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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 second of a two-part survey of the films: a Singaporean-Korean production along with films from Thailand, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.
Here’s the second batch of films nominated for the Asian Cinema Observer Recommendation Prize at the 2022 Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival. Read Part 1 . My reviews of the two Recommendation Prizewinners are available and .
Ajoomma (Korean for “auntie”) is billed as the first Singaporean–Korean co-production, and the culture clash is essential to the plot. Co-written by director He Shuming with Kris Ong, it’s a farcical road trip drama where it seems like anything (but mostly bad stuff) can happen, though by the end little sticks in the mind.
Hong Hui Fang plays the titular Auntie, a Singaporean widow who watches Korean soap operas at home while her son (Shane Pow) works. They’ve planned to go on a Korean packaged tour together, but at the last minute he has to fly to the U.S. for a job interview (and maybe something else), leaving his mom to go on the non-refundable tour alone; the other tourists are from not Singapore but China. And just as she seems to be settling in and making friends, the handsome but distracted tour guide (Kang Hyung-seok) accidentally leaves her behind in the dead of winter at an unscheduled stop he isn’t supposed to make in the first place.
Make no mistake: This is a plot-centric heartwarming crowdpleaser aimed squarely at the whole family as it gathers for the Lunar New Year holidays. We never doubt that Auntie will make it home safely with a treasure trove of memories and, maybe, a new friendship or two. Yet though it doesn’t take itself too seriously, it’s only intermittently funny. The lasting impression is of a commercial for Korean soap operas.
Much more incisive is Thai writer-director-producer Sorayos Prapapan’s Arnold Is a Model Student, a character study and social satire set against the background of Thailand’s recent anti-regime protests.
Arnold (Korndanai Marc Dautzenberg) is an incredibly privileged high school senior. Of mixed French and Thai heritage, he returned from a U.S. exchange program with fluent English — itself a language privileged by the school system — and has just won a Math Olympiad gold medal. As you might imagine of a young man whose ego gets puffed up, he slacks off, acts out in class, and leads a group of rebels to drink and smoke (or vape). He’s even offered large sums of money by a cram school to help its cheating racket on a government exam.
This is in exciting contrast to what he sees around him at school: a singular focus on obedience and respect for elders (including a hilarious educational video on ritual bowing that’s an actual government video), mindless repetition of national propaganda in civics class, and a strict dress code enforced by caning and other corporal punishments. Some of Arnold’s fed-up classmates form the Bad Student movement (based on a real group), and their protests link up with larger protests against the military-led government, as underlined with real protest footage (edited by Carlo Francisco Manatad). By downplaying his performance, Dautzenberg leaves room for us to imagine Arnold’s inner turmoil, and the eventual catharsis is all the more powerful for being understated.
Hong Kong writer-director Lau Kok Rui gives us The Sunny Side of the Street, a deeply felt yet implausible portrait of the struggles of Arab asylum seekers in Hong Kong. Owing to Hong Kong’s restrictive policies toward refugees — only a minuscule number have been granted asylum — it can only serve as a waystation, and asylum seekers generally must settle elsewhere.
According to the film, asylum seekers in Hong Kong can’t work, but instead of money, their government support is paid in food stamps. (The reality is but similarly restrictive.) An imam notes that they can’t officially register marriages, leaving couples to fend for themselves. A single misstep could push an asylum seeker into legally murky territory, and local prejudice, including from the police, doesn’t help.
Into this community barges xenophobic taxi driver Yat (Anthony Wong), who through a series of unfortunate events kills a Pakistani refugee in a car crash, leaving behind a wife and young son, Hassan (Sahal Zaman), who joins a South Asian ring of thieves. Out of guilt, Yat tries to atone by finding Hassan and bringing him home to his mother, but a police raid, a stolen gun, and HK$2 million get in the way. No part of the plot makes sense, but we only notice that during the slow moments thanks to the two captivating lead performances. It’s two actors and a worthy sketch in search of a story.
From Taiwanese actor Kai Ko comes Bad Education, written by popular novelist-turned-director Giddens Ko, a gross-out picaresque about the misadventures of a trio of high school senior boys on their graduation night. Divided into three chapters, it’s a humorous fable-like noir that’s repulsive physically and morally — but the disgust is key to its social critique.
Leader Chang (Berant Zhu), enabler Han (Edison Song), and bookish lackey Wang (Kent Tsai) are having a beer-fueled bull session on a rooftop when Chang comes up with the idea of forming a brotherhood based on shared secrets. He and Han each share an incredibly twisted tale, but when Wang comes up empty, they force him to essentially a mafioso. They don’t think he’ll go through with it, but in a subtle bit of foreshadowing, it’s this underestimation of him that spurs Han to actually do it.
The rest of the film follows the ensuing chase by the whole gang and includes a party girl who’s been sexually assaulted (not by the boys), a stolen taxi, a cynical cop (played by Huang Hsin-yao), and a charismatically terrifying performance from Leon Dai as mafia leader Brother Hsing. The earthy dialogue and archetypal characters lend weight to the central idea that amoral youth grow up to underpin an amoral society in which the mafia are powerful precisely because they profess a moral code. As Brother Hsing admonishes the boys, “Being a bad man is still being a man.”
Bringing up the rear is Taiwanese writer-director-editor Chan Ching-lin’s sophomore feature, Coo-Coo 043 (the Chinese title 一家子兒咕咕叫 is much better and means both “cooing all over the house” and “the whole family’s gone cuckoo”), the opening film of this year’s Golden Horse Film Festival. It’s set in the fascinating world of legal pigeon racing. Intriguing as this sounds, the maudlin plot is unfocused, and the protagonist is toxic in boringly predictable ways.
The film is named for a pigeon who once held much promise but many years ago didn’t return from a race; it’s back now, but like Edgar Allan Poe’s raven, it’s not a good omen. The real protagonist is pigeon racer Ching (Yu An-shun), an old hand who used to win a lot more often. Now he’s in debt paying for pigeon feed and daily trainers, who take his birds far away and free them to fly back. He and his second wife (Yang Li-yin) are still scarred by the disappearance twelve years ago of his young son by his first wife on his way back from school. Their rebellious daughter, Lulu (Rimong Ihwar), wants to escape this oppressive household, which includes Ching’s aged and disabled father. A brief dalliance with orphaned pigeon trainer and part-time gangster Tig (Hu Jhih-ciang) can’t keep her home.
Everyone gives it their best, many shots of birds and nature are gorgeous (by cinematographer Chi-Wen Chen), and there’s even a Bergman/Tarkovsky reference at the end, but the aimless plot, combined with the running time of over two hours, dooms the whole endeavor. The central image is interesting: A beloved yet disappointing pigeon returns instead of a son. Alas, there’s just no there there. This should’ve been a pigeon racer documentary.
TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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