Sunday, August 14


Asian Film Festival, so far

I went to three films at the 9th annual Asian Film Festival at the Four Star this weekend. The house was close to packed for a Friday evening screening of the award-winning One Night in Mongkok. It's the latest evidence against the common cry that the Hong Kong film industry is either dead or on its last legs. On the contrary, writer-director Derek Yee's film displays a direct, realistic approach that I've personally never seen taken this far in a Triad-themed film. Granted, I love the intensely over-the-top style so many Hong Kong genre films employ, but it's also refreshing to see a film able to maintain a more even tone and still provide all the requisite pleasures (action, humor, suspense, romance) of popular cinema, all while balancing a diverse and divided cast of characters. Yee highlights conflict between two groups in Hong Kong's most densely populated neighborhood, Mongkok. There are the newly arrived mainlanders who, lacking education and the right connections, turn to criminal activity; Daniel Wu plays a hit man and Cecilia Cheung the prostitute who helps navigate him through the cold underbelly of the city. On the other side is the Alex Fong-led police force charged with keeping Mongkok under control. After a slightly overstuffed opening reel or so, Yee perfectly paces his crosscuts between the two groups, showing Mongkok as an ethical no-man's land. The mainlanders try to leave their village ethics behind but are ultimately unable to, while the cops reveal that loyalty to the group trumps any external moral code. One particularly gripping sequence late in the film is like the dark side of a police procedural; we're privy to all the corrupt details of how one officer's ineptitude triggers an elaborate cover-up. Wu and Cheung have some excellent scenes of their own, and my favorite is a more contemplative moment when the pair are both surrounded and alienated by Christmas Eve revelers, as searchlights illuminate the polluted air so that we see bits of dust fall like snow. It plays again on Friday evening, when the festival moves over to the Presidio Theatre.

I enjoyed the playful Japanese film Kamikaze Girls, though I felt it lost a lot of steam toward the middle. It plays at the Four Star again on Tuesday. I was much more impressed, however, with the extremely dark and disturbing The Neighbor in 13. It's not that I consider myself a connoisseur of dark, violent movies, but I do find that many particularly talented directors like to work with such themes. The Neighbor in 13 is the most accomplished first film I've seen in quite a while. Santa Inoue comes from the world of music videos to direct this live-action version of a celebrated manga, but he does not import the standard music-video bag of tricks one might expect. Actually, Inoue has made a film all the more psychologically engrossing and emotionally devastating for its quiet stylistic restraint. It's a sinister fable of a sort, an exploration of the nature of evil that begins in a chemistry lab where a pack of bullies pour acid onto the face of a schoolmate. Years later, the victim (Oguri Shun) re-enters the circle of one of his tormentors when he moves into the same building and starts work at the same construction firm. He starts up a friendship with the bully's wife, but things spiral into a nightmare as an alter ego (Nakamura Shido) obsessed only with mayhem and revenge emerges. The end of the film has been criticized by some "Extreme" cinema fans as a cop-out, but I found it to be an altogether chilling finale to the intensity that never lets up once all the sympathetic characters begin to become additions to the film's body count. I may even slightly prefer the Neighbor in 13 to two recent films of the "doppelganger" subgenre made by more established directors: Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Doppelganger and Shinya Tsukamoto's Gemini (one of my favorites of last year's festival; too bad his latest, Vital, was cancelled from this year's program. Wednesday's scheduled 9:45 screening of that film will be replaced by the Korean horror film R-Point.)

Though I've heard good things about Pulse (playing Monday and Saturday), A Snake in June (digitally projected, Tuesday and Thursday) and the closing night film Mughal E-Azam, the only other festival film I've actually seen so far is the Tsui Hark / Ching Siu-Tung classic A Chinese Ghost Story, which came out the same year in Hong Kong that Evil Dead 2 did in the States, and essentially fills the same cinematic purpose as that hilariously grotesque special effects film, except that the Hong Kong film (starring the late Leslie Cheung) was one of its country's biggest hits that year (1987). It plays the Presidio on Friday, August 19 at 2:45 PM, one of the many $5 revival matinees at the festival this year.

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