What’s in the Darkness (Hei chu you shen me)


Qu Jing is just looking for some clues.

Qu Jing is just looking for some clues.

(2016) Drama (HH Pictures) Su Xiaotong, Guo Xiao, Liu Dan, Lu Qiwei, Zhou Kui, Jiang Xueming, Li Shiru, Wu Juejin, Ren Long, Liu Jieyi, Gu Qilin, Li Mei, Jia Zhigang, Deng Gang, Wang Zhengping, Jiu Qi, Han Yuye, Tian Feng, Luo Wei, Shi Ying, Yan Jia, Ma Chenxiang, Yu Zhengnan, Huang Xiaoya, Wu Yue, Du Gangqiang, Liu Kaiming, Huang Yan, Xia Hongxia. Directed by Yichun Wang

NYAFF

Growing up is a dangerous, frightening thing. It’s a struggle, dealing with all the hormones coursing through your body, trying to understand the world around you as best you can without much help from your parents and other adult figures in your life, although they often mean well; they just don’t get what you’re going through and in any case, they never have anything good to say about you – it’s all just complain, complain, complain and nothing you do is ever right. Lucky for you, they don’t have time for anyone but themselves and frankly, you want to keep it that way.

Qu Jing (Xiaotong) feels exactly that way. She’s a pre-pubescent girl in a Chinese mainland technical high school in the Hubei province in 1991. In the late spring, the nude body of a woman is found in the local lake. She’d been raped and murdered, and a crude cross carved into her thigh. Qu Jing’s dad, Qu Zhicheng (Xiao) is a police officer, one who happens to have been trained in forensic medicine. He’s the butt of jokes to his peers and a source for exasperation to his commanding officer, Chief Cao (Shiru). He prefers to use deductive reasoning and follow clues while his fellows prefer choosing suspects pretty much at random and beating confessions out of them. It keeps the rate of conviction impressively high.

When a second victim is found, pressure is put on the cops to solve the case and they haul in a suspect (Gang) and get him to confess to the crime. Qu Zhicheng is skeptical about the accuracy of their investigation; the discovery of another victim, killed while the suspect is in police custody, proves him right.

Qu Jing is having problems of her own. Her mother (Dan) is a shrill shrew, unhappy in her marriage and her life and taking out all her issues on her family. Zhang Xue (Qiwei) is Jing’s best friend but Xue’s not the nicest person ever; she is condescending to the point of arrogance, knowing that her beauty and sexuality will take her far – far out of town, which is what she wants to be (as far as the more tropical Hanmei resorts if she has her way). Xue is sexually active and has attracted the attention of Zhao Fei (Xueming), a local tough guy and petty criminal.

Qu Jing is beginning to have hormonal shifts that are causing her to think about sex. She asks questions like ‘”Does giving birth hurt?” and reads clinical manuals, trying to find out everything she can. She goes to romance movies and watches the love scenes with great interest. When Xue disappears after being thrown out of class for falling asleep, the murders begin to come frighteningly close to home.

I originally listed this as a suspense film but changed my mind; it’s not a mystery. It’s more of a drama. This isn’t a police procedural. The crimes here hang on the periphery, coloring the proceedings but never dominating them. Yichun wrote this as largely autobiographical. Part of that is why this is set in the era that it is, and the era this takes place in is critical to why this movie exists.

China was on the verge of changing its economic structure from pure communism to a blend of communism and capitalism which it employs today. While the rural areas, such as the one this was set in, still carried over many of the same restrictive policies that existed for the past decades, change was in the air.

The performances here are interesting. Xiaotong is a real find; 17 years old when she made this, she shows a great deal of emotional depth, from playful to petulant, sullen to joyful.  She epitomizes the confusion and pain of growing up, particularly in a household where she’s largely reminded at how much it cost the family to even bring her in to this world. She was the second child in an era when families that had more than one child suffered heavy economic penalties for it; her older brother, away at university, doesn’t appear other than as a reference in the film.

Guo Xiao also does an outstanding job as the somewhat nebbish police officer, adrift in a sea of incompetent goons. He lashes out at his daughter, henpecked by his wife and laughed at by his fellow officers. Deep down however he loves his daughter as only a devoted father can. He shows it in between bouts of screaming at her for her transgressions, real or imagined.

The dynamic here is a lot different than what we’re used to from Western films. The police are not only as fallible as all get out, they’re also clods who do little constructive to protect or serve. Fathers and mothers aren’t supportive and wise; they have their own hang-ups and issues and don’t necessarily have their children’s best interests at heart at all times.

The society they live in is repressive and prudish but something darker lurks beneath the surface at all time. All around Qu Jing and Xu there are men leering lecherously; an old man in a senior home makes a pass at young Qu Jing in a particularly loathsome manner. The message here seems to be that while some things can be repressed on a societal level, that doesn’t mean those urges aren’t still there.

The senior home sequence and others like it might be off-putting for some who may be a little queasy at the sexualizing of prepubescent and pubescent girls, who are often made to wear make-up for choir performances and school functions.

This doesn’t have the kind of pace you’d find in a typical mystery. There are no gun battles, no car chases, no fistfights. The ending is abrupt and disconcerting. We don’t get much detail on what the police are doing to solve the crime (other than picking up the wrong people and forcing them to confess). We get a sense that after the film ends, things aren’t going to change much.

When all is said and done, this is more of a slice of life type of film; this particular slice happens to have a serial killer in it. It’s like getting a slice of mincemeat pie and biting into a clove. It’s just the luck of the draw. However, this is a tasty slice of pie from someone you can tell is going to only get better at baking pies. I can’t wait to see what comes next from Yichun’s oven.

REASONS TO GO: Unsettling atmosphere keeps viewers from getting too comfortable. Interesting portrait of a period in China less familiar to the West.
REASONS TO STAY: Sexualizing of young girls is a bit off-putting. Too slow-paced for most American audiences.
FAMILY VALUES: Sexual content, some foul language and a disturbing image or two.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Qu Jing is the same age as director Yichun would have been in 1991.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Diary of a Serial Killer
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Buddymoon

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Cold Nights, Hot Salsa


Latin passion.

Latin passion.

(2015) Documentary (WDR Productions) Victor Contreras, Katia Morales, Eddie “Mambo King” Torres, Tito Ortos, Tamara Livolsi, Edson Vallon, Albert Torres, Billy Fajardo, Katie Marlow. Directed by Edwin Gailits

Some years ago as a rock critic, I did a cover story for the newspaper I worked for on the salsa scene locally. It was concentrated mostly in the Latin Quarter of the town but I wanted to show more than just what preconceptions of the scene might bring; I chose as the person through whose eyes my readers would enter the scene through was an affluent tech company administrator; he was third generation American, had graduated from Stanford and loved to go to the clubs on weekends and dance to the beat of the irresistible music that was played in his home the entire time he grew up. He was young, forward-thinking and often brought his non-Hispanic friends with them. Some went once and never returned but quite a few, he told me, came back almost every time he went dancing and some even on their own.

This film gives us a glimpse at why that happened to a very large extent. Salsa is a form of dance that is sensuous and requires virtually no instruction to become proficient in it. Salsa isn’t about formal moves so much as it is about passion; you either have it in you or you don’t and quite frankly, most of us do. I’ve heard it described as sex without getting naked, and that’s about as accurate a description as I’ve encountered.

An entire competitive salsa dancing scene has sprung up over the past decade or so with a world championship event being broadcast on ESPN. Victor Contreras and Katia Morales are two Canadians living in Montreal who met in a dance company and found a mutual love for salsa that brought them into a romantic relationship. The two became dance partners as well as boyfriend and girlfriend, and tried to hone their craft in a city which isn’t known for its Latin population, although there is a fair portion of Hispanics there.

With the help of teachers like Albert Torres and supporters like fellow dancers Billy Fajardo and Katie Marlow, who are semi-retired from competition and have become head judges for the World Salsa Championships, they hone their craft and eventually win the Canadian championship, earning them the right to compete at the World Championships.

The film follows the couple through their first international competition and through bitter disappointment at the 3rd Annual World Championship. Their relationship undergoes severe stress as they return home to lick their wounds and start over, ever-striving to improve until they are ready to tackle the 4th Annual World Championships in Orlando.

We see an awful lot of rehearsal, but the scenes from the competitions are the most compelling; we see the fluid movements, the almost erotic body positioning, the colorful costumes and the incredible interaction between partners; the rehearsal footage serves to put the finished routines in context as we get a sense of the work that goes in to perfecting these routines.

The trouble is that towards the end we see couple after couple at the championships and it all begins to blend together a little bit. There are a number of different divisions within the Championships and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what the differences were between them; some seemed to be more athletic and others more romantic. I would have liked a bit more explanation as to what these different divisions were and how the dancers were judged.

Like a lot of documentaries that take place in competitive environments, the dramatic tension comes from getting to know the participants and gaining a rooting interest in their success. Contreras and Morales are both engaging young people who clearly love to dance and just as clearly love each other, although at times the road is a bit rocky, romantically speaking. While Victor is a bit more outgoing, I found myself more focused on Katia not just because of her beauty but because she has a kind of genuineness that Victor occasionally doesn’t; at times he sounds like he’s reading a promo script rather than speaking from the heart, but that isn’t a bad thing. He’s more articulate in a lot of ways than his partner when he is speaking genuinely.

This is a short documentary, just under an hour long. It is just entering the festival circuit so expect to see it at your local film festival this fall and spring. Likely it will also find it’s way onto either TV broadcast or online streaming service or both; keep an eye out for it when it does.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the dance moves are incredible. Victor and Katia are engaging subjects.
REASONS TO STAY: Towards the end the different dance routines begin to blend together. Could have used an explanation of the different divisions of competition and how the competitions work.
FAMILY VALUES: Some dance-based sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmaker was inspired to pursue this as a documentary subject after a trip to Havana when he noticed during a walk back to his hotel after a night in the clubs how music was coming out of nearly every open doorway and he observed people dancing on their balconies and in their living rooms.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/27/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: First Position
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Turbo Kid

Holy Motors


Roses are red...and delicious!

Roses are red…and delicious!

(2012) Art House (Indomina) Denis Lavant, Edith Scob, Eva Mendes, Kylie Minogue, Geoffrey Carey, Elise Lhommeau, Jeanne Disson, Michel Piccoli,  Leos Carax, Nastya Golubeva Carax, Reda Oumouzoune, Zlata, Annabelle Dexter-Jones, Elise Caron. Directed by Leos Carax

Making sense can be overrated. Our world is a series of contradictions made by hypocrites and swallowed whole by most of us who merely want to live our lives without too much interference. Sometimes it feels like an eccentric French movie that we’re all taking part in.

Leos Carax can feel your pain, ladies and gentlemen. He knows exactly how you feel. Fortunately, as a director of eccentric French movies, he can do something about it.

We meet Monsieur Oscar (Lavant) on a movie screen (don’t ignore the preamble in which a sleeping man finds himself hearing sounds of a harbor while planes land at the airport outside his window, then proceeds to use a key growing out of his finger to open a door which leads into a movie theater – that’s director Carax himself, setting you up for the rest of the film) in which he appears to be

Monsieur Oscar climbs into the back of a limousine, driven by the taciturn Celine (Scob) into Paris to drive him from place to place for a series of appointments. He is given a file as he approaches each one. When he arrives at each destination and exits the limousine, he is not the same as he entered the limousine.

In one location he’s an old crone begging for change, mumbling about how sad her lot in life is. The next he’s a virtual reality ninja warrior whose shortcomings lead him into a reptilian sex session with…well, a kind of snake-like alien dragon thingy. Then he’s a nearly-mute chain-smoking sewer-dwelling troglodyte who kidnaps a supermodel (Mendes) from a famous Paris cemetery (where the headstones read “see my website”) and takes her to his subterranean lair where he changes her dress into a Muslim outfit after which he strips naked and lays with his head in her lap (and with a raging erection) while she sings him to sleep with a lullaby.

He’s a disapproving father with an unpopular teenage daughter who lies about her misery. Which gives him a full opportunity to show what assholes fathers can be. Then he meets an old lover (Minogue) for possibly the last time, in a bittersweet melancholy musical number – you read that right, a musical number. Not so much with dancing and production effects but more a solo act with a certain wistfulness. It’s actually quite moving.

He’s an assassin killing someone who looks suspiciously like himself. He’s an old man on his deathbed consoling his beloved niece and saying goodbye. And finally, he’s a family man with a highly unusual family.

We get the sense that he’s being filmed in all of these appointments – for whom? What for? The inside of his limousine is much bigger than the outside, a kind of low-tech TARDIS with a make-up table and costumes – tall enough to stand up in, although from the outside it wouldn’t appear so.

There are connections to other films here. Scob, who once starred in a horror film called Eyes Without a Face dons the mask she wore in that film near the end of this one. Lavant’s troglodyte character has also made a previous appearance – in the Carax-directed segment of the anthology film Tokyo! complete with the same Godzilla-like musical accompaniment. His appearance is far more brief here (and thankfully, no courtroom scene afterwards) but like all of the scenes is oddly touching in one way or another.

Da Queen had a hard time with this movie. She’s not really into movies that don’t have some kind of sense. To her and to others who find this a hard movie to get behind, the thing to remember here is that this is a film meant to be experienced rather than watched passively. You are meant to let the images and dialogue wash over you and let it take you wherever your mind wanders to.

I admit that I have to be in the right frame of mind for a film like this and I wasn’t completely there when I saw it at the Enzian. Not all the segments connected with me (the crone sequence for example was too brief and nothing really happened; the father/daughter sequence just rang false to me) but those that did connected deeply, either through the fascinating images or the places they took my mind/heart/both to.

Lavant gives a magnificent performance, his pliable face changing with each segment. Each mood that is engineered here is different from the one that preceded it, sometimes subtly. Overall there’s a kind of bittersweet vibe that is like a moment of nostalgia for a moment that has been lived once and will never be lived in again. There is enough whimsy to bring a smile to the face but not enough to get us to French surreality – this is no Cirque du Soleil.

This isn’t a movie that spoonfeeds things to its audience; you have to work for it and use your noggin and your heart. That might not be why you go to the movies – you might be looking to turn your mind and heart off for an hour or two and that’s okay. Holy Motors is a movie for people who like puzzles, who like a good challenge. It’s abstract art and what you bring into the theater is largely going to determine how you view Holy Motors. It’s not for everybody – but it might be for you.

REASONS TO GO: Sometimes funny, sometimes touching, always intriguing. Lavant gives a performance that is multi-faceted.

REASONS TO STAY: Can be disjointed and jarring. Doesn’t always make sense.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some disturbing images, sexuality and brief graphic nudity, some violence and bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The supermodel part was written with Kate Moss in mind and offered to her; she seriously considered it but her impending wedding was more of a priority (imagine that) so she passed. The part went to Eva Mendes instead but the character is still called Kay M in honor of who it was written for.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/29/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 84/100. No doubt about it, the critics love it.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Forbidden Zone

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters