VIFF 2015: The First Four Days

Part of my coverage of the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival

Things at the Vancouver International Film Festival have gotten off to a leg-numbing pace, as there’s been hardly a moment since I was freed from Customs on Friday afternoon when I’ve had enough time to write in combination with a working internet connection. Here it is Tuesday already and I’ve seen eighteen movies and I haven’t written more than a tweet about a single one of them. Mike’s been writing a bunch over at Seattle Screen Scene, you should definitely check out his stuff over there. We’ve also got a few reviews from local critic Neil Bahadur and Melissa will be adding some stuff sometime as well. We also managed to record an episode of The George Sanders Show last night wherein we discussed several of the films we’ve been watching, including Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room, Miguel Gomes’s Arabian Nights, Thom Andersen’s The Thoughts That Once We Had, Luo Li’s Li Wen at East Lake, Lee Kwangkuk’s A Matter of Interpretation and Philip Yung’s Port of Call. I might write about some of those here as well, but for now I’m just going to attempt to cover some of the films we didn’t get to on the show.

Unbelievably, despite having just finished watching it a mere 90 minutes before we began recording, both of us neglected to talk about Hong Sangsoo’s latest release, one of our most-anticipated films of the festival. The Hong film is a perennial highlight of every VIFF (I’ve seen Like You Know it All, Oki’s Movie, Hahaha, In Another Country, Our Sunhi and Hill of Freedom here over the years) and Right Now, Wrong Then is no disappointment. It’s a very good film,  while lacking the formal experimentation that distinguishes his best work (Oki’s Movie, The Day He Arrives) or the sheer giddy pleasure of his funniest movies (Hill of Freedom, In Another Country), it has a precision and focus that assures that, despite a certain conventionality, it will become one of his more popular features. Split evenly in two halves, it follows a film director, in town for a festival showing and Q & A, as he wanders about a tourist site where he meets a young woman. They talk, drink soju, make awkward approaches at romance and ultimately split when the director is proven to be a dishonest, womanizing lout. Then the film resets, complete with a new title card (the first half is “Right Then, Wrong Now”, the second “Right Now, Wrong Then”) and we replay the same day but with significant differences. The director in this version is honest and open (perhaps to a fault, as when a drunken overheating compels him to strip naked in front of his companions). Hong significantly varies his camera setups in the second section, creating more balanced compositions where in the first half the setups tended to privilege the director’s perspective (including a Hong rarity: an actual POV shot). It’s a mature film, relaxed and confident with a simple truth to tell. But underlying it all is a palpable loneliness. It’s played as sadness, as tragedy in the first half, where the director’s faults lead to failure and angry isolation, and as wistful melancholy in the second, where people can find happiness in connecting with an other, with the full knowledge that any such connection is necessarily temporary. It’s a quiet and sweet film, a warm room on a cold night, and vice versa.

We talked a bit about Port of Call on the podcast, but I didn’t mention one idea I had about the film, which is that it’s a kind of update/companion to Peter Chan’s 1996 masterpiece Comrades, Almost a Love Story. In that film, Maggie Cheung plays a woman who immigrates from the Mainland to Hong Kong, works a number of jobs to survive (including at a local McDonald’s), has a deep connection with a character played by a major pop star (Leon Lai) with whom she bonds over a shared love of another pop star, Teresa Teng, and falls in with a big guy, a man of violence who loves her and takes care of her. In Port of Call, Jessie Li plays a woman who immigrates from the Mainland to Hong Kong, works a variety of jobs to survive (including at a local McDonald’s), has a deep connection with a character played by a major pop star (Aaron Kwok – though the two characters never meet, of course, their relationship, or rather, his with her, is the defining element of the film), and is obsessed with another pop star (Sammi Cheng). She too falls in with a bad crowd, and her relationship with a large man capable of violence leads to her doom. Chan’s film is one of nostalgia, with Hong Kong as an aspirational place of freedom and opportunity, where one can move, work hard and eventually make it big (and then, prior to the Handover, make it to America). Its characters look backwards to their home villages, with Teng’s music as the aching symbol of the world they left behind. Yung’s is a film of horror, based on true events that occurred in the 2008-2010 period, the Hong Kong it finds is no longer one of hope, but of desperation, with the poor set upon each other in twisted games of manipulation and violence, where even a glimmer of a true connection (facilitated by an internet chat) can lead to disaster.  Cheng’s music is the aspiration, it’s what Li and her sister listened to when they were trying to learn Cantonese, it’s the music of hope amid failure. Yung set the film in the recent past, as much because that’s the time when the actual events occurred as because given the pace of change in China, the situation has already shifted dramatically. In his Q & A, he suggested that economic conditions have balanced so much between Hong Kong and the Mainland’s urban centers, that such aspirational immigration is far less common (in fact, he points out that even in 2008, the dream of moving to Hong Kong was Li’s mother’s dream, the younger generation doesn’t look at the former colony in the same way). But there’s nothing particularly unique about the idealization of Hong Kong. If the Mainland is catching up with or even surpassing it in the realm of fantasy-creation, there will always be a disconnection between that dream, say the candy-colored consumer paradise of Go Away Mr. Tumor, and the gruesome reality of the poor folks who fall into nightmare.

Emily Ting’s It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong is a different kind of fantasy, one of ex-patriates in Hong Kong and, more distressingly, of indie filmmakers weaned on Before Sunrise. Jamie Chung plays an American from Los Angeles (her grandparents emigrated from Hong Kong) lost in the city who runs into a fellow American named Josh. He’s the Joshiest Josh in film history, working in finance but really, an aspiring novelist. Actor Bryan Greenberg looks like the child of Michael Rappaport and John Krasczinski, but with even worse hair than that implies. He shows her around, lets slip way too late in the evening that he has a girlfriend and the couple splits. . . only to reunite a year later for another walk (once again hitting places best seen in Wong Kar-wai and Johnnie To films) and faux-naturalistic conversation (and a trip to a bar to see a Hong Kong knock-off of Arcade Fire, which is exactly as appalling as that sounds). After a century of Parisian dominance, it’s clear to me that Hong Kong is the most cinematic city in the world, and it certainly doesn’t let Ting down. The film is gorgeous, the bright lights of Hong Kong providing enough inherent pleasure that one is able to overlook the constructed obviousness of the script and the bland nothingness that is Greenberg’s performance. Chung fares better, her lines are just as generic but she sells them with big eyes and a world-saving smile. Pretty as the city is, it’s a problem when during the romantic climax of your film, the most interesting thing on screen is the multi-layered play of lights on a taxi cab window. Not even a cameo from the great Richard Ng can bring it to life.

A vastly more successful Hong Kong romance comes from the team of Mabel Cheung and Alex Law (she directs, he produces, they both write). Based on the life of Jackie Chan’s parents (though the story ends long before he was born) A Tale of Three Cities stars Tang Wei and Lau Ching-wan (weirdly billed as “Sean Lau”, which I haven’t seen him marketed as in years, a sign perhaps that the film is trying for a North American release) as a couple kept desperately apart by war (first against the Japanese, then against the Communists). In a Brady Bunch-like set-up, Tang has two young daughters and a husband she didn’t care for who gets killed by a clock during an air raid, while Lau has two sons and a wife dying of some unknown disease. They meet when, in the course of his duty as a Nationalist soldier, he catches her smuggling opium and lets her go. It turns out she’s his wife’s cousin and they meet up again when the war forces them from Shanghai to the smaller town of Anhui. He’s loud, illiterate and usually drunk, she’s quiet, refined and very smart. Of course they fall in love, but first the war (Lau is captured by the Japanese) and then family keep them apart (Tang’s mother doesn’t think he’s classy enough for her girl). The performances of the two leads are exceptional, Lau playing a typical role for him: a hard man with soft eyes. Tang though, is proving herself to simply be one of the best actors in the world right now. Last year at VIFF she carried Ann Hui’s biopic The Golden Era (set during the same period, but much more experimental in style and tone) with a finely modulating performance as a psychologically unstable writer. Already in 2015 she’s been brilliant in a nearly a wordless performance in Michael Mann’s Blackhat and as the emotionally explosive center of Johnnie To’s musical Office. Her performance here is halfway between those two, with simple eye movements and precise gestures, she is curiosity and determination in the interior scenes, and in the many scenes of disaster she is broad and heart-wrenching, an expressive anguish that goes beyond melodrama. The film is a series of brief unions and long separations, as the two find themselves apart from each other and their children for increasingly long periods of time, mirroring the coming together and tearing apart of the nation itself. Cheung expertly keeps things focused, despite the leaps in time and location, and the film is a masterpiece of classical storytelling, the kind of lush historical romantic epic that Hollywood hasn’t managed to make in almost 20 years (Titanic is the last good one I can think of). Along with another such epic, 2014’s The Crossing Part One, directed by John Woo, it’s clear that these veterans of the Hong Kong film industry have once again bested Hollywood at its own game.

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