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Our film critic CJ Sheu was at the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival to review nominees for the Asian Cinema Observer Recommendation Prize. Here he gives the first of a two-part survey of the films, including entries from Indonesia, Japan, Macau, Hong Kong, and South Korea.
Every year, the Golden Horse Film Festival in Taipei works with the Network for Promotion of Asian Cinema (NETPAC), a pan-Asian group, to bestow the festival’s NETPAC Award on one of around ten nominees, each the debut or sophomore feature of its Asian director. At the same time, the Golden Horse Film Academy recruits about fifteen critics from diverse backgrounds to serve on the jury of the Asian Cinema Observer Recommendation Prize, awarded to a NETPAC nominee.
I was fortunate enough to serve on this year’s Asian Cinema Observer jury screening the ten nominated films. Below in the order we screened them are capsule reviews of five films. . My reviews of the two Recommendation Prizewinners are available and .
Indonesian writer-director Mukbal Mubarak started out as a film critic, and his fictional Autobiography bears the influence — for better, but mostly for worse — of his first career. The script is planned out with writerly precision, yet the theme that power corrupts is too dominant to allow for much surprise.
The film follows Rakib (Kevin Ardilova), the nineteen-year-old son of the servant to retired General Purnawinata (Arswendy Bening Swara), an authoritarian strongman. With his father in jail, Rakib assumes his duties, and as he cleans the house and drives the General around, the son-less General starts to feel paternal. Rakib, who’s almost always cowering before him, thinks that this may be a good thing, but the film’s slow editing (by Carlo Francisco Manatad) and tension-filled blocking says otherwise, as does the distorted EDM score (by Bani Haykal).
Drawing on Indonesia’s repressed history of dictatorship, Autobiography has enough breathing space to contemplate the queer undertones of fascism and the intersection between pride in le nom du père (the name of the father) and fear of le non du père (the “no” of the father), as Lacan . Coproduced with the Philippines (and France, Germany, Poland, Qatar, and Singapore), the film evokes Apocalypse Now (1979), while its ending echoes that of Childhood of a Leader (2015).
More intriguing and full of surprises is Roleless, from writer-director-editors Kentaro Hirase, Sato Masahiko, and Yutaro Seki, of the Gogatsu filmmakers collective. We start off amid a samurai fight, but then one of the dead samurai stands up–he’s an extra on a shoot. After work, he goes to a bar to drink alone, when suddenly he’s caught in the crossfire of a shootout. But, again, it’s a film set.
His name is Yamashita (Kagawa Teruyuki), and the fun of the film’s first half is in how the rug keeps getting pulled out from under us, to the extent that when we see his real life, there’s still that niggling tension of uncertainty, aided by Toyoda Masayuki’s subtly atonal score. Kagawa’s very careful performance gives nothing away, nor does Kunii Shigeto’s uniform cinematography. All I’ll say is that we viewers aren’t the only ones confused.
The big reveal, when it does come, arrives with a spectacular sonic clarity (sound by Minami Tokuaki) that’s reminiscent of The Last Jedi (2017). The truth is suggested unambiguously, and it’s outlandish. The ending, on the other hand, is a particularly Japanese flavor of moral copout.
In what seems to be part of a Chekhov rediscovery on the arthouse circuit, Macau’s Hong Heng Fai delivers Kissing the Ground You Walked On, an adaptation of The Seagull focused on the central love triangle of Konstantin, Nina, and Trigorin. (The Chinese title translates to “the room where the seagull has been.”)
We first meet our Konstantin, Mr. Chao (Wong Pak-hou), a real estate agent and former one-hit-wonder novelist. An old writer friend begs him to write again; he demurs. Then he meets Ah Chong (Lam Sheung), a rookie theater actor whose first role is Nina in Chekhov’s Seagull. Using guanxi, he gets Mr. Chao to lease him one of his own apartments, with one room left for Mr. Chao to write in. It’s later revealed that Ah Chong is dating the acting company’s leader — our Trigorin (Chen Fei Lek).
I’m all for queering classic literature, but that can’t be all there is. Nearly every plot point corresponds to some aspect of Chekhov’s character dynamics; the film seems so preoccupied with the parallels that it forgets to do much else. There’s one fascinating sex scene — a literal climax — but the film’s never-ending plateau stage can’t hold interest. Charlie Sou’s cinematography is gorgeous in a way that’s not often seen nowadays, and Ellison Lau’s piano score is used creatively, even literally (both are nominated for Golden Horse Awards), but no amount of icing alone can turn flour into cake.
From Hong Kong comes Lam Sum’s The Narrow Road, written by Fean Cheung, a melodramatically plotted crowdpleaser about the plight of the working poor at the height of the pandemic.
Chak (Louis Cheung) runs a one-man cleaning company, and you’d expect business to be booming, but his ISO-registered detergent gets harder to import, too. One day, a young lady comes begging for a job, and because he has a bad back, he agrees. Her name is Candy (Angela Yuen), and she looks like a manic pixie dream coed. Fortunately, the best surprise of the film is that it’s mostly about her and her school-aged toddler, Chu, trying to scrape by in an economy in freefall.
We’ve seen this film countless times, just not in a pandemic setting. Wealth inequality is presented through mask-hoarding; the main obstacle to Candy’s gainful employment is the fact that everything’s closed. Wong Hin Yan’s fingerpicking electric guitar score highlights the film’s downtrodden warmth. But in a less fortunate surprise, even after pandemic restrictions are mostly lifted, the film takes a while to find an upbeat note on which to end, and that ending is still a headscratcher. The Narrow Road is exactly what you’d expect; if you like this sort of thing, don’t let me stop you.
Writer-director Jeong Ji-hye’s Jeong-sun (the Chinese title translates to “intimate betrayal”) tells a familiar story with an uncommon cast of characters. It’s a carefully observed piece that earns its flights into melodrama.
The title character, played by Kim Geum-soon, is a single older lady who works on the production line at the local food factory. The factory hires Yeong-su (Jo Hyun-wu), a new older guy from out of town, and soon Jeong-sun is taking night shifts to sleep with him after work. Then he betrays her.
The film carefully sketches the patriarchal nature of Korean society (a popular theme in current Korean cinema) and how it oppresses people of all genders. It also highlights the necessity of sisterhood and solidarity, mainly represented by Jeong-sun’s feisty and betrothed daughter (Yoon Geumseon-ah), who works at a scrapyard. Added to this are intersectional considerations of ageism, especially with regard to sexual agency in the age of the internet. These themes are fully explored in a single story of a single life, laying a solid foundation for climactic melodrama. But the plot machinations themselves are undercooked, and the film has trouble sticking the landing.
TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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