 2017 once again offers eleven days of film, music, and food. While it looks back and screens a few milestone Asian American films, the festival continues to provide a platform that exhibits CAAM's productions, tells compelling Asian American stories, and showcases new works by both Asian American filmmakers and artists from Asia.

On March 9 at the Castro Theater, the festival opens with Lena Khan's directorial debut "The Tiger Hunter" (USA 2016 | 94 min.), a comedy about an Indian immigrant who landed in Chicago back in 1970. Ten days later on March 19, the festival returns to the Castro Theater and closes with an informative documentary "The Chinese Exclusion Act" (USA 2017 | 130 min.) that chronicles the notorious Chinese Exclusion Act which echoes today's headlines.

In between, along with music and food, the festival screens 113 films and videos, including 22 feature narrative films, 26 feature documentaries, and 6 shorts programs.

Here are my reviews (or capsule review if they are under hold-review status) of a few films, mostly in my favorite CinemAsia section, in this year's program. 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:


  • Hang in There, Kids! (只要我長大 | Taiwan 2016 | in Mandarin/Atayal | 90 min.)

    Taiwanese writer-director Laha Mebow's (陳潔瑤) sophomore feature "Hang in There, Kids!" (只要我長大) is a pleasing charmer. It's probably the most delightful film you will see at this year's CAAMFest. It warms your heart, brings out your smile, and moistens your eyes. It's Taiwan's entry for this year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. With amiable lenses and an adoring tone, the film tells an arresting story surrounding three irresistible boys living in an indigenous tribe in a gorgeous mountain.

    Wadan (Buya Watan 陳宇) is the most naughty and cheerful one among the trio. He is the natural leader for any mischief or noble mission the three can come up with. He also has a big crush on his wheel-chair bound teacher La-wa (Albee Huang 小薰). Chen-hao (Watan Silan 林晨皓) is the kind and quiet one who has a big plan during his school field trip to Taipei. The third is the goofball Lin Shan (Suyan Pito 吳瀚業) who wishes his alcoholic musician father (Mudi 柯曉龍) could stop drinking.

    The three young boys often goof around and seem to be happily growing up in a picturesque mountain, but each of them struggles with their own emotional burden that is too heavy for an innocent mind to bear.

    Hang in There, Kids! Official Site

    The director Laha Mebow tells a touching and arresting story about life in an indigenous tribe, while creating three adorable young characters who begin to learn the complexity of growing up. She provokes our sympathy toward the boys without being sentimental. She takes us for a joy ride with the boys' carefree attitude, at least that's the mentality the young characters are trying to project. She terrifically captures the stunningly natural performances by the three young actors who effortless convey the emotions of their characters.

    This film will bring back fond memories of your childhood. But if you are as young as the characters in the film, the film probably resonates you even more.

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  • Harmonium (淵に立つ | Japan 2016 | in Japanese | 116 min.)

    Unlike his offbeat and hilarious comedy "Hospitalité" (歓待 2010), writer-director Koji Fukada's (深田晃司) captivating new drama "Harmonium" carries a dark and heavy tone about vengeance and atonement.

    Reticent Toshio (Kenji Yamauchi) has little to say to his wife Akié (Mariko Tsutsui) and his daughter Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa), but they nevertheless seem to get along alright with their quiet family life. But when Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano suddenly shows up at the door of Toshio's shop, Toshio breaks his silence and tells Akié that Yasaka will be a live-in employee to work in his shop.

    That's the beginning of a series of chain events that spin out of control when more and more secrets are revealed.

    Harmonium Official Site

    Despite the fact that a few plot twists are too coincidental to be convincing, the characters are finely crafted and superbly performed. The film unfolds a family tale with the gravity of a Greek tragedy.

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  • Plastic China (China 2016 | in Chinese | 82 min. | Documentary)

    When you make yourself feel better by recycling your daily plastic waste, do you know where those plastic eventually ends up? The opening scene of director Wang Jiuliang's (王久良) heart-wrenching documentary "Plastic China" shows you that they probably arrive in China which is the largest importer of plastic waste from Korean, Japan, and the United States. Plastic waste, even when "recycled," continues its legacy to further damage the environment and ruin people's lives.

    Upon arrival in China, the enormous amount of plastic waste is divided up and a small portion of it arrives at Kun's home in a village in Shandong Province. It seems every household in the village is doing the same kind of work—while polluting the air and water-way, they cruelly process plastic waste and turn it into reusable raw material to make a marginal profit. He works hard along with his wife and his mother hoping to provide a better future for his young son. Kun also hires a migrant worker Peng and Peng's pregnant wife with a minimal wage that Peng often spends on booze.

    Day after day, they work and live inside this disgusting pile of plastic waste while inhaling the toxic fume from plastic burning. However, they are not the only ones in this extremely hazardous environment. Kun's young son and Peng's three young children literally grow up among the dirty plastic. As soon as Peng's new born daughter arrives, her life is surrounded by plastic waste. Peng's eldest daughter dreams about going to school, but Peng refuses because he cannot afford it.

    Like the constantly arriving plastic waste, their misery appears to have no end in sight.

    Plastic China Official Site

    The director Wang Jiuliang takes us to a place that's usually invisible. He zooms in his camera to the two families that struggle to make a living on plastic waste that people discard every day without giving much thought. On a very micro level, this unflinching documentary tackles the devastating environmental problem due to massive usage of plastic that impacts the lives of future generations.

    On the surface, plastic waste seems to provide these families a livelihood. But in reality, plastic is destroying their lives, especially their health. If the plastic were not there, the two families could have been doing something else for a living, perhaps less harmful.

    The images of the film alone will make you sick to the stomach just by simply looking at them, not to mention the thought of those children living in that reality. That is precisely why this film is a must-see and it's too important to be missed at the festival.

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  • My Next Step (一個武生 | China/Hong Kong 2015 | in Mandarin | 66 min. | Documentary)

    Even though most millennials enjoy singing karaoke, probably none of them will choose to sing a tune in Kunqu (昆曲), one of the oldest form of traditional Chinese opera that is regarded as an Intangible Heritage of Humanity. In this modern day and age, it may be hard to imagine that a young man will pursue Kunqu as a life-long career. Understandably, 28-year-old Yang Yang faces a difficult dilemma about his future. He is the last Wusheng (a male performer specializing in martial arts characters) performer in China and the subject in Cheuk Cheung's (卓翔) documentary "My Next Step" (一個武生).

    If Yang Yang were born decades ago, being a Wusheng in a prominent Kunqu Opera company in China would have been a stable and glamorous job. But in today's rapidly changing China, Kunqu is losing its appeal to the newer generations. Only a handful of artists remain full-time professional performers of Kunqu that keep this ancient art form from being extinct. But these artists are struggling themselves. Yang Yang is no exception. The outlook of his career path seems grim. He begins to look for an opportunity to exit, despite that he is marked as the last Wesheng in today's China, a claim that deserves a fact check.

    Although not always eloquent, Yang Yang candidly talks about the future of Kunqu from his perspective and expresses his desire and ambition in making art. Eventually, he finds his own way in making the old art anew.

    My Next Step Official Site

    This is director Cheuk Cheung's second documentary after "My Way" (乾旦路 2012), a story about two male Dan (男旦 a male performer in a female role) actors in Cantonese Opera (粤剧). By making this documentary, he continues to shed light on traditional Chinese opera performers that are as intangible as the art itself. He effectively shows that without a systematic funding support from the government, it's simply unsustainable for these treasures to thrive when their artists can barely survive. Yang Yang is a vivid testimony to the urgency of saving Kunqu and other world cultural heritage. Hopefully this plea for awareness is not overshadowed by the fact that film itself could benefit from better writing and editing. (No Trailer is available.)

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  • The Chinese Exclusion Act (USA 2017 | 130 min. | Documentary)

    Some of the recent shenanigans from the Trump administration strikingly resemble a singularly notorious law in US history that bared immigration from a specific ethnic group—the Chinese Exclusion Act. Although it was repealed in 1943, 61 years after being signed into law, its lasting impact remains significant today and it becomes more relevant than ever. Directors Ric Burns and Yu Li-Shin's new documentary "The Chinese Exclusion Act" offers us a timely history lesson and reflects on how this outrageous law shapes today's America.

    Through thoughtful and enlightening interviews of historians and scholars, the film chronicles the rise and fall of the Chinese Exclusion Act, analyzes the social and economical background behind the anti-Chinese sentiment when the law was introduced, and explains the legacy of the fights for justice by Chinese immigrants. Accompanied by historic political cartoon and archived footage, the film vividly brings us back to more than a century ago when the political atmosphere was remarkably similar to today's political struggle.

    The Chinese Exclusion Act Official Site

    As if sitting through an important lecture, you will gain a great amount of knowledge about the Chinese Exclusion Act if you pay attention. However, the visual aid could be improved to make the lecture more captivating. It is no surprise how difficult it is to obtain historic film footage, but the slow-moving camera gliding over photos (sometimes even on the same photo) becomes tiresome and distracting quickly. The large amount of interviews also could have been further organized to be more coherent and compelling.

    Despite these imperfections, the film delivers its core message loud and clear—history has taught us that discriminating and marginalizing people according to their ethnicity is downright wrong. It's against the fundamental value upon which this nation was founded. It's un-American.

    This film should be a requirement in every school's curriculum, and a required lesson for every one currently in the White House.

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  • The Family (家 | Australia/China 2015 | in Chinese | 280 min.)

    If you can win over your patience and sit through almost five hours of film, you will learn a great deal about today's China through the lenses of Liu Shumin (刘庶民) in his directorial debut "The Family" (家 | Australia/China 2015 | in Chinese | 280 min.). This slow-burn film focuses on an elderly couple and follows their visit to their adult children, and takes a long exposure shot of life in modern China.

    The soft-spoken elderly couple are the constantly cooking Deng Shoufang and her husband Liu Liu Lijie, both in their 70s. In a shabby apartment in Jiangxi Province, they live with their eldest daughter Liqin Huang Liqin, a single mother with a teenage son Pengpeng (Liao Zepeng).

    Like many Chinese families in China, they plan to move to a new apartment Liqin has just bought in the outskirt of the city. Before they move in, they need to finish the interior construction which needs more money. Living on modest pensions, the couple decides to seek other family members for help. They take a trip to visit their two other children whom they make connections with infrequently—the younger daughter Xiaomin (Liu Xiaomin) in Fuzhou and their son Xujun (Liu Xujun) in Shanghai.

    The couple's journey serves as a thin thread that barely holds the family together.

    The Family Official Site

    The film's plot has been compared to the story line in Ozu Yasujirō's (小津 安二郎) masterpiece "Tokyo Story" (東京物語 1953), but the storytelling style reminds us of auteur Tsai Ming-liang (蔡明亮) who frequently uses extremely long takes. Sometimes you wonder if a camera was left on by mistake, but that's precisely how the cinematographer-turned-director Liu Shumin wants you to experience his story. For some, it might be unbearable; but for others, it might be embraced with enthusiasm.

    Remarkably realistic, the film cuts deep into the family dilemma and reflects the complex relationships among generations in modern China. You may argue that same result could be achieved within a typical running time of less than two hours. Obviously, the writer-director has his own vision and insists on showing the entirety of what his camera is capturing.

    While the non-professional cast gives a reasonable performance, the characters they play appear to be difficult to be related to. The voyeur camera often keeps us as on-lookers from a distance or behind obstructions, while challenging our patience.

    Nevertheless, the film will probably inspire you to watch "Tokyo Story" again, and remind you what a timeless masterpiece that movie was.

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Friday, March 3, 2017

 

Land of Mine (Under sandet)

Land of Mine official site War does not only destroy lives and infrastructure, but it also provokes hatred and wipes out empathy. But despite the amount of demons war might bring out of people, there is still hope for humanity to sustain. That's what Danish writer-director Martin Zandvliet terrifically demonstrates in his World War II drama "Land of Mine" (Under sandet | Denmark/Germany 2016 | in Danish/German | 101 min.). This thrillingly captivating and profoundly emotional film definitely deserves its nomination for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, and it should be given the trophy.

The story is based on little known events that people would rather forget. After five years of German occupation, Denmark was liberated by the Allies. However, under the sand of its coastal beaches, Denmark was left with more than two million land mines that Germany had buried in order to fend off possible Allies invasions. The British and the Danish decided to use German POWs to defuse the land mines during May-October 1945. 2600 Germans, many of them as young as 13 years old, were forced to clear the land mines on the sandy beaches and half of them were killed or injured.

Enraged by the German occupation, hot tempered Sgt. Carl Rasmussen (Roland Møller) has nothing left but hatred toward the Germans. When he is given a group of German teenagers to get rid of 75000 land mines on a deserted beach, he does not hesitate to take his vengeance on these young boys, even though their innocent looks may not reflect heinous crimes that the Nazis have committed. He locks them up at night and herds them to the danger zone during the day.

The boys have little experience or knowledge about defusing land mines, and they are given little food to survive, provided that they have not been blown away by mines. Sebastian Schumann (Louis Hofmann) emerges as a natural leader of the bunch and offers some comfort to a dreamy Wilhelm Hahn (Leon Seidel) and the inseparable twins Ernest (Emil Belton) and Werner Lessner (Oskar Belton). Through the terrible ordeal, some of them remain hopeful of returning home after they are done, although the hostile Helmut Morbach (Joel Basman) seems more realistic about the outlook.

The war continues when it has ended.

Land of Mine Official Site

The writer-director Martin Zandvliet superbly creates a thrilling atmosphere following every step of these boys. We normally see the brutality of Nazis in World War II movies, but in this film, he turns the table around and shows us how the POW is miserably treated after the devastating war expunges any compassion one might have. Even though the story seems straightforward, the film is incredibly suspenseful and its intensity is almost unbearable at times.

Roland Møller subtly and convincingly depicts the transformation in Carl's mindset and the awakening of his humanity. The fine group of young actors also give an outstanding performance as the battered teenagers who keep up their hopes and dreams about their future, despite the inhumane treatments while performing a daunting task. When the film unfolds each heartbroken moment without sentiment, we have to wonder how human beings could do such horrible things to each other during, and after, the war.

There is no winner in a war, except hatred. All we can do is to learn from the past and not let the evil episode repeat. We can only hope, just like those German teenagers in this film.

"Land of Mine," a Sony Pictures Classics release, San Francisco Bay Area on Friday, March 3rd, 2017.



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