drama

The Story of My Son (愛的世界) (1990)

story-of-my-son

An early film by director Johnnie To, The Story of My Son is a bleak drama about a family’s descent into poverty that doesn’t so much gnaw at you as it seeks to bludgeon your heart into emotional mush. To and collaborator Wai Ka-Fai pen a script that lurches towards the extreme, offering up any and every device that will earn its characters sympathy. There’s death, financial peril, child abuse, and a feud with the in-laws just for good measure. The film moves at a breathless pace, clocking in at 75 minutes, and leaves you aghast at how everything goes so wrong so quickly.

Fans of late 80s and early 90s Hong Kong cinema will recognize traces of All About Ah Long, released in 1989 and also directed by To and featuring child actor Wong Kwan-Yuen. Both tell about down-and-out fathers struggling to bring up a young son, two in this case, but while the earlier film sought to mend the broken relationship between the boy’s father and mother, played by Chow Yun-Fat and Sylvia Chang, this one tosses aboard anything that might give the narrative some emotional ballast.

Nevertheless, To and Wai have a strong story on hand and actors who more than live up to their roles. Damian Lau stars as Leung, the beleaguered father of two young boys who takes on single parenthood after the death of his wife. Lau channels all his character’s frustration, shame, and utter helplessness, and parcels it out as best he can. This is a movie with big emotions, and even when he veers into histrionics, you can understand where it’s coming from. Leung finds that the demands on him are suddenly overwhelming, allowing him little time to grieve or figure out how to parent on his own. These troubles are exacerbated by his mounting debt, and it’s not ten minutes into the movie when he decides to try his luck at the racetrack. That decision, and his reluctance to seek help from his father-in-law, sets him down an unforgiving path that leads directly into the office of thuggish loan sharks.

Leung’s two children are played by Wong and Cheng Pak-Lam, as older son Kin and younger son Hong, respectively. Both are naturals in front of the camera, making their close relationship an easy sell. Wong especially strikes a fine balance between a worried child trying to make sense of all the changes around him while also intuiting the need to fill in for his absent parents. He is really the heart of the film, the titular son who is desperate to love his father and the one who ends up holding the family together. Cheng gamely plays the part of the preschooler, handling his role better than most young actors. Hong sees what is happening but doesn’t understand the gravity of it. He doesn’t know how to hide his fear and confusion, and Cheng is there laying bare a full range of emotions.

As strong as the acting is, however, the filmmakers can’t seem to rein in their dramatic impulses. There are small affecting moments, like when the family downgrades from their very posh standalone house to a cramped flat. Even though there is no room in the moving van, Kin insists on keeping the bike that his mother bought. Leung’s pain is evident as he makes the quick mental calculation about whether or not to bring it. The sheer tragedy of the piece overwhelms these smaller scenes though and ultimately makes them less affecting. The movie ends up not being a harsh, meditative journey but a tumble off a cliff.

Released: 1990
Prod: Lau Tin-Chi 劉天賜
Dir: Johnnie To 杜琪峰
Writer: Johnnie To 杜琪峰, Wai Ka-Fai 韋家輝
Cast: Damian Lau 劉松仁, Wong Kwan-Yuen 黃坤玄, Cheng Pak-Lam 鄭柏林, Lau Siu-Ming 劉兆銘, Ng Man-Tat 吳孟達, Louise Lee 李司祺, Sunny Fang 方剛, Anna Ng 吳浣儀
Time: 75 min
Lang: Cantonese
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2017

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b420 (2005)

b420

b420 begins on a hopeful note. Three secondary school classmates in Macau make a video in which they share their dreams for the future, at least the immediate years before they turn twenty. These aren’t lofty aspirations mind you, more along the lines of losing their virginity and the like. But they do point to an adolescent longing, that universal desire to escape into a world that is somehow bigger and better.

We soon see that things haven’t quite worked out. Far from moving up or even on, life is at an uneasy standstill for the girls. It’s not immediately clear what’s become of the three friends, but we learn that Koey (Miki Yeung), the main character, is a dropout who lives her great-grandmother while awaiting the chance to emigrate. She and another friend, who may be involved with Macau’s criminal elements, are no longer on speaking terms and the third is housebound and confined to a wheelchair.

It’s the perfect set-up for a story about teenagers waylaid by reality, possibly left behind by failing institutions and social change that cares little about youth who aren’t the best and the brightest. The film doesn’t push that narrative too much though and instead goes for a teen drama that avoids brooding as much as it does false whimsy. In the uncertainty of youth, the characters find disappointment, friendship, and hope all in equal measure.

While peddling TV subscriptions, Koey befriends Willy (Sam Lee), who is both older and wearier. Having lost or caused the death of important people in his life, he struggles to find a purpose. He’s not so introspective as to realize that though. As Willy and Koey grow closer, their dependable platonic friendship is tested by suggestions that they share romantic feelings. Their mutual friend Simon (Ben Hung) certainly sees it that way. Koey’s long-forgotten childhood acquaintance from ballet school, he still harbors a secret love for her, going so far as to pose as her internet friend. I hope one day we’ll see this for what it is – stalking. In the meantime, Simon comes off as a hapless, lovelorn third wheel, sustained by the hope that Koey will recognize his gentler qualities and turn away from Willy.

The cramped, colorful backstreets of Macau provide some contrasting visuals that mirror the characters’ lives. Buildings and alleyways are at once vibrant and rundown. Koey works at a trinket shop stained with reds and oranges but retreats each night to her great-grandmother’s weather-beaten concrete block of a house.

Writer-director Mathew Tang does a fine job of maintaining tension between all the characters. Lee is a wonderfully restrained, as he often is in independent films, and yet there is an electric charge that runs through his performance. You want things to work out for Willy even if, or perhaps because, he doesn’t deserve it. Hung doesn’t have that same dynamic presence, but Simon’s desperation makes an impression. I would have preferred a better actress to Yeung, who seems to have graduated from the Twins school of acting, which is probably the same as the Cookies school. She overcomes her pouting and whining though as she grows into her role. The ending quickly crescendos into something incredulous and I’m not sure it was altogether necessary. Nevertheless, the various threads come together in an unexpected way that will leave you wanting more of the same from Hong Kong filmmakers.

Released: 2005
Prod: Peter Yung 翁維銓, Kenneth Yee 奚仲文, Philip Lee 李少偉
Dir: Mathew Tang 鄧漢強
Writer: Mathew Tang 鄧漢強
Cast: Miki Yeung 楊愛瑾, Sam Lee 李燦森, Ben Hung 洪展明, Winston Yeh 葉景文, Lee Fung 李楓, Chan Chin-Luk 陳春綠
Time: 88 min
Lang: Cantonese
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2017

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

rogue-one

The first feature of the Star Wars Anthology, a series in but apart from the main timeline that includes Episodes One through Nine, Rogue One is a scrappy but satisfying film befitting of its story and characters. Written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy and directed by Gareth Edwards, it doesn’t have the pedigree of last year’s The Force Awakens and lacks a perfectionist streak that helped tighten, narratively and visually, the better Star Wars movies. Nevertheless, it compensates with some fine performances and a grittier story that expands on universe.

What I like about Rogue One that also sets it apart from the other films is the narrowness of its plot. The main series concerns itself with great galactic matters, and though its heroes embark on defining missions (e.g. destroy the Death Star, find Luke Skywalker), the movies tend to swell around their own mythology. This one is scattershot, especially the first half hour, but never bloated. Set just before the events of A New Hope, the story simply is about a band of outcasts who try to steal the plans for the Death Star. They are led by Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a sometimes criminal whose scientist father, Galen (a very noble Mads Mikkelsen), was compelled by the Imperial Army’s Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) to help the Empire construct the weapon when she was still a child. Some fifteen years later, the Rebel Alliance gets wind of the project and wants to use Jyn to locate her father, whom she hasn’t seen since he was taken away. After a brief rendezvous with extremist leader Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), she teams up somewhat reluctantly with Rebel officer and spy Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), Imperial defector and pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), blind, monkish warrior Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), and his well-armed protector Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen). Together, they planet-hop trying to find the information they are looking for.

At this point, if you’re wondering what the hell the Empire is and who these damned Rebels are, then you may find this movie a little inaccessible and some of its references obscure. Rogue One expects its audience to be well versed in Star Wars lore, and a good working knowledge of the first movie, which is to say the fourth episode, which is to say A New Hope, is highly recommended. If you need to catch up, the Death Star is a moon-sized planet killer created by the Empire to assert its control over the galaxy, one that is far, far away. The Empire is a totalitarian regime, born out of the events from the 1999-2005 trilogy and exerting its full might during the original series. They are opposed by the Rebel Alliance, who want to restore democracy to the galaxy.

Those who grew up with A New Hope will find that this movie does more fan service than The Force Awakens, which was aimed at a broader audience and intended to introduce Star Wars to a new generation. Rogue One has a less glamorous role, filling in a lot of narrative gaps and bridging the first two trilogies. In fact, it leads directly into Episode Four in ways that were more surprising and exciting for me than seeing Han Solo and Chewbacca return to the Millennium Falcon. There were certain “oohs” in my opening night audience that warmed my fangirl soul to the core. Without revealing too much, some of the CGI magic will take your breath away and transport you back to 1977.

Streamlined as the plot may be, however, the film still lacks an elegance one would expect from the franchise. The first thirty to forty minutes require a detailed flowchart just to keep track of all the movement between characters, locations, and alliances. Ironically, once the story settles down, things really begin to take off. It moves light and fast, and one reason is that there are no abstract discussions about the Force or existential meditations on the Jedi’s place in the galaxy to weigh it down.

The dialogue is definitely clunky though, and the writing is one of the film’s main weaknesses. At one point, Galen and Jyn share what should be a moving scene, one of the three they have together. Rather than tender and affecting, it comes across as rushed and mawkish. Similarly, Chirrut’s comic interjections are lobbed haphazardly and land with a thud. K-2SO compensates with some wry humor and impeccable comic timing, thanks largely to Tudyk.

The rest of the talented and versatile cast go a long way to smooth the bumps. Last year, I unashamedly shed tears when a woman, a black guy, and a Latino dodged blasters and TIE fighters to best Darth Vader’s grandson. This time, I got misty eyed when Jyn roused her motley crew of non-white dudes to do their part for the Alliance. Jones is a (ahem) forceful lead, and like Daisy Ridley, who played Rey in The Force Awakens, she exerts an iron will that belies her slight physical stature. In many ways, that determination is emblematic of the whole group. No one would have pegged any of these stars to lead a global franchise, but here they are like their characters, doing their part with sheer wit and resolve.

Of Jyn’s gang, Luna and Ahmed have the most prominent roles and both show off a different kind of hero. Cassian’s commitment to defeating the Empire causes him to act in ways that initially seem indifferent and even amoral, but Luna gives his character a quiet strength that makes him one of my favorites. Ahmed, who is finally getting the recognition he deserves this year, does something similar with Bodhi, but after a promising introduction, his character starts to fade. Yen and Jiang also deliver strong performances and have standout moments, ones that will please home audiences in Hong Kong and China and introduce them to new ones abroad. But they too seem to be constantly searching for their character. Though the film’s strength is in its cast and in this scrappy band of brothers and sister, the script doesn’t do enough to maximize their talent or distinguish their characters. Even the dynamic Whitaker is left hanging in what amounts to an awkward cameo.

Still, Rogue One personalizes the war, and war itself, in ways that its loftier predecessors did not. Abstract principles and ideals underlie a story that’s told in small, individual battles. Our heroes aren’t the best fighters or the chosen ones tasked with overcoming Evil against impossible odds. Their main antagonist is, not unlike them, an important but ultimately expendable asset (or as Variety put it, a “mid-rank Nazi functionary”) trying to navigate the larger forces and events around him. The action is much closer to the ground, and even with a final well orchestrated space battle, it’s the dirty, frantic firefights, the ones that might double for images from the evening news, that make the biggest impression. They most movingly tell the stories of those who bear the cost of fighting for our ideals.

This is the trailer you’re looking for:

Released: 2016
Alt Title: Rogue One
Prod: Kathleen Kennedy, Allison Shearmur, Simon Emanuel
Dir: Gareth Edwards
Writer: Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy, John Knoll (story), Gary Whitta (story)
Cast: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen, Forest Whitaker, Guy Henry, Genevieve O’Reilly, Jimmy Smits, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Jonathan Aris, Alistair Petrie, Valene Kane, Daniel Mays, James Earl Jones, Guy Henry, Anthony Daniels, Jimmy Vee, Peter Cushing (kinda), Carrie Fisher (kinda), Angus MacInnes (kinda), Drewe Henley (kinda)
Time: 133 min
Lang: English, various alien languages
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2016

The Wedding Date (2005)

the wedding date

If you think of The Wedding Date as an early showcase for Amy Adams, then the film is worth the time and effort. Adams, in a supporting role as the lead character’s half-sister, also called Amy, steals the show in more ways than one. It’s her wedding that is at the center of all this, and the already shaky relationship between the two sisters is further threatened by a secret she’s been keeping. By the time it all comes spilling out, the actress lets loose a dramatic range that makes you realize why she’s gone on to star in movies of every genre and to earn five Oscar nominations. At first chipper, jealous, and grating, she transforms into a fragile woman, penitent but unsure how to atone for her mistakes.

Adams’s performance excepting, however, there’s little to recommend this film about a woman who hires an escort to pose as her wedding date in order to get back at her ex-fiancé. Longer than its short running time suggests, it’s terribly morose for a romance and is not at all the comedy the trailer makes it out to be. The film is instead preoccupied with a seriousness that has little meaning. Besides her stepdad (Peter Egan), Kat (Debra Messing) is not fond of her family and goes to her sister’s wedding in London out of obligation. To make matters worse, Jeffrey (Jeremy Sheffield), the fiancé who dumped her right before their wedding is there as the best man to Ed (Jack Davenport). She figures the best solution is to bring Nick (Dermot Mulroney), whose services cost a cool $6000.

An emotional pallor dampens the whole affair with almost none of the relationships bringing light to the proceedings. Kat is understandably determined to make Jeffrey pay, but once she’s in that position, she’s not sure what to do or how to do it. Her relationship with Nick is similarly muddled. She doesn’t have the confidence to orchestrate their fake romance to her liking and, because it is just the thing to do, finds herself falling for him. Adams’s strong performance makes me wish for an emphasis on the sisters, since that’s where the real conflict seems to be anyway.

Overall, The Wedding Date is a dull party, one that can’t even make use of its picturesque filming location. Its occasional and awkward intrusions into romantic comedy territory, like when Kat pours water down her shirt to catch Jeffrey’s eye, misfire. The cast does a poor job juggling the script as well. Messing mimics a certain gravity, but you can sense her comedic senses ready to break out. Mulroney, also unsure how to balance his character’s smugness and sensitivity, just smolders, so much so that he puts out all the fire. Then again, there wasn’t much to begin with.

Released: 2005
Prod: Jessica Bendinger, Paul Brooks, Michelle Chydzik, Nathalie Marciano
Dir: Clare Kilner
Writer: Dana Fox
Cast: Debra Messing, Dermot Mulroney, Amy Adams, Jeremy Sheffield, Jack Davenport, Sarah Parish, Peter Egan, Holland Taylor
Time: 85 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2016

Dangerous Beauty

dangerous beauty

Some parents leave their children blissfully ignorant about love and sex, compelling them to discover such matters in their own extra-curricular way, and some, I suppose, take Paola Franco’s (Jacqueline Bisset) method. When her daughter, Veronica (Catherine McCormack), has her heart broken, she suggests that the young woman improve her fortunes by becoming a courtesan. Not merely content to offer career counseling, Paola ups the mom game and dispenses some professional advice.

A former courtesan herself, she is skilled in the art of high class seduction and schools her free-spirited daughter on the necessary skills to please the powerful. Veronica learns how to walk in platform shoes, feign pleasure, lower a long, firm stalk of asparagus into her mouth. When her mother presents her with a naked man, she gets the most thorough hands-on anatomy lesson.

It doesn’t take Veronica long to realize she’s both good at her job and enjoys it, something that doesn’t escape her former lover’s notice. Marco (Rufus Sewell), a man of higher birth, does little to hide his regret. While she beds noblemen, he can’t bear to be in the same room with his dour wife (Naomi Watts), whose deepest desire is to give him “many strong sons.” He makes an attempt at reconciliation, hoping to win her for himself.

Their relationship underlines a story that makes sudden narrative leaps. Based on the true story of the sixteenth century Venetian woman that was recounted in the book The Honest Courtesan by Margaret Rosenthal, the film also explores political intrigue. When the city is threatened with war, Veronica must use her skills to win an alliance with the French king. Later, with the city in turmoil, she stands trial for witchcraft and faces execution.

The transition between these later plot points could be more fluid, with earlier indications of civil unrest replacing some of Veronica and Marco’s repetitive flirtations. I also never quite settled on the inconsistency of American and British accents, in sixteenth century Venice no less.

I was impressed, however, that the film was carried entirely by a woman who proves herself well-matched against every person and situation she encounters. Veronica is first enticed into the profession not by wealth or revenge but by a library. When she realizes that courtesans not only have the opportunity to be educated but are expected to display great learning, she begins her training in earnest. One of the most satisfying scenes is when she strikes back at Marco’s jilted cousin (Oliver Platt) with a sword and verse, furiously crossing blades even as she waxes poetical. “I confess I fuck divinely / those who love and well opine me.”

Alt Titles: The Honest Courtesan, A Destiny of Her Own
Released: 1998
Prod: Marshall Herskovitz, Edward Zwick, Arnon Milchan, Sarah Caplan
Dir: Marshall Herskovitz
Writer: Jeannine Dominy
Cast: Catherine McCormack, Rufus Sewell, Oliver Platt, Jacqueline Bisset, Fred Ward, Naomi Watts, Moira Kelly, Jeroen Krabbé, Jake Weber, Tim McMullan
Time: 111 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2016