dir: Li Hongqi
Li Hongqi's previous film Routine Holiday was about what people do (or don't do) on their day off from work. His latest, Winter Vacation extends the awkwardness that is forced play to an entire seasonal break. Young kids and old kids stare at their feet, trying to decide whose house to visit or which strange, unattractive girl to ignore. In a Li Hongqi holiday, it's no fun to be the bully or the bullied, the male or the female, the young or the old. Everyone gets slapped or told off in the most mercilessly deadpan way. A son calls out to his father, who bicycles by. The father ignores him. "Did he not take his medicine today?" asks the son's friend. No response. Which is just as well because, medicated or not, these characters are completely disassociated from any recognizable familial or community unit. When they talk to each other, the boys need 2-3 extra seconds to respond, as if the actors were struggling to remember their lines, or more likely, as if the characters are just that paralyzed. Winter Vacation improves on an already hilarious Routine Holiday by being more professionally crafted (some of the shots are as beautiful as they are offbeat) and more expansive in its ambitions. It also includes a refreshing new character type: the little boy who actually seems to realize how ridiculous this world is. His jaded exchanges with his grandfather yield the film's most laugh-out-loud moments, and his reaction shots to a little girl's inquiries about his weight are priceless. --Brian Hu
The High Life
dir: Zhao Dayong
One of mainland China's most essential documentarians, Zhao Dayong, makes his fiction debut with The High Life, demonstrating some better-than-expected narrative chops in the process. Episodic in structure and improvisational in feel -- not unlike his epic documentary Ghost Town -- The High Life hovers around a cast of colorful, mostly likeable characters torn between the daily pressures of urbanization and their more personal impulses. Local scam artist Jian Ming has no problem conning people for some pocket change, but that doesn't mean he's without a moral compass. Prison guard Dian Qiu may lord over his incoming prisoners with bad, ribald poetry, but even he understands that humanity exists in even the smallest of gestures.
Like many of his "digital generation" peers, Zhao is in his element as an unseen narrator, quietly observing his characters without casting judgment, allowing their quiet desperation to build without letting it boil over into a messy cauldron of unearned catharsis or redemption. Those in search of splashy, bumper-sticker truths about today's China are advised to look elsewhere. The High Life is a story of daily survival -- told plainly, deliberately, and effectively. --Chi Tung
Seven Days in Heaven
dir: Wang Yu-lin and Essay Liu
As she puts it herself, Mei is about to embark on the strangest seven days of her life. Her father has just passed away, and her brother and cousin are set to undergo all of the Taoist funerary rites that nobody seems to believe, yet everyone politely respects. But Seven Days in Heaven isn't about spirituality and its discontents. Instead, the film dwells on the absurdities of tradition meeting the most banal practicalities: being called to prayer while brushing one's teeth, rounding up ceremonial beer cans which have spontaneously exploded under the sun, discussing the font size of a politician's funeral wreath for the family. Jokes are told (a hilarious one is a pun on ambulance sirens) and poems are read (including an obscenity-laden one written by a Taoist priest). There's something liberating about witnessing the secular side of superstition, because it allows us cynics to reconcile our conflicting sensibilities without mocking culture. In fact, the film has an innocent air, despite the smart-alecky irony. Shot in HD but colored to look like fading 1970s film, Seven Days in Heaven ultimately craves the wonders of life in all its eccentricities, even while it toys with the sacred and the traditional. It's like a video by Taiwanese retro rockers Wong Fu come to life. Directors Wang Yu-lin and Essay Liu are able to capture this uniquely local innocence by grounding the ironic energy in bittersweet moments of familial love that remind us that there's more at stake than superstition. A karaoke memory between father and daughter is especially heartbreaking, as is a final voice-over in an airport. We're all in transit –- between life and death, country and country -- but the fondest memories persist just long enough to detract us from the doldrums of everyday life. --Brian Hu
dir: Sono Sion
Bleary-eyed filmgoers and frayed nerves don't stand a chance in Japanese shock-auteur Sono Sion's latest grindhouse opus, Cold Fish, which along with Sono's usual excesses -– provocation for provocation's sake, physical and psychological dismemberment, unchecked misogyny –- features some of his laziest, most anemic storytelling yet. A generically dysfunctional Japanese family is unwittingly thrust into the clutches of a pathological, Porsche-driving fish store owner, who is everything he appears to be (a complete mad hatter), and so much more.
Unfortunately, what it all adds up to is so much less. After an electric opening sequence, which promises to dial up the stylistic and technical verve, Cold Fish fizzles into an intensity that's somehow both low-pitch and low-stakes. (With one notable exception: a negotiation scene that marries style, camp, and uh, erotic teddy bears perfectly.) By the time the operatic, horrific (and admittedly impressive) third-act descends upon us, you've long checked out emotionally, and I would argue that perhaps Sono has as well. His wishy-washy critique of Japan's patriarchal hierarchy comes off as insincere at best, and at worst, well, we've already covered the unchecked misogyny, haven't we? There's no questioning Sono's talents as a major provocateur, but in Cold Fish, there's so little narrative urgency, that the shock tactics can't come soon enough. --Chi Tung
Crossing the Mountain
dir: Yang Rui
Tableau after tableau, Crossing the Mountain mesmerizes. The scenes of women and men in nature are beautiful, sure, but they're also deeply mysterious, even spiritually so. There's a plot in here somewhere, but that's beside the point. Embedded beneath the foliage are soldiers and teenagers, maybe a teacher or two, and a government official. They are not characters so much as bodies that walk, drive, and sit in silence. Paralysis has set in this Yunnan town, and clues are scattered, like unharvested live grenades, throughout the land from which the past war has refused to loosen its traumatizing grip. Moments of nothingness become humorous in their brazen banality but sometimes veer into irony -- sometimes into sheer horror. We watch as a young man tries to saw a TV in half. The shot goes on and on, and we keep anticipating a dent that never really materializes. In another shot, a man and woman prepare to sing Teresa Teng on a karaoke machine that stubbornly refuses to work. The video is skeletal at best; the instrumentals are warped into an electronic drone. And we wait... and wait, just as we do when we watch people in the distance, not always in focus, too miniaturized to be legible, and yet we can't pry our eyes away. As in last year's Sun Spots, the human figure belongs to the environs in the most graphic sense, not vice versa. There's a cruelty in it, and we feel that cruelty when we laugh and when we become confused. Successive scenes follow no logic. Synapses have snapped, and we're left with empty bouts of laughter and dismay. --Brian Hu
dir: Ho Wi Ding
One of Taiwanese cinema's most distinctive qualities is its openness to including all of the island's languages and dialects. Still, I don't think I've ever heard Tagalog in a Taiwanese film before, despite the considerable population of Filipino guest workers in manual labor and in-home care. Perhaps it takes an outsider like the Malaysian Ho Wi Ding to give voice to a population rarely included in debates over Taiwanese identity and citizenship. As a landmark of sorts, Pinoy Sunday takes its social importance seriously, cutting between four characters meant to represent a cross-section of the Filipino community in Taipei and acknowledging problems concerning vacation time, deportation, and curfew laws. But given the film's somewhat cursory take on those social problems, what makes Pinoy Sunday grow on the audience is instead a delightful story about the misadventures of two Filipino workers on an off-day, during which they find a fancy red sofa and decide to take it home. This is no ordinary sofa. With its slick upholstery, it belongs in the world of billboards and nightclubs, rather than Taiwanese apartments (let alone Filipino ones). As the day progresses, we find that the sofa saves lives, mends friendships, and makes for delightful music. The discarded sofa comically structures the characters' subterranean homesick blues. Found and resuscitated, it is, like the stories of Taiwan's guest workers, a discovery that comes with happy surprises. --Brian Hu
dir: Liao Jiekai
"Nostalgia" may technically be accurate, but it doesn't quite get to the complexity of Red Dragonflies' poetic charge. Similarly, though cases can be made for each, "flashback," "dream," and "memory" don't quite describe the images we see and the sounds we hear. No, we're in the hands of a director for whom existing narrative language and art-film conventions are incapable of evoking the sentiments of loneliness in that brief moment when a view of a world is slipping away. In Red Dragonflies, an artist is briefly back in her homeland of Singapore after living abroad in New York. In tandem is a narrative of three high school kids delving deep into a jungle. There is a suggestion of a flashback structure, but past and present aren't rendered in the usual visual cues of nostalgia or remembrance. Rather, past and present are the same shallow-focus dreamworld, where the sounds of the world –- a shopping mall drone, an air-con rumble, the echoing chirps of birds –- sear vividly into focus (thanks to a near-complete lack of background music). It's as if the present isn't the natural consequence of the past; rather, the two are chasing each other, running in parallel, haunting each other as memory, hope, loss, and conjecture. Only a few home video shots evoke the "past tense" in any obvious way, and these shots, in faded colors and with shaky camera, seem of another world altogether, shocking us further into reflection about how we are able to take stock of our past lives and present dreams. Red Dragon captures that marvelous fog of nostalgia, yes, but is also of reflection about ourselves in every tense. --Brian Hu
Dir: Freddie Wong
Loyal-to-a-fault film adaptations of beloved novels are nothing new, but seldom are they as, ahem, dry as first-time helmer and longtime film critic and programmer Freddie Wong's The Drunkard. Parallels to Wong Kar-wai's 2046 are inevitable -- there's a perpetually soused writer who can't decide whether artistic integrity is more important than squeaking out a decent living (short answer: it's not); a revolving stable of women who alternate between using him and being used; and '60s Hong Kong in a state of rot (and he's got the faded interiors to prove it!). But Freddie Wong isn't interested in reimagining the past so much as he is in painstakingly recreating writerly banalities on the big screen. The stream-of-consciousness narrative that is a trademark of his source material, Hong Kong's seminal novel of the same name, is approximated by awkwardly-inserted flashbacks and stilted monologues that further drive home the distance between filmmaker and film critic. It's not that Wong lacks the intellectual curiosity to provide The Drunkard with heft; it's that he refuses to express his ideas with any visual or stylistic aplomb. In essence, what he's made is a picture without the motion. What a buzzkill. --Chi Tung
R U There?
dir: David Verbeek
Disgusting in all the wrong ways, David Verbeek's R U There? is the worst kind of East-West co-production: a 21st century World of Suzie Wong with a video-gamer instead of a painter, a betelnut girl instead of a hooker. Stijn Koomen plays the sort of douchebag who does pushups while waiting in airports and throws fries at random passerbys on an escalator. Ke Huan-ru is the European douchebag's Oriental fantasy: an English-speaking hooker who's not really a hooker (she sells massages and cares for her family). What she possibly sees in this creep is never explained, as the fascination the beautiful Taiwanese has for the humorless wannabe bad boy is apparently too obvious to require narrative justification. As is the fact that all rules and all decorum can and must be broken when a pasty white boy rolls into town with a hard-on and a killer instinct. Unlike last year's similar, but much worse, Ghosted, R U There? is set in Taiwan but doesn't claim to be about Taiwan. Instead it's about the kind of arrogant bums who drink Red Bull with their Toblerone, who act tough but emo out when it comes to cavorting with exotic women and dreaming of make-out sessions on Second Life. If this is what the virtual global village looks like, count me out. --Brian Hu
For part 2 of the Vancouver International Film Festival 2010 capsules, click here.