View Post

A Resistance

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

This South Korean historical drama, A Resistance – written and directed by Joe Min-ho – is relentlessly bleak and bleached of colour yet riveting in its emotional journey.

Set in 1919, during the Japanese occupation of Korea, we meet a victim of the brutal crackdown of political protestors; Koreans defying the Japanese invasion and oppression.

We see inhuman and abusive treatment of Prisoner 371, a young Korean female. We learn her name is Yu Gwan-sun (portrayed passionately by Ko Asung). She is reunited with neighbours from her village and compatriots in a stiflingly crowded prison cell where they are deprived of all basics. As she is berated by some and supported by others, we form a picture of what has transpired. Eventually we learn of her (and their) activism and subversive actions that clearly have led to their present incarceration.

Throughout, Gwan-sun’s persistent defiance unites and inspires small acts of rebellion amongst the other prisoners.

The movie reverts to muted colour for the flashbacks to somewhat happier times, then also for other more horrifying scenes of the brutal crackdown. Soon we see Gwan-Sun being beaten and sadistically tortured for her continuing defiance. Director Min-ho goes all out with these excruciatingly realistic scenes, and they’re difficult to watch. Eventually Gwan-Sun learns her brother is incarcerated in the same prison facility. Tiny morsels of information give her hope and fuel tiny acts of insubordination.

Joe Min-ho guides Ko Asung in her intense and sympathetic performance in order to craft an emblematic portrait of irrepressible defiance and leadership. It’s a wonderful representation of heroic defiance, and hers a magnificent performance within a powerful film based on a true story.

 
View Post

The Great Battle

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

Peter Jackson’s treatment of The Two Towers ‘Helms Deep’ battle looms large in this South Korean period action epic, loosely based around historical events from 625AD, during the Tang Dynasty when Chinese emperor Taizong was rolling across outlying nations unopposed. His armies attempted to annex the nation of Goguryeo, on the Korean peninsula.

In a version of the Thermopylae scenario (immortalised in Zack Snyder’s 300) where an outnumbered few stood against many, a rag-tag handful of crazy-brave warriors stand against Emperor Taizong (Park Sun-Woong) and his 200,000 strong army. The five thousand warriors take refuge within the walls of the Fortress of Ansi, commanded by Yang Manchun (Jo In-sung). The odds are not good.

While director Kim Kwang-sik goes for a fairly classical treatment of the material, there’s a good amount of creative liberty taken with the plot and execution. The story begins as a young officer named Samul (Nam Joo-hyuk) is despatched to the fortress of Ansi, where Commander Yang Manchun (Jo In-sung) has supposedly gone rogue and become disloyal to his lord, Yeon Gaesomun (played by Yu Oh-seong who starred in the recent South Korean film The Spy Gone North).

After spending time with Commander Yang Manchun, the young officer wrestles with his own loyalty to his orders and whether this man is a traitor or a well-loved leader of a large civilian populace and army. Once Emperor Taizong and his armies arrive, the testing of the people within the fortress begins and the young Samul sees real sacrifice and honour, first-hand.

Given the extensive battle sequences, it’s no surprise that their nimble execution is paramount. There’s a very stylised approach to the violence, including ye olde Zack Snyder-style ramping slow-mo effect (that 300 made famous) that ensures the audience can clearly see the jets of claret and slicing swords, something Kim Kwang-sik deploys with aplomb. CG aerial views and close-quarters combat meld with a visceral intensity that indulges in some CG enhanced bloodletting and hyper-stylised fight choreography that’s more than a little Manga inspired.

Overall, this rip-roaring battle epic has genuinely got the goods, with big emotions and accessible characters, while never descending into saccharine theatrics; it chugs along like a rollicking hybrid of Seven Samurai, 300 and Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Terrifically enjoyable.

 
View Post

Rampant

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

Hyun Bin and director Kim Sung-hoon teamed up last year for the South Korean buddy cop actioner Confidential Assignment, which showcased Kim Sung-hoon’s keen eye for action filmmaking. Rampant sees them teaming up again, though this time it’s for a zombie extravaganza set in feudal Korea, in the kingdom of Joseon.

The setup is convoluted but in a nutshell: Crown Prince Lee Young (Kim Tae-woo) summons his carousing, roguish brother Lee Chung (Hyun Bin) back to the kingdom after years spent away (for reasons unknown). The cause for the Crown Prince’s invitation is that his kingdom is besieged by a zombie infestation that he hopes his estranged brother (who’s also a renowned sword fighter) can assist in quelling.

Sumptuously photographed and with lavish production design, this fusion of historical epic and zombie gore-fest largely works on the level of spectacle and for the most part, it chugs along with percussive momentum, setting up and executing terrifically enjoyable set-pieces.

The performances are curiously unengaging in terms of characterisation, which is not to say they’re unenjoyable, it’s only that they lack any semblance of irreverent humour or a knowing wink at the audience but Oldboy writer Hwang Jo-yoon and director Kim Sung-hoon are playing this for its drama, the only issue being that the drama is deeply ordinary and devoid of emotional heft.

There is enjoyably gruesome zombie imagery and when it does kick into high gear during the many set-pieces, it never seems to fall headlong into being a satisfying all-out zombie actioner, which would sate the horror crowd; it instead prefers to maintain a statelier period tone and try to play to a wider audience.

For fans of the undead genre and the frenzied spilling of arcing jets of claret, this is an entertaining ride through a juxtaposition of genre tropes; for the horror uninitiated, it may be too much of a gory punch to the face that lacks the ‘feels’ to pull you through the story.

 
View Post

Parasite

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

What with Bong Joon-ho’s increasing work rate – this film appears just two years after his last, Okja, his shortest ever gap between features – it can be easy to forget that Parasite is the director’s first film made fully within the Korean system in a decade, since 2009’s Mother.

Both 2013’s Snowpiercer, Bong’s Hollywood debut, and 2017’s Okja, the first major film to launch through Netflix – are very fine films, although among the weaker entries in a formidable body of work, with a thematic reach that sometimes exceeds their grasp.

By contrast, Parasite is the work of a director intoxicatingly in his element. In many ways, this feels like the culmination of inimitably Bongian preoccupations: his obsession with psychologically freighted subterranean spaces, stretching all the way back to his debut, Barking Dogs Never Bite; immaculately executed whiplash moments that snap from comedy to tragedy; and a predilection for the surreal in his setpieces. Bong’s sense of the baroque has sharpened since Okja, and Parasite’s finale, involving a conglomeration of beautiful, wealthy people, gains in horror and poignancy from the luridness of its conception.

Bong is operating here at peak craft: the mise-en-scene is dazzling, evincing his flair for witty ensemble staging, then unleashing overwhelming imagery that heightens character and mood. All of this is aided by superb production design. It is also tightly plotted – a rarity for Bong – with a strong comedy of manners influence, a new direction for the director.

Very much like Snowpiercer, the chasm between rich and poor is the leitmotif of the film; it even follows a similar visual schema, and the ‘parasite’ of the title is left deliberately unclear. But there are also distinctive, piquant Korean flourishes that may, or may not, hold a deeper allegorical meaning: multiple allusions to North Korea, and a surprise reference to the 16th century Japanese invasions of Korea.

The characters are acidic creations, yet the film lacks a traditional protagonist: Parasite is a true ensemble work, with the characters driven by collective concerns. The cast is uniformly excellent, although Song Kang-ho does nothing to diminish his reputation as Korea’s finest character actor with his subtle performance. That the high-wire, precarious confidence act of the film’s tone can be sustained is testament to the total commitment of the actors: one only has to recall something like 2010’s unloved The Housemaid, a glorified Korean melodrama with similar setting and themes, to see how something like this could easily fall apart.

There are minor shortfalls in the storytelling. Bong sets up the arc of child character Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun) but fails to follow through, and a crucial turning point involving a kick (a recurring motif for Bong) is dubious in terms of its physical staging, the only occasion in which the carefully constructed spatial environment of the film is violated. All this can be forgiven, though, when Bong delivers another of his caustic, haunting endings (in retrospect, perhaps the reason why Okja and Snowpiercer seem like lesser works is that their endings fall ever so slightly short). This is Bong’s best film since 2003’s Memories of Murder, and makes a good case for being the first out-and-out classic of Korean cinema since 2016’s The Handmaiden.

 
View Post

Ohong Village

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

Very few directors make such an assured debut as director Lung-Yin Lim has illustrated here.

 

The story follows Sheng (Yui-Hsu Lin) a business magnate from Taipei who stays with his relatives in Ohong Village. As he surrounds himself with locals and the beautiful landscape, he begins questioning his place in modern society as his relationship with his father becomes more and more unpredictable.

Writer/Director Lung-Yin Lim draws from his experiences which results in a film that feels very personal. The characters are palpable and in fact, the whole film is built on a sense of realism. The story deals with issues of community, class and karma and the film’s tone and pacing have an isolated and chilling feel.

The three main performances are striking: Jieh-Wen King gives a vulnerable portrayal as Ming, Sheng’s father, while Yui-Hsu Lin and Hsin-Tai Chen capture the feeling of disillusionment in young people’s lives.

Ohong Village has a stunning variety of wide shots across beautiful scenery. The film was shot on Kodak 16mm film and this adds to the vibrancy and the general aesthetic. From the beach wasteland at the start to the city lights, the film always dazzles and surprises in its variety of locations.

While the film’s themes and tone are refreshingly complex, the characters do feel underwritten and over-simplistic at points. There are instances of the characters telling rather than showing and it feels undercooked, especially since the rest of the film is so nuanced. The female characters feel side-lined in the overall narrative and don’t get much to do. A more prominent female perspective could have added depth to the story. The ending rushes the character arcs and results in an underwhelming and obvious conclusion to an overall unpredictable narrative.

All in all, though, a solid, daring effort from a new director to watch.

 
View Post

Nina Wu

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

The opening of Nina Wu, Myanmar-born filmmaker Midi Z’s first feature shot in his adoptive home of Taiwan, is an eerie phantom ride on the Taipei subway. It’s an adept visual metaphor, a premonition of the psychological tunnels down which its titular protagonist will tumble. Working with long-time muse Wu Ke-xi, who shares a screenwriting credit, Nina Wu is Midi Z’s take on a ‘MeToo’-era psychological thriller, reaching back to Polanski’s paranoid ’60s thrillers to mirror the deterioration of the mind of a female protagonist in the physical set. On the style front, he emulates the baroque excess of Aronofsky and Nicolas Winding Refn, especially in the pointed use of the colour red. It’s fortunate he has such an unusual and intuitive visual sense, as Nina Wu otherwise feels like three distinct movies warped into one.

Struggling actress Nina lands her first big role in a salacious period production, despite transgressing moral and personal boundaries. The film about filmmaking angle is ultimately perfunctory, although the lavishness of the staging suggests a sly parody of The Bold, the Corrupt and the Beautiful, 2017’s preposterously over-the-top melodrama that gave Wu her breakout role.

In its dominant mode, Nina Wu is a powerful and bitter critique of the degradation perpetrated against vulnerable women in the ‘entertainment industry,’ and the long psychological shadow it casts over them. On a character level, the film is structured around this polemical point, doused in the excess of sex and power but never erotic. It’s a clever exercise in making the audience feel awful without crossing over into the exploitative: the film withholds, for example, any actual nudity. The bluntness of the delivery, however, detracts from the veil of mystery.

Finally, there is a heartfelt love story between the lead and Vivian Sung, as unpretentiously charming as she’s ever been on screen but wasted in this role, and swallowed up by the sharp edge of the film’s thrust. As for Wu, she is a fascinating screen presence, utterly capable of anchoring the film. She and Midi Z share an obvious rapport developed over their long period of collaboration, and this is reflected in his understanding of how to channel her almost austere features through brittleness and versatile countenance. The most unnerving images put Wu front and centre, isolated in the frame, wearing a perpetually fraught and disoriented expression, her face scrunched up.

A film on the intrusion of the past into the present, Nina Wu disrupts its chronology with unwelcome, nightmare-tinged flashbacks. The editing is fluid, Lim Giong’s score bubbles away sinisterly, and it masquerades capably as a genre film, while harbouring far more subversive intentions. The powerful central performance and aesthetic flair hold it together, more or less, even though it never coheres narratively.

 
View Post

Our Youth in Taiwan

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

After a decade of Beijing exerting its seemingly inexorable gravitational pull, China’s peripheries – Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet – are renewing their pushback against the centre. Nowhere is this unequal struggle more acute than in Taiwan, the self-ruling, democratic island still officially called the Republic of China, neither under the actual control of the People’s Republic nor recognised as an independent state. Our Youth in Taiwan, a documentary on 2014’s Sunflower Movement – a student-led push that successfully overturned a trade pact with mainland China – gains an extra frisson of resonance in light of the ongoing protests in Hong Kong.

This documentary’s director, Fu Yue, wears her political convictions on her sleeve: Our Youth in Taiwan builds on a short film she contributed to the anthology Sunflower Occupation, released in the year of the demonstrations. And at November’s Golden Horse Awards, the Oscars of Chinese-language cinema, she sparked her own controversy when she called for Taiwanese independence.

This is a documentary crafted unmistakably from within its movement. Fu provides little background on the Sunflower Movement for international viewers, and never steps outside of the protest crowd for an alternative opinion. It’s the sort of embedded filmmaking that observes events as they develop and offers real-time commentary. Eventually, Fu directs her focus on two individuals, a young Taiwanese activist (Chen Wei-ting) and a mainland Chinese student and writer (Cai Boyi), subjects she follows for the rest of the film.

Our Youth in Taiwan is shaggy, exhaustive and arguably overlong, but it’s also as immediate and of-the-moment as you could hope for in a snapshot of China’s turbulent relations with the polities and peoples of its outlying regions in 2019. Fu adopts a lo-fi approach; the camerawork is grainy, footage is recycled and there is no soundtrack. She muses about ‘mutual understanding’ (between Taiwan and mainland China), and the eternal friction between ideals and politics is a theme in the film, yet its substance is more about how a protest movement lives and breathes, what drives its participants on a personal level.

Fu is also, despite her obvious political leanings, a sympathetic filmmaker, able to elicit openness from Chen and Cai and capture them in all their human complexity. The film, in following their abortive attempts at political careers, sidesteps the common inclination in documentaries to heroize its subjects: Chen is brought down by personal shortcomings, while Cai discovers that Taiwan’s democratic politics are as cruel and unsparing as everywhere else.

This collage of events leads to an uncertain resolution in which Fu grapples onscreen with her own expectations and emotions as a filmmaker. It’s unexpected, a violation of documentary convention that the director should remain at a distance, but in fusing the structural and the personal to seek closure outside the traditional form of a documentary, it’s a minor revelation. It’s that emotional core, and its complexity in reckoning with failure and recognisably human disappointments, that sets Our Youth in Taiwan apart.

 
View Post

The Third Wife

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

It’s no surprise that Tran Anh Hung receives an artistic advisor credit for The Third Wife. The French-Vietnamese director’s shadow looms long over Ash Mayfair’s directorial debut, the chronicle of a 14-year-old girl married off to a wealthy landowner in 19th century Vietnam. Her approach studiously mirrors the aesthetic Tran pioneered in transnational ‘90s films The Scent of Green Papaya and Cyclo, Vietnam’s first entries onto the stage of world cinema.

Tran’s wife and muse Tran Nu Yen Khe has a prominent role as the first wife, positioned ambiguously between ally and contender in relation to the protagonist. The film is delectably stylish and completely insular, its characters framed by mountains and confined by the corridors of the husband’s homestead. There are no traces of historical context, despite France’s escalating intrusions into Vietnam at the time.

The Third Wife stirred controversy and was banned in Vietnam for unusual sexual frankness involving its young lead. Yet the film is less about explicit sex than delving into the underlying power dynamic of the household, emanating from a mostly unseen yet omnipresent patriarch. In this respect, Mayfair is borrowing freely from Raise the Red Lantern and Zhang Yimou’s other early folk adaptations, particularly their juxtaposition of human (feminine) vulnerability against the austerity and hierarchy of tradition; in The Third Wife, as in Zhang’s work, this is encapsulated in the classical architecture of the mansion, the film’s chief setting and effective prison.

As much as she wears her influences on her sleeve, Mayfair also makes bold choices. Her cutting is unusual, and she is not afraid to let scenes play out wordlessly: the film’s opening passage allows a good ten minutes before the first line of dialogue. This aligns with the film’s theme on the difficultly of a woman finding a voice within the overwhelmingly male-centric environment, a feminist perspective subtly expressed through the craft. Against this backdrop, An Ton That’s eerie score plays a huge role in the creation of mood.

Mayfair, who also wrote the script, is attuned to the languid rhythms of daily life in pre-modern Vietnam; the film has a strong sense of period authenticity, with the exception of a same-sex moment that comes off as weirdly anachronistic. Assisted by Thai-American cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj, she balances realism and symbolism: The Third Wife abounds with sensual feminine images – gauze and fabric, flowers, water.

It’s clear that Mayfair views this as a life-and-death struggle for her characters, but there is little sense of build to the film. The final shot is also, a misjudgement. All the same, this is a promising debut: it bubbles and lingers intuitively.