The Truth Beneath (Bi-mil-eun eobs-da)


Being a power couple isn’t always enough.

(2016) Thriller (CJ Entertainment) Ye-jin Son, Ju-hyuk Kim, Yu-hwa Choi, Cheol-woo Han, Eui-sung Kim, Gin-goo Kim, Min-jae Kim, So-hee Kim, Sang-hee Lee, Gene Woo Park, Ji-Hoon Shin. Directed by Kyoug-mi Lee

There aren’t many things worse than a missing child. Your mind is filled with the worst possible case scenario but at the same time you are holding out hope that said child will return home safe and sound. It’s the not knowing that drives us crazy.

Jong-chan (J-h Kim) is a former news anchor running for the Korean national assembly against entrenched politician No Jae-soon (E-s Kim). His wife Yeon-hong (Son) is the perfect political wife; beautiful, loyal, elegant and erudite. On the first day of their campaign however their mercurial teenage daughter Min-jin (Shin) disappears. At first nobody seems to be all that worried; even though Min-jin is an honors student and by all accounts a good girl, she wasn’t always that way.

Yeon-hong is frantic, particularly when her husband’s campaign managers and the police seem unfazed by the girl’s absence. No is making hay on the incident as Jong-chan is running on a family values platform with the ironic catchphrase “Protecting your children.” No shows no shame in pointing out that Jong-chan is having problems protecting his own.

The more that Yeon-hong looks into her daughter’s disappearance, the more troubled she gets. It turns out that Min-jin was a much different girl than her mother believed. She was being bullied at school and had taken up with a kind of pop punk girls band (the music for whom isn’t half bad). She was best friends with Choi Mi-ok (S-h Kim) who seems unnaturally possessive towards her friend. The more Yeon-hong finds out, the more convinced she becomes that the trail to her daughter’s disappearance leads to a shadowy link between her school and her father’s campaign.

This starts out as a political thriller but as the investigation of Yeon-hong continues it becomes more of a standard potboiler. That’s not to say that this isn’t head and shoulders over most of the ilk – there is a lot here to like, chief among them the performance of Son which would be getting her all kinds of notice were this film made in Hollywood.

For those who like acclaimed director Park Chan-woo, Lee is a disciple of the Korean filmmaker and in fact got Chan-woo to co-write the script. There is much of his influence on the film overall, from some of the more taboo elements of the plot (which I won’t reveal here) to the labyrinthine plot that twists and turns through a maze of characters, red herrings and half-glimpsed clues.

Lee has an excellent visual sense which he exercises a little too freely perhaps. There is a surfeit of flashbacks and special effects shots (raindrops frozen in mid-air for example, an Asian staple) to the point where it can be difficult to keep up with the plot. Eventually the audience is left feeling that they don’t have a clue what’s going on which is to say that few of the characters in the film have either.

Still despite the occasional forays into “look ma, I’m directing” territory, the movie is a solid thriller that will keep the viewer guessing while making some occasionally dazzling sequences that will either throw you for a loop or leave you breathless. Korean cinema is an equal to its counterparts in Japan and China although most true cinema buffs already know that. It’s time the world in general discovered that too.

REASONS TO GO: The film starts off a little choppy but ends up pulling together nicely. There is an eerie feeling here that isn’t supernatural. Son gives an exemplary performance.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie starts off as a political thriller but eventually morphs into a generic thriller. The flashback-heavy plot is occasionally hard to follow.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, some grisly images, brief graphic nudity, sexuality and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The lead actors Son and J-h Kim both previously starred together in the 2008 comedy My Wife Got Married.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Ides of March
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

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The Road to Mandalay


Oh, what a tangled web we weave.

(2016) Drama (Fine Time) Kai Ko, Ke-Xi Wu. Directed by Midi Z

Illegal immigration is at an epidemic all over the world. Repressive regimes, civil wars, genocides and economic hardships are forcing thousands and millions of people to leave their homes to seek a better life elsewhere. The citizens of Myanmar which most of us know as Burma and whose land has been torn by civil war as well as suffering under a particularly brutal military junta ruling their nation with an iron fist, are among those looking for a way out of their troubled land.

Lianquing (Wu) is among those streaming out into neighboring Thailand. She is rowed down a river to a meeting with smugglers who are to drive them over the border. Although she only has the cash to pay for passage in the trunk, a young man from her village – Guo (Ko) – gallantly changes places with her, giving her the expensive and much coveted passenger seat.

While it is obvious that Guo has a big-time crush on her, it is also just as obvious that their life goals are very different. Lianquing wants to get a Thai passport (by hook or by crook) and eventually move to Taiwan where there is opportunity to make something of herself whereas Guo has no ambition other than to one day return to Burma with enough cash to open up a stall where he can sell imported clothes at cut-rate prices.

Conditions are hard and without proper documents it is nearly impossible to find good jobs. There is enormous corruption and the undocumented workers work in unsafe and unsanitary conditions, working brutal hours and having to pay “fees” to their employers and immigration officials in order to do it. Lianquing gets arrested in an immigration raid and is bailed out by Guo. By this time her cousin Hua, dispirited after losing her own job due to a lack of proper documents, throws Lianquing out after telling her to expect the same. Although Guo offers his sister’s house rent-free, the fiercely independent Lianquing prefers to live in a dormitory with other undocumented workers.

She gets work in the same factory that Guo works in and their romance slowly begins to take hold, although things are often rocky between them. Guo for one thing thinks her attempts to get proper documentation are a waste of time and money, and he is there time after time to pick up the pieces when her hopes and dreams are shattered when she pays some pretty hefty sums for papers that are useless to her cause. Desperate, she makes a choice that will change both their lives forever.

The plight of immigrants leaving Burma is a favorite subject of director Midi Z and this may well be the most focused and powerful of his four films to date. Certainly he gets some extremely strong performances from both his leads; I was most impressed by the efforts of Wu who is often stone-faced, using her body language to convey her emotional state and to say things she can’t say out loud. Ko has terrific chemistry with her, both awkward and tender as he tries to win her and is increasingly frustrated by her refusal to go further into a relationship than he would like.

One of the things that I found that worked real well here is that the images are often bright and sunny, and the tone almost cheerful despite the plight of Lianquing and Guo which makes for visual irony. Beautiful place, terrible circumstances and of course the two make for a meaningful juxtaposition.

The drawback here is that the movie is paced as if it has nowhere particular to go. There are plenty of shots of Lianquing staring into the darkness; I suppose that is meant to portray her state of mind but as I said earlier she doesn’t utilize a whole lot of facial expression here. These shots as time goes on get less and less useful and more and more unnecessary.

Mostly we seem to be more concerned with Syrian refugees and Central American refugees; we tend to forget that there are people fleeing oppression all over the glove. The brutal existence of undocumented workers is nothing to celebrate, but if it wasn’t better than the lives these illegal immigrants were fleeing than they’d probably stay put. Definitely this is an important film that calls clarion to up and coming talents in the forms of Ko, Wu and Midi Z.

REASONS TO GO: The filmmakers try to portray a realistic depiction of the plight of illegal immigrants in Asia. Wu acts mainly through body language rather than facial expression – effectively so. The cinematography utilizes a lot of natural light, giving a chillingly cheerful tone to a movie that is downbeat.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is way too slow – there are far too many shots of Lianquing staring at nothing in the darkness.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some brief but disturbing images as well as adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Midi Z was born in Burma (also known as Myanmar) but he left the repressive regime there to attend art school in Taiwan where he currently resides.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: English as a Second Language
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The Truth Beneath

Battle of Memories (Ji yi da shi)


This battle may remain in your memory.

(2017) Psychological Thriller (China Lion) Bo Huang, Jinglei Xu, Yihong Duan, Zishan Yang, Tiffany Hsu, Hanmeng Du, Jieli Liang, Eoin O’Brien, Zhener Wang. Directed by Leste Chen

What makes us the person we are? While some would say genetics there are those who insist that it is our memories that make us who we are. If that is true, it stands to reason that if those memories are taken away that we would change as people.

It is the year 2025 and the technology exists to “surgically” remove unwanted memories from the human brain utilizing a Lasik-like device. Bestselling author Jiang Feng (Huang) is undergoing this treatment. He and his wife Zhang Daichen (Xu) are divorcing and he finds his memories of her too painful. However when the procedure is completed she insists that she won’t sign the papers until the memories are reinserted.

Fortunately, the new technology has a kind of “buyer’s remorse” feature that allows those memories to be put back in, although it will take 72 hours for the memories to fully reconstitute. Once that happens, they cannot be removed again. Therefore Zhang can sign the papers and Jiang can have the memories once again removed so long as she signs within three days.

However, something is wrong – Jiang is having flashbacks of murder, a murder he didn’t commit. It soon becomes apparent that a gigantic screw-up has taken place – he’s been given the memories of the wrong man and it turns out that the man is a serial murderer. When Jiang approaches detectives Shen (Duan) and Lei (Liang) they are at first skeptical. As Jiang’s memories become more and more clear they soon realize he’s telling the truth but they lock him up anyway – after all, he could be the actual killer trying to give himself an alibi. He is put under the psychiatric care of Chen Shanshan (Hsu).

Jiang is anxious to co-operate but he has an ulterior motive; it stands to reason that if he has the wrong memories, the real killer has his own. With his wife Daichen in mortal danger, Jiang gets more and more frantic. Worse still, the memories are  beginning to change Jiang fundamentally, turning him from a gentle, sweet man into an angry violent one. Can the murders be solved before Jiang loses his personality to the unwanted one taking over his mind?

This is essentially a cop thriller with sci-fi overtones but those who are less comfortable with speculative fiction be of good cheer – other than the memory removal machine, there is little that distinguishes 2017 from 2025, although the production design has a sleek modern look to it. The memory switch is essentially a plot device and the mechanics and ramifications of it are not explored at any great length. That’s a bit of a shame because it’s a nifty premise but the filmmakers seem content to go full-on psychological thriller.

Huang has a bit of a hangdog look early on but as the movie progresses he becomes a bit more unstable and at times frankly scary. His unwanted memories contain scenes of serious domestic abuse and it becomes a major thematic element of the film. The psychology of abuse – the victim’s tendency to make excuses for the abuser, the assurance that the violence is an aberration and not a trend, the victim-blaming – all of it is part of the story. Huang captures both the sweet Jiang and the scary Jiang with nimble ease.

Chen uses the hoary old device of filming the flashbacks in black and white but it ends up making sense, particularly since cinematographer Charlie Lam is not only comfortable with the medium but also adept. Some of the most beautiful scenes in the film are the ones with the ugliest subject matter, and that is all Lam’s doing.

I would have liked to see a bit more of the sci-fi element emphasized; it makes the memory removal surgery seem exclusively a plot point rather than something that is a part of life as it is in other movies that use the conceit. That aside, this is an extremely well-made and well-written thriller with plenty of twists and turns including a final swerve which is at least a pretty nifty idea although the execution could have used some work. This is the kind of film I could see being remade as a Hollywood production. It has all the right elements for a box office winner. Those who appreciate good psychological thrillers should keep a sharp eye out for this one.

REASONS TO GO: The concept is absolutely terrific. The ending twist is one of the best I’ve seen recently. Some of the memory removal mythology is well-considered. Domestic abuse is utilized as a theme about as well as it could be.
REASONS TO STAY: The thriller element is somewhat by-the-numbers. The film runs quite a bit too long..
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and related disturbing images
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second psychological thriller Chen has made starring a member of China’s hugely popular Lost In slapstick comedy series.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/25/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Road to Mandalay

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