I had promised a week of foreign-language science-fiction films, but though today’s film is Spanish, it’s in the English language. This creates a strange tonal dissonance, which doesn’t exactly distract from the film — being a bit weird and distanced is sort of what it’s all about — but does create a peculiar frisson.
This is a deeply odd film in many ways, one of those strange English-language hybrid foreign films (it’s a Spanish production) which is toying with big ideas in sometimes inspired ways, and sometimes rather more clunky ones (I’m reminded of the Kirsten Dunst sci-fi Upside Down which has a similar tonal oddness while also being a film largely buried by distributors, or in terms of plot the French weirdness of Innocence). The plot itself is fairly silly, and holds together only in the vaguest of ways, while the big reveals are well telegraphed up-front so most people will probably see what’s coming. However, clearly all the budget went into set and costume design, and it all looks fantastic, putting a queer sci-fi twist on fairytale aesthetics. It lands on a sort of dreamy romantic dystopian vision and sustains this atmosphere throughout, even when the plot itself is getting a little trying. A director to watch.
Director Alice Waddington; Writers Brian DeLeeuw, Nacho Vigalondo and Waddington; Cinematographer Josu Inchaustegui; Starring Emma Roberts, Awkwafina, Danielle Macdonald, Jeremy Irvine, Eiza González, Milla Jovovich; Length 95 minutes.
Seen on a flight from Singapore to London, Friday 13 March 2020.
Last week’s new release also takes us back to last week’s themed week, which was what I termed ‘Asian diaspora cinema’, which deals with Asian identities in the West, and this one tells of a clash of cultures between the US and China, two of the modern world’s great competing superpowers, through the story of Awkwafina’s suitably awkward artist.
This is a sweet, reflective film that doesn’t shout too loudly, though occasionally the characters in it try to make statements about what it means to live and die, at least in Chinese society. In that respect, having the young family members — most notably Awkwafina’s budding writer Billi — having grown up in different countries meant that it got to explain things a little bit, which is probably just as well given the central conceit is the idea of not telling a dying person that they are dying (or “based on an actual lie” as the film puts it on its first title card). Billi is a muted presence, which already marks a change from Awkwafina’s usual on-screen persona, though it does mean she shuffles around in a slump, looking dejected and sad for rather too much of the film, even as those around her are trying to encourage her to fake a smile — to the extent that I found it hard to believe grandma (and I don’t think she’s ever named aside from the Mandarin Chinese word for grandmother 奶奶 nai nai) didn’t immediately figure out what was going on. Still, there’s a lot of unforced emotional heft just from the set-up, as well as an examination of what it means to be torn between two very different cultures (the film itself is fairly scrupulously balanced, and avoids denigrating either). The final credits reveal therefore comes as rather a surprise, but it’s a sweet end to what’s otherwise quite the weepie.
Director/Writer Lulu Wang 王子逸 (based on Wang’s story “What You Don’t Know”); Cinematographer Anna Franquesa Solano; Starring Awkwafina, Zhao Shuzhen 赵淑珍, Tzi Ma 馬泰, Diana Lin 林晓杰; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Thursday 26 September 2019.
Of all the recent success stories in Asian-American cinema, focusing on Asian diaspora characters (usually Chinese-American, but there are people of Singaporean, Korean, Malaysian, Hong Kong and Vietnamese extraction, amongst others, mixed in here), none has been more notable than the romantic comedy. Of course there are cinematic precedents, like Alice Wu’s touching and likeable Saving Face (2004). However, following Kumail Nanjiani’s well-received The Big Sick the year before, last year’s high-profile cinematic success of Crazy Rich Asians has been matched on the small-screen by the Netflix films To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and this year’s Always Be My Maybe. I expect we’ll be seeing plenty more, and that can only be a good thing.
Continue reading “Three Recent Asian-American Romcoms: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018), Crazy Rich Asians (2018) and Always Be My Maybe (2019)”