Category Archives: Films

Drive my Car Review

How the film diverges from the book, whilst keeping some things the same.

Published as part of a short story collection, Drive My Car is one of Murakami’s finest short stories. But it’s not particularly dramatic, strange, or interesting. Nothing would suggest that it would make a particularly cinematic film. But here we are, with  the most critically acclaimed  Imternational film of the year, and now the winner of Best Foreign Film.

The short story

Taking the title of the short story form a Beatles story, the main character is another Murakami proxy. He’s introduced as a widower, and his wife is mentioned as being someone he was in love with but perhaps thtere were things about him that he never understood. Then there is an actor who had an affair with the wife right up until she died. Finally, the third main character is the driver. These characters appear in the same form in the film, more or less. But the film adds several characters who don’t exist in the book. Instead of the book’s limited dramatis personae environment, the film goes for a more expanisive cast that is closer to the previous works of the firector rather than the Murakami story.

The wife is wonderfully played in the film; a mixture of eroticism, sadness and strength by Reika Kirishima. We see that she loves her husband very much. And we know this before the scene where the main character accidentally finds her making love with another man. Yet the film  makes this revelation somehow boring and not as surprising as it should have been; leaving us to wonder if the man had always believed that his partner was unfaithful.

Both book and film make it clear that the main character was waiting for his wife to explain her infidelity, but she dies the same evening. I thought that the film hinted that her death was a suicide, but  later we’re told that she had a cerebral heamorrhage. This could have been caused by a blunt object to the head – yet the film never looks at the possibility of her being murdered, or that it could have been a suicide. The absence of the wife is a massive part of the book. Yet the character in the film shows less regret than we would believe possible for one who has lost their partner of twenty years.

The book largely uses conversations between the driver and director to reveal what happened when he struck up a  friendship with the actor his wife had an affair with. These are some of the best parts of the story – tense, exciting, and we don’t know where the story will turn next. Yet these conversations aren’t even used in the film. It’s an example of why Murakami has always presented such a challenge to directors adapting his works for the screen. The character’s internal monologues in the first person are what gives the writing its power – but this is difficult to translate to a visual medium.

The actor is presented as a rather timid man who is attractive to the women without having any strong characteristics. He’s more of a threat in the book and his outbreaks of violence are easier to accept, especially as they are grounded in alcoholism.

I can’t say that this film has done a bad job of adapting the story. In some ways it’s very original – it borrows some details from other stories in the same collection and it works. A lot of the stories that the wife tells him come from Scheherazade in the same collection – and Hamaguchi manages to interpolate these within the story of Drive my Car without losing the cohesion of the narrative.

Yet it doesn’t have the mysterious Murakami quality you get from reading the book. What the film does have that the book doesn’t – is a powerful scene where the actor/director is comforted by a Korean-signing actress who tells him to carry on living, it could and should have been the ending. Yet the film ends with the driver now living on Korea but driving Yusuke’s red Saab. It’s an oddly flat ending that really lacks an emotional catharsis that the film had led us to expect. The film has found favour with critics who found something more in the film than I did. It’s said to show another side of Japan, and is even being touted as a tourist advertisement. Yet the film shows very few famous landmarks that we would expect to see. Perhaps this is inevitable from a film that wants to focus on the banal reality at the expanse of any wonder. Yet it’s an oddly cold, uninvolving film, and it’s not been a success in Japan, with people largely ignoring it for bigger homegrown films such as Demonslayer.

Film Review: Elisa’s Day (2020)

Elisa’s Day.

Shown at London East Asia Film Festival

Hong Kong, the present day. Officer Fai is taking a fishing boat with a colleague to Tuen Man. We flash back to 1996. Naïve but pretty teenager is attached to her young boyfriend. But when she becomes pregnant, she keeps the baby instead of having an abortion. When things become financially difficult, the father gets involved with triads, and commits a crime so terrible he is forced to escape to Thailand.

Shown as part of the festival’s Hong Kong strand, the film is more a social-realist drama than an action film. It’s one that roots the police officer as the moral center of the film, but he acts in ways that are less than perfect. At the same time, he acts as a father figure to Elisa and her young daughter. First-time director Alan Fung tries to show how tragic events can re-occur if society does not intervene. If parents cannot raise children, then others must do what they can to make sure that the mistakes of past generations do not re-occur. So, when Fai’s associate wants to arrest the husband, he prevents it because he doesn’t want to break up the family and see the child become orphaned.

Shooting in grey, largely avoiding any sense of style, the film feels very cold and flat. Unfortunately, it’s not helped by a very plodding soundtrack that doesn’t do anything for the film’s overall tone. The film’s structure is unnecessarily complicated from being told over 20 years and means that the characters age unconvincingly. More problematic is the treatment of the supposed main character Elisa. Seemingly in love with her daughter, she inexplicably goes from an innocent teen to a cold-hearted prostitute in a couple of years. This change would be believable if the director had given the girl a solid sense of personality to work with, but she’s an almost one-dimensional female figure, little more than cliché. The father is not much better fleshed out. Does he really love the girl, or is he just hanging around because he feels he has to? If he has a sense of love for the mother of his child, it never came through.

There are some things I liked about the film. When the girl is due to meet her partner, Officer Fai tracks her down to a cinema (where she goes to meet men for sex). It’s there, in the film’s foyer, that he meets the kindly Aunt Bo. We’re in the nineties, so the cinema has posters for the Truman Show and Goodwill Hunting. Seeing Aunt Bo playing with the little girl reminds him that she used to look after him. Calling her mom, we realise that the cop was abandoned by his own parents. His interest in the teenaged girl stems from wanting to do everything he can to make sure that the child is not left to the mercies of the streets, as he was.

But as we see in the tragic events of the second half, his power can only go so far in protecting them from what seems like inevitability of fate. Overall, the film is slow, plodding and often uninspired. In the right hands, it could have been very powerful, but its handling is too dull to fully engross us in the lives of the characters.

In Cantonese, with English subtitles

Kung Fool

Why Shang Chi is the worst Marvel Film

As far as I’m concerned, the film is a dud. ALsmost no real excitement is generated from it’s bizarre time-crossing scenario. It’s been said that Marvel has a problem with featuring Asian characters, but this film fails to do for Asians what Black Panther did for black people.

Here are the reasons why I hated this movie:

  1. Slow start. What was the point of the half hour spent showing us how boring the main character’s life is?
  2. Awkwafina. What was she doing in the movie? She doesn’t provide anything to add to the story, neither does she perform any kung fu.
  3. Script. I was groaning most of the time from the leaden and clunky dialogue.
  4. where’s the kung fu? Apart from the bus sequence, where Shang uses a metal pole to take out some villains, he simply stands around the whole time.
  5. the CGI made most scenes look totally unbelievable.
  6. There’s no romance whatsoever. Compare to a film about martial arts which was full of action, spectacle and love – Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.
  7. Simu Liu – totally unsuited to the part. Why not cast a Chinese born actor who can convincingly speak Mandarin?
  8. The music – thumping bass heavy chords just got louder during supposedly exciting scenes.
  9. The film’s obvious pandering to Chinese audiences mean that the villain isn’t able to be seen as showing Chinese people in a bad light, so it means he comes across totally non-threateningly, and bland.

Does porn Asian porn do more harm than good?

I like to watch porn, and as I have a liking for Asian women, I like to see some Asian porn from time to time. If I’m interested in women from a particular country, I will tailor my search to find porn that matches exactly the Asian nationality I am looking for.

I know I’m not alone in my preference. For example, visit pornhub and you will see Asian as one of the first categories that people can search for. Not merely because it begins with A, but simply because Asian is probably the most popular category there is. And although some would call it a fetish, its more that men prefer to watch Asian women above women of any other nationality. I’ll reserve the term fetish for the category of more extreme stuff which tends to involve Asian women.

What I’m more concerned with here is the standard of the pornography (Asian) that is produced and the possible messages it sends to the user. Let’s say for simplicity sake that the user we are talking about is a white male. He probably meets few Asian woman IRL, unless he happens to be travelling to an Asian country or living in one. And let’s also assume that he doesn’t have an Asian girlfriend. His first exposure to Asian women is likely to come from pornography – and this may shape his ideas about Asian women.

Generally the nature of Asian pornography tends to put an emphasis on the Asian ethnicity of the performers first and foremost. It’s as if the main appeal of these women is their Asian-ness. This is of course true of many women in porn – women being sold on the basis of where they come from, body type – but it seems especially true of Asian porn. Then there is the perceived ‘foreign’ appeal that these women have. For example, films typically emphasise their foreign ethnicity in many ways. It’s common for titles to reference particular cultural symbols – the fortune cookie, sakura for Japan – or simply references to Asian food (one series being called Asian buffet).

For most American pornography the titles reflect the desire white men have for Asian women. Most pornographic film scenarios combine an Asian woman with a white man, but it’s becoming more common to see black men with Asian women too – even becoming a sub-category in its own right. In spite of the fact that many Asian women may never date a man outside their own race – from watching these films you get the idea that all Asian women are desperate to have sex with he first white or black man that the meet. One thing that is less common is any reference to Asian genitalia being any different from other women’s – and here the makers may be doing some service to Asian women in refusing to spread this trope. It’s also less common to see Asian women being depicted as submissive. Perhaps this isn’t such a good stereotype to use if you want to show a confident and sexy woman.

On the other hand – If you’re an ASian woman, you might worry more about the damage these films do in a general sense. For example – the sheer quantity of porn produced in Japan must have an effect on the way Japanese women are viewed by outsiders – and not all of it is positive. Then again – I wonder how many men have watched these films and thought that they would like an Asian or in particular a Japanese girlfriend. Here it’s worth pointing out that of all the pornography produced in Japan (known as AV) – it’s always Japanese women and Japanese men (or occasionally a white woman and a Japanese man). this gives the impression (rightly or not) that it’s harder for foreign men to have sex with Japanese women or have them as partner.

If there’s a category of Asian porn that is likely to harm Asian women the most, it is the films that show older western men in poorer Asian countries seeking out usually younger Asian women and filming them for sex. My biggest concern for these films is that the women are greatly disadvantaged economically and cannot truly give their consent. Pornographic websites producing this content send out the message that women in Thailand or Vietnam are so much easier to have sex with; and are not concerned even with sexual health or protection. They spread the troubling belief that women can be bought and used purely for men’s sexual pleasure. Once the women are filmed in these situations, they lose all control over their freedoms: the information is able to spread across the internet. It’s probable that the companies which take the money from the subscribers paying for the content are seeing the profits from this exploitation. If these women had more power – they could find away to generate income through producing their own media and by having control of its distribution. We are already seeing this happen with Asian performers in the States – with adult actresses such as Vina Skyy and Cindy Starfall producing their own material which they can promote through fan only websites. Sadly, the woman in poorer Asian countries have no such option for their work.

If they wanted to, the women in amateur sex videos which are shown online could use the videos as promotion. If they could find a way to target the users directly – treating them to self-produced content. Every time a new video is uploaded, it gets harder and harder for men to see women in poorer Asian countries as having much choice over what happens to them. Men will continue to travel to these countries because the women are seen to be more sexually promiscuous – and the advantage on most occasions comes from simply having a foreign passport. It will only change when the women

If there is a positive side to all of the Asian pornography, it’s that men will continue to seek out Asian women for sex, companionship and perhaps marriage. The demand for Asian porn is amply met by supply which seems to show no signs of slowing down. If anything, there is more pornography than ever before – the huge amount of Asian performers is evidence of this. And with so many white men favouring Asian women, how much of this is down to the rise of Asian pornography is obviously difficult to say. At it’s best, pornography can help to teach people about sexuality. The best films show sexuality in a positive light and I will continue to watch films which I believe send out positive messages.

Until they do, the men who make this material will continue to exploit these women due to the economic advantage they have over them.

Parasite plot holes and inconsistencies

Spoiler alert!

When Ki-jeong frames the driver by leaving her underwear under the back seat, she does so without him noticing. If she can do this with such ease, it suggests she could more easlily make money as a stripper or karaoke hostess (which, lets face it, is probably the job a woman in her situation would have).

In a later scene, the Kims are eating in a canteen for what looks like taxi drivers and chauffeurs. If the father already has talent for driving, why isn’t he already earning money doing so? Not to mention the ease with which the Parks dismiss their former driver. If they valued him at all they would have confronted him about what happened..

When the former housekeeper returns, she finds the family behaving extremely innapropriately., getting drunk on expensive whisky and throwing snacks around. Yet she carries on as though this is normal.

Guen-sye, the husband under the cellar. Where to start with this one? The explanation for his hiding there is that there was an underground bunker built by the previous owners of the house. When her husband borrowed money from loan sharks, she sent him down here, obviously caring for him whilst she worked as a housekeeper. If this was before the present owners moved in, it would mean that he has lived there longer than 17 years (!) by which point, wouldn’t the sharks have given up chasing him? Then again, Pieta……

The kid’s birthday party. Something strange about this; there don’t seem to be any kids here. Instead, there’s a woman singing o mio babbino caro, and a huge fire in the middle, not to mention an axe.

The killings. This scene was so badly shot that its actually difficult to see what happens. But lets see: Ki-jeong comes with a cake, which she smashes into Geun-sye, but after he has lunged at her with a knife, fatally stabbing her. This is in full view of the guests, who seem not to notice a deranged man with blood seeping from his forehead carrying a knife. Just before this, her brother is bludgeoned twice with a rock, seems to be out cold (but later makes a miraculous recovery). Someone kills Geun-sye with a barbecue skewer, the boy faints, and Ki-jeong dies. All of this could have been done better, but in a further bit of unlikeliness, the father stabs Mr park with a knife, killing him.

What do the Kims do with their money? Working at the Parks should have brought then some material benefits. strangely, despite all working good jobs, they continue to live in the tiny, semi-derelict flat under the ground.

Right at the end, we see Ki-teok writing a letter to his father (who uses morse-code signalling to send messages to his son). Except there is no way of Ki-teok getting the letter to his father. But wait. Immediately after killing Mr Park, Chung-sook can be seen running to the side of the house, down into the basement. In other words, it can be reached from the outside, which means the son could quite easily post messages directly to the father, give him food, even help him break out.

Whilst Mr and Mrs Park wait for their son to come out of the tepee, they make love on the sofa. As he starts to caress her breasts, she instructs him to move in clockwise direction. It’s clearly done for laughs, but it’s not really obvious why she would gain more pleasure from this.

On my first viewing, I felt that the Parks were parasitic of the Kims. When I watched it again, it was the other way round. I’m not sure the film is such a strong statement of class ( as has been claimed). The film highlights the social divide in South Korea, without really telling us anything interesting about it. Not to mention, the Kims hurt each other, displace hard-working people and are responsible for the murder of an innocent man.

All this means that I still enjoyed watching the film, I’m jsut surprised that the flaws seem to have gone unrecognised. The recent Japanese film Shoplifters looks at a family who struggle in poverty but act in a more human and believable way.

Shoplifters Review

They are six in the family, a rag-tag bag of waifs and strays in a downtrodden suburb of an unnamed Japanese city.

Kore-eda has moved away from the struggles of the middle class with something new; a film that looks at those on the very margins of society and  somewhere close to the criminal underworld. 

Father Sako, who is employed on a meagre salary, turns to shoplifting to bring home the goods, managing to snatch grocery items using well-practiced methods and sleight of hand. The wife has a job too which allows her access to items left inside jackets and attached to clothes. 

It takes a while to get adjusted to the film, because the director is careful to only reveal a little at a time. Why do they live in such a small house? How did they meet each other? Why does the grandmother visit her ex-husband’s house every week? And how do they manage to survive? 

These are details that the film is not in a hurry to explain. Kore-eda is more interested in showing us the lives of these people; how they get by on whatever they can scrape together. Then there is the little girl whom they see staring out of a window every night, and decide to adopt, gradually introducing her to a life of shoplifting, but crucially they give her the family home that she didn’t have with her biological parents.

There are many films which romanticise crime, this isn’t really one of them. “Until someone buys them, he tells his son, these items belong to no one” he tells his son in an attempt to assuage his guilt, still it’s hard to feel good when they are stealing from those whose lives are not much better than their own. 

Occasionally the film moves away from the cramped quarters of their hovel. Daughter Sako works in a sex chat room and the neon lights and school-girl uniforms recall the earlier work “Air Doll.” then, a later shot reaches heights of poetry when a bag of stolen oranges breaks apart and rolls in the streets.

The film won the Golden Palm at this year’s Cannes festival

Only In Asia

Crazy Rich Asians


Director: Jon Chu

Constance Wu
Henry Golding
Gemma Chan
Lisa Lu
Nico Santos
Ken Jeong
Michelle Yeoh

Not long after it was announced that the book by Kevin Kwan was going to be made into a movie the internet started talking. Were they going to do justice to the book? Were they going to go the way of Ghost in the Shell and whitewash the main character? Fears were laid to rest last October when the magazine Entertainment Weekly revealed that all the characters were to be played by Asian actors. From there, the buzz just grew and what looked like a fairly small romantic comedy has now become on of the year’s biggest hits (in October, the film had grossed over $236 worldwide). By now several of the film’s actors have gone from relatively unknown to huge stars, and Constance Wu has become the poster child for the Asian American acting community,

How did we get here? Remember when the film The Joy Luck CLub did something similar? Or Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon? Or even Memoirs of Geisha? But Crazy Rich Asians feels different. Whilst those earlier films felt tied to a sense of the exotic Asian culture that probably only exists for westerners, this is very much an Asian film made by Asians on their terms and not pandering to western ideas about what Chinese culture is about.

From the beginning, we’re in familiar romantic territory, with the central couple Nick and Rachel cooing over a shared dessert plate. As in the book, Rachel is an economics professor, and there is a very neat scene where she uses a poker game to demonstrate the rules of game theory. There is a touch of wonder about the film, with fantastic scenes of characters jetting off around the world in private jets, helicopters and top-end sports cars. The director is no stranger to magic, having made both editions of Now You See Me.

Rachel and Nick are in love, both work at NYU, and seem to share everything including dessert. It’s is going great but she has never met anyone from Nick’s side of the family, so Nick suggests she comes with him to his best friend’s wedding in Singapore.

The term rich can mean anything from well-off to loaded and it’s with the typical modesty of the truly loaded that Nick refers to his family as ‘comfortable’. In fact, Nick comes from one of the most successful families in Asia, the Young family. In a brilliant scene, Rachels best friend Peik Lin (Awkwafina) explains how they came from China and bought the first buildings of the city state, becoming the old money kings of Asia.

In another scene, we see the family having just taken ownership of the stuffy Calthorpe Hotel in London. Having established just how rich the Young family are, the film wastes no time in showing us how much fun they have with it, and the stupendous luxury they live in. Maybe we’re not supposed to be impressed by such conspicuous consumption, yet I felt both exhilarated by the wealth on display and so happy to see the characters enjoying it.

I doubt that Singapore will look so good or has ever looked like this on film before. From the airport, Nick takes Rachel, along with his best friend Colin and Araminta to one of the Hawker markets in Singapore. All of the chefs have spent their lives making the same food and some have even been awarded michelin stars. Yes, a bit of travelogue maybe but the scenes cement the film’s Asian location firmly in our minds (in fact the film spends a mere 5 minutes of screen times in New York before zipping to Taiwan, Singapore and the mysterious sounding Samsara Island.

Rachel’s college roommate has her own mansion, but it’s nothing when we see the family home of the Youngs. Inspired by the Hall of Mirrors and Donald Trump’s toilet, Peik Lin lives in a garish new build, perfect for her father who looks like an Elvis impersonator, but Nick’s family live in a house so  grand that it has no GPS signal and is guarded by turbaned soldiers carrying bayonets.

The central drama is how Nick must convince his family and friends that Rachel (American born Chinese) is somehow good enough to be his wife and to be part of the Young family. Ever since Nick was raised by his Amah, he had been brought up to become the new CEO of the family company (this part was more detailed in the book, and the film perhaps wisely ignores the business side of things). Rachel’s reception is hardly warm, and it only gets worse as she fails to appreciate the sacrifice made by Nick’s mother, and the sense of duty of being married. But if anything, Araminta’s friends are even worse. Not only has Rachel committed the crime of being American, she’s also not even ‘that’ pretty, and hasn’t had the surgical enhancement of many of the women in their social circle. While the women Rachel meets are pretty ghastly, Nick’s cousin Astrid becomes Rachel’s guide to surviving the horrors of the bachelor party. Indeed, Astrid serves to remind us that life in high society is not so perfect; Astrid’s husband is having an affair.

Finding American-Asian actors who could play the parts must have taken some doing. The producers revealed that they could have chosen hundreds of actors for the part of Rachel Chu alone. Constance Wu made the Asian stereotype of the tiger mother in Fresh off the Boat completely likeable character. Whilst Rachel is in some ways a little too passive, there’s no denying that Wu has done an admirable job in creating an emotionally engaging character, and there’s some pretty snappy remarks made by Rachel, even if they get slightly drowned out by the background noise, the soundtrack is fast like the best comedies that Hollywood used to make. Henry Golding (Nick) was a slightly controversial choice –  some felt that it was wrong to use a half British actor – but his English accent is made plausible when you consider that half the scions of Chinese CEOS are educated in English boarding schools. British actress Gemma Chan plays Nick’s cousin as a slightly tragic figure: a woman married to a less successful man who feels she must hide her designer purchases so that he won’t feel intimidated. In a lovely scene near the end, she leaves him behind in their house, but not until she has picked up a secreted pair of earrings which she had bought earlier on in the film but never felt she could wear them. 

Peik Lin (hilarious) is like the fairy godmother character, helping Rachel to choose not one but two perfect dresses to wear, first at the party to mark Colin’s wedding and again at the wedding itself. Frankly, I’d be surprised if the film doesn’t win at least a best costume award at the academy’s next year. I’ve not seen so many beautiful dresses since the Devil Wears Prada and the film is as stylish and beautiful as any film from the fifties. The scene where Peik Lin and Edison select designer dresses is going to be one of the scenes endlessly re-watched, and it should be: it’s hilariously over the top and camp, whilst allowing Sally Yeh’s extremely jaunty mandarin cover of Material Girl to be played.

If much of the attention is given to dresses, there’s a fair bit of partying going on too. Bachelor parties are usually hookers and drugs, declares Bernard Tai, but that’s boring. How about a party on a yacht, with hundreds of dancers and a flare gun that shoots off into the ocean? It’s gloriously excessive and fun in a tasteless way, and the actor who plays Tai knocks every scene he is in out of the park. He’s played by American comedian Jimmy O Yang, and I can’t see wait to see what he does next. The fact that he alone of the male characters has a stomach that overhangs his belt is even funnier.

Alongside all the dresses, the film whips along at a cracking pace, and then the wedding hits us by surprise, being unexpectedly moving, touching and beautiful. The film achieves another brilliantly emotional and real scene when Rachel’s mother arrives in Singapore after Rachel has left Nick.  In the world of Mrs Young – and the numerous aunties that spend their time in bible meetings and making dumplings with their children – it’s family that comes first. The message for Rachel is clear – you can’t understand, because Americans always think about their own interests rather than making sacrifices for their family.

It is a very shallow film in lots of ways but ends up telling more about Asia than the well-meaning but turgid Joy Luck Club. Sometimes the frivolous and trivial can be very serious. By now, I should make it clear that I loved everything about the film and I am booking my next holiday in Singapore.

Closing comments: a wonderful film that does justice to a classic novel. Some wonderful moments and feelgood ending make it the perfect film to watch with family or as a romantic evening with a loved one.

BIFF 2018: Review of “Vanishing Days”

Vanishing Days

A film by Zhu Xin

A daughter and her mother sit listlessly in a small room in a nondescript city apartment building. We hear conversations but they are obviously not important to young Li Senlin. then the father announces that he is going on a business trip. Something about his voice tells Senlin that she should worry about him. Perhaps it’s the unpredictability of the weather, which will soon become monsoon season. She puts on her roller skatesand follows him out on to the street calling after him. She follows him to a public water fountain, then suddenly falls down, disappearing from the screen.


That’s the opening sequence of the film, and it tells us that what we see is less important than what we don’t see. Things become more strange when Aunt Quiqui makes an unplanned visit to Hangzhou. She tells a story about a time when she travelled to an island with her husband Bo and she experienced strange events. This is when the film’s plot becomes less concerned with what happened and looks at what might have happened. The present events are related to the past that the Aunt relates to Senlin. When she finds that her turtle has gone missing, another scene shows a boy and his father in a cave where they find strange inscriptions on the wall.One of the boys holds up a turtle shell? Could it be the same turtle that Senlin couldn’t find in the apartment?

The director has said of the film that he loves to use water, because it has “such a painterly element.” He is right about that. The thing about water is that it’s rarely still. It’s often opaque and you can’t pin it down. This is to say that the film is also hard to explain. IF you come to this film expecting some clear answers, you will walk away disappointed. We never see the murder that is explicitly mentioned, only the mundane details that are passed between neighbours.

When we are children, we are at the whims of adults. Young Senlin would love to be somewhere with her father, but instead she has to stay inside with her mother. Her freedom is limited further by eating food she doesn’t enjoy, and even her chopstick use is sanctioned All she can do is write her essay, which describes a dangerous journey by air. They are told intermittently though subtitles and explain the events of a trip by air balloon which is threatened by bad weather.

Much of the surroundings are mundane, precisely because for a child, the things that you can see around you are on the whole, terribly bland and nondescript. Even the murder is no more or less interesting than what the characters eat for dinner.

I had questions about the film which I couldn’t answer. The film had no ending, perhaps because there are no real endings in life either. It’s not perfect and I wish the film had been more clearly worked out so we could get a firmer sense of resolution for Senlin.

Zhu Xin made this film when he was 21, after learning to make films at advertising school. I can see the young director using these themes of disappearance, confusion and really creating a powerful cinematic style. For now he can be proud of a confident first film and a cast dedicated to making his visions come to life on screen.

Film review: Leto (Summer)

A struggling punk rock band in communist Russia make music about their experiences and reach musical success.

The band are from Russia, where punk is seen as a serious threat to the values of comradeship and socialist order. But that is not really the purpose of this film, as it deals more with the basic concerns of an aspiring rock band.

Lead singer Mike has the Johnny Rotten sneer down to a T but the band are struggling to be taken seriously. He’s married with a kid and still living in an upstairs apartment where the band try to practice their songs (when they aren’t being shouted at by the neighbours).

Things change for them when they are approached by two younger musicians the beach after playing a concert. Viktor, a Korean-Russian (although his heritage is not really commented on) really likes the band and offers to join them.

It’s touching the way they play together and how the more experienced musicians help nurture Viktor’s talent.

AS the band’s musical talent develops, they start to play better and with more focus, and Viktor adds a poetic dimension to their simplistic lyrics. The film is shot in black and white and in colour. The black and white photography recalls similar fictionalized accounts of musicians such as Control, which was about Ian Curtis and Joy Division.

The main problem I have with this film is that it doesn’t really add up to much. A few scenes show the raw power of punk, when a member of the audience exhorts everyone in their seats to stand up. But the rest of the film slows things down considerably.

It’s so freewheeling and loose, which I understand because life as a rock band I s messy. Mike has a baby with Natacha but he doesn’t spend all his time with her.There’s an attempt to create some drama when Natacha becomes attracted to Viktor, but it’s so underwhelming. It should be a big deal, but somehow it’s not. The film is just a bit too long and some scenes are really boring. As an example, why do we need a scene where the band are in a recording studio talking about disco? And there is a weird post recording session party where an old singer starts to And why do they never talk about their lives, or what inspires them to make music?

The best songs in the film are ones we already know: such classics as The Passenger, Psycho Killer, and A Perfect Day, to name just three. There’s nothng wrong with taking inspiration, but this film tries to include so many musical styles that it seems like a potted history of seventies and eighties music.

When it comes to films about rock stars, there are so many clichés that must be avoided. Or there are those films which go so far to show the reality of music that they become a parody, like Spinal Tap. This film doesn’t really go that far, but it’s a bit stylized, too ideal. The best scenes are when the people on the street burst into performances of internally know punk songs, followed by the disclaimer “this never happened”. It’s a lament for the lack of freedom in a politically oppressive country. The message is, these songs are loved by everyone: rock music is the people’s politics.

It’s all perfectly well played, but there are no great surprises.


Leto (Summer) is showing at BIFF.




Busan International Film festival: Killing

Masterfuly directed by Tsukamoto, Killing manages to make a Shakespearean tragedy in Japan that lasts under 2 hours. It’s an austere, harshly beautiful film about what it takes to survive in difficult surroundings. After a mesmerizing opening where we watch gleaming samurai sword forged out of glowing embers, we meet the characters whose lives will be overwhelmed by the events of the story.

The setting is rural Japan during the Edo period. Mokunoshin Tsuzuki is a samurai with no master, but he maintains his swordsmanship by sparring with Ichisuke, a farmer’s son. Just from the way the farmer’s sister Yu’s looks disapprovingly at Tsuzuki, we can sense the danger that will soon appear, even though the film begins during a time of peace.

An older samurai master arrives in the village, impressing the younger men with his skill at fighting. He is laidback and restful, seeming to fear nothing. He soon recruits the young men, much to Yu’s dismay, who alone can see the violence and death that will inevitably descend on their quiet village.

The ronin’s arrival is followed by a rampaging gang of outlaws. While the samurai follow a code – and look clean and handsome – the robbers are filthy, dressed in rags and lacking any element of civility.

The violence comes fast but there are moments of beauty, as when the young men watch fascinated as a ladybird climbs up a tree, “leading to heaven,” as Tsuzuki puts it.

After the outlaws attack the farm, Ichisuke challenges them, and is beaten badly. But this leads to even worse violence, which is filmed in rapid cutting, blood-spraying action. After Ichisuke is murdered, the younger samurai vows to avenge his death, even as the older samurai advises against it. The sister howls in despair to match the pounding soundtrack, and the killing of the title begins. I said that the story was Shakespearean, which is not overstating things. But the film’s revenge element made me remember the Clint Eastwood classic “Unforgiven.”

Killing is showing as part of the Gala presentation.