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Wo ai ni mommy (2010)
An adoption documentary like no other
There is an abundance of great films about a child lost in an alien culture, emblematic of the universal stranger-in-a-strange-land syndrome, to the tune of "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child." From "The Wizard of Oz" to "Live and Become," survival in a different, potentially hostile, world has been a meaningful subject.
The latest addition to the genre, Stephanie Wang-Breal's brilliant "Wo ai ni (I love you) Mommy" is a documentary about an American adoption from China. It is more compelling and memorable than many a feature film.
The world premiere screening was at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, on Sunday, March 14, with the the director in attendance. If the film's main subject came along, you would have seen a "normal 11-year-old American" called Faith.
At the opening of the film, it's a very different situation: Faith is an eight-year old orphan, with a clubfoot, in Guangzhou, her name is Fang Sui Yong. Bewildered and petrified, she is facing a strange woman who came all the way from Long Island to adopt her and take her "home." The American, almost as stressed as the young girl, is Donna Sadowsky.
She is Jewish, mother of two boys, and she and her husband have already adopted a Chinese girl when she was 14 months old.
After a long and arduous process, a long, emotion-filled journey, Donna is now meeting Sui Yong, an adoptee much older than the average of 70,000 Chinese children - mostly babies or toddlers - adopted by Americans. Donna disregards custom and statistics: this is to be her daughter.
For the girl, a veteran of orphanages and a Chinese foster family, this first meeting with what she identifies as a "white person" is traumatic, and in the audience feelings range from censure of what's happening to fervent hope that the Chinese orphan and the American do-gooder ride off into a blissful life. What follows is a fascinating journey, unexpected turns and developments, all with documentary veracity but with the sense of a great novel.
It's amazing that a young, first-time director would capture both the reality and the truth of the encounter of people, the clash of cultures.
It's reminiscent of another young director's work, Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation," except that much is found in "Wo ai ni Mommy," instead of being lost.
Wang-Breal's years'-long preparation, the mutual trust built with her subjects, persistent integrity, and a clear sense of what is the essence of the story serve her well, even when a lesser director would shout "Cut!" In a memorable scene, Faith is on Skype with her former foster parents in China, and by now she speaks only English, "forgets" her Chinese, and says "we are Jewish." Against coughs, sound and lighting problems, Wang-Breal keeps the camera rolling, and it's all to the good.
Unlike flashy, popular feature films left behind along with the empty popcorn container, "Wo ai ni Mommy" - its people, their interactions and relationships, the culture clash and reaching across distances and differences, and partial resolution of conflicts, if not a sugary happy ending - will stay with you, and you'll be the richer for it.
The art of gender-neutral painting
A lavish royal court spectacle, a compelling drama of love, strife, and betrayal, the new Korean film "Portrait of a Beauty" has it all: history, art, romance, adventure. The San Francisco premiere is today (3/20) in the 4-Star Theater on Clement.
As most recent works from the burgeoning Korean film industry, "Portrait" is expertly directed (by Yun-su Jeon, also responsible for the screenplay), and beautifully photographed.
Taking place in the 18th century, the story begins in the family of famous court painters, where the young son is trained to take his place among the privileged royal artists - but he lacks talent.
His sister, at age 7, is already so accomplished that she paints for him secretly. When the subterfuge is discovered within the family, the boy commits suicide, and the girl is forced to take his name (Yoon-bok), and live as a man. Rather than telling the plot of the movie, the story described so far is just the very beginning, the basis for a lengthy, rich adventure to unfold.
The hero/heroine is played by the unassuming but outstanding actress Min-sun Kim. Her character, pretending to be a man, rises to fame and fortune (as we are treated to picturesque scenes of court and town life), and then creates a new school of painting, focusing on female beauty.
If you think the "establishment" of "Die Meistersinger" are upset about a bold, unconventional newcomer singer, you should see what the constellation of court painters does and, more, tries to do to Yoon-bok. Apparently, Korean artists in the 1700's were quite physical in their discussions of the finer points of brush strokes.
And yet, the artistic-aesthetic clash is just a small portion of the story. Yoon-bok falls in love with a charming outlaw (Nam-gil Kim, in a fabulously athletic performance), so there is the problem of the supposedly male painter letting her intended lover into her secret - but without being exposed to the rest of the world.
That exposure of gender complicates things a great deal when Yoon-bok's elderly teacher realizes that his student is a beautiful young woman when not disguised, and then - don't give up yet! - a royal courtesan falls in love with Yoon-bok, the man.
If this sounds like a potboiler, yes, it is that, but if you expect a predictable Hollywood soap knockoff - NO, it is not that at all. Writing, direction, acting combine to keep "Portrait of a Beauty" on the right side of the track, not giving in to easy and cheap solutions.
Apparently, aspects of the film are based on history, but my admiration for Korean films doesn't give me sufficient knowledge on the subject. True story or not, this film is real enough in creating a first-class movie experience.
Kirschblüten - Hanami (2008)
Rebirth Under the Cherry Trees
Doris Dörrie's "Cherry Blossoms" - opening "Berlin and Beyond" Thursday, in U.S. release on Friday - has two original titles, one in German: "Kirschblüten," which means cherry blossoms, and another in Japanese: "Hanami," which doesn't.
The Japanese equivalent to the English and German titles would be "sakura"; "hanami" is a national ceremony/celebration/holiday of WATCHING the blossoms open. Dating back to the 8th century, hanami is an event without parallel outside Japan.
The difference between the titles is a subtle, but meaningful message. Just as the blossoms in themselves are different from the veritable cult surrounding them in Japan, Dörrie's characters live in two different worlds, acting differently, first clashing (similarly to "Lost in Translation") and then - somewhat mysteriously - cohere. With this complex, effective, and moving story, Dörrie, who has spent more than three decades writing and directing "interesting and different" films of varying quality, has reached a pinnacle of her career. (She owes a debt of gratitude to Yasujiro Ozu, especially his "Tokyo Story.")
"Germans and Japanese," Dörrie has said, "are really very much alike incredibly repressed and very irrational at the same time." This vague and rather ridiculous generalization actually seems to come to life in "Cherry Blossoms."
One of Germany's best-known TV stars, Elmar Wepper, appears in his first movie role, and he nails the character of Rudi Angermeier, a cartoonishly ordinary man on an extraordinary journey. Unknown to him, he is near the end of his life, as he slowly, believably emerges from a stolid German middle-class life of unvariable routine to traverse distance and radically different cultures, all the way to Mount Fuji, dancing butoh.
There are two remarkable co-stars along Rudi's adventure: his wife, Trudi, played by the glamorous actress Hannelore Elsner, appearing heroically unglamorous here to fit the role of a plain housefrau; and Aya Irizuki as Yu.
Yu is one of those rare cinematic creations, a character you may not understand, but one who will stay with you. This waif, runaway, street artist is as bizarre a representative of Japan as - going back to "Lost in Translation" again - Bill Murray's Premium Fantasy woman ("Rip my stockings!") and yet she also evokes Giulietta Masina's character in "La Strada," a couple of continents away.
Watching Rudi and Yu under the cherry blossoms, with the strangely elusive Mount Fuji in the background finally peeking out from behind the clouds, is among the more memorable scenes in contemporary cinema.
'Frost/Nixon' - not what you think
I almost skipped "Frost/Nixon," and I am glad I didn't. It's eminently worthwhile, one of the year's few films that deserves to be seen.
My reluctance had to do with the expectation that it will offer nothing new to somebody who lived through the Watergate years and saw the Frost interviews (although remembering surprisingly little of them).
Ron Howard's film is anything but ho-hum - if anything it's a bit too gussied up to be exciting. There is an element of discernible manipulation of the audience, but mostly it works, and you don't long resist it.
The (relatively) unsung hero of the film besides Howard, Frank Langella's tremendous Nixon, and Michael Sheen's excellent Frost is the screenwriter: once again Peter Morgan (of "The Last King of Scotland" and "The Queen") engages mind and heart, and doesn't let go. Sam Rockwell's James Reston, Jr. and Oliver Platt's Bob Zelnick (Frost's two collaborators) are outstanding, and Kevin Bacon's Nixon-worshipping Jack Brennan is the actor's best work in a long time.
Morgan and Howard manage to make the viewer think constantly of another criminal President without saying or showing anything overt - they just let history, past and present, speak.
I had a strange, uncomfortable thought watching "Frost/Nixon": even if some future film "humanizes" (not excuses) Bush the way Nixon comes through this one, W. would still remain a malevolent midget against Nixon's accomplishments and actual *brain*. How far we have fallen.
Nobel Son (2007)
"Nobel Son" is one of the more entertaining movies of the year. It is an intriguing, quirky mix of quick-cutting, edgy direction; an outstanding cast; and some unusually literate text and sophisticated in-jokes for the who-is-doing-it (rather than who-done-it) genre.
Randall Miller is the MTV director, Miller and Jody Savin - each with a rather meager resume as a writer - are responsible for the winning script.
It's rare and fortuitous these days to walk into a theater to see a movie whose plot you know, and still be engaged and surprised. Such is the case here.
With deliberate exaggeration and advance apologies, I'd compare "Nobel Son" to "Sleuth" both for its tit-for-tat, now-you-see-it/now-you-don't continuous cliff-hanger nature, and the sense of amusement and fun even through some rather harrowing action. "Son" is *like* "Sleuth" in the true sense of that grossly abused word: having some of the same characteristics.
Only a great English stage actor such as Alan Rickman could make the silly cartoon figure of Eli Michaelson believable - and he does, becoming sort of likable in his unfettered loathsomeness. Michaelson is rotten to the core, antisocial beyond the worst case of Asperger's, plus a miserable human being - and the winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Mary Steenburgen plays his long-suffering wife, a character with a vaguely delineated past as a storied criminal investigator. Never too far from her is Bill Pullman, a detective, former colleague, current shoulder to lean on. Bryan Greenberg is the son, who - as you must know from all the ads and buzz - is held for ransom, apparently by Shawn Hatosy, a young actor who more than holds his own against the veterans in the cast. Danny Devito and Ted Danson show up, unnecessarily but - in the case of Danson - not irritatingly. Eliza Dushku has a star-turn debut as City Hall (that's the name), a looney poet, painter, and fornicator (their word, not mine).
There is something inexplicable about the cinematography: everybody in the cast looks like hell, sans makeup, sans Vaseline-smeared lens, sans everything. Pullman wins the race to Showing All the Pores, pasty-white, as unattractive as possible, but the others - including the women - are not far behind. A new trend? Makeup crew on strike? Who knows? For sure it's distracting, but "Son" is too good to allow this stupid quirk to interfere.
Maher's Catechism; Questions, No Answers
With 16 percent of the U.S. population, the un-/non-/anti-religious represent a larger segment than blacks (13%), gays (3%), or NRA members (2%). Never mind the exact figures (which vary from source to source), focus on the question what kind of lobby do the non-religious have, with impact approaching those other groups? None, alas. Why is that?
It could be this: The militantly religious must be *right*, the secular - by definition - will not fight to the death for his truth (or god, not in evidence). My money is on the righteous, the fervent, the militant, the possessed. One day, they may even have an influence over the U.S. government! Meanwhile, in our corner, there is Bill Maher.
His "Religulous," directed by Larry Charles, is an entertaining, funny, angry, thought-provoking journey from the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Via Dolorosa, the Qumran Caves, to Stonehenge, Habibi Ana (and a Moslem Gay bar), the Vatican, the Holy Land Experience Park in Florida, the U.S. Capitol, Mormon Tabernacle, and many others.
Everywhere, Maher is asking a few simple questions: What do you believe, why, and how can you possibly...? Half Catholic, half Jewish, and fully agnostic, Maher is incredulous, in every sense of the word, but curiously warm and gentle asking questions about the "the final battle between intelligence and stupidity that will decide the future of humanity."
In Larry Charles' words, the situation confronted is like this: "An old God, a very buff old God that lives in space decides to create the first man from earth dust, then makes a woman from that man's rib. They get to live forever if they don't eat the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge, but the woman is tricked into eating a piece by a talking snake and all future humanity is cursed." And that, of course, is just the basic tenet of one religion. Discuss.
Maher goes on in his polite crusade to dissect some of the similar Star Wars/Disney scenarios in Scientology, Mormonism, among Orthodox Jews and televangelists. All interviews are interesting, but some are amazing and memorable. Father Reginald Foster - a senior Vatican scholar, principal Latinist for the Pope - will stun you as he agrees with Maher on some points. There is unexpected goodwill and kindness from a group of evangelists "attacked" by Maher; they pray for him, and really mean it.
You may have chills running down your back as you listen to Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Arkansas), sitting in his Capitol office, speaking about his belief in Creationism and the literal interpretation of the Bible. You don't need to be a Christian to be offended (and amused) by the commercial Jesus impersonators Maher interviews, and you may feel a bit sorry for the Pentecostals speaking in tongues. (Gov. Palin and John Ashcroft, neither featured in "Religulous," are members of that church.)
After comedy, irony, and sarcasm, Maher turns serious at the end of the film, and asks with deep concern if the future of the world can be entrusted to the many varieties of believers in the unreal, the illogical, the incongruous, the phantasmagorical. Looks like we are well on our way to that eventuality.
Burn After Reading (2008)
Tonight We Laugh
Norman Cousins would have loved the Coen Brothers' "Burn After Reading." The late great Saturday Review editor had treated his illness with Marx Brothers movies, having "made the joyous discovery that 10 minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep."
I have never felt healthier than after 96 minutes of explosive and grateful laughter at the "Burn" screening, also marveling at the array of British-stage caliber acting from "Fargo"-invoking Frances McDormand, witchy-icy Tilda Swinton, a more-manic-than-ever John Malkovich, and a dozen major players, such as J.K. Simmons as the deadpan CIA boss and Richard Jenkins as the former Greek Orthodox priest, now running an upscale gym.
Others may lead the cast list with George Clooney and Brad Pitt, but to me, their performances were just a bit on the self-conscious side, trying too hard. At any rate, it's a great cast, and while the plot might have turned into a dud in somebody else's treatment, the Coen Brothers' writing is hilarious, their zingers deadly.
A critic, probably with bad digestion, has decried this "very black comedy set in a blanched, austere-looking Washington, D.C. an uninspiring and uncomfortable place in which everyone betrays everyone else, and the emotional tone veers from icy politeness to spitting rage and back again." If I had a chance to think, instead of enjoying "Burn," I would have contemplated Molière and Evelyn Waugh, their comedies of manners, psychological insight, and unbridled great humor.
Yes, there are betrayals (none better than the totally unexpected one at the end of the film), and there is rage, but all contained within a glorious bubble of writing-directing-acting excellence. "Burn" grips and holds, surprises and entertains, it is a virtuoso piece.
Don't be misled by the a "action-trailer" on TV, saturating the airwaves; it says nothing of the film. Malkovich punching Pitt over a compromising CD of spook stuff is not at the heart of this - the McDormand character's pursuit of cosmetic surgery is, what with her self-examination, a lengthy session with the surgeon (Jeffrey DeMunn, in a brilliant turn), her desperate quest for a way to pay for it. Funny and going deep at the same time, "Burn" presents a series of character studies (hence the thought of Molière), in the context of mannered yet true social interactions (Waugh).
Skip descriptions of the plot, reject self-righteous denunciations of smart skepticism and charming evil, go and wallow in life-affirming laughter.
Brideshead Revisited (2008)
Once More, Into Brideshead
It's attributed to just about everybody - from Ginger Rogers to Milan Kundera - and it sounds so right: "There are no small parts, only small actors."
If you want proof and a real understanding of the adage, revisit "Brideshead Revisited," and behold the miracle of Emma Thompson's Lady Marchmain, sucking the life out of anything and anybody she touches, and Michael Gambon's delightfully dissolute Lord Marchmain. She has about 10 minutes on the screen, he perhaps four, and yet their characters will follow you out of the theater, and stay with you at length.
Thompson's work is especially dazzling because the mean, sanctimonious character is so clearly alien to the actress (in fact, I suspected miscasting when I first heard of her assignment) and also as the character is so exaggerated, almost a caricature. And yet, Thompson gives the challenge her all, and walks away with it; the performance has Best Supporting Actress written all over it.
It's difficult to believe that the man you see as Marchmain is the same actor who was the "Singing Detective" (of the superb BBC series, not the Robert Downey Jr. mishap). Gambon has a range as wide as all outdoors, and you never ever see effort in the performance. His amiable Marchmain - subtly hinting at a complex character under the surface - has a physical similarity to Gambon's Uncle Vanya on the London stage, but otherwise, it's a unique creation.
What else is there to this new "edition" of "Brideshead"? A great deal, but only if you're among those who missed both Evelyn Waugh's novel and the wonderful Granada TV realization 27 long years ago - Irons! Gielgud! Olivier! - how can you compete with that? So, if it's a first-time visit, see the movie by all means; if you can recite lines from the book or the TV series, you can survive without the new version.
In 135 minutes, the film is handling well what the TV series did so completely in - yes - 13 HOURS. Obviously, except for the basic story line (script by Jeremy Brock, of "The Last King of Scotland"), this is a different kind of animal, still "leisurely" enough, but unable to luxuriate in the smallest details as the series did. The director is Julian Jarrold, and he is doing far better than in his recent "Becoming Jane," keeps the story moving in a smooth fashion.
As to the leading roles in the film, they are all well acted, but without great impact. Matthew Goode is Charles Ryder, the focal character; Ben Whishaw is the slightly over-flamboyant Sebastian Flyte (who needs understating more than exaggerating - Anthony Andrews' performance in the TV series was exactly right); Hayley Atwell is Sebastian's sister (and rival for Charles' affection).
One amazing thing about "Brideshead" is how this story from a different time, about characters from a different world, remains interesting and meaningful. It's almost as if Waugh's work was bulletproof - not that these filmmakers were less than respectful to the author. A better test would be a Eurotrash opera version, heaven forfend.
Mummy Chop Suey
"The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor" is an indelicious admixture of Hollywood and Hong Kong exploitation flicks. To be precise, it has three of the four basis elements of the genre: gratuitous violence, special effects and assorted mayhem, yes; naked flesh, not so much. Oh, well, you can't have it all.
Still, this "Mummy" tries very, very hard to do all, to be all, from an intergalactic-sized avalanche, to abominable snowmen flying through the air (if Yeti are always men, how does the species survive?), to one of the least convincing romances in movie history - between two ghastly young principal actors, Luke Ford and Isabella Leong.
Their underachievement, along with embarrassing performances - in the leading roles, no less - by Brendan Fraser and Maria Bello is all the more significant in the starry presence of Michelle Yeoh and Jet Li. A mix, indeed, ugh.
One must believe in mummies in order to source the current overwhelming curse on Hollywood, of countless comic-book, super-hero, special-effect permits to print money with movies devoid of (non-monetary) value. And now the blitz has gone multicultural, but not in a good way.
This third film in a series hearkens back to the fictional Emperor Han (another mix here, of China's real first emperor, Ying Zheng, also known as Qin Shi Huangdi, and of a ruthless character in search of eternal life), his betrayal of the wizard (Yeoh) who could have helped him, and her curse on him. Han is Jet Li, not so much a mummy as a flaking metal statue, almost constantly on fire, and fairly walking through this misdirected mess. The misdirector is Rob Cohen, of "The Fast and the Furious," someone who can provide scenes, but nothing beyond them.
From the opening scene between Li and Yeoh, establishing the origins of the story, "Mummy" moves to an exciting fly-fishing scene in England, where retired Indiana-wannabe Fraser hooks himself in the neck. Things get worse when he goes home to a similarly retired but more cheerful and less awkward wife (Bello) for an evening of strained inactivity. Ford is their son, skipping school in China to discover the whole Han terracotta army and the mummified/metalized/fire-breathing emperor. And so it goes, for 112 minutes. (The Korean version is one minute shorter, and one wonders which crucial 60 seconds Koreans have been denied.)
The Making of Genghis Khan
Astonishingly, the name and the person of Genghis Khan in Sergei Bodrov's "Mongol," a great, Shakespearean drama about this seminal figure in history, don't appear until the very end of the two-hour epic. Instead, we see Temudjin, the man yet to become (posthumously) Khagan (emperor) of what was to be for several centuries the largest contiguous empire in history. Whether Bodrov completes the contemplated two additional chapters of the story or not, "Mongol" stands on its own as a masterpiece.
Contradicting the Western (and Russian) image of Genghis as the monstrous conqueror, Bodrov's work is influenced by Lev Gumilev's "The Legend of the Black Arrow" and is based on "The Secret History of the Mongols," the 13th century Mongolian account, unknown until its re-emergence in China 700 years later. For a director, who learned in school only about the horrors of Russia's 200-year subjugation by the Mongols, taking a "larger view" is a remarkable act.
Unlike Omar Sharif in the 1965 Henry Levin "Genghis Khan" or Takashi Sorimachi in Shinichiro Sawai's disappointing 2007 "To the Ends of the Earth and Sea," Tadanobu Asano in Bodrov's film is strictly Temudjin, not the great Khan. He lived from 1162 to 1227, and "Mongol" covers the years between 1171 and the beginning of the unification of Mongolian tribes around the turn of the century.
In fact, the spookily powerful child Temudjin (Odnyam Odsuren) dominates the first part of the film, undergoing trials and tribulations that make the lives of Dickens' abused and imperiled children look like a picnic. From age nine into his 30s, Temudjin was orphaned, hunted, imprisoned, enslaved, and constantly threatened by extinction. Literally alone in the vast landscape (brilliantly photographed by Rogier Stoffers and Sergei Trofimov), Temudjin escapes death repeatedly, at times almost mysteriously.
"Mongol" is huge - with endless vistas and epic crowd scenes, quite without special effects - but Bodrov keeps the setting just that, never strutting visuals for their own sake. The film is about people, and the cast is magnificent. Asano's face and eyes hold attention, and make the viewer experience simultaneous feelings of getting to know the character he plays and being held at arm's length. Bodrov and Asano escape all the many Hollywood pitfalls in making an epic - they present nothing easy, predictable, trite. The term "Shakespearean" is used here advisedly.
The Mongolian actors are sensational: Khulan Chuluun is luminous as Borte, Temudjin's wife; Borte's 10-year-old self, the girl who chooses Temudjin, then 9, while he thinks he is the one making the decision, is unforgettable, even if the name is hard to remember: Bayertsetseg Erdenebat.
Chinese actors are vital to the film. As Temudjin's father (poisoned by Tatars before the boy reached 10), Sai Xing Ga makes an impression few actors can achieve in such a brief appearance. Nearly overshadowing Asano is the grand thespian exercise from Sun Hong-Lei, as Temudjin's all-important blood brother Jamukha. Sun is almost too big for the big screen, perhaps a less intense performance would have served the film better.
Another problem is near the end of "Mongol," with Borte's stranger-than-fiction (and actually fictional) rescue of Temudjin from a Tangut prison, years, hundreds of miles, and impossible alliances and dalliances telescoped into a few near-incongruous minutes - all to cover a 10-year-long gap in Genghis' history. Except for that, however, Bodrov's work is engrossing, spectacular, and memorable.