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.