VIFF 2015 Preview Part One: Office, Police Adjective, The Soong Sisters and A Matter of Interpretation

Leading up to the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival, I’m hoping to catch up with and review some films from directors who have films featured at this years festival, directors who are reasonably new to me. This is the first installment.

Office (Johnnie To, 2015) and Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu, 2009)

The George Sanders Show Episode #69

Johnnie To’s latest film is, unfortunately, not playing at this year’s festival, continuing a worrying trend from 2014 wherein the To film (Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2) only played at the Toronto Film Festival before receiving a very limited North American theatrical release targeted solely at the diasporic film market. Office is written and produced by Sylvia Chang, who also stars. It’s an adaptation of her play Design for Living and marks a reunion of the actress with To, who directed her and Chow Yun-fat in the 1989 film All About Ah-Long, a family melodrama (also based on a screenplay by Chang, co-written with Chow) and one of the biggest hits of To’s career. In addition to being an accomplished actress, writer and pop singer, Chang has also directed a number of excellent films, the latest being Murmur of the Hearts, which will be playing at this year’s VIFF.
Also at VIFF this year is Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Treasure. A leading member of the New Romanian Cinema that has found international prominence over the last decade or so, we of The George Sanders Show had yet to see any of his work. So for this week’s episode, we took a look at his 2009 black comedy Police, Adjective. We also discuss Office, the films of Johnnie To and discuss several of the less well-known films we’re looking forward to seeing at this year’s festival.

The Soong Sisters (Mabel Cheung, 1997)

Mabel Cheung’s A Tale of Three Cities, based on the life of Jackie Chan’s parents and starring the intriguing pair of Lau Ching-wan and Tang Wei, is playing at this year’s festival. The only other one of Cheung’s films I’ve seen was 1987’s An Autumn’s Tale, with Chow Yun-Fat, so I decided to take a look at her 1997 historical epic about three sisters. 
The oldest (Michelle Yeoh) marries one of the richest men in China, a direct descendant of Confucius. The second (Maggie Cheung) marries Sun Yat-sen while he’s in the midst of overthrowing the Qing Dynasty and establishing his Republic. The youngest (Vivian Wu) marries Chiang Kai-shek while he’s in the midst of turning Sun’s Republic into a military dictatorship more concerned with killing Communists than fighting the Japanese that happen to be invading the country. Director Mabel Cheung introduces it as a fairy tale, three princesses getting the things they want (money, prestige and power, respectively) at the expense of the family bond. The second marriage estranges Maggie from her father (played by Jiang Wen), the third estranges Vivian and Maggie, and all the while Michelle tries to hold the family together, more for the control over the nation that their unity gives them as for any feeling of familial piety. The allegories are obvious (a nation split apart, first with Western influence (the girls are sent away to America as children) then with internal disputes (finally the three settle in three different Chinas: Hong Kong, Taiwan and the PRC itself). The film has the gorgeous sweep and cliched dramatics of Zhang Yimou’s films from the same period, but with a harder edge, a radical sting lying just under the surface. The women are vibrant, dynamic and highly intelligent. Their men are buffoonish, pompous, and ineffectual. The men are limited, the women capable of anything.

A Matter of Interpretation (Lee Kwangkuk, 2014)

One of our favorite films from this year’s Seattle International Film Festival was the latest from Korean director Lee Kwangkuk. The follow-up to Romance Joe, which I saw and loved at the 2012 VIFF, and which remains one of the great undistributed-in-the-US films of recent years, Lee’s films are somewhat reminiscent if his mentor Hong Sangsoo, but with important and interesting differences. I’m looking forward to watching A Matter of Interpretation again at VIFF, as I was only able to watch a mediocre screener at SIFF. Like the previous film, it’s a romantic comedy lost amid a swirl of narrative experimentation. Rather than the nested flashbacks and films within films (or rather, ideas for films within films) of his first film, Lee here layers his story as a series of dreams (as in his 2013 short Hard to Say, which also played at VIFF), related by the various characters to each other as they attempt to puzzle them out. A grumpy actress, her lost ex-boyfriend, a friendly detective and his damaged sister form the web of enchanted melancholy, with the help of a little soju. Mike reviewed it for us in more detail at Seattle Screen Scene.

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