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Lucky Chan-Sil

Asian Cinema, Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

A lingering example of the artistic narcissism at the heart of the cinematic artform is the habit filmmakers make of over-romanticising filmmaking; something noble in and of itself, born out of some nigh-on-divine necessity within the human spirit to create. While this can result in quite brilliant efforts (Stephen Chow’s The New King Of Comedy is an excellent recent example), which may omit the more melancholy aspects of the creative process – aspects that writer/director Kim Cho-hee digs deep into with Lucky Chan-Sil to unearth resonant gold.

The central performance of Gang Mal-geum as the titular Chan-sil, a film producer who finds herself without work after her close directorial collaborator suddenly dies, is one bursting with transitional malaise. The fear that all that time she spent devoted to her craft, rather than engaging with the other experiences life has to offer like love and family, has her in a fit of stasis that is heart-rending to see. And with auteur theory subtly playing into the reason why she is jobless in the first place, she serves as an alternative viewpoint of the industry.

From there, the way death and cinema wind around each other make for conversations and imagery that range from the smirk-worthy (Chun-sil arguing with her love interest about how he can possibly like Christopher Nolan more than Ozu Yasujirō), to the absurd (frequent visits from the ghost of Hong Kong actor and singer Leslie Cheung, played by Kim Young-min), to the immensely gratifying (Chun-sil giving the Internet some much needed advice in saying “Don’t judge someone on the movies they like”). And as framed by some very Ozu slice-of-life pacing, where the simplicity of the events ground the emotions within them, it emphasises that while art can enrich the spirit, relying on just film to do that can leave one feeling empty and unfulfilled.

As cinematic narrative, Lucky Chan-Sil exudes a respect for the artform, both on the local level as well as in context to cinema worldwide, but treats it with a fresh perspective that doesn’t fall entirely into the aforementioned romantic view of cinema and art in general; rather, it is naturalistic and without bombast, which may make-or-break it for some audiences.

But for those with the appetite for something slower and more meditative, interjected with moments where a ghost declares that “Ghosts don’t have menopause”, Lucky Chan-Sil serves as an interesting examination of the film industry and the creatives that dwell within it. And if lockdown continues to strip the industry bare, it also doubles as a commentary on questions that a lot of filmmakers and even filmgoers could be asking themselves soon.

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Baseball Girl

Asian Cinema, Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Baseball Girl, the feature debut for writer/director/editor Choi Yun-tae, is a curveball within the larger spectrum of sports cinema. In depicting the story of aspiring baseball player Joo Soo-in (Lee Joo-young) and her determination to play for a professional team, it manages to both stay well within the all-too-familiar tropes of its genre, and yet approach those same tropes in a way few others even attempt.

As an example of gender politics through the wide, wide world of sports, seeing Joo Soo-in’s hardened passion for the sport and making it to the literal big leagues is quite bracing, anchored exquisitely by Lee’s quiet but laser-focused performance. It also benefits from the unusual pacing of the narrative around her, which relies less on adrenaline-fueled tautness and more on sombre contemplation. Only when the film reaches the hour mark are we even proffered with the chance to see Joo play an actual game, with focus on training and, more pointedly, getting someone else to give her the chance to even play.

The way it delves into the inspirational element is at once thorough and oddly cold. Using Joo as a springboard for a wider view of women’s treatment in various creative fields, the film aims for solidarity, with dialogue directed towards Joo incredulous that when she says she wants to play professional baseball, she actually wants to play.

Baseball Girl feels like an unfortunately compromised production, as the balancing of cool and quiet character study and inspiring athleticism ends up taking the bite out of both. There’s something commendable about it even attempting this tightrope walk in the first place, and Lee Joo-young carries a lot of the film’s slippery moments, but since it’ll likely turn out too downbeat for sports junkies, and trying too hard to channel Van Halen’s Jump for the long-haul crowd, it remains an admirable effort that is difficult to wholeheartedly recommend.

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Bring Me Home

Asian Cinema, Festival, Review, Streaming, This Week Leave a Comment

Over a decade after personifying maternal will and rage in Park Chan-wook’s Lady Vengeance, Lee Young-ae makes a feature-length return with a different kind of vengeance. The contents of Kim Seung-woo’s directorial debut may not have the same morally-grey bloodthirst of Park’s iconic trilogy, but that doesn’t make it any less bleak or crushing.

Six years after her son went missing, Jung-yeon (Lee) hears of a child in an isolated Fishing Hamlet with an uncanny resemblance to the child she lost. Lee’s performance as this mother on a mission might be one of the most tragic character portraits of the year, merging psychological anguish with emotional deadness to give a brutal depiction of someone who has gone through the worst thing a parent can bear witness to, but still carries a small flame of hope that they may be reunited.

The Fishing Hamlet itself looks like something right out of Bloodborne, both as quite chilling locale and as geographic embodiment of the sin that has been inflicted within it.

Yu Jae-myeong as Sgt. Hong is nightmarish in his misanthropy, repeatedly shouting that he’s a cop like a verbal badge of authority, his vicious will-as-law that everyone else is either too complicit or too scared to argue against.

Jung-yeon getting repeatedly dragged through the murk to reunite with her son, and gaslit by Hong and the locals, creates an instinctive, guttural revulsion. Ditto for the way that the children are treated, where the casual physical and sexual abuse is shown with a mixture of heart-breaking clarity and a refreshing lack of graphic visual detail.

As brutal as the film gets, what truly makes it remarkable is that, much like its captivating lead, it acknowledges the darkness but refuses to let it take over. Throughout all the hardship, all the lying, all the intentional run-arounds, Jung-yeon never gives up; the filmmakers never let this entropy of empathy drown our heroine. It’s oppressively dark, but also hopeful.

Bring Me Home is a masterclass in why bleak storytelling so bloody necessary: By not pulling any punches in its depiction of cruelty, it allows those who fight against it to likewise not pull any punches in combating it.

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An Old Lady

Asian Cinema, Festival, Review, Streaming, This Week Leave a Comment

Though a delicate film in terms of pace, colour and performances, An Old Lady manages to explore two sensitive topics – rape and elder abuse – and how they are perceived not just in Korea, but the wider global community.

Directed by Lim Sun-ae, the film follows Hyo-jeong (Ye Soo-jung, Train to Busan), a 69 year old woman currently receiving treatment following surgery. Tragically, during one of her sessions, she is raped by a nursing assistant, Joong-ho (Kim Jung-ki). Using a blank screen and audio, the audience is only ever privy to the lead up to the assault, but we are never left in any doubt. However, when Hyo-jeong tries to do the right thing and bring Joong-ho to justice, she is met with constant obstacles.

Starting when she doesn’t fill in the correct form at the police station, Hyo-jeong is treated with scepticism, with one detective even raising doubts that a young man would want to assault someone of her advanced age. This is just one of the many ways An Old Lady shows how the elderly can be treated as asexual non-entities, than the fully rounded human beings that they all are. While Hyo-jeong doesn’t seem to deny that she’s getting old, her assault brings all her fears into sharp relief. Her memory is picked apart by the police for not being as sharp as it once was, as if somehow she doesn’t really know what happened. Even armed with evidence, Hyo-jeong’s case is seemingly dismissed when Joong-ho spins a tale of consensual sex.

The only person who believes Hyo-jeong is her flatmate, Dong-in (Gi Ju-bong, Sympathy for Mr Vengeance), a bookseller whose youthful years are also behind him. With the police unable to prosecute Joong-ho, Dong-in takes it upon himself to crack the case and get justice for his friend. Whilst both leads give strong performances, the film’s biggest misstep seems to be in handing Hyo-jeong’s story over to her male friend. This isn’t his trauma and, at times, it feels like agency is being taken away from our female lead. Admittedly, it could be argued that this is a deliberate ploy by the film to show Dong-in throwing himself into the situation feet first without really understanding how best to support his friend.

Neither portraying Hyo-jeong as a weak-willed victim, nor an OAP with an inhuman ability to not let what’s happened phase her, An Old Lady is a distinctly human film about a difficult subject. Given the current state of the world, the film serves as reminder that women of any age can be in danger from predators and that the elderly are not second class citizens that just fade away.

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Padmavyuha

Asian Cinema, Festival, Review, short film, Streaming, This Week Leave a Comment

Raj Krishna’s directorial debut tackles an age-old religious mystery a la Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code or Darren Aronofsky’s Pi.

Yet, at a modest forty minutes in length, its attempt to offer a challenging – if not, provocative – thought-piece on religion proves about as stirring as the film’s length.

Fashioned, both visually and narratively, in the style of a mid-twentieth century crime-noir, Padmavyuha uses the confines of a detective-mystery to backwardly posit ideas about religious extremism. Mr Krishna’s eyes are set on presenting this through the ‘radicalisation’ of Hinduism. The troubling approach, having led to the film’s trailer being removed from the internet, brings with it an air of offensiveness that will deprive it of an audience.

Padmavyuha’s central character, a religiously-agnostic professor of religion (more cringe than irony), ‘Professor’ Shaki Ramdas (Nikhil Prakash), fields a series of calls from a mysterious, Hindi-speaking phoner.

The mystery that unfurls lacks taste, heft, and intrigue. What should unify in a time of great division, instead begets the radical views it alleges to oppose.

The film composes itself with a level self-assuredness that it is unqualified to hold. Mr Krishna’s efforts to be provocative create a feeling of indigestion in the viewer. Its visual nods to noir, however accomplished, register as derivative, and are further drowned out in pulpy, problematic dialogue; tools that the filmmaker uses to hide behind, along with the pretence of faith, to disguise his fiery one-sidedness.

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Seth Larney: 2067 is Now

The young writer/director takes us back to his childhood, his inspirations and motivations as a filmmaker, and his first Australian feature film, the highly ambitious sci-fi spectacle, 2067.
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Lucky Grandma

Asian Cinema, Comedy, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

A fortune teller with gnarled hands reads Grandma Wong’s fortune. Spotting an auspicious sign that she excitedly interprets as “carps jumping over a dragon gate,” the soothsayer (Wai Ching Ho) tells her client to keep an eye out for the dragon gate as that is a clear indication that her fortune is coming. Grandma Wong (an extraordinary performance from Tsai Chin) puffs on her cigarette with a sceptical scowl.

Set in present-day New York City’s Chinatown, we are immersed in the life of our main protagonist, gaining glimpses of Grandma Wong’s daily activities—morning prayer at the home-shrine of her late husband, exercising at the local Y, shopping for fruit and veg at her neighbourhood market, celebrating her birthday with her son and his family, and so on.

Recently widowed, Grandma Wong is pushing 80 and determined to live life as an independent woman, despite the concern of her family. After her local fortune teller’s exciting forecast, Grandma Wong makes a beeline for the casino to cash in on her predicted fortune. She lands on the wrong side of luck – or does she? Suddenly, she attracts the focus of local Red Dragon gangsters. She seeks protection from members of a rival gang named Zhongliang, and purchases the services of a discount bodyguard; Big Pong (an endearing performance from the hulking Taiwanese actor Hsiao-Yuan Ha). Invariably, Grandma Wong finds herself in the middle of a Chinatown gang war.


Big Pong proves more than just her bodyguard. In fact, we get more of a new best friend / grandson vibe than anything menacing. Throughout this charming comedy, the characters are colourful without being reduced to broad caricatures. Grandma Wong’s rivals, in particular, are goofy and not too menacing – and certainly no match for our wily and quick thinking grandma who, at one point, defeats an attack with hair spray. She’s no-nonsense and practical.

This delightful story is co-scripted by Angela Cheng, and filmmaker Sasie Sealy presents a central character whose recalcitrance is immediately relatable and somehow endearing, at least for anyone who can recall a time when they felt grumpy all day long no matter what happened. As the picaresque story unfolds, this dark comedy fluidly switches from English to Mandarin (also Cantonese, at times) as effortlessly as the family’s three generations bilingually converse. The cinematography by Eduardo Enrique Mayén is gorgeous without being too glossy and the movie is sensitively filmed, almost like a silent film with minimal dialogue, mostly relying on non-verbal cues and music. The cartoony comedy violence does turn quite dark in the third act, ultimately providing a satisfying outcome.

Well-worth seeing, Lucky Grandma is the feature debut of TV director Sasie Sealy (whose student film was rewarded with the Student Visionary award at Tribeca Film Fest in 2008).

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Song Lang

Asian Cinema, Festival, Film Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

This (2018) film quite literally looks beautiful from the first frame, and stays that way, whether the camera be focussed on hyper-colourful theatrical costumes or street life. The title – which translates as “two men” – incidentally refers to a Vietnamese percussion instrument, used in modern folk opera, whose rhythms are said to show a moral path for the musician.

The main protagonist Mr. Dung (Lien Binh Phat), a ruthless debt collector for loan sharks who is known as Dung the Thunderbolt, presumably because of his tendency to resort quickly to violence against those who don’t pay up. Phat has a smouldering presence, and his character has a cynical and sardonic attitude to life – devoid, it would appear, of both illusions and happiness.

But as we see in the effective and sparingly used flashbacks, it wasn’t always like that. Dung’s parents were musicians, and as a child he adored and rejoiced in traditional Vietnamese opera. Memories come flooding back when he has to collect from Linh Phung (Isaac), an actor and singer in one such production. The opera’s melodramatic excesses form a neat counterpoint to Dung’s still-waters-run-deep persona. Dung and Phung circle each other like rather benign sharks, playing video games, chatting with a mixture of mockery and curiosity, looking at the night sky, discussing a children’s book… If that’s starting to sound a tad sentimental, it simply isn’t; the dialogue and the acting make sure of that.

The homoerotic element in Song Lang is strictly sub-textual, but there’s no mistaking it. This is an entrancing and intelligent movie, with a cracker of an ending that you’re not likely to predict. Highly recommended.

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Cargo

Asian Cinema, Home, Review, sci-fi, Streaming, This Week Leave a Comment

Exploring with deft-handed candour themes of existentialism and spirituality, writer-director Aratia Kadav elevates sci-fi storytelling convention with incisive grace in the Hindi language space-drama Cargo.

Gliding through space with the same gentle motion as a jellyfish moving through water, the crew of Demons (yes, you read correctly) on-board the Pushpak 634A are given the dubious honour of ushering the souls of the deceased, affectionately called ‘Cargo’, into their reincarnated afterlives.

Greeted by the deceased with a sense of bewilderment and desire for closure denied by the Pushpak 634A’s no phone policy, the lone duo helming the ship – telepath Prahastha (Vikrant Massey) and newly recruited healer Yuvishka (Shweta Tripathi) – navigate the complexities of their nine-to-five slog with a keen sense of duty.

Buckling under the weight of this shared sense of purpose is Prahastha and Yuvishka’s initial reservedness, with the zealous demons’ relationship developing far beyond a point of head-butting upon their continued self-reflection. The film flourishes as a result of impeccable performances from Massey and Tripathi, with their characters’ sentience and passing banter revealing the gamut of hardships faced by their Earthbound contemporaries.



These themes, particularly those relating to class and gender, are articulately executed with profound realism thanks to Kadav’s compassionately written, albeit slow-burning screenplay.

There is a retro quality to Cargo’s production design that is undeniably influenced by Kubrick and ‘60s Star Trek. It proves as stylish as it is an effective tool to express Prahastha’s exorbitant tenure in orbit. That said, Cargo’s modest budget becomes glaringly obvious when the film dabbles in visual effects, with examples of the ship passing through space – neither in sync with the retro aesthetic nor detailed enough to look realistic – detracting from otherwise attractive set-design.

Upping the thematic ante with a candid optimism for better, Cargo offers a stylish, thought-provoking and well-acted alternative to the influx of ‘straggler-in-space’ films dominant in Western filmmaking.

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