By Joe Bendel. Murder and vino have always gone together, ever since Montresor offed Fortunato in “A Cask of Amontillado,” so who would make a better amateur sleuth than an enologist (wine expert)? For a vintner accused of murder, Benjamin Lebel is the man to call in Blood of the Vine, seasons one and two, now available as two separate 2-DVD sets from MHz Networks.
In the series opener, Tears of Pasquin, the Bordeaux based Lebel puts the moves on an attractive colleague, France Pelletier. She is mature enough to consider his assistants, Mathilde and Silvère, wet-behind-the-ears kids, but she is still young enough to look good on his arm. Over the next two seasons, she will become accustomed to having romantic dinners and weekend getaways interrupted by murder.
Pasquin happens to be one of the series’ more intriguing crime stories. What appears to be a serial killer case ultimately involves the nasty legacy of Vichy era collaboration. That still seems bold for French television. Pasquin also introduces Lebel to Commander Barbaroux of the Bordeaux police force, who is admittedly befuddled by the rare bottles of Pasquin left at multiple murder scenes. He calls in Lebel as a consultant, but quickly has misgivings.
Loyal Silvère looks different in Le Coup de Jarnac, but replacement Yoann Denaive and the rest of the regulars will stick around for the balance of the first two seasons. Hired to audit the storied Aludel cognac distillery divided by feuding siblings, Lebel and his assistant receive a rather frosty reception at the chateau. However, Lebel is quite welcome at the tavern in town co-owned by his old flame, Shirley. Unfortunately, the legendary mixer and friendliest Aludel heir falls victim to an untimely accident.
Vine often features well known guest stars (at least to French audiences), such as Marisa Berenson, the co-star of films like Barry Lyndon and Cabaret, as well as a one-time guest host of The Muppet Show. As Shirley, she and series star Pierre Arditi have a nice wistfully flirtatious thing going on.
Likewise, Margaux’s Robe features another notable guest star, Arditi’s daughter Rachel, playing Lebel’s daughter, Margaux. Recently, returned from New York, Margaux Lebel has accepted a PR job with a new Chateau owner who is absolutely, positively not a member of the Russian mob. When sabotage kills Margaux’s co-worker-lover and badly injures her, the Soviet educated Swiss mogul puts pressure on Lebel to solve the case quickly or he will do it his way, which adds a good twist to elegant sleuthing.
Fittingly, the first season ends with one of the better crafted mysteries, while also challenging Lebel’s loyalties. When a former assistant’s struggling chateau is beset by a suspicious outbreak, Lebel comes to investigate. Knowing the grand dame who once fired him covets their land, Lebel pays a visit to the regal Mme. Newman. Both Arditi and Judith Magre (probably best known for Louis Malle’s The Lovers) clearly relish their affectionately acid-dripped banter.
Season two begins with A Question of Brandy . . . or Death. Once again, Lebel and his assistants have been hired to assess a struggling distillery. In this case, it is the Baron Castayrac who expects Lebel to simply sign off on his insurance claim, but the enologist does not play that game. Pretty much every key element of the series comes into play in this episode, with a union boss of questionable repute thrown in as an added bonus.
By Joe Bendel. Wang Qingyao’s words have an eerie resonance. He is determined that his wife’s murder during the Cultural Revolution will not be denied or forgotten by the guilty and embarrassed parties. Despite his personal pain, he documented his family’s tragedy with remarkable thoroughness. It is an acutely personal story, but one with national significance for China that unfolds in Hu Jie’s Though I Am Gone, which screens during MoMA’s Chinese Realities/Documentary Visions film series.
During the Cultural Revolution, Beijing schools were the incubators of the institutionalized insanity. Unfortunately, Wang’s wife was a middle school vice principal in the wrong city, at the wrong time. When the Red Guards began terrorizing the country, their children followed their lead. Even though Bian considered herself a loyal Communist since before 1946, she was forced to endure physical beatings and public humiliations on a daily basis. Fearing for her family’s safety, Bian resigned herself to the torments. One day, the students took it too far and rather than taking her to the hospital literally one block away, they just threw her out like a sack of garbage.
Her husband was not on hand to witness the torture she endured. It only would have made things worse for her. However, the trained journalist photographed her battered body and saved evidence of her ordeal, including the blood and excrement soaked clothes she wore during her final hours. Years later, an anonymous source came forward to give him an exact accounting of the events. Not surprisingly, though, only Bian’s fellow victims agreed to participate in Hu’s documentary.
As a filmmaker, Hu’s approach is as simple and straight forward as it can be. Even eschewing soundtrack music, he focuses his camera on Wang and his photographs, allowing the man to tell her story in his own words. He also incorporates archival recordings of the state sanctioned madness as well as personal testimony from Bian’s colleagues.
Speaking of the need to bear witness, Wang Qingyao echoes sentiments often heard in Holocaust survivors’ oral histories. When he eventually produces a photo of the smoke coming from the chimney of the crematorium where his wife’s remains were incinerated, the symmetry becomes profoundly unsettling. While Hu maintains an intimate focus on Bian’s story, he masterfully conveys a sense of how truly representative it was of rampant, widespread horrors.
On a technical level, Though I Am Gone is a simple film, but it is emotionally devastating. This is an incredibly brave expose of events the Party would prefer to forget. Highly recommended for general audiences, particularly including middle school aged students, Though I Am Gone (also distributed by dGenerate Films) screens this coming Tuesday (5/28) and the following Saturday (6/1) as part of Chinese Realities at MoMA.
LFM GRADE: A
Posted on May 23rd, 2013 at 12:37pm.
By Joe Bendel. This little piggy is supposed to go to the black market. It is Marcel Martin’s job to take him, but he cannot schlep four suitcases fully loaded with pork goodness on his own. He will have some dubious help from a mysterious stranger in Claude Autant-Lara’s classic A Pig Across Paris, which opens this Friday in New York at Film Forum.
Martin was once a taxi driver, but the German occupation has been bad for business – what with the curfews, rubber and gasoline rationing, and constant military patrols. Technically, he is unemployed, but Martin still provides for his somewhat out of his league wife through black market gigs. Skeptical of her fidelity, Martin button-holes Grandgil, a stranger he suspects of being her lover. When satisfied this is not the case, he recruits the stout fellow to help him carry his freshly slaughtered baggage across town.
Much to his surprise, his new companion more or less takes over the operation. He is resourceful but somewhat reckless. They bicker like an old married couple and the leaking baggage draws a pack of appreciative dogs, but somehow the two men proceed to navigate the nocturnal world of air raids and police check points. Yet, irony is always waiting just around the corner for them.
A Pig Across Paris (a.k.a. Four Bags Full, a.k.a. La traverse de Paris) is one of those films that almost got away. Surprisingly, it was a hit in France, but at the time, it snuck in and out of American theaters like a black-marketeer with a side of bacon stuffed in his trousers. Happily, it now returns to circulation with a newly translated set of subtitles. There is indeed a reason the Nouvelle Vague enfants terribles singled out Pig as one of their few worthy French predecessors. Autant-Lara’s depiction of occupied Paris is far bolder and more barbed than really any of the films they produced in the 1960’s.
Adapted from a short story by Marcel Aymé, Pig presents a full spectrum of cowardly and/or opportunistic behavior. This is the black market after all, not the resistance. Indeed, the latter are nowhere to be found. As befitting Autant-Lara’s lefty inclinations, rather pronounced class differences emerge between the two men.
They are well paired though. As the more well-heeled Grandgil, Jean Gabin is both appropriately manly, in a Spencer Tracy kind of way, but also convincingly sophisticated and rather condescending. Likewise, Bourvil (as André Robert Raimbourg billed himself) perfectly balances broad comedy with tragic pathos as the increasingly put-upon Martin. They are one of the great big screen odd couples.
There are a lot of funny bits in Pig, but it never whitewashes the era. Frankly, Autant-Lara’s film is not so far removed from Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows, both in terms of their morally ambiguous milieu and quality of execution. Highly recommended for general audiences, A Pig Across Paris opens this Friday (5/24) in New York at Film Forum.
LFM GRADE: A
May 21st, 2013 at 1:59pm.
By Joe Bendel. Love means never having to ask: “where have you been for the last five years?” When dumping Li Xing, He Qaio Qaio thought they needed time to establish their careers. If they were still single five years later, then they should get married at that point. However, a lot can happen in five years, including his eleventh hour engagement to the boss’s daughter. As you might have guessed, He will try to win back her soul mate in Oh Ki-hwan’s A Wedding Invitation, which opens this Friday in New York.
Yes, you probably think you have seen this film before, just with a less attractive cast. He Qaio Qaio does indeed travel to Beijing, ostensibly to celebrate Li Xing’s wedding, but really with the intent to seduce and disrupt. She even enlists her gay best friend to pretend to be her lover, in hopes of making Li Xing jealous. Oh, but not so fast. In its third act, Invitation veers into three hanky territory, doing what commercial South Korean cinema does best.
Frankly, if you want to enjoy the guilty pleasure of a weepy melodrama, you have to look east. Hollywood does not do Affairs to Remember anymore. Everything has to be ironic or quirky these days. A multinational co-production, Wedding features a Mainland and Taiwanese cast and a largely Korean crew on the other side of the camera.
It is a division of labor that works relatively well. As He, the luminous Bai Bai-he is initially exasperating in the Julia Roberts portion of the film and then heartbreaking in the Il Mare-esque conclusion. Although Eddie Peng is no stranger to the rom-com genre (having been totally overshadowed by Shu Qi in Doze Niu’s Love, for instance), he really comes into his own with his work as Li Xing. While suitably earnest, there is also an edge to his Top Chef contending leading man turn. Pace Wu (a.k.a. We Pei Ci) does not get much dramatic heavy lifting, but she is far more charismatic than comparably inconvenient fiancées in rom-coms past.
In the opening screwball section, viewers are likely to wince at the flat-footed He, but down the stretch they are guaranteed to get a little misty-eyed for her. Sure, that is all very manipulative, but audiences will feel like they have been through a lot with these characters. Oh, the rom com specialist, deftly manages the frequent flashbacks and keeps the proceedings pleasantly pacey. Recommended for those not afraid of a little sentiment (or a lot), A Wedding Invitation opens this Friday (5/24) at the AMC Empire in New York and the AMC Metreon in San Francisco.
LFM GRADE: B-
Posted on May 21st, 2013 at 1:59pm.
By Joe Bendel. It could be called a vanguard village. Now entirely encircled by Guangzhou’s urban sprawl, San Yuan Li was once a hotbed of resistance during the Opium Wars. However, drug abuse and other social pathologies have recently become comparatively more advanced there. Yet, new and old China persist, side-by-side each other. A team of artists document the neighborhood’s daily facts of life in Ou Ning & Cao Fei’s San Yuan Li, which screens with Huang Weikai’s Disorder as part of MoMA’s Chinese Realities/Documentary Visions film series.
Industrialization has left a questionable mark on the village. In rapid succession, the audience sees the cramped narrow alleys, dingy sweatshops, haunted looking factories, and the hardscrabble laborers toiling along the river. These are literal “fly-over People,” living beneath the constant approach of airliners. In contrast, viewers also encounter the modern consumerist class (often at booty level), as well as the young color guards and traditional performers representing the ideals of previous eras.
With its frenetically quick cuts and driving soundtrack, San Yuan Li is far more accessible than the term “experimental documentary” would suggest. Although shot in a very stylish black-and-white, the film is sort of like a National Geographic photo spread with a postmodern sensibility and an elevated social awareness. The net effect is often rather hypnotic. While not quite as pointed as Disorder, they are quite a compatible pairing, collectively clocking in at about one and three-quarter hours.
Still, there are plenty of telling images throughout San Yuan Li. Indeed, any appearance of Mao portraiture is now ironic, haunting either the go-go capitalism or mounting class inequities unleashed by the Party. Yet, there is also dignity in the faces of average citizens, particularly the diverse selection of work teams captured late in the film.
Neither documentaries have narrative structures per se, but they both convey a vivid sense of contemporary China. As it happens, both San Yuan Li and Disorder are distributed by the dGenerate films, the invaluable specialists in independent Chinese cinema. Highly recommended for China watchers who want to do exactly that, they screen together this Wednesday (5/22) and the following Monday (5/27) as Chinese Realities continues at MoMA.
LFM GRADE: B
Posted on May 20th, 2013 at 2:19pm.
By Joe Bendel. That hardly took long. An oil boomtown in the 1990’s, Yumen is now a deserted ghost town—literally so if you believe some of the stories told by stragglers. Regardless, viewers certainly get a vivid sense of contemporary China’s “burn rate” in Huang Xiang, Xu Ruotao & J.P. Sniadecki’s Yumen (trailer here), which has its North American premiere tomorrow during MoMA’s ongoing Chinese Realities/Documentary Visions film series.
According to one disembodied voice-over, the abandoned hospital is and was haunted by the spirit of an infant. She once saw it with some friends, one of whom still bears a scar from the encounter. Another man also remembers the hospital, having frequently visited an ambiguously sickly woman there. These remnants of Yumen’s glory days are like ghosts themselves, often filmed like ant-like specks shuffling through the surreal post-industrial landscape.
The directorial trio consistently plays games with the doc format, incorporating what sound like staged reminiscences and showing the seams in between their 16mm reel changes. Nonetheless, there is no mistaking the reality of the northwest Gansu town. It is simply impossible to recreate ruins of such scale on an indie budget. It looks like Pripyat outside of Chernobyl, just without the background radiation (as far as we know).
For what it’s worth, the woman’s ghost story is kind of creepy. Yet more to the point, the intertwining memories and images clearly illustrate the pain and dislocation resulting from the death of a community, even one not especially beloved by its residents, such as Yumen.
Yumen is an impressive looking film, but even at its sixty-five minute running time, it feels a smidge stretched. Certain visuals start to repeat themselves and a late scene rather overindulges in globalist irony, as one of their POV figures strolls through a nearby open air market singing along to Springsteen’s “My Hometown.” As a multi-millionaire and self-appointed spokesman of the proletariat, Springsteen might actually be the perfect voice for today’s China, but the sequence just feels too long and stagey.
If you want to get a good look at Yumen this film is probably your best option, because the government is not likely to sponsor tours there anytime soon. It is not for everyone, but it should fascinate those with a taste for more experimental documentaries in the spirit of Disorder and San Yuan Li. Recommended for aesthetically adventurous China watchers, Yumen screens this Monday (5/20) at MoMA, presented in-person by Sniadecki, the former American expatriate filmmaker, whose previous credits include Chaiqian and Sognhua, two similarly naturalistic observations of Chinese daily life.
LFM GRADE: B-
Posted on May 20th, 2013 at 2:18pm.
By Joe Bendel. Revenge is a family business for the characters of Lone Wolf and Cub. This is not exactly an official stage adaptation, but fans of the manga and films will recognize certain elements. The Rogue Assassin’s young Boy did indeed choose the sword over the ball. However, they might just meet their match in the form of the titular nemesis in Fred Ho & Ruth Margraff’s musical martial arts stage-production, Deadly She-Wolf Assassin at Armageddon!, which officially opened this weekend at La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theatre.
Once, the Rogue Assassin was the Shogun’s Kaishakunin, until the Imperial councilor, Iyagu of the ruthless Yagyu clan, convinced the old tyrant to turn against his loyal executioner. Iyagu’s assassins succeed in killing his wife, but the Shogun’s betrayed “second” escapes with his infant son. This proves to be a costly escapade. For ten years, the Rogue Assassin cuts through the Imperial assassins and ninjas like butter, depleting the Shogun’s treasury and undermining his ruling authority.
Rather sick of it all, the Shogun imports three super assassins from abroad, at considerable cost to Iyagu’s face. Not inclined to take matters lying down, the old conspirator plays his trump card, unleashing the She-Wolf Assassin. Raised from infancy to be Iyagu’s personal La Femme Nikita, her fate is mysteriously intertwined with that of the renegade father and son.
Much fighting ensues, impressively choreographed by lead actor Yoshi Amao for swords and Emanuel Brown (Electro in Broadway’s Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark) for martial arts beatdowns. The resulting spectacle is musically accompanied by the Afro Asian Music Ensemble, under the direction of conductor-multi-reed player Masaru Koga, performing Fred Ho’s funky Lone Wolf-inspired score. Incorporating elements of electric bass and baritone sax driven blaxploitation soundtracks and traditional koto and shakuhachi music, Ho’s themes are hip and propulsive, yet still fit the Jidaigeki action on-stage.
Unfortunately, Ho’s hardcore leftist ideology does not serve the story as well. Frankly, the Uncle Sam assassin caricature is just laughably didactic. A chicken fried colonialist, Colonel USA is hardly representative of the inward looking American foreign policy during the Edo era (1603-1868). Frankly, it is a bit of agitprop street theater that does not fit the otherwise dignified Noh-esque production.
Regardless, the stagecraft of She-Wolf is quite impressive. The lighting and smoke are suitably moody and the spare set is rather evocative. Likewise, the costumes provide the right period look without interfering with the fight choreography.
The cast holds up their end, too. Yoshio Amao is all kinds of brooding badness as the Rogue Assassin, but Ai Ikeda does him one better as the steely She-Wolf. Takemi Kitamura also shows some dramatic flair and action cred as She-Wolf’s sister (the most substantial of her three roles). As is standard practice, two young actors rotate as the Boy. Bradley Fong showed real presence in the part Sunday afternoon, never drowning amid all the stage effects and melee unleashed around him. (His alternate, Jet Yung is surely quite good, as well.) With Perry Yung’s Iyagu chewing the scenery with admirably villainous glee, it is a strong ensemble all around.
This is one of the better martial arts themed productions to grace New York’s independent stages in a fair amount of time and the music is always very cool. There are certain awkward excesses to She-Wolf, but that is sort of par for the course in New York’s theater world. Hopefully, Mr. Ho is happy with director Sonoko Kawahara’s muscular staging, considering the program’s sad note regarding his ill health. Recommended for martial arts fans and soul-world fusion jazz listeners, She-Wolf Assassin at Armageddon! runs through June 2nd at La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theatre.
Posted on May 20th, 2013 at 2:17pm.
By Joe Bendel. He has only helmed eleven feature films, but he defines the art of tasteless comedy. Mel Brooks more or less invented the movie spoof genre, before the Wayanses thoroughly discredited it. Now the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Award winner gets the American Masters treatment in Robert Trachtenberg’s Mel Brooks: Make a Noise, which airs this Monday on PBS stations nationwide.
As the 2,000 Year Old Man, Brooks has quite a career to look back on. His first big break came on television as a writer for Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, the classic sketch comedy showcase that would later serve as a model for the nostalgic Peter O’Toole dramedy My Favorite Year, which Brooks’ company produced. He subsequently made a name for himself with the aforementioned comedy act he developed with Carl Reiner, but a handful of classic movies would establish Brooks as a brand name.
Logically, Trachtenberg devotes considerable time to The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein, adding reminiscences from Brooks regulars like Gene Wilder and Cloris Leachman. He also includes some fitting archival footage of Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn, and of course Anne Bancroft. Clearly, they shared one of the few true show business romances. Yet, to his credit, Brooks sounds quite gracious when discussing his first wife.
Brooks must be an exceedingly difficult interview subject, but Trachtenberg’s persistence is impressive. From time to time, he also surprises Brooks with the insight of his questions, as when he asks the writer-director when he first became aware of Hitler (who plays such an unusual role in Brooks films like The Producers).
There are not a lot of surprises in Noise, nor does Trachtenberg delve shockingly deeply into Brooks’ psyche. Nonetheless, he nicely captures the comedy giant’s dichotomies. Viewers see a smart, thoughtful man with a talent for fart jokes. We understand he is a private individual by temperament, but has a healthy disregard for his own public image. Overall, it is a highly watchable profile that should entertain Brooks’ many fans when it airs this coming Monday (5/20) as part of the current season of American Masters on PBS.
LFM GRADE: B
Posted on May 17th, 2013 at 11:09am.
By Joe Bendel. Who goes camping on a remote coastal Maine isle during the off-season? Psycho killers and their made-to-order victims, that’s who. There is nothing inherently wrong with a traditional slasher movie set-up, but the execution is decidedly problematic throughout Katie Aselton’s Black Rock, which opens today in New York.
Sarah has tricked her childhood friends Abby and Lou into joining her on a camping trip, in hopes that they will bury the hatchet. Years ago, Lou bedded Abby’s boyfriend. Still nurturing her resentment, the soon-to-be divorced Abby is not ready to forgive and forget. When they run into three hunters, the thoroughly annoyed Abby gets sloppy drunk and flirty with Derek, the alpha male, who rather misconstrues her attentions. This leads to all kinds of trouble.
When one of the sullen hunters tells the women what a hero Derek was in Iraq, no matter what they said at the court martial, we know what kind of movie we’re in for. Yes, that’s right, they are unhinged veterans. You might have thought the sleazy psycho Vietnam Vet exploitation film was an embarrassing relic of the 1970’s, but evidently Aselton and her husband-screenwriter Mark Duplass are determined to revive it. Yes, this is how the Duplass household would like to thank all our men and women in uniform: by suggesting they are an inch removed from Richard Speck. Really, you shouldn’t have.
Oddly, the first ten minutes or so show a flash of promise thanks to some caustically catty dialogue. That promise is short lived. By the time the bound women goad the craziest of the crazies into letting them go so they can hunt them down like real men, audience emotional detachment should reach one hundred percent. Nor does Rock have the guts to go all in with its gender-based victimization and retribution themes, a la I Spit on Your Grave. Instead, Aselton and Duplass basically follow the Most Dangerous Game template, chapter and uninspired verse.
To be fair, Kate Bosworth has some nice moments as the somewhat likably goofy Sarah. However, Aselton and Lake Bell largely blend together as Abby and Lou (or Lou and Abby). As their three antagonists, Jay Poulson, Will Bouvier, and Anselm Richardson never transcend their characters’ cookie-cutter stereotypes. Of course, they are not supposed to.
As a horror film, Black Rock is a bore. Yet, it has the potential to be something far worse. It is easy to see unsavory elements repurposing the exploitation flick to demonize American servicemen. After all, we know the Frankfurt terror attack was inspired by Brian De Palma’s Redacted and for weeks the administration blamed Benghazi on a YouTube video. A disappointment on every level, Black Rock is not recommended for anyone under any circumstances when it opens today (5/17) at the Village East.
LFM GRADE: F
Posted on May 17th, 2013 at 11:08am.
By Joe Bendel. It is hard to get around the symbolism of it all when a local village official deals a swift kick to a peasant’s family jewels. Technically, that is not considered proper behavior, but getting justice from the Party is a tricky undertaking. However, his pregnant wife is determined to extract an apology in Zhang Yimou’s The Story of Qiu Ju, which screens tomorrow as part of MoMA’s Chinese Realities/Documentary Visions film series.
A Golden Lion award winner at Venice, Zhang adapted Chen Yuanbin’s novella with a documentarian’s eye for realistic detail—hence its inclusion in MoMA’s current retrospective. Following Qiu Ju’s quest for redress, her Story makes a fitting companion film to Zhao Liang’s Petition (also screening at MoMA), even though it is considerably more ironic and less harrowing. Regardless, justice was clearly an elusive proposition in 1990’s China (and remains so today).
During a stupid argument, Wang Shantang applied said kick to Qinglai. While problematic under any circumstances, injury to Qinglai’s reproductive organ carries far greater implications for the couple due to China’s population control policies. Should Qiu Ju miscarry, they could be permanently out of luck. Regardless, Wang is not apologizing, so Qiu Ju presses her case up the administrative ladder, with little support from the sulking Qinglai.
Needless to say, Chinese officialdom is rather inclined to circle the wagons around one of its own. There is indeed a pronounced Kafkaesque element to the film. Yet, Qiu Ju is no standard issue victim. Her indomitable spirit is rather ennobling, in marked contrast to the typically depressing protagonists of Sixth Generation social issue dramas and some of their Fifth Generation forebears. Likewise, there is an unusual gender reversal afoot, in which Qiu Ju trudges from town to city for the sake of her principles, while the emasculated Qinglai hobbles about their cottage.
In a radical change-up from her glamorous image, Gong Li (an outspoken critic of Chinese censorship) looks, sounds, and carries herself like an out-of-her-depth peasant woman. Yet, her Qiu Ju has a quiet fierceness and an affecting innocence that are unforgettable. Likewise, Kesheng Lei’s Wang makes a worthy antagonist. It is one of those slippery performances that are hard to either categorize or forget.
The Story of Qiu Ju is a significant film in Zhang’s canon and the development of Chinese cinema in the 1990’s. In a way it bridges the Fifth and Sixth Generations, despite its multi-award winning star turn from the still charismatic Gong Li. It certainly focuses a withering spotlight on contemporary China’s bureaucracy and legal system. Highly recommended for China watchers and Gong Li fans, The Story of Qiu Ju screens tomorrow night as part of MoMA’s Chinese Realities.
LFM GRADE: A
Posted on May 16th, 2013 at 10:14am.
By Joe Bendel. There is a debate whether sponsor-a-child programs are truly beneficial or counterproductive. This film is more likely to confuse the issue rather than clarify it. Be that as it may, viewers looking for a good cry will probably find it in Pauline Chan’s 33 Postcards, which opens this Friday in New York.
Mei Mei (“Little Sister”) never really knew the parents who abandoned her at the orphanage. While she watched as many other girls were adopted, she always remained. At least she had one thing going for her: the Australian sponsor covering her school tuition. When the Orphanage choir books an Australian tour, she is excited to finally meet Dean Randall. Yet, for some strange reason he never responds to arrange a meeting.
Playing hokey, Mei Mei eventually tracks Randall down—in prison. It seems he is not a park ranger after all. On the bright side, he is up for parole soon, assuming he survives the prison protection racket. Being a trusting sort, Mei Mei falls in with Carl, the son of Randall’s old boss. Actually, he is not such a bad kid, but trouble is inevitable in their world.
While one might argue Postcards presents both the pluses and minuses of sponsorship programs, it pretty unequivocally suggests that the Australian prison system is ridiculously mismanaged. Regardless, it is impossible to root against the pure-of-heart Mei Mei. There is something about her earnest innocence that harkens back to China’s propaganda films of yore. Yet, Zhu Lin’s performance has such sincerity and charisma she will keep even the most jaded viewers totally invested throughout the film. It is a breakout turn that deservedly won her the Rising Star Award at the Shanghai International Film Festival.
Realizing there is no way he can outshine his young co-star, Guy Pearce doubles down on understated reserve. Nonetheless, they develop real chemistry together, even though their scenes together are largely confined to the prison visiting room. Unfortunately, as Randall’s public defender, Claudia Karvan (Padme’s elder sister in Revenge of the Sith) just stands around condescendingly, as if she is trying to decide if she really wants to be part of the movie or not. However, Lincoln Lewis (a great actor’s name) is kind of not bad as Carl.
Is 33 Postcards manipulative? Good gosh, yes, but the winning Zhu Lin carries it like a champion, while getting a quiet but effective assist from Pearce. Recommended for those who appreciate well executed sentimentality, 33 Postcards opens this Friday (5/17) in New York at the AMC Village 7 and is also available through Gravitas Ventures’ VOD platforms.
LFM GRADE: B-
Posted on May 15th, 2013 at 11:35am.
By Joe Bendel. Evidently, times are tough for Korean mom-and-pop machine shops and hardware stores. Turning to a predatory lender only makes things worse. It is Lee Kang-do’s job to collect, which he does in the worst manner possible. It is soulless work, but it suits him. However, there will be a reckoning in Kim Ki-duk’s Golden Lion Award winning Pieta (trailer here), opening this Friday in New York.
Lee’s boss plasters the depressed Cheonggyecheon neighborhood with flyers for his loan service, but he never mentions the four figure interest rate. When borrowers inevitably fall behind on payments, they are forced to take out insurance naming his dodgy company as their beneficiary. Shortly thereafter, Lee arrives. He maims instead of killing. It is easier to collect that way. In proper loan shark fashion, he has left a long string of broken bodies in his wake.
Not exactly a people person, Lee is rather annoyed when a middle-aged woman starts following him. He is even less impressed when she claims to be his long lost mother seeking to make amends for abandoning him during his early childhood. Initially, he wants nothing to do with Mi-sun. Yet he slowly gets used to the idea of finally having a mother. Then things really start to get dark and twisted.
Seriously, it is hard to figure why Pieta is being released the weekend after Mothers’ Day. Who wouldn’t want to take Mom to a bleakly naturalistic, sexually charged religious allegory? Like classical tragedy, it tackles some heavy themes, such as maternal love, redemption, and retribution, which Kim quietly and methodically strips them down to their stone cold essences. As a result, Pieta’s payoff is so bracing, it stings, even if viewers anticipate the shoe that drops.
As Mother Mi-sun, Cho Min-soo is pretty extraordinary. It is a harrowing and fearsome performance, but also an acutely human portrayal. Yet, in many ways, Lee Jung-jin has the harder challenge, finding pathos and vulnerability in a hardened monster like Lee Kang-do. Nearly a two-hander, their scenes together are genuinely riveting and often profoundly disturbing.
Pieta is a deeply moral film that treats the acts of love and sacrifice with deadly seriousness, suggesting both have intrinsic value. Yet, it would be a mistake to describe it as an optimistic film. Regardless, it is the work of a legitimate auteur with a very personal point of view. Kim directly transports the audience to the dingy back alleys of Cheonggyecheon, creating an overwhelming vibe of spiritual and economic hopelessness. A challenging fable featuring brave and haunting performances from his co-leads, Pieta is recommended for those who do not consider cinema a form of entertainment but rather a matter of life and death. It opens this Friday (5/17) in New York at the Cinema Village.
LFM GRADE: A-
Posted on May 14th, 2013 at 12:59pm.