By Joe Bendel. The internet scares the willies out of the Chinese Communist Party. As a result, they have devoted tremendous resources to censoring underground journalist-bloggers. Yet their biggest challenge is not technological, but the sheer size of China’s discontented population. Huge numbers of average Chinese citizens have turned to the web as a source of unvarnished news and as a means of exposing official corruption. Stephen Maing follows two very different but very independent bloggers in High Tech, Low Life, the best non-music related documentary screening at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival.
Twenty-seven year-old Zhou Shuguang, better known as Zola, will not deny he likes to get attention online. Posting candid photos of himself is part of his shtick. Whether he stirs up positive or negative comments hardly matters to him. It would be easy for some to dismiss the vegetable hawker, until he breaks the story of a middle school girl whose rape and murder, allegedly at the hands of a local official’s son, was covered up by the authorities.
While Zola largely fits the merry prankster revolutionary template, Zhang Shihe, a.k.a. Tiger Temple, is more akin to traditional anti-Communist dissidents. The son of a prominent Party leader purged during the Cultural Revolution, Tiger Temple has witnessed Communist oppression up close and personal throughout his life.
A more reflective blogger, Tiger Temple has documented the destruction of small provincial communities by rampant unchecked pollution, including the illegal dumping of raw human sewage. Not just raking the muck (and foul muck it is), Tiger Temple helps small, overwhelmed village councils draft complaints and package NGO presentations. Frankly, it is a leadership role that makes Tiger Temple a serious threat to the authorities.
While not as extreme as the circumstances facing dissident artist Ai Weiwei, both bloggers find themselves on the business end of Communist harassment as the film progresses. Obviously these are disturbing developments, particularly for Tiger Temple, but it clearly indicates Maing chose his POV-figures wisely.
By documenting the bloggers’ work, Maing has produced an expose of the pervasive graft throughout all levels of Chinese government by osmosis. It is also a profile of courageous truth-tellers (again, especially so in Tiger Temple’s case). If anything, the film might be slightly out of balance, seemingly granting more time to the admittedly attention-seeking Zola than Tiger Temple, who radiates hard-earned wisdom and gravitas.
Whether viewers are China-watchers concerned about the fate of citizen journalists such as Zola and Tiger Temple or Wired readers intrigued by the secret information war raging between dissenting bloggers and the Chinese authorities, HT,LL is a fascinating, alarming, and inspiring film, all at the same time. Clearly the best current events documentary at this year’s Tribeca, it screens again this Wednesday (4/25) and Saturday (4/28) as the festival continues in New York City.
LFM GRADE: A
Posted on April 23rd, 2012 at 2:37pm.
By Joe Bendel. For the aboriginal peoples indigenous to Taiwan, decapitating an enemy’s head in battle was an essential rite of manhood. In the early twentieth century, the occupying Japanese began the systematic suppression of aboriginal culture. It would cost them a whole lot of heads. Originally well over four hours long, Wei Te-sheng’s Warriors of the Rainbow: Sediq Bale in its more theatrical booking-friendly two and a half hour international cut opens this Friday in New York.
Mouna Rudao was one of the fiercest Seediq warriors ever. When the Japanese confiscate his collection of skulls, they are duly impressed. Unfortunately, as chief he must watch as the old ways atrophy under their oppressive rule. The tattoos of manhood are becoming scarce. However, this will change during the 1930 Wushe Uprising.
It started with a misunderstanding between Mouna’s family and the local Imperial authorities, snowballing from there. The Seediq forces strike first, ambushing the Japanese at a major sporting exhibition. Things only get bloodier thereafter. Frankly, Mouna knows their revolt is doomed to fail, but at least the young Seediq men will die as warriors, crossing over the Rainbow Bridge to their equivalent of Valhalla.
Submitted by Taiwan as their most recent official foreign language Academy Award candidate, Rainbow was released as two films in most Asian markets. However, the edited and cobbled together international version makes perfect sense from a narrative standpoint and includes plenty of Braveheart-style action. One suspects the axe fells disproportionately heavily on the female cast, including the great Vivian Hsu, who are rarely seen in the 150 minute cut until an emotionally devastating scene late in the picture.
It is too bad Mel Gibson went more or less insane, because he would have been the perfect celebrity “presenter” for Rainbow, executive-produced by John Woo, no less. There are death-scenes that will make you exclaim out loud. Yet, despite the frequent references to the Rainbow Bridge, there is little that could be deemed mystical or New Agey about the film, at least in its international configuration. It also resists the temptation to glorify Seediq traditionalism, unequivocally suggesting tribalism undermined their efforts to defeat the Imperial Japanese with a united front.
Lin Ching-Tai is all business as the steely old Mouna. He might just the best middle-aged action hero since the Eastwood of decades ago. Yet young Lin Yuan-Jie might be the most engaging member of the ensemble cast. There is absolutely nothing cute or cloying about his riveting work as Pawan Nawi. Japanese actor Sabu Kawahara also somehow manages to elevate the role of the stereotypically severe General Kamada Yahiko, while Chie Tanaka is memorably vulnerable as the wife of a relatively sympathetic Imperial officer.
Rainbow parallels the pronounced trend in current Mainland and Hong Kong films depicting Japanese characters in explicitly villainous terms. Indeed, the impulse to constantly re-fight WWII is becoming rather suspicious. Be that as it may or may not be, there is no denying Rainbow delivers the epic action goods. This is a big, bloody picture, serving as a perfect example of the bold filmmaking fostered by Fortissimo Films. Definitely recommended for fans of large scale historical action films, Rainbow opens this Friday (4/27) in New York at the AMC Empire.
LFM GRADE: B
Posted on April 23rd, 2012 at 2:36pm.
By Joe Bendel. This Thai anti-hero’s career trajectory follows quite a circuitous course – starting as a cop, next becoming a hitman, only to later seek peace as a Buddhist monk. It is safe to say his perspective changes dramatically in Pen-ek Ratanuang’s karma noir Headshot (trailer here), one of the clear highlights of the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival.
Keep an eye on Tul’s hair. It will serve as a telling indicator during Headshots many flashbacks. Indeed, Tul will have much reflecting to do. When viewers first meet him, he is preparing for his latest hit. Tul kills his target. He always does. However, he takes a bullet to the head in the process. It turns out to be one of those freak events. Tul survives, but he now sees the world upside down.
As we learn during his reveries, Tul was an honest cop who was framed for crossing a crooked politician. Upon his release, he is recruited by a sketchy doctor with weird eugenic-like theories on the nature of evil to serve as the assassin for his secret cabal. Now that his vision is inverted, Tul wants to retire. Right, good luck with that.
Headshot has all the film noir elements, including two beautiful femme fatales, one hard-boiled killer-for-hire, venal public officials, mysterious grudges, a lot of rain, and a fair helping of Buddhist theology. Pen-ek (sometimes billed as Tom Pannet) has crafted a slick, cerebral thriller, dexterously slipping some curveballs past viewers caught up in the nefarious on-screen business. Even though the constant flashing backwards and forwards can be a bit confusing at times, he steadily cranks up the tension, while maintaining an ominous sense of fatalism. It should also be noted, the majority of the film is seen right-side up, with only a few brief scenes representing Tul’s new POV, so potential viewers should not fear leaving the theater with a monster headache.
Nopachai “Peter” Jayanama is an absolutely dynamite seething anti-hero with serious action cred. His Tul broods like nobody’s business. Celine “Cris” Horwang is also a smart and dynamic screen presence as Erin, the innocent bystander repeatedly pulled into the ex-assassin’s murky morality play. Likewise, Chanokporn “Dream” Sayoungkul is appropriately alluring and vulnerable as the woman initially sent to ensnare Tul.
Headshot is the rare film that should thoroughly entertain gangster genre movie fans and also satisfy art-house crowds. In short, it is the complete package. Very highly recommended, Headshot screens again this Thursday (4/26) as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
LFM GRADE: A+
Posted on April 23rd, 2012 at 2:14pm.