Friday, June 27, 2014



Snowpiercer official site The conflicts among classes in a society seem to last forever as long as human beings exist, unless Marx's communism utopia becomes reality. Many of today's unrests around the world can be traced back to deepened social and economic inequality. Even in an imaginary sci-fi world, the class struggle remains to exit. For example, "In Time" (2011), "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" (2013), and "Divergent" (2014), just to name a few films in recent years. When Korean director Bong Joon-ho (봉준호) transforms a French graphic novel "Le Transperceneige" into an strangely entertaining spectacle "Snowpiercer" (설국열차 | 雪國列車 | South Korea/USA/France/Czech Republic 2013 | 126 min.), the collision between the haves and have-nots in a post-apocalyptic age is put at the front and center.

Who would have thought that the today's worsening global warming is going to cause an inhabitable frozen world by the year 2031? An experiment aiming to cool down the earth works too well and the entire planet freezes up. Only few thousand people survive on earth by living on a train called Snowpiercer that circles around the world continuously. The brilliant train is designed by a visionary billionaire Wilford (Ed Harris). Wilford not only foresees the catastrophic destiny and builds this impressive maintenance-free train (no one seem to be able to survive the cold outside the train), but also he keeps social class structure intact inside the train. The rich live a lavish life in the front portion of the train, and the poor barely make it on the back of the train under a horrific condition.

As in any society that nourishes social and economic inequality, unrest and rebellion are inevitable. With one-armed Gilliam (John Hurt) as a wise adviser and a brave Edgar (Jamie Bell) by his side, a tough looking Curtis (Chris Evans) leads a new revolution, followed by a desperate crowd, including a distraught Tanya (Octavia Spencer) who tries to get back her little son. The goal is to overcome heavy armed army then pass multiple highly sophisticated gates between train cars, and finally reach the engine room where Wilford resides.

That certainly sounds impossible. However, these rebellions are lucky because drug-addicted Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho 송강호), the one who designed these gates, is still confined in the prison section on the train with his teenage daughter Yona Go Ah-sung 고아성). After the two joined the force, the violent battle advances one car at a time, toward the front section of this non-stop fast moving train.

Snowpiercer Official Site

This film is the first English language film by the Korean director Bong Joon-ho who is best known for his entertaining blockbuster "The Host" (괴물 2006) and his brilliant "Mother" (마더 2009). Unlike many Korean films that are impeccably detail-orientated in plot development, this film is like a piece of ambitious work from a confident master who takes big strokes with a huge brush ignoring small details. Even as a sci-fi, the film seems to violate the fundamental law of physics. For example, the train is able to continuously run on a forever existing track, and when it is occasionally blocked by ice and snow it simply ramps through the ice without any damage. How could that happen without any special equipment or technology, because we all know how easy a high-speed train can be derailed? After each fight between the rebellions and the Wilford's army, these malnutrition and almost unarmed underdogs are miraculously able to proceed. The show must go on.

What appears to interest Bong Joon-ho the most is the characters who fall into different preordained social classes and how the conflicts escalate. Along the way, he is having fun by letting Tilda Swinton hilariously steal every scene she presents as Mason, Wilford's deputy commander. The amusing episode in a kindergarten classroom further indicates that the director is enjoying playing with his material by injecting his quirky sense of humor and a plausible explanation about the film's happening is secondary to him, if necessary.

However, Bong Joon-ho changes his mind toward the end of the film. He lets Curtis tell a lengthy and tearful, yet yawning and unconvincing story about what happened when he first boarded the train. Does that make the whole uprising action more justified and more sympathetic? Not really.

Despite its flaws, the film provides solid entertainment and a bizarre ride on a train that you probably wouldn't want to board even the earth were indeed turned into a giant refrigerator.

"Snowpiercer," a RADiUS-TWC release, opens on Friday, June 27, 2014.

Friday, June 13, 2014


The 38th San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival (Frameline38)

Dancing in the cold summer wind, rainbow flags are now all over Market Street—the spine of San Francisco. These flags symbolize the Pride season. They also indicate that it's time for another annual San Francisco International Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Film Festival—Frameline38.

Frameline 38 Web Site

This year's festival presents 214 films from 31 countries, including 82 features and 132 shorts. Over the past few years, it is quite impressive for Frameline to maintain its momentum while most other major film festivals in San Francisco have been downsizing in terms of the number of films shown at a festival. However, the festival eliminates the tagline this year, which makes the festival look like forgetting a fabulous hat when coming out the door.

The festival opens on Thursday, June 19, with a compelling documentary "The Case Against 8" (USA 2014) about a Supreme Court case that overturned California's anti gay-marriage Proposition 8. Ten days later on Sunday, June 29, the festival concludes with a German(!) comedy "I Feel Like Disco" (Ich fühl mich Disco | Germany 2013) about a gay teenager's awkward relationship with people around him.

This year, the festival presents its annual Frameline Award to the legendary George Takei for his achievements in social media world (such as Facebook), as well as his unparalleled activism and community service. Associated with the award, the festival exhibits centerpiece documentary "To Be Takei" (USA 2014) which tells a story about Takei's dynamic life.

To Be Takei

However, despite the fact that celebrated Asian American George Takei is drawing the spotlight at this year's festival, I am disappointed by the overall under-representation of gaysian films that are created by, for or about the Asian, Pacific Islander, South Asian and Asian American LGBT communities. During last couple years at Frameline36 and Frameline37, I was delighted by a welcoming trend of solid showing of gaysian films. This year, the music seems to stop playing. Despite the festival presents five gaysian narrative features ("Anita's Last Cha-Cha," "Dyke Central," "Eat with Me," "Lilting," and "Quick Change") and five gaysian documentary features ("Alec Mapa: Baby Daddy," "Kumu Hina," "Limited Partnership," "Purple Skies: Voices of Indian Lesbians, Bisexuals and Transmen," and "To Be Takei"), this year's festival has no feature film from China, South Korea, or Japan.

Another surprise is that there are four films in this year's program that were shown at the 57th San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF57) just less than two months ago: "Bad Hair" (Pelo malo | Venezuela 2013), "Salvation Army" (L'armée du salut | France/Morocco/Switzerland 2013), "Yves Saint Laurent" (France 2014), and "The Dog" (USA 2013). If these SFIFF selections are compelled to be shown again in less than two months, I am perplexed by the noticeable omission of "Eastern Boys" (France 2013).

Frameline's shorts programs have been strong and extensive over the years. Every year the traditional "Fun in Boys Shorts" and "Fun in Girls Shorts" always entertain the festival goers with crowd pleaser comedies.

After viewing a handful features from this year's program, two films stand out. One is the opening night's documentary "The Case Against 8" (USA 2014) and the other is a showcase presentation "The Way He Looks" (Hoje Eu Quero Voltar Sozinho | Brazil 2014). I recommend these two films without any hesitation. As for other films listed here, the chance is that you may enjoy them more at the festival than I do.

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.

  • The Case Against 8 (USA 2014 | 109 min. | Documentary)

    If the notorious Proposition 8 were to put on the ballot today to ban gay marriage, it would not have passed, period. However, the irony is that if Proposition 8 were not unfortunately passed back in 2008, and eventually overturned by the Supreme Court as my birthday present last year, the opinion toward gay marriage would not have been as supportive as today.

    Winning the 2014 Sundance Film Festival Directing Award in the U.S. Documentary category, directors Ben Cotner and Ryan White's compelling "The Case Against 8" chronicles the fascinating legal battle for marriage equality heading to the Supreme Court.

    When Proposition 8 was passed in 2008 and banned gay marriage in California, it was a devastating defeat for the LGBT community, as well as for anyone who stands for equal rights and anti-discrimination. When a legal team comes together headed by conservative Ted Olson and liberal David Boies, who previously represented the opposite sides in Bush v. Gore, a historical battle begins. With almost unlimited access to the legal team and the plaintiffs, the film unfolds the emotional and thrilling journey to the victory.

    The plaintiffs are two courageous couples: Paul Katani and Jeff Zarillo, Kris Perry and Sandy Stier. Through candid interviews and heartfelt testimonies, we not only learn the legal case, but most importantly see human faces behind the cause. The film brilliantly makes the point that this legal fight isn't about special gay right, it's about love, equality, and human dignity which shouldn't be taken away by a popular vote.

    Sure, the film seems one-sided without arguments from the other side who against gay marriage. But perhaps it's because the righteousness is so overwhelmingly on the marriage equality side that it's almost impossible to get a reasonable argument on camera from the other side for the sake of balance.

    Instead, the film simple witnesses the history as it happens and tells a profoundly moving human story.

    This is the opening night film at Frameline38.

    The Case Against 8 Official Site

    Go to the list of titles

  • The Way He Looks (Hoje Eu Quero Voltar Sozinho | Brazil 2014 | in Portuguese | 95 min.)

    Obsession, jealousy, happiness, confusion, longing, excitement, and heartbreak, they are just a few typical attributes when it comes to adolescent love and friendship. In his feature directorial debut "The Way He Looks," Brazilian writer/director Daniel Ribeiro beautifully captures these subtle feelings through the superb performance by three talented young actors.

    Although Leo (Ghilherme Lobo) is blind, with the help from his best friend Giovana (Tess Amorim), he is fairly independent and doing just fine in high school. When a new student Gabriel (Fabio Audi) arrives in their class, suddenly the status quo is broken. Gabriel begins to replace Giovana's place and that upsets Giovana on so many levels. Leo also comes to discover himself when his friendship with Gabriel deepens.

    The tangled triangle relationship is convincingly portrayed and intimately displayed in the film. With great precision, the trio actors impressively convey the complex emotions of these arresting and likable characters.

    This splendid film won Panoroma Auidence Award and Teddy Award at the 64th Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year. If you were to see only one film at Frameline38, this should be it.

    The Way He Looks Official Site

    Go to the list of titles

  • Lilting (UK 2014 | in Chinese/English | 91 min.)

    Watching a mom's grieving to her son's death is perhaps one of the most heart wrenching experiences. Yet, I can't feel more detached while watching director Hong Khaou's melodrama "Lilting," about a Chinese mom who mourns his son while his son's British lover tries to make connection with her.

    After her only son Kai (Andrew Leung) suddenly died in an accident, Junn (Pei-pei Cheng) is left alone at a retirement home, speaking no English. Junn knows Kai's lover Richard (Ben Whishaw) only as Kai's roommate and resents him for being in the middle between a mother and a son. In order to connect with Junn, Richard hires an interpreter (Leila Wong) to overcome the language barrier.

    When I hear Andrew Leung speaking Chinese with an unbelievable heavy accent as Kai, it makes me think Kai is Junn's adopted son who hardly spent any time with her as a child. How else can we explain he sounds like just enrolled a Chinese class for the first time at a community college? It gets worse when the interpreter translates Junn's sentences like a mindless app on a smart-phone.

    With a lazy script, implausible plot, and unengaging characters, the film fails to connect with the audience, just like Junn and Richard fail to communicate in the film.

    Lilting Official Site

    Go to the list of titles

  • Alec Mapa: Baby Daddy (USA 2014 | 78 min. | Documentary)

    Hailed as "America's Gaysian Sweetheart," comedian Alec Mapa is well known in the entertainment industry. But perhaps what's less known is his new family: Alec Mapa and his husband Jamison Hebert adopted a five-year-old boy Zion in 2010. The America's gaysian sweetheart now is a baby daddy.

    Inspired by this life changing episode, Alec Mapa developed a stand up one-man show touring big cities. First time documentary director Andrea James captures the show in "Alec Mapa: Baby Daddy."

    Like most stand-up comedy shows, materials can be rowdy, the language can be filthy, and jokes can be hilarious when they are wittily written and smartly delivered. Being a loud gaysian comedian and seasoned entertainer, Alec Mapa's one-man act has its funny and raunchy moments, while his young son maybe sit in the audience listening to his R-rated or even X-rated jokes.

    But watching this film is more like watching a late night stand-up episode on Comedy Central, with a few behind the scene shots. The film is basically a recording of Alec Mapa's show in its entirety, and it hardly has any cinematic element to call itself a documentary.

    Now, there you have it, a recorded show, so you don't have to go to a live performance or invite Alec Mapa to your private party to hear his dirty jokes.

    Alec Mapa: Baby Daddy Official Site

    Go to the list of titles

  • Eat with Me (USA 2013 | 100 min.)

    Expanded from his short film "Fresh Like Strawberries," write/director David Au's feature directorial debut "Eat with Me" isn't really about food. It's about a mother and her son's searching for the right place to be in their lives.

    Middle aged Emma (Sharon Omi) runs away from her failed marriage and looks for a shelter at her gay son Elliot's (Teddy Chen Culver) apartment in Los Angeles. Now Elliot not only has to deal with the crisis in his Chinese restaurant business, he has to rebuild the relationship with Emma who doesn't fully embrace Elliot's sexuality.

    During the first part of the film, the director David Au swiftly establishes his characters and grabs our attention waiting for his story to unfold. Both Elliot and Emma seem interesting and we are confronted with the same question as the characters: "what now?" However, it seems that the storyteller doesn't know the answer either. The film seems to be stuck. It drifts around trying to find a way to explore its characters deeper but no luck.

    So, the film brings in a new character, a friendly neighbor Maureen (Nicole Sullivan) as Emma's new friend, to spice the film up a little bit. Although Maureen does add a few strange comical moments to the film, they seem to be more filling the time than helping the character development.

    Toward the end, the film pulls its last trick—let George Takei enlighten Emma with a few words of wisdom. But it's too little and too late, even George Takei cannot revive the film at that point. And, how does Elliot get a new trendy restaurant when his old one faces foreclosure? Never mind, it no longer matters.

    Eat with Me Official Site

    Go to the list of titles

Frameline38 runs June 19-29, 2014 at Castro Theater (429 Castro Street), Roxie Theater (3117 16th Street), Victoria Theater (2961 16th Street) in San Francisco, and Rialto Cinemas Elmwood (2966 College Avenue) in Berkeley.


The Signal

The Signal official site "What's going on?" It's perhaps one of the most frustrating questions to ask if you can't get any answer. That's precisely what the agitated protagonist constantly pondering in director William Eubank's gripping sci-fi thriller "The Signal" (USA 2014 | 95 min.). It's also the burning question keeps the audience at toe.

Nic Eastman (Brenton Thwaites) is a young MIT student who suffers early stage of multiple sclerosis. To accompany his girlfriend Haley Peterson (Olivia Cooke) to a graduate school in California, they take on a seemingly ordinary cross-country trip, tagging Nic's computer hacker buddy Jonah Breck (Beau Knapp).

However, the trip takes an unexpected turn when they are agitated during the exchange with an on-line hacker named "Nomad." They are provoked to come to an abandoned house in a deserted area in Nevada to meet Nomad in person. Then everything bangs into pitch black—one of very few predictable moments. When Nic wakes up, he is confined and interrogated by a mysterious government official, Dr. Wallace Damon (Laurence Fishburne) in a bulky bio-bodysuit.

Instead of answering Nic's inquires about what's going on, Dr. Damon keeps asking Nic to recall what happened while constantly warns Nic with phrases like "You don't know what you're dealing with." While trying to figuring out what Dr. Damon is going after, Nic has no doubt that escape is the only way for him to survive.

The Signal Official Site

This is the second feature from the director William Eubank. He remarkably captures our attention at every twist of his story in the film. He lets Nic and Dr. Damon play a game of wit and puts the audience as the spectator to guess what might be the move from either side. But he tightly controls the pace of his storytelling and avoids falling into familiar traps. Despite a few incoherent moments, the story is mostly convincing and captivating while being part of the genre of science-fiction where leap of faith is often a necessary viewing requirement.

The director's cinematography background is on vividly display throughout the film. Even a shot of a rural highway landscape can appear to be crispy, mesmerizing, and elegant. His sparse deployment of slow motion is also strikingly effective and dramatic.

Although some characters like Nic's companions Harley and Jonah are underdeveloped, the main character Nic is well crafted and terrifically played by an Australian rising star Brenton Thwaites, who firmly establishes his superstar potential and heartthrob persona. It's no surprise that he also plays in two other highly anticipated films this year: "Maleficent" and "The Giver".

Despite the film's impressive success, there should have no sequel to this film. The audience should be left agitated about figuring out the truth. Sometimes, holding back the answer is more interesting than revealing it.

"The Signal" a Focus Features release, opens on Friday, June 13, 2014 in San Francisco Bay Area.

Friday, June 6, 2014


The Fault in Our Stars

The Fault in Our Stars official site You are young and beautiful, but you don't have much time to live because you have incurable cancer. That scenario seems to give you a pretty good clue for what is coming. Even with that expectation in your mind and tissues in your hands, you will be profoundly touched by director Josh Boone's tearjerker "The Fault in Our Stars" (USA 2014 | 126 min.). Faithfully based on John Green's bestselling young-adult novel, while the film is not shy away for being sentimental about the subject matter, it does surprises us with its uplifting life-affirming attitude toward the love journey traveled briefly by its protagonists that are fantastically played by Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort.

Sensible sixteen-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) is very sick from her stage-IV metastatic thyroid cancer. When she meets a charismatic and handsome eighteen-year-old Gus Waters (Ansel Elgort) at a cancer support group meeting, immediately they cannot keep their eyes away from each other—a classic case of love at first sight. However, by no means this is a typical teenage love. While Hazel has to breathe through an oxygen tank because of her failing lung, Gus is missing a leg due to cancer. The incredible hardship they face doesn't stop them to embrace each other and cherish the moments they can be together.

After Hazel tells Gus that she is eager to contact Peter van Houten (Willem Dafoe), the author of her favorite book "An Imperial Affliction," to ask questions about a character in the book, Gus helps to make her wish come true. Despite the Hazel's sickness, they travel to Amsterdam to visit Peter van Houten.

Even when "the world is not a wish-granting factory," the two endearing teenagers take on a brave journey that is both physically and emotionally challenging.

The Fault in Our Stars Official Site

Although the subject matter can easily turn the film look like a remake of a typical Korean melodrama, director Josh Boone is able to diligently navigate the narrative and keep the focus on the deeply moving love story between Hazel and Gus and on their inspiring courage to share and appreciate the "little infinity—a forever within the numbered days" they have.

As teenagers, it's impressive how Hazel and Gus are able to express their love, fear, hope, gratitude, joy, pain, and sorrow eloquently in words, or even in silence. Sometimes, the film feels like a better version of "Love Story" (1970) in the 21 century. The on screen chemistry between Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort is undeniably strong, it makes you believe that the two actors must be a cute couple in real life.

In fact, the love story between the two is so well crafted that other flaws in the film may be easily forgiven. For example, even Hazel is strong-willed and intelligent sixteen-year-old girl, her dying wish is to meet an author in Amsterdam seems a little far-fetched. And the scene of her visiting to the Anne Frank House is little pretentious and should have been cut from the film. However, no matter how much older Shailene Woodley looks than a sixteen-year-old, it's unimaginable for somebody else to play Hazel. The immensely gifted Shailene Woodley is the pitch perfect choice.

Love and pain are real, and they are meant to be felt. The film terrifically succeeds in making us resonate with the powerful love story between the two admirable and lovable characters and the pain they have to endure. The sobbing sound in a theater is completely justified.

"The Fault in Our Stars," a 20th Century Fox release, opens on Friday, June 6, 2014.

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