Saturday, November 30, 2013

2013 Sister Cities Cinema: Zurich/SF

The second series in the San Francisco Film Society's Fall Season was the inaugural 2013 Sister Cities Cinema: Zurich/SF from October 18 to 20 at the Viz.  I didn't know this but San Francisco and Zurich, Switzerland are sister cities.  SF has 17 other sister city relationships including Paris, Barcelona, Sydney, Seoul, Taipei and Shanghai.  You could build six month's worth of programming by extending the Sister Cities Cinema principle to all the other cities which qualify.

Several of the films on the program were double features but I only saw one double bill.  BART was on strike that weekend so getting around was difficult.  In total, I saw four films:

The Fall starring Walo Lüönd; directed by Kurt Früh; Swiss German with subtitles; (1972)
Fraulein starring Mirjana Karanovic, Marija Skaricic & Ljubica Jovic; directed by Andrea Štaka; Swiss German, German, Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian with subtitles; (2006)
Medicine for Melancholy starring Wyatt Cenac & Tracey Heggins; directed by Barry Jenkins; (2008)
The Swissmakers starring Walo Lüönd & Emil Steinberger; directed by Rolf Lyssy; German and Swiss German with subtitles; (1978)

Fraulein and Medicine for Melancholy were paired together.  Director Barry Jenkins introduced Medicine for Melancholy but could not stick around for Q&A afterwards because he had to catch the last ferry back to Oakland.

I always thought there were three official languages of Switzerland - German, Italian and French.  In fact, there is a fourth: Romansh which is spoken by a small number of Swiss.  Although Swiss Standard German is one of the official language, many people speak Swiss German.  The term High German refers to the language family of which Swiss German belongs.


The Fall (paired with Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation) was the opening night film.  Rarely screened in the US, the film drew a large audience.  Marija Skaricic is Ana, a 20something woman (she may have been Croatian).  She grew up during the war and she left because there are no jobs.

Walo Lüönd portrays Alfons Grendelmann, a world weary private detective.  A former cop who was forced out of his job, he is now reduced to handling divorce and underage sex cases.  Sexually frustrated, Grendelmann overlooks the age-appropriate secretary (office neighbor?) who shows signs of interest in him.  Instead Grendelmann becomes increasingly fixated on Katrin Buschor who plays a young woman (I believe she was a minor) involved in a sexual relationship with a wealthy businessman.

The Fall reminded me of other 1970s noir films such The Long Goodbye (1973) or Gumshoe (1971).  The close-to-the-vest protagonists give little indication of the building emotions within them.  The finales of these films had less to do with flashy thespian emoting but is a natural outcome of the accumulated events which preceded it.  In the case of The Fall, Grendelmann is seduced by the youth and beauty of Marsha (Buschor).  He decides to double cross his client.  He tells his client that the girl won't go away unless he pays up.  He combines the client's hush money with his own life savings and plans to starts a new life with Marsha.  Despite the clues, Marsha is planning her own double cross.  Some friends beat up Grendelmann and take all the money while she looks on.

The Fall was textbook noir although he didn't commit murder.  Grendelmann is a little guy who gets knocked down by life.  Clinging to his professional in a sad sack sort of way, when Grendelmann risks it all for a girl, he gets knocked down again.  The man can't catch a break so he gets up, dusts himself off and continues on as the movie closes.

The film was a little predictable but Lüönd's performance and the unusual setting of Zurich in the 1970s added to my enjoyment of the film.


Fraulein tells the story of three generations of immigrant women from the former Yugolsavia.  Mirjana Karanovic is a Ruza, a 40something Serbian who left her home country many years ago to escape the war.  Ljubica Jovic is Mila, a 60something Croatian, who probably left Yugoslavia to escape Communist rule.  Marija Skaricic is Ana, a 20something woman (she may have been Bosnia) who grew during the war and left because there were no jobs and the country is in ruins.

Ruza owns a cafeteria and Mila is a longtime employee.  Ana is suffering a disease (leukemia?) but is wandering Europe and shows up in Zurich.  She lands a job at the cafeteria and her free-spirited ways awaken long dormant feelings in Ruza & Mila.  Ruza has spent so much time in Zurich and so much energy in making her cafeteria a success, she has shut off most of her emotions.  An attractive woman, Ruza lives a celibate life.  She ignores her Serbian heritage to avoid any anti-immigrant sentiment but also to not have to discuss  her painful past which involves losing close friends to the war.  Ana grew up during the war and although she lost friends, she is more comfortable with her past because she can't remember a time before the war.

After some initial disagreements, the two women bond despite the differences in their age and outlook.  Ana's exuberant behavior stirs something inside Ruza; perhaps reminding her of her own youth.  Mila has been longing to retire in Croatia as she and her husband have been building a house there for many years.

Unsentimentally, Fraulein captures the joys and hardships of life as experienced by these three women.  It also touches on the immigrant experience in Switzerland which The Swissmakers would also explore.


Medicine for Melancholy was the only film of the four I saw which was set in San Francisco.  Fraulein explored the immigrant experience of the three women in Zurich; Medicine explored what it's like to be African American in San Francisco.  I suspect the film is partially autobiographical since director/screenwriter Barry Jenkins mentioned he now lives in Oakland since he can't afford his old Mission District apartment (what about rent control?).

The differences between these two films encapsulates the differences between the genders and European vs. American attitudes and behaviors.  Wyatt Cernac is Micah, an African American man.  As the film opens, Micah wakes up Sunday morning next to Jo (Tracey Heggins), an African American woman.  As the film progresses, I realized that it unlikely Micah would have a one-night stand with anyone other than a African American woman.

After some awkwardness, they leave the house where the party was the night before and have breakfast.  Micah is interested in Jo but she doesn't seem to reciprocate.  They share a taxi back to her place.  Actually, at that point she was using a fake name and the taxi dropped her off in her neighborhood but not directly in front of her house.  Micah finds her wallet in the backseat and tracks her down.

She lives in a nice house in the Marina and her boyfriend is out of town.  I don't recall her confirming this salient fact but Micah assumes her boyfriend is white...and this plays into his stereotypes.  I don't recall the stereotype of the white guy/black woman couple but regardless, Jo does not deny or correct his assumption about the ethnicity of her boyfriend.  Her silence could be interpreted as confirmation or she just holding back the details to see how the race obsessed behaves.

Intrigued by Micah, Jo agrees to spend the rest of the day with him.  This includes a trip to the Museum of African Diaspora, cooking dinner together and a trip to a dance club.  As the day progresses, Micah continuously pontificates on being a black man, the gentrification of SF, the demographics of SF, societal stereotypes of black people, etc.  In short, Micah is the sort of putz I encounter all too often in SF.  Granted, I don't encounter black guys like Micah because as he notes, African Americans only make up 7% of the City's population but people who feel the need to enlighten me about whatever social/economic/political issues they are passionate about are still alive and well in the gentrified City.

Medicine for Melancholy wears its politics too plainly to be an interesting film for me.  Cernac & Heggins play their roles effortlessly although I couldn't understand why Jo would waste an entire Sunday on Micah.  At one point, we are treated to townhall style discussion group about San Francisco housing policy which foreshadowed Jenkins own departure from the City he loves so much.

Micah's dismissive attitude towards miscegenation when it comes to black women all but assures that the couple won't have a happy ending.  Indeed, the final scene is the audience watching Jo bike away from Micah apartment on Monday morning, presumably to return to her difficult life in the Marina with her wealthy white boyfriend.  About halfway into the film, Jenkins finds it difficult to resolve this romance.  He telegraphs the ending so the last half of the film feels like filler material.  We're just waiting for this night (and the film) to end and wondering how the two characters will part.  It turns out to be more of a whimper than a bang.

Jenkins won the San Francisco Film Critics Circle Marlon Riggs Award for Courage & Vision in the Bay Area Film Community in 2009 for his work on this film.  Medicine for Melancholy screened at the South By Southwest, San Francisco International and Toronto International Film Festivals in 2008.  This film was well received at the time it was made but to me it seems oddly incomplete five years later.  I wish I would have watched Medicine for Melancholy in 2008 so I could have a comparison point now.  Actually, I can barely remember 2008 so I don't know if I could remember this film had I seen it that year.


The Swissmakers needs a little historical context.  Switzerland had a liberal immigration policy in the 1950s and 60s but as increasing numbers of immigrants flocked there, stricter immigration laws were passed.  The Swissmakers satirizes this by creating a fictitious agency charged with evaluating immigrants based on their ability to assimilate into Swiss society.

Max Bodner (Walo Lüönd) is an experienced immigration officer.  His trainee is Moritz Fischer (Emil Steinberger).  Taking his job seriously, Bodner shows his partner the ropes as we watch the pair interact with immigrants of all nationalities.  A comedy, The Swissmakers allows the filmmakers room to poke fun at immigrant stereotypes and the absurdities of Swiss bureaucracy and immigration policy.

The 1978 film was one of the most popular Swiss films of all time.  I think much of the humor in The Swissmakers was lost on an American audience in 2013.  Although it had its moments, I was mild about The Swissmakers.

Friday, November 29, 2013

2013 Hong Kong Cinema

The San Francisco Film Society kicked off their Fall Season with the 2013 Hong Kong Cinema series.  There would be five additional series in their Fall Season focusing on films from Taiwan, Zurich, France, Italy and the Bay Area.  All told, I would see 32 films between the six series.

The HK series ran from October 4 to 6 at the Vogue Theater.

I saw six films in the series:

Bends starring Carina Lau & Chen Kun; directed by Flora Lau; Cantonese and Mandarin with subtitles; (2013)
Blind Detective starring Andy Lau & Sammi Cheng; directed by Johnnie To; Cantonese with subtitles; (2013)
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin starring Gordon Liu; directed by Liu Chia-liang; Cantonese and Mandarin with subtitles; (1977)
The Last Tycoon starring Chow Yun-fat, Monica Mok & Sammo Hung; directed by Wong Jing; Mandarin with subtitles; (2012)
The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter starring Gordon Liu; directed by Liu Chia-liang; Mandarin with subtitles; (1984)
Conspirators starring Aaron Kwok & Nick Cheung; directed by Oxide Pang; Cantonese and Mandarin with subtitles; (2013)


The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter were screened in tribute to Liu Chia-liang who died earlier this year.  Actor, stuntman, screenwriter, director, fight choreographer, Liu was a HK/Shaw Brothers/kung fu film legend.  Both films starred Gordon Liu (Kill Bill) and I couldn't help but wonder if that was also a tribute to him.  Acquainted but unrelated to Liu Chia-liang, Gordon Liu (real name Liu Chia-Hui) had a stroke last year and has been partially paralyzed since then.

I've been trying to see and appreciate more martial arts films lately.  The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter are acknowledged classics in the genre.  I didn't really get into either film.  Of the two, I preferred The 36th Chamber of Shaolin which focused on a young man (Gordon Liu) who hides from an invading army at a Shaolin monastery.  Initially wanting to learn enough kung fu to take revenge against the men who killed his teacher, Liu is forced (sometimes unwittingly) to train just like the other monks.  He shows a natural talent for kung fu, eventually inventing the titular 36th chamber (each chamber corresponds to a level of instruction).

The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter involves the two surviving sons (7 to start) of a honorable general.  The general was the victim of royal court intrigue and accused treason.  He and five of his sons were killed while resisting efforts to arrest them.  I think Liu is #6 son.  #5 son survives but has gone mad a result.  Liu is on the lam and again he take refuge in a Shaolin Temple.  This time, he cannot have a sword in the temple so he practices with a pole (hence the title).  The most memorable fight scene involves wooden wolves.

Two months after seeing the films, I am conflating the events of the films because of their similar plotlines.


Blind Detective looked like a big budget film.  Starring Andy Lau (one of the biggest HK movie stars) and directed by Johnnie To (one of the biggest HK movie directors), the plot to Blind Detective was reminiscent of the plot to Mad Detective (co-directed by To).

Lau plays Johnston, the eponymous, visually handicapped private detective.  He makes his living by solving crimes and claiming the reward money.  His "frenemy" is Szeto (Guo Tao), his former police partner before he was blinded.  Aware of his sleuthing prowess, Szeto follows Johnston around and swoops in at the last minute to "solve" the case and save the police department money by not having to pay Johnston.

Sammi Cheng is Ho, a detective on Szeto's detail who is mightily impressed by Johnston's detective skills.  She takes a leave of absences and hires Johnston to find a classmate who disappeared when she was in grade school.  Johnston seems more interested in milking Ho (who is independently wealthy) for as much food and money as he can.

Blind Detective is a romantic comedy with a lot of slapstick added for good measure.  Lau and Cheng have made several popular films together including Love on a Diet.  Ho is shrill and irritating.  Cheng seems to be yelling all the time.  I quickly lost any sympathy for Johnston.  Since it is Lau and Cheng, there is some chemistry between Johnston & Ho but I lost all interest between the 130 minute film ended.

Similarly The Last Tycoon looked like a pretty big budget film.  Chow plays Cheng Daqi, a Shanghai gangster from the 1920s and 1930s.  We watch his rise and fall played out against the backdrop of Imperial Japanese aggression in China.  Sammo Hung plays Cheng's gangster mentor.  There is a love triangle between Cheng and a singer and childhood sweetheart who is now married to a prominent anti-Japanese political figure.  I saw homage to Casablanca and some too-much-by-a-half CGI effects of the bombing of Shanghai.

The Last Tycoon had some interesting scenes and scenery but it lost my interest well before it ended.


That leaves my two favorite films of the Hong Kong series.

Bends was the opening night film of HK series and also screened at the 2013 Mill Valley Film Festival.  Carina Lau plays Anna, the wife of a wealthy HK businessman.  Chen Kun is Fai, her chauffeur.  They both have problems although they go to lengths to avoid discussing them directly with each other.  Anna's husband is missing, she can't get in contact with him, his business offices are abandoned and her credit cards have been cancelled.  Fai is a HK citizen but he, his wife and their daughter live across the border in Shenzhen (mainland China).  That's because his wife doesn't have a HK passport.  To add to his troubles, she is pregnant with their second child and they don't want to pay the fine.  He is trying to get false paper so she can deliver the child in HK.

The film focuses on these two increasingly desperate people as they struggle to maintain their lifestyles.  Fai is dependent on Anna.  Early on in the film, he asks for an advance on his salary so he can grease the skids to get his wife over.  Anna struggles to maintain the appearance that everything is alright as she sells her belongings.  Fai is not innocent either as he takes Anna's luxury sedan to a chopshop and swaps out the expensive ABS brakes with a cheaper model.  Although ambiguous, Anna's home is broken into and Fai or the departed Filipina maid are the main suspects.

Sparse in dialogue, we see the desperation in both actor's facial expressions and behaviors.  There is a surprise ending which puts a fine point of the issues of class divide which pervade the film.  Bends is a quiet and contemplative film which can be interpreted as a critique of modern day China or taken at face value as a film about two lives which are upended.

Bends has an enviable pedigree.  Noted cinematographer Christopher Doyle (In the Mood for Love and just about every other Kaw Wai Wong film) was the director of photography for Bends.  Carina Lau (no relation to director Flora Lau) is the wife and long-time girlfriend of Tony Leung Chiu Wai who has appeared in several Kar Wai Wong films.

Conspirators is anything but quiet and contemplative.  It's a taut action thriller.  Malaysian born, ethnic Chinese Chan Tam (Aaron Kwok) returns to Malaysia to find out who killed his parents 30 years ago.  Tam is a private detective in China but he needs a local contact so he hires local PI Zheng (Nick Cheung).  Zheng has his own issues - his brother is in prison, he is trying to get him out, he is a little shady and has strained relations with the local cops and gangsters.

I didn't find this out until after watching the film but Conspirators is the third and final film in a trilogy directed by Oxide Pang and starring Aaron Kwok as Tam.  The first two films, The Detective (2007) and The Detective 2 (2011) set up some of Tam's backstory which involves his parents' dealing with smugglers or drug dealers.  Conspirators works as a stand alone film although Tam's motivations may had more resonance if I knew more of his history.

Conspirators is an entertaining and well made action thriller with appealing lead actors.  I've become something of a Nick Cheung fan since seeing him in The Beaststalker a few years ago.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Dallas Buyers Club and My Return to the Landmark Embarcadero Center Cinemas

The remodeled Landmark Embarcadero Center Cinemas reopened on November 1.  I've been curious to see what it looks like but on two separate occasions, I have stopped by the theater but the showtimes did not suit my schedule.

Yesterday, my employer unofficially released the employees early but I stayed at work to help out on a last minute problem.  Anyway, I finally left the office a little after 5 PM and decided to see what was showing at the Embarcadero.  I arrived a few minutes after Dallas Buyers Club started.  Mildly interested in the film, I would have preferred to have seen 12 Years a Slave or Nebraska but I wanted to be out by 7:30 PM.

Taking a page from the Sundance Kabuki Cinema, the Embarcadero has implemented a reserved seating policy.  An usher escorted me to my selected seat although I immediately noticed two people were not sitting in their assigned seats.

As you enter the theater, there are self-serve kiosks where you can buy tickets and selects seats.  I had a Gold Book.  I wasn't sure if these discounted tickets would still be honored so I went to the box office which is adjacent to the concession stand.  I saw my 5:15 screening was priced at the matinee rate - $10.50.  General admission is $12.50.  They accepted my Gold Book ticket without any surcharge.  I forgot to ask if they would have been accepted it for a general admission screening.  You have to buy the tickets at box office in order to redeem the Gold Book tickets.

The Embarcadero has expanded from five to seven screens.  I believe the total seating capacity decreased but they subdivided some of the auditoriums for more screens.  As I recall, as you entered the theater, there were two screens to the left (near the men's restroom) and three screens to the right (near the women's restroom).  Now there are three screens to the left and four screens to the right.  The auditorium I was in has not been modified in terms of square footage.  The seats were new ("leather style!")  and there was more leg room.  Otherwise, there wasn't much that looked new in the auditorium.

The snack bar had a few new items.  I think I saw egg rolls on the menu.  The men's room does not appear to have been changed.  The sinks and countertops may be new but I recognized the floor tiles and urinals.

The big change is the bar and lounge.  Opposite the snack bar, where they used to have Coming Attractions posters, they now have a traditional bar that can seat 10 or so.  Around the corner, where the box office used to be, they have a lounge that can seat a dozen or so.  I didn't have time to eat so I didn't look at the menu.  I notice their on-line menu doesn't have prices.  At 7:15 PM on the night before Thanksgiving, there was one lady sitting at the bar and a half dozen young people eating in the lounge.  The lounge and snack bar have different menus.


Dallas Buyers Club starring Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner & Jared Leto; directed by Jean-Marc Vallée; (2013) - Official Website

I grew up in Texas in the 1980s.  Dallas Buyers Club is set in The Big D during the 1980s.  As a high schooler, I thought living in Dallas would be a great life.  However, fate provided me with a job in the Bay Area where I have stayed for 20+ years.

DBC brought back a lot of memories from high school.  AIDS received a lot of press back then and it was perceived as a gay man's disease.  If you had AIDS, you must be gay.  There was a casual homophobia present in society at the time.   Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof embodies these attitudes.  He's an electrician and rodeo cowboy.  We are introduced to Woodroof as he engages in a threesome (FFM) in a bullpen at a rodeo.  Looking emaciated, Woodroof appears to be hooked on black tar heroin.  It is incomprehensible that anyone would engage in unprotected sex with a man who looks as ill as Woodroof but the 1980s were a different time.  The thought of heterosexual spread of HIV was not on many people's radar screen until Magic Johnson announced he had contracted HIV in 1991.  Even then rumors circulated about how he "really" contracted HIV.

It's clear Woodroof is ill but a workplace accident sends him to the hospital where he is informed by Drs. Sevard (Dennis O'Hare) and Saks (Jennifer Garner) that T-cell counts is extremely, he has test positive for HIV and has approximately 30 days to live.  Sevard and Saks wear face mask when they deliver the news because they don't know if the virus is airborne.  They also inform Woodroof that here are no FDA approved treatments so the best they can do is provide him with some brochures about support groups.

Woodroof is initially enraged as he interprets an HIV diagnosis as an accusation of homosexuality.  After sharing the diagnosis (by scoffing at the possibility) with a co-worker, he quickly becomes the object of harassment from friends and co-workers.  Woodroof does something you wouldn't expect of a homophobic redneck.  He begins to research the disease.  Contemplating the likelihood he contracted the disease as a result of frequent unprotected sex with multiple partners (not to mention heavy drug use), Woodroof decides to confront the disease in his inimitable fashion.  Opinionated, outspoken, a hustler and rulebreaker, Woodroof first bribes a hospital janitor to steal AZT for him.  Later, he takes treatment down in Mexico.

After an impressive recovery, he decides to smuggle non-FDA approved proteins and vitamins into the US from Mexico (masquerading as a Catholic priest).  Although he is a fervent proselytizer of his treatment and the deleterious effects of AZT, he true motivation seems to be to make some money selling his drugs to HIV sufferers.

During one of his relapses, Woodroof meets Rayon (Jared Leto), a gay, HIV positive, transvestite who happens to be a high school classmate of Dr. Saks.  Giving full voice to his homophobia, Woodroof is later dismayed when he see no choice but to cut Rayon in on his drug smuggling operation.  Most of the people who would buy the drugs are gay men and Woodroof's homophobia queers the deal too often.

Most of the film resides in this period.  Woodroof reads about club structure to make his drug dealing legal.  He establishes the Dallas Buyers Club which has a $400 per month membership fees.  For that amount, members can have as many non-FDA drugs as they want.  By not selling the drugs, he is not breaking any laws.  Woodroof is making money hand-over-fist and responding well to the treatment he selling to the members.  He is even forming a friendship with Rayon whose drug usage is negatively affecting his health.

Woodroof has made powerful enemies.  Sevard and an FDA agent are presented as being financial influenced by the pharmaceutical company which markets AZT.  They use their influence to harass Woodruff and stop the treatment he is providing.

By this juncture, Woodroof is a changed man but doesn't know it.  Nearly celibate (unless he encounters an HIV positive woman), moved by the plight of Rayon and fighting for his own life, Woodroof continues to push the legal and financial limits imposed upon him.

When you boil it down, DBC is about one man's life journey.  You start off disliking Woodroof; maybe pitying him.  As he is transformed by the prospect of his mortality and society's attitudes and actions towards him, he becomes an infinitely more admirable man.  Fortunately, the film doesn't dwell on Woodroof's suffering because I don't think McConaughey could have pulled it off.  Instead, Woodroof maintains his good ole boy charm and make-a-buck mentality which plays to McConaughey's strengths as an actor.

McConaughey's physical transformation is startling (as is Leto's).  Their gaunt and sickly appearance make their performances more believable.  Ostensibly a tragedy and/or redemption tale, I was oddly detached from the plight of the characters in DBC.  I'm not sure why.  I was impressed by McConaughey and Leto's performances.

Ron Woodroof was a real person and he lived 2000 days beyond his original 30 day prognosis.

Sunday, November 24, 2013


On Thursday, I stopped by the 4 Star to see Sake-Bomb.  This was an odd choice because Fassbinder's Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? was playing at the YBCA and I was inclined to see it.  However, my work schedule was odd that day so it was more convenient for me to get to the 4 Star rather than the YBCA which is the opposite on most workdays.

Sake-Bomb starring Eugene Kim & Gaku Hamada; directed by Junya Sakino; English & Japanese with subtitles; (2013) - Official Website

I thought I saw the prolific Japanese actor Denden's name in the opening credits but I don't recall seeing him in the film nor is he listed on the IMDB page

Sake-Bomb premiered at this year's SXSW Film Festival which is impressive. The actual film was a little less impressive.

Naoto (Gaku Hamada) is a Japanese sake maker.  The head of his company appoints him as the next chief sake maker and gives him some advice.  Take a week or so and do something you've always wanted to do because he won't have the time or freedom to do so once he is in charge.  Naoto decides to go to the US to find his lost love.  Naoto took English language lesson from Olivia (Jenn Liu) and they had an intense physical relationship.  One day, she disappeared without a word and Naoto is left to wonder what has happened.

Naoto arrives in LA to stay with his uncle and cousin Sebastian (Eugene Kim).  Sebastian is a slacker type who runs a vlog called FOB Motherfucker.  For those not familiar with the term, FOB stands for Fresh Off the Boat.  FOB MF is like Angry Asian Man crossed with Nat X.  If you knew those two references with having to look them up, we should hang out sometime.  For the other 99%, Sebastian posts videos off himself railing against racial stereotypes he encounters as an Asian American man.  Some have merit, a few have humor but mostly they show Sebastian to be preoccupied with race to the detriment of himself.  In one memorable scene, he drives away his girlfriend by watching a faux vintage porn film featuring Dat Phan as a fictitious Asian porn actor and white porn star (former California gubernatorial candidate and real porn star Mary Carey).  Arguable, Phan and Carey's brief porn-film-within-a-film scene is funniest part of Sake-Bomb.

Back to Naoto.  He and a reluctant Sebastian set out for Petaluma where Olivia lives.  Along the way, they meet up with a sexually liberated author, some cosplayers who revere Naoto for being Japanese, a racist cop and an equally rednect bar patron.  Petaluma doesn't come off too well in Sake-Bomb which makes its inclusion in the recent Petaluma International Film Festival more surprising.

Naoto is quite naive which is explained away by his coming from a small town.  Sebastian is quite a jerk which psuedo-explained by some vague inferiority complex rooted in his Asian identity or self-perception thereof.  Regardless, it's hard to relate to the insufferable Sebastian and Naoto's quixotic quest for a woman whom he has attempted to contact is also hard to root for.  Indeed, the film ends without much resolution.  Olivia is married; always was so Naoto unwittingly cuckolded Olivia's Caucasian husband which is most certainly a commentary on the race relations Sebastian's constantly complains about.  Naoto is too nice of a guy to expose Olivia's infidelity to her husband.  After an 8 month absence which roughly coincides with the appearance of  Olivia's pregnancy, the issue of paternity of Olivia's baby is also sidestepped. 

Sebastian fares even worse.  When given the opportunity to have sex with the author (a white woman nonetheless!), Sebastian demurs.  He is still remaining true to his Asian ex-girlfriend who dumped him and made clear she wants no part of him.  Although a friendship has developed between the cousins, their lives certainly seem worse than when they embarked on their road trip. 

I laughed out loud a few times during the film.  Eugene Kim as Sebastian wasn't quite able to pull off the scenes requiring intense frustration and anger.  Essentially an ass, the future path for Sebastian doesn't look to rosy.  Naoto was more adeptly played by Gaku Hamada although he didn't have to show the range of emotions required by Kim.  Far from a great film, Sake-Bomb has an unmistable Asian indie vibe which I have picked up on over the past year or two.  Asian American filmmakers are making films dealing with Asian American issues.  Interestingly, the most pronounced moral of Sake-Bomb was that Sebastian would be a better person if he stopped thinking about himself as Asian American and looking for perceived acts of racism.  Sake-Bomb would have been a better film if it had scaled back some of stated Asian American stereotypes it was trying to disprove and satirize.  However, that kind of defeats the purpose of the film.  We had to burn down the village in order to save it.

BTW, Kim delivers a nice Bruce Lee impersonation towards the end.  He riffs on Lee's famous "Be Like Water" speech.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Five Fingers of Death

In October, I returned to the New Parkway to see another kung fu film.  Readers of this blog may recall that the New Parkway Theater in conjunction with Soja Martial Arts, screens kung fu movies each month.  Actually, they announced a monthly schedule.  The films will screen as a matinee on the second Saturday of each month.  As soon as they announced that, they also announced November was an exception.  There will be no kung fu movie screening November.  If they stick to their statements, the next screening will be December 14.

The martial arts film I saw in October was Five Fingers of Death (also known as King Boxer).

Five Fingers of Death starring Lo Lieh; directed by Chang-hwa Chung; Mandarin with subtitles; (1972)

I saw this film over a month ago.  Frankly, it didn't make much of an impression on me.  I remember it used the theme from the television show Ironside (the original not the recently cancelled remake) which is a well known Quincy Jones composition.  The music is very iconic; I doubt they had the rights.  The titular 5 fingers of death or Iron Fist is a blow that causes imminent death.  Whenever the practitioner prepares to deliver the blow, his hand glows red and the theme to Ironside plays. The punch and theme music were repackaged as the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique in Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 2.

I can't remember half the plot to Five Fingers of Death.  A kung fu student is sent by his master to learn under another master because he is getting too old to properly train the student.  When the student becomes his new master's #1 pupil, a jealous rival student conspires with Japanese assassins to kill the student.  There is some martial arts tournament (there's always a tournament) where the new master kills the old master.  The student realizes has been duped by his new master all along and vows revenge.

The picture quality of the DVD they screened in October was much better than the one they screened in September.  As measured by the number of times I dozed off, I also enjoyed Five Fingers of Death more than The Master of the Flying Guillotine.  Interestingly, I recall portions of Five Fingers of Death and The Master of the Flying Guillotine which means I've seen them before but I cannot recall seeing them before.  They showed kung fu films on television when I was a boy.  I must have seen them on TV then.  It's surprising I can recall specific scenes 30+ years after having watched them.

I'm beginning to think I'll never be a kung fu film aficionado but I'll keep trying for the immediate future.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Man Who Wasn’t There: Wendell Corey, Actor

In September and early October, the PFA had a program featuring Wendell Corey films.  Wendell Corey is not an actor whose name is instantly recognizable but I remember him from some great films.  My favorite Wendell Corey film is Hell's Half Acre which played at the 2009 Noir City.  That film was on the PFA program as well as a few other Corey films I have seen and enjoyed before:  Harriet CraigThe Rainmaker and Sorry, Wrong Number.

I saw two films in the series.  I regret missing Robert Aldrich's The Big Knife (1956).

My Man and I starring Shelley Winters & Ricardo Montalbán; with Wendell Corey & Claire Trevor; directed by William Wellman; (1952)
The Killer Is Loose starring Wendell Corey, Joseph Cotten & Rhonda Fleming; directed by Budd Boetticher; (1956)

In My Man and I, Ricardo Montalbán plays Chu Chu Ramirez, a hard-working Mexican immigrant in the Central Valley.  I grew up in Texas, along the Mexican border, and I never heard of guy named Chu Chu (pronounced choo-choo).  I have met men named Chuy (pronounced chewy) and of course, there is a famous Mexican golfer named Chi Chi Rodriguez, and legendary revolutionary Che Guevera but never a Chu much less Chu Chu.

Chu Chu Ramirez is a role which must have tested Montalbán's patience.  Chu Chu works is a migrant farm worker but during the off season, he looks for work.  Chu Chu thinks the United States is the greatest place on earth.  How a Mexican farm worker in 1952 California can remain an optimist is beyond me.  Fortunately for us (unfortunately for Chu Chu), he will be severely disabused of his ideals before the film is finished.

Chu Chu finds a job clearing a plot of land belonging to ne'er-do-well farmer Ansel Ames (Wendell Corey).  Shiftless, lazy, dishonest and frequently drunk, Ames is trouble from the start.  His sexually frustrated wife (Claire Trevor in a memorable performance) sees Chu Chu without his shirt on and makes advances on him.  Ever the gentlemen, Chu Chu politely declines her amorous attention.

Ames pays Chu Chu with an overdrawn check.  Despite a court order to pay, Ames continually stalls Chu Chu on his back wages.  When Ames accidentally shoots himself, he conspires with his wife to frame Chu Chu who is eventually convicted of attempted murder and sent to prison.  His Mexican friends (including Jack Elam!) camp out on the road outside Ames house and guilt trip him into admitting his false testimony.  Chu Chu's conviction is vacated and he emerges from prison even more resolute in his belief in truth, justice and the American way.

Shelley Winters as Chu Chu's suicidal, alcoholic love interest.  In addition to trying to better himself, make some money, fend off passes from married women, defend himself against false felony accusations, Chu Chu still has time to rescue boozy bargirls!

The plot is damn silly.  It was probably ridiculous in 1952 but certainly in 2013, My Man and I is like watching theater of the absurd.  Chu Chu is not just the ideal Mexican immigrant but the ideal man who could teach Jesus Christ a thing or two.  Somehow, despite the ridiculousness of the story, Montalbán keeps the film watchable.  He is like the sun with all these terribly flawed people orbiting around him.  Corey & Trevor stand out as the dysfunctional Ames; Winters not so much in role which seems superfluous.  Robert Burton, as a sympathetic sheriff, has a strong performance.

Corey is the eponymous criminal in The Killer Is Loose.  Corey is Leon "Foggy" Poole, the inside man on a bank robbery.  After he is discovered, the police led by Det. Sam Wagner (Joseph Cotten) violate one of the cardinal rules of gun safety.  They fire their weapons through a door without knowing who is on the other side.  They assume Foggy is alone in his apartment but in fact, Mrs. Poole is there and is struck and killed by the police gunfire.  It's telling how easily and nonchalantly the police shift the blame to Foggy.  He should have surrendered when he had the chance.  Neither Wagner or the other officer involved in the shooting (Alan Hale Jr.) seem to shook up over the woman's death.  If they are not too shook up, Foggy definitely is.  Promising to kill Wagner wife (Rhonda Fleming) to avenge his wife's death, Foggy is led out of the courtroom.

Playing the model prisoner, Foggy bides his time until his opportunity arises.  Killing a guard, he escapes a work farm and heads back to LA to kill Fleming.

Corey is front and center in The Killer Is Loose as in the killer has a screw loose.  With coke bottle eyeglasses and a flat monotone speech delivery, Corey is plenty creepy as the killer.  Seemingly bullied while in the Army, he exhibits many of the characteristics we presently associate with mass murderers.

My Man and I and The Killer Is Loose were above average B films.  I enjoyed both of them.

Monday, November 4, 2013

How Many Ip Man Films Does It Take?

The title was fashioned after a popular commercial of my childhood which asked the rhetorical questions phrased as a literal one, "How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?"  How many Ip Man biopics does it take to saturate the market?

By my count, I have seen have seen three films based on Ip Man's life in the past few years.  I added two to that total in September alone.  I saw both films at the 4 Star.

The Grandmaster starring Tony Leung Chiu-Wai & Zhang Ziyi; directed by Kar Wai Wong, Mandarin, Cantonese & Japanese with subtitles; (2013) - Official Website
Ip Man: The Final Fight starring Anthony Wong; directed by Herman Yau; Cantonese with subtitles; (2013) - Official Website

The Grandmaster was supposed to be a different kind of kung fu film.  Directed by Kar Wai Wong who is known for unhurried explorations of forbidden longing.  Tony Leung plays Ip Man in The Grandmaster.  His impossible love is Zhang Ziyi who plays the daughter of a kung fu rival.  After an impromptu match between the two (which Ip Man "loses"), it seems a romance is likely but WWII gets in the way.  Gong (Zhang) in the north is separated by the Japanese Army from Man in the south of of China.  We watch Gong confront her late father's protege over his collaboration with the Japanese.  The most memorable scene involves a duel between Gong and Ma San (Zhang Jin), in the snow, on a train platform, while a train speeds past the platform.  Suffering grievous injuries during the fight, Gong is unable to fight with Man in Hong Kong when the meet after the war.

Covering some ground I've seen before (particularly evocative of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Leung and Zhang's interplay mixes martial arts and romantic attraction.  Their skills and philosophies during the fight reveal their strength of character and only serves to intensify their appeal to each other.

The Grandmaster was edited down by 15 minutes from the international film festival version which probably detracted from the experience.  Frankly, writing nearly two months after seeing it, I remember the fight sequences more than the interaction between Leung and Zhang.  Both Leung and Zhang are movie stars of the highest order.  By that I mean, they have screen presence galore.  You can't take your eyes off them when they are on screen.

Ip Man: The Final Fight focuses on his later life in Hong Kong when age and money troubles are taking their toll on him.  Trying to maintain his dignity, Ip Man struggles with separation from his wife (and eventually widower status) and pecuniary matters such as having to teach kung fu to make a living.

In many ways, I preferred Ip Man: The Final Fight to The Grandmaster.  Ip Man was presented as more flawed in The Final Fight.  His students have their own lives - one is a corrupt cop, another fights in death matches for money, one of his female students resents Ip Man's girlfriend after his wife dies, etc.  Through it all, Ip Man tries to persevere with some measure of his honor intact.

Anthony Wong, whom I associate most with Johnny To films, plays Ip Man with a quiet reserve.   Zhou Chu-Chu as a nightclub singer/heroin addict/Ip Man's girl is memorable.

Both of these films were worthwhile and there is much to admire and enjoy about them.  I wish I had time to write more about them.


The 4 Star is hosting the annual Chinese American Film Festival from November 13 to 20.  Three of the films are being screen free of admission charge on November 12.  A few of the films look interesting.