Sunday, 2 February 2014

Philomena (2013) - In search for a closure


At the heart of Stephen Frears' "Philomena", despite all the references to a human interest story, it was really about forgiveness, redemption, and more importantly, a closure that perhaps each one of us are hoping to find at the end, rather than searching for revenge. Inspired by a true event, Philomena started as a road trip story between with the odd couple between an elderly Irish lady, Philomena Lee and a cynical ex-govt. spin doctor, Martin Sixsmith. The journey they took together in search for the missing son of Philomena, however, has a lasting impact on both of them.

The story began with Sixsmith's (Steve Coogan) sacking from his job as a govt. spin doctor and ever wonder about what would be his next move (apart from writing "boring" Russian history book), it was also the time when he came across with Philomena's daughter Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin) who just discovered that her mother had a secret for 50 yrs. In spite of his own prejudice over "human interest story" in which he branded for weak minded people, he nonetheless accept this work as a journalist from his editor. After meeting with Philomena, Sixsmith began his journey with her, first to visit the convent in which Philomena spent 4 years during her teenage years for having a pre-martial pregnancy. Her son, Anthony Lee, was taken away from her at a very young age. While Sixsmith was very much willing to help Philomena to find his son whereabout, his ignorance of this seemingly naive old lady(who is a lifetime reader's digest and romantic novel follower, as Sixsmith describe to his wife on the phone) soon changed as he has began just how she was, in fact, an open-minded, intelligent and in many occasions, a very brave and compassionate woman. Judi Dench has given yet another compelling performance as Philomena in which she brought out the character's nativity to her underlying strong character amazingly at ease, as witnessed in the breakfast scene between chatting with the chef in one minute while receiving the bad news of her son the next. She also gave her character the internal struggle between obeying the catholic faith, if not blindly during her young days, and somewhat a very liberal mind as evidence by her acceptance of her son's sexuality to her own desire towards love and sex itself.  However, it was the great display of compassion that Philomena did toward herself against her own demon of guilt and against the convent as well as the Sisters themselves; has been so brilliantly carried out by Dame Dench. Coogan's role as Sixsmith has been exceptionally as a cynical intellectual, who is unusually reserved on his satire comedy and replace it with a more serious, if not more subtle performance.

Coogan's effort of on this balanced script (with Jeff Pope, based on the book by Sixsmith himself) was certainly not to be overlooked as the story could easily turn into a clichéd melodrama or biased attack to the catholic church (although I believe Frears has made his point on the church's responsibility in selling children very clear). Instead, it was almost as if a soul searching journey for both protagonists with countless funny moments (through the well structured and often witty dialogues) as well as moments of heartbreak and reconciliation at the story finale. Indeed, towards the final 10-15min. of the film, audience had joined the characters for a "full circle" journey in with the same fulfilling and courage of facing the truth, which is indeed a very satisfying experience.

Interesting to know that the film has finally got a much deserved impact for the real life Philomena and others:


Thursday, 23 January 2014

HER (2013) - How do we learn to love virtually

In a not so distant future, the technology advancement has allowed human being for once, to directly communicate with a machine through an interface that makes it as easy as if we are talking to one another. We no longer limit ourselves to have a relationship in real world with real person, but also in a virtual world with a machine disguised as virtual person. The exploration of such obscure relationship has been  the center of Spike Jones’s HER.  This funny and yet well-thought story looks at Theodore Twombly (by Joaquin Phoenix), who has a routine job of helping others to write comforting letter to their love ones. At the same time, he is also facing his own misery in dealing with a divorce with his wife, Catherine (by Rooney Mara). Just like many lonely singles in the modern society, Theodore spent most of his free time “between internet porn and video game” in order to keep his mind away from his sinking relationship. However, he soon found a new artificial intelligence operating system, which called herself as Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) and started to communicate with her instead. At first, it was as a good friend/assistant (much like what Siri does for the Apple iOS) but before Theodore knows, he starts to develop a serious relationship with “it”. For Theodore, dating the Samantha felt like a much needed new chapter in his life. Yet, as both Theodore and Samantha struggle to come to terms with the inevitable difference and distances between reality and virtual worlds, the relationship has also taken its turn to for the worse for its eventual failure.

One of the film’s brilliances is obviously the depiction of Phoenix’s character, to which he played out so wonderfully as a kind-hearted man who has  left vulnerable after his failure in marriage and has lived with the fear of any new romantic relationship. His encounter with Samantha was first thought as a breakthrough and the film detailed on so well about what a modern day lonely man needs from a love relationship. The non-existence of the physical form of Samantha actually allows him to move away, or at least blinded him from the pain and misunderstanding caused by a physical person (as proved by the fact when the scapegoat of Samantha appeared in his house, his desire to the relationship with Samantha had retreated). The escapism  also allows Theodore to continue to ‘live’ his love life from his happy memories with Catherine, as well as feeling less guilty to himself, for the fact that he finally becomes the one that stopping himself for lingering onto his old relationship.  Phoenix has once again proved that he is one of the elite actors today with his refrained, complicated yet sensitive performance. It is certainly a worthy follow up, as well as striking contrast of his work from last year Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master”. In fact, it is also the third solitary performances this year, with Sandra Bullock’s Gravity and Robert Redford’s All is Lost, in all of which, the protagonist has to be dealt with no one but him/herself with their lives.

Scarlett Johansson, with her sensual and sexy voice performance as Samantha, has given the “operation system” the liveliness that it needs. This is certainly a fitting homage and a tribute to HAL-9000 in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 (or to a lesser extent, GERTY from Duncan Jones’ “Moon”), only wittier, sensitive and much more advance. The performance was so good that her physical absence was never really noticed.  Jonze also allows Samantha to be as human as possible by giving “her” an evolving consciousness through her Artificial intelligence. Her self-awareness of learning how a human behaves also slowly transforms her relationship with Theodore from an personal and intimate yet non-physical one to one that complicated with multiple lovers at multiple time zone. It therefore posted a question even if human can indeed have a romantic relationship with a virtual person, whether or not a human can also tolerate the infidelity, or has the right feel about jealousy even if he/she is not real.

Perhaps the lack of physical presence of Samantha has also given a chance for the rest of the female characters’ in the film to shine on their own ways. Amy Adam’s role as Theodore’s best friend was a very comfy and kind reminder of what it means by real life and physical friendship, in the world we only get touched with each other via electronic means on the internet. Ronney Mara’s more minor role as Catherine was nonetheless an excellent presence and the only character that is trying to remind Theodore how ridiculous and in-mature for “dating” an OS, which eventually proved very much correct as the inability of Theodore to deal with changes of a person in a relationship regardless of whether she is real or not.

Jonze had created this futuristic world that is very much a believable one. The city skylines (through brilliant use of CG) between LA/Barcelona/Shanghai has been very well mixed in creating one great modern city we have all accustomed to. This helped in removing the kind of alienation that we had with typical sci-fi movie and makes the characters within more related to our current time. Jonze has long be a tour-de-force in terms of creating surreal yet believable spaces since his MV days to Being John Malkovich (the “7 ½ floor” ). In “Her”, such tradition has been carried through with modern building in color-tinted windows, a cross-continent train for a Sunday getaway. However, it was the little gadget that Samantha lived within, had been the gem of the film. Instead of using a modern smart-phone that we are all accustomed to, a cigarette box like device was used here as the connection between Samantha and Theodore, a device that he keeps close to his heart as well as his bedside.  It is as if a symbolic gesture of reminiscing the day where reality has not other shape or form other than itself.

It is rare for a commercial science fiction/romantic comedy  to enable us to examine so many aspects of our modern life and our relationship with technology. The world in “Her” is a future in which we all know we are heading toward. Thus the film has posted questions of both philosophical and psychological nature. How do we define love relationship and whether our desire can solely be satisfied by our own thoughts? Whether or not a human to human’s love is still what we need to make ourselves happy and fulfilled? More importantly, the film also deals with in the time of these advancement of technologies, what would be the effect on human’s relationship with one another, the fear for facing one another; and whether human indeed has what it takes to handle the machine once it start learning its way to feel human emotions and replicates them, as in the case of Samantha towards the end of the film. Are we still feeling just as loss and lonely as we were, before the virtual person becomes our “best” love?

Saturday, 10 August 2013

A fresh breath of air in Hong Kong local cinema

The Way We Dance 狂舞派 (2013)

Director: Adam Wong
Writer: Adam Wong
There is a sense of freshness and energy behind the production of "The Way We Dance" in which we have not seen for so long from recent Hong Kong cinema, as it is being dominated by co-op films between HK/China and often lead by aging stars. This is a film, for once, allow itself to re-define its root and restore its "home court advantage" (as one of the promo slogan suggested).

Right from the very beginning, the film's intention of being a truly local film can be seen clearly. The opening saw Fleur (Cherry Ngan), an recent high school graduate working in an old tofu desert shop under her parents. This kind of old shops had been disappeared right in our eyes as the city redeveloping itself. Yet, Fleur's dream and ambition of being a great dancer has never been dampened. With a rather witty (yet highly dramatized with local comical taste, perhaps a small  tribute to 80's HK film) sequence, Fleur finally got her chance to get into university to fulfill her dream. 

Once into the university, she quickly impressed her idol, Dave (Lockman Yeung) and join the BombA dance team to begin her dancing career. It was all going well and her involvement with the team allows BombA to finally get a chance to challenge the almighty "Roottoppers", which is a famous street dancing group. The story then get slightly twisted in which Fleur began to get into trouble with Rebecca (Janice Fan), a beautiful girl with an ambition of her own. Fleur eventually left BombA and began her bizzare relationship with the young leader of the Taichi club Alan (Babyjohn Choi). It was this relationship which helps Fleur to learn that life is far more than dancing and eventually to put what she learns into her dance move, and helping BombA to re-establish itself to be a worthy challenger in the annual dance competition.

Building on this conventional type of storyline (which is not dis-similar from a star war type of saga; you have fleur being as luke skywalker, Alan is being the obi-wan kenobi while BombA is a really the rebel alliance who is waiting to fight against the dominating rooftoppers, which is your empire force, a much less devilish  villain of course), The story really tells how our hero(ine) deals her disadvantages/disappointment and clear her obstacles while keeping her faith and dream to achieve her own success. A much timely reminder of how once Hong Kong people has this kind of faith and energy to succeed, whether it is from a society/cinema standpoint. The diverse background of the characters, whether it is for each of rooftoppers' members (multicultural with minority group) or tai-chi club members (ex-con/dropouts) is also an accurate portrait of Hong Kong contemporary society (at least before the dominance of Chinese mainlander!). The subplot behind these characters, including that of Rebecca and Alan, even the leader of the rooftoppers, while at times could be distracting, serve well in terms of bringing a three dimensional view of them and allow the audiences to feel attached to them.The performance of the main character, Cherry Ngan is probably by far the biggest bright spots of the film. Her unconventional beauty and youthfulness complements well with her often fun loving character. She has a gift of lighting up an ordinary scene with her cheeky smile and she understand well how to utilize her body language/dance move when they are needed the most. Even though she would need to improve her way of pronouncing her dialogues, Ngan's performance in this film has probably put her into the stardom right away and Hong Kong cinema certainly would not mind to have its own local female lead once again. 

There is no doubt about the effort made by each of the dancers (many audiences certainly appreciated very much by staying on for whole end-credit being played out). Yet, the editing and certain camera movement could improve to bring more visual excitements to the dance sequence. The lighting use and some of the calligraphy of dance were at times struggle to boost dazzling dance move from the dancers in the next level. 

In his third feature-length work, director Adam Wong had created something that not often seen in Hong Kong cinema (film with a dance theme is something of a rarity in HK cinema). The Way We Dance will easily draw comparison with Hollywood's production Step Up franchise. However, it should be more than that, it carries the kind of freshness (with new young actor/actress, a growing up story mixing well with exciting dance scenes) but the film serves a good reminder that Hong Kong own production can just as exciting as others and our very own image and determination should not be forget, as if we are like fleur, with one leg injured, will still able to "fly" with colours.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Ghibli Guide: New posters for Kaze Tachinu revealed

Ghibli Guide: New posters for Kaze Tachinu revealed: Studio Ghibli's international Twitter account has revealed new posters for Hayao Miyazaki's upcoming film Kaze Tachinu (working Eng...

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Thursday, 11 July 2013

A Story of Yonosuke (那年遇上世之介)

Based on the novel "Yokomichi Yonosuke" by Shuichi Yoshida, this is a coming out of age story, as much as a story for reminiscing of the past. In this case, it was the 80’s Japan, where economy was still booming, and more importantly, the hope of “anything is possible” was still happening.
The film starts with a static long take shot near the exit of a Tokyo metro station. We saw our protagonist Yonosuke (played very lively by Kengo Kora), a colleague freshman from the port city of Nagasaki arriving to start his new life at a rather unfashionable university. With a slightly awkward physical look but an even more awkward/laughable name (Yonosuke was the name of a main character in a Japanese classic erotic novel, “The Life of an Amorous Man”), Yonosuke had become fascinated by the surroundings of the city and began his encounter to different people. This include Ippei Kuramochi (Sosuke Ikematsu), a classmate who was kind but with a self centered personality, a cute looking Yui Akutsu (Aki Asakura) who was first slightly attracted by Yonosuke’s charm before developing a long term relationship with Kuramochi. This is also the point where the narrative of the film becomes more interesting. We realize that we are no longer watching Yonosuke’s encounters as they unfolded. Rather, they were actually the memories of people that he met. Yonosuke went on to have further encounter with Yusuke Kato (Gou Ayano) who was a cool looking guy but turned out to be homosexual; Chiharu Katase (Ayumi Ito), who had worked as a high class prostitute but later becoming a popular DJ. And finally, Yonosuke met his love in Tokyo, a very pretty but timid Shoko Yosano (Yuriko Yoshitaka) coming from a very rich but strict family.

The joyfulness and the cheerfulness in which Yonosuke brought to different characters had become the backbone of the story and the reasons for the reminiscing of their past. In each of the flashback (in the style that can be compared with the narrative form from “Citizen Kane”), the audience began to see both young and more mature version of each of the characters. It adds depth in understanding how their lives are being subtly affected, if not transformed by the presence of Yonosuke. We see how Kuramochi and Yui had the courage to take on the challenge of being teenage parents (after encouragement from Yonosuke, who had a brief encounter with a child of illegal immigrants). How Kato learned to accept his own sexually and was able to open up about it while, the romantic encounter between Yonosuke and Yosano had transformed her into a much more independent person. The flashback was being arranged in such a way that it followed Yonsuke’s first and second year of colleague in a chronicle manner. It then serves very well as a study of what exactly Yonosuke was as a person. Indeed, it was his ordinariness yet charming character, which reminded us quite often; this is all it takes to bring out one’s smile and happiness from within.

At 160 minutes, the film at times could feel loose with the stories on some of the characters, esp. with Shoko, being dragged over for a tag too long. There were also too many more minor characters which could divert the audiences’ attention, such as Yonsouke’s neighbors at his Tokyo apartment, as well as his family and friends back in Nagasaki. On the other hand, the relentless effort of recreating the feeling of 80’s can be seen throughout the film. From the fashions the characters wore, to the big poster on the street (most notably was the large Canon EOS camera poster behind Yonosuke during his first encounter with Shoko, which could later serve as reminder that it was photography which brought them back at the end, long after Yonosuke was gone). The Samba dance club, which at first seems very laughable but actually it was a clear reminder that once Japan has a close (economic) relationship with Brazil.

Directed by Shuichi Okita, whose previous works include “Nankyoku Ryorinin” (The Chef of South Polar), and “Kitsutsuki to Ame” (The Woodsman and the Rain), he usually focuses on socially awkward/marginal person and their way of living in the contemporary society. “The Story of Yonosuke” is no exception and certainly with a more serious subtext. Despite numerous comical sub-plots, the film is far from a sugar-coated story. While Yonosuke’s cheerful and innocent personality has brought back each of the characters’ memories with their past, but it also helps to bring the memories of the audiences who lived in the 80’s era. It was a time where there were still rooms for youth, purity, innocence and hope for better thing to come. Sadly, just as what happened in the following decade in Japan, the film also reminds us the harsh reality. As an off-scene flash forward scene which happened toward the two third of the film, we realized that the departure of Yonosuke serves a somber reminder of how an era has truly been gone for good.

Monday, 23 April 2012


A film by Steve McQueen

It was the half empty bed covered in a blue sheet, one side being occupied by Brandon. Alone, looking just as bare as the other side of the bed, his eyes are blank with neither purpose nor direction. The cold sunlight finally comes in as the blind being unfold.  

His naked body consumed and being consumed by another, finally needs to wake up to the bleak realty. Today is going to be the same as the day just passed, no matter how much of last night’s fantasy and organism were there.

The apartment is posh and tidy, every details seems to be well thought before. Then of course, a 30 something single well groomed man who can afford such a high rise place; what else do you expected otherwise?

He follow his routine vigorously, he goes to work in his own little cubical, he goes out a bit with people he had no feeling with. During the day, there is a small washroom space which allows him to masturbate.  At night, in the single bar, he can pry for his next target, he has already realized he could stay as cool as possible. Women will come along without him uttering a single pick up line. The fact is, he has already stopped trying to flirt, because he knows too well that he can get his hand on her almost effortlessly.

The gaze is mutual; he tries to imagine what it is to be with her, what it is feel like to have that moment of intimacy with her. She crossed her leg so carelessly as if she has signaled her approval on his flirting request.

As the mutual gazing is happening, the train arrived at the next stop and it provides such an opportunity to get closer. In a split second, when fantasy and courage inside run high inside of him, that is also the exact moment he realized that she has been taken. He saw the sign of her commitment to another man, he wants to retreat but his instinct decided otherwise. Follow her! Keep chasing! Even it is a fruitless endeavor!!

He thought that it may be this time, thing could turn out differently. Yet, it is this very moment of hesitation that is one second too long; she disappeared in the sea of crowd.
The encounter stopped there, so does his hope.

The uncertainty ease, the hope is gone and he quickly goes back to his own frustration. Choices aren’t many and the only difference is how he is going to have his sex.

Maybe a prostitute;
Maybe that someone he meets in the single bar;
Maybe he tries the online chat room to see if she is still performing in front of the camera;
Or to suppress such need, a quick masturbation in his own bathroom can do the trick;
Even to push himself further; a gay bar with an oral job could ease his desire a little bit.

If all these are not enough, his extensive collection of online and paper pornography would always right besides him, whether they are in a laptop or his wardrobe.

The very act of sex had long stopped giving him any kind of pleasure, or excitement. The only thing that keeps him going is because in that very moment, he can forget how empty and lonely his life really is. He needs the pain, the physical exhaustion to remind the very existence of himself. He wants to feel that he is still living, even with all these emptiness

Is it the childhood and upbringing that makes him who he is now? 
He is so nostalgic with his vinyl records, so is his love to 50's cartoon.
There seems to be some precious memory to preserve. It may be something that is so special to him that someday, if he ever starts feeling for someone, he is fear for losing them altogether.

Or indeed, he has fallen in love with his own loneliness and solitude.

Keep running. To run is to escape.

Whether it is day or night; dry or wet; as if that is the only moment he feels the world around he is moving. Even if New York City is just as empty as his soul, just as cold and bleak as his heart; He keeps running in such a city, as if he can outrun the emptiness, the dissatisfaction, the frustration that he cannot get over.

Maybe help is just right around the corner. It is that one person whom she can disrupt his life. Expected the Unexpected, your family member could be just as troublesome as he does but wouldn't they will give he a moment that he can finally care about someone, truly.