The closing night for the Melbourne Women in Film Festival was actually a film from New Zealand, but focusing strongly on diasporan peoples making their home in that country and the challenges that await. It’s as much about creating a future that doesn’t exist, I suppose, as in reflecting some kind of existing multicultural society (as I think NZ is a fair way away from that), but it’s great to see the work on show. I hope some of these filmmakers go on to make their own feature films; I’d love to see them.
I’m not sure this quite hits as hard as the same producers’ earlier portmanteau collections, Waru and Vai, but that’s not to say it’s not great. Indeed, it’s a wonderful tribute to the diversity of filmmaking culture in Aotearoa — or at least, potential filmmaking culture, as I don’t think the small number of films that the country makes each year really fully embraces that yet, but I certainly wish it would. Whereas the previous film Vai went to locations around the Pacific Islands to find stories that were united through the focus on the water, on the connective threads between them, Kāinga is grounded (literally) in the soil of a single home in Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland, specifically the southern suburb of Māngere.
The film is split into eight segments moving through the years, taking in each decade from the 1970s onwards, before moving forward in shorter increments, as families from different ethnicities move in, the changes in the families and the changes in the home tracking the changes in society, in aspirations and expectations, and the way that things come full circle. It’s about an idea of New Zealand that I still don’t think is fully part of society there, but is something I think it is working towards a bit better than some other countries (albeit haltingly, as we perceive a little in a later segment of the film, where the home is owned by a racist pākehā couple), of embracing cultural difference as a generative source, and a positive one, but it’s comforting to see it in film.
Not all the individual segments fully work on their own (as is natural for any film of this nature), but the vision is consistent, the work of the set designers and actors and all the filmmakers is impressive in just getting it done (all these 10-minute unbroken takes is a flex, carried over from Waru), and most of all it’s a model and an inspiration, I hope, for future indigenous and pan-Asian filmmaking.
Directors Michelle Ang, Ghazaleh Golbakhsh غزاله گلبخش, Nahyeon Lee, Angeline Loo, Hash Perambalan [as “HASH”], Asuka Sylvie, Yamin Tun and Julie Zhu 朱常榛; Writers Shreya Gejji, Golbakhsh, Mei-Lin Te Puea Hansen, HASH, Lee, Loo, Mia Maramara and Sylvie; Cinematographer Drew Sturge; Starring Mya Williamson, Izumi Sugihara, Patricia Senocbit, Eliana Hwang, Sneha Shetty, Masoumeh Hesam Mahmoudinezhad, Dharshi Ponnampalam, Katlyn Wong; Length 87 minutes.
Seen at ACMI, Melbourne, Monday 27 February 2022.
The full list of my favourite films of 2022 is here but I’m posting fuller reviews of my favourites. There aren’t too many animated films in there, because I don’t go to so many of those anymore, which it turns out is fine because Disney is barely making an effort to get them into cinemas, so most need to be watched via their streaming service. Hence this one, which I gave a shot to because it seemed to come from a more interesting perspective than fairytale princesses, and it is indeed very lovely.
It’s somewhat sad to me that Pixar films are so rarely nowadays shown in cinemas, because the attention to detail in the design and the animation that shows in films like this, or the previous year’s Soul, deserve the big screen but instead we have to subscribe to Disney+, which somehow lessens them. It also leads to factoids like it being the biggest money loser for a cinematic release (even though I’m fairly certain it was barely placed in any cinemas worldwide).
However, Turning Red still strikes me as one of the better recent crop of animated films, which both tells a discernable story from a specific perspective (a young girl from a Chinese background growing up in Toronto, voiced by Rosalie Chiang), but makes it both metaphorically rich and also cartoonishly cute at the same time. A lot of elements feel familiar from any coming of age/high school American movie, with its cliques of friends and confected schoolyard drama, but there’s a real strength to its focus on the setting, the details of the family temple such that even the supernatural plot twist (and I think the posters and marketing make it fairly clear that a large anthropomorphic red panda is involved) feels grounded in an authentic expression of familial ties and Chinese-Canadian culture.
Director Domee Shi 石之予; Writers Julia Cho, Shi and Sarah Streicher; Cinematographers Mahyar Abousaeedi and Jonathan Pytko; Starring Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh 오미주, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Ava Morse, James Hong 吳漢章; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at home (Disney+ streaming), Wellington, 2 July 2022.
I listed my favourite films of 2022 here but I’m trying to post fuller reviews of them as well. One that was again a 2021 favourite was one that showed up on streaming probably some time early in 2022 (maybe the year before, I don’t know; streaming seems so vague in terms of release dates), so I only caught up belatedly though in truth I was hoping for some cinema screenings. Fat chance I guess. Maybe one day in a retrospective, or if some enterprising soul does a season of mediaeval-set movies.
Kogonada’s follow up to the well-reviewed (and well-liked by me) Columbus is a strange futuristic tale, albeit one that doesn’t overwhelm with its technological aspects (there are human-like cyborg robots, but we don’t get too much into how they’re engineered or even how widespread they are, beyond a sense that their existence is more or less a commonplace). It’s a future largely connoted by modernist architecture and a sense of calm (although partly that’s Colin Farrell’s father and his obsession with tea), and the film rarely attains the same sense of ecstatic joy that comes during the dance-based credits sequence near the beginning.
Although she’s not a major part within the whole film, in a sense it’s Sarita Choudhury’s museum curator who is the key to this film, as it feels at times like a film about museum curation as much as Columbus was about architects: a story that locates the human, lived experience that those professions are only abstractly about. And like many films that feature robots, it’s actually a way of talking about what it means to be human, what it means to love and to remember, and the strength of memories across a family and across generations, linking together people who don’t even know one another, which is in a sense what curating a museum exhibit or a gallery is about.
Director/Writer Kogonada 코고나다 (based on the short story “Saying Goodbye to Yang” by Alexander Weinstein); Cinematographer Benjamin Loeb; Starring Colin Farrell, Jodie Turner-Smith, Justin H. Min, Sarita Choudhury, Haley Lu Richardson; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Nova, Melbourne, Thursday 28 April 2022.
Not all the best new films are released to cinemas, especially not if it’s screening on Disney+ because they really don’t like to get their films onto big screens anymore, which is a real shame because there’s no reason why this comedic retelling of Pride and Prejudice shouldn’t be a wider hit (though to be fair it’s not soft-pedalling the gay comedy here like similar 90s films might have done).
I feel like we had that great era of classic texts being revamped — and indeed, there’s even a brief throwaway reference to Clueless (1995) at one point in this film — and why not, because at this point it’s those films I’m pegging any remakes to rather than the original texts. But if Emma. (2020) and its ilk have been trying to take the classics back to their period settings, Fire Island proves that there’s still a lot of value in finding contemporary resonances. Imagining the Bennet sisters as a ‘family’ of gay men on a final summer holiday to the titular destination of their hedonistic youth turns out to be a pretty great twist, and productive too. There’s all the finely-nuanced character work drawn from the original with a wealth of sly references to modern culture and socialising added in, but if this were all just a studied ‘spot the reference’ competition it would quickly become boring. Luckily star/writer Joel Kim Booster and his co-lead Bowen Yang really bring the pathos along with the jokes. Yang, for all his other memorable turns, is still best known to me for being a breakout star on recent seasons of Saturday Night Live but here, fabulously, his level of party-killer/boring dorky dude is set via the detail of his recapping memorable SNL skits for people who couldn’t really care less. And while the rest of the cast are largely unknown to me, I look forward to all of them guiding the future of comedy, because there’s scarcely a dull performance amongst the group.
Director Andrew Ahn; Writer Joel Kim Booster 조엘 킴 부스터; Cinematographer Felipe Vara de Rey; Starring Joel Kim Booster, Bowen Yang 楊伯文, Conrad Ricamora, James Scully, Margaret Cho 조모란, Matt Rogers; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at home (Disney+ streaming), Wellington, Friday 1 July 2021.
I’m not sure if Tobey Maguire, Skeet Ulrich and Jewel (the singer) counted as big stars back in 1999, but I suspect they may have had a greater lustre to them at the very least. In retrospect, though the casting is solid, their faded celebrity is perhaps now more appropriate to the Confederate bushwhackers they play: basically kids trying to mount a guerrilla offensive that starts out rooted in family but increasingly becomes a brazen attempt to profit by any means. This movement into banditry is where Jonathan Rhys Meyers’s slippery, traitorous character comes into his own. None of them are exactly people you want to root for, but Maguire and Jewel at least bring something a little bit empathetic, given their youth and evident inexperience at war. Of course, the real emotional centre of the film is Jeffrey Wright’s ex-slave, fighting on the side of the Confederates out of loyalty to his former master (a relatively brief appearance for Australian actor Simon Baker). There’s nothing particularly gung ho or patriotic about this film — it tells the story of a group of people caught up in events much bigger than them and which frequently seem too large even for this (fairly lengthy) film. In the end Lee is far more interested in the time between the battles and the effects of war than in mounting big combat scenes, and this is all the stronger a film for that.
- On a disc fairly light on bonus features, one of the main extras is a 15-minute video interview with Jeffrey Wright some years later, as he reflects on his role and the place of African-Americans in the forces of the Confederacy, which is needless to say a fraught and nuanced subject.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ang Lee 李安; Writer James Schamus (based on the novel Woe to Live On by Daniel Woodrell); Cinematographer Frederick Elmes; Starring Tobey Maguire, Jewel, Jeffrey Wright, Skeet Ulrich, Simon Baker, Jonathan Rhys Meyers; Length 148 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 12 March 2022 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, August 2001).
A film from earlier this year that I liked and need to try and recall at this great distance, it was released in NZ just before the Oscars ceremony it qualified for (being a 2020 film), where it won the Best Supporting Actress prize for Youn Yuh-jung. I’d seen the director’s debut, which is a Rwandan-set film called Munyurangabo, so his career (and presumably life) has been a fairly peripatetic one. And while this deals with a Korean family, it is set in and also very much is an American film at its heart.
A gentle and sweet film about assimilating into a new culture which will surely ring bells with anyone who’s done that — even if my own experience is merely moving from one anglophone country to another, hardly placing me in the same situation as this Korean family looking for better lives in the early-80s. Having been living in LA, the father, Jacob (Steven Yeun), tempts the family out to a small corner of the middle of nowhere (Arkansas), where he can start a farm and live the life he wants; his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) is hardly convinced, and brings her mother over from Korea to help her (this is Youn Yuh-jung). However, surprisingly for me, the highlight of the film is the kids (Alan Kim and Noel Kate Cho), who manage to hit the right note and not be too precocious or annoying (as they too often are in films). The plot takes a few rather big turns (such as a fire at one point) that I’m not sure the story needed, but the ensemble acting pulls it through for what is a sensitively told tale.
Director/Writer Lee Isaac Chung 정이삭; Cinematographer Lachlan Milne; Starring Steven Yeun 연상엽, Han Ye-ri 한예리, Youn Yuh-jung 윤여정, Alan Kim 김선, Noel Kate Cho 노엘 케이트 조; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Thursday 11 February 2021.
Some films are made for film festivals, and none more so than any given new film by Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Some of them have becoming (surprisingly) modest arthouse hits, like Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, and Memoria is very much in a similar mould, with lush jungle terrains (here in Colombia) and a slow, mysterious narrative that seems to promise both naturalism and also science-fiction and fantasy at times. The central investigation may recall Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, in being based around a mysterious sonic fragment, but there’s little else that recalls mainstream narrative cinema, and Tilda Swinton is looking strangely ordinary here as she searches for… something.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul proves that even making a film largely in English and set in Colombia, he’s still able to make exactly the kinds of films he makes, which is to say slow, somnolent and oblique. As with Cemetery of Splendour I nodded off a little at times (to be fair that one was a film about people with some kind of sleeping sickness), but it felt like part of the artistic process, a durational one, about a woman who seems to be searching for the source of a mysterious sound. That search takes her to various specialists (real or imagined?), and to a small village in the mountains, and those shots of ruins and lush vegetation seem very much of a piece with his most famous works. I think in many ways Memoria extends those themes, with some surprising additions that never exactly serve to make clear what’s been going on, but instead intensify and deepen the mystery. But that’s often the way. This had me fascinated and I loved the slow rhythms of it, but it danced nimbly away from explaining itself. Undoubtedly both this and the pacing will madden many of its potential viewers, but it’s an experience in being open to the possibilities of narrative.
Director/Writer Apichatpong Weerasethakul อภิชาติพงศ์ วีระเศรษฐกุล; Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom สยมภู มุกดีพร้อม; Starring Tilda Swinton, Jeanne Balibar, Elkin Díaz; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Thursday 18 November 2021.
Hello! It’s been a while since I posted a non-Criterion review on this site, so let’s jump back in. Cinemas may now be (more) open in certain parts of the world, but home streaming is still A Thing, and probably… always will be? Well, time will tell, but here’s another week of “random stuff I’ve watched on Netflix” because it’s still the most popular option.
I’d watched the first two instalments (several years ago) and honestly couldn’t remember much of the plot. I wrote little capsule reviews at the time, but they’re not much longer than a sentence and barely convey any information beyond “it was quite fun”. Then again, it’s been a day or two and I don’t remember much of the plot of this one either now, so I don’t think that’s really the key to the trilogy and won’t affect your enjoyment. Basically, it’s about our rotund hero Po (voiced by Jack Black) ‘finding himself’ and discovering his powers and his empathy as part of a quest to defeat a legendary big bad guy, Kai (J.K. Simmons), who has just managed to return to the mortal realm. Po has his buddies and he has his antagonists, and I’m not sure the plot itself is particularly deep but it’s also fairly blandly positive so I can’t really fault it for that, but it’s a good excuse to get together some cute characters and show off the fine animation skills of the DreamWorks artists. I do raise my eyebrows somewhat at the writing team for this China-set film, along with getting notably non-Asian actors to voice some of these characters (Dustin Hoffman as an elderly sage called “Master Shifu”??), especially when they are called on to do an accent — but Jack Black at least isn’t doing that and isn’t really intended to be anyone but himself, and he and the filmmakers make it a likeable enough ride and an excellent conclusion to the trilogy.
Directors Jennifer Yuh Nelson 여인영 and Alessandro Carloni; Writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger; Starring Jack Black, J.K. Simmons, Bryan Cranston, James Hong 吳漢章, Dustin Hoffman; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Saturday 3 July 2021.
I covered Roseanne Liang’s most recent film Shadow in the Cloud (2020) yesterday, and this is her debut feature, though she has a 2008 short called Take 3 (which is included on the NZ DVD, and is particularly excellent). It hits a lot of the elements that you find in many romcoms and also casts the prolific Cheng Pei-pei as the mother, so you can’t really go wrong.
I think this would do pretty well as a Netflix original movie, given the lightness with which it plays out its romcom elements, along with the serious culture-clash drama of familial expectations that’s an undercurrent of the central romance. It coasts by on a fair deal of charm, though its lead actor Michelle Ang is very capable at delivering just the right level of adorable yet quirky that the script demands. This is especially notable given that her on-screen boyfriend is written as such a demanding asshole at times, and while I imagine she is supposed to be equally difficult (what with her avoidance of revealing her relationship to her parents), Ang’s skill at comedic delivery makes her seem far more reasonable — but then again, the romcom genre has always been adept at covering up behaviour that would be awful in any other circumstance. It also doesn’t hurt that the immortal Cheng Pei-pei plays her mother. As a whole it can be a little clunky at times, but there’s an exuberance to the story that belies its presumably small budget (what other level of budget do NZ films even have, that one beardy guy aside).
Director/Writer Roseanne Liang; Cinematographer Richard Harling; Starring Michelle Ang, Matt Whelan, Cheng Pei-pei 郑佩佩, Kenneth Tsang 曾江; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Tuesday 23 February 2021.
I was expecting a very slowburn arthouse indie film from this, as it was at last year’s London Film Festival, and I guess I never did read the reviews, but had a sense that people liked it. I wasn’t fully expecting its turn into genre fights, but the film holds it together rather well. It has recently been released to cinemas in NZ, and I don’t doubt it’ll be on home streaming elsewhere.
By all accounts, once the funding got approved this film was made pretty speedily, but it never looks anything less than stylish and polished. Tonally it seems to owe a lot to recent southeast Asian cinema, with a very steely and quiet gaze and an almost glacially deadpan comedy, but it all works really well even in the context of New York’s Chinatown where it’s set. Of course, it helps that Tsai Chin really anchors the film as the title character, introduced smoking a cigarette in the looming darkness of a fortune teller’s shop, as she learns she’s coming into some extraordinary luck. Of course things don’t quite go the way she (and we the audience) imagine, but there’s still plenty of great setpieces. Even when it took a turn into some decidedly genre territory — mafia thugs and shootouts and all that — the film didn’t manage to lose me, which I think is testament to the good will it builds up over the course of its running time, and that fantastic lead performance.
Director Sasie Sealy; Writers Angela Cheng and Sealy; Cinematographer Eduardo Enrique Mayén; Starring Tsai Chin 周采芹, Hisao-Yuan Ha, Michael Tow, Yan Xi; Length 87 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Monday 2 November 2020.