December 27, 2005

Brokeback Mountain

Directed by Ang Lee Starring Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Williams

Reviewed by Martin Tsai


This synopsis gives away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

In the summer of 1963, Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist find employment respectively as camp tender and sheepherder on Brokeback Mountain north of Signal, Wyoming. Jack gripes about the commute between the campsite and the herd miles away, and having to sleep out in the cold in order to prevent coyote attacks. After trading jobs with each other, taciturn Ennis and gregarious Jack also start swapping life stories. One night Ennis gets too drunk to head back to the herd, and a sexual affair between them begins.

They part ways at summer’s end and reunite four years later. Ennis has tied the knot with sweetheart Alma and fathered two daughters. Jack has moved to Texas, married a wealthy businessman’s daughter, and had a son. When the two men finally meet again, Alma inadvertently catches them passionately kissing but keeps it to herself. After Ennis rejects Jack’s idea of them running a ranch together, they begin trysting several times a year.

Ennis grows increasingly distant from his family, and Alma ultimately divorces him. Responsibilities of family and work also keep him away from Jack. When his postcard to Jack unexpectedly returns with “deceased” stamped on it, Ennis speaks to Jack’s wife Lureen for the first time. She tells him that Jack at age 39 died in an accident, although Ennis imagines that homophobes murdered him. Hoping to carry out Jack’s wish of having his ashes scattered on Brokeback, Ennis visits his friend’s parents. There, he learns that Jack had a relationship with another man.


Homosexuality has been an implicit theme in many westerns, such as Edward Dmytryk’s Warlock (1959) and Blake Edwards’s Wild Rovers (1971). As critic J. Hoberman pointed out, the genre is a particularly “homosocial” one that customarily excludes women. This boys-club mentality and the oft-resulting queer subtext are also prevalent in buddy-cop flicks, war films and movies about organized crime. Women’s interference spoils the loyalty and bond among men.

Brokeback Mountain isn’t the first “gay western” as many critics dubbed it, if it’s even a western at all. It doesn’t have genre staples such as a mysterious stranger riding into town, six-gun banditry or a corrupt sheriff. The film is only groundbreaking as the first mainstream feature to depict cowboys – icons of masculinity, solitude and frontier Americana – engaging in gay sex.

Both Annie Proulx’s 1997 original short story and the faithful screenplay by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana pointedly broach homosexuality and sexism in the western. This strategy of perverting a genre by making the latent conventions more explicit previously garnered critical acclaim for another Focus Features release: With Far From Heaven (2002), Todd Haynes tackled homosexuality and interracial relationship subtexts in the 1950s Douglas Sirk melodramas.

Highlighting the western’s inherent sexism, the women of Brokeback serve only as accessories. Doomed gay lovers Ennis and Jack each take a wife to conform to societal norms and then neglect them to pursue an illicit affair with each other. But the film is sympathetic only toward the plight of its protagonists, and it largely glosses over the women’s sufferings. Despite its embrace of homosexuality, the film’s surrender to sexism reveals a troublingly regressive social agenda: Men without their women can do just fine on their own.

McMurtry and Ossana aren’t any more generous to the female characters than are their husbands. Both wives are caricatures. Ennis’s better half Alma personifies “long suffering” and turns a blind eye to the affair. Jack’s aloof spouse Lureen is only concerned with the family business. A montage of the men’s parallel lives during their time apart cruelly juxtaposes Jack’s bull riding with Ennis sexually penetrating Alma’s bum. Ennis’s two daughters serve to exacerbate his domestic troubles as infants, but once grown up they inexplicably morph into a composite character with the younger one vanishing entirely. The screenwriters have treated the women as afterthoughts.

Despite his foreign and American indie credentials, the film’s director Ang Lee is no auteur. The only discernable common thread that runs through his filmography is a tendency to exploit exotic subject matter and make it palatable to the mainstream. His Asian features (Eat Drink Man Woman, 1994; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000) mostly aimed for a Western audience, just as his gay-themed films (The Wedding Banquet, 1993; Brokeback) primarily targeted heterosexual viewers.

Focus Features is marketing the film as a timeless love story, with the poster evoking that of Titanic. But Brokeback never explains how Ennis and Jack’s animalistic lust evolves into a love that would first endure four years’ separation and then prompt them to risk their respective family lives.

Lee employs a spatial symbolism that ultimately proves to be reductive. Exteriors here represent the liberation of human emotions, while interiors denote repression and domestic burdens. Ennis and Jack can give in to their hearts and be themselves when surrounded by the digitally-enhanced sweeping sky and austere slopes, because that’s where men get to be men. Their lives are unfulfilled outside their natural element. Domesticated men – such as Jack’s condescending father-in-law and Alma’s electric-carver-using new beau – lack integrity in contrast. The motif finally becomes laughable with the lovers’ mementoes ending up literally inside the closet.

© Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

December 01, 2005

The Holy Girl

Directed by Lucrecia Martel Starring Mercedes Morán, Carlos Belloso and Alejandro Urdapilleta

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

“It is a tale about good and evil,” writer/director Lucrecia Martel said of The Holy Girl in the film’s press notes. “Not about the confrontation between good and evil, but about the difficulties in distinguishing one from the other – a story about the dangers of differentiating good from evil.” Expanding upon that theme, she fittingly constructs a murky limbo between religion and science, physical and spiritual, institution and instinct, purity and corruption, fact and rumor, thought and action, public and private, comedy and tragedy, as well as heaven and hell. From people to places to events, everything about the film is obstinately ambiguous and invites a wide range of interpretations.

In the opening scene, teenage heroine Amalia (María Alché), her best friend Josefina (Julieta Zylberberg) and other students attending a Catholic class are rapt by the hymn recital of their teacher Inés (Mía Maestro) as her devotion overwhelms her to the point of tears while pleading “What is it, Lord, you want of me?” Inés instructs her pupils that God gives each person a sign indicating his or her vocation. “He calls us to save and be saved.” When asked how one can recognize that sign, Inés impatiently retorts “You can’t confuse ugliness with beauty, horror with happiness.” We soon find Amalia standing in a crowd right across the street from the classroom and fully immersed in watching a theremin performance, while the ordinary looking middle-aged man behind her nonchalantly opens his jacket, tucks his hands inside his pant pockets and does a little frottage against her – the obscene touching is in curious contrast with the no-contact musical instrument. Answering what she naively assumes to be God’s call, impressionable Amalia makes it her mission to save the sinner Dr. Jano (Carlos Belloso).

A convention for otolaryngologists is underway at Amalia’s family-run hotel, and Dr. Jano is one of the delegates in attendance. Amalia secretly confides in Josefina about her newfound vocation and begins stalking the doctor, even willfully positioning herself for more frottage when she again notices him in the street performer’s audience. But he is more interested in a possible fling with Amalia’s mother Helena (Mercedes Morán), a former diver with a slight hearing problem who vamps about all day like a socialite. He offers to diagnose Helena and indulges her acting bug by inviting her to star in the centerpiece skit at the conference. When Dr. Jano’s family later joins him at the resort, it’s inevitable that all hell will break loose.

Set in her native Salta of northern Argentina, both Martel’s feature debut La ciénaga (2001) and The Holy Girl revolve around Chekhovian rundown countryside estates and crumbling small communes as well as address the decadence of middle-class values. Her every detail seems to convey anxiety simmering just beneath the surface. The shallow depth of field – which she attributes to her myopia – creates an exquisitely textured vision as if capturing the humidity in the air. A palette of rusted brown and cool turquoise hues filters the view. Martel has said in an interview elsewhere that scenes to her are akin to memories. Habitually eschewing the establishing shot, she immediately thrusts viewers into the midst of a situation in which the location and the action sometimes remain hazy. She frequently allows reactionary shots to linger before revealing the action. Fragmented frames cut off faces or isolate random body parts to focus on microscopic gestures, expressions or details such as a sliver of shaving cream left on Dr. Jano’s neck. Viewers can’t get a sense of the spatial grounding – they may get the impression that the religious classes and the soundproof booth which doctors use to assess Helena’s hearing problem are somehow situated inside the resort. While her method is disorienting, it effectively weeds out the contextual trivia and heightens the emotional core of every scene.

Martel also achieves disorientation through thematic ambiguity. Through its complex characters and vaguely defined scenarios, the film juxtaposes contradictory concepts and ideas. Religion and science are yin and yang forces at work, with Inés and Dr, Jano respectively as their imperfect embodiment. Josefina blathers about Inés possibly having pre-marital relations, and Dr. Jano gives in to his primal instincts. Amalia mistakes the biological urge of raging hormones for divine calling. Even the sexual harassment/abuse that sets the plot in motion involves a conflicted predator and a willing prey.

The family hotel makes an intriguing setting, as public and private spaces are constantly converging and becoming interchangeable. Dr. Vesalio (Arturo Goetz) casually strips nude in front of temporary roommate Dr. Jano despite the fact that they hardly know each other. Amalia wanders into Dr. Jano’s room on another occasion rummaging around, rubbing his shaving cream onto her own collar and inhaling deeply as if in momentary ecstasy while a maid is right there busy at work. Intimate moments often meet with interruptions or reticence – such as phone calls from the wife of Helena’s ex-husband constantly disrupting the courtship between Dr. Jano and Helena, or the doctor reflexively withdrawing his hand when Amalia reaches for it inside a packed elevator. Personal lives become public spectacles as gossip travels, and a liaison results in the downfall of Dr. Vesalio and a young pharmaceutical lab representative. So it’s not surprising that Josefina eventually uses Dr. Jano’s interference with Amalia to deflect the attention of her mother (Mónica Villa), who has barged in and caught Josefina and her cousin Julián (Leandro Stivelman) sexually in flagrante.

Characters’ roles and relationships in the film are often deceptive. Devoted matron Mirta (Mirta Lubos) thanklessly slaves at the hotel, while proprietor Helena lounges about like a guest. Mirta meddles with Helena’s personal affairs as if she were her mother. Freddy (Alejandro Urdapilleta) at first seems like Helena’s old flame when he slinks into her room asking to spend the night, but it turns out that they are in fact siblings. Josefina mocks pre-marital sex, yet allows anal intercourse with Julián so long as he doesn’t talk during the act. What transpires between Amalia and Dr. Jano also isn’t clear. His behavior indicates a history of abuse, yet he promptly rejects her when she seeks more than just fondling.

While molestation is the most controversial topic at hand, the film doesn’t necessarily portray Amalia as a victim nor Dr. Jano as a monster. She masturbates in bed presumably thinking about him. His flirtation with Helena also further suggests that he may not be a child molester. “To be defined as a victim is the worst abuse a woman who has been abused can receive. That may seem a callous thing to say, because there are women and children who have suffered terrible abuses, but there’s something about the category of victim that takes away power,” Martel said in an Artforum interview. “One shouldn’t take power away from an individual with a word or a definition.” Viewers still won’t be able to get past the fact that Amalia is gullible and that Dr. Jano takes advantage of her, but at least his sympathetic portrayal encourages us not to quickly dismiss him.

Martel’s statement about the branding of victims actually hints at the moral of this tale. It is very much about victimhood, just that the scandal itself is the victimizer here. Rather than condemning molestation, she frowns upon the public’s eagerness to judge and denounce when nothing is in black and white and all is shades of grey. The relationship between Amalia and Dr. Jano poses the questions: Does desire equate to guilt, and does repression equate to innocence? Regardless of the answers, Amalia’s good intentions will ruin Dr. Jano’s reputation and Josefina’s phony concern for her will likewise lead to Amalia’s fall from grace all because bystanders are quick to judge. The film ultimately comments on the Catholic guilt complex, which aims to elevate human existence yet unwittingly causes ostracizing, hypocrisy and torment. Its emphasis on the lack of distinction in everything – especially between holiness and sin – underscores the unfairness of moral and behavioral standards that the church imposes. Reproduction is a primal instinct and sexuality can certainly be interpreted as part of God’s design, yet Catholicism has traditionally associated all but marital sex with guilt and shame.

The film’s depiction of religion and sexuality is reminiscent of Breaking the Waves in that sexual awakening can be a calling and faith can inspire vocation and sacrifice in a carnal fashion. But while a miracle transpires at the end of Lars von Trier’s allegory, Martel’s film resolves on a cynical and grim note. One definitive aspect of The Holy Girl is the brilliance of its ending, which traces the fuse burning all the way down without showing any explosive fireworks. As a witch hunt begins to spread like wild fire within its final minutes, the film leaves viewers with anticipation of the worst to come. If it weren’t for the queasy feeling we get from this, it wouldn’t have been apparent that Martel is actually taking a stand amidst all this perplexity. Yet she defies expectation by not showing the nasty confrontations and broken hearts. It simply halts while still in a blurry state of uncertainty.

Too much ambiguity is not necessarily a good thing. Minor details in the film could frustrate moviegoers even after repeat viewings. Some may not perceive much of the comedy despite the fact that parts of it are indeed hilarious – such as characters misinterpreting a naked man’s accidental fall onto the balcony as a miracle and confusing the sound of theremin with God’s beckoning, as well as Amalia’s classmate’s ad nauseam retelling of a story about a car going over a bridge. Casual moviegoers seeking entertainment will likely find it way too elusive, and it’s unfortunate that this thought-provoking commentary about the pitfalls of mass hysteria actually fails to speak to the masses.

© Copyright 2005 Cineaste. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

November 04, 2005


Directed by Deepa Mehta Starring Seema Biswas, Lisa Ray and John Abraham

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Following Fire (1996) and Earth (1998), director Deepa Mehta finally completes her acclaimed and controversial "elements" trilogy with Water. Mehta's devastating depictions of gender disparity and religious turmoil in India provoked right-wing Hindu fundamentalists to stage protests, ransack theatres, issue death threats and even force the shutdown of Water's production five years ago. The director went on to make the lightweight Bollywood/Hollywood and The Republic of Love before returning to Water - this time filming secretly in Sri Lanka.

Hindu holy texts dictate that a wife has only three options upon the death of her husband: She must either burn along with his remains, remarry his younger brother, or live the remainder of her life in self-denial. Set in Colonial-era India inside a house for spurned widows, Water continues the trilogy's exploration of the culture's unspoken and unchallenged hypocrisies.

Eight-year-old Chuyia (Sarala) doesn't recall ever marrying, but the passing of her husband nevertheless divests her of sari, jewelry, hair, parents, a normal childhood and the possibility of happiness. The wretchedness of the women who keep her company allows her to grasp the bleak existence ahead: Elderly Patiraji (Vidula Javalgekar) fritters away her last days craving some sweets. Obese Madhumati (Manorma) bitterly abuses everyone. Beneath her resilient exterior, Shakuntala (Seema Biswas of Bandit Queen) still tries to reconcile her faith with her predicament as a widow. Lovely Kalyani (Lisa Ray of Bollywood/Hollywood) gets to keep her locks only because she must work as a prostitute to support the household. Handsome and erudite Narayan (John Abraham) takes a liking to Kalyani, but her circumstances threaten to keep them apart.

With a story that recalls both Romeo and Juliet and A Little Princess, Water has the surface trappings of a timeless tale. But by using a child's perspective (à la Earth), a doomed romance, a dastardly villain and an unsettling tangent about coerced prostitution, the film often seems to drip with manipulation. Furthermore, it endlessly bludgeons the audience with disconcerting scenes of widows enduring taunts and discrimination. With all the tragic turns of events and the uniformly cardboard characters inundating the picture, Mehta unwittingly invites skepticism from wary viewers. Landing the coveted opening spots at five festivals across the country (Vancouver and Toronto included) and a high-profile American distribution deal with Fox Searchlight, Water is one of the most prodigious Canadian films of the year. Mehta's gallantry and determination deserve admiration, and her new work is certainly an eye-opener for outsiders. At the same time, it lacks the moral ambiguity and multidimensional characters of its two unforgettable predecessors.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

Desolation Sound

Directed by Scott Weber Starring Hélène Joy and Jennifer Beals

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Remember those ads pitching British Columbia as "The Best Place on Earth"? No? Come on, roughly a million of our tax dollars went into those. Check out the Sunshine Coast-set film Desolation Sound for a reminder. A few establishing shots in this movie are enough to help bring back memories of the campaign that allegedly gave us the bragging rights we get for living in this province, the best place to sea-kayak and watch the orcas!

Desolation Sound goes on to reveal some shady goings-on amidst the quaint picturesque surroundings. Tweenager Margaret (Emily Hirst) walks on the roof in her sleep, yet her parents Laurel (Hélène Joy) and Michael (Ian Tracey) aren't in a hurry to fix the latch on her bedroom window. They also seem unfazed by her klepto tendencies and her playdates with creepy ex-con Benny (Lothaire Bluteau of Black Robe). Apparently dad is often away on wildlife photo shoots and mom is coping with painter's block.

The last thing they need is for evil Vancouverite Elizabeth (Jennifer Beals of Flashdance) to abruptly show up and wreck their home life. She’s a maniac, maniac, who takes her passion and makes it happen by foretelling her own impending death and confessing her tryst with Michael. No thanks to Margaret - who purloins her necklace and then does the rooftop somnambulist routine - Elizabeth and Laurel wind up tussling up there where Elizabeth soon slips and falls to her death. With Benny's help, Laurel buries the body underneath a rose garden and begins channeling her inner Elizabeth. She picks up smoking again, sleeps until 4 p.m., dyes her hair black, smears black paint all over canvases, and bangs Sheriff Doug Shepard (Ed Begley Jr.) when Michael's gone.

Will Laurel get caught? Is she innocent? Is she possessed? Will she spew green vomit and throw Doug out the window? Should we care? Not likely, since she's not a particularly identifiable protagonist. First-time director Scott Weber is so busy planting bread crumbs along the story's trail, he simply forgets about developing characters and brewing suspense. He goes through the motions by cramming as much as he can into 100 minutes, so even the beautiful Sunshine Coast scenery only flashes across the screen for a few seconds at a time. Screenwriter Glynis Davies - who also appears on screen as shopkeeper/Doug's wife/Laurel's yoga partner and hairdresser Kathy - dumps a pile of ill-fitting puzzle pieces onto the plot. Since she doesn't divulge these hints with any subtlety, the film has no surprise to speak of. The amateurish filmmaking explains why Desolation Sound first premiered on American cable television in June. Why it merited a spot at last month's Vancouver International Film Festival and why it's now getting a Canadian theatrical release are the movie's only mysteries.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

October 28, 2005


Directed by Marc Forster
Starring Ewan McGregor, Naomi Watts and Ryan Gosling

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Stay is like a second-rate Bruce Willis flick minus Bruce Willis, with a necro-psychobabblish plot redolent of both The Sixth Sense and Color of Night. The difference is that Stay has already spoiled its own supposed twist ending with the tagline on its poster: "Between the worlds of the living and the dead there is a place you're not supposed to stay." Hey, thanks for the heads up.

In this entire-life-flashing-before-the-eyes limbo we find the incongruous figure of psychiatrist Sam Foster (Ewan McGregor) and his patient Henry (Ryan Gosling, as yet another deranged lad), who threatens to kill himself on his 21st birthday. Having already intervened in the suicide attempt of his patient-turned-girlfriend Lila (Naomi Watts), Sam naturally wants to do the same for Henry. He visits a blind psychiatrist (Bob Hoskins) who might be Henry's deceased father, a student/waitress (Elizabeth Reaser) who might be his love interest, his former shrink (Janeane Garofalo, nearly unrecognizable as a blonde) who might be going nuts, and his dead mother (Kate Burton) who might very well be still alive. The mystery is, just precisely which one of them is seeing dead people.

Sam's various encounters prove to be fruitless both for him and for the poor mortal souls who've paid money to watch this. The subplots simply don't add up, and there's very little scare or thrill in this alleged psychological thriller. David Benioff's screenplay is suspiciously similar to that lame 2001 horror flick Soul Survivors, which takes place within a character's comatose mind after a life-threatening car crash. But Stay is even more absurd for the fact that its protagonist is not the person experiencing the hallucinatory visions that make up the bulk of its narrative. The climactic gotcha moment here is likely to irritate rather than awe.

Marc Forster - director of the equally ridiculous Monster's Ball and Finding Neverland - here employs many incoherent stylistic strategies to hammer home the point that the film does not literally take place within its own cinematic reality. Each scene digitally morphs into the next, à la the music video of “Livin’ La Vida Loca”. There are various inexplicable effects, such as when groups of twins and triplets are walking together wearing matching outfits. The scenes are frequently intercut with alternate takes replaying the same actions, or even with different actors repeating the same lines, in a futile attempt to duplicate that same creepy disorientation achieved by the cursed video in The Ring. Forster's visual and audio gimmickries don't necessarily reveal anything about the murky state between life and death. Instead, these superficial touches merely distract viewers from the fact that this scam of a film really makes almost no sense at all.

Good luck stay-ing through its 99 minutes without wanting to play in traffic afterwards.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

October 16, 2005

L’Enfant (The Child)

Reviewed by Martin Tsai at the 24th Vancouver International Film Festival

While some contemporary realist masters such as Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, et al. have managed to branch out without necessarily compromising their auteurist integrity, others like Erick Zonca and the Dardenne brothers are still fervently practicing Bressonism. If it’s not broken, why fix it? As J. Hoberman of The Village Voice pointed out, the Dardennes’ two Palme d’Or winners – 1999’s Rosetta and this year’s The Child – both pay homage to Robert Bresson.

Their latest involves the puerile and unscrupulous Bruno (Jérémie Renier), who enlists two juveniles to commit petty thefts for him, sublets the apartment belonging to his girlfriend Sonia (Déborah François) while she’s in labour, and schemes to sell their newborn son for a quick buck. When Sonia finds out about this and calls the cops on him, Bruno attempts to retrieve the child to make peace. Yet he unwittingly finds himself in deeper trouble.

The film is a respectable and moderate achievement, but it doesn’t reach the psychological dimension of the Dardenne’s previous work, The Son. Its theme of black-market infant trading brings to mind Jan Hrebejk’s Up and Down, but The Child completely underwhelms by comparison for its lack of insightful social and political implications. Since even Cahiers du cinéma suggested that it lacks innovation, in retrospect Cronenberg, Hanake and Hou deserved this year’s top prize at Cannes much more.

© Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

October 14, 2005

China Blue / A Tale of Cinema / Paradise Now

Reviewed by Martin Tsai at the 24th Vancouver International Film Festival

As Jia Zhangke’s The World alluded to, China is experiencing the largest migration in history. More than 130 million residents have headed for the country’s southern provinces and taken up jobs at sweatshops. Micha Peled’s documentary China Blue follows 16-year-old Jasmine, who slaves long hours (one of the shifts lasted 27 hours) for below minimum wages (roughly $1 per hour) at a denim factory. She shares a dorm room with 11 others and pays for the lousy food served at the cafeteria and for hot water from the kitchen for washing. She also gets fined for tardiness, sneaking out, dozing off, or taking unscheduled bathroom breaks. Her factory charges its client $4 per pair of jeans, and turns around and retails it at 10 times that price. Even a worker’s-rights advocate concedes that a factory that provides workers adequate rest and pays minimum wages simply can’t stay competitive. Cogent and alarming, the film certainly will make you inspect the labels carefully and think twice the next time you’re out shopping.

When describing the halfway narrative bifurcation in Hong Sang-soo’s A Tale of Cinema, many critics are citing Tropical Malady. Are they forgetting that Mulholland Dr. likely shares the same strategy? This first half of Tale is actually a film within a film depicting the botched suicide attempt of two lovers (Lee Ki-woo, Uhm Ji-won). Later we learn that the first part is an unauthorized real-life account of Tong-su (Kim Sang-kyung), who is now smitten with the actress who played his ex-lover (Uhm). The distinction between the film-with-a-film and the supposed reality here is effected by the use of camera zooms. The quasi-Adaptation aspect of it is fun, but in the end Hong’s film just isn’t all that memorable.

Hany Abu-Assad’s latest Palestinian political drama is even more eye-opening and thought-provoking than his insightful last feature, Rana’s Wedding. Paradise Now examines the dynamics between two friends (Kais Nashef, Ali Suliman) after an aborted suicide-bombing mission changes one from conflicted to hell-bent and the other from gung ho to compassionate. The most fascinating aspects of the film are its Christian symbolism, its portrayal of the hypocrisy and indifference amongst the puppeteering extremist leaders, and how its protagonists react to the awakening of their consciences. Contemplating the catalytic impact of the two friends’ decisions on their loved ones, the film’s conclusion is so chilling that it’s simply unforgettable.

© Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

October 13, 2005

Heading South / The Last Mitterrand

Reviewed by Martin Tsai at the 24th Vancouver International Film Festival

After examining the corporate downsizing phenomenon with Human Resources and Time Out, Laurent Cantet shifts his focus onto Haiti’s sex tourism in the 1970s with Heading South. Shirtless muscular Haitian studs vie for the affections of desperate middle-age American housewives, who in return shower them with meals, gifts and money. The charming ways of Legba (Ménothy Cesar) cause acid-tongued Ellen (Charlotte Rampling) and newly divorced Brenda (Karen Young) to bond, exchange notes and ultimately fight. Dennis Lim of The Village Voice aptly compared the film to Ladies in Lavender, but there’s much more. Unlike The Constant Gardener, Heading South does expose white foreigners’ ignorance, stereotyping, objectification and hypocrisy vis-à-vis the locals, even if Cantet occasionally undermines Haitians’ perspectives. The devastating finale brings revelations to the protagonists, but leaves the viewers cold.

Robert Guédiguian also shifts his focus from life in Marseilles (Marius and Jeannette, The Town is Quiet) to the final days of controversial French socialist ex-president François Mitterrand. Freely adapted from Georges-Marc Benamou’s account, The Last Mitterrand depicts an unnamed president (Michel Bouquet) at the final stage of prostate cancer contemplating his legacy and confronting his missteps at the prodding of an idealist biographer (Jalil Lespert). Like Marco Bellocchio’s Good Morning, Night, full appreciation of Last Mitterrand demands familiarity with its historical background or some Googling. (Notorious Vichy police chiefs who deported French Jews to the Nazi concentration camps are cited here, but neither does the film nor did Mitterrand in real life clear up his association with them.) Still, the film’s depiction of the frailty of power and ideals is universal and unassailable.

© Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

October 12, 2005

Hell / Mountain Patrol: Kekexili

Reviewed by Martin Tsai at the 24th Vancouver International Film Festival

Following Tom Tykwer’s Heaven, Hell is the second installment of a Dante-inspired trilogy planned by the late director Krzysztof Kieslowski and his frequent screenwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz. On the heels of his Oscar-winning debut No Man’s Land, Danis Tanovic attempts this ambitious, star-studded French-language baloney about lifelong scars from familial dysfunction. Hell encompasses the lives of three sisters (Emmanuelle Béart, Karin Viard, Marie Gillain) who have drifted apart and are similarly trapped in unhealthy relationships after a traumatic episode in their childhood left their mother (Carole Bouquet) in a wheelchair and their father (Miki Manojlovic) in prison. With its half-baked philosophizing, the film is nearly as pretentious and snooze-inducing as Heaven. But Hell is the more disappointing of the two, as this kind of faux-Kieslowski crap is to be expected from Tykwer (i.e. Winter Sleepers, The Princess and the Warrior) but not from Tanovic.

The Missing Gun director Chuan Lu conversely avoids the sophomore jinx with the captivating and harrowing Mountain Patrol: Kekexili. Based on a true story, the film follows an investigative reporter (Zhang Lei) to Tibet on assignment to cover the story of mountain patrolmen mercilessly executed by antelope poachers. Lacking state funding and manpower, the patrolmen must risk their lives in order to battle dangerous outlaws and survive the harsh weather. As the pursuit drags on, their predicament becomes increasingly dire. One of the more remarkable regional productions from Columbia Pictures, the film has the accessibility of a studio product. Its Scope photography of the austere Tibetan skies and mountains is breathtaking. But even with its somewhat slick façade, Kekexili builds to a powerful climax unmatched by faux socio-politico thrillers like The Constant Gardener.

© Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

October 11, 2005

Twist of Faith / Idiot Love

Reviewed by Martin Tsai at the 24th Vancouver International Film Festival

Kirby Dick’s Oscar-nominated documentary Twist of Faith follows the journey of a man suddenly confronted with the sexual abuse in his past upon discovering that his predator lives five doors down the street from the newly purchased family home. Toledo, Ohio firefighter Tony Comes seemingly has the perfect all-American family life. But whether he is sharing physical intimacy with his wife or potty-training his infant son, his boyhood trauma still fills his life with anxiety. When the Boston priesthood abuses make national headlines, Comes contacts his local bishop about the alleged rape by ex-priest Dennis Gray. But the church responds with only denial and deceit, prompting Comes’s pent-up rage to slowly exact a toll on both his own spirituality and the life of his family. With the subjects given cameras to document themselves, the film provides incredible access into their emotional lives. But when its deceptively innocuous early vignettes ultimately turn out to be foreshadowing, the film’s epilogue is so inexplicably chilling that it warrants follow-up investigation.

Perhaps trying to shake off the heavy Almodóvar influence in his work, Ventura Pons this time looks to Lars von Trier for Idiot Love. Obviously, its chief influence is the Danish provocateur’s Dogme exemplar The Idiots. Self-proclaimed idiot Pere-Lluc (Santi Millán) has no qualms whipping his penis out at his godfather’s birthday party so he can threaten to stick a fork in it, and it comes as no surprise that he suddenly feels compelled to stalk and break into the home of married street-banner installer Sandra (Cayetana Guillén Cuervo) after accidentally walking into her ladder one night. In spite of all its gratuitous nudity, graphic sex and City of God-esque rapid camera zooms and pans, the insufferably self-aggrandizing first-person narration over the prolonged classical-music-punctuated montages suck all the potential fun out of Idiot Love. With no philosophical insight to speak of, Me and You and Everyone We Know it is most certainly not.

© Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

October 10, 2005

Three Times

Reviewed by Martin Tsai at the 24th Vancouver International Film Festival

After contemplating the thematic concerns and filmmaking style of Yasujiro Ozu with Café Lumière, Hou Hsiao-hsien revisits his own with Three Times. A triptych about love, time and fate, the film encapsulates the moods, cultures and preoccupations in three of Hou’s favourite periods with the same cast led by Chang Chen and Shu Qi.

Kaohsiung, 1966: The nostalgic “A Time for Love” fondly recalls the simpler times of Hou’s youth, which he explored extensively throughout the 1980s with films like The Boys from Fengkuei and Dust in the Wind. A young man doing his mandatory military service stint (Chang) becomes smitten with a billiards parlor attendant (Shu) and promises to write her, as “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and “Rain and Tears” play on. When she takes a job elsewhere, he spends much of his break riding the train across the island tracking her down.

Dadaocheng, 1911: The silent chamber drama “A Time for Freedom” revolves around a brothel à la Flowers of Shanghai. A courtesan (Shu) represses her feelings for a married revolutionary poet (Chang) whose principles compel him to reject concubinage. She soon faces the prospect of lifelong servitude when he inadvertently helps the brothel’s madam marry off another courtesan who got pregnant.

Taipei, 2005: Similar to Goodbye South, Goodbye and Millennium Mambo, “A Time for Youth” centers on a pair of aimless and soulless Gen Y-ers. A bisexual rocker (Shu) and a photographer (Chang) engage in a tryst, jeopardizing their respective relationships with jealous girlfriends. But their fleeting physical intimacy seems to be the only connection in this emotionally vacuous world where everyone is venting discontent via cell phones, text messages, e-mails and techno music.

Through repetitions and variations, Hou economically yet authoritatively compares and contrasts how the shifting times have redefined our values and priorities but not our basic need for human bonding. Each of the three parts is a masterpiece in its own right, and the innocence, doom and desperation variously conveyed in the different segments are all thoroughly felt. The collective Three Times isn’t just the definitive Hou or the definitive treatment of Taiwanese life, but the definitive observation on the evolution of humanity.

© Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

October 09, 2005

Caché (Hidden) / Citizen Dog

Reviewed by Martin Tsai at the 24th Vancouver International Film Festival

Before you die, you’ll watch the tape: Michael Haneke’s Hidden actually plays out like a J-horror film. It indeed bares staples of the auteur’s domestic horror library such as alienation, a threatened household, familial guilt and audiovisual technology. He puts yet another couple named Anne and Georges (Juliette Binoche, Daniel Auteuil) to the test when a series of surveillance tapes filmed right outside their home and creepy childish drawings show up inexplicably on their doorstep. This time Haneke uncharacteristically builds up the atmospheric menace at length before suddenly striking with single unexpected and climactic act of extreme violence (which elicited an audible collective gasp from the fest goers). The narrative strategy immediately recalls Audition, although the supernatural Ringu also comes to mind for the videocassette connection. Leaving much of its mystery unresolved, Hidden haunts viewers like a J-horror classic would.

Wisit Sasanatieng’s whimsical fable-like musical romance Citizen Dog has invited many Amélie comparisons. Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s international hit is vigorously cutesy at best, and it doesn’t come close to capturing the kind of genuinely inspired and beguiling magic seen in Sasanatieng’s sophomore feature. Making over Bangkok with the same hyper neon colour scheme seen in the director’s Tears of the Black Tiger, the film involves an introvert with a severed index finger, a compulsive-obsessive fixated on environmental activism, a chain-smoking 22-year-old who looks to be about seven, a talking stuffed bear, a zombie motorcycle taxi driver and a pair of lovers fetishizing over packed-sardines bus rides. It’s unfortunate that the film’s Thai origin might compel Western viewers to dismiss its quirkiness as eccentricity, effectively confining the film to the festival and arthouse ghetto and barring it from reaching an Amélie-size audience. Then again, Sasanatieng might already be a household name here if Miramax had bothered to release Tears of the Black Tiger.

© Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

October 08, 2005

Ox Hide / Keane

Reviewed by Martin Tsai at the 24th Vancouver International Film Festival

Winner of this year’s Dragons & Tigers award at the VIFF, Liu Jiayin’s perplexing debut Ox Hide is more intriguing than satisfying. Starring the director herself and her parents Jia Huifen and Liu Zaiping and shot entirely in their family home, its anyone’s guess as to whether the film is drama or documentary. After abandoning the mother and daughter’s prosperous sales scheme using year-round discounts to entice stingy consumers to loosen the purse strings, the father stubbornly drags his leather bags business to the brink of bankruptcy for the sake of his dignity and pride. The director has admitted that Ox Hide is autobiographical, but its minimalist fixed long takes and artless claustrophobic Scope compositions are decidedly stylistic. While the film’s meta-realist approach is refreshing, its various scenes come off as episodic, tedious and ultimately trivial.

Similarly verité and episodic, Lodge Kerrigan’s Keane achieves the polar opposite effect with an unfazed and engrossing portrait of a mentally unstable man (Damien Lewis of Band of Brothers) frantically searching for his lost daughter in the bowels of Manhattan. As with Clean, Shaven and Claire Dolan, Kerrigan’s detailed and subjective depictions of mental illness and fringe existence never cease to fascinate. (During the post-screening Q&A, the director offered that he has spent more than a decade researching the subject of mental health and also joked about befriending local junkies.) But Keane achieves more immediacy than Clean, Shaven or even David Cronenberg’s Spider by entirely omitting the auditory and visual hallucinations. Between psychotic attacks, the protagonist is wholly identifiable for having to endure every parent’s worst nightmare. The disturbing climax here is frighteningly all too human.

© Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

October 07, 2005

Waiting ...

Directed by Rob McKittrick Starring Ryan Reynolds, Justin Long and Anna Faris

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Those who actively pursue their dreams - especially those dreams of the artistic variety - often pay their dues working in the service industry before they get a taste of success. So it's no surprise that many draw inspiration from their experiences schlepping food or manning the video rental counter. The restaurant business alone has served as the milieu for many a filmic entree: Frankie and Johnny in Clair de Lune, Deluxe Combo Platter, Heavy, Eric Bross’s Restaurant, Patrick Hasson's Waiting, as well as (and not to be confused with) Waiting ... by Rob McKittrick, an ensemble comedy about a day in the life of the staff at a cheesy fern bar.

After a night of sex, booze and drugs, Shenaniganz employees show up to work allegedly still recovering from hangovers. (If they didn't overtly declare their toilet-hugging misery, the mostly half-baked acting certainly would not clue viewers in.) And oh, those garden-variety characters! Self-proclaimed perv Monty (Ryan Reynolds) finds temporary diversion from a jailbait dilemma by showing trainee Mitch (John Francis Daley) the ropes. Monty matter-of-factly asks, "How do you feel about male frontal nudity?" The frat-house initiation for waiters at this joint apparently entails mastering the Puppetry of the Penis, which cook Raddimus (Luis Guzman) eventually demonstrates for Mitch with a piece of uncooked chicken leg and its loosely attached skin. Meanwhile, the hopelessly non-committal Dean (Justin Long) reassesses his priorities as he faces a pending promotion and the disheartening news of a former classmate pulling down a $48,000 salary fresh out of college.

In similar workplace ensemble comedies such as Clerks and Empire Records, characters struggle feverishly against tight deadlines to attain their goals. But McKittrick's film lacks the same narrative momentum as it dishes out very little plot. These slackers are just biding their time, and their boredom is infectious. Alanna Ubach's performance as a burnt-out waitress in desperate need of anger management stands out as the only watchable part of the film. The jokes here are mostly stale, and the one about the "five-second rule" - a dropped piece of food can stay on the floor five seconds before it is deemed too unsanitary for serving - is a cold leftover from Hasson's eponymous 2001 film. And you just knew that the Shenaniganz staff would garnish the food with saliva, dandruff and pubic hair. If viewers must take something from this movie, the only moral they can possibly conjure up with would be to dine out at your own risk.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

Avenge but One of My Two Eyes / The White Diamond

Reviewed by Martin Tsai at the 24th Vancouver International Film Festival

Juxtaposing the undignified daily lives of Palestinians – who are unable to pass checkpoints even for medical emergencies – with guides regaling tourists with Jewish folklore of Samson and the Zealots committing suicide in the face of their respective Philistine and Roman occupiers, the documentary Avenge but One of My Two Eyes curiously links today’s suicide bombers with yesteryear’s heroes. The premise is fascinating and inflammatory, but Avi Mograbi’s first-person account provides too much unnecessary distraction. Interspersed scenes of broken-English telephone exchanges between the Israeli director and his Palestinian friend Shredi Jabarin are visually dreary and rarely revealing. The climactic scene of Mograbi snapping at Israeli guards also seems beside the point.

With The White Diamond, Werner Herzog finds yet another hell-bent eccentric on a mission. Brit aeronaut Graham Dorrington is set on flying over Guyana with a helium balloon he built, even though he is still overcoming the guilt from an accidental death caused by one of his experimental aircraft a decade ago. Similar to most of Herzog’s films – as well as his protégée Errol Morris’s Fast, Cheap and Out of Control and Zak Penn’s spoof Incident at Loch NessDiamond treats its mad genius with wide-eyed wonder and deadpan hilarity. (Perhaps auteurist scholars might want to reconsider Invincible as a comedy?) Like Grizzly Man, the most fascinating aspect of Diamond is what the director alludes to but chooses to withhold. Truth is stranger than fiction indeed.

© Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

October 06, 2005

Why We Fight

Reviewed by Martin Tsai at the 24th Vancouver International Film Festival

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist,” former U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower warned in his 1961 farewell address. “We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.” That stark caution has turned out to be prophetic, and the documentary Why We Fight examines the monster created by contractors, corporations, think tanks, lobbyists and politicians. Because a standing military generates thousands of jobs and millions of dollars, the country must continue to engage in unnecessary wars under false pretenses to sustain the industry.

Even though it's one of the most popular titles at the VIFF, the timing of Why We Fight is off. As Gore Vidal points out, we’re living in the United States of Amnesia. Despite the fact that the film is no less relevant than Bowling for Columbine and The Fog of War, its subject no longer interests certain viewers. In an overheard heated exchange among festival goers, someone of the conservative persuasion reflexively dismissed Why We Fight as “liberal propaganda” and therefore unworthy of his time. Director Eugene Jarecki (The Trials of Henry Kissinger) actually maintains the balance with his choice of interviewees from across the political spectrum, but the overwhelming evidence and the conclusion presented in the film apparently are not enough to change many minds in this divisive political climate.

© Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

October 05, 2005

The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes

Reviewed by Martin Tsai at the 24th Vancouver International Film Festival

Ten years since making their feature debut with Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life, the Quay Brothers finally return with the ambitious The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes. Like their renowned short films, it boasts luminous images and elaborate stop-motion animation. Dr. Droz (Gottfried John) is obsessed with automatons, and he has devised an evil plot to kidnap opera singer Malvina (Amira Casar of Anatomy of Hell) and turn her into a mechanical nightingale. The Quays employ their staple animation to illustrate Droz’s elaborate collection of intricate automatons – including a logger chopping down a tree as mysterious blood drains into a lake, and a severed finger functioning as a stylus on the glass-rim turntable.

There are successful precedents for this kind of experimental mix of live action with animation, such as Conspirators of Pleasure and Little Otik. But for a dreamy fable, Piano Tuner lacks the spunk and subversion seen in the works of Quay Brothers’ idol Jan Svankmajer and their contemporaries like Guy Madden and Matthew Barney. And unlike Benjamenta, Piano Tuner doesn’t have strong central characters to sustain viewers’ interest. So in spite of its fairly conventional narrative, it ultimately comes off as an insufferable art film that doesn’t stand a chance of finding a cult following.

© Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

October 04, 2005

Dear Wendy

Reviewed by Martin Tsai at the 24th Vancouver International Film Festival

Although only serving as a screenwriter this time, Lars von Trier still leaves his personal stamp on Thomas Vinterberg’s Dear Wendy. Just as Dancer in the Dark and his current “America the Beautiful” trilogy have scrutinized American attitudes toward immigration, the death penalty, Christianity, revenge, racism, et al., Dear Wendy targets the reverence Americans have for the Second Amendment. The story concerns a group of small-town misfits and self-proclaimed pacifists – led by Jamie Bell’s character Dick – who find some antique guns which suddenly empower them with confidence and self-righteousness. Their enchantment becomes such an obsession, that the kids ritualistically name their guns and perform wedding ceremonies for the firearms and their respective owners. The title, of course, stems from a love letter from Dick to his revolver.

Despite the fact that von Trier has never set foot in the States, he is once again spot-on with his assessment of both the country’s attraction to guns and the violence and tragedy that ensue from that romance. While this allegory is certainly more cogent and chilling than the heavy-handed Bowling for Columbine and the indifferent Elephant, it unfortunately pales in comparison to the thematically similar A History of Violence. Vinterberg lacks David Cronenberg’s iconic stereotyping and dark humour, and von Trier’s typical sarcasm seems to have gone right over his Dogme co-conspirator’s head.

© Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

October 03, 2005

The Bridesmaid / Takeshis’

Reviewed by Martin Tsai at the 24th Vancouver International Film Festival

Claude Chabrol’s second Ruth Rendell adaptation, The Bridesmaid is a well-oiled, expertly executed Hitchcockian thriller of the type that fans have come to expect from the 75-year-old auteur. Buttoned-down salesman (Benoît Magimel) is married to his job and family until a mysterious and eccentric woman (Laura Smet) throws his routine out the window along with his better judgment. And their obsessive l’amour fou might just turn out to be lethal. Although Rendell’s plot is somewhat predictable, Chabrol’s aptitude for ambiguity keeps viewers guessing. But this is a disappointingly minor work from a director of considerable repute who seems to be just going through the motions here.

With Takeshis’, Takeshi Kitano imagines what his life would have been like if he hadn’t become a multi-hyphenate celebrity. The Renaissance man here plays himself, as well as a dim-witted look-alike who works at a convenience store and aspires to become a successful actor like Kitano. Essentially an elaborate daydream, this attempt at Charlie Kaufman-esque automatic writing is sporadically hilarious and pointlessly mind-boggling. At feature length, Kitano’s self-deprecating digs at his screen personae come dangerously close to an exercise in narcissism. His strength in the juxtaposition of cruelty and tenderness is sorely missed here. Even if the exercise might amuse some hardcore fans, Kitano himself could not figure out the point or even a conclusion.

© Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

October 02, 2005

The Squid and the Whale / North Country / The Intruder

Reviewed by Martin Tsai at the 24th Vancouver International Film Festival

Exactly a decade ago, Noah Baumbach made a promising Whit Stillman-esque debut with Kicking & Screaming. After a string of duds, he has finally proven that the debut was no fluke with the overwhelmingly poignant The Squid and the Whale, a semi-autobiographical account of his coping with his parents’ divorce as a teenager. The separation, infidelity and joint custody arrangement complicate the already awkward pubescent sexuality for two brothers (Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline), and also prompt them to choose sides between mom (Laura Linney) and dad (Jeff Daniels). The boys each pick a different role model and become hostile toward the other parent. But further disillusionment awaits as the parents’ selfishness will soon dawn on them. This unsentimental and economically swift film arrives at a surprisingly resonant conclusion, and Baumbach’s mom – the esteemed former Village Voice critic Georgia Brown – can definitely take pride in it.

Also inspired by a true story, North Country is unfortunately a lot less sincere and believable. Niki Caro’s follow-up to Whale Rider finds its inspiration in a class-action sexual harassment suit filed by female Minnesotan miners, and then proceeds to turn it into something fairly generic and shamelessly manipulative. As if having to endure the sexist taunting of male coworkers isn’t enough, screenwriter Michael Seitzman makes sure that Charlize Theron’s protagonist is also a victim of traumatic upbringing, teenage pregnancy, domestic abuse and rape, so that the defendant mining company can conveniently dig up the past in an effort to discredit her. Thank goodness you can see the uplifting happy ending from miles away, or else the film might actually be a devastating tearjerker like Dancer in the Dark.

Jean-Luc Nancy's book on his heart transplant becomes completely unrecognizable and incoherent in the hands of director Claire Denis. By throwing in hunters, smugglers, black marketeers, estranged family members and lots of canines, she transforms The Intruder into a confusingly cryptic and insufferably pretentious tragedy about karmic justice. “Our worst enemies are hiding inside,” goes first line in summing up the moral of the story, although the film eventually becomes so disorienting that the point gets lost. The most remarkable part about it is the fact that it incorporates lead actor Michel Subor’s 1965 film Le Reflux as flashback. But since Steven Soderbergh similarly utilized Poor Cow in The Limey, this ploy has lost its novelty.

© Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

October 01, 2005

Princess Raccoon / Manderlay

Reviewed by Martin Tsai at the 24th Vancouver International Film Festival

Four years after Pistol Opera, Seijun Suzuki raises the bizarro bar once again with the Japanese opera/Greek tragedy/French New Wave pastiche Princess Raccoon. Its costumes are primarily kimonos. The sets alternate between expressionist stages, naturalistic exteriors and ink-painting superimposed blue screen. Like a continuity editor’s worst nightmare, the costumes and sets often change inexplicably within the same scene. There are the Godard zooms and freeze frames that make the film seem more frantic. Then the music ranges from lush Michel Legrand-esque orchestral numbers to rock and even rap. In other words, the film is like a Japanese Romeo and Juliet meets The Umbrellas of Cherbourg tripping on acid. And this is actually a good thing! The film manages to strike an emotional chord in spite of its unconventional methods. What’s more, it stars Zhang Ziyi. After proving her acting prowess in 2046, the crouching flying vixen here hones her geisha skills. Those who think she’s miscast in the upcoming Rob Marshall film might as well shut up now.

Lars von Trier’s Manderlay isn’t as big a disappointment as some critics made it out to be. To be sure, Bryce Dallas Howard is no Nicole Kidman, and she occasionally gets upstaged. The film also takes a while to reach the devastating effect of Dogville. But let’s face it, Manderlay is every bit the politically relevant hell-raiser that its predecessor was. The Danish provocateur revisited many of his favourite elements with Dogville. Even if the bare-soundstage shtick is wearing a little thin this time, Manderlay is thematically original. Set in a 1930s Alabama plantation where slavery still exists in secret, Howard’s Grace liberates the slaves and then enforces democracy with the help of her father’s armed henchmen. The allegory obviously recalls the current situation in Iraq, but it also comments on the institutionalized racism and the complacency among racial minorities that are still prevalent in today’s society.

© Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

September 30, 2005


Reviewed by Martin Tsai at the 24th Vancouver International Film Festival

Following Fire (1996) and Earth (1998), director Deepa Mehta finally completes her acclaimed and controversial "elements" trilogy with Water. The devastating depictions of gender disparity and religious turmoil in India incited right-wing Hindu fundamentalists to stage protests, ransack theatres, issue death threats and even force the shutdown of the 2000 production of this final series installment. The director went on to make the lightweight Bollywood/Hollywood and The Republic of Love before returning to Water – this time filming secretly in Sri Lanka.

Hindu holy texts dictate that a wife has only three options upon the death of her husband: She must either burn with his remains, remarry his younger brother, or live the remainder of her life in self-denial. Set in Colonial-era India inside a house for spurned widows, Water continues the trilogy's exploration of the culture's historically unspoken and unchallenged hypocrisies. Mehta's determination obviously deserves admiration, and her new film is certainly an eye-opener for outsiders. At the same time, it lacks the moral ambiguity and multidimensional characters of the two predecessors. Employing a child's perspective (à la Earth), a Romeo/Juliet-esque doomed romance, a dastardly villain and an unsettling tangent involving coerced prostitution, it often seems like Water is dripping with manipulation.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

September 23, 2005

A History of Violence

Directed by David Cronenberg Starring Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello and Ed Harris

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

The trend of distinguished directors attempting comic adaptations surely must nonplus those militant auteurists without fanboy leanings. Even the most ambitious of these efforts often result in something cartoonish (i.e. The Hulk, Sin City). Road to Perdition certainly offers scant hope that its fellow Paradox Press pulp piece A History of Violence can avoid the same fate. But the shortcomings of John Wagner and Vince Locke’s fairly hackneyed and senselessly gruesome graphic novel have actually triggered David Cronenberg’s chilling and fascinating meditation on the genre’s conventions and – by implication – its audience.

Seemingly loaded with the ammo of a typical Hollywood thriller, the Canadian visionary's first full-fledged studio production in nearly two decades is deceptively generic. After confronting and wasting two thugs (Stephen McHattie, Greg Bryk) at his diner, Tom (Viggo Mortensen) and his all-American family in a sleepy Mellencampian small town inadvertently attract the attention of the national media and menacing gangster Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris). Fogarty takes Tom for his foe Joey, and begins randomly terrorizing the family hoping to settle some old score.

The film explores the fluid correlation between the roles people assume in life and their capacities for aggression. Characters' abilities to engage in horrifically extreme behaviours define them as ordinary/extraordinary, victim/aggressor, or hero/villain. Tom's identity crisis manifests in two polar-opposite sexual episodes with his wife Edie (Maria Bello). Dynamics also shift in the power struggle between Tom's meek son Jack (Ashton Holmes) and school jock/bully Bobby (Kyle Schmid).

A History of Violence does function on the same level as the run-of-the-mill thriller from which it originally sprung, and viewers not actively seeking out nuances will easily mistake it as such. Howard Shore's daytime-TV score masks screenwriter Josh Olson's merciless jabs at nearly every cliché of its genre, effectively steering the film away from overt parody.

Cronenberg begins yanking viewers' chains right from the opening salvo, as the would-be burglars of Tom's diner are about to check out of a motel. When told to bring the car to the office, one of them carries out the order by turning on the ignition and stereo only to nudge the car forward a few inches before shutting it off again. This droll sequence serves as prelude of sorts. The director stages several fiery incidents of belligerence that effectively whet viewers' appetite for gratuitous bloodshed, and then proceeds to anticlimactically dissolve those before they actually come to blows. When brutality does take place, it's often startling and stomach-turning. The method forces acute viewers to analyze their affinity for gore and the cheap thrills they get from such spectacle.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.


Directed by Phil Morrison Starring Alessandro Nivola, Benjamin McKenzie and Amy Adams

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

"If you can't run with the big dogs, stay under the porch," a trusted Southern idiom urges. Cannes/Sundance entry Junebug paints a decidedly idiosyncratic portrait of the American South, where historical and cultural stigmas continue to colour people's identities and the stay-under-the-porch resignation is prevalent. The film frames rather familiar themes of awkward family reunion, tense sibling rivalry, culture shock and small-time cul-de-sac hopelessness with an unconventional detachment and illustrates the perspective of each character and the dynamic of every relationship with string-grid precision.

Brit art dealer Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz) and her newlywed younger husband George (Alessandro Nivola) travel from Chicago to suburban Winston-Salem, so that she can pursue the work of eccentric local folk artist David Wark (Frank Hoyt Taylor) and also finally get an opportunity to meet George's estranged family. Wark's Henry Darger-esque outsider artwork suggests that ghosts of slavery and the grey-coat Confederacy still haunt the collective psyche below the Mason-Dixon line. The visit of a Yankee outsider and an expatriate Tar Heel not only disturbs the peace of George's Carolina family, but it also eggs on different manifestations of the Southern inferiority complex amongst its members.

Having escaped to Chicago, George's denial of his roots is evident in his neglecting to invite the family to his wedding and his lapse in religious observances. His younger brother Johnny (Benjamin McKenzie of The O.C.) is a high-school dropout who never gets a chance to fulfill his life's potential and resents both the burden of his very pregnant wife Ashley (Amy Adams) and the success of brother George. Sheltered and callow Ashley follows social expectations without demurrer, but she is in awe of cosmopolitan Madeleine and the worldliness that seems so out of reach for an unsophisticated girl whose favourite pastime appears to be hitting the mall. And perhaps overcompensating for her own insecurity, tetchy and condescending materfamilias Peg (Celia Weston) disapproves of everything that is foreign to her.

The thematic concern of Phil Morrison's feature-length debut recalls I Vitelloni, The Last Picture Show and his North Carolinian contemporary David Gordon Green's All the Real Girls, but the presence of outsiders in Junebug intensifies this despair among the trapped inhabitants of its diminutive borough. Suburban Winston-Salem isn't the prototypical Mayberry, and it provides a curious contrast to the ramshackle rural settings in Green's films. In lieu of a protagonist, viewers can recognize and perhaps even identify with most characters. To its credit, the film never resorts to broad-brush grotesque caricatures (think boxer Maggie's horrendous white-trash family in Million Dollar Baby). Without passing judgment, Junebug allows viewers to look past its characters' personal flaws and gain insight into the ambivalence they have toward their tobacco-road heritage. Even though this plot-driven Southern stew may frustrate viewers' desires for emotional investment, the pot liquor boils to a devastating climax nonetheless.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

September 09, 2005

Transporter 2

Directed by Louis Leterrier Starring Jason Statham

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

The Transporter must have done well enough overseas to warrant a sequel, since it only made a measly $25 million at the domestic box office and the DVD pretty much headed straight for Wal-Mart's bargain bins. So, it's no wonder the studio didn't bother to lavishly promote or even come up with a new poster design for the North American release of Transporter 2. Those who liked its predecessor may be excited that the follow-up has shifted its action gear into overdrive, but some may be equally disappointed to learn that it has left credibility entirely in the dust and the sights of Jason Statham's chiseled torso and a bound-and-gagged Shu Qi in its rearview mirror.

It's three years later, and Statham's ex-commando-turned-chauffeur Frank Martin has transported himself from southern France to the southern United States. As a personal favour, he escorts the six-year-old son (Hunter Clary) of a prominent drug czar (Matthew Modine) to and from school every day. We know Frank is a big softie when he pulls the car forward to avert little Jack's eyes from the traumatic spectacle of his estranged parents arguing. Sooner than you can say Man on Fire, kidnappers snatch up little Jack while under Frank's watch. "You promised you wouldn't let anybody hurt me," teary-eyed Jack pleads. Now, to keep his promise, it's up to the everyman Bond to fight with fists, feet, guns, knives, hammers, syringes, cars, boats, a jet ski, a spiraling airplane, a garbage bin and an iPod.

Impressive action sequences rev up Transporter 2, especially the expected car tricks. One auto-dynamic stunt has Frank catapulting his Audi A8 above a crane to scrape off a bomb from underneath the chassis before it explodes. Statham delivers an array of mesmerizing gymnastics, such as leaping upward to escape a sandwiching head-on collision, and using a fire-extinguisher hose to lasso his adversaries. Since Frank is so resourceful, his enemies might wish they'd seized their chance to simply riddle him with bullet holes instead of planting a bomb under his car.

Following the Jet Li vehicle Unleashed, co-screenwriter/co-producer Luc Besson again teams up with his protégée, director Louis Leterrier, for Transporter 2. Intentional or not, their Unleashed was a genre-smart action flick that metaphorically scrutinized Hollywood's exploitation of martial-arts stars as trained animals. But Transporter 2 finds Besson borrowing from Tony Scott's aforementioned Man on Fire while revisiting his own The Professional (for the kick-ass guardian angel/babysitter theme) and La Femme Nikita (for the kick-ass femme fatale). The subplot involving an anthrax-esque biological weapon is about so four years ago, and it presents the film's most jarring logistic implausibility. Viewers will have to stick their heads out the window, leave their brains in the trunk and soak up the ridiculousness to really enjoy this ride.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

September 02, 2005

The Constant Gardener

Directed by Fernando Meirelles Starring Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Given the volatile responses it received, whether the 2002 crime drama City of God will stand the test of time is anyone's guess. The Academy Awards first snubbed the Brazilian entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category, but a year later honoured it with four major nominations. It cultivated passionate assessments among some critics and film buffs, a number of whom even prematurely heralded it as the next Citizen Kane. Regardless, it has earned nascent director Fernando Meirelles street cred, an Oscar nod, and a foot in Indiewood.

Although his faux-guerilla filmmaking approach hardly seems suitable for novelist John le Carré's sophisticated international intrigue, studio execs must have figured Meirelles could bring some scabrous realism to the big-screen adaptation of The Constant Gardener. The story concerns British diplomat Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) investigating the murder of his wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz), and unwittingly digging up a global conspiracy involving powerless human guinea pigs in Kenya, evil pharmaceutical corporations and corrupt bureaucracies.

City of God first evidenced Meirelles's penchant for aestheticizing poverty into Benetton ads. As he did with the slums of Rio de Janeiro, he has filmed the destitute Nairobi with oversaturated colours, jerky camera work and choppy editing. Stylizing on demand, he has also photographed the scenes in London with a gloomy olive filter, and stages the Quayles' between bedsheets as if it were a Lancôme perfume commercial. Basically Meirelles is like the Brazilian Michael Bay, only with slightly more sociopolitically-charged material to better inflict liberal guilt trips upon viewers.

In the recent documentary Rize, director David LaChapelle glamourized inner-city poverty to the extent that it often looked like a hip-hop music video, but he stuck to his subjects' perspectives closely. Meirelles was seemingly unconcerned about any of the characters in City, as he irresponsibly exploited true stories to showcase his bag of cinematic tricks. What's more troubling about Gardener is the fact that the director repeats this portrayal only as adventitious backdrop for some run-of-the-mill man-avenging-dead-wife plot. Like Sidney Pollack's The Interpreter, the film employs very real African atrocities merely to enrich the personal ordeals of insignificant fictional protagonists. None of the African characters in either of those films are remotely memorable, let alone able to deliver themselves from devastation without the martyrdoms of their white saviours.

Obviously le Carré is to blame for his deep-rooted disinterest and ignorance regarding whatever exotic locale he namedrops. (In the Gardener novel, he sloppily wrote about some "eastern" Saskatchewan "town square," which is supposedly "three hours' rail ride out of Winnipeg.") Meirelles's sensationalist emphasis on African deprivation only magnifies shortcomings in the author's romantic thriller, while the director's own inability to carry out a straight scene undermines le Carré's strength in planting Justin Quayle's sense of betrayal.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.


Directed by Marcos Siega Starring Nick Cannon, Shawn Ashmore and Cheech Marin

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

In the wake of the popular Spy Kids and Agent Cody Banks series, studios have been quick to line up the next The Mod Squad and 21 Jump Street knockoffs. The latest example, Underclassman, features Nickelodeon's Nick Cannon as a streetwise undercover cop who enrolls in a posh private school to investigate the death of a student.

This feature-length debut by Marcos Siega gathered dust on the shelves for so long that it is actually opening in the States on the heels of his follow-up, Pretty Persuasion. The delayed is likely due to the fact that none of the rising stars that might have made Underclassman a draw have really gone anywhere: Cannon has flunked his two rap recording tries and his starring turn in Love Don’t Cost a Thing after leading the cast of Drumline; and screenwriters David T. Wagner and Brent Goldberg's Risky Business rip-off, The Girl Next Door, wasn't exactly the next raunchy teen blockbuster.

A closer look at Underclassman clearly reveals Wagner and Goldberg also to be unashamedly plagiarizing Stephen Chow’s 1991 starring vehicle, Fight Back to School. The alarming similarities between the two suggest something beyond mere coincidence, as their respective protagonists both accidentally bust some smugglers, court sexy teachers and finally earn that elusive popularity during the course of their school infiltrations. While Fight Back is hilariously silly, Underclassman turns out to be a half-hearted by-the-numbers effort.

Given that Siega is best known for those cheeky blink-182 music videos, fans might expect the same irreverence in his movies. But Underclassman is a disappointing rehash of action comedy textbook material straight out of the Michael Bay/Brett Ratner school. When Cannon reaches for his gun, one can pretty much foresee the reflexive John Woo slo-mo that has been exercised to death by all the directors who specialize in ADHD filmmaking.

The film also fails to make the comedic grade, with Siega missing opportunities to play cultural clashes for laughs. The stereotyping here is mostly inoffensive, but scenes of Cannon fumbling the meaning of the word "soirée" and stabs at white-bread activities like rugby, jet skiing and paintball, as well as vignettes of wiggers hanging tough, attempting Ebonics and getting their asses whupped on the basketball court, are just plain banal.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

September 01, 2005

Nobody Knows

Directed Hirokazu Kore-eda

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

From Shohei Imamura’s Black Rain to Shinji Aoyama’s Eureka, Japanese filmmakers have customarily responded to catastrophic true stories with posttraumatic meditations rather than exploitation or censure. After drawing on the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo subway system attack for his last feature Distance, writer/director Hirokazu Kore-eda finds inspiration in yet another real-life tragedy for Nobody Knows. The 1988 ‘Affair of the Four Abandoned Children of Nishi-Sugamo’ has all the flummoxing and disconcerting aspects that typify sensational news items. Those siblings—undocumented and each born of a different father—fended for themselves for six months after their mother’s desertion, during which time the youngest one died. Instead of examining the perplexing circumstances and sheer scariness of the ordeal, Kore-eda dwells on the brood’s beyond-their-years wisdom and resourcefulness.

Single mom Keiko Fukushima (You) and twelve-year-old Akira (Yûya Yagira, Cannes’s Best Actor) arrive at a small Tokyo apartment after arduously lugging heavy suitcases up the stairs. Once Keiko and Akira send the movers off, seven-year-old Shigeru (Hiei Kimura) and five-year-old Yuki (Momoko Shimizu) gleefully pop out of the luggage. Shortly thereafter, ten-year-old Kyoko (Ayu Kitaura) tiptoes in upon arrival from the train station. As if about to play an elaborate game of hide-and-seek with the landlord and neighbors, Keiko explains the rules: no loud voices or going outside. Kyoko does laundry on the veranda discreetly; Akira takes charge when mother is not around. Mom entreats the weary Akira to hang in there a bit longer, assuring him that they will soon move into a big house with the kids finally attending school and Kyoko getting a piano to replace her miniature toy one. Keiko vanishes before long, leaving behind only a goodbye note and an envelope full of yen. Months go by and clutter accumulates in the cramped abode, while her rules are also gradually broken. Her offspring’s predicament becomes even more serious once they’ve depleted the money. Akira eventually tracks down Keiko’s new telephone number, but when she answers with a different surname, it dawns on him that she might never return.

In a preemptive disclaimer during the opening frames, Kore-eda acknowledges that the characters and events depicted are fictional. “The first important decision was that we didn't want to portray the children as weak victims, or the mother as an easily identifiable villain,” he said in an interview with The Philadelphia City Paper. “Those were the precise points of view of the TV news and magazines, so I wanted explicitly to avoid them.” But to grasp what he personally gleans from the actual incident and thus analyze the film’s thesis, it’s impossible to overlook his self-assumed artistic license to tamper with facts. He sticks close to minutiae, but neglects much of the brutality. In truth, a son succumbed to malnutrition even prior to the mother’s departure; she sealed his corpse with plastic wrap and stashed it in a closet with deodorant. This disturbing episode is glaringly unaccounted for in the film. And in actuality, the youngest child died from injuries inflicted by her brother’s friends. Yuki’s demise here is purely accidental. With these frightening details swept under the tatami, the film seems a lot less unsettling than it might otherwise have been.

If his previous features are any indication, other subject matter clearly fascinates Kore-eda more. Indeed, bereavement and refuge are the thematic hallmarks of his work to date. In Maborosi, a grieving widow and her young son adapt to a new life in a cozy seaside nest. After Life finds recently deceased characters reliving cherished memories during their stay in purgatory. Distance has survivors gathering to mourn their loved ones who took part in a terrorist suicide mission. These characters all cope with personal loss in idealized close-knit utopian communities. Only bold aesthetic divergences—such as the absence of close-ups in Maborosi and the absence of music in Distance—set these films apart from one another. The premise of Nobody Knows certainly provides ample opportunity for the director to revisit his favorite subjects and once more project his idyllic worldview. “The life of these children couldn’t have been only negative,” he stated in the film’s press notes. “There must have been a richness other than material, based on those moments of understanding, joy, sadness and hope. So I didn’t want to show the ‘hell’ as seen from the outside, but the ‘richness’ of their life as seen from the inside.”

Kore-eda speculatively reimagines people and occurrences through rose-colored glasses, particularly lingering on Akira’s maturity, cultivated by necessity. The boy already faces a myriad of daily run-of-the-mill grownup decisions prior to his mother’s exit, such as whether to buy persimmons while shopping and whether to cook curry for dinner. Once she vanishes, he dutifully deposits money at the ATM, pays bills, does bookkeeping, and makes up white lies about her to comfort his siblings. When the money runs out, he hunts down two of her ex-boyfriends and separately claims that each is Yuki’s biological father so he can extort some cash. A few vignettes of Akira’s worldliness are especially heartrending: shivering in the street waiting for last-minute markdowns before finally procuring a traditional Christmas treat, asking a convenience store clerk to forge Keiko’s handwriting on New Year’s greetings for his siblings, and taking little Yuki out on her birthday to look for mommy.

Occasionally, Kore-eda skirts the ugly truths only to quickly discard those tangents and regress to his familiar schema. The film features Akira’s buddies who prove to be a very bad influence, even though they aren’t responsible for any fatalities here as were their real-life counterparts. Akira uncharacteristically squanders precious money on junk food and video games to impress them. They also rough up Shigeru and attempt to coax Akira into shoplifting. But when he refuses to steal for fear that the involvement of cops and social workers will spell separation for the remainder of his family, those fair-weather friendships immediately dissolve with the director resuming his admiration for the boy’s prudence. Never mind that simply tackling the harshness of the actual events would have made more sense.

In films such as Lord of the Flies, Kids, Mean Creek and even Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, savagery naturally emerges in children deprived of adult supervision and role models. The youngsters in those films have no moral or behavioral compass to help guide them, and their microcosms only permit survival of the fittest. As the stark contrast between Nobody Knows and its factual basis would indicate, Kore-eda’s romantic notion of Akira’s sagacity and accountability defies logic. The film’s likely audience of middle-aged art-house patrons probably won’t question its heartwarming portrait though. What parent doesn’t find obedient, well-behaved cherubs adorable? Halfway through, the film digresses even further from veracity as saintly middle-school outcast Saki (Hanae Kan) assumes the multipurpose role of surrogate mother for the little Fukushimas as well as puppy-love interest for Akira. She patiently engages Kyoko and Yuki during afternoon playtime. The prepubescent Akira also starts washing his hair and spending time picking out the right outfit before meeting Saki. When she volunteers to raise money for them by entertaining a middle-aged men at a karaoke club, her sacrificial gesture crushes Akira even more than did his mother’s abandonment.

The film doesn’t condemn the grownups, even though they do appear to be neglectful, indifferent, self-absorbed and mostly absent. Its treatment of the fathers is almost neutral, with Keiko resenting their absconding and at the same time betraying her own naiveté about relationships. Her old flames whom Akira visits aren’t exactly in positions to provide much assistance, since they toil at dead-end jobs as a cab driver and a pachinko parlor security guard. And unlike the real mother, who left her late son to rot in the closet, Keiko seems a lot less callous. She may deprive her children of the ordinary upbringing they crave, but she justifies her selfishness with pacifying promises of normalcy once she scores a husband. Akira even catches her shedding a tear before getting out of bed one morning. The director’s generally sympathetic presentation of her makes one wonder if it’s purposeful or simply an oversight that she doesn’t leave the children her cellular number in case of emergency. It’s equally mind-boggling to see the landlord’s wife giving up so easily after failing to collect the overdue rent, when in reality it was the landlord who finally notified the police.

With deliberate pace and generous use of close-ups, hand-held cinematography and diegetic sound, Kore-eda transcends the detached ambiance of his past work. The stylistic touches here coalesce to poetic effect, cultivating several mini set-pieces from mundane chores and pastimes such as eating ramen, chopping up onions, brushing teeth, monitoring the laundry, fiddling with crayons, surveying each aisle in the store, streaking fingertips on a fogged window, and planting makeshift bonsais in Styrofoam noodle cups. By contrasting the motif of their often-traversed flight of stairs with motifs of bicycles, monorail trains, and airplanes, the film remarkably illustrates the brood’s displacement and disenfranchisement amid basic needs that are unmet, including food, school, leisure diversions, and social mobility.

But its fly-on-the-wall approach and the child actors’ wooden performances hinder the film’s emotional impact. A few intriguing undercurrents—such as Kyoko’s self-blame and anger regarding mom’s forsaking them, Akira’s annoyance with his siblings, and the foreshadowing of the culminating tragedy—barely even register. The climactic scenes juxtapose Akira’s little-league baseball triumphs with Yuki’s untimely passing, and the latter almost comes off as an afterthought. Kore-eda tastefully leaves the chilling details off screen, allowing only fleeting glances at Yuki’s frozen limbs; and the ensuing scenes are totally devoid of the devastating impression one would expect. Nobody Knows doesn’t resolve anything, except to reiterate, ultimately, that the kids are alright.

© Copyright 2005 Cineaste. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

August 19, 2005


Directed by Wong Kar-Wai Starring Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Zhang Ziyi and Faye Wong

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Wong Kar-Wai's films are the cinematic equivalent of formless jazz improvisations, harping on mood rather than substance. They are impossibly beautiful yet flatly vacuous. With 2046, he riffs off some of his previous efforts: it's the official sequel to In the Mood for Love, but it also recalls the director's Days of Being Wild and Chungking Express with a note or two from Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. It's somewhat startling that WKW has seemingly exhausted all of his ideas this early in the game. Apparently he did not have much to go on at the outset of 2046, which reportedly endured years of delays and extensive alterations during its production.

The title harkens to a hotel room number from In the Mood for Love, and is also coincidentally the final year in which Deng Xiaoping's "one nation, two systems" guarantee for the governance of Hong Kong would remain in effect. The sequel follows Tony Leung Chiu-Wai's newspaper sci-fi/soft-core pulp columnist Chow Mo-Wan in the late 1960s as the doomed affair in the previous film continues to haunt him and lead to his chauvinist womanizing. Each of his new conquests here represents a morsel of trivia that may fascinate hardcore WKW fans, although truthfully there's very little worthy of serious theorizing.

Leung’s longtime girlfriend Carina Lau plays a woman stabbed to death by her jealous boyfriend (Chang Chen of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in a thankless silent role). Faye Wong’s character Wang Jingwen is actually named after the singer/actress’s own former stage name, and she has a Japanese fixation here that replaces her California obsession in Chungking Express. Gong Li’s Su Lizhen is the namesake of Maggie Cheung’s characters from Days of Being Wild and In the Mood for Love. Having teamed up with Leung in Hero, Zhang Ziyi once again plays someone with unrequited love for his character. And three of director Zhang Yimou’s muses (Gong, Zhang Ziyi and Jie Dong) make appearances here. Got it?

The most mind-boggling direction in 2046 is something subtitle-readers won't likely pick up on: The majority of the conversations in the film actually involve two characters speaking vastly different dialects or languages, so technically they shouldn't even understand each other. Wong possibly pioneered this scheme with Chungking Express (Shunji Iwai and Takashi Miike later borrowed it) to achieve a sense of pan-Pacific multiculturalism that in reality isn't truly prevalent in the mostly homogenized Asian cultures. Even though William Chang's retro-chic designs and Christopher Doyle's kaleidoscopic cinematography are always something to behold, their exoticness doesn't really elevate WKW's nonsensical Crayola-coloured films beyond pretentious stylistic exercises.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

Last Days

Directed by Gus Van Sant Starring Michael Pitt, Lukas Haas and Asia Argento

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

From idiosyncratic portraits about fringe existences (Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho) to Hollywood pop thrillers (To Die For, Psycho) and coming-of-age weepies (Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester) to a trilogy of inscrutable headline-news abstractions, Gus Van Sant's artistic evolution has seemingly come full circle: his latest brings to mind his sparse and remote feature debut Mala Noche. The technical proficiencies and auteurist staples showcased in the trilogy are undeniably significant, earning him serious critical attention along with the 2003 Cannes Film Festival's Palme d'Or. Still, there's something disingenuous about these films that trivializes their artistic merits.

Just as Van Sant's Gerry drew its inspiration from a news item about two men getting lost in the wilderness and Elephant borrowed its from the Columbine High School massacre, the trilogy's final entry Last Days is a fictionalized account of events immediately leading up to the death of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. These films are hardly cautionary or meditative, and they also don't shed any new light on the real-life tragedies that comprise their bases. Van Sant obdurately sets out to effect the polar opposite of media sensationalism. He achieves detached and cryptic minimalism by deconstructing the very same facts and speculations that the media once beat into the ground.

Bleached-blonde Michael Pitt plays Cobain surrogate Blake. He aimlessly mumbles and crawls in a lethargic daze, barely interacting with the handful of groupies with whom he shares a run-down mansion. Except for the rare occasion when he's rocking out, Blake is practically a zombie in his final hours - he can't hold an intelligible conversation with a Yellow Pages salesman nor even follow simple instructions printed on a Kraft Dinner box. In fact, Pitt has only a few perceptible lines and even fewer close-ups throughout the entire film.

As with Elephant, Van Sant offers a slew of possible explanations for the tragedy, in this instance drugs, isolation and distaste for fame and scheming hangers-on. For all three films, the director stages each scene with an uneventful dread without striving for any character identification or passing any judgments. His takes certainly provide curious contrasts to the probing frenzy of news media, but he never offers any eloquent criticisms of such sensationalism. The insertions of a random gay subtext in both Elephant and Last Days raise the most alarming red flag about Van Sant's trilogy though. They expose the fact that these films are not meant as meditations, but rather they are merely soulless quasi-Warholian replicas of cultural icons passed off as art.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

August 12, 2005

Broken Flowers

Directed by Jim Jarmusch Starring Bill Murray, Sharon Stone and Jessica Lange

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Master of inconspicuous deadpan and cultural pastiche, Jim Jarmusch has unwaveringly redefined off-centre quirkiness in cinema throughout the past quarter of a century. Heavily influenced by Aki Kaurismäki, he is one of the few filmmakers capable of simultaneously summoning up opaque bleakness and eccentric glee. Like most of Jarmusch's work, Broken Flowers is an episodic road movie about displacement. It follows a past-his-prime lothario as he tracks down some old flames in the heartland of America to find out about a son he inadvertently fathered some years ago.

With this, the duly understated Bill Murray extends his recent streak of films about midlife longings. His sluggish Don Johnston is scarcely convincing as a chick magnet, especially considering that over the years the character has attracted the company of women played by Julie Delpy, Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange and Tilda Swinton. Perfectly content vegging out on the couch all day, he is unexcited by the surprise arrival of an anonymous letter announcing his lost son. Only at the insistence of his detective-story enthusiast Jamaican neighbour Winston (Jeffrey Wright) does Don reluctantly begin his inquiry and the quest that follows.

Jarmusch's new work often evokes films by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, especially their masterpiece About Schmidt. The two films obviously share the thematic common threads of post-retirement void and self-discovering journey, even if the dialogue in Flowers isn't as pointedly witty and brutally revealing as the Ndugu letters (it's okay, neither is anything in Sideways). Jarmusch's film likewise cheerfully derides the oddity that is Americana: NASCAR, Lolita, a designer home, a professional closet organizer, a pet therapist and a biker gang. As with Schmidt, Flowers culminates in haunting poignancy with its protagonist finally resigning himself to his life's regrets.

If this latest effort signals any maturity in Jarmusch's work, it's only for the sheer fact that it deals with midlife crisis. And for this fact alone, the prevalent boomer sentimentality among the critical masses already portends the overrating of the film. The low-key cinematography of gloomy suburbia by the formidable Frederick Elmes still somewhat pales in comparison to Robby Müller's and Tom DiCillo's luminous black-and-white photography in their respective Jarmusch collaborations. Devoted fans will know that the director isn't reaching an artistic plateau with this Cannes Grand Prix winner, and in fact it is hardly his personal best, but Broken Flowers is certainly another extremely worthy addition to a wonderful body of work.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

August 05, 2005

The Beautiful Country

Directed by Hans Petter Moland Starring Damien Nguyen, Tim Roth and Nick Nolte

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

The escalating global phenomenon of illegal immigration is finally spawning some serious artistic responses as opposed to mere subplot treatments. With eye-opening and gut-wrenching depictions of brutal hardship and weathered idealism, cinematic pacesetters such as Michael Winterbottom's In This World, Ken Loach's Bread & Roses and the Dardenne brothers' La Promesse are simply unforgettable and compel viewers to rethink their positions on this complex issue. Following a man's trek in search of his Vietnamese mother and American G.I. father, Aberdeen director Hans Petter Moland's take on the theme with The Beautiful Country also brings to mind the family reunion premise of Three Seasons and the documentary Daughter from Danang.

No matter where he goes, half-breed Binh (Damien Nguyen) can't fit in. The family he dwells with in rural Vietnam doesn't allow him to eat at the dinner table and promptly kicks him out when the daughter's new husband moves into the house. Binh then heads to Saigon, locates his long-lost housekeeper mom (Chau Thi Kim Xuan) and takes a job working alongside her as a servant. A catastrophe soon sends him on the run, and he's off to the States to seek the dad he never knew. Along the way, he endures a Malaysian refugee camp, machine gun-toting smugglers, dead-end menial labour, decrepit human cargo carried by a creaking freighter and a devastating tragedy onboard.

The Piano and Lone Star cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh here creates some breathtaking images in epic Scope format. Perhaps taking cues from its producer Terrence Malick, The Beautiful Country features a few carefully studied, slightly slow-motioned montages concomitantly illustrating wide-eyed wonder and fish-out-of-water alienation. From quaint rural Vietnam and the bustling Saigon streets to the imposing Manhattan concrete jungle and the vast Texan plains, Dryburgh's lyrical vision turns the film into a languorous meditation. The immigrants' seaside arrival is such a magnificent sight that it will engrave itself in many viewers' memories.

Regrettably, Sabrina Murray's well-meaning screenplay has serious flaws, and the most discernible is its contrivance. More than a few plot elements are redolent of convenience and artificiality, and the story unfolds with a certain by-the-numbers predictability. Binh's reasons for leaving the small village and later Saigon are strained, and his no-repercussions emancipations from the refugee camp, smuggler's IOU contract and the sweatshop all ring totally false. It also doesn't help that Nguyen is thoroughly expressionless in his big-screen debut, and supporting players like Tim Roth (as the cargo-ship captain) effortlessly upstage him. The film is still memorable though, even if it never reaches the emotional devastation of its worthier predecessors.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.