My Life in China


Father knows best.

Father knows best.

(2014) Documentary (Killer Bunny) Yau King Eng, Kenneth Eng. Directed by Kenneth Eng

Florida Film Festival 2015

Everyone comes from somewhere and nowhere is that more true than the United States. Even the Native Americans migrated over the land bridge from Asia to get here. All of us have a history that begins somewhere else.

Yau King Eng’s story began in China where he grew up under a repressive communist regime. In 1966, he made the decision to leave his impoverished village, his beloved family and everything familiar in his life to make a new and better life for himself in America. The journey was a dangerous one, involving a swim from the mainland to Macau and avoiding Chinese soldiers who weren’t above killing anyone who had the gall to want to leave.

But leave he did and to Boston he did go. At first, finding work was difficult but like many Chinese immigrants he found work in Chinese restaurants, washing dishes and sweeping floors. He worked two and sometimes more jobs, trying to make a better life for his family, eventually saving up enough to buy  a restaurant of his own.

Unfortunately, the American dream didn’t work out the way he thought it would. The restaurant business is a capricious one and a difficult one to find success in. He didn’t find that success, and the restaurant went bankrupt. To this day he continues to work for others in the restaurant business, but deep down he considers himself a failure because his restaurant didn’t make it.

In the meantime, China has prospered and the economic situation there is in many ways better than it is here. Yau decided that he would live the rest of his life out in the land where he was born, but first he would pay it a visit to make sure that this decision was a sound one. His visit back home, to the places that mattered to him, would be chronicled by his son Kenneth, a documentary filmmaker. The two of them together would experience modern China – Kenneth through fresh eyes, his father through the eyes of 1966. Their varying perspectives don’t really constitute the subject here; rather, it is more a journey of discovery for Kenneth as the tales of his father’s struggles in his homeland come to life and he develops a new perspective – and a new respect – for his dad.

Some of the film is quite heartwarming as we witness father and son develop new and stronger bonds between them. Some of the film is a bit harrowing as we are treated to the story of Yau King Eng’s defection and the courage and perseverance it took for him to make the journey. Much of the film, however, is a bit like watching home movies as we see relatives and friends gather, some of whom have found success and even wealth at home, another dagger in the heart of the prodigal son who left. The old men, smoking in kitchens while the women prepare feasts of welcoming, the elders reminiscing about times gone by. In short, very much what happens in YOUR living room when an out-of-town relative visits.

The home movie feel I think is deliberate as Eng not only makes his father’s story an individual one, but connects his family’s story with our own. Yes, ostensibly Eng is trying to tell a singular story but what makes this film successful is that he is able to relate much of it to our own situations, our own families, our own lives.

This isn’t the kind of movie that trumpets thunderous anthems from mountaintops (although the music in the film is quite beautiful), but rather quietly works its way into our hearts and finds the common ground that binds us all. Every family has stories; watching this movie prompting me to ask my mom about hers. Yes, I’m a child of immigrants as well so the movie hit home a lot closer than it might those who are farther removed from their own family’s immigrant experience. Even so, it is the stories of our mothers and fathers that are part of our own stories; understanding those stories help us understand who we are and where we’re from. For that alone, this is must-see viewing. While the movie is just starting to show up on the festival circuit, hopefully it’ll soon play at a film festival near you, or eventually make it onto a broadcast medium. I sure hope so; I’d love to see this movie again.

REASONS TO GO: Nicely illustrates the dichotomy of culture in China. Tells a moving and compelling story. Heartwarming.
REASONS TO STAY: Has a bit of a home movie feel to it, although I think that’s appropriate.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all members of the family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Eng’s last feature-length film, Kokoyaku: High School Baseball received an airing on PBS’ POV series.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/17/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Romantico
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Infini

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Good Neighbors


Jay Baruchel is lost in the kitchen.

Jay Baruchel is lost in the kitchen.

(2010) Psychological Thriller (Magnolia) Jay Baruchel, Scott Speedman, Emily Hampshire, Xavier Dolan, Gary Farmer, Kaniehtiio Horn, Pat Kiley, Michelle Lanctot, Jacob Tierney, Anne-Marie Cadieux, Clara Furey, Diane D’Aquila, Sean Lu, Kevin Tierney, Nathalie Girard. Directed by Jacob Tierney

We like to think we know our neighbors. We hang out with them, invite them into our homes, share confidences with them, sometimes we even have their backs and expect that they have ours. But how well do we really know them?

Louise (Hampshire) lives in an apartment building in Montreal’s Notre Dame de Grace district. She works at a Chinese restaurant as a waitress. When one of her co-workers disappears under suspicious circumstances, she suspects it’s the work of a serial rapist and murderer who has been terrorizing the district. She begins to follow the case in the newspaper obsessively.

She’s kind of a cold fish who lives with her cats and generally eschews human contact in favor of feline contact. One of the few exceptions is Spencer (Speedman), a paraplegic who lives on the ground floor of the building. He lost the use of his legs in an automobile accident that claimed the life of his wife. Like Louise, he’s a bit obsessed with the same serial killer. He can be randomly cruel and disarming literally in the same sentence.

Into this mix comes Victor (Baruchel), a somewhat socially awkward school teacher just returned to Montreal after spending time in China. He develops an instant crush on Louise and lobbies hard to develop a friendship with Spencer.  Victor’s attempts at romance begin to take a creepy turn – he refers to Louise as his fiancée even though the two of them haven’t even been on a date yet.

When an abusive alcoholic woman in the building turns up dead, signs point to the work of the serial killer and it becomes apparent that he may well be among them in their own building. Is there safety in your own home when there is already a killer living there?

Canadian director Tierney has a fine hand with suspense and knows how to keep an audience on the edge of their seats. This isn’t a generic thriller in which the identity of the killer is revealed at the end of the film – in fact, this isn’t a whodunit in the sense that you find out surprisingly early who done it.  It becomes more of a cat and mouse thriller, although at times you’re not sure who the cat is and who is the mouse.

As far as I can make out, there is a highly Freudian aspect to the film; Louise, Spencer and Victor represent the superego, the id and the ego which I think is a terribly innovative idea, although I wish they’d have been fleshed out just a teeny bit more. The characters are a bit on the one-dimensional side, although Baruchel, Speedman and Hampshire all do pretty well with what they’re given.

Some of the violence and sex here is pretty graphic and disturbing in places, so those who are susceptible to such things might think twice before streaming, renting or buying this bad boy. And while I understand the motivation to keep things more or less in the apartment building, you have this incredibly beautiful city (Montreal) which is even more beautiful in many ways in the dead of winter and choose not to use it which completely mystifies me. Cinematographer Guy Dufaux shows a really good eye in some of his shots but  sadly doesn’t get to exercise it as much as I would have liked.

However despite some of the film’s flaws, the engineering of it is so masterful and the suspense layered on so perfectly that I can overlook some things that don’t work as well. Overall this is a taut, well-paced thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat and a nice little hidden gem worth seeking out on Netflix, Blockbuster or whatever source of streaming you choose to patronize.

WHY RENT THIS: Skews the genre somewhat. Nicely suspenseful despite telegraphing identity of killer too early

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Unnecessarily claustrophobic. Character development is a little bit one-dimensional.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly intense violence and just as intense sexuality as well as some fairly explicit nudity not to mention a plethora of cursing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The working title was Notre Dame de Grace named for the district in Montreal where the action takes place and where the movie was filmed.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $7,072 on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pacific Heights

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Redemption Road

John Dies at the End


You don't want to use the soy sauce at THIS Chinese joint.

You don’t want to use the soy sauce at THIS Chinese joint.

(2012) Horror (Magnet) Chase Williamson, Rob Mayes, Paul Giamatti, Clancy Brown, Glynn Turman, Doug Jones, Daniel Roebuck, Fabianne Therese, Jonny Weston, Jimmy Wong, Tai Bennett, Allison Weissman, Angus Scrimm, Prandihi Varshney, Riley Rose Critchlow, Helena Mehalis, Maria Mehalis. Directed by Don Coscarelli

FFF Banner 2012

The world is divided into two kinds of people; those who get John Dies at the End and those who don’t. Those who do appreciate fun for its own sake, and don’t mind a good genre mash-up. They don’t need a conventional narrative structure and are willing to sacrifice plot coherency for a good laugh…or a fiendishly fun gross-out. They are the sorts who read webcomics religiously, are students of pop culture, think Arrested Development just might be the best television show ever made, don’t mind staying up 36 straight hours playing a good videogame or occasionally partake of a little recreational drug use. Or perhaps all of the above.

David Wong (Williamson) – who isn’t Chinese; he just changed his name to make it harder to find him – meets with reporter Arnie Blondestone (Giamatti) – who isn’t blonde – in a Chinese restaurant. David and his partner John (Mayes) are a kind of demonic Ghostbusters if you will. They’re nearly as well known in the community as Dr. Albert Marconi (Brown) and Arnie wants to get their story.

But David’s story is not the usual kind. David and John have been using a drug with the street name of soy sauce because of its appearance. However this is one of those drugs that you don’t choose, it chooses you. Some people ingest it and become…altered. For David and John however, they develop some rudimentary psychic powers like the ability to read minds, see the future, communicate with the dead and more importantly see demonic presences that the ordinary living can’t detect.

Basically, what’s going on is that there is a biological supercomputer in an alternate universe that wants to break into our universe and take over since it already reigns supreme where it lives. I guess even near-omnipotent biological supercomputers get bored too. Anyway it, and the people that it controls, have been trying to break into our dimension for decades without success but now that David and John have actually done it, the computer wants to know how they did it and is willing to do whatever it takes to get that knowledge. For David and John’s part they’d much rather be sleeping.

That’s a very rudimentary outline of the plot and doesn’t really give you too much of a sense of the real lunacy going on. Based on the book by the same name by David Wong (who is the pseudonym of Jason Pargin), the movie has all the genre-bending fun from the novel coupled with the visual sense of Coscarelli who some might remember as the man who gave us the Phantasm movies as well as the cult hit Bubba Ho-Tep. As you can tell from his resume, this kind of thing is right in his wheelhouse.

Some will find a bit of glee in trying to determine which other movies this most resembles. For example, it has the philosophical sci-fi ramblings of a Donnie Darko but also the hip quotient of a Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. There’s the roller coaster gore quotient of Army of Darkness and the trans-dimensional goof of Big Trouble in Little China. I could go on but you get the picture.

Williamson and Mayes make a good team. The chemistry is right there between them, two longtime friends who often speak in their own code (brought to ridiculous levels) but are nonetheless insanely loyal to each other. Their banter is realistic and makes the relationship and bond between them seem more natural and organic.

They get some decent support as well. Turman is good as a philosophical police detective who knows a lot more than he wants to know, while Brown plays a kind of Eurotrash self-help book author who has a beautiful entourage but doesn’t just talk the talk. I was also kind of fond of Weston as a hip-hop talking gangsta who is lily-white and looks and sounds ridiculous but doesn’t know it; you see a lot of those sorts on TV and in real life and it’s nice to see someone acknowledge that it’s moronic even though it’s probably not politically correct to do so. Le sigh.

The effects are mostly practical and a bit old school but they still work. Some of them are pretty nifty, like the police officer’s moustache that abruptly comes to life and starts fluttering about the room like a butterfly, or a freezer full of meat that assembles to become a meat monster (okay, that one was a bit cheesy I’ll grant you).

This one’s a roller coaster ride through current slacker culture and if there’s a complaint to be had, it’s that this is probably not a movie that’s going to age well and will be likely viewed as a product of its time as movies that cater to youth culture inevitably do. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyed for what it is in the here and now, nor does it mean that it doesn’t excel at what it is aiming for. This isn’t exactly fun for the whole family – some people are simply not going to get it and truthfully they’re probably never going to get it – but that doesn’t mean that those who do shouldn’t get the pleasure of knowing they’re one of the club.

REASONS TO GO: One hell of a mindf*ck. Psychedelic horror that refuses to take itself seriously. Imaginative visuals and fun throughout.

REASONS TO STAY: May freak one’s freak a little too much. Some may find the story confusing and convoluted.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a whole lot of violence and gore, plenty of bad language,  a scene or two of nudity and plenty of drug content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: According to the FedEx package that John sends himself at the mall, his full name is John Cheese.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/25/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100; the reviews are decidedly mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cabin in the Woods

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Olympus Has Fallen

The High Cost of Living


 

The High Cost of Living

Zach Braff’s fortunes have plummeted since Scrubs was canceled as the mean streets of Montreal can attest.

 

(2010) Drama (Tribeca) Zach Braff, Isabelle Blais, Patrick Labbe, Aimee Lee, Julian Lo, Sean Lu, Mylene Savoie, Paula Jean Hixson, Pierre Gendron, Nicole Barber, Anick Lemay, Graham Cuthbertson, Tony Robinow, Kyle Switzer, Ian Finlay, Nicole Jones. Directed by Deborah Chow

There are those who believe that life is a chain of random events strung together linked only by our presence in them. It’s not destiny, it’s not fate – it’s just random chance. People drop in and out of our lives like summer storms and some leave more of an impression than others.

Henry Welles (Braff) is an American living in Montreal on an expired visa. He sells stolen prescription drugs to make ends meet and goes club-hopping at night to  deliver his goods to a variety of clients. He lives above a Chinese food restaurant and those around him don’t know what he does for a living.

Nathalie (Blais) is pregnant and her husband Michel (Labbe) alternately dotes on her and treats her with indifference. One night she feels the labor pains begin – prematurely. Her husband is out so she calls a cab. The visibility on the snowy night is poor so she steps into the street looking for the cab to take her to the hospital. She is promptly struck from behind by a cab going the wrong way up a one way street.

She winds up with a concussion but worse still the baby dies in utero. Normally labor would be induced but the doctors don’t think that a stillbirth would be the best thing for her mental state so she is forced to carry the dead fetus for a couple of weeks longer. A couple of weeks after she gets out of the hospital, she is sitting in a cafe having a drink when a busybody chastises her for drinking while obviously pregnant. She loses it and is aided by Henry, whose compassion and gentle caring nature touches her, unlike her husband who grows more distant with each passing day, blaming Nathalie for losing his child. He and Nathalie eventually split up.

But she and Henry begin to form a strong relationship, even after she discovers what he does for a living. But she won’t be so sanguine when she finds out that it was Henry who ran her down and left her and her baby to die. And he doesn’t know how to tell her

This is not a sunshine and light kind of film but it isn’t a complete death dirge either. This is more about connections, and the very fragile nature of them, of how we sin against one another sometimes and how redemption is not always possible – but forgiveness can be. These are all some pretty deep subjects, and the lot of them in a single film is a pretty daunting task but Chow actually does pretty well with them.

Part of her success is in her casting. Both Braff and Blais (a veteran French-Canadian actress) do some superb work in their roles. Braff in particular is best-known for comedies (he became a fixture on hipper radars with “Scrubs”) but shows he has some dramatic chops that he can boast as well. I’m not sure he’s ready for mainstream leading man-ness but he certainly can hold a film on his shoulders.

Unfortunately there are too many plot points that simply don’t bear much weight. For example, there is no doctor alive who would have a woman carry a dead fetus in her womb for several weeks before she is emotionally ready to have it taken out. First of all, that’s essentially a rotting carcass she has inside of her and no doubt there would be dangers of infections galore and from a medical standpoint I’d think getting it out as quickly and as humanely as possible would be the order of the day. Even if that weren’t the case, I think it would be far more traumatic for a woman to be carrying around her dead baby inside her than to have it taken out. I don’t know; I’m obviously a woman but I suspect most women would agree with me.

The situation is a bit cliché but a movie could withstand that and still be enjoyable. It’s just that there’s too many of them here, from the quirky neighbors to the insensitive husband to…well, that would be telling. In any case, Chow the director deserved better than Chow the writer was able to deliver.

That’s not to say that Chow the writer doesn’t show some promise but I think it’s safe to say she’s more advanced at this moment as a director than she is as a writer. Given some quality material, I think she’s got a career chock full of potential. However, this film is merely a pretty good start for a first-time director with some good performances and some good moments. It’s worth seeing for Braff’s performance but those who aren’t into him might be forgiven if they give this a pass.

WHY RENT THIS: The acting is pretty good, particularly from Blais and Braff.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A few too many indie clichés and a preposterous plot submarine the film’s best intentions.

FAMILY VALUES: There is drug use, some violence, and plenty of sexuality. There is also a plethora of foul words throughout.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Chow’s first feature film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a brief interview with Braff and a short film, Mr. Stache.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Town

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Safety Not Guaranteed