The Circle


It looks like Tom Hanks is trying to recapture his Cast Away look.

(2017) Thriller (STX) Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, Ellar Coltrane, Glenne Headly, Bill Paxton, Karen Gillan, Beck, Nate Corddry, John Boyega, Patton Oswalt, Mamoudou Athie, Eve Gordon, Poorna Jagannathan, Elvy Yost, Ellen Wong, Lauren Baldwin, Nicola Bertram, Julian Von Nagel, Amie McCarthy-Winn, Regina Saldivar, Amir Tatai, Smith Cho. Directed by James Ponsoldt

 

There’s no doubt that the world is changing. Social media and the presence of cameras nearly everywhere have guaranteed that our concept of privacy will have to change radically. We must learn to live with the reality that everything we do is not only findable online but is subject to the scrutiny of trolls.

Mae (Watson) is a customer service drone in a dead end job she can’t stand. Coming to her rescue is Annie (Gillan) who works in management at The Circle, a sort of cross between Facebook, Google and Big Brother. Like all social media outlets, The Circle seems to be almost an obsession with its users who post the most mundane details of their day so that friends and strangers can pass judgment.

Mae’s dad (Paxton in his final role) has Multiple Sclerosis and her mom (Headly) has been worn ragged caring for him. Her ex-boyfriend Mercer (Coltrane) is suspicious of the ongoing loss of privacy and is retreating from the modern connected world, moving to a rustic artist retreat that is essentially off the grid.

Mae however has picked a grand time to join up with The Circle. Co-founder and CEO Eamon Bailey (Hanks) is releasing a new product – a miniaturized camera that people can wear all day long that utilizes facial recognition software to allow them to find friends nearby and of course post everything they do – literally every moment of their day – online. Mae, after a rough start, has become a convert “Circler” and is selected to be the first person to have total transparency online.

However with total transparency comes collateral damage – not everyone wants their every moment on display and it ends up causing friction with those Mae loves the most and leads to a tragedy nobody could have predicted. This leads her to do some digging and she soon finds out that not everything at the Circle – or everyone – necessarily has benevolent intentions.

This is based on a book by Dan Eggers who gets the Silicon Valley culture nicely. In some ways, the movie pokes fun a bit at the tech culture of “play hard, work harder” with Mae getting a visit from Circlers who are concerned she’s not participating in any groups – or working on weekends. In some ways the big problem with this poorly-reviewed movie is that it really doesn’t know what it wants to be – at times it feels like a corporate espionage thriller, other times a social commentary and still others a sci-fi cautionary tale.

The graphics are nifty and nicely extrapolate what our online experience is going to look like in maybe a decade or less. The film is also blessed with a marvelous cast. You literally can’t go wrong with Hanks who doesn’t play villains often and even this villain is less villainous than Oswalt’s corporate weasel who is more of a traditional villain. Bailey is charming and folksy, a cross between Steve Jobs and Garrison Keillor. And, of course he’s Tom Hanks, the modern Jimmy Stewart.

But then there’s Watson who is a marvelous actress and perhaps one of the most beloved actresses in the world. She was simply flat here, never really gathering my sympathy or attention. I was far more drawn to Hanks’ character which is not unexpected given Hanks ability and screen charm. But as she proved in Beauty and the Beast Watson is thoroughly capable of carrying a movie and here she simply doesn’t.

I liked the social media aspect which the movie seems to be on the cusp of exploring further but it never really does. It feels like the filmmakers were anxious not to offend millennials which they figured would be a large chunk of their target audience; unfortunately what that wound up doing was diluting the message and taking away much of the film’s bite. Overall it feels a bit like cinematic pablum.

That’s not to say that this is a complete waste of time. The movie does accurately portray our society’s obsession with celebrity and the growing importance of internet celebrity; it also makes points about our obsession with connection and the growing loss of privacy. These are all valid and salient points and I would have loved to see more exploration of them. Instead we end up with something of a generic thriller that ends up disappointing more than it excites. Circles, after all, have a tendency to end up where they start out – and so does The Circle.

REASONS TO GO: Hanks is a riveting quasi-villain. The graphics are nicely utilized.
REASONS TO STAY: There’s a wasted opportunity in terms of sociopolitical commentary. Nothing here really impresses.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of sexuality, some drug use and a smattering of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Headly and Paxton who play Mae’s parents have both passed away since they filmed their roles.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/19/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 15% positive reviews. Metacritic: 43/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eagle Eye
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Unforgettable

Birthright: A War Story


In justice.

(2017) Documentary (Abramorama) Michele Goodwin, Lynn Paltrow, Carole Joffe, David A. Grimes, Danielle Deaver, Rob Deaver, Monica Simpson, Casey Shehi, Katie Darovitz, Tarah Demant, Carol Tobias, G. William Orr, Loretta Ross, Faith Groesbeck, Rinar Dray, Jennie Lynn McCormick, Lori Friedman, Gabrielle Goodrick, Joan McGregor, Sister Carol Keehan, Ann Sharpe. Directed by Civia Tamarkin

 

It is sometimes difficult as a film reviewer to rise above the temptation of reviewing the subject of a documentary rather than the documentary itself. Some subjects are important and urgent and may dovetail with the political leanings of the reviewer. I’m a progressive liberal, like many film reviewers, and the subject of this film – the assault on reproductive rights by the pro-life movement – you would think would be something that is near and dear to my heart, and it is.

Tamarkin does a masterful job of explaining the genesis of the pro-choice movement and how we got into the situation we’re in now, going back to the works of Margaret Sanger all the way up through Roe v. Wade at which time the pro-choice movement essentially rested on their laurels which some activists interviewed here freely admit.

But to their credit, those on the other side never gave up. They rolled up their sleeves, took a critical look at why they lost their fight and changed their strategy. Even if one is a hardcore leftie like I am one must admire how the right has organized and strategized themselves into the position of power they now occupy. We watch as the Right to Life organization and Personhood movement – high level members of both are interviewed at length for the film to Tamarkin’s credit – shift the focus from the unborn to the health of the mother, changing the public’s perception of the entire movement. It’s truly a brilliant strategy. They then target state lawmakers on the right, getting laws enacted that chip away at the ability for lower income women to access safe and legal abortion, but also give the state chilling control over the entire reproductive process from the moment a woman becomes pregnant. One conservative lawyer expresses how this is completely at odds with the small government-individual rights conservatism he grew up with.

Tamarkin gives us most of the salient facts, including some anecdotal interviews showing that many young women today don’t even know what Roe v. Wade is. That should chill a lot of pro-choice advocates to the very bone. There are also tales of women caught in the crossfire of these draconian new laws, women who weren’t interested in an abortion. These heartbreaking tales are at the center of the movie like the woman whose placenta was punctured after 22 weeks; because her state had a law that a fetus could not be aborted after 20 weeks, she was made to carry the baby even though it was going to be without fully developed lungs or heart. She wasn’t even allowed to have labor induced because the baby wouldn’t have been viable. Talk about a catch-22 weeks. The baby only lived a few minutes after she gave birth to it.

There were other women who were forced to undergo C-sections against their will and without their permission, as well as women who were arrested and sent to jail because they had what was deemed a “suspicious” miscarriage. It’s hard not to get angry about these blatant intrusions into what should be a woman’s right to control what happens to her own body. Although they make no comment on it, the spokespeople with the opposing viewpoint seemed to be okay with this aptly termed “collateral damage.”

While Tamarkin ably ratchets up the outrage for the left side of the aisle, she makes some filmmaking missteps. The jazz-inflected score was too loud in the soundtrack and seemed at odds with the seriousness of the subject matter. It almost felt at times like the score was meant for a Discovery Channel documentary rather than a feature film – not knocking Discovery Channel programs but it’s a different kind of animal here.

I am not certain that this is going to win hearts and minds. It seems to me that in our echo chamber society that most people are not going to pay much attention to anyone or anything that sits outside their narrow field of view. Tamarkin doesn’t help matters by giving us an endless parade of talking heads all of whom are saying very much the same sorts of things. Still, those on the pro-choice side are going to find this useful and educational – while those on the pro-life side will likely call it propaganda. While it’s clear what side of the line Tamarkin falls on, I do give her props for at least trying to tell the complete story of a very complicated and polarizing issue that continues to be an important and explosive topic even now decades after the Supreme Court made their landmark decision.

REASONS TO GO: Guaranteed to make you angry if you are pro-choice. Effective time is given to pro-life viewpoints. The history of the reproductive rights fight is covered pretty thoroughly.
REASONS TO STAY: The score is a little annoying. There is a surfeit of talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: The film contains adult themes, disturbing images and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tamarkin was at one time an executive at CNN.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/18/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: After Tiller
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Circle

Vampire Cleanup Department (Gao geung jing dou fu)


There’s nothing like a nice refreshing dip in an acid pool.

(2017) Horror Comedy (Media Asia) Babyjohn Choi, Min Chen Lin, Siu-Ho Chin, Richard Ng, Hok-chi Chiu, Meng Lo, Susan Yam-Yam Shaw, Cheng-Yan Yuen, Jim Chim, Eric Tsang. Directed by Sin-Hang Chiu and Pak-Wing Yan

Budding filmmakers, here is something to consider: everybody loves a secret agency that protects its citizens from supernatural threats – or at least a high enough percentage of everybody that you’re likely to get a whole lot of buzz.

Tim Cheung (Choi) is something of a clumsy nebbish. An orphan, he was brought up by his grandma who often confuses him with his deceased father. One night, he sees someone being attacked in an alleyway and tries to help; instead, he is bitten on the behind by a strange creature.

That creature turns out to have been a vampire. When Tim wakes up, he’s in the underground headquarters of the Vampire Cleanup Department, a secret government agency that takes on the nosferatu of Hong Kong. Among those who work for the VCD are his Uncle Chung (Ng), the head of the department as well as his Uncle Chau (Chin) who is the martial arts master of the group. There’s also Ginger (Yuen), a priest who is the master of the amulets that freeze the undead among other things; there’s also Tai Gau (Lo), the weapons master.

On Tim’s first mission, he gets dragged into a lake that had once been farmland and is kissed by a rotting vampire. The vampire’s rotting flesh sloughs off, revealing a beautiful young girl. Summer (Lin) was a 20-year-old girl whose Landlord had her buried alive with him when he died; the Landlord was a vampire and the living girl had become one due to her unjust death. Like most vampires, she can only hop around rather than walk or run. The others order Tim to immolate Summer in their furnace but Tim, seeing the tears flowing from the undead girl’s eyes hides her instead. The two soon fall in love. He grows to believe that she is not evil; that she is in fact a rare human vampire who might be able to learn how to become human again.

It’s a bad time to fall in love with the undead; there is an ambitious police officer who wants to take away the undead gig from the VCD and has his American scientist find a way to destroy the vampires scientifically. It is also very nearly time for the blood moon during which time the Landlord vampire can resurrect himself. What’s a nerdy vampire hunter to do?

For fans of classic Hong Kong cinema, particularly the hopping vampire genre, your ship has come in. This is an amazingly entertaining but lightweight homage to those films of yore such as Mr. Vampire – many of the cast have made appearances in one hopping vampire film or another. This is more of a romantic comedy than outright horror; while there are some gory images, they are relatively few in number and the bulk of the story is concentrated on the romance between Tim and Summer.

This is very much a guilty pleasure, with cheesy special effects and comedy that falls on the silly side but it has charm by the bucketful. One can’t help but root for Tim despite his hangdog demeanor and his somewhat klutzy cluelessness. It is well above the Abbott and Costello horror spoofs and way above the more modern Scary Movie-type abominations. After viewing it, I was thinking this is what a Hong Kong hopping vampire film might look like if produced by Kevin Feige and directed by Guy Ritchie – although you might have to twist yourself sideways to see the Ritchie reference (I was thinking of the Sherlock Holmes films).

The mythology behind the Vampire Cleanup Department itself is solid and has the kind of detail normally reserved for comic book adaptations. Think of these guys as the Avengers of hopping vampire hunters with a Shaolin twist. Who can’t love vampire hunters who are disguised not in dark suits but in rubbish collector vests? Some of the humor is downright subversive if you can get past the pratfalls. I love that the voice of Summer is essentially Siri after she swallows Tim’s smart phone.

There are a few missteps. Some of the intentional cheesiness is perhaps a mite too cheesy for Western audiences. Some of the externally filmed scenes at night are way too murky and were hard to make out and while the Siri-voiced Summer conceit is cute, the Malaysian pop star Lin actually has a very naturalistic delivery and I thought the film might have benefited from more dialogue from her.

This may end up being my favorite movie from this year’s New York Asian Film Festival, which is saying something because this was a particularly bumper crop of fascinating films for the festival which has become more and more influential in the past few years. It isn’t going to change anyone’s point of view or educate them all that much on conditions in Asia but it is going to entertain the ever-loving heck out of you and that’s a lot more than many of this year’s summer blockbusters can claim.

REASONS TO GO: Although this is a bit on the cheesy side it’s nevertheless supremely entertaining. The background mythology is solid. Choi is ideal for the handsome nerd role. It reminded me of a Guy Ritchie film in a kind of twisted way.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the humor is a bit overly silly for Western tastes. The special effects are definitely cheesy and some of the outdoor night scenes are a bit hard to see.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some horror violence (some of it comedic) as well as bits and pieces of gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cheng-Yan Yuen, who plays the priest Ginger, is the brother of legendary stunt choreographer Woo-Ping Yuen.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/16/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fearless Vampire Killers
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Birthright: A War Story

With Prisoners


Dinner is served.

(2016) True Crime Drama (Times Production Ltd) Neo Yau Hiewk-sau, Kelvin Kwan, Edward Chui, Kimi Chiu, Lee Kwok Lun, Raymond Chiu, Kwok Yik Sum, Amy Tam, Gill Mohindepaul Singh, Han Wan, DreGar, Luk Yuen Yee, Mak Yee Ma, Sham Ka Ki. Directed by Kwok Kuen Wong

Dostoevsky once wrote that you can tell how civilized a society is by how it treats its prisoners. Who am I to disagree with so distinguished an author? In fact, I completely agree; most societies seem to be all about punishment ahead of rehabilitation. It doesn’t seem to be much of a concern that convicts be given the tools to go straight and lead a law-abiding life; the general consensus is that if they come back we’ve always got a cell and if we run short we can always build more. As for brutality, those who are in jail are there because they’re guilty of something and thus they deserve whatever they get.

Fan (Hiewk-sau) is a thug and proud of it. He lives with his Nana (Yee) who disapproves of his lifestyle, but he’s young, arrogant and has a quick temper. He has ambitions of becoming a big crime boss, but after getting into a brawl with a drunk police officer in a bar he ends up convicted of assaulting a police officer and is shuttled to prison in Hong Kong’s “Short Sharp Shock” program, an accelerated boot camp-like environment designed to provide self-discipline for young men who sorely need it.

Immediately he discovers that while there is brutal discipline, it is enforced by cruel and sadistic punishments – at one point Fan is forced to clean the toilet with his fingers and then brush his teeth with those same fingers without a chance to wash them first. And yes, that’s as disgusting as it sounds. He is beaten by the guards, particularly the sadistic Gwai (Lun) who seems to take great pleasure in torturing the prisoners mentally as well as physically.

Things are so bad that he attempts to hang himself on only the third day but is saved by the quick-thinking guard Ho (Kwan) who alone among the guards seems to have any sort of humanity in him. He is the opposite of Gwai – he wants to see the kids rehabilitated and to make productive lives for themselves. He is deeply disturbed by the attitudes and behaviors of the other guards but the Warden (Singh) turns a blind eye so long as nothing negative reflects on him.

Fan eventually makes friends in prison, including the friendly Sing (Ki) and Sharpie (Ma) who has an agenda of his own. When word reaches Fan that his Nana is sick, he strives to become a model prisoner and get released early but will it come in time for him to see his Nana one last time? And once he is free, will he sink back into his old ways?

Based on actual events, the movie never really establishes a “this is the way it happened” feel to it. There are a lot of prison movie clichés that crop up – all that is missing is a prison riot climax – and some of the film actually feels more melodramatic than authentic.

That said, there is also a Scared Straight vibe as well. If you’re going to do the crime, you are likely to do the time and here, ladies and gentleman, is what that time looks like. There is very much a boot camp look to prison in Hong Kong with military-like marching, prisoners shouting “Good morning, sir!” at the top of their lungs every morning during role call and entire companies of prisoners forced to do push-ups and laps for the transgressions of a single guy. While there are beatings administered and sadistic punishments inflicted, there isn’t a ton of blood and the violence is pretty tame by American prison movie standards.

The two leads, Kwan and Hiewk-sau are both strong in their performances. Hiewk-sau goes from a smiling, snarling thug to a disciplined prisoner determined to get out early and see his nana and the transformation is both believable and compelling. Kwan’s character is more of a generic nice prison guard but there is a sub-plot involving his recovering addict wife that gives him more depth.

Hong Kong doesn’t produce a lot of prison movies but when it does they tend to be worth watching and this one is no exception. I would have liked something a little less slick and a little more gritty but I think that the difference in tastes between East and West might have something to do with that. In any case, there is ample reason to check this out should it appear in a festival near you or on your favorite specialty streaming channel.

REASONS TO GO: Hiewk-sau and Kwan give memorable performances. The movie can serve as a warning to those contemplating doing the crime as to what doing the time looks like.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is overly melodramatic in places. The film may be a bit tame for American tastes for this kind of movie.
FAMILY VALUES: Although the movie is fairly mild by prison movie standards, it does contain a brief scene of drug use, some mild profanity, sensuality, brief male rear nudity and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mak Yee Ma, who plays the returning prisoner Sharpie, is the former convict whose story the movie is based upon.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/12/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Violent Prosecutor
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Vampire Cleanup Department

Double Life (Nijû seikatsu)


It always feels like somebody’s watching.

(2016) Drama (Star Sands) Mugi Kadowaki, Hiroki Hasegawa, Masaki Suda, Lily Franky, Aoba Kawai, Yukiko Shinihara, Shohel Uno, Yukino Kishii, Naomi Nishida, Setsuko Karasuma, Ryuju Kobayashi. Directed by Yoshiyuki Kishi

 

There is a certain thrill to observing other people unseen. There is an implied intimacy, seeing people as they truly are when they are sure nobody else is watching. That is how they reveal what makes us human – or at least so goes the theory as voiced by noted French photographer and writer Sophie Calle.

Tama Shiraishi (Kadowaki) is a grad student working on her master’s thesis. She lives with her boyfriend videogame designer Takuya (Suda) in a modest apartment in suburban Tokyo. They do have morning sex from time to time but they are distant from one another, showing little affection for each other. It can be chalked up to the business of their lives; Takuya is up against some looming deadlines for his upcoming game, Tama is consumed with her thesis on the meaning of being human which isn’t going very well.

Her professor, Shinohara (Franky) is a feared presence around the philosophy department of the university but he is soft-spoken and surprisingly helpful to Tama. When she proves to be too shy to distribute a questionnaire to 100 people, Shinohara – seeing the Calle book on his desk – is inspired to suggest that Tama observe a single person without their knowledge and use her observations as the basis of her thesis.

Tama chooses Ishizaka (Hasegawa), a neighbor who seems to be perfectly happy. A successful book publisher, he lives with his gorgeous wife and adorable daughter across the street from Tama – she can watch them playing together from her balcony. However, as she tails her subject, she discovers to her surprise that he is having a torrid affair which includes some rather public lovemaking.

The more she tails her subject the more emotionally involved that she gets. As she later describes it, she feels an empty part in herself beginning to get filled up. Her late nights and exhaustion lead Takuya to suspect that it is she having an affair and when Ishizaka’s wife discovers his infidelity, the fallout will not only affect his family but Tama and her boyfriend as well.

This is a film that takes a while to get rolling but once it does the filmmakers do a good job of keeping the interest of the audience. There is a certain cultural element to this – Japanese eroticism is somewhat different than Western eroticism – that makes even ordinary, normal activities seem sexual. The fact that the exterior shots take place in an overcast wintry gloom tends to heighten the feeling of repression as the characters bundle up against the cold.

Kadowaki does a stellar job here playing a character who has difficulty relating to people and prefers not to be the center of attention. Her oversize glasses and frumpy dress make the actress look somewhat plain although she is far from that in reality. However, it suits the character well here as few people give her a second glance including the people she is tailing.

The movie feels a bit long and while it is based on a novel by Mariko Kolke there is an almost soap opera vibe at times. There is a subplot about Professor Shinohara coping with his mother’s final days in the hospital with a new girlfriend (Kawai) which is a complicated situation in itself that tends to convolute the film and pull attention from the main story.

Kishi utilizes handheld camera work during most of the stalking sequences and it does wear on the viewer after awhile since the bulk of the movie is spent watching Tama stalk her academic prey. It is only when the two finally confront each other and Tama admits to some of her own inner demons that the movie gets a real emotional spice to it.

Hamlet’s famous line “To be or not to be” is utilized in several different ways, including in a Japanese play that Tama attends. The point of her thesis is what it means to be human and the idea is that Tama hasn’t really figured that out yet and with the movie opening with a suicide attempt – even though it is dark and chaotic you should be able to figure out who is trying to do themselves in – the “not to be” gets its share of attention as well.

Like many of the films at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival, there seems to be an infusion of new blood and exciting young directors coming out of Asia right now and Kishi is one of them. While the elements of soap opera and extraneous plot devices do hold the movie back, there is at least enough substance here to make this a worthwhile film to seek out to perhaps give some insight into your own humanity – and how well it would stand up to the scrutiny of constant observation.

REASONS TO GO: There is the allure of voyeurism. The wintry tone of the cinematography enhances the feeling of the film. The theme of being or not being is utilized here better than in most films.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie overstays its welcome and is a little bit too close to a soap opera. The stalking scenes contain a little too much handheld camera work for my comfort.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality and some brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature for Kishi and the first lead role in a feature for Kadowaki.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/11/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Seduction
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: With Prisoners

Jane (2016)


Mousy So-hyeon and confident Jane walk the streets of Seoul.

(2016) Drama (Atnine) Lee Min-ji, Koo Gyo-hwan, Lee Joo-young, Park Kang-seop, Lee Seok-hyeong, Park Hyun-young, Kim Young-woo. Directed by Cho Hyun-hoon

Loneliness can change your reality. People who don’t relate well to other people sometimes find themselves almost desperate for human contact but don’t quite know how to maintain it. When it becomes part of a cycle of poverty and desperation, strange things can happen.

So-hyeon (Min-ji) is a runaway teen girl who has been living in a hotel room in Seoul with her boyfriend Jung-ho who has abandoned her. Alone and with nowhere to go, she slits her wrists and prepares to die. Enter Jane (Gyo-hwan), a transgender nightclub performer who also has a crush on Jung-ho. She rescues So-hyeon and patches her up, bringing her into an impromptu family of fellow runaways including Dae-po (Kang-seop), Jjong-gu (Young-woo) and Ji-soo (Joo-young).

Life is idyllic for So-hyeon for awhile, surrounded by the family she never had and the almost magical Jane who is everything that she is not – elegant, beautiful, self-confident and kind. However, nothing lasts forever and So-hyeon is eventually obliged to find herself another family, this one much darker and much less idyllic.

The story of the movie isn’t even about Jane but about So-hyeon. We are never quite sure if Jane is real or a construct of the imagination of the lonely and shy So-hyeon who early on in the film makes plain her unreliability as a narrator. We’re never sure how valid the two families are; are they both real? Is one real and the other one not? Are neither real? Hyun-hoon is not disposed to give the  viewer easy answers and in some ways that’s a blessing and in others it’s a curse.

Much of the movie has a dreamlike quality to it and that is reinforced by the ethereal IDM soundtrack which is alternately beautiful and occasionally discordant. Min-ji is a terrific actress who occasionally has to convey a lot with her silence. The standout here however is Gyo-hwan, himself an independent filmmaker, who instills in Jane a kind of presence that is both vulnerable and strong. Jane imparts a good deal of wisdom to So-hyeon (not all of it listened to) as well as a good deal of compassion. Her transgender status is taken matter-of-factly; it is not commented on much and it is taken as a matter of course that she is accepted for who she is which rarely happens in films these days even now.

The movie is framed by So-hyeon’s narration in the form of reading a letter. She reads it I believe three different times during the course of the film; you are left to determine what of the letter is true and what is the invention of So-hyeon and even who it is addressed to. I found the story hard to follow at times and some might get frustrated with the circular narrative. The ending takes a loooong time to arrive and when it does the payoff is not worth the patience. Some are also going to find So-hyeon to be a frustrating lead as she often seems to just go along to get along and despite her occasionally manipulative nature seems content to shuffle along through life, head down and eyes averted.

This is one of those films that is both engaging and frustrating at the same time. The repetitive nature of the story makes it a hard sell to begin with and the fact that it overstays its welcome doesn’t make it easy to recommend. However, the powerful performances and the occasional moments of intense beauty make this hard to ignore too. Juxtaposed are moments of ugliness and violence, particularly in the second half of the film. Definitely those who have adventurous tastes in movies will want to see this; those who are a little bit more traditional in their  storytelling needs will likely find this too much to take and should move on to the latest blockbuster.

REASONS TO GO: The atmosphere is dreamlike. An ethereal score enhances that feeling.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending is way too drawn out. So-hyeon is a little bit too mousy of a character to get behind.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence and some adult themes here.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The music is from Flash Flood Darlings, a Korean electronic band.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kids
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Midnight Matinee

Birdshot


What better time to hunt with your dog than dawn?

(2016) Thriller (CJ Entertainment) Mary Joy Apostol, Manuel Aquino, John Arcilla, Arnold Reyes. Directed by Mikhail Red

The world is a hard and often cruel place. Sometimes it feels like the powers that be are far more interested in symbols than in people. For those who live on the fringes of society, eking out an existence as best they can, getting caught in the machinations of the powerful is a daily struggle to survive.

Maya (Apostol) is a young teenage girl whose father Diego (Aquino) is the caretaker for a nature preserve in the rural Philippines. He is trying to teach her how to hunt so that she can one day fend for herself if something happens to him. She has difficulties with pulling the trigger and killing a helpless animal, much to the frustration of her dad.

Mendoza (Arcilla) is a cop and relatively new to the force. He has been partnered with Domingo (Reyes), a cynical veteran who doesn’t mind bending the rules every so often. The big news around that part of the Philippines is a bus full of farmers that disappeared on their way to Manila. Domingo interrogates a low-level criminal who might know something about the missing bus. The interrogation is a bit too brutal for Mendoza but he backs his partner, especially when the information he gets leads to the discovery of the bus in the wildlife preserve that Diego takes care of. Of the passengers there is no sign except for a piece of cloth from a shirt near the edge of the jungle.

Maya goes into the preserve to prove herself to her dad and she finally finds success, shooting a large bird. The bird turns out to be a Philippine eagle which is on the endangered species list; the preserve’s rangers keep careful count of the number of them left in the preserve. Diego is understandably upset. He makes Maya bury the bird and the gun that it was shot with and awaits the arrival of the police.

The investigation into the disappearance of the bus has met with official resistance, much to Mendoza’s surprise. The two cops are ordered to discontinue their efforts to find the missing passengers and instead look into a missing Philippine eagle from the wildlife preserve. Domingo urges Mendoza to give up on the case having seen what happens to cops who disobey their superior officers but Mendoza can’t give up the case, having spoken with the wife of one of the missing who beseeches him to find out what happened to her husband. The two cops go out to interview Diego about the missing eagle; Mendoza notices that Maya is wearing an eagle claw on a makeshift necklace. Domingo resolves to bring in Diego for questioning.

Diego knows he is about to be taken in and assumes that he’ll be back by the end of the evening; he urges his daughter to stay out of sight until he comes home. Mendoza receives a threat to his family that changes his outlook. The interrogation of Diego becomes more brutal and suddenly Diego is locked up overnight with hardened criminals who are plotting an escape. When the escape is successful but the criminals commit a horrific act in getting away, Diego is forced to flee. He makes his way home with the cops hot on his trail; a reckoning is bound to occur.

Red is an emerging talent in Filipino filmmaking. He has only made two films in his nascent career but both have been highly acclaimed and won film festival awards. His latest is a genre mash-up that starts out with two seemingly disparate stories – one a police procedural, the other a rural coming-of-age tale – that are slowly weaved into a single tale. Red who also co-wrote the film skillfully merges the two stories into one, a feat that is attempted pretty regularly in indie cinema these days but rarely as successfully as seen here.

There is a good deal of social commentary to be had here. Red makes clear that he feels that society values the lives of the rural residents less than the life of a bird. There is also a look at the corruption that is rampant in the law enforcement of the Philippines; considering that the war on drugs undertaken by the dictatorial president of the Philippines has led to the deaths and disappearances of thousands of Filipinos, the film is timely indeed.

The vistas of the rural Philippines are beautifully shot and make an excellent background to the ugliness of the souls of those who are in power. Red makes good use of the landscapes in the Philippine backwaters and crafts an extraordinarily beautiful movie. Unfortunately, the movie does move at a somewhat elephantine pace and is probably a good 15 minutes too long; some of the action here is redundant and unnecessary. The shocking ending is quite depressing as well.

Still, there is a lot going for the film for more patient viewers. Red is definitely a voice who has something valid to say and a talent we’re very likely to hear a lot more from in the future. If he keeps on making films like this, you might just be seeing his name on big Hollywood features in the not-too-distant future.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography is gorgeous. It’s a very interesting view on corruption in the Philippines in an era in which they are being run by a dictator.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is slow and the movie is a bit on the long side. The ending is a bit of a downer.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and profanity and a scene of dog peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at last year’s Tokyo Film festival where it won Best Asian Futures Film, an award given to directors who have the most potential to shape filmmaking in Asia in the coming decade.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hell or High Water
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Jane