Tuesday, July 9, 2013

3 from '13: FOREVER LOVE, DOUBLE XPOSURE, LESSON OF THE EVIL (New York Asian Film Festival 2013)

Back from the island hideaway and ready for an overindulgence of Asian films! Circumstances pushed my flight back a half a day resulting in me getting in Monday morning. A combination of new work assignment and general tiredness caused me to miss ON THE SOCIETY FILE OF SHANGHA, the one Taiwanese ‘Black Film’ I would’ve been able to make it to on the schedule.

Still working on island relaxed mode and an only half awake brain, I was content to meander into FOREVER LOVE about 20 minutes after its start time. I considered skipping it but the idea of air conditioning and big screen delights convinced me to go ahead and grab a seat for the remainder of the film. And if ever there is a movie in this year’s lineup that lends itself to the notion of movie as an escape from the outside elements, then this is it. Light, colorful, full of humor and good spirits. I don’t think anything much was missed in those opening moments, except it would’ve prepared me for the time framing device that takes place in the present day, which frankly didn’t interest me nearly as much as the past part of the story – it just dips into toothache levels of sweetness that I ddidn’t feel it needed to go to in order to have an effect. On the other hand, there is some weighty significance to the film, which is a tribute to all those involved in a bustling movie industry taking place from the mid 50’s through the 70’s. We are told at the end of the film that this was a time of wildly creative output and one that very few films have survived from; a few archival clips are shown along with the credits.

The central story, which takes during this time is a blast. International productions are the big thing, as signified by a production team featuring a Chinese pop idol, Taiwanese writers, and Japanese production workers.  The romantic angle comes when Mei Yuh, a girl who has escaped an overbearing father in her native China and is desperate to meet the extremely popular action movie hero Wan Pao-Lung, wins her way into the production crew by capturing screenwriter Liu‘s heart with a simple song and dance number that has a hint of Hula-style singing. Things develop between them as fascination with superficial stardom begins to lose its luster as the two become more and more of an item. The film’s way of dealing humorously with both attraction and friction between the two works charmingly.  Meanwhile, the problems of the studio system rear their heads to complicate things for both the film industry and the pair’s relationship.

As the film ended I was a bit confused by the absence of a Q & A, which I was expecting. But the fault was with me. FOREVER LOVE was screened on Friday, July 5th with the director in attendance. This was the same day the fantastical North Korean film COMRADE KIM GOES FLYING was screened with a Q & A with one of its directors, Nicholas Bonner (I wrote about the film here). And in fact, this probably made for a great double feature considering qualities that both films’ female leads share. They both embody a good dose of countrified sass with a natural inner grace that bursts out in completely winning ways.

Next up was the mysterious DOUBLE XPOSURE. Somewhere between a dizzying fever dream and a genuine dramatic mystery with elements of scenic roadtripping along the way, DOUBLE XPOSURE can be both entrancing and evasive, and sometimes feels like its somewhere in the middle. Actress Fan Bingbing and director Li Yu clearly have a strong artistic connection as the product of their work together flows so naturally across the screen. At first Song Qi (played by Bingbing) moves about her job as an aesthetician and other aspects of her daily life, which take on more and more hallucinogenic qualities, to the point that less and less has any grounding in reality. There is a sense of being in Song Qi‘s head throughout an overwhelming nightmare, as we are subjected to dizzying angles and plenty of closeups of Qi’s in a distraught state. And Bingbing’s exotic look makes it even more wondrous to look at.

Later details of a genuine past begin to fit together to explain the delusions – seems to be suffering from. It’s less abstract at this point, but only slightly; there are plenty of beautiful sprawling landscapes that – travels along.    This is definitely a great film to have on DVD (gotta wonder how availability will be for something like this though) so it can be watched repeatedly, which would most likely result in pieces fitting together more easily.

Takashi Miike’s LESSON OF THE EVIL was the final film of the night, and a clear main attraction for the nearly full house.  And damn this was a tough nut. Amusing, disturbing, and often frustrating for refusing to commit to one mode or the other. The film begins with a taut exchange between parents coming to the realization that their child is responsible for several violent crimes. A door is slowly and forcefully shut, segueing into a later time, a middle school where we are left to wonder how and within whom the darkness hinted at earlier will surface.

The next part of the film is remarkable for carrying out a restrained building of dread as the everyday dealings of a middle school reveal both students and teachers alike to be filled with condemnable flaws. Students carry out a cheating ring, teachers lustfully take advantage of the undeveloped emotions of their students, and little by little, murderous schemes begin to hatch.

Things build to the students participating in an overnight setting up of a festival, which conveniently finds them working on the theme of a haunted house. Any auspices of mystery is soon tossed by the wayside as conniving turns to crazy, and a killing spree is unleashed. It becomes clear after a while that this is not headed for easy genre territory with satisfying exchanges between good and evil. With each ratcheting up of the death toll what was considered laughable becomes increasingly uncomfortable.

One thing Miike does amazingly well in this film is create vivid characters: leering, preening, exploding in wrathful bravado or skulking about, Miike understands how to get character actors to bring about their best.

As far as the antagonist goes, there are a lot of things to think about. Miike understands and indulges in the tradition of making the bad guy the most interesting and even likeable character of a film, but turns this on its head. References to Western culture, from the enthusiastic English lessons taught by popular Mr. Hasumi to hallucinations of influential murderers that seem to occupy the mind of the film’s killer, suggest a culture at large may be to blame for the evil that lurks in the movie.  Definitely more writing to come on this one. But in the meantime, I suggest giving it a look when it plays the Japan Society on the evening of Thursday, July 11. 

Me on twitter = @mondocurry

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