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Master Cheng

Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Filmmaker Mika Kaurismaki (older brother to renowned director Aki Kaurismaki) exhibits the same interests in societal issues as his brother. Like his sibling, his particular tone and perspective is rooted in the commonplace; he also has his younger brother’s affinity for dry humour and sight gags.

Master Cheng tells the story of Cheng (Pak Hon Chu), who arrives at a quiet roadside diner in small-town Finland with his young son Nunjo (Lucas Hsuan), following the recent death of his wife back in Shanghai. Cheng is looking for a Finnish friend he met in China. Unable to locate the man, Cheng meets restaurant owner Sirkka (Anna-Maija Tuokko), whose hard-scrabble, hand-to-mouth existence running the restaurant provides Cheng with an opportunity to help.

When a bus load of Chinese tourists turn up requesting food, Cheng’s impromptu offer to cook reveals his considerable skills as a fine dining chef and soon, Chinese food is on the menu every day, attracting a steady stream of customers. When Sirkka invites Cheng and his son to stay for a spell, the tiny populace and idyllic, breathtaking countryside soothe Cheng and his son’s broken hearts. Converting the locals to vegetables, noodles and soup instead of sausages and mash sees a marked improvement in the health of the elderly clientele in the restaurant. Food as nourishment for the soul, or something to that effect.

There have been a few riffs on the concept of ‘food from the heart’, the most notable being Babette’s Feast and Like Water for Chocolate, though that said, Master Cheng is not even flogging the conceit with any degree of intensity. It’s simply highlighting the breaking down of cultural differences using food and showing the positive effects of Chinese herbal medicine.

Anna-Maija Tuokko and Pak Hon Chu’s sweet-natured and subtle performances help sell the premise, which on paper, threatens to assault the audience with weapons-grade mawkishness. Filtered through Mika Kaurismaki’s sensibility and low key approach, it’s something akin to the tone of Lasse Hallstrom’s output (Chocolat comes to mind), though the level of treacly emotional manipulation and twee is nowhere near as assaultive; it prefers instead to take the audience on a gentler ride. It’s overall message of human connection and empathy wins out, where food and nourishment are literal salves for the human malaise and where compassion and friendship can save lives.

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Comedy, Festival, Film Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

VHYes is the directorial debut from Jack Henry Robbins and is ostensibly the found footage answer to the sketch show. Shot entirely on VHS and Betacam, the film starts on Christmas Day 1987 and young Ralph (Mason McNulty) has just been given a camcorder. Feeling elated, he makes it his holiday resolution to create the world’s greatest video playlist. Everyone has to have a dream, eh?

After discovering that he can use his camcorder to record television programs, Ralph stays up late to record his nocturnal-channel-hopping for his best friend, Josh (Rahm Braslaw). It’s this ADHD flicking that makes up the bulk of VHYes, as we skip from one spoof TV show to another. There’s the shopping channel selling household goods that are clearly drug paraphernalia; a high brow arts program that shows porn movies with the pretence that they contain weighty environmental messages; and an Antiques Roadshow knock off where its host simply tries to guess the purpose of the things he’s been shown. Cameos include the likes of Charlyne Yi (Paper Heart), Thomas Lennon (Reno 911!) and even the director’s own parents, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins.

While the hit to miss ratio is not in the audience’s favour, it could be argued that the sketches fly by so quickly that you shouldn’t worry too much. However, even at only 70 minutes, VHYes is a patience tester. There is just simply too much going on.

As the film hits its halfway mark, Robbins offers up the heart and mind of the piece. When Ralph isn’t taping his TV, he’s inadvertently recording his parents (Jake Head and Christian Drerup) arguing. He even catches his dad at the cinema with a woman that is not his mum. They’re only glimpses of a problem, but it’s heavily suggested that Ralph’s golden years with his parents are coming to an end. The fact that he’s also accidentally taping over their wedding video seems to underline the tragedy of their failed marriage.

From here, the sketches begin to snowball into each other, and our own 2020 problems get caught in the chaos. Robbins seems to be suggesting that our love for nostalgia is blinding us to the real issues facing us here and now. While there’s nothing inherently with the topic, it’s the execution that does the damage. A humourless professor is interviewed about VHS addiction and prophesies a world where we’ll have smaller VCRs in our pockets and will record our every moment on them. We’ll be so busy cultivating our image, our memories will be irreversibly altered, and we will elect celebrities as President. It’s all just a little too on the nose to be genuinely ground-breaking, and the film’s final message is lost in a literal sea of videotape and Lynchian surrealism.

Robbins has perfectly captured that late-night rush of early cable television and it will likely appeal to a particular demographic. It’s just unfortunate that VHYes feels like it would make more impact if it was a short rather than having its point stretched out. A curiosity for those who like to dive in and dissect meaning, but you’ll ultimately end up wallowing in shallow waters.

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All Hail the Popcorn King

Documentary, Home, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

There is no writer like Joe R. Lansdale, the man is a genre unto himself. The criminally underrated East Texan wordsmith has been thrilling those in the know since the early 1980s, releasing a staggering number of novels, novellas, short stories and scripts, including The Drive-In, Bubba Ho-Tep, The Bottoms and the Hap and Leonard series. Despite the complete and total adoration of artists and celebrities like Stephen King, Joe Hill, Tom Savini, Greg Nicotero, Bruce Campbell, Don Coscarelli (and many, many more), Joe’s never quite hit mainstream success, occupying a space somewhere in the cult or indie realm. This is a savage injustice, as Lansdale pens some of the most vivid, deranged yet heartfelt yarns ever scribed by (bizarre) human hands, and freshly cooked documentary, All Hail the Popcorn King seeks to correct it.

All Hail the Popcorn King, directed by the wonderfully-named Hansi Oppenheimer, is clearly a low budget labour of love. Fittingly, a large portion of the screen time features Joe on his own self-describing where he came from and why he writes. Lansdale is a natural born storyteller, who can’t help but spin a yarn even when he’s just chatting, and Popcorn King’s best moments have Joe holding court on all manner of subjects including film, Texas, the nature of politics and racism in America. The rest of the doco features famous admirers of Lansdale – like Bruce Campbell and Joe Hill – giving their impressions of the man, with Campbell in particular offering hilarious insight into why you should both admire his writing but “not fuck with [him]” (Joe both knows and teaches martial artists, y’see).

As pleasing as these observations are to long term fans of Lansdale, it would have been great if the documentary had included more material for newbies. Not much time is spent on Joe’s actual written works, and with so many wonderful talents on board, a couple of paragraphs from The Drive-In or Bubba Ho-Tep read by these luminaries would have sold the premise much more effectively. The documentary is also quite clearly made on the cheap, so the sound and visual quality is variable, which may be distracting to some.

That said, All Hail the Popcorn King does effectively convey the love of rabid fans (of which your humble reviewer is certainly one), and the sheer unbridled charm of champion Joe R. Lansdale. Freewheeling, and occasionally undisciplined, it nonetheless offers an insight into a fascinating, unique artist who in a just and decent world would be a beloved household name.

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Cold Case Hammarskjöld

Documentary, Festival, Review, Streaming, This Week Leave a Comment

There’s a corner (actually a very large corner) of the internet that specialises in circulating conspiracy theories. Its enduring appeal is guaranteed by the fact that there is too much to know for certain, coupled with an idea that the powerful are up to no good and have a vested interest in hiding things and spreading misinformation.

Mads Brügger is a Danish documentarian who is fascinated by the strange case of the not-well-explained death of a UN Secretary General in the 1960s. The diplomat in question was named Dag Hammarskjöld. In 1961, he was flying in a small plane to a meeting in the Congo. Then his plane crashed, and he died at the site. These bare facts are not contested.

However, whether it was an accident, the exact way in which the plane was downed, and the possible perpetrators (if it wasn’t an accident) are still a matter of speculation.

Brügger (whose name is unintentionally close to ‘mad bugger’) and his buddy set about trying to piece together the various missing elements of the story.

Calling it a ‘cold case’ is obviously an attempt to give it a crime caper gloss. In fact, it is a very cold case, as it all happened so long ago that even the people who may have been involved at the time, or who knew something about it, are either dead themselves or not able to recall things. Brügger and his friend say at one point that they have been following the case for about six years. That itself seems a bit odd, but then they do not hide the fact that they are eccentric obsessives.

Also, most of the facts that they uncover could have been assembled quite quickly and they could have been relayed in a shorter form than the two hours it takes here. The other factor is that the revelation that there might have been involvement in the crash from a semi-secret South African mercenary organisation (no further spoilers), is not at all new either. This idea came to light, as the film fully acknowledges, during Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission [TRC] in 1998. Footage of the TRC is interesting and we could have done with more of that and less of Brügger riding around in cabs or interviewing slightly dull interviewees. The filmmaker also employs the device of dictating his musings in a hotel room to a young African woman scribe/secretary. In fact, there are two such women, but precisely why this is the case is never really explained.

Then there are the political and historical aspects of the matter. It would have been more satisfying if they had been foregrounded and this would have bolstered the film’s interest and relevance. These important elements are addressed as a bit of an afterthought and yet they are the moral heart of the story.

Hammarskjöld was uncharismatic but an honourable UN leader, and in many ways, he was ahead of his time. He was the only UN Secretary General to be awarded the Nobel peace Prize posthumously. In particular, he was prescient in seeing back then that the Western nations and their big companies would plunder the rich mineral resources lying under the soil of newly independent African nations (like the Congo).

As the film argues, if he had succeeded in his mission to rein in that colonial arrogance and greed, then many parts of Sun Saharan Africa could have developed much more quickly and successfully. That much does give one pause.

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Teaser: The Florist

Perception is everything in Australian writer/director Andrew Ryan and producer/star Rebecca Murphy's LA made singular drama.
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Frances Ferguson

Festival, Film Festival, Review, Streaming, This Week Leave a Comment

Indie auteur Bob Byington’s (7 Chinese Brothers, Infinity Baby) latest feature Frances Ferguson lends itself to the ‘Mumblecore’ filmmaking style where actors mix with non-actors to create a sense of disarming naturalism. It’s the story of a small-town sex scandal, with Byington regular Nick Offerman narrating, or perhaps commentating, with a quirky style that gives the film many of its moments of comedy.

Frances Ferguson (Kaley Wheless) lives a somewhat mundane life in small-town USA, North Platte, Nebraska. With a population of 8000, it’s hard not to know almost everyone. Frances finds herself in an unhappy relationship to Nick (another Byington regular, Keith Poulson) who she knew for only three months before marrying. They have a daughter Parfait (Ella Dolan) who’s 3, or is she 4? Her parents can’t quite agree on her age. Life’s become so insipid that when Frances spots Nick masturbating in his car to internet porn across the road from their house, the ensuing confrontation is more an eye-roll than an argument.

Frances doesn’t appear to have any friends and is bordering on an anti-social personality disorder, a woman cast adrift in the US Midwest, a loner. The relationship with her mother (Jennifer Prediger) reflects that of her husband and daughter, providing little intimacy or support. When Frances gets a job as a temp teacher in the local high school, she has no moral issue flirting with a 17-year-old school jock, ‘the boy’ (Jake French), setting up several indiscreet rendezvous’ with him – at one point meeting him at the local laundromat dressed as a cheerleader, only to be spotted by other students from the school. Frances has little to no feeling for the boy; she just wants to feel…something?

Offerman’s narration describes one encounter with him as ‘an idea, like a person interacting with a hologram’. After a tryst with the boy, she’s arrested and charged as a sex offender, the charge seeming to have little to no effect on her nonchalant demeanour.

Punishment follows crime and Frances cops 14 months in the big house followed by six months parole. Leaving prison, she becomes the local celebrity sex offender, not an experience to be relished. Attending group and cognitive behaviour therapy during parole she finally shows a little emotion and becomes a more rounded character. Coming out of her shell with the assistance of therapists (David Krumholtz, Dante Harper), she comes to the realisation that change is only possible when bad things happen, fondly looking back on therapy as a cathartic moment in her life.

Central to the work is Wheless’s laid back yet nuanced performance, driving the film to its amusing conclusion. Based on actual events, with a screenplay by Scott King, Frances Ferguson is a whimsical look at a serious subject, and well worth a look.