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By Joe Bendel. Evidently, the Chinese legal system is not overly concerned with potential conflicts of interest. For instance, nobody objects to a hotshot state’s attorney prosecuting the daughter of his longtime nemesis, even though she is also the beloved pupil of his art teacher wife. His integrity may very well be above reproach, but the defense attorney will possibly cut a few ethical corners that would be spoilery to address in detail. However, it is safe to say the media-frenzy trial is never headed exactly where the opposing counsels assume in Fei Xing’s Silent Witness, which screened during the 2014 New York Asian Film Festival.

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About the only cases Tong Tao has lost were his white collar prosecutions of slippery financier Lin Tai. Despite his history with her father, Lin Mengmeng still knows him as “Uncle,” but the evidence that she murdered her father’s pop idol fiancée is so overwhelming, he must prosecute her anyway. Indeed, it is all so open-and-shut that her defense attorney Zhou Li passively sits on her hands, apparently resigned to defeat, until she suddenly obliterates a key prosecution witness. It seems to be more of a game-ender than a game-changer, but there are several more stunning revelations coming down the pike.

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Given the title, one might assume somebody out there saw something important. However, Silent Witness is rather more complicated than that. It is a direct descendant of Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution, but it clearly depends on the “flexibility” of the Chinese legal system to revise charges on the fly. A case like this would have probably taken decades to unfold in American courts, but it feels like Fei’s characters wrap it up in about a week.

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From "Silent Witness."

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Regardless, the series of shoes he drops are invariably clever. Yet, there is real drama at the heart of the picture. Considering his work in Silent Witness, viewers are strongly advised not to play poker with Sun Honglei. Even though we can tell his Lin Tai is nursing a secret, he still successfully pulls the rug completely out from under the audiences feet. It is a wickedly subtle slow build that completely upends viewers’ responses.

Yu Nan and HK superstar Aaron Kwok nicely anchor the film as the legal eagles navigating the schemes within schemes. Deng Jiajia is also quite compelling as the emotionally stunted Mengmeng. In a smaller but critical role, Zhao Lixin perfectly sells the first reversal as the unreliable witness, Sun Wei. In fact, Silent Witness boasts an unusually deep bench of intriguing supporting players, such as NYAFF special guest Zishuo Ding, who brings verve and energy to the film as Zhou’s associate, Meizi.

Silent Witness presents a nifty series of twists and turns that take on real emotional stakes thanks to the fine work of Sun and the accomplished below-the-titles ensemble. It is such an effective thriller, it would not be surprising if Hollywood started sniffing around the remake rights. Highly recommended for fans of courtroom dramas, Silent Witness screened this week as part of this year’s NYAFF.

LFM GRADE: A

Posted on July 9th, 2014 at 12:02am.

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By Joe Bendel. It is not quite fair to lump physiognomy together with phrenology, because the shrewder readers largely supplement the pseudo-scientific analysis with Sherlockian deduction. Kim Nae-gyeong happens to be one of the better ones, but it is not hard to read the ambition written all over Grand Prince Su-yang’s face. Unfortunately, Kim’s family will be engulfed in the ensuing royal power struggle during the course of Han Jae-rim’s The Face Reader, which screened during the 2014 New York Asian Film Festival.

As the son of a disgraced nobleman, Kim prefers to lay low and eke out a modest living with his bumbling brother-in-law, Paeng-heon. However, his renown as a face reader leads super-connected brothel owner Yeon-hong into tricking him into her employment. Fate shifts quickly in the Joseon era, though. A pro bono gig for the gendarmerie attracts the attention of the venerable deputy prime minister, General Kim Jong-seo, who whisks him off to work with the inspection board evaluating new officials. One of the candidates he approves happens to be his son, Jin-hyeong, who has renounced his name for the sake of a career.

Impressed by his work, the general and the king task the face reader with detecting the traitors within their midst. Obviously, the king’s brother is the leading candidate, but the king dies before Kim gets a good hard look at him. As the grand prince consolidates his hold on the military and the nobility, the face reader scrambles to protect the newly crowned twelve year old king and his guileless son.

Evidently NYAFF’s special guest and Korean Actor in Focus, Lee Jung-jae has quite the fearsome countenance. You would not want to trifle with him in Park Hoon-jung’s wickedly entertaining gangster film New World, either (which also screened this week). While there is plenty of Richard III in his ruthless usurper, Lee puts an intriguing spin on the character.

From "The Face Reader."

Although Face Reader is the first costume role for Snowpiercer’s Song Kang-ho, a sad clown like Kim Nae-gyeong is totally in his wheel-house. Yet, it is Jo Jeong-seok who really lowers the emotional boom, despite Paeng-heon’s deceptively rubber-faced demeanor. On the other hand, Lee Jong-seok’s Jin-hyeong has little presence throughout the film, mostly looking like he has just had his stomach pumped. Such is not the case with Baek Yun-shik, who brings all kinds of grizzled gravitas as General Kim (he has the face of a lion, by the way), while Kim Hye-soo’s courtesan functions as the smart and sophisticated witness to the tale of woe.

Face Reader acts as a corrective to many period action epics, in which a handful of motivated swordsmen can easily scythe through an imperial army. It is also unrepentantly tragic, which meant boffo box-office in South Korea, out-grossing Iron Man 3. Yet, for international audiences, the way karma ironically asserts itself during this chaotic era will be the thing that really sticks. Not surprisingly, it clocks in north of two hours, but Han helms a tight ship, with hardly any slack allowed on-screen. Highly recommended for fans of historical intrigue, The Face Reader screened this week as part of this year’s NYAFF.

LFM GRADE: B+

Posted on July 9th, 2014 at 12:01am.

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By Joe Bendel. It is not the most social division of the police force, so chief detective Hwang’s ticky, standoffish new recruit should feel right at home. However, the passivity of surveillance will be an issue for her. Nevertheless, her eyes and memory will be needed to take down a master criminal and his crew in Cho Ui-seok & Kim Byung-seo’s Cold Eyes, an inspired Korean remake of Johnnie To’s Eye in the Sky, which screens during the 2014 New York Asian Film Festival.

Ironically, during her rehearsal shadowing assignment, Detective Ha Yoon-joo and Hwang were rubbing shoulders with James, the mysterious mastermind of a gang of armed robbers. He is never personally on-the-scene, preferring to observe from a carefully selected rooftop. Their last bank heist has the force particularly rattled, so Hwang and his boss, director Lee, are under pressure to produce. Scanning surveillance footage, they practice a form of police work resembling a game of Concentration. When they turn up a suspect, Ha will have her initiation by fire, trailing him through the city. Of course, the closer they get to James, the more the stakes rise.

Despite all the time Hwang spends sitting in surveillance vans, Eyes is decidedly action-driven. Co-directors Cho and Kim truly master the near-misses and sudden disappearances involved in tailing suspects. They also have a knack for spectacular shootouts and public safety-defying car chases. Yet, it is the film’s neurotic vibe that really sets it apart from the cops-and-robbers field.

From "Cold Eyes."

Sol Kyung-gu, this year’s NYAFF Star Asia Award recipient, powers the film with slow-burning intensity. His off-kilter wiliness and rumpled soul distinguishes Hwang from just about every other movie copper, except maybe Han Hyo-joo’s socially awkward Ha. They are quite a pair, developing some appealingly eccentric mentor-protégé chemistry. Counter-balancing her oddball colleagues, Jin Kyung adds some class and authority as Director Lee. Although largely impassive throughout, Jung Woo-sung’s shark-like vibe works in context for the ruthless James.

Cold Eyes is one of the few cop thrillers that genuinely values brains, but hand-to-hand combat skills still come in handy. The execution is slickly stylish, while Cho’s adapted screenplay fits all its moving pieces together quite cleverly. It should even satisfy To fanatics, especially considering an amusing cameo linking it to the original source film. Tight, lean, and unusually cerebral, Cold Eyes is highly recommended for action fans when it screens Thursday (7/10) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of the tribute to Sol Kyung-gu at this year’s NYAFF.

LFM GRADE: A

Posted on July 9th, 2014 at 12:01am.

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By Joe Bendel. Romantic clichés require two to tango, but that is usually not a problem in the movies. Instead, rom-com tropes are dashed upon the rocks of genre cinema in a new long short and a short feature by Japanese J-horror auteur turned art-house favorite, Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Sure to have a long shelf life on the international festival circuit, Kurosawa’s Beautiful New Bay Area Project and Seventh Code played as a double bill during the 2014 New York Asian Film Festival.

Prepare yourself for a look at the seedy side of urban redevelopment in Bay Area (originally conceived as part of a themed anthology). Amano’s family has always ruled the Yokohama port and continues to do so, even though he is a mere wastrel, figurehead president of the family development business. They have ambitious plans to transform the waterfront, but he is more interested Takako, a beautiful laborer. Evidently, he has dreamed of her, but this means nothing to her.

Frankly, it is not exactly clear who or what she is, but she takes her work as a longshoreman and her father’s name very seriously. Enraged by her rejection, Amano steals her ID tile and instructs security to forcibly remove her should she come to reclaim it. That she does—far stronger than anyone expects.

In all honesty, the story of Bay Area does not make much sense and it looks like it was filmed with the cheapest digital camera available at Wal-Mart (not to mention grossly violating the principle of Chekhov’s gun, or rather Chekhov’s norovirus), but it is an awful lot of fun when Takako starts taking care of business. Kurosawa considers this his twenty-nine minute foray into action filmmaking and he duly delivers a series of fan pleasing fight sequences. Tasuku Emoto might not be much as Amano, but Mao Mita is likely to become a lot of NYAFF patrons’ new movie crush as the lovely and steely Takako.

At first blush, Akiko seems to have little in common with Takako. She is the ostensibly innocent protagonist of the hour-long Seventh Code, who has followed the mysterious Matsunaga to Vladivostok, because she was deeply taken with him during a chance meeting in Japan. Hardly knowing her, Matsunaga encourages her to return home, but when she persists, his dodgy Russian associates steal her luggage and passport, leaving her in the middle of nowhere.

However, it will take more than that to get Akiko to give up. Eventually, she will find limited work and friendship with an expatriate Japanese restauranteur and his Chinese girlfriend, Hsiao-yen, while continuing her search for Matsunaga. Yet, now and then, Kurosawa drops hints there might be more to this story than meets the eye.

From "Seventh Code."

In contrast to Bay Area, Code looks fantastic. Kurosawa effectively takes viewers on a walking tour of Vladivostok’s back alleys, giving the audience a vivid rough-and-tumble sense of place. He also stages another first-rate fight scene and maintains a general vibe of weirdness. While the big surprise might be easy to anticipate, Japanese pop star Atsuko Maeda turns it quite agilely as Akiko. It is a nice acting debut vehicle for her, even though Chinese television host Aissy steals a number of scenes outright as the ambiguously ambitious Hsiao-yen. Unfortunately, Kurosawa has a hard time wrapping-up Code, tacking on a number of false endings and a completely random performance from Maeda, perhaps intended to satisfy her fans.

While both films are a bit of a mixed bag, they are brimming with energy and spectacularly showcase the talents of Mita, Maeda, and Aissy. They fit well together, but represent another curve ball for cineastes familiar either with his previous genre work, like Pulse, or his more sensitive recent releases, such as REAL or Tokyo Sonata. Recommended for fans of action and espionage films with resourceful leading ladies, Beautiful New Bay Area Project and Seventh Code screened this week at NYAFF, so expect them to pop up at more fests shortly.

SEVENTH CODE : LFM GRADE: B+
BEAUTIFUL NEW BAY AREA PROJECT: LFM GRADE: B-

Posted on July 9th, 2014 at 12:00am.

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From "The Tournament."

By Joe Bendel. Who knew kung fu was so bureaucratic? Not surprisingly, the Chinese Kung Fu Association is all about keeping up appearances and closing ranks. Unfortunately, Master Lau finds himself effectively black-balled when his son and a fellow student are humiliated in Thailand by Muay Thai fighters. However, he also has a daughter. There will be some avenging to do in Feng Huang’s The Tournament, which is included in The Angela Mao Ying Collection now available from Shout Factory.

Fighters are not legally responsible for deaths in the ring during Thailand’s mixed martial arts matches. Nevertheless, Pepsi evidently signed on as a sponsor. Eager to showcase Muay Thai’s dominance, agents regularly try to recruit Chinese Kung Fu practitioners, offering them large sums just to participate. When loan sharks kidnap the sister of one of Master Lau’s students, he and Lau’s son Hong reluctantly accept. Hong loses badly, but at least he survives. His friend is not so lucky. The shame wrought by the scandalized Kung Fu Association effectively kills Master Lau as well.

Despite their denigration of Lau’s Kung Fu, nobody can best his daughter, Siu Fung. Yet, she only outrages the provincial fools further when she vows to study Muay Thai, in order to develop tactics to beat it. The Association’s decent but ineffectual director has a colleague in Thailand who can help. Under his tutelage, Hong and Siu Fung (with a new boyish coif) will win some redemption in the ring, but this earns them further enemies amongst their mobbed-up opponents.

Arguably, Tournament is a sort of MMA movie-forerunner, in which Kung Fu, Muay Thai, and karate all face each other at some point. It also offers a rare look at Mao without her trademark braids. However, Sammo Hung’s presence as co-action director and one of Lau’s pig-headed colleagues is a welcome guarantee of quality control. He deals with the gloves and pads well enough, but the action in the ring pales in comparison to Mao’s three major throw-downs, including an Odysseus-like coda in which the returning Siu Fu and Hong must eject an interloping Japanese karate dojo from their father’s studio.

From "The Tournament."

Of course, Mao is in her element as the disciplined, outside-the-box Siu Fu. Her frequent co-star Carter Huang is reasonably serviceable (again) as Hong. Hung also gets a chance to show some of the charisma that would be apparent in later films. However, the villains are a rather interchangeable lot of moustache-twisting types.

The Tournament might be a bit programmatic (in a Golden Harvest sort of way), but it is a fine example of Mao and Hung doing their thing, which is also worth seeing. Frankly, it would be nice to have a few more like this. Easily recommended for Mao fans and martial arts connoisseurs, The Tournament is now available on DVD as part of Shout Factory’s Angela Mao Ying Collection.

LFM GRADE: B

Posted on July 9th, 2014 at 11:59pm.

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By Joe Bendel. You can judge the legitimacy of Belarus President-for-life Alexander Lukashenko’s latest “re-election” by the countries that sent their congratulations: Venezuela, Syria, Russia, China, and deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. For many, it was just business as usual in what has been dubbed “Europe’s Last Dictatorship.” However, it was an outrageous affront to independent thinking Belarusians, like the underground Belarus Free Theatre (BFT). Filmmaker Madeleine Sackler provides an uncensored chronicle of the activist artists’ Annus horribilis in Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus, which premieres this coming Monday on HBO.

In a state as pervasively regulated as Belarus, any theater group that forthrightly holds a mirror up to society will have to operate outside the official arts bureaucracy, in direct defiance of the law. The small rag-tag troupe was accustomed to a routine level of surveillance and harassment, but the presidential election on December 19, 2010 precipitated a nationwide reign of terror. Co-founders Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin were close family friends of Andrei Sannikov, the leading opposition candidate everyone expected to win the presidency if the elections were even remotely fair. That did not happen. Although tens of thousands of protestors demonstrated on Liberty Square, the regime responded with violence, imprisoning Sannikov and six other opposition candidates.

Fortunately, most of the BFT were able to evade the KGB (yes, they retained those charming initials), ironically fleeing through Russia. However, the time away from their homeland and families takes a toll on them. The only way they know how to process it is through their art.

Classifying the BFT is a tricky proposition. Many of the productions Sackler documents are distinctly avant-garde, rather closely akin to the style of Poland’s formerly dissident Theatre of the Eighth Day. Yet, sometimes their performances are painfully intimate and achingly accessible. Frankly, the film’s most intense and devastating sequence does not feature the brutal violence unleashed by the KGB (though there is a good deal of that and it is truly appalling). Instead, a monologue written by featured actor “Oleg” relating the non-political circumstances surrounding a personal tragedy truly leaves audiences emotionally staggered.

Nevertheless, when performing under a regime that prohibits open discussion of mental health, suicide, drug use, and sexuality, the personal becomes perversely political. Sackler and her editors Anne Barliant and Leigh Johnson show Solomon-like judgment, perfectly balancing the political and the artistic, the national and the individual, the macro and the micro.  A heck of a lot of courage went into the making of Dangerous Acts, starting with the BFT, but also including the Belarusian cinematographer Sackler directed via Skype and the small army of eye witnesses and netizen-journalists who contributed protest-crackdown footage.

To her credit, Sackler has tackled some bold subjects, following up her first-rate charter school documentary, The Lottery, with the censorship-defying Dangerous Acts. As a result, she might be one of the few people who can say which is more ruthless protecting their power, Lukashenko or the New York teachers union. Both tell critically important stories, but Dangerous Acts has even more urgency. Highly recommended for all lovers of liberty and advocates for human rights, particularly on the weekend we celebrate our independence, Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus premieres Monday night (7/7) on HBO, with further air dates scheduled for 7/9, 7/10, 7/13, 7/16, 7/19, and 7/25.

LFM GRADE: A

Posted on July 5th, 2014 at 2:43pm.

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