Friday, May 24, 2019
The aspiring film-school student is Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) who enjoys hanging out with her classmates and talking about filmmaking and music in her apartment. Then the mysterious Anthony (Tom Burke) appears in the film for the first time in a fancy hotel lobby next to a chilled bottle of champagne. With his back facing us for quite a while and a cigarette between his fingers all the time, he offers advice and makes commentaries about art while Julie listens with rapt attention and admiration. From that moment on, Anthony becomes an influential figure in Julie's life.
Anthony claims that he works for a Foreign Office, whatever that is. But strangely, he asks to stay at Julie's place for a few days not long after they met. Of course, Julie agrees and their relationship deepens into a love affair. Despite having become lovers, Anthony remains enigmatic about who he is and what he does. He often asks Julie for money on his way out of the apartment, even though Julie has to ask her mother Rosalind (Tilda Swinton, who is actually the mother of Honor Swinton Byrne in real life) for money to get by. As the story unfolds, it becomes more and more clear that Anthony is the type of guy any woman should stay away from. Yet, for reasons unexplained, Julie is incomprehensibly and emotionally attached to Anthony and yields to all of his demands.
This film is based on Joanna Hogg's memory from her younger years. Using her signature style of long takes and letting her casts improvise the conversations, the director strikingly recreates her intimate experiences in the '80s. Like dreams floating in and out of consciousness, the film's scenes don't have a conventional sequential flow of events, nor do they provide any prior knowledge to explain the happenings. Thus, it's quite challenging to figure out what's going on, if it can be figured out at all.
Before shooting each scene, Honor Swinton Byrne was reportedly to arrive on the set without knowing what's coming, but she is absolutely fantastic playing the vulnerable yet aspiring young woman. Meanwhile, in the film, Tom Burke never stops smoking and irritating us, except Julie, as the arrogant Anthony.
The film's title refers to the French painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard's oil painting titled "The Souvenir," which played a role in the relationship between Julie and Anthony. But it is also fitting to characterize each scene of the film as a souvenir that the filmmaker acquires when she travels down her memory lane. Every piece of collected souvenirs must be extremely important and personal to her. But instead of holding them dear at a special private place, they are shared with us strangers who have no background knowledge about them or why they changed her life. Perhaps for some of us, the best we can do is to nod at the filmmaker politely—thanks for sharing.
Friday, May 17, 2019
The Sun Is Also a Star
The fairy-tale begins with a narration about how insignificant we are to the universe, explained by the sharp-minded Natasha Kingsley (Yara Shahidi). But besides the philosophical deep thought, she also faces a more burning issue—her family will be deported back to Jamaica within 24 hours, even though she has regarded New York City as her only home where she has spent most of her teenage years.
In another part of the city, the square-jawed handsome Korean-American Daniel Bae (Charles Melton) is about to zip up his shirt to cover up his six-pack abs and to go for a college admission interview. Although his parents wish for him to become a doctor, his real passion is to be a poet.
On his way to his interview, Daniel spots Natasha gazing at the stars painted on the ceiling in Grand Central Station. Love at first sight, the overly confident Daniel promises Natasha that she will fall in love with him if she gives him a day. But Natasha doesn't have a day because her family's immigration case is closed, and her parents are waiting for her to go home and pack for next day's flight.
Will the attractive couple beat the odds and fall in love on the Big Apple's streets in less than one day?
As far as the film's dreamy story goes, of course anything seemingly impossible can happen. They not only fall in love, but also have time to go to museums, sing karaoke, attend appointments, and even meet the parents. New Yorkers often give others the impression of being in a hurry, but these two teenagers seem pretty relaxed, enjoying their romance and roaming around the city while being extremely efficient.
If you can forgive the holes in the logistics and many cheesy one-liners, and simply focus on the irresistible couple's charming performance instead, you might just begin to believe the fairy-tale. As if the two charismatic protagonists are not beautiful enough for you to adore, the film constantly cuts in dazzling views of New York City from the air and on the ground, regardless if they have anything to do with the story. It makes you wonder if this is a co-production from the New York Tourism Office.
The film's production is actually coming from a major Hollywood studio. After the incredible success of "Crazy Rich Asians" (USA 2018), it's encouraging to see Warner Bros. on board again for another romantic film featuring an Asian actor as the lead, even though the 28-year-old Charles Melton looks far from a teenager. Besides giving romantic comedy some welcoming fresh faces, this film offers a pleasant escape from the dire reality.
Thursday, May 2, 2019
During May 9-19, this year's festival presents over a hundred films and programs in San Francisco and Oakland. Among the films in this edition, there are 15 feature narratives, 20 feature documentaries, and eight short programs. (Click on each still image for screening information of each corresponding film or event.)
Same as last year, this year's film screenings mainly take place in San Francisco at AMC Kabuki 8 and New People Cinema in Japantown, as well as the Roxie Theater in the Mission, and in Oakland at the Piedmont Theater.
On Thursday, May 9 at the Castro Theater, the festival opens with a documentary "Chinatown Rising" (USA 2019 | 112 min. | Documentary) about Chinese community's struggle for social justice in the '60s in San Francisco Chinatown. The film is directed by the Bay-area father-son team Harry Chuck and Josh Chuck.
Eleven days later on May 19, the festival closes with Deann Borshay Liem's documentary "Geographies of Kinship" (USA 2019 | 80 min. | Documentary) about the history of the Korean adoption model which has a profound lasting impact.
There are two centerpiece presentations. One is the director Diane Paragas's musical "Yellow Rose" (USA 2019 | in English/Tagalog | 90 minutes) about a 17-year-old Filipino transgender girl who dreams to be a country singer. The other is Jason DaSilva's documentary "When We Walk" (Canada 2019 | 78 min. | Documentary). As part of his trilogy that depicts his struggle with multiple sclerosis, this film focuses on the inequality faced by parents with disabilities.
The festival also shines spotlight on two woman filmmakers Deann Borshay Liem and Valerie Soe, celebrates the 25th anniversary of "The Joy Luck Club" (USA/China 1993 | in Mandarin/English | 139 min.) with a free screening at Waverly Place, and pays tribute to the centennial anniversary of the silent film "The Dragon Painter" (USA 1919 | 53 min.) with a screening accompanied by live music score performance from Japanese American singer-songwriter Goh Nakamura.
Here are my reviews (or capsule reviews if they are under hold-review status) of a few films. In random order:
- Bei Bei (State v. Shuai | USA 2018 | in English/Mandarin | 90 min. | Documentary)
- Go Back to China (USA 2019 | in English/Mandarin | 96 min.)
- The Widowed Witch (北方一片苍茫 | China 2017 | in Mandarin | 120 min.)
- Happy Cleaners (USA 2019 | in Korean/English | 98 min.)
- Demolition Girl (JKエレジー | Japan 2018 | in Japanese | 88 min.)
Bei Bei (State v. Shuai | USA 2018 |
in English/Mandarin | 90 min. | Documentary)
If a pregnant woman tries to commit suicide, does her action constitute a murder against the fetus? The State of Indiana thinks so. A legal fight for the murder charge is at the center of the engrossing documentary "Bei Bei" (State v. Shuai | USA 2018 | in English/Mandarin | 90 min. | Documentary), directed by Marion Lipshutz and Rose Rosenblatt.
The film opens with a suicide note written in Chinese by Shuai Bei Bei (帅贝贝), an 8-month-pregnant immigrant from Shanghai, China working in a Chinese restaurant in Indianapolis, IN. In the letter, she expresses her despair after her much older boyfriend left her. She wants to leave this world with her unborn child. Even though her suicide attempt fails, her premature baby dies three days after. Based on a new state law in Indiana, Bei Bei is charged for first-degree murder and put in jail without bond for more than a year and half. Upon release from jail on bond, Bei Bei's uphill legal battle begins, supported by the legal team led by Linda Pence, a fierce and passionate lawyer for women's right.
The film's superb storytelling builds multiple suspenseful episodes while clearly explaining the legal matters as well as the political and moral dilemma. It goes beyond the case and explores Bei Bei's Chinese cultural background which had a significant effect on her suicide attempt. It shows how much more complex it is for an immigrant to navigate the American legal system which wants to make an example of her for other pregnant women. Bei Bei is extremely lucky to have Linda Pence as her lawyer, but many others, especially the poor women and women of color, are facing similar charges in many states and do not have competent legal representation.
This timely film captures the bitter culture war that shapes the political landscape day by day and dramatically impacts people's lives.
Go Back to China (USA 2019 | in
English/Mandarin | 96 min.)
The poorly chosen title "Go Back to China" (USA 2019 | in English/Mandarin | 96 min.) might give people the impression that this film is about immigration or racial issues. No, it's none of those. This film, from the director Emily Ting, tells her fictionalized personal experience of going back to China to work in her family's toy factory after living in Los Angeles most of her life. Like those toys the protagonist designs and produces, the film looks cute with ably performances, but it lacks substance with its unconvincing characters and overflowing cliches.
The Widowed Witch
| China 2017 | in Mandarin | 120 min.)
The film's protagonist is Erhao (Tian Tian) who is considered a curse by other villagers, because she has already lost three husbands at her young age. After her latest husband died in an explosion at their family fireworks factory, she gets cold shoulders from others when she tries to survive with her late husband's mute teenage brother Shitou (Wen Xinyu). When she turns a couple of things around in the village for the better, superstitious villagers begin to regard her as a shaman and ask her to bring good luck to them. Erhao certainly knows how to use that perception for her advantage. She travels from village to village and makes a living by offering her blessing service. However, whether she truly has the superpower to change her fate remains to be seen.
Does Erhao really possess superpower? Or is it all pure illusion? As if the story is not intriguing enough, the film is almost entirely shot in black and white and in an Academy aspect ratio. Once in a while, a little color sneaks into the frame, often only on a specific object such as fire. The effect is both enigmatic and alluring.
The relationships between Erhao and the villagers are both dynamic and fascinating. Perhaps the true superpower Erhao has is the humanity and kindness in her heart, despite the mistreatments and suffering she endures.
Happy Cleaners (USA 2019 | in Korean/English | 98 min.)
Although generational gaps and conflicts are common in every race, community, and family, they are more prominent for Asian immigrants living in the US with unique characteristics. Superbly directed by Julian Kim and Peter S. Lee, "Happy Cleaners" tells an authentic and heartfelt story about a Korean family that deals with such conflicts while strengthening the family bond. The terrific ensemble cast impeccably creates these arresting characters that most Asian immigrants can easily resonate with.
Mr. Choi (Charles Ryu) and Mrs. Choi (Hyang-hwa Lim) have been running their family dry-cleaning business Happy Cleaners in Flushing, NY for seventeen years. They don't approve of their daughter Hyunny's (Yeena Sung) relationship with her boyfriend and they are even more furious about their son Kevin's (Yun Jeong) idea of moving to Los Angeles to run a food truck. Their goal is to hold onto their dry-cleaning business so their children can take on better professional careers without having to repeat their hardships as the first generation of Korean immigrants. But when the cleaner's lease is in limbo, everyone's plans and dreams are shattered. Despite the drama, their solution to the challenge comes naturally—embrace the family bond and cherish the love for each other.
It is unequivocal that each scene in the film comes from real life experience and it is as authentic as Kevin's mom's mouth-watering home cooking. The story pays homage to every hard-working Asian immigrant family's struggle. Even though the story is about a Korean family's dry-cleaning business, it can also be about a Vietnamese salon or a Chinese restaurant. The film strikingly depicts the core values held by these Asian immigrant families and genially shares their stories.
Capturing the mindset and experience of the first generation immigrants is only half of the achievement of this remarkable film. It also eloquently expresses the second generation's perspective on growing up in the US while not necessarily sharing the traditional values of their Asian parents. No matter which generation you belong to, the film speaks your voice and touches your heart.
This is one of the best films at the festival, hands down.
(JKエレジー | Japan
2018 | in Japanese | 88 min.)
Japan's sexual fetish scenes have their fair share of reputation and hardly anything is regarded as shocking. Smashing empty cans by a school girl certainly has its own followers in the Japanese society. But the director Genta Matsugami's (松上元太) directorial debut "Demolition Girl" is not a film that explores this fetish, rather, it tells a coming-of-age tale of an intelligent girl pursuing her dreams and trying to break away from poverty.
That girl is a senior high school student Cocoa (Aya Kitai) who is stomping on cans and bottles in the opening scene while her friend Kazuo (Hiroki Ino) is filming. The sale of the video keeps her afloat because after her mom's death seven years ago, his gambling-addicted dad Shigeru (Yota Kawase) has not worked at all, and her useless older brother spends all his time watching TV and playing video games.
Cocoa hopes to attend university and leave her deplorable family. When she learns that she can get a student loan to pursue higher education, her dream seems one step closer to becoming reality. But when the school discovers the "crush-video" she has made, her loan application is revoked and her dream is crushed, no pun intended.
Unlike tranquil and peaceful middle class lives shown in many Japanese films, this is a film that turns its lenses on to people living in poverty. Cocoa's experience is both heartbreaking and infuriating. Despite being intelligent, determined, and hard-working, she seems unable to escape the trap she is boxed in and to shake off the heavy burden that she shoulders at a very young age.
Cocoa's motion of crushing empty cans in the film isn't much different from those of scavengers on the streets in San Francisco cashing in on recyclable cans. They all serve one single purpose—surviving. That's the real tragedy, and there is nothing sexy about it.
Friday, April 5, 2019
SFFILM Festival 2019
On Wednesday, April 10, for the first time in its history, the festival kicks off with an episode of an upcoming streaming mini-series. However, it is not just any mini-series, it is "Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City" (USA 2019 | 57 min.), which is based on Armistead Maupin's novels that have captured San Francisco's heart and soul for decades.
About a week into the festival, on Thursday, April 18, the festival's centerpiece presentation features writer-director Lulu Wang's acclaimed Sundance hit "The Farewell" (USA 2019 | in English/Mandarin | 98 min.), a slightly fictionalized and heartfelt experience about her extended family bidding farewell to her grandmother.
Although the festival runs through April 23, its closing night presentation, the writer-director Gavin Hood's political thriller "Official Secrets" (USA 2019 | 112 min.), is scheduled for Sunday, April 21. It tells the story about a British spy Katharine Gun who blew the whistle on the voting of a UN resolution regarding the Iraq War.
The year's festival pays tribute to the following four outstanding artists with an on-stage conversation followed by a film screening:
- Laura Linney with the screening of "The Savages" (USA 2007 | 113 min.)
- Claire Denis with the screening of "High Life" (Germany/France/UK/Poland/USA 2018 | 110 min.)
- John C. Reilly with the screening of "The Sisters Brothers" (France/Spain/Romania/Belgium/USA 2018 | 122 min.)
- Laura Dern with the screening of "Trial by Fire" (USA 2018 | 127 min.)
Presentations includes nine narratives, 15
documentaries, and one episode of a TV series that
have recently captured the headlines and stimulated
excitement in film festival circles.
The winner of U.S. Grand Jury Prize for documentary at this year's Sundance Film Festival "One Child Nation" (China/USA 2019 | 85 min. | in English/Chinese | Documentary), directed by Wang Nanfu and Zhang Jialing, explores the ramification of China's one-child policy which lasted more than three decades.
The director Rachel Lears's timely "Knock Down the House" (USA 2019 | 86 min. | Documentary) takes an inside look at the extraordinary grassroots campaigns in 2018, featuring the new congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) from New York City.
consists of six feature films from influential
filmmakers around the world and half of them this
year are documentaries.
The winner of Directing Prize for U.S. Documentary at this year's Sundance Film Festival "American Factory" (USA 2019 | 115 min. | in English/Mandarin | Documentary), directed by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, tells a story about a Chinese billionaire's endeavor of manufacturing car window glass in America's economically struggling heartland, Ohio.
Known to many as the director of "Lan Yu" (藍宇 | 2001), arguably the first film portraying gay relationship in Beijing, the Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan (關錦鵬) has been on almost a decade-long hiatus from filmmaking. Returning to the commanding chair, his latest film "First Night Nerves" (八個女人一台戲 | Hong Kong 2018 | in Cantonese/Mandarin | 100 min.) is a colorful melodrama set in contemporary Hong Kong.
The drama starts to unfold a week before the premier of a play called "Two Sisters," directed by a transgender woman. The play's two lead actresses Yuan Xiuling (Sammi Cheng) and He Yuwen (Gigi Leung), a pair of old time rivals, have plenty of resentment to resolve before the collaboration on stage. To complicate the situation, many more women are involved in the off-stage drama including Xiuling's late husband's sister Cheng Cong (Angie Chiu) who financed the production and Xiuling's obsessed fan Fu Sha (Bai Baihe), a lesbian from a wealthy family. As the play's premier approaches, the off-stage drama takes the center stage in the film.
Visually, the film is exquisitely colorful with the vibrant contemporary Hong Kong as the backdrop. Of course, everything moves really fast in Hong Kong, so are the characters showing up in this film. As a result, it takes a while to figure out who is who and what is their relationship to each other in their chaotic and gossipy entertainment circle, and what they are fussing about. But a more pressing question might be if these characters deserve the attention we give them when they are off-stage.
After 28 years since the Soviet Union's collapse, the 87-year-old Mikhail Gorbachev (Михаил Горбачев), becomes the subject of the documentary "Meeting Gorbachev" (UK/USA/Germany | in Russian/English/German/Polish | 90 min. | Documentary). Directed by veteran documentarians Werner Herzog and Andre Singer, the film revisits historical events and converses with the man who played a vital role decades ago.
Visions assembles nine narratives and ten
documentaries—a noticeable reduced number of films
compared to previous years#8212samples contemporary world
cinema. There are three films from Asia.
The Singaporean director Eric Khoo (邱金海) brings a sentimental family drama "Ramen Shop" (情牽拉麵茶 | Singapore/Japan/France 2018 | in Japanese/Mandarin/English | 79 min.) to the festival, featuring food images that you probably often see on Instagram. He crafts a story revolving around cooking, which his characters use as the vehicle during journeys to uncover family mysteries, to reconcile conflicts, to rebuild family ties, and to express love.
The Japanese director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi (濱口 竜介) returns to the festival with a much shorter film than his previous almost five-and-half-a-hour long "Happy Hour" (ハッピーアワー | 2015). Based on a novel, he tells an unusual love story in "Asako I & II" (寝ても覚めても | Japan/France 2018 | in Japanese | 119 min.).
When Asako (Erika Karata) meets handsome Baku (Masahiro Higashide) on a street in Osaka, they kiss and fall in love at first sight. But one night, Baku leaves the apartment to buy shoes and never returns. Two years later, moving on with her life, Asako relocates to Tokyo where she runs into a polite business man Ryôhei (also Masahiro Higashide) who looks exactly like Baku. After initial resistance, she falls for him hard. A few years later, Ryôhei gets transferred to work in Osaka, the couple looks forward to a new chapter of their lives. Then Baku, now a heartthrob model, shows up. Asako faces an agonizing choice.
Despite an only-in-a-movie plot, the superb performances from Erika Karata and Masahiro Higashide make the movie afloat. Even though it's hard to rationalize the characters' behaviors, it's much easier to resonate with their emotions.
Although the Korean director Hong Sang-soo is absent from this year's festival, his influence and style is vividly on display in the Korean writer-director Jang Woo-jin's (장우진) third feature "Winter's Night" (겨울밤에 | South Korea 2018 | in Korean | 98 min.). This slow-burn quiet film explores the evolving relationship between a middle-aged married couple.
After 30 years of marriage, Eun-ju (Seo Young-hwa) and Heung-ju (Yang Heung-ju) return to a temple where they first met when they were young students. That visit doesn't seem to ease the tension between the couple. When Eun-ju realizes that she misplaced her phone, she insists on going back to the temple to search for it. The night is falling, and the temple is closed. They have to stay at a bed and breakfast to drink, sing, and talk over their relationship. Overnight, they meet another young couple who resembles the early years of themselves.
Even though a frosty night at a remote location is quite different from a soju fueled urban cafe setting in Hong Sang-soo's film, the conversational storytelling style is very much similar and the focus is never far from dealing with relationship. Interestingly, the director's use of a young couple not only serves as a parallel to the older couple's past, but also coincides with the craft in another film at the festival—"Suburban Birds." This film might challenge the patience of some viewers but certainly will delight the fan base of Hong Sang-soo.
Gate Award (GGA) Competition
nominates nine narratives and ten documentary
features, as well as a handful of short films
for the generous cash prizes totaling nearly
The winner of World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for Documentary, World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Cinematography, and World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Impact for Change at this year's Sundance Film Festival, "Honeyland" (Macedonia 2019 | in Turkish/Bosnian/Macedonian | 85 min. | Documentary) stunningly captures the story of a mother and daughter beekeepers living in a remote mountain in Macedonia. This extraordinary directorial debut from Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov intimately portrays a disappearing way of life that maintains a healthy relationship between human and nature.
The enigmatic mind-teaser "Suburban Birds" (郊区的鸟 | China 2018 | in Mandarin | 118 min.) is the noteworthy directorial debut from the Chinese writer-director Qiu Sheng (仇晟). He starts with a story about a civil engineering team surveying leaning buildings, but abruptly switches the story to a group of young kids playing in and out of school while keeping the characters' names unchanged. He playfully constructs the film and mysteriously intertwines the two narratives into an alluring craft.
Based on Leelo Tungal's autobiographic novel, the writer-director Moonika Siimets's terrific directorial debut "The Little Comrade" (Seltsimees laps | Estonia 2018 | in Estonian/Russian | 99 min.) illustrates the horror in Estonia's history when it was ruled by Stalin's iron fist in 1950.
Curious six-year-old Leelo (Helena Maria Reisner) begins to learn the world around her when Estonia just became part of the Soviet Union in 1950. Her dad Feliks (Tambet Tuisk) is an accomplished athlete earning plenty of medals for Estonia. Her mom is a beloved school teacher. But under Stalin's rule, it's forbidden to assume the identity as an Estonian. As a result, Leelo's mom is arrested by the KGB and Leelo desperately tries to be a good girl in order to make her mom return.
With an affectionate lens, Leelo's subtle and innocent reactions to daily happenings is wonderfully captured on screen. The director Moonika Siimets tells her story from a child's perspective and depicts how the six-year-old makes sense of the cruel reality and horrific political atmosphere. Leelo believes that by becoming a pioneer for the communist party, she will be rewarded by her mom's homecoming. Her naive effort is both charming and heartbreaking.
The film is a felicitous tribute to the centennial anniversary of Estonia.
- Dark Wave has four films that continue to feed the appetite of midnight horror and sick pleasure seekers.
- Vanguard shows three experimental films that remind you to keep the mind open and challenge your brain either in connecting the dots in the filmmakers' storytelling, or simply in finding those dots.
- Short Films curates 70 short films into eight programs which tell stories in narrative, documentary, animation, or experimental forms.
The SFFILM Festival takes place April 10 - April 23, 2019 in San Francisco (at the Castro Theater in the Castro; the Dolby Cinema, SFMOMA's Phyllis Wattis Theater, the YBCA Screening Room, and the Theater at Children's Creativity Museum around the downtown area; the Roxie Theater, and the Victoria Theatre in the Mission neighborhood), Berkeley (at Pacific Film Archive), Oakland (at Grand Lake Theater), and other venues around the Bay Area.