Rust and Bone by Jacques Audiard

Rust and Bone by Jacques Audiard

Put in charge of his young son Sam, Alain (played by Matthias Schoenaerts) leaves Belgium for Antibes to live with his sister and her husband as a family. Alain’s bond with Stephanie, a killer whale trainer, grows deeper after Stéphanie (played by Marion Cotillard) suffers a horrible accident where she loses her legs.

I have struggled with writing about this movie for months now. I have accepted the fact hat this review just simply won’t do the film any justice. So I’m going to just go straight into it…

Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts both give great performances. I don’t know if it’s because I find Marion Cotillard really attractive or if she’s just really engages me an actress, but in every one of her scenes, I feel like I’m watching someone suffer right in front of me. This is probably what people were describing back then when Marlon Brando broke out with method acting in A Streetcar Named Desire.

Matthias Schoenaerts plays Ali like a brute animal that wants to communicate but doesn’t know how to show his soft side. The way Ali fathers his son Sam is upsetting yet very engaging to watch. It dispels the idea that a lead character doesn’t necessarily have to be likable as long as he’s watchable. We can see how he is trying to be better, even though he can’t help but be himself.

Ali and Stéphanie are one of the the most memorable onscreen couples I have seen in a while. These two characters cannot be anymore different from each other and yet I believed their relationship. It feels so real the way the two leads play it.

The film is gritty, poetic and even elusive at times. It hit a very deep note inside me and that makes it very hard to talk about the film’s inner workings. It made me think of how love between two people really is very dependent on need, circumstance and timing. Ali’s animalistic alpha male nature is the exact thing that feeds into Stéphanie’s trauma from the tragic loss of her legs. He is so straightforward about having sex to the point where he almost doesn’t even notice she is legless, which in turn is what begins to make feel Stéphanie normal and even beautiful again. This slowly lifts her out of depression and she regains meaning in her life and supports Ali’s animal nature (in the form of underground boxing), which is the exact personality trait that always gets him in trouble.

Against the film’s gritty raw palette, the unfolding of their relationship was very touching and deeply romantic as I felt what every action and reaction means internally and externally to both characters. When two people fall for each other, it feels like they’re creating their own private internal world together. This movie made me feel like I am watching that world slowly being created between these two people. I liked being inside their idiosyncratic world. Even though the actual situation would seem depressing, on the contrary, it’s executed with such vivid detail with so many poetic truthful moments that it made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. One noteworthy poetic moment was a scene where Stéphanie revisits her workplace and regains meaning to move on from her injury as she watches a killer whale through a tank.

Some have said that the ending feels abrupt. I did not feel that way. The melodramatic emotions all properly build powerfully underneath throughout the movie till it wells up and completely geysers its way to a satisfying finish. It did not feel like a jump at all. Some can say it was a hokey cheesy way to end the movie and that can be a legitimate critique but it worked for me. Rust and Bone punched my gut, turned me into a sap and left me speechless.

It’s one of the best films I’ve seen in 2012. I tremendously enjoyed it and recommend it to anyone. I need to see The Prophet now.

The Grandmaster by Wong Kar Wai

The Grandmaster by Wong Kar Wai


NOTE: I’m going to try something different this time. I’m going to approach this as both a film review and a guide on how to enjoy this film. And by that, I mean the original cut of the film. Not the Weinstein version.

The Grandmaster chronicles the life story of Ip Man, Bruce Lee’s master. Set in 1940s Fushan, Canton province, the martial arts community, lead by northern stylist Gong Yutian (played by Wang Qingxiang), is retiring and holds a challenge to select an heir to bring southern martial arts to the north. The southern community elects Ip Man (played by Tony Leung), the shining newcomer, up for the challenge. Ip Man develops a friendship with Gong’s daughter, Gong Er (played by Zhang Ziyi). The story crosses two decades as Ip Man and Gong Er stand the tests of life. The Japanese Army invasion of Fushan forces Ip Man into poverty and he resettles in Hong Kong. A mutiny within the Gong family sets Gong Er on a quest for revenge. In a time where age-old tradition is being replaced with modernity, how much can one uphold their principles? Who will live to pass on their lineage?

Who takes 14 years to make a movie? Wong Kar Wai is truly one-of-a-kind. He’s the only filmmaker who can take unlimited time with financial support and a team that is willing to plunge to the depths with him to explore every little detail in his stories. Watching a Wong Kar Wai film is the cinematic equivalent of taking a warm bath loaded with multi-colored bath salts in a room full of lush oil paintings. Everything is a visualized metaphor. Feelings matter more than character, and you’re invited to indulge and feel your way through what’s happening. And boy, nobody can visualize a metaphor like Wong Kar Wai.

Phillipe Desourde’s photography and William Cheung Suk Ping’s art direction is top notch. People often attribute the credit to the cinematographer and overlook the fact that something has to be made beautiful in the first place to look beautiful on screen. The Golden Brothel and the train station sets are works of art.

Tony Leung’s Ip Man is portrayed akin to a normal gentleman. I’m the biggest Donnie Yen fan in the world and as good as he was playing a dramatized version of Ip Man, Tony Leung’s scholar-like image is closer to who Ip Man is in real life. On the kung fu side, Leung is not Donnie Yen but achieves the necessary physicality and fights more convincingly than the quick editing suggests. The subtle interplay between Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi that teeters between a could-be romance and a genuine soul mate was played well too.

Speaking of which, this may be the best Zhang Ziyi role yet. She’s never been more likable in any other role I have ever seen her in. Gong Er is the film’s most relatable character, carries the most pathos and energizes the film by providing the audience someone to root for. When she fights, the stakes are high. There is a somewhat of a battle between fact and fiction within the film’s construct. It’s almost as if Gong Er, a fictional character representing tradition, brings the traditional tropes of what one may expect from a martial arts film. While Ip Man, on the other hand, is married to historical fact and delivering the film’s message. More on that later…

The fights are filmed tightly, but for a reason. Wong Kar Wai is interested in the details of the movements: the little twists, nudges and arcs where one gathers power that are all specific to each style of Chinese martial art. For people who are familiar with the basic concepts of Wing Chun, Baqua, Xingyi and Baijquan, it’s quite the rare visual treat as bigger movements usually bode better for onscreen fight choreography. For those who are not familiar, fear not! There is a Game of Death-like sequence where the film presents these different styles. Unfortunately, the oversaturation of Ip Man films (this is the fourth and there is a fifth coming soon starring Anthony Wong as an older Ip Man) really has limited the creativity in presenting Wing Chun as a martial art. It’s safe to say most audiences know what Wing Chun looks like now.

It sounds as though there are a lot of qualifiers for one to understand the film. The world of the film exists within the martial arts community of an older time, when people lived with their own set of rules and traditions. Wong Kar Wai is very interested in presenting these traditions, and watching how he’s filming the action, it’s like he’s trying to keep a record of it. Characters speak in idioms with multiple meanings underneath as martial artists spoke in that time period. There were some instances when I had an itch to rewrite some of the subtitles because they would translate the entire idiom literally to keep the subtext of the Chinese dialogue. That’s a noble effort, but it may prove difficult for English speaking audiences.

A detail I noticed between the early promotional posters to the actual movie poster was that the early ones listed the film’s title as The Grandmasters and the actual movie poster’s title is named The Grandmaster. It makes me speculate that there probably was a story decision amongst the creative team whether the story should be focused on Ip Man or all three masters. That was precisely what the narrative needed to decide on. Whether if I’m right or not, this is a case of a film that clearly has shot too much footage and was forced to be cut down upon its due date. The first cut was reportedly 4 hours and this really came apparent to me upon reflecting about the film. There seems to be a lot lost on the editing floor and this unwillingly creates gaps in the narrative.

If you’ll indulge me, here are some facts about Ip Man’s life that will help you with the film:

  •     Ip Man was born rich, collected rent from owning property and never worked a day in his life until later when the Japanese invaded and took his home in Fushan.
  •    He was offered a job to train the Japanese army and turned it down.
  •    He later escaped to Hong Kong because he was a member of the Guomingdang. His wife stayed in Fushan and it remained that way for the rest of their lives.

There is much to love about The Grandmaster. It is not a martial arts movie in the traditional sense in where its conflicts are solved by fighting. No, this is a story about legacy. It’s about the deeply embedded Chinese Confucian value of improving the quality of life for future generations by passing on our culture and heritage responsibly. Every character in the film is driven by this single motivation and each take it to different places. To quote a line from the film, (I’m paraphrasing) “A martial artist’s biggest enemy is life itself.” Ip Man is a grandmaster not because of his physical prowess, but because he stood up to life (which ended up being quite tragic) and kept to his grand vision of spreading Wing Chun. This eventually lead Bruce Lee creating Jeet Kune Do, spreading Chinese martial arts across the world. I really love the fact that someone made a film about this.

To be frank, all of the big budget revisionist history films and wuxia films in current Chinese cinema bore me. The big budget action films are getting louder and more repetitive. As for the historical epics, I value the importance of reminding the next generation of the past but it ultimately culminates an overwhelming sense of gloom across the nation and it affects how China is perceived internationally because of its hate-mongering nature. It’s emotionally tiring as a moviegoer annually sitting through films in which Chinese people suffer as filmmakers and producers check off every historical tragedy we’ve been through in the last century.

Wong Kar Wai manages to present an age-old Chinese value without a blatant sense of nationalism or bitter finger pointing. It made me proud as a Chinese. This is a higher level of artistic achievement than simply revising history. After all, as filmmakers and artists, what are we leaving behind to the next generation? Are we making films to remind people of the past so we can carry the anger? Is that the extent of our cultural capital? Or can we bring them to another place with emotional breadth and positivity?

That’s what ultimately won me over about The Grandmaster. It was made with a lot of heart with its microscopic attention to detail and delivers a sincere message. It maybe esoteric, and even downright alienating to some viewers, but the rewards are worth the effort!

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Love in the Buff by Edmond Pang Ho Cheung

Love in the Buff by Edmond Pang Ho Cheung

Love in the Buff by Edmond Pang Ho Cheung

The sequel to 2010’s Love in a Puff continues the story of Jimmy and Cherie (played by Shawn Yue and Miriam Yeung), who met and fell in love through their outdoor office smoking breaks (after the 2007 Hong Kong government indoor smoking ban). Five months after the events in the first film, Jimmy and Cherie face more difficulties in their romantic relationship as they split up and both individually end up in Beijing as they follow their jobs to China’s capital city, and both begin new relationships there. But despite their best efforts they can’t seem to keep away from each other.

Edmond Pang Ho Cheung is a promising writer/director that always puts out off-kilter interesting work. Isabella and Exodus still remain my favourite Pang Ho Cheung films. The only Pang film I did not like was the Category III  horror film Dream Home for it’s over-excessive satirical violence that ran out of steam. Love in the Buff was released in its original Cantonese language dub in Mainland theatres (which is a first! Something I’ve wanted to see for my entire teenage life), and that’s how I saw it. Part of the sell of the movie is watching celebrities swear onscreen, so it was important that I saw it in Cantonese. I laughed more than six times and was glad to see the mandarin-speaking locals next to me laughing as well in its sharply-written dialogue set pieces. For this reason, the film will be lost on English-speaking audiences.

In a way, the film was made specific to me. It was about Hong Kong people living in Beijing. The locations were all the restaurants and places where Cantonese people congregate. In fact, there was an establishing shot of the mall I was watching the movie in. So the film briefly gave me a non-acid mind trip. Beijing is presented in a non-touristy gaze and the film addresses the cultural interaction between Hong Kongers and Mainlanders. Together with the swearing, the film felt real and life-like. So this all added an extra layer for me.

By the middle, the film was bringing up hints of that romantic comedy trope in which the conflict would be easily resolved if the protagonists told each other how they felt, instead of dragging the movie for another 20 minutes. That usually annoys me as it always seems to exist only to prolong the film to the 90-minute mark. I would have been annoyed but Pang does something interesting with it. The non-communication is exactly the problem between Jimmy and Cherie. They are a couple who never knows the right time to say the right things to each other and it keeps creating rifts between them. Hence the need for the many supporting characters who serve as their confidants, who talk to them while they’re around each other. There are two tongue-in-cheek celebrity gags with Huang Xiaoming and Ekin Cheng. I preferred the latter gag, the former was a bit too cheeky “wink wink” in-jokey for me. Pang makes all these conversations fun with witty lines, innuendoes and profanity. I could see it all being shorter, but it was fun.

Love in the Buff really does test the likability of its two leads with the audience. Jimmy and Cherie are pretty real in the sense that they aren’t likeable all the time. In fact, they’re even downright shitty at times the way they treat their present lovers Sam and Youyou (played by Zheng Xu and Mini Yang). Sometimes you want to go up to slap both of them. I was worried that the film will lose me and drag along. It did not. The film makes these characters sympathetic by showing how well Jimmy and Cherie fit together as a couple. To quote John Cusack from High Fidelity, “Some people just feel like home.” And with that, the film ultimately won me over by the end.

Even though, if it were me, I’d totally choose Mini Yang as my movie girlfriend. An air hostess who takes Polaroids? Seriously? Sign me up! Man, I have a new crush.

Sidewalls by Gustavo Taretto

Sidewall (Medianeras) by Gustavo Taretto

Martín and Mariana are slightly damaged people who live in buildings just opposite one another. Martín, works as a web designer and is a phobic in recovery process. Little by little he manages to step out of the isolation of his one-room apartment and his virtual reality.  Mariana is an architect who just broke up after a long relationship. Her head is a mess, just like the apartment where she takes refuge. Martin and Mariana live in the same street, in opposite buildings, but they never met. They walk through the same places, but they do not notice each other. Both are afraid of the outside world. While they often don’t notice each other, separation might be the very thing that brings them together.

The film opens with a Manhattan-like montage showing the many buildings in Buenos Aires, a monologue from Martín (played by Javier Drolas) describes how architecture is the ultimate human expression and a mirror-accurate reflection of how we are – disorganized, contradictory, chaotic and disconnected. Martín states that his entire life is in his apartment: he works, sleeps, eats, has sex (with himself) and entertains himself there. He blames architects because they have designed the outlines of his life. Modernity has made our homes so comfortable that being outside and interacting with other people now seem daunting.

The characters are quirky but realistic. We are presented with their inner monologues along with animations visualizing their inner thoughts. It is never quirky for the sake of being quirky. Let’s just say if Zoe Deschanel suddenly manifested in this movie, she would have been quietly escorted out by Latino security guards. No seriously, Martín and Mariana’s quirks come from a real damaged place of hurt, heartbreak and a loss of faith in people. Something that felt really real for me was how Mariana likes to lean on a specific spot in her apartment -a wall besides the 5-step walkway up to her bedroom area. It does not look particularly comfortable or anything special, but she leans there and uses it like a place of safety. That hit me on a personal level.

Sidewalls provides a precise portrayal of isolation and loneliness and underneath asks some challenging questions. Why is all this interconnectivity setting us apart? How can someone feel alone on a subway full of people? Is love the answer? It might be the answer, but it’s goddamn hard to find amidst all this interconnectivity. Suffice to say, Martín and Mariana do get to meet potential lovers and it is interesting to see how they play out and how it affects the two protagonists. There are many whimsical moments and I smiled through most of the film. It gets a bit dark at times too. Mariana purchases a mannequin and interacts with it in all sorts of ways and I hoped that her condition wouldn’t worsen into anything darker. For that, I think actress Pilar López de Ayala has the meatier role. After this film, I think I have a new crush.

I liked what the film had to say about urban loneliness. I liked and cared for these characters and wanted to see them together. It’s a nice charming gem of a love story. I would have wanted to see more interaction between the two characters, but maybe that’s a good thing. It left me wanting more.

Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel by Alex Stapleton

Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel by Alex Stapleton

Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel covers the life story and legacy of Roger Corman, his films, his struggles and his impact on modern cinema. He’s worked with many of today’s top talents, he can make a feature film in 7 days and simply does not believe in the word “No”.

Even though I haven’t seen any of Roger Corman’s productions, how I have come to know about Roger Corman was hearing about his approach to filmmaking. The idea is you get the guy who wants to be the next Federico Fellini, give him 7 days to complete a movie with 2 chase scenes and a scene in a strip club that you will only have for a hour without going over budget. What I liked about this approach is that it cuts through all the pretentious notions that filmmakers/artists often get caught up on about expressing themselves or putting their stamp or trademark onto the film. What matters most is the film and whether the audience responds to the product. It comes down to problem solving and giving the audience what they want – entertainment. After all, the only thing a filmmaker owes an audience is to never bore them.

The behind-the-scenes stories were fascinating and insightful to Corman’s journey as a filmmaker. Particularly the story of Corman’s experience with The Intruder, a film starring a young William Shatner about race relations in the south. It was a film that Corman wanted to say something from his heart and it ended up being his first commercial failure. Corman later learned the idea of supertext and subtext from a method acting class and figured out the best way to balance putting his own message was to put it underneath the entertainment (i.e. monsters, boobies, or explosions). Other worthy mentions from the documentary was the story behind 1963 Corman film The Terror, which was a film shot on the same set and cast  as The Raven (Jack Nicholson and Boris Karloff) to capitalize on the new soundstage. Much of the story was improvised, it was done by 4 different directors at different points in time and the onscreen result hardly made any sense.

What made Corman a great leader was that he would push people to do things that seemed impossible. You could see how that pressure created seeds of creativity and experience which lead to mastery and success. One example was Ron Howard not having enough extras in the racing arena for the finale of Grand Theft Auto. He pleaded to Corman asking for more extras and was rejected. From what it looks like in the Grand Theft Auto excerpts, the shots with the audience members were done with tight shots. There’s another part with Pam Grier and they mention what made her distinct from other female stars was she was not afraid to get dirty and do her own stunts. I assumed that probably lead to her breakthrough with the advent of blaxploitation. It was a very Darwinistic process that I would have personally loved to be a part of.   

It was quite something to see Jack Nicholson break down and cry talking about his friendship with Roger Corman and how Corman was the only one to hire him before mainstream success.

The documentary shows the best way to learn something is just do it, learn from your mistakes and keep moving forward. To know that Roger Corman still continues to make films in the present proves that as long as you have the will, the possibilities are infinite. A very positive message for any creative/aspiring filmmakers out there today.

(As a postscript note, the Vincent Price Edgar Allan Poe films look intriguing. They were a massive success at the time. I’m an Edgar Allan Poe fan so I’m going to check them out.)

Mr. Nobody by Jaco Van Dormael

Mr. Nobody by Jaco Van Dormael

Life is full of choices. Every choice you make leads you onto a different set of choices. You never can possibly know what the best version of your life can be. That’s scary, after all, how do you make your life a worthy one?

A family is broken. A father and mother bring their son Nemo to a train station. Nemo is presented with a choice: should he board the train with his mother or stay with his father? Nemo ponders on this. The film proceeds to play out all the possibilities, showing twelve different lives of Nemo’s life spawning from this one choice.

The film functions on dream logic. We move from the physical into the imaginary, the metaphysical and dream states. It sounds confusing, doesn’t it? Yet the most noteworthy accomplishment is that each transition  is completely intelligible. Director Jaco Van Dormael constructs an inner logic for the audience. As the story progresses and branches out into new stories, we completely know where we are at and it all makes perfect sense. This all makes me realize one thing. This story could not have been told in another medium other than film. It incorporates every bit of film language possible: crosscutting, time transitions, spatial transitions, camera focal length etc.. Even a goddamn crane shot had a legitimate narrative reason for being there. And damn, that impresses me.

It’s not overly cerebral either. Nemo’s potential paths are centered around three women: Anna (played by Diane Kruger), Nemo’s potential one true love, Elise (played by Sarah Polley), a woman that Nemo loves but does not reciprocate and  Jean (played by Linh Dan Pham), as a woman who loves him but Nemo does not care for (this one really broke my heart). Much of the film is an examination of love and happiness. There’s a scene where the teenage Nemo rejects Anna’s invitation to swim with her on the beach. Anna leaves and we see them later as adults bumping into each other in a train station awkwardly years later. Nemo then ponders why he rejected her that day. And the film proceeds to play the alternate scenario, where he tells Anna the truth: Nemo does not know how to swim and did not know what to tell her.

I am a Jared Leto fan (I like his band 30 Seconds to Mars as well). Sometimes it’s possible to like an actor for his choices and he is certainly that case. It’s admirable that he takes smaller roles in art film projects that he respects rather than milk his looks to be famous (which he can totally do). He was great in Requiem For A Dream and Chapter 27 and also the most heartfelt part in Alexander and Lord of War. This is a challenging role and he takes it head on. He plays a convincing 117 year old man and it is fun to watch him play Nemo in the various versions.

Other noteworthy performances are Sarah Polley, who in one version is suffering chronic depression from an unhappy marriage, which she played very dimensionally. Watching her made me think how easily one-note the role could have been. Also Toby Regbo and Juno Temple as the teenage versions of Nemo and Anna falling in love was very endearing and they really sell the innocent sweetness of first love.

One bit I take issue with was the use of “Where is my Mind?” by The Pixies, which is eternally attributed to Fight Club, a film in which Jared Leto is in. There could been other songs to put in that scene. However that’s a minor complaint at best.

This film was released in 2010 and I saw it at the Hong Kong International Film Festival. Though in my opinion, this film is not talked about enough and definitely needs to be seen by more people. Mr. Nobody took me away. It broke my heart, touched me and made me ponder about life’s ironies. By the end I left the theater reflecting on my life and how I should live it.

I recommend everybody see it.