VIFF 2013: The Great Passage and Good Vibrations

Part of my on-going coverage of VIFF 2013. Here is an index.

I’m sitting in the Grade “A” Chinese/Canadian Restaurant (two different menus, I opted for the ham, cheese and mushroom omelette with hash browns, toast and coffee) across from my hotel, reflecting on my first, not entirely unsuccessful, day at VIFF 2013. I woke up at the ungodly 5 AM to catch the train from Seattle to Vancouver, a train occupied by an unsurprising assortment of ridiculous old white people and quietly polite Koreans. The train was late in arriving, and customs delays gave me my first long line of the day. The second quickly followed, as dozens of people queued up for a cab on this rainy Saturday morning at the station. After a traffic delay (variously ascribed to the weather, a soccer game and road construction by my driver), I finally arrived at the hotel, just in time to miss the first movie I’d hoped to see (The Missing Picture, I’ll be able to catch it later in the week, fortunately). So I had plenty of time to charge my phone, eat my first meal of the day (clam chowder, Cesar salad and sourdough toast at Earl’s) before heading over to the Pacific Cinematheque for my first film of the festival.

The Great Passage

Japan’s submission for the 2013 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, director Ishii Yuya’s quietly sweet comic drama chronicles the creation of a dictionary and the lives of the unusual people who devote 15 years of their lives to it. The central character is Mitsuya Majime, a reserved and book-obsessed young man who gets hired to help edit a new kind of dictionary in the fall of 1995. It’s to be a living dictionary, incorporating slang and modern usage while still reflecting the traditional language (“we’ll have notes about how the words are being misused” says the project’s leader, an aged and kindly curious professor). The dictionary is conceived as a boat that people can use to cross the vast, mysterious sea of words that inhibits people’s ability to communicate with each other. The metaphor is literalized throughout the film, with non-diegetic wave-lapping sounds and a recurring dream of an ocean in which Majime finds himself drowning. Majime, who in life finds communication with other humans almost impossible, proves a perfect fit for the job, and as he dives into the project begins to open up slightly, inching along the Asperger’s spectrum towards love and fulfillment. It’s these personal interactions, as Majime makes friends, falls in love and loses a father figure, warmly underplayed by all involved, that are the film’s strength. Ishii films with a relaxed dignity and the generous pacing gives his remarkable cast of actors time to develop their unassuming and often very funny characters. The biggest emotional beats in the film are barely indicated: a slight nod, a melt of the eyes and a barely perceptible smile makes as moving a declaration of love as I’m likely to see at the festival this year. That cast is uniformly excellent, featuring veterans like Go Kato (Samurai Rebellion) and Misake Watanabe (Kwaidan) alongside newer stars like Aoi Miyzaki (Eureka), Joe Odagiri (Princess Raccoon, Air Doll) and Ryuhei Matsuda (Gohatto). Matsuda as Majime and Miyazaki as his love interest, the aspiring chef (another job exacting in its dedication to detail) Kaguya, in particular stand out, both in their tenderly tentative courtship and in their later life, admiring and adoring each other still. “You’re so interesting.”

My next film required a bit of a hike. VIFF is without longtime headquarters the Granville 7, a multiplex that served as an ideal central location for the festival. Forced to adapt in the wake of that theatre’s closing, the festival is now spread across downtown Vancouver. It was a long, damp 20 minute walk from the Cinematheque to the International Village for my second film, where I arrived just in time to join another line. Technical delays made that wait much longer, and made me wish I’d taken a more relaxed pace on my walk, or at least taken the time to grab some real food. Instead, devouring a much-too-large bag of mediocre popcorn, I settled in for film #2.

Good Vibrations

No less sentimental in theme, but wildly different in style is this biopic about Terri Hooley, a record shop owner instrumental in the late 70s Belfast punk scene. As loud and abrasive as The Great Passage is subdued, directors Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn use every trick in the playbook to throw their hectic comic drama in your face: hyperactive narration, rapidly cut stock footage, a peripatetic soundtrack, quick swings from farce to melodrama and back again. The obvious comparison is to Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People, set in a similar milieu at the same time (it’s set in Manchester), but where that film had a simple rise and fall structure, cocaine-fueled and anchored by an increasingly manic Steve Coogan, Good Vibrations doesn’t follow a clear progression, instead lurching from high to low and back again as Hooley repeatedly finds himself on the precipice of success but never quite breaks through. The film’s peaks are a lot of fun: Terri’s first discovery of punk (hearing Rudi’s “Big Time”), the joy of hearing legendary DJ John Peel unprecedentedly playing one of his band’s singles twice in a row (The Undertones’s “Teenage Kicks”), a final singalong to Sonny Bono. But the film’s infectious charm is ham-handedly leavened by strained dramatic moments (Terri gets beat up by Nazi IRA youths, Terri inexplicably abandons his wife (Broadchurch‘s Jodie Whittacker) and newborn daughter to sorrowfully drink in dingy bars). Richard Dormer is ingratiatingly scampy as Wooley, I totally failed to recognize him from Game of Thrones (he’s apparently not related to Natalie Dormer, who also appears on that show). Thickly-accented crowd-pleasers from the UK are a bit of a tradition here at VIFF, and this film ably joins The Angels’ Share and Made in Dagenham trailing well-behind Mike Liegh’s Happy-Go-Lucky. In the end, it’s the second-best Good Vibrations, well-behind the Beach Boys’ pop masterpiece but well-ahead of Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch.

VIFF 2013 Preview: Blind Detective

Part of my on-going coverage of VIFF 2013. Here is an index.

I’d heard of Johnnie To before I ever went to the Vancouver Film Festival, having read David Bordwell on him at his website. I’d even seen a few of his movies before: dubbed versions of the Heroic Trio films during my first brush with Hong Kong movies in the late 90s, and Election 2 on Instant Netflix (under its American release title, Triad Election, I watched it not knowing it was a sequel). But seeing Sparrow at my first trip to VIFF in 2008 was a revelation. I knew To as a Hong Kong action director, John Woo with more shadows, less Chow Yun-Fat. But Sparrow was something else entirely, that same heroic bloodshed world but with a Jacques Demy twist. Light, colorful, whimsical and warm. In the years since, I’ve dipped in and out of To’s Milkyway world (including a lengthy run through his filmography earlier this year, in preparation for a They Shot Pictures episode about him), loving almost all I’ve seen, including Written By by his longtime collaborator Wai Ka-fai, which I saw at VIFF 2009. I missed Vengeance that year and Drug War last year (though I caught up with them a few months later at the San Francisco and Seattle Film Festivals, respectively. Neither fest holds a candle to VIFF, of course) and, much to my dismay, my train leaves town in the middle of the screening of his latest film, Blind Detective at this year’s VIFF. So, as part of my warm-up for the festival, resorted to other means to see it (it’s out on Blu-Ray in Hong Kong already, pretty easy to find).

The big draw in Blind Detective is the reunion of Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng. Pop stars and cultural icons, it was the series of romantic comedies they made with To in the early 2000s that essentially saved his Milkyway Image company from collapse. The first few years of the studio saw the release of several dark gangster dramas, mostly ghost-directed by To, that failed to find much of an audience. But Needing You, an office romance with Lau and Cheng, proved to be a big hit and for years thereafter To would mix wacky romances in with his more serious crime films. Cheng and Lau each made six films with To from 2000 to 2004, including two where they were paired together (Love on a Diet and Yesterday Once More). But after 2004 neither worked with To again until 2012’s Romancing in Thin Air (in which Cheng stars opposite Louis Koo, who is playing a very Andy Lau-type movie star). This period also coincides with a more serious turn in To’s work. From 2005 until 2011, he didn’t make a single romantic comedy, and with the notable exception of Sparrow, the films are serious melodramas (albeit often darkly sardonic ones) all taking place in the triad gangster world (except for the strangely inert romantic drama Linger, from 2008, a more straightforward, less interesting version of the 2002 Cheng vehicle My Left Eyes Sees Ghosts). But in 2011, To returned to the romance genre with the lush screwball Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, and 2012’s meta-epic Romancing in Thin Air.

Johnnie To’s filmography is so dense and so vast, that part of the fun of each new release is in finding the connections between it and his previous work. Drug War, for example, forms part of a trilogy with Expect the Unexpected and PTU, each film a procedural following a team of cops tracking a group of criminals and ending in a dramatic gunfight. The 2009 film Vengeance forms a rough trilogy about groups of hitmen with The Mission and Exiled, all ultimately about the pointlessness of the revenge demands in the Triad honor code. Similarly, both his 2011 films deal with the fallout of the financial crisis, with Life Without Principle‘s crime drama highlighting its effects on the various middle and criminal classes and drawing somewhat unexpected parallels between them, where Don’t Go Breaking My Heart uses the crisis as a plot point that barely registers as a blip in the lives of its upper class financier characters, consciously recalling the fanciful milieux of Depression Era screwball comedies. Romancing in Thin Air is a summarizing film, one that incorporates and synthesizes elements of romantic films from throughout To’s career into a single grand statement on the cathartic power of cinema; it’s To’s 2046. Blind Detective presents a couple of interesting contrasts. The most obvious is with 2007’s Mad Detective, which has a similar title and is also the story of a young cop enlisting the eponymous former cop to help solve a recent crime. Lau Ching Wan’s Mad Detective approaches his investigations with the same techniques as Andy Lau’s Blind Detective: he goes through the criminals’ motions until he sees exactly what they did, and we see his vision of the recreation on-screen. These visions recall as well Running on Karma, in which Andy Lau plays a former monk who can see people’s karma, the crimes they committed in past lives. Again, he’s called in to help a young detective solve a crime.  Like that film as well, there’s a strong romantic element to Blind Detective, though it’s played here as comedy where in Karma it’s tragedy (there’s a smaller tragic love story in Mad Detective as well). The new film then represents not only the third part of a “vision”-based crime solving trilogy, but a synthesis of To’s comedies with his crime films. (Yesterday Once More accomplished something similar, in combining elements of the romantic comedies with To’s Running Out of Time caper films). The violence in these films is at times stomach churning, the dark and depraved killings clashing tonally with the wide-open romanticism of To’s heroes, as if to say “the world is scary and terrible, but. . .”

Most interesting to me is the formal contrast between Blind Detective and Drug War. The latter might be To’s tersest film: its characters are almost entirely defined by action, with no back story, no history, no personal lives or small talk. They are professionals, cops and criminals alike, and the story is relentlessly forward-moving, like the long non-stop drives the cops must endure as they crisscross the country pursuing the crooks, it never lets up until the explosive finale. Blind Detective, though, meanders here and there, taking its time, losing itself down subplots of other, unrelated crimes actual (with To stalwart Lam Suet) and romantic (with Gao Yuanyuan, who sparkled in Don’t Go Breaking My Heart but is clearly outshone by Cheng here) all while indulging in Andy Lau’s prodigious appetite (this may be the most food-obsessed of all Johnnie To’s movies, even more so than Love on a Diet, which was largely about Andy and Sammi wearing fat suits and eating everything they came across). Where Drug War is tension and suspense and momentum, Blind Detective is leisurely digression. It’s the Hatari! to Drug War‘s Scarface.

Similarly, Andy Lau’s performance is in contrast to his prior work. His character resembles the one he played in Tsui Hark’s very popular Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame. Like that film, Blind Detective is a mystery rather than a noirish gangster melodrama like most of To’s crime films, and Lau plays the Holmes/Poirot figure. But where Detective Dee matches Lau’s suave star persona, the Blind Detective is something new. He looks and dresses like the coolest guy on the planet Andy Lau of previous To collaborations Running Out of Time and Yesterday Once More, but he’s wildly antic, shouting his lines and gleefully running with abandon from one inspiration to the next. (One of the film’s best jokes involves someone finding Lau’s partner, Guo Tao, to be the “cool” one of the pair). At times Lau almost seems to be parodying Lau Ching Wan’s manic To performances (most obviously the one in Mad Detective). More than 30 years after his breakthrough in Ann Hui’s Boat People, I can’t recall a more buoyant, more childlike, more aggressively open Andy Lau.

At over two hours long, this is one of the longest of Johnnie To’s films (they usually clock in around 100 minutes). It’s even longer than the Sammi Cheng-starring wuxia farce Wu yen, a similarly digressive tale, but one that tends to sag with the accumulation of subplots and wild gags. Blind Detective never drags. The more time we get to hang out with Andy and Sammi, the better. And the more romantic comedies from Johnnie To, the better as well. For too long they’ve been shunted aside in favor of the supposedly more “serious” crime films. His next film is Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2, and I can’t wait.

Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (Hong Sangsoo, 2013)


I saw my first Hong Sangsoo movie at the 2009 Vancouver Film Festival. It was Like You Know It All and it was my second favorite of the 18 movies I saw there that year. Shortly after I sought out a couple earlier Hong films (The Woman on the Beach and Woman is the Future of Man) and was underwhelmed. The familiar tropes were there (blocked director on vacation, crimes of the heart, drinking, bifurcated narrative structures reflecting in on themselves) but the moves just didn’t seem as much fun. I chalked it up to the particular circumstances of that first viewing: seeing a film at a film festival that pokes fun at the insular and more than a little absurd festival experience. Perhaps he just wasn’t as great as I thought he was.

But Hong redeemed himself in my eyes at the 2010 festival, where his Oki’s Movie and Hahaha were again two of my favorites, each film taking his formal playfulness in bold new directions while retaining the self-effacing comic spirit that initially won me over. Since then I’ve managed to see almost all of Hong’s films (including In Another Country, the most charming film of VIFF 2012 and Romance Joe, another VIFF 2012 favorite by Hong’s longtime assistant director Lee Kwangkuk). These films, along with 2008’s comparatively epic Night and Day and 2011’s Marienbad-esque The Day He Arrives amount to as remarkable an on-going streak of greatness as any director working today (Oki’s Movie remains my favorite of the dozen I’ve seen so far). Since he took 2007 off after Woman on the Beach, Hong’s made eight features in six years, counting 2013’s Our Sunhi (one of my most anticipated films of VIFF 2013) and Nobody’s Daughter Haewon, which premiered at festivals earlier this year. Hong has yet to see his festival popularity translate into proper theatrical distribution in the US. Oki’s Movie, The Day He Arrives and In Another Country all played in New York in 2012, but only the last one saw a wider release, most likely due to the art house popularity of its (French) star, Isabelle Huppert. Several of his films are available on the various streaming platforms, but he doesn’t even have his own Director’s Section at Scarecrow Video. Maybe this will be the year he finally breaks through to attain arthouse star status. My fingers remain crossed.


Continuing a recent trend, one that denotes a sharp break with his pre-2008 work, the film focuses on a female protagonist, though one who isn’t any more heroic than Hong’s usual cast of drunken, lecherous filmmaker/professors. Haewon is a pretty girl who is constantly told how pretty she is and seems to have become dependent on that flattery, no matter how poisonous it ultimately becomes to herself and the people around her. In each of the film’s sections, she conjures a man that adores her, and the film’s mysterious final line (“Waking up, I realized he was the nice old man from before”) recalls the profound final rumination from Oki’s Movie (“Things repeat themselves with differences I can’t understand”) a line that has come to epitomize so much of Hong’s work for me. One of the great pleasures of diving into the Hong universe is that each movie gains in relation to the others. No other director I know of more obsessively explores the same basic elements in film after film: a film director/student/professor who has an affair he shouldn’t have (with a friend’s wife/girlfriend, with a student, or both) while wandering cold, unglamorous Korean cities and/or vacation spots; studies of venal, hypocritical drunks that critique without judgement, the foibles of Hong’s people being ours and his rather than cruelly displayed objects for scorn, scolding and ridicule. With these basic characters and settings, and his deadpan minimalist visual style (marked most distinctively by the utterly atypical use of zooms), Hong conjures seemingly endless variations.

Haewon finds its closest companion in Oki’s Movie, which focuses on a student who had an affair with her professor and takes a couple of hikes up a mountain. Haewon’s affair occurred at some point in the past, though she considers rekindling it. She also takes two trips up a mountain, the location of an old fort-turned-tourist spot. Like In Another Country, Haewon features a lackadaisical to the point of abstraction framing device: three days that begin with Haewon describing them in her journal (public table, cup of coffee, handwriting in a notebook, voiceover narration) where the earlier film had the narrator writing three versions of a film she wanted to make about a French woman on vacation in Korea. On each day, the narrative is abruptly interrupted as she wakes from a dream, erasing and resetting the story as we’d known it (this also happens in the middle section of In Another Country, as well as in Night and Day). With these films, along with the four-short film structure of Oki’s Movie, the endless repetitions of The Day He Arrives, the self-delusions of Hong’s heroes have taken a metaphysical turn: not only are they not honest with themselves and each other in their romantic lives, but the very nature of their world has become unstable, liable to be rearranged or erased with the stroke of a pen or a sharp cut in the film. Where the earlier films (and also Hahaha) were built around coincidence and repetition, the later films have become Duck Amuck with horny, drunken film school denizens.


I find myself pondering the title as much as anything else. Hong usually favors straightforward titles, ones whose meaning is immediately apparent (at least lately, his early titles are beguiling in their lingering prose: The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well, On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate, Woman is the Future of Man, Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors). The first section explains quite clearly that Haewon is somebody’s daughter, as it involves her spending a day with her mother on the eve of the latter’s move to Canada (Vancouver, I assume, for the film festival). The film itself begins with Haewon meeting Jane Birkin (unnamed in the film) and telling her how much she admires her daughter (actress Charlotte Gainsbourg, also unnamed). The title then has, at least, two possible meanings: given the relative fame of Birkin, Haewon’s mother is a “nobody” and perhaps this is what is keeping Haewon from becoming the successful actress she wants to be (she says she’d give her soul to have Gainsbourg’s career). Or, being sad and abandoned by her mother’s move, Haewon is forced to become an adult: she is no longer simply somebody’s daughter and must take care of herself, become an individual in her own right. She then spends the next two thirds of the film pursuing relationships with a couple of older men (both professors and therefore father-type figures) while brushing off men her own age in some kind of Freudian irony. Parent-child relationships have largely been absent in Hong’s work thus far (most of the kids have been little and mostly off-screen, as the director’s child is in Haewon). Though a mother-daughter conversation does open In Another Country. Perhaps these are the first-steps in the integration of another trope into the Hong universe, another fraught relationship with which to play and poke and have fun.


VIFF 2013 Preview: Proposed Schedule

Part of my on-going coverage of VIFF 2013. Here is an index.

One week from today, I’ll be arriving in lovely Vancouver, BC for my fifth trip to the Vancouver International Film Festival. I’ll be there for a week, about half of the festival’s run, which is as long as I could trick the wife into taking care of the kids for me. Over the next few days, I’ll be watching a few movies to get me in the mood, films I haven’t seen yet from directors I’ve discovered over the years at the festival: Johnnie To, Hong Sangsoo and Liu Jiayin.

But before then, I thought I’d start with a list of the films I’m hoping to see while I’m there. As usual, there’s a ton of stuff I’d like to see, much more than I’ll physically be able to make it to, for reasons of geography, chronology and my own health (there seems to be a limit to how many four and five movie days in a row I can manage before catching a cold). So I look at this list as more aspirational than a prediction of what I’ll actually make it to see. Some of the films overlap and so I’ll have to choose only one, these are marked with an * while I try and decide. If you’ve got a case for or against any of these (or if you think I’m overlooking something), feel free to let me know.

Sean’s Theoretical VIFF 2013 Schedule:

Saturday, Sep 28

The Missing Picture (Rithy Panh)

The Great Passage (Ishii Yuya)

Good Vibrations (Lisa Barros D’Sa & Glenn Leyburn)

Sunday, Sep 29

Gebo and the Shadow (Manoel de Oliveira)

Bends (Flora Lau)*
A Field in England (Ben Wheatley)*

Burn, Release, Explode, the Invincible (Kim Soohyun)

Four Ways to Die in My Hometown (Chai Chunya)

Monday, Sep 30

Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-liang)

Yumen (Xu Ruotao, J.P. Sniadecki, Huang Xiang)

My First Love (Tsuruoka Keiko)

Our Sunhi (Hong Sangsoo)

Tuesday, Oct 01

New World (Park Hoonjung)

Boomerang Family (Song Haesung)*
Heli (Amat Escalante)*
9 Muses of Star Empire (Lee Harkjoon)*

A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness (Ben Rivers, Ben Russell)

The Past (Asghar Farhadi)*
3x3D (Jean-Luc Godard, Peter Greenaway, Edgar Pêra)*

Wednesday, Oct 02

Stand Clear of the Closing Doors (Sam Fleischner)

Trap Street (Vivian Qu)*
Closed Curtain (Jafar Panahi, Kambuzia Partovi)*

The Summer of Flying Fish (Marcela Said)*
The Spider’s Lair (Jason Paul Laxamana)*
The Dirties (Matt Johnson)*

Distant (Yang Zhengfan)

La última película (Raya Martin, Mark Peranson)

Thursday, Oct 03

The Invisible Woman (Ralph Fiennes)

Anatomy of a Paperclip (Ikeda Akira)

Rhymes for Young Ghouls (Jeff Barnaby)*
A Time in Quchi (Chang Tso-chi)*

A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke)

Redemption/The King’s Body/Mahjong (Miguel Gomes, João Pedro Rodrigues, João Rui Guerra da Mata)

Friday, Oct 04

Exhibition (Joanna Hogg)

Once Upon a Forest (Luc Jacquet)

Camille Claudel, 1915 (Bruno Dumont)

The Story of My Death (Albert Serra)

Saturday, Oct 05

The Gardener (Mohsen Makhmalbaf)*
Blue is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche)*
Like Father, Like Son (Koreeda Hirokazu)*
Wolf Children (Hosoda Mamoru)*
Longing for the Rain (Yang Lina)*

This Month in Rankings

It’s been a month since I updated these rankings, and a few weeks since I’ve written anything here at all other than my annual All-Time Top 100 List. In that time, I brought the Summer of Sammo to an end, with final reviews of Ashes of Time Redux, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, My Heart is that Eternal Rose and Boat People. In all I watched 83 movies during the Summer of Sammo, roughly from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and of course I have a ranked list of them all over at Letterboxd.

In other media, several episodes of The George Sanders Show have been recorded: on Sons of the Desert and Ishtar, on The Grandmaster and A Touch of Zen, on The Top Ten Films of All-Time, on The Killing and The Black Stallion, and on Once Upon a Time in America and The Roaring Twenties. The first of several planned episodes of They Shot Pictures on director John Ford is up as well, this one covering his Westerns and focusing on Stagecoach, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Two Rode Together in particular. Our second Akira Kurosawa episode, covering his samurai films, should be up any day now as well.

Coming up over the next few weeks, I’m heading once again to the Vancouver International Film Festival. This will be my fifth trip to VIFF, and for the first time I’ll be there as an officially recognized member of the press. So look for a bunch of reviews from that. Before heading out, I plan to watch and review a few VIFF-related films to get me warmed-up, and hopefully I’ll write that one last review to complete my coverage of VIFF 2012. We’ll have a festival recap episode of They Shot Pictures as well, comparing my Vancouver experience with Seema’s time at the Toronto Film Festival. I’m also just starting research for our Claire Denis episode. Meanwhile, The George Sanders Show will be taking a look at two Harakiris and then the two Solarises.

These are the movies I watched and rewatched over the last month or so, and where they place on my year-by-year rankings.

The Gold Rush (Charles Chaplin) – 1, 1925
The Music Box (James Parrott) – 6, 1932
Sons of the Desert (William A. Seiter) – 12, 1933
Smart Blonde (Frank McDonald) – 29, 1937
The Roaring Twenties (Raoul Walsh) – 11, 1939
The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (Akira Kurosawa) – 6, 1945
Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa) – 1, 1954
The Killing (Stanley Kubrick) – 7, 1956

Sons of the Good Earth (King Hu) – 17, 1965
A Touch of Zen (King Hu) – 1, 1971
A New Leaf (Elaine May) – 4, 1971
The Black Stallion (Carroll Ballard) – 6, 1979
The Sword (Patrick Tam) – 21, 1980
The Happenings (Yim Ho) – 23, 1980
Boat People (Ann Hui) – 8, 1982

Once Upon a Time in America (Sergio Leone) – 11, 1984
Cherie (Patrick Tam) – 23, 1984
Ran (Akira Kurosawa) – 1, 1985
A Chinese Ghost Story (Ching Siu-tung) – 19, 1987
Rouge (Stanley Kwan) – 2, 1988
Chocolate (Claire Denis) – 7, 1988
My Heart is that Eternal Rose (Patrick Tam) – 9, 1989
He’s a Woman, She’s a Man (Peter Chan) – 17, 1994

I Can’t Sleep (Claire Denis) – 22, 1994
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee) – 4, 2000
Zoolander (Ben Stiller) – 17, 2001
After This, Our Exile (Patrick Tam) – 32, 2006
Ashes of Time Redux (Wong Kar-wai) – 4, 2008
Ip Man 2 (Herman Yau) – 43, 2010
The Grandmaster (Wong Kar-wai) – 2013

VIFF 2013 Index

This is an index of my posts relating to the 2013 Vancouver International Film Festival.


Proposed Schedule – Sep 21, 2013
Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (Hong, 13) – Sep 23, 2013
Blind Detective (To, 13) – Sep 26, 2013


The Great Passage (Ishii, 13) & Good Vibrations (Barros D’Sa & Leyburn, 12) – Sep 29, 2013
Gebo and the Shadow (Oliveira, 12) – Sep 30, 2013
Bends (Lau, 13) – Oct 01, 2013
Burn, Release, Explode, the Invincible (Kim, 13) – Oct 01, 2013
Four Ways to Die in My Hometown (Chai, 12) – Oct 02, 2013
Dragons and Tigers Awards – Oct 04, 2013
Stray Dogs (Tsai, 13) – Oct 04, 2013
Yumen (Sniadecki, Xu & Huang, 13) – Oct 23, 2013
La última película (Martin & Peranson, 13) – Feb 28, 2014


They Shot Pictures Ep #21: Festival Recaps Part One – Oct 17, 2013
They Shot Pictures Ep #22: Festival Recaps Part Two – Oct 30, 2013


1. La última película (Raya Martin & Mark Peranson)
2. The Missing Picture (Rithy Panh)
3. A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke)
4. Wolf Children (Mamoru Hosada)
5. Our Sunhi (Hong Sangsoo)
6. A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness (Ben Rivers & Ben Russell)
7. Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-liang)
8. Four Ways to Die in My Hometown (Chai Chunya)
9. Yumen (JP Sniadecki, Xu Ruotao, & Huang Xiang)
10. The Great Passage (Yuya Ishii)
11. Trap Street (Vivian Qu)
12. New World (Park Hoonjung)
13. Distant (Yang Zhengfan)
14. Mahjong (João Rui Guerra da Mata & João Pedro Rodrigues)
15. Anatomy of a Paperclip (Ikeda Akira)
16. Gebo and the Shadow (Manoel de Oliveira)
17. 9 Muses of Star Empire (Lee Harkjoon)
18. Burn Release Explode The Invincible (Kim Soohyun)
19. Redemption (Miguel Gomes)
20. Bends (Flora Lau)
21. 3x3D (Peter Greenaway, Edgar Pera, Jean-Luc Godard)
22. My First Love (Keiko Tsuruoka)
23. Grigris (Mahamat-Saleh Haroun)
24. Good Vibrations (Lisa Barros D’Sa & Glenn Leyburn)
25. Longing for the Rain (Yang Lina)
26. The King’s Body (João Pedro Rodrigues)
27. The Spider’s Lair (Jason Paul Laxamana)
28. Camille Claudel 1915 (Bruno Dumont)
(links are to letterboxd comments)

A Top 100 List for 2013

Once again this year I’m applying an element of randomization to my Top Movies of All-Time list. Spots 1-10 on the following are my hypothetical Sight & Sound ballot, as described on The George Sanders Show and presented here in chronological order. Spots 11-100 were determined by gathering a set of 921 films I consider “Top 100 quality”, films that I could reasonably see a case for being one of my 100 greatest/favorite/whatever movies of all-time (not counting ones that were in my hypothetical Top Ten from 2012) and using a random number generator to select the 90 that make up the list. Links to my previous Top 100+ lists can be found at this index here.
1. The Musketeers of Pig-Alley (DW Griffith, 1912)
2. The Docks of New York (Josef von Sternberg, 1928)
3. The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir, 1939)
4. Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly, 1952)
5. Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)
6. An Autumn Afternoon (Yasujiro Ozu, 1962)
7. Playtime (Jaques Tati, 1966)
8. Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977)
9. Good Men, Good Women (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1995)
10. The Big Lebowski (The Coen Brothers, 1998)

11. Three Colors: Blue (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1993)

12. You, the Living (Roy Andersson, 2007)

13. The Young Girls of Rochefort (Jaques Demy, 1967)

14. Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1955)

15. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (Joseph Sargent, 1974)

16. Too Many Ways to Be No. 1 (Wai Ka-fai, 1997)

17. Un chien andalou (Luis Buñuel, 1929)

18. Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth (Ysujiro Ozu, 1932)

19. Safety Last (Sam Taylor & Fred C. Newmeyer, 1923)

20. Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990)

21. Porco Rosso (Hayao Miyazaki, 1992)

22. La danse (Frederick Wiseman, 2009)

23. Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939)

24. Sanjuro (Akira Kurosawa, 1962)

25. The Big Heat (Fritz Lang, 1953)

26. The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940)

27. The Hidden Fortress (Akira Kurosawa, 1958)

28. Bitter Victory (Nicholas Ray, 1957)

29. The Crowd (King Vidor, 1928)

30. Dust in the Wind (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1987)

31. Raise the Red Lantern (Zhang Yimou, 1991)

32. Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968)

33. Fitzcarraldo (Werner Herzog, 1982)

34. The Indian Epic (Fritz Lang, 1959)

35. Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)

36. Sound of the Mountain (Mikio Naruse, 1954)

37. Cabaret (Bob Fosse, 1972)

38. The 400 Blows (François Truffaut, 1959)

39. The Cheat (Cecil B. DeMille, 1915)

40. Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Blake Edwards, 1961)

41. The Tall T (Budd Boetticher, 1957)

42. The Awful Truth (Leo McCarey, 1937)

43. The Blues Brothers (John Landis, 1980)

44. Sergeant Rutledge (John Ford, 1960)

45. The Puppetmaster (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1993)

46. Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese, 1973)

47. Friday Night (Claire Denis, 2002)

48. Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968)

49. Mon oncle d’Amérique (Alain Resnais, 1980)

50. Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996)

51. Blonde Venus (Josef von Sternberg, 1932)

52. Righting Wrongs (Corey Yuen, 1986)

53. My Night at Maud’s (Eric Rohmer, 1969)

54. Young Mr. Lincoln (John Ford, 1939)

55. 2046 (Wong Kar-wai, 2004)

56. Climates (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2006)

57. Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (Nagisa Oshima, 1983)

58. Ashes of Time Redux (Wong Kar-wai, 2008)

59. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (Adam McKay, 2004)

60. Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950)

61. Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972)

62. Gremlins (Joe Dante, 1984)

63. The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946)

64. The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer, 1962)

65. Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Tsai Ming-liang, 2003)

66. The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

67. The Thing from Another World (Christian Nyby, 1951)

68. Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)

69. Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (Coppola, Hickenlooper & Bahr, 1991)

70. Yesterday, Once More (Johnnie To, 2004)

71. Limelight (Charles Chaplin, 1952)

72. Assault on Precinct 13 (John Carpenter, 1976)

73. The Matrix (The Wachowskis, 1999)

74. Simple Men (Hal Hartley, 1992)

75. 7th Heaven (Frank Borzage, 1927)

76. The Bank Dick (Edward F. Cline, 1940)

77. To Live and Die in LA (William Friedkin, 1985)

78. The Fly (David Cronenberg, 1986)

79. Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)

80. Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975)

81. The Wind (Victor Sjöström, 1928)

82. Hard-Boiled (John Woo, 1992)

83. Nanook of the North (Robert Flaherty, 1922)

84. It’s a Gift (Norman Z. McLoud, 1934)

85. The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960)

86. Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004)

87. Man’s Favorite Sport? (Howard Hawks, 1964)

88. Boudu Saved from Drowning (Jean Renoir, 1932)

89. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Pedro Almodóvar, 1988)

90. La Collectionneuse (Eric Rohmer, 1967)

91. Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock, 1946)

92. A Man Escaped (Robert Bresson, 1956)

93. Godzilla (Ishiro Honda, 1954)

94. Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1998)

95. The One-Armed Swordsman (Chang Cheh, 1967)

96. The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001)

97. L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (The Lumière Brothers, 1896)

98. Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989)

99. Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (Tsui Hark, 1983)

100. The Day He Arrives (Hong Sangsoo, 2011)

Summer of Sammo: Boat People

I’ve declared this the summer of 2013 to be the Summer of Sammo. Throughout these months I’ve been writing about films starring or directed by Sammo Hung, as well as other Hong Kong genre films of the Sammo Hung era. Here’s an index.

Revolution is war is hell.

Something in the air with the Hong Kong New Wave and Japanese leftists in 1982. Patrick Tam’s Nomad envisions the United Red Army as psychotic dead-enders while Ann Hui here depicts an idealistic photojournalist who sees past the Potemkin images provided for him by the newly victorious government of Vietnam to the nasty reality of post-revolutionary entrenchment. It’s hard not to read Hui’s Vietnam as a stand-in for China during the Cultural Revolution, but that just may be because I know a bit more about China in this period than I do Vietnam: the forced labor camps, the elevation of bureaucratic illusionism to a political doctrine, the cannibalization of the previous generation’s revolutionaries by a new generation of amoral ideologues (coming of age in a period of war, they lack any kind of rational moral sense, or rather, “the revolution doesn’t allow for petit-bourgeois notions of ethics” as they put it).

George Lam plays the Japanese journalist Akutagawa, a World War II orphan whose parents were killed by American bombing when he was only a year old, and who documented the triumphant liberation of Danang. He returns to Vietnam three years later to report on the country’s progress. What he finds once he manages to break away from the direction of the Culture Bureau horrifies him. Starving children stripping bodies of freshly executed men, kids selling themselves into prostitution, political prisoners forced to clear fields of landmines all while the older generation of revolutionaries drink themselves to oblivion in nostalgia for their early post-colonial ideals. In a blunt but potent metaphor, Akutagawa is so moved by what he sees that he takes action, trading his camera for the cash to finance the escape of a couple of kids.

The film was attacked as pro-Chinese (and/or anti-Communist) propaganda on its release in 1982. It was the first Hong Kong film shot on the mainland since the revolution (technically on the island of Hainan, under PRC control) and was made in the wake of the brief Chinese border war with Vietnam in 1979. The role played by Andy Lau (one of his very first performances) was meant for Chow Yun-fat (who had starred in Hui’s previous film about Vietnamese refugees, The Story of Woo Viet) but, the story goes, he turned it down because by shooting a movie in China, Chow would have been blacklisted by the Taiwanese film industry. The film was pulled from competition at Cannes apparently because of its political content (the French government was anxious to maintain good relations with Vietnam) and it was apparently panned in the Village Voice by J. Hoberman and Andrew Sarris, though I can’t find any record of this online.

But the politics of revolutionary art in the late 70s and early 80s were more fraught than they are today. Far removed as we are from the cauldron of the Vietnam War, we can look at Hui’s film on its own terms, and see that it was what she maintained it was all along: a deeply humane anti-war film. It doesn’t take a position on politics, or on Vietnam itself. What it depicts is a society gone off the rails, utterly destroyed by 50 years of war and poverty. It’s not the ideology of the victors that’s at fault, it’s war itself. My working theory on the Hong Kong New Wave is that it was attempting to document as clearly as possible within certain industrial generic confines the reality of a generation of kids raised in the abject backwash of decades of war. Boat People is the most direct expression of that idea I’ve seen yet.

Summer of Sammo: My Heart is that Eternal Rose

I’ve declared this the summer of 2013 to be the Summer of Sammo. Throughout these months I’ve been writing about films starring or directed by Sammo Hung, as well as other Hong Kong genre films of the Sammo Hung era. Here’s an index.
A triad love story movie that stars Kenny Bee, Joey Wang, Tony Leung, Gordon Liu and Ng Man-tat (Stephen Chow’s frequent sidekick). Directed by Patrick Tam and (partially) shot by Christopher Doyle and produced by John Sham (one of the Lucky Stars).
If only one of Chang Cheh’s stars like David Chiang or Ti Lung, or even Sammo himself had somehow been involved, this would represent the ultimate expression of Hong Kong cinema. It would be to the Summer of Sammo what Dressed to Kill is to the Caine-Hackman Theory.
Anyway, great movie, though Tony and Gordon appear to have lost bets and were thus forced to wear John Stamos’s hair. This leads to one of the more unforgettable images in film history: Gordon Liu wearing red pants and a gold jacket, sitting cross-legged and sleazy and eating a banana, fanning himself with his own toupee.
The plot itself is an interesting variation on the heroic bloodshed genre. Those films are usually built around a conflict between morality and the dictates of a Code. This film is structured as a series of moral dilemmas as well, but the Code itself plays very little part, rather it’s conflicts are based in love, filial and romantic, and its incompatibility with the triad world. The characters find themselves increasingly boxed into scenarios from which there is no real possibility of escape. Joey Wang’s only currency is her body, every time she wants something, the only way she’s allowed to bargain for it is by selling herself, either into prostitution for Michael Chan’s Godfather Shan, or by allowing his psychotic henchman Gordon Liu to sleep with her. Everyone but our three heroes is either depraved, dishonest and cruel or weak and pathetic. Chan’s honorary Godfather title becomes twisted and evil: he is the inversion of Wang’s compromised and impotent father and he declares himself to be God himself: the final arbiter of this Hell. The heroes inability to escape this degraded world doesn’t feel heroic or sacrificial, in the way that similar scenarios play out in John Woo’s films (think of the redemption and hope in Tony Leung’s final boat ride at the end of Hard-Boiled), but rather it simply depicts the inevitability of tragedy and loss in such a center-less moral universe. There’s no alternative, no moments of grace. Merely Tony Leung’s sadness as he floats away.
Young Tony Leung is a revelation, the same year of his breakthrough in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A City of Sadness finds him playing a totally different kind of role, a callow youth whose innocence and naiveté mask hidden reserves of determination and depth of feeling. Leung is my pick as the greatest actor in film today, and this early work, he’d spent the previous five years or so working in television and light comedies, finds him already performing on multiple levels within a single scene or shot. He won a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor Hong Kong Film Award, his second. He’d won two years earlier for People’s Hero, a film I’d not heard of, but it costars the other Tony Leung and Ti Lung, and was directed by Derek Yee, David Chiang’s younger brother and an ex-boyfriend of Maggie Cheung. The Summer of Sammo is a vast and tangled web.