J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Brush with Danger: Art and Action in Seattle

These undocumented siblings do the sort of jobs native-born Americans just won’t do, like forging a Van Gogh and boxing in unregulated after hours bouts. To be fair, she is highly conflicted about the former, whereas he faces plenty of home grown talent in the latter. Their legal status is precarious, but their spirit is indomitable in Livi Zheng’s Brush with Danger (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Alice and Ken Qiang were two of the lucky ones, who survived their cargo container transit to America. They came in search of a better life, but they also had to get out of Dodge fast. They have practically nothing to their names, except for some of her paintings that they will try to sell on the streets. They also have skills, which is part of the reason why they had to leave in a hurry. Yet, despite Alice’s reluctance, the Qiangs discover they can quickly fill a hat with their street displays of martial arts and acrobatics. Gallerist Justus Sullivan also notices them doing their act, but it is Alice’s work that really catches his eye.

Playing the role of patron, Sullivan moves the Qiangs into his McMansion, so Alice can finally live up to her potential. To keep Ken busy, Sullivan introduces the impetuous kid to his associate running Seattle’s underground fight circuit. Soon Ken is earning his own illegal spending money, fair and square. However, just when Sullivan asks if maybe Alice wouldn’t mind doing an extremely high quality reproduction—for a terminally ill friend, mind you—Det. Nick Thompson starts snooping around.

Brush is the directorial debut Livi Zheng, an Indonesian-born former stuntwoman and NCAA Karate competitor. It does indeed have some of the roughness you might associate with first features, but she and her real life kick-boxer brother Ken are totally convincing in the action scenes. In spite of some narrative slack, Zheng keeps it well paced and Norman Newkirk adds some memorable villainous charm as Sullivan.

Frankly, the problem is it is all too nice. The Zhengs are hugely likeably rooting interests and former cop-turned-wrestler Nikita Breznikov is rather likable as Det. Thompson, in a doofus kind of way. Even Sullivan is kind of nice (although some of his angry associates are definitely not). Still, if you had to choose a movie bad guy to have lunch with, he should be at the top of the list.

So if everyone is nice, does that mean the movie is nice too? Unfortunately, that probably constitutes a fallacy of composition. Regardless, it is impossible to root against the Qiangs and the Zhengs, who are already at work on their next action picture. If they maintain their earnestness and add some narrative edge, they could really get somewhere. For now, Brush with Danger opens this Friday (9/19) in New York at the Cinema Village.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Zero Theorem: Terry Gilliam Goes Back to the Dystopian Well

Evidently, there is good money to be made from metaphysical nihilism. How so, you might ask? Well, obviously you are not an evil businessman or you would see it plain as day. For the rest of us mere mortals, it remains a gaping narrative hole in Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Qohen Leth is a programming drone who is slaving away, crunching the Zero Theorem, the grand unified theory of life’s meaninglessness, at the behest of his boss, “Management,” the charismatic chairman of Mancom. Evidently, the corporate predator stands to make a lot of money if he can prove the primacy of nothingness. However, Leth lives in the hope that he will soon receive a phone call that will finally give him the inner peace he yearns. (Careful of your shoes, because the irony is laid so thick here, even other characters pick up on it.)

Although practically a shut-in, Leth manages to befriend Bainsley, a professional party-girl and web-stripper and Management’s troubled cyber-repairman son Bob, (most likely through some calculating outside intervention). Nevertheless, Bob’s rebellious streak is genuine, but tragically so are his congenital health issues.

The good thing about Zero T is it looks like a Terry Gilliam film. Leth’s lair is a masterwork of cyber doodads, human detritus, and near future urban decay. Likewise, the Mancom set pieces are suitably large and eccentric. Unfortunately, Pat Rushin’s screenplay was apparently a belated afterthought, recycling wholesale tropes from Gilliam’s vastly superior Brazil. In fact, Zero T even lifts the ending (or rather one of the endings), minimally adapting it the fit the modestly altered circumstances.

Granted, Christoph Waltz truly goes for broke as Leth, over and beyond shaving his eyebrows. He also develops some intriguingly ambiguous chemistry with Mélanie Thierry’s Bainsley. Yet all his heavy-lifting is undermined by an over-abundance of clichés and cringingly broad characters, while internal logic remains dashed scarce.

By far, the greatest embarrassment is the ridiculously looking Matt Damon, trying to come across like a scary adult. He might be going for a J.R. “Bob” Dodds from the Church of the SubGenius kind of thing, but he just cannot carry himself convincingly. Still, in all fairness, it must be admitted Tilda Swinton gives a considerably subtler performance as Dr. Shrink-Rom the corporate psycho-babbler than her mean-spirited Thatcher caricature in Snowpiercer.

This is one of those films you want to be so much better than it really is, especially considering Gilliam doesn’t exactly churn films out like Woody Allen. Frankly, the far less heralded The Scribbler is a much better mind-trip. A real disappointment, The Zero Theorem opens this Friday (9/19) in New York at the IFC Center.

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Monday, September 15, 2014

The Scribbler: Do-It-Yourself Shock Treatment

Known as “Jumper’s Tower” to residents, Juniper Tower is the Arkham of mental health halfway houses. If you move in, you are unlikely to get much better or live much longer. However, Suki has an advantage over her new neighbors. One of her multiple personalities happens to be uncannily resourceful in John Suits’ The Scribbler (trailer here), which opens this Friday in select markets.

Considering Suki is undergoing radical therapy to “burn off” her excess personalities, she would presumably be an unlikely candidate for out-patient treatment. Nevertheless, she has been issued a portable burn unit and a room in the friendly tower. Upon arrival, she is met by the grisly spectacle of jumper. It will not be the last one.

Juniper is entirely populated by female patients, except for Hogan, who takes pride and pleasure in being “the rooster in the hen house.” One of Suki’s multiples had a thing for him when they were formally institutionalized together, so they naturally pick up where they left off. Frankly, he is somewhat saddened by her burn-off regimen, lamenting some of her multiples were his friends. Nevertheless, the treatment seems to work, even though it causes temporary blackouts and states of altered perception. Whenever Suki comes to, it seems like another resident has committed suicide and the so-called Scribbler persona has been busy modifying her décor and the burn unit.

Adapted by Dan Schaffer from his graphic novel, The Scribbler incorporates elements from several genres (science fiction, horror, dark fantasy) and generates some clever disbelief-suspending psychological double-talk. Until the third act collapses into a maelstrom of mumbo jumbo, it is a surprisingly effective noir psycho-thriller.

Arguably, the best thing Suits has going for him is the massively creepy Juniper Tower. Production designer Kathrin Eder and art director Melisa Jusufi truly make this film come together, while cinematography Mark Putnam makes it all look suitably ominous, in the tradition of its source material and Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum graphic novel.

The cast is generally pretty good as well, particularly Katie Cassidy and Garret Dillahunt as Suki and Hogan, respectively. Their screen chemistry is appropriately weird, but undeniably charged-up. Gina Gershon, Ashlynn Yennie, and Michelle Trachtenberg all chew the scenery with glee as various eccentrically macabre residents of the Tower, but Eliza Dushku and Michael Imperioli seem visibly confused to be playing their scenes as the cops interrogating Suki within the film’s framing device. Fans of Sasha Grey should also take note, her character quickly disappears after her entrance (its almost as much of a tease as her prominently-billed cameo in The Girl from the Naked Eye).

Granted, the ending makes little sense, but that is almost always the case in genre cinema. What is more important is how smart and stylishly sinister the film is as it works its way there. Recommended with surprising enthusiasm, The Scribbler opens this Friday (9/19) in limited release.

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Space Station 76: When the Future was Groovy

In the 1970s, Skylab represented the future. Today, the International Space Station is an anachronism of the New World Order. Yet, even in the analog future as envisioned in the “Me Decade,” Omega 76 was a sleepy backwater assignment. They still ought to take asteroids more seriously in Jack Plotnick’s nostalgic Space Station 76 (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Omega 76 is a deep space refueling station, where the crew marks time until they are promoted to more prestigious postings. However, the previous first mate (if you will) was promoted suspiciously quickly. Whenever the obviously closeted Captain Glenn is asked about it, he always gives a slightly different answer. Not surprisingly, he is less than gracious welcoming his new first officer, Jessica Marlowe, who also happens to be a woman.

There is not much to do on Omega 76, so Marlowe is happy to spend time with Sunshine, the brainy young daughter of Misty, the pill-popping peak of the station’s social pyramid. Marlowe also ambiguously befriends Misty’s cuckolded technician husband, but both are too honorable to act on their mutual attraction. When not angsting over the state of her life, Marlowe tries to get Capt. Glenn to pay attention to the asteroid projections generated by her predecessor, but he wants nothing to do with anything associated with his former whatever.

There is no question SS76 was handcrafted by true fans of vintage seventies-era science fiction. Seth Reed’s design team and costumers Sandra Burns and Sarah Brown have created some pitch perfect frocks, sets, and models. The vibe is spot-on, but somehow Plotnick and his quartet of co-writers forgot to include most of the jokes. Essentially, the film’s sequences are like most SNL skits from the last fifteen years. It is all set-up that just peters out without a punchline. At times, SS76 seems fatally determined to channel the spirit of 1970s relationship movies, like Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, but they have already been better satirized by the criminally under-appreciated Serial.

Weirdly, SS76 represents the reunion of The Ledge co-stars Liv Tyler and Patrick Wilson nobody ever asked for. Needless to say, this is a vastly superior film than that misogynistic polemic disguised as an unthrilling thriller. Tyler is still rather stiff and distant as Marlowe (to put it generously), but Wilson’s Glenn is strangely compelling and ultimately sympathetic, if we adjust for 1970s cultural inflation. Marisa Coughlan and Kali Rocha also seem to enjoy vamping it up as Misty and her self-absorbed best friend Donna, which helps. Also look for none other than Keir Dullea, giving the film extra genre cred in a video-phone cameo.

SS76 is such a great concept, so aptly rendered by Plotnick’s technical collaborators, it is a shame there isn’t more humor or narrative muscle to go with it. Instead, he is content to stage one awkward conversation after another amid the terrific station backdrops. There are chuckles here and there (and the Todd Rundgren soundtrack is a blast), but viewers are really left to wonder what might have been. For diehard fans of Space: 1999 and the like, Space Station 76 opens this Friday (9/19) in New York at the Quad Cinema, with digital and DVD releases scheduled to follow shortly after.

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20,000 Days on Earth: Nick Cave Pushing 55

As the reigning Poet Lauriat of hard rock, Nick Cave was the perfect voice to narrate Eddie White & Ari Gibson’s animated noir fable, The Cat Piano. He is also a screenwriter of some note, whose credits include John Hillcoat’s Lawless. The standard talking head and archival footage approach simply would not suffice for Cave, given his cinematic presence and relentlessly idiosyncratic aesthetic sensibilities. However, Ian Forsyth & Jane Pollard (with the knowing collusion of their subject) took an entirely different tact in 20,000 Days on Earth (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday at Film Forum.

Ostensibly, the filmmakers will follow Cave throughout what will be his 20,000 day of terrestrial life, but they are not slavishly attached to the conceit. Instead, they are content to follow Cave as he develops the next Bad Seeds album and confronts some of the ghosts from his past in eccentrically stylized dramatic interludes. Former Bad Seed Blixa Bargeld will reveal why he really left the band, which would be a bit of a dramatic letdown, if it did not segue into Cave’s somewhat neurotic theory of songwriting.

In these sequences, 20K is more like performance art than a documentary, providing a platform for Cave’s acting chops when he essentially plays himself. Kylie Minogue also gets into the spirit of things when her reminisces of their unlikely collaboration segue into a meditation on mortality (from the back-seat of Cave’s car, bringing to mind her strange appearance in Holy Motors). It is also appealing to watch the musical camaraderie shared by Cave and Warren Ellis, who clearly emerges as first among Bad Seeds not named Nick Cave.

It is hard to say whether 20K is better appreciated by Cave fanatics or newcomers arriving with a blank slate. This is absolutely not a greatest hits package, somewhat focusing on the creation of the Push the Sky Away album, but mainly just giving Cave a venue for his insights into the music-making process. Those who are interested in questions of method will find many of the sequences fascinating. It should also bolster the reputation of strict Freudian Damian Leader, who is not really Cave’s analyst, but elicits some vivid memories of the singer’s late father.

20K is about as multi-hyphenated as a hybrid documentary can get, but it keeps the stream of interesting stories flowing unabated. Ironically, Ellis probably has the most telling anecdote, suggesting the often violent spectacles that used to accompany Bad Seeds gigs were nothing compared to the force that was Nina Simone (just try to top her).

Yet, it must be granted Cave is enormously compelling appearing as himself, playing himself, or something like that. Fittingly, he now lives in Brighton, where he could pass for a gangster from Brighton Rock with dark suits and menacing swagger. It still seems to kill on stage and it works on camera surprisingly well. Highly recommended for those who appreciate meta-documentaries, 20,000 Days on Earth opens this Wednesday (9/17) at New York’s Film Forum.

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Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Guest: Unpacking a Little Death and Destruction

The Petersons should have remembered what Ben Franklin said about fish and houseguests. Initially, the mysterious “David” is so handy to have around the house, he earns more than three days. Unfortunately, the suspicions of their twenty year old daughter will be fully justified in Adam Wingard’s The Guest (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York.

When Caleb Peterson was killed in Iraq, it devastated his family, particularly his mother Laura. However, meeting “David,” Caleb’s freshly discharged friend and fellow squad member, offers her some consolation. Despite his humble origins, David is so faultlessly polite and gracious, she immediately invites the former soldier to be their guest, for as long as takes to back on his feet. Her husband Spencer is rather put out by her impulsiveness, until he spends some quality drinking time with David. Soon only their daughter Anna remains uncomfortable with the arrangement.

Within the context of the film, it is easy to understand why the Petersons so readily embrace their guest, at the expense of common sense. After all, he seems to bring good luck. In reality, David starts clandestinely “lending a hand” to the Peterson family, doing the sort of things they always secretly wished would happen, but would never admit. Sometimes Wingard and his screen-writer collaborator Simon Barrett maintain some ambiguity, as to just what David did or did not do, but there is no question about his proactive approach to the high school bullies tormenting the youngest Peterson sibling. Even Anna warms to David, but plot contrivances will interrupt their mounting sexual tension.

The first half of The Guest is absolutely terrific, inviting viewers to vicariously enjoy David’s freelance friend-of-the-family activism. Let’s face it, there are times everyone wished they had a secret benefactor who could make troublesome people disappear, but without any knowledge or culpability troubling our consciences.

Frustratingly, much of what works in the first half is largely lost in the second. Instead of a Nietzschean super-man, we learn David is a veritable super-soldier, thanks to a clichéd top secret government program, following in the tradition of the Universal Soldier franchise and scores of similar b-movies. What was once a very sly thriller becomes a formulaic exercise in comeuppance for a Blackwater-like military contractor in a tiresome by-the-numbers endgame.

That is a real shame, because it squanders the intriguing performances and cleverly executed action scenes from the early acts. Formerly of Downton Abbey, Dan Stevens could not get any further from Cousin Matthew than the mysterious David, but he pulls it off (clearly after putting in his time at the gym). He commands the screen with his sociopathic charm. Frankly, his supposedly Kentucky accent often sounds weird, like he is speaking through a Vocoder, but it kind of works nonetheless. As Anna, Maika Monroe generates plenty of heat with Stevens, while maintaining a sense of propriety and intelligence.

The Guest has the right look and soundtrack to appeal to nostalgia for the 1980s action movies that inspired it. It is considerably more entertaining when it allows its title character to be a wildcard instead of a Terminator surrogate. Ultimately, it is a potentially great cult film that is undermined by a screenplay too intent on making statements. The first fifty or sixty percent will be recommended for genre fans when it eventually hits Netflix, but they should probably hold off when the whole uneven thing opens this Wednesday (9/17) in New York at the AMC Empire and Village 7.

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Saturday, September 13, 2014

TIFF ’14: Still the Water

There is nothing like discovering a body to hasten the coming of age process. Frankly, sixteen year-old Kaito could maybe use the kick-start. His prospective girlfriend Kyoko has also offered encouragement, but he has been slow to fully respond in Naomi Kawase’s Still the Water (clip here), which screens during the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.

On an island like Aami Oshima, typhoons are a fact of life. As a result, residents necessarily have a heightened awareness of the natural and spiritual worlds. This is particularly true of Kyoko’s mother Isa. As a shaman, she has always navigated between the divine and terrestrial planes. Unfortunately, she will soon crossover for good, as she slowly succumbs to a terminal illness.

Unlike, Kyoko, Kaito is not a native islander and he definitely does not share her affinity for the ocean. Having recently moved from Tokyo with his mother Misaki, following her divorce from his tattoo artist father, Kaito carried quite a bit of baggage with him. Yet, he slowly starts to form a connection with Kyoko, even though she is preparing herself for her mother’s imminent death.

Kawase is sort of a lover-her-or-hate-her filmmaker. If you require plotty narrative and zippy dialogue, than keep looking. However, if you are enraptured by grand natural vistas invested with sense of deeper mystical portent, this is the film for you. Like Kawase’s Mourning Forest (ironically a more demanding, yet more emotionally resonant work), Still looks lovely (although not quite as arresting as Forest). Cinematographer Yutaka Yamazaki gives it a shimmering, slightly nostalgic vibe not unlike the Kore-eda films he previously lensed, particularly Still Walking. Hashiken’s score also serves as an effective mood-setter, evoking western string ensemble chamber music, with a hint of traditional Japanese forms.

Despite Kawase’s loose approach to narrative, there is considerable inequity between the film’s two main forks, represented by Kyoko and Kaito. It is impossible not to be moved by Kyoko’s parents, savoring the family’s simple pleasures together while they can. As Kyoko, Jun Yoshinaga’s eyes seem to leap out of the screen and peer into your soul. Likewise, the rugged Tetta Sugimoto and ethereal Miyuki Matsuda are genuinely touching, conveying years of shared history in a word or a gesture.

In contrast, Kaito is supposed to be a bit of a pill—and Nijiro Murakami plays him accordingly. Considering the quiet and meditative tone of much of the film, his scenes of awkward melodrama stick out rather conspicuously.

At two hours almost on the dot, Still could have stood a bit of pruning, especially the inconsistent third act. Editor Tina Baz must have lost a lot of arguments to Kawase. It is an undisciplined film, but it is often beautiful. Those who appreciate “slow cinema” will find much to see and hear. Recommended circumspectly for Kawase’s admirers and filmgoers who prioritize atmosphere above all else, Still the Water screens again tomorrow (9/14) at this year’s TIFF.

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Friday, September 12, 2014

At the Devil’s Door: Foreclosing on Souls

Kids today are dangerously ignorant of the blues. Nobody worth their Robert Johnson box-set would play along if a creepy Aryan cultist told them to walk down to the crossroads and say your name so the boss can find you later. She will do it for five bills, but she will not live to regret it in Nicholas McCarthy’s At the Devil’s Door (trailer here), which opens late-night tonight in New York at the IFC Center.

A few years and a deep recession later, people would stand in line to sell their souls for pocket change. Nevertheless, Leigh, a go-getting real estate agent, is convinced she can sell her motivated clients’ house quickly, despite the state of the market. Teetering on the brink of foreclosure, they have also been dealing with their daughter Charlene’s behavioral issues. As Leigh pokes around the nearly empty domicile, she finds evidence of a fire, a twitchy young teen answering Charlene’s description, and wickedly bad vibes in every cupboard and closet, but she remains undeterred.

Frankly, Leigh’s hard-charging Tony Robbins self-help trips are a major reason why her depressive hipster artist sister artist Vera keeps her at arm’s length. However, when Leigh misses the opening of her latest show, she cannot help worrying. Inevitably, she will be drawn into the supernatural business as well.

There are individual sequences in Door that are chillingly effective, but you have to suspect McCarthy’s screenplay was substantially rewritten at several junctures. There are several thirty degree course corrections that are dramatic enough to interrupt the smooth narrative flow, but not wild enough to be jaw-dropping game-changers. At times, it feels like a horror movie built around alternating elements of haunted house and demonic possession films, drawn randomly out of a hat.

Still, McCarthy demonstrates a thorough command of mood and atmosphere, just as he did in The Pact. When the film stays in that house, it works just fine, but whenever it steps outside, it has a lot of explaining to do.

The sisters’ baton hand-off also looks like a mistake in retrospect. Catalina Sandino Moreno has had an interesting career after her Oscar nomination for Maria Full of Grace, appearing in Soderbergh’s Che on the left and then For Greater Glory on the right, followed by a dubious action turn in A Stranger in Paradise. Regardless, by genre standards, she is quite compelling as Leigh, the responsible sister, always trying please everyone else. Unfortunately, Naya Rivera (who was once on a short-lived show called something like Merriment or maybe Glee) lacks her energy and presence as the dull and dour Vera.

If you want to see horror movie, Door has enough elements, sufficiently executed, to satisfy a fan’s craving. McCarthy again puts some nice twists on familiar genre conventions, but he sort of loses the handle on his narrative. Maybe the next one will be his breakout. Recommended for fans of The Pact and those who want a demonic fix, At the Devil’s Door opens late tonight (9/12) at the IFC Center and is also available via IFC Midnight’s VOD platforms.

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TIFF ’14: Le beau danger

Like most writers, Romanian novelist Norman Manea’s fiction is often highly autobiographical. Considering he survived both the Holocaust and the Ceauşescu regime’s persecution, how could it not be? Since 1986, Manea has lived in a state of sort of, but not really, self-imposed exile, teaching at Bard College, but still writing in his native Romanian. René Frölke employs Manea’s own words to tell his life story, in a distinctively elliptical and suggestive fashion, throughout Le beau danger (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.

It might seem strange that a film about Manea takes its title from a brief essay by Michel Foucault, but it is worth remembering in the 1980s the French post-structuralist theorist became a fairly consistent critic of Soviet Communism and a supporter of Solidarity. Regardless, his argument language serves as a movable refuge is certainly apt in Manea’s case. Rather than a traditional parade of dates and archival photos, viewers will read significant extracts of his work (in English translation) that give a vivid feeling for his early years. The selections from his story “We Might Have Been Four” are particularly evocative—pastoral in tone and setting, but marked by an ominous atmosphere and mounting sense of alienation.

In many ways, LBD is a study in contrasts, starting with Manea himself. Unlike Kosinski and Nabokov, Manea never ceased writing in Romanian, despite his residency in the bucolic Hudson River region. Given his age and accomplishments, he could easily get away with playing the curmudgeon card, yet Manea appears to be quite a gracious good sport when Frölke follows him at European book festivals and at various media appearances and master classes.

Frölke has a keen eye for intriguing visuals, often using grainy 16mm for eerie effect. The use of simple ambient sound is also quite canny. At times, he might linger on some pedestrian imagery a bit too long, but many scenes are tightly packed with power and meaning—especially a sequence in a Romanian Jewish cemetery. Although no words are spoken, the significance of the 1942 and 1943 dates of death are inescapable.

LBD is an elegantly crafted film, but there is a reason why TIFF programmed it as a Wavelength selection. Essentially, that is the track for films that might confuse people. However, those who have sufficient patience will take a great deal from Manea’s words and his pessimistically humanistic outlook. It would be nice to see this film get a theatrical run at Anthology Film Archives and aesthetically similar theaters. It will only appeal to select audience, but they ought to have a chance to see it. Recommended for highly literate viewers, Le beau danger screens again on Sunday (9/14) as part of this year’s TIFF.

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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

TIFF ’14: Gyeongju

It is one of South Korea’s leading tourist destinations, famous for its Silla-era royal tombs and Buddhist temples. Of course, people live there all year round, going about their business in the shadow of the past. Carrying on with life poses its own quiet challenges for a visiting academic and a local teahouse owner in Zhang Lu’s Gyeongju (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.

Choi Hyeon has almost become more Chinese than Korean. For many years the socially awkward expat has taught regional political science at Beijing University. He is fluent in Chinese and married a Chinese woman. In fact, employees of the visitors’ center just assume he is Chinese. After a long absence, he returned for the funeral of an old friend. In the mood for reflection, he subsequently takes a side-trip to Gyeongju hoping to find a particular teahouse that looms large in his memory. He duly finds the establishment, now run by Gong Yun-hui, but she has papered over the obscene folk painting he remembers so well (for obvious reasons).

Initially, Gong assumes Choi is some sort of pervert, given his unhealthy fascination with the painting, but she will change her opinion over time. Choi will return to the one spot in town where he feels somewhat relaxed after a failed attempt to reconnect with an old flame. As he lingers in Gong’s company, we start to see they are somewhat kindred spirits. However, her friends will not take to him, particularly the police detective who has long carried a torch for Gong.

Gyeongju is an exquisitely sad, deeply felt film that has much to reveal about its characters. Steadily and almost stealthily Zhang peels back their protective layers, as their conversation becomes less guarded. Yet, unlike the Linklater “Before” trilogy (which some have compared it with), you really cannot say Gyeongju is a talky film, because of its eloquent silences.

Indeed, you will be hard pressed to find anyone who can say more with so few words as Shin Min-a. As Gong (or the Goddess of Gyeongju as her dedicated friends call her), she is truly radiant. When she slowly divulges her painful history, it is absolutely devastating. In contrast, Park Hae-il deliberately looks genuinely ill at ease with himself and others. Yet, the chemistry he develops with Shin is subtle, but very real.

Aside from the Tumuli Park Belt tombs, Zhang (the former documentarian) does not fully exploit Gyeongju’s historic attractions. Nevertheless, the film has a tactile sense of place. You can practically smell the mustiness after a late afternoon rain and feel the late night breeze as Gong, Choi, and the detective drunkenly clamber up one of the tombs.

Throughout the film, Zhang masterfully commands the mood and tone, but he nearly sabotages himself when we hear of the potential tragic end of two tangential characters met in passing. Wondering if they are really the one who met such a fate temporarily distracts from the bittersweet business at hand. Nevertheless, Shin and Park quickly bail him out with their smart, mature work. Unusually (and refreshingly) chaste for a ships-in-the-night film, Gyeongju is loaded with understated power and resonance. Highly recommended, it screens again tomorrow morning (9/11) and this coming Sunday (9/14), as part of this year’s TIFF.

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TIFF ’14: Partners in Crime

Taiwan must have the worst school counselors in the world. The trauma intervention three teenagers receive after discovering a dead schoolmate is more like detention than treatment, but they are not very disturbed by the experience anyway. In fact, it initially appears to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship before things take a dark turn in Chang Jung-chi’s Partners in Crime (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.

As the poster art makes abundantly clear, there is no mystery regarding the cause of Hsia Wei-chao’s death. Just why she presumably threw herself out of her mother’s upscale apartment is a different matter. Hsia was pretty, rich, reserved, and therefore highly unpopular. When Huang, Lin, and Yeh stumble across her body in the street, they dutifully call the police. Strangely, it is a bonding experience for the trio, especially the constantly bullied Huang. Yet, even Yeh the tough guy-slacker and Lin, a popular kid in a geek-chic kind of way, find they can relax in each others’ company.

Even after their pointless counseling sessions, the boys keep meeting to share the information they turn up on Hsia. Huang is an especially good investigator. Before long, they are clandestinely hanging in Hsia’s room while her sort of grieving mother is away on business. Believing he has identified the classmate who drove Hsia to suicide, Huang hatches an elaborate revenge plot. It will definitely not end as he plans.

It seems student dramas are perennially popular in Taiwan. Some are upbeat and endearing, like Hou Chi-jan’s When a Wolf Falls in Love with a Sheep—and some are not, like Partners. Think of it as a Breakfast Club with dead bodies. It is more of a why-dunit than a whodunit, but there are still some unsettling revelations to ferret out. Yet throughout it all, Chang shows a rather deep and forgiving understanding of the messiness of human nature.

There are at least six meaty roles for Chang’s high school-aged cast (or so they certainly look) and he gets solid to hauntingly good performances from them all. Chang is no stranger to young people’s stories, having broken through internationally with Touch of the Light, but this is a far more taut and murky affair than fans of his previous film would expect, despite the occasional stylistic excess here and there. Arguably, it should hold greater appeal for NYAFF/Fantasia patrons than for anyone looking for a date film. However, its tragic nature should lead to some nice local box office change nonetheless.

Ultimately, Partners resists easy sentimentality, reminding viewers how difficult it is to truly understand peoples’ lives from a distant outside perspective. However, it is not a Rashomon like exercise problematizing truth as an objective standard. Instead, that might be something that can eventually be sussed out with sufficient time and sensitivity. Recommended for fans of mysteries and teen dramas with savage bite, Partners in Crime screens again tomorrow (9/11) and Friday (9/12) at this year’s TIFF.

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TIFF ’14: I Am Here

First Morgan Spurlock signs on for the One Direction back-stagey doc and now Lixin Fan, the director of the gritty, class conscious Last Train Home, turns his lens on the Chinese reality show Super Boy. In truth, they are really not the same kind of project. Granted, anyone with a smidge of familiarity with sing-offs like Idol will immediately get Super Boy, but the Chinese show is a bit more exploitative than its Western cousins (shocker, right?). Fan captures of a season’s worth of drama fly-on-the-wall style in I Am Here (a.k.a. No Zuo No Die, trailer here), which screens during the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.

Right from the start, Fan counts down the days until the Super Boy finale. The principle is basically the same as any other talent show, but some rounds feature contestants challenging each other in head to head duels. Yet, none of the Super Boys has much taste for going mano a mano. Since they live together sequestered from the outside world in the Super Boy training complex, the impressionable youths form strong bonds over time. As a result, they seem more likely to sacrifice themselves than administer the coup de grace to a friend and competitor.

Arguably, the neurotic nature of the Super Boys might be part of the draw. They sound okay in performance (at least from what we hear), but the coaches are often frustrated when viewer popularity trumps a superior performance. Yes, life is not fair in reality television.

It is difficult to make hard and fast judgments about the adult supervision on Super Boy. Sometimes the coaches act like martinets and the judges can be bizarrely unprofessional. Frankly, breakout Super Girl contestant Zeng Yike comes across as a much more intriguing figure during her brief screen time than any of the Super Boys Fan follows. At one point, a judge summarily quit on-air when she passed through to the next round. Since then, she has generated considerable media attention for her striking but somewhat androgynous style.

In fact, despite all the behind-the-scenes time the audience gets with the current crop of Super Boys, Fan never really establishes their discrete personalities to any meaningful degree. Considering how many of them wear similarly twee Harry Potter spectacles and hipster couture, it is easy to mix them up.

True, the Super Boy franchise frequently resembles a factory, but not one as soulless as those the subjects of Last Train Home toil in. Perhaps a decade ago, the extent to which the Super Boys live in a web-streamed fishbowl might have been shocking, but now it is sort of business as usual.


Indeed, the entire documentary might be old news for Super Boy fans by now. For Americans, it offers an intriguing look at Chinese media, but Fan’s approach is rather betwixt-and-between. At times, he captures some warts-and-all reality show reality, but there are also many fannish Hard Day’s Night interludes. Still, he certainly has an eye for visuals. Interesting but uneven, I Am Here is mostly recommended for hardcore China watchers and potential expats looking for some pop culture background when it screens again this Thursday (9/11) and Sunday (9/14) as part of this year’s TIFF.

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TIFF ’14: Men Who Save the World

Pak Awang’s Malaysian dream is a lot like the American dream. He wants a better life for his daughter. He hopes to realize his ambitions with the “American House,” so-called because it was originally painted white (White House, get it?). Unfortunately, superstition will thwart him at every turn in Liew Seng Tat’s Men Who Save the World (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.

Pak Awang’s daughter is moving back from the big city to get married and settle down in his provincial village. She will need a house, but he just happens to own a spare. The problem is the American House is buried deep in the jungle and has fallen into a state of disrepair. It also happens to have a reputation for being haunted. Pak Awang needs the help of his fellow villagers to carry off its foundations and into town. Even given their work-resistant nature, forty or so the men ought to be able to handle the job. Oddly though, as soon as they start the arduous task strange things start occurring, playing into the villagers’ supernatural fears.

Of course, nothing uncanny is really afoot. Most of the unexplained phenomena are actually attributable to Solomon, an undocumented African worker, hiding out in the formerly white house. There are plenty of other subplots to further complicate matters, including the town’s Tom and Huck, who are determined to free the camel designated for the annual sacrifice. Soon the American House is stranded midway, while the men don drag to hunt down the “Oily Man” demon, as per the dubious counsel of a local shaman-confidence artist.

Initially, MWSTW starts out like the sort of low-key slice of life village comedy that used to be the bread-and-butter of indie film distribution. However, it takes a surprisingly dark turn, skewering the superstitious balderdash of the town’s Muezzin and the regional political boss. Islamic faith does not exactly move mountains in Liew’s film and it certainly doesn’t move Pak Awang’s house. Perhaps that is why reviews coming out of Locarno were bizarrely dismissive, roundly criticizing Liew for not politicizing Solomon’s plight as a migrant worker.

Instead, Liew delves into the dynamic of the not so tight little village, focusing on Pak Awang’s mounting frustrations. Wan Hanafi Su is absolutely terrific as the maybe too-gruff-for-his-own-good father. He brings real dignity to the film that convincingly evolves into visceral anger and bitterness. Frankly, the supporting cast looks a bit shticky in comparison, except the wide-eyed camel-rescuing youngsters, whose energy and innocence represent substantial contributions.

Granted, MWSTW is a bit uneven, but its humor is organically derived from the specific realities of this Malay community. It is true the film is Y chromosome affair, but it is set smack dab in the Southeast Asian Muslim world after all. Such complaints lose sight of the film’s satiric bite, vivid sense of place, and several cleverly staged scenes that neatly play games with viewers’ perspective. Indeed, it is quite a distinctive package thanks to Teoh Gay Hian’s richly evocative cinematography and Luka Kuncevic’s rhythmic, genre-defying score. Recommended for the somewhat but not overly adventurous, Men Who Save the World screens again this Thursday (9/11), and Saturday (9/13) as part of this year’s TIFF.

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Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Honeymoon: The Newlyweds’ Cabin in the Woods

The American dream does not seem to apply to newlyweds Paul and Bea. (They do not have much of a British dream either.) Instead of hoping for a better life than their parents were afforded, they mostly just expect to huddle together as best they can. As a result, it is disappointing but almost fitting when a sinister shadow is cast over their post-wedding getaway in Leigh Janiak’s Honeymoon (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

It was not exactly a shotgun wedding, but viewers get the sense Paul and Bea’s nuptials were somewhat abrupt. Nevertheless, they are clearly young and in love—but decidedly not rich. Their honeymoon will just be a few days at her family cabin and then it is back to the grind. At least they will have plenty of privacy, even though Paul was a little put out when they ran into Bea’s childhood sweetheart in town. Frankly, he seemed a little . . . weird.

Everything is lovey-dovey for the first twenty minutes or so, until Bea has a strange sleepwalker incident (or something). The next morning she seems distant and decidedly less into Paul. Maybe we can’t blame her for that, but Paul notices other forms of suspicious behavior. He tries to be proactive and engaged, but she is not having any of that.

Spryly straddling the horror and psychological thriller categories, Honeymoon is a tricky film to get a handle on. There is precious little gore, but it insidiously plays to our fears and paranoia regarding postmodern, post-AIDS intimacy. How well can we ever know someone and how easily can they change? Of course, all bets are off when an uncanny agency is at work.

In one hour and twenty-seven minutes, Harry Treadaway and Rose Leslie go from insufferably cute to ominously tragic. While both are up-and-coming British screen thesps (she was Gwen Dawson, the chambermaid who yearned for a secretarial career in season one of Downton Abbey; he brings the creepy clamminess as Dr. Frankenstein in Penny Dreadful) they believably play generic English speakers. Maybe they’re Canadian (they have plenty of cabins up there). Leslie and Treadaway also develop convincing romantic chemistry on the way up the narrative arc and claustrophobic dramatic tension on the way down.

Seriously, when is a cabin in the woods ever a good idea in the movies? Regardless, Honeymoon is almost too subtle for its own good at times. While that might cost it with the midnight movie crowd, it will appeal to more mature genre fans. Moody and unsettling, Honeymoon is an impressive feature debut for Janiak, worth checking when it opens this Friday (9/12) in New York at the Cinema Village.

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TIFF ’14: Backcountry

Hipsters like to think nature is romantic and awe-inspiring. Actually, it is dangerous and uncomfortable. Alex thinks he will prove the former idealized view to his reluctant girlfriend Jenn, but instead he will simply confirm latter in spades during the course of Adam MacDonald’s Backcountry, which screens during the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.

Alex insists this trip is going to so awesome, because he will show Jenn his favorite trail to hike. You see it leads to this totally cool lake. Of course, he knows these woods so well he does not even need to pick up a map at the ranger station. Frankly, it is rather baffling why she didn’t just dump his butt in the car. She will soon wonder about that herself, but before she reaches that point, they run into Brad, a slightly intense trail guide, whom brings out Alex’s competitive instincts.

Eventually, Brad takes his Irish accent and moves on, but the couple remains uneasy. After all, it is obvious to Jenn the stranger knows the territory much better than her boyfriend. In fact, Alex soon has them hopelessly lost. With their water and provisions depleted, the not so happy campers soon see signs of bear activity.

Although billed as a thriller, Backcountry is more closely akin to Lee Tamahori’s under-appreciated The Edge. While nobody compares to Sir Anthony Hopkins, MacDonald’s cast is definitely more accomplished than that of Christopher Denham’s Preservation, another natural comparison title. However, Denham wastes little time cutting to the chase, whereas Backcountry is rather slow out of the blocks.

It is worth repeating, if you want to survive in the wild, stick with the city folk, because you can trust their survival instincts far more than those of the granola outdoorsy types. Jenn will be a case in point. Missy Peregrym is suitably down-to-earth as the down-to-business Jenn. Not afraid to get muddy, she comes to look like she is surviving quite an ordeal. In contrast, Jeff Roop’s whiny portrayal of Alex does not wear as well. However, it is nice to see Nicholas Campbell (of Da Vinci’s Inquest) appearing briefly as the park ranger and confirming Backcountry’s Canadian bonafides.

MacDonald nicely stages the film’s natural perils (definitely including an animal attack here and there), but the relationship issues are probably a bit too prominent in the dramatic mix. Never dull (but sometimes exhausting for the wrong reasons) Backcountry is an imperfect but competently executed survival story that will probably count on plenty of local support when it screens again tomorrow (9/10) at this year’s TIFF.

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The Green Prince: Son of Hamas Speaks

According to international law, the use of human shields constitutes war crimes, making Hamas the only war criminals in the latest round of Gaza fighting. Mosab Hassan Yousef probably was not shocked to see the terrorist organization sacrificing women and children. After all, it was not his Israeli handler who turned him into an extraordinarily well placed source, but the brutality of Hamas that he witnessed with his own eyes. Yousef and his Shin Bet contact Gonen Ben Yitzhak tell their unlikely story of espionage and ultimately friendship in Nadav Schirman’s The Green Prince (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

As the son of a top-ranking Hamas cleric, Yousef was practically born into terrorism. Taught anti-Semitic hatred from an early age, Yousef rashly embarked on his own terrorist operation as payback for one of his father’s many arrests. Fortunately, the Shin Bet saw him coming and they knew who he was.

It was Yitzhak’s job to recruit Yousef, not to befriend him. Initially, Yousef pretended to go along with the plan, hoping to murder his handler at a later date. However, his cover-establishing time in prison changed everything. There he heard the shrieks as his Hamas comrades tortured and executed fellow terrorists falsely accused of working with the Israelis. Upon his release, the widespread suicide bombings sponsored by Hamas also deeply troubled his conscience. Before long, Yousef was working with Yitzhak in great earnest, at enormous personal risk.

Based on Yousef’s expose-memoir Son of Hamas, Schirman’s documentary is far more even-handed and level-headed than you might expect. Yousef’s testimony leaves little doubt regarding the violent extremism of Hamas’s ideology and methods. He also personally witnessed Arafat, the Nobel Peace Prize recipient, secretly coordinating the Second Intifada with his father.

However, Prince is obviously not intended as pro-Israeli propaganda. Yousef explicitly blames everyone at the Shin Bet except Yitzhak for the difficult straights he eventually landed in as a U.S. asylum seeker facing certain deportation and certain assassination. Of course, he would hardly be the first intelligence asset cut loose by his spymasters, whereas every suicide bomber recruited by Hamas is fatally used and discarded.

There are scenes in Prince of Hamas at work that are genuinely scary. Without question, the stakes Yousef faced were as real as it gets. While it would be difficult to miss the drama of Yousef’s chronicle, both he and Yitzhak also happen to be compelling story tellers, as well as sympathetic figures that are sure to challenge audience preconceptions. Schirman bolsters the suspense and intrigue with moody noir lighting for his two talking heads and some PBS-quality re-enactments. There techniques can be a little hokey, but their effectiveness must be conceded nonetheless.

There are more than a few jaw-dropping moments in Prince and the revealing look it offers inside the inner workings of Hamas is only too tragically timely. At times, Yousef and Schirman seem to be struggling to find less than edifying Israeli anecdotes to balance the ledger (“welcome to the slaughterhouse” a prison guard once said to him). Yet, the film and its participants strive to end on a hopeful note, emphasizing the unlikely bond forged between Yousef and Yitzhak. Again, it might be manipulative, but it works. In fact, the film is consistently engrossing and eye-opening. Recommended to a surprising extent, The Green Prince opens this Friday (9/12) in New York at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema.

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TIFF ’14: 8 Bullets (short)

A man who survived a violent attack on his family will seek revenge largely relying on his sense of smell. That will very likely be as problematic in practice as it sounds. Indeed, the protagonist’s memories and perceptions are all subject to question throughout Frank Ternier’s stylish but unsettling animated short 8 Bullets (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.

Gabriel is a French expat living in Taipei. His backstory remains mysterious, but as we learn from the disembodied bystanders, he was the victim of a red-headed gunman’s vicious assault. Evidently, he wife was killed and his daughter was wounded in the leg, but Gabriel somehow survived a shot to the head, or at least that is the version he believes. Regardless, he has not been the same since that fateful day.

For the last six months, Gabriel has prowled the streets looking for a red-headed gangster who smells of fried food. He carries an equalizer, fully loads with said bullets for when he finds his prey. It is all very hardboiled, even though Gabriel’s sanity is clearly rather tenuous.

Ternier’s stylistic approach suggests the sort of films David Lynch makes are better suited to animation rather than live action. Although Ternier tells a strictly linear narrative, his visuals dramatically reflect the warped and unreliable perspective of his protagonist. He also nicely expresses Gabriel’s sense of otherness as a Frenchman in a foreign land.

While Ternier lays on the closing irony pretty heavily, his hip noir sensibility is rather cool overall. Most importantly, the animation is quite distinctive, evoking traditional watercolor techniques as well as contemporary comic art. Recommended for fans of animation and film noir, 8 Bullets screens again this Saturday (9/13) as part of Short Cuts International Programme 4 at this year’s TIFF.

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Monday, September 08, 2014

The Pirates: Joseon High Seas Intrigue

Why would a Korean Long John Silver start hunting Moby Dick during the early days of the Joseon Era? Captain So-ma has his reasons, including money, power, and revenge. He is not the only pirate hunting the whale that swallowed the Emperor’s new royal seal. His former first mate and a bandit nursing his own grudge get in on the chase in Lee Seok-hoon’s The Pirates (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The Ming Emperor has given his blessing to Yi Seong-gye’s rebooted Joseon Dynasty, as well its new name and seal. Unfortunately, when the ship carrying Yi’s emissaries back from China encountered a great mother whale and her baby, they arrogantly attacked. The new name and the ambassadors would make it back to the Imperial court, but the seal would not, having been engulfed like Jonah.

The ambassadors blame pirates and stall for time, recruiting the treasonous officer Mo Hong-gab to do all the dirty work necessary. Mo forces freshly minted pirate captain Yeo-wol to hunt down the whale, despite her misgivings. Yet, he immediately double crosses her with the So-ma, whom she recently deposed. Further complicating matters, landlubbing soldier turned bandit Jang “Crazy Tiger” Sa-jung also pursues the marked whale for mercenary reasons. However, things get personal for Jang when he encounters his old enemy, Mo (he happens to be the only one with an eye-patch, thanks to Jang).

Naval action historicals have been ruling the Korean box office in recent months, with both Pirates and The Admiral: Roaring Currents racking up over five million ticket sales, which is a significant milestone in that market. While The Admiral plays it scrupulously straight, Pirates allows for far too much mugging from pirate-deserter Chul-bong and the bandit monk. Frankly, even Jang acts strangely schticky for a fugitive-patriot with a history of showing up disloyalty.

However, when the film is aboard Yeo-wol’s ship, it is (ironically) on solid ground. There is no joking around with her. Honor and brotherhood mean something to Yeo-wol and her faithful followers. As the new captain, Son Ye-jin exhibits solid action chops and a smoldering presence, bringing to mind her dazzling work in Open City.

Likewise, Lee Kyoung-young is great fun to watch chewing the scenery as her mentor and nemesis. Kim Tae-woo also makes an effective villain, opting for an icier, menacing approach for Mo. The one-named K-pop star Sulli brings some charismatic earnestness to the proceedings as Yeo-wol’s protégé, but there is just too much of the rubber-faced Yu Hae-jin and his fellow goofy land bandits.

Call it the curse of Jack Sparrow. When making a film about pirates, comic relief seems like an essential ingredient, but what we really want are more heroic women action figures, exactly like Yeo-wol. (Let’s forget about Cutthroat Island—please). Although it is more than two hours before the closing credits roll, Lee keeps it moving along rather briskly. He stages some suitably swashbuckling action spectacles and cinematographer Kim Young-ho’s underwater scenes are impressive. Recommended for fans of Son and high seas adventure, The Pirates opens this Friday (9/12) in New York at the AMC Empire.

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A Leading Man: Being Asian in Hollywood

Despite Hollywood’s determination to sell its soul to China, a lingering institutional insensitivity to Asian type-casting and crude stereotypical jokes persists in the industry. Jason Biggs and his tweet about Asian drivers is a case in point. Had his racial humor targeted any other demographic group, his career would likely be on life support, but in this case, Hollywood just shrugged. Soon-to-be unemployed actor GQ Qi understands the hypocrisy only too well. He has played the game better than most of his colleagues, but has little to show for it in writer-director Steven Kung’s A Leading Man (trailer here), which opens this Friday in select cities, following a well received festival run, including Dances With Films.

Qi had to fight to get the starring role in Mitch Lebowitz’s new sitcom Pu Pu Platter, but playing the cringy, subservient exchange student makes him nauseous. Lebowitz’s overbearing demeanor and insulting condescension do not help either. After Qi inevitably snaps, his longtime agent drops him. Even his formerly supportive mother cuts him off, suggesting he finally settle for a management position in the family’s Shanghai semi-conductor family. However, he has a bold plan: he will romance up-and-coming casting director Rachel Cohen.

Against her better judgment, Cohen succumbs to his charms. Unfortunately, when Lebowitz gets wind of their relationship, he fires Cohen as well. Suddenly, both Qi and Cohen are on the outs. Is their relationship real enough to withstand the financial and emotional pressures to come? If so, it will be a hard fought victory, because there is not a lot of easy sentiment or unearned feel good moments in Leading. While Kung excoriates Hollywood’s Asian stereotyping and discrimination, he clearly implies there is also a bit of karma at work in Qi’s case.

Fittingly, Jack Yang really does have leading man presence as Qi, but he is not afraid play up the Machiavellian and rather unsympathetic side of his character. It is a dark, subtly calibrated performance that gives the film real integrity, even if it pushes away sympathetic viewers. Heather Mazur plays off Yang quite nicely as the smart and down-to-earth Cohen, while executive producer Pat Tsao is a force of nature as the sort of iron-willed mother that nearly anyone can well relate to, regardless of ethnicity or nationality.

Hollywood takes in the shins throughout Leading, but to Kung’s credit, it never lets anyone off the hook. It might sound like a thematic analog to Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle, but Kung’s film is more thoughtful and dramatically complex. Despite the inconsistency of some supporting players, A Leading Man is worth a look, particularly for those who appreciate a caustic look at the movie business when it opens this Friday (9/12) in limited markets.

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