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Movies: Past, present and future

Category: Hong Kong Film Festival

Hong Kong Film Festival: Everyone is a critic

March 26, 2012 |  2:29 pm

Traditional Chinese Noodle eatery in Hong Kong
On Hart Avenue in the heart of the hot Hong Kong shopping district of Tsim Sha Tsui, there’s a tiny noodle dive called Traditional Chinese Noodle that I ducked into one day for a quick lunch and to escape for a bit from the madness of the city's international film festival. I found quite possibly some of the best Chinese noodles to be had, complete with veggies, crab and a spicy broth, all for 28 Hong Kong dollars, about $3.50 US.

What I also found was Victor, my effusive 28-year-old waiter and a lover of all things American, particularly Hollywood films and flashy cars from Detroit. He knows the names of all 50 states, and I can attest that this was not just an idle boast. The car he covets is a gold Olds Cutlass.... Do they even come in gold? Regardless, that’s Victor’s dream.

As to movies, that is what he loves about America best and he assures me he loves all of them, or at least some parts of all that he has seen. But there are three he had to have for his personal collection.

First and most treasured is 1997’s “Good Will Hunting,” which Victor says made him a fan of Matt Damon, whose films he now tries to see as soon as they come to Hong Kong. Street-level, and totally unscientific, proof that there is box-office power in a name.

Second up is 2006's “The Lake House,” with one of his favorite stars, Keanu Reeves. Reeves was actually in Hong Kong a little more than a week ago conducting a master class on his documentary “Side by Side,” which has Reeves talking to filmmakers about the craft and digital versus traditional film. It was part of the wind-up for the Hong Kong festival, now in its 36th year. Confronted with the news that his idol had been in town and that he had missed him, Victor responded with a sigh and a shrug. He's a pragmatist. But I also suspect he's a romantic too, since "Lake House," which co-starred Sandra Bullock, is a mystery of star-crossed lovers and a very mystical mail delivery system at the house in question. It is mushy stuff.

And then there is No. 3, “Sugar & Spice,” a film I had to admit to Victor that I’m not familiar with — though the name certainly conjures up a few possibilities… No, no, no, he assured me, it’s about high school and cheerleaders and is “awesome.” A check of IMDB when I got back at my hotel proves that he’s at least right about the high school and cheerleaders.

"Sugar & Spice" landed in 2001, starred Marla Sokoloff, whom I remember from the David E. Kelley legal series “The Practice”; Marley Shelton, whom you may remember as Tobey Maguire’s teen heartthrob in “Pleasantville”; and Melissa George, one of Gabriel Byrne’s most seductive patients in the HBO series “In Treatment.” Now whether or not “Sugar & Spice” was “awesome,” I’m reserving judgment.


Hong Kong film festival changing with the times

Hong Kong film festival: Powerful visions of poverty 

Hong Kong Film Festival: Transvestites, Muslims and a 'Lovely Man'

Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic, reporting from Hong Kong

Photo: Outside the Traditional Chinese Noodle shop. Victor is on delivery duty, though they assure me if I can make it back, he'll be happy to pose. Credit: Betsy Sharkey.

Hong Kong Film Festival: Transvestites, Muslims and a 'Lovely Man'

March 25, 2012 |  4:02 pm

Donny damara a lovely man
Heat is a priceless commodity for a film in a festival, where hundreds of movies fight for attention in a very brief time span. At the 36th annual Hong Kong International Film Festival, the Indonesian movie “Lovely Man” is one that is sizzling.

This provocative and powerful film, part of the indie showcase here, is a father-daughter story unlike any you’ve seen. She’s 19, a devout Muslim, hoping to reconnect with the father who abandoned her and her mother when she was 4. He’s a fixture in the Taman Lawang area in Jakarta, Indonesia's capital, where transvestite hookers ply their trade in the midnight hours. Both father (Donny Damara) and daughter (Raihaanun) are at turning points in their own personal crises.

There is a lot to be sorted out in writer/director Teddy Soeriaatmadja’s sixth film. The  indie director has been making movies steadily since 2005. But “Lovely Man” may be the one that finally puts him on the international map; it has certainly emerged as one of the hot tickets in Hong Kong. His keen eye and intimate storytelling earned him a best director nomination at this year’s Asian Film Awards. (The prize went to Asghar Farhadi, the Iranian writer/director of "A Separation," which won the foreign language Oscar last month.) 

Soeriaatmadja has essentially created a conversation between the two that unfolds over one night when the daughter takes a train from the countryside where she's grown up to the city, in hopes of just seeing him. What she finds is nothing like the memories of a man blowing soap bubbles with her as a child -- instead he's a vamp in a beaded red miniskirt and black stilettos working prostitute’s row. It’s hard to tell who is more shocked, the girl or the father who thought his secret would be safe from her forever.


Both actors are excellent as they move through a range of emotions and their characters figure out how they feel about each other, what they owe each other and whether, even though joined by blood, they can cross the huge cultural divide that would separate a transvestite and a devout Muslim in Jakarta. He is essentially a modern-day untouchable; she is basically an innocent. But in Soeriaatmadja’s hands, nothing is quite as it seems, and that is what keeps pulling you through the film. That and Damara’s incredible performance.

The actor, who earned his own Asian Film Award nomination for his turn in "Lovely Man," is mesmerizing as he flirts with potential johns and fights with his daughter. Words are the main weapons he’s been given to defend himself in a world that is exceedingly cruel to transgender people. But you see his vulnerability in the toss of that long hair courtesy of a wig, or the way he runs his finger under his eye, as if making sure the makeup is just right. These small gestures let you glimpse all the turmoil inside.

Ultimately, Soeriaatmadja has given us a moving one-act play on human connections and the power of love and forgiveness to change lives. It’s a stripped-down story about empowerment, and there's nothing there that isn’t absolutely needed -- including that red-beaded mini.


Hong Kong Film Festival: A comic arrow zings indie filmmaking 

Hong Kong film festival changing with the times

Hong Kong film festival: Powerful visions of poverty 

--Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic, reporting from Hong Kong

Photo: Indonesian actor Donny Damara  receives the Best Actor award for the film "Lovely Man" from Hong Kong actress Karen Mok  at the sixth Asian Film Awards in Hong Kong on March 19. Credit: Aaron Tam/AFP/Getty Images

Hong Kong Film Festival: A comic arrow zings indie filmmaking

March 23, 2012 |  2:09 pm

Eugene domingo andy lau
Comedies about the movie business are always a risky proposition. They're hard to get right and require a sort of insider cleverness that tends to limit the appeal to a rarefied few. The cheeky, brilliant fun and dark social commentary that saturate the Philippine movie “The Woman in the Septic Tank” make it one of the most provocative surprises of the 36th annual Hong Kong International Film Festival.

The movie was born out of the frustrations of a couple of the country’s most comically critical new voices, director Marlon N. Rivera and screenwriter Chris Martinez.  It takes direct aim at the film festival circuit and how the lure of awards is turning too much of indie cinema into -- if you believe the movie’s central metaphor -- garbage. So it's no small irony that “Septic Tank” is in competition for the young cinema award here.

The film marks Rivera’s move from writing to directing, and it’s hard to imagine that won’t be where he will stay. For screenwriter Martinez, who often directs as well, the film is the best stage yet for his particular brand of ironic comedy. (Hints were easy to spot in the titles of some of his work, such as a 2011 short called “The Howl & the Fussyket.”)

“Septic Tank” is a meta-tale of mega proportions told in a cinema verite style as we follow a young indie filmmaker who’s got an idea for a movie about “poverty porn” –- the horrific idea of desperate mothers driven to sell children for sex to support starving families –- that he’s pitching around town.

It all unfolds over a single day -– the one that will make or break the film -– as the director and his equally young producing partner move closer to their meeting with the acting diva whose participation would almost guarantee festival gold. And Eugene Domingo is their gold -- she is one of the Philippines' most popular actresses, and here she not only plays the various incarnations of that tortured mother that the filmmakers imagine but also a parody of her big-time-actor self.

What makes “Septic Tank” such a fresh breeze is the way in which ideas -– bad ones, good ones, ridiculous ones –- come to life on screen. As the filmmakers roll through various meetings and various insecurities, you literally see the push and pull of all the external and internal forces shaping the film. Take casting the mother, for example. As the filmmakers haggle over which actress should get the role and why -- the director favors the ingenue he's got a crush on, the producer wants the diva whose name will buy them attention -- we see how each one would play out a given moment.

The conceit keeps the film spinning, and as the story shifts through all those ideas and demands, Domingo plays countless different shades of the character and herself. That the filmmakers could pull it off at all is remarkable given all the industry toes and conventions they step on. But it is the way they take the incendiary topic of mothers and children in such desperate straits and find a way to create such a comically biting social commentary on filmmaking that is the triumph here.

Check out the trailer below:



Hong Kong Film Festival: Stars and paparazzi on opening night

Hong Kong film festival: Powerful visions of poverty

Hong Kong film festival changing with the times

-- Betsy Sharkey

Photo: Hong Kong actor Andy Lau and Philippine actress Eugene Domingo after they were named the most popular actor and actress in online voting for the Asian Film Awards in Hong Kong on Monday. Credit: Kin Cheung / Associated Press

Hong Kong film festival: Powerful visions of poverty

March 22, 2012 | 11:49 am

"People Mountain People Sea"

One of the major themes running through the 36th annual Hong Kong International Film Festival is lives on the margins. Poverty can take many shapes, but the singular message is that a life without hope -- a poverty of the spirit -- is the most devastating result of any economic travails.

Two dramas playing here -- "Choked" and "People Mountain People Sea" -- take this matter head-on in very different ways, yet they're alike in the idea of how lives get derailed by bad times.

“Choked,” out of South Korea, proves to be an impressive feature film debut from writer/director Kim Joong-hyun. The story grew out of a latent fear the director had in college -– what would happen if a mother disappeared and a son was left behind to deal with the mess?

"Choked" earns its no-air, no-escape title. An increasingly tense thriller, it is set in a city on the rise, all captured with a slightly noirish style. It begins with Um Tae-goo playing the promising new company man with prospects. He has a good job with an industrious outfit that is in the not-so-good business of getting apartment dwellers to relocate so their buildings can be torn down for pricier projects. It’s the kind of forced relocation that “progress” demands is these modern times. He’s an earnest sort with a pretty fiancee who may be out of his league, and lots of plans -- all of which begin to unravel when his mother (Kil Hae-yeon) disappears. He's left with an impossible mountain of her unresolved debt, an unrelenting loan shark and a particularly insistent single mother who is determined to get her due.

It’s a dark story that turns out to be a mystery as much as anything else, with twists and turns that will surprise you. A mood piece and a morality tale smartly constructed by the filmmaker, the movie features a performance by Um that is a study in quiet desperation -- a young man weighed down by his mother’s indiscretions as much as by her debts and that breathless sense that there is no way out.  

A world away in the mountains of rural China, “People Mountain People Sea” has its own tale of woe. It's a remarkably candid look at the Chinese underclass -- from rural villagers worn down by hard labor and barely able to survive, to the urban ghettos filled with drug users and toughs. The film is the second feature directed by Cai Shangjun, who spent some years as a successful screenwriter before making the move to directing with his first feature “The Red Awn” in 2007, a film about a father and son trying to rebuild their broken relationship. 

This latest effort, which earned the director a Silver Lion from the Venice Film Festival, is also about family ties -– this time it’s an older brother trying to find the man who murdered his younger brother. But what Cai is really digging into is the forgotten people of China, those so deep in economic decline that they might as well not exist. 

It is social commentary without the polemics, as the older brother finds that the loss around him is much larger than his own personal grief, that the sea of lost souls is so much larger than he imagined. He travels from the mountains that he knows as a stonecutter to the seaside cities where he is a stranger. Everywhere he turns, there is human suffering. (People Mountain People Sea (人山人海) is a Chinese expression meaning "huge crowds of people.")

Cai has created a powerfully bleak story of few words and extraordinary images, the camera capturing the harsh beauty of the mountains, the dense squalor of the urban ghettos. At one point, a soothsayer warns the journey will change the stonecutter's life, both a truth and an understatement.

Together the two films together speak of family and poverty and the price of being without hope. Powerful voices on relevant issues that make you glad they spoke up.


Video: Betsy Sharkey talks about 'Love in the Buff'

Hong Kong Festival changing with the times

Hong Kong Film Festival opening night

-- Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times film critic, reporting from Hong Kong

Photo: A scene from "People Mountain People Sea."

Hong Kong Film Festival: Stars and paparazzi on opening night

March 21, 2012 |  5:52 pm

Love in the buff 2

A huge pack of paparazzi were jockeying for position Wednesday evening at the 36th annual Hong Kong International Film Festival, eager to catch the arrival of Miriam Yeung and Shawn Yue, stars of the opening night film, “Love in the Buff.”  But somehow, it was all very civil.

The red carpet at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center, where the film market and much of the festival takes place, is more of a circle than a straightaway. On Wednesday, it was surrounded by glammed-up fans, including giggling girls ready to swoon at every move Yue made and sigh at Yeung’s creamy-dreamy-ruffling gown.

In "Love in the Buff," from director Pang Ho-Cheung, Yeung and Yue reprise their roles as Cherie and Jimmy from the 2010 movie “Love in a Puff.” In that film, Cherie and Jimmy meet on their smoke breaks in Hong Kong, with the chemistry fairly crackling. In "Buff," the two have broken up with each other, and Hong Kong, and are in the throes of separate, but equally fraught, moves to Beijing.

The packed house -- there was one theater for the gala crowd and two sold-out screens for the public -- was thrilled to see the couple they fell in love with two years ago back on screen.

Pang’s romantic comedy is appealingly cheeky in the ways it talks about love, commitment and changing times, weaving it all together into frothy fair that is as likable as the sparring Jimmy and Cherie at its center.

The writer-director has introduced complications into their lives. Beijing has a different mood than Hong Kong, somehow everything feels more open, the capital's notoriously smoggy air clear after the denseness of Hong Kong as seen in "Love in a Puff." Since both cities have their air quality issues, it's hard not to think Pang is playing around with the idea of the shiny prospects Beijing holds for so many of Hong Kong's coming generation, letting the sun shine on that mainland promise while wrapping Hong Kong in a fog of darker shadows.

Love in the buffBoth Jimmy and Cherie have found new significant others. Xu Zheng plays a sturdy businessman who's dating Cherie; Mini Yang is a lovely young model Jimmy has fallen for. The life choices they are facing are polar opposites: Will she choose safety? Will he choose excitement? But both have to decide whether they'll stay in Beijing, or is Hong Kong’s pull too strong?

Giving the seriousness of their decisions, there is still a lightness to the way Yeung and Yue play Cherie and Jimmy that gives the film a dancing-on-air sensibility. The comedy, which kept waves of laughter filling the hall, has a kind of gentle quality that makes it more endearing than mean.

But Pang is still engaging with important themes. He’s seized upon the idea of using romance as a way to weigh in on the continuing cultural changes in China, particularly the evolution of a Yuppie class with enough money and time on its hands to indulge in good old-fashioned heartbreak. But it is the playful way that Pang deals with the ripple effect of this new age with its rapidly shifting social mores -- on relationships, and ways of thinking about life -- that makes "Love in the Buff" nothing and everything to laugh about.

Pretty much a perfect opening for a festival that is all about change, transition and bouyant hope.

The trailer is below. "Love in the Buff" will be released in U.S. theaters on March 30.


Video: Betsy Sharkey talks about 'Love in the Buff'

Hong Kong Festival changing with the times

-- Betsy Sharkey in Hong Kong

Photos: Top: Director Pang Ho-Cheung, actress Miriam Yeung and actor Shawn Yue pose at the movie premiere of "Love in the Buff" in Hong Kong on Wednesday. Credit: Associated Press. Middle: Cherie (Yeung) and Jimmy (Yue) share a watermelon in a scene "Love in the Buff." Credit: China Lion


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