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Film Review: Lost And Delirious (2001, Canada) – La Rage au Coeurs

September 23, 2008 2 comments


Quote

Tori: Paulie, listen to me ok, because I'm going to say this once 
      and never, ever again. I will never love anyone the way that I love you. 
      Never. You know that, and I know that, and I will die knowing that, ok? 
      But it just can never... it just can never, ever, forever be. 
      Do you understand? 

Overview

This exceedingly well acted and often touching Canadian film follows the lives of three girls whose complex relationship spells trouble in the claustrophobic confines of a posh all-girls boarding school.  

 

Synopsis

*Note that although various aspects of the story might be hinted at here, there are no second half spoilers or revelations that will ruin your enjoyment of this film*

Mary Bedford, or “Mouse” as she is called, (played by a young and slightly Sarah Michelle Gellar-esque Mischa Barton), is an intelligent, sensible and mature girl who is sent to a prestigious boarding school after the death of her mother and finds her into room with two seniors, who although both are influential and well liked by their peers are worlds apart in their outlooks on life.

Victoria “Tori” is the archetypal rebellious oldest daughter of a wealthy, closed-minded yet proud Anglo-Saxon Christian family.

And although she loves her father’s devotion to her, she despises her mother for always “mking comments about her teeth”. She feels she cannot escape the future set out for her by her family: A future where she is destined to be the wife of some successful and hideously wealthy professional. This also makes it abundantly clear to her that while smoking abundant quantities of weed is affordable, studying is merely optional. In one situation where her attitude leads to potential embarrassment, Pauli is forced to step in to protect her from making a fool of herself in front of her classmates.

Pauli also happens to suffer from an annoyingly prim and proper (except for her bad language) younger sister who is occasionally barging into her room to wake her up with her group of overenthusiastic friends and interrupting their peace and quiet.

Pauline or “Paulie” is the star of the film and is played by the deliciously adaptable and eminently talented Piper Perabo, (who also happens to have played a more recent lesbian role in the film “Imagine Me And You”).

Paulie is smart, driven to the point of obsession once enflamed and has a lot of repressed anger stemming from a desire to meet her real mother who had her adopted at birth. She has one obsession stronger than all others, however: Her roommate, Tori whom she practically idolises as some kind of angelic heroine from a Shakespearian sonnet.

Mouse, foisted upon the seniors’ secretive lifestyle soon gains their trust by being calm, open minded and mature beyond her years and by revealing aspects of her past to them that allows them to bond.

This trust, coupled with numerous room-filling marihuana sessions loosens the inhibitions of the two girls in front of her and the realisation that her roommates are sharing more than just the room soon dawns upon the unsuspecting first year.

Mouse’s maturity allows her to at first accept and later come to appreciate the precious and loving relationship her two newest friends have, as if substituting for the lack of love she feels towards her new mother.

However, as the numerous Shakespearian references to love and tragedy throughout the play constantly hint at, even the strongest of loves faces challenges and it is not all smooth sailing as the news of their relationship inevitably spreads through the tight-knit and conservative community of the school. 

Mary is forced into a difficult situation as her roommate’s relationship comes increasingly strained. She becomes the natural intermediary as Tori fights to retain her social status and position among her peers and the standing within her own family and Paulie fights to regain the love of her “Princess”.

Impressions

The beginning of Lost and Delerious starts off a little like The Shining, with the family car winding its way towards the grand estate of the boarding school, but its tone is soon lifted, with the sounds of cheerful and carefree girls enjoying their last freedom before returning to the real world.

Of course, “Mouse” doesn’t see it like that: The loneliness of the shadow of her mother’s death, cast three three years earlier and her father’s remarriage cause her to blame the new couple, her busy father in particular for her new and unwelcome situation.

This sets the tone for the main themes of: balance of freedom, love and family, which are repeatedly pushed home throughout the film.

Three girls, although from very different backgrounds feel a kinship in their “abandonment” by their parents and a feeling of being unloved and unwanted by their families and revel together in their newfound freedoms.

Yet the girls find out that their freedom is not as complete as they’d wished when obsessive love, and obsessive peer and family pressure begin to tear at their world, pulling them in unwanted directions.

The film’s crux is the point at which the secret of the two young lovers’ relationship breaks free and Mary finds her friends placing increasing demands on her stability and maturity, making her position among her classmates similarly difficult.

In the end, she herself is forced to turn to the “salt of the earth,” matter-of-fact advice of the old groundsman, whom she has built up a relationship with by helping on the school grounds, for guidance on how she can handle the important decisions she has to make and the impeding crisis which she feels is looming before them all.

Summary

The film’s attention to detail is striking, portraying the grandly austere and sometimes stuffy atmosphere of the school and varied lives of the young adults away from home and tasting freedom for the first and perhaps the last time in a much more fully than other films have tended to depict boarding schools.

Dorm room, dinner, playtime scenes and of course classroom scenes take up much of airtime, but other scenes are equally important in filling out the details, like for example the ritual daily mail check: Portrayed a symbol of the connection to the real world outside, with scenes of Mary and Paulie often returning sullenly empty-handed from their sojourns to the post boxes and almost ecstatic when a letter of any kind arrives.

The film’s relationships elegantly display how people deal with the pressure of being cast into a role against their wills and how one can be pulled downwards by the weight of love, obsession and loyalty.

A key point is Mary’s affection for and loyalty to her friends which renders her unable to let go as she is torn in conflicting directions by their obsessions. In fact, one might add loyalty to the list of themes covered by this film: Loyalty to friends and family and the costs and consequences of those decisions.

As the third boarding school film I’ve watched since Dead Poets’ Society in 1989, this one shares many aspects common to those earlier films and not to mention a tangential similarity to Harry Potter’s experiences after coming away from an unloving home.

Yet of course, this film has plenty that makes it unique, one being the illicit relationship between the two girls.

Still, unique or not, with its many Shakespearian references to love and life, and an increasingly heavy emphasis on medieval “heroes” and “heroines,” as shown by Pauli’s fascination with fencing and more unusually, falconry.

…this drama occasionally appears in danger of becoming heavy handed and a little too “thick with metaphor” but the drama is intense, the story and characters on the whole very believable and the acting of the three girls and their eccentric Headmistress, excellent, pulling this film back from art-flick territory and in to the mainstream.

If there is one minor criticism, it would be that the story is too focussed on the three girls with only minimal time time given to outsiders: i.e. the school appears to have just a headmistress, a teacher and a gardener with only the latter ever given a real relationship building chance. Even Mary and Tori’s parents are given only one peripheral scene apiece, despite their importance to the story.

For those expecting a mildly titillating upskirt, lesbo, sailor-costumed schoolgirl romp, let it be noted that you are in for a disappointment! It’s far more Dead Poet than St. Trinians.

Final Verdict: A Big Thumbs up for the acting and relationships of three main characters.

Seven Films later…

July 26, 2008 1 comment

Over half a dozen films later and I suddenly realised to my regret that Love Juice was probably the last one in my current series of reviews. I had drawn up a list of 10 films in this genre, plus one more towards the end of this year, when it became available on general release in Japan. But I’ve found it neigh on impossible to get my hands on copies of the last three.

  1. Fish and Elephant (2001, China, Hidden Love) 
  2. Ji Sor aka. The intimates (1997, Korea, Drama)
  3. Memento Mori aka. Whispering Corridors II (1999, Korea, Fantasy/Thriller)
  • Drifting Flowers (2007, Taiwan, Three story drama montage)

The first two are not in general circulation. The third, I can’t find the Japanese title of it and Drifting is not released in Japan yet, so unless I find some wicked torrents, I’m out of luck.

So, let’s just recap on the seven films that I did manage to see. I’ll list them in my own personal order of merit.

Butterfly / Hu Die  (Human Drama – 2004, Hong Kong)

Thirty something family woman has a chance encounter with a young singer which reawakens her repressed sexuality. How does she come to terms with her old, true self in the face of her new, stable life she’s built for herself?

This heartfelt personal drama is a story about being true to yourself and coming to terms with your past. If you can keep track of the parallel story-lines played out in fragmeted, non-linear flashbacks, then this film shines for it’s unprecidented background to the main characters, the depth and realism of the issues tackled and the moral ambiguity that is left open to the viewer to fill in.

Although Yan Yan Mak perhaps tried to bite off a little more than the audience can chew, she packed a surprising about of background and depth into her second major film.

  • Two Big Thumbs Up

Spider Lilies (Human Drama : 2007, Taiwan)

A young webcam girl goes to get a tatoo done only to realise that her tatooist is a woman she had a crush on nine years before. Unfortunately for her, the tatooist has chosen to expunge all traces of her traumatic past from her memory, along with the memory a lonely little girl she once met.

This is a moving, dark tale about memory and why some choose to remember and some choose to forget. Again the lead roles are played impeccably and the story fleshes out the characters bit by bit by referring to their past and how they got to where they are today.

Although the second film by Zero Chou starts off well, she looses control of the plot threads causing the story to derail about 30 minutes from the end and rumble over rough terrain in search of new track. Despite the grinding, ambiguous ending, the storytelling, characters and their relationships carry this fine film through to conclusion.

  • Two thumbs up

Love/Juice (Romantic Drama / Black Comedy : 2000, Japan)

An unconventional relationship between two girls, one lesbian and one straight is so close that they’re practically a single person. Their offbeat lifestyle gets complicated when one’s love of the other starts to turn to frustration and jealousy at her lack of reciprocation.

Probably the most quirky, least trodden story of the lot, this low budget classic, black-comedy and romance delves into the murky depths of love and examines the blurry region that exists between deep, platonic love and sexual desire. The handheld cameras, grainy footage and cramped, tight locations lend this film a personality and intimacy that larger budget flicks often lack.

  • Two thumbs up

Red Doors (Family Comedy – 2005, US)

This lighthearted family comedy follows the lives of the Wongs, a suburban American Chinese family with a retiring father who’s trying to regain his raison d’etre after retirement and three intelligent, beautiful daughters, one of whom is lesbian, trying to balance their own lives with those of their fellow family members.

Although this movie suffers slightly by introducing a few too many of the cultural stereotypes that tend to plague mainstream cinema and prevent this film from rising to even greater heights, it more than delivers in sheer quality of all the acting, the slick dialogue, excellent set pieces and of course, the pinpoint humour regarding the generational gaps between characters. Without doubt the most entertaining film of the whole bunch.

  • Big Thumbs Up

Saving Face (Romance – 2004, US)

This is the story of a successful and competant surgeon who is quite certain of her sexuality, though up until now, she has never let it get in the way of her work. When she falls for the daughter of the chief surgeon, her boss, she has to question her lifestyle and choices she’s made. The close proximity of all concerned and a mother with a secret who is in denial of what she knows about her daughter who has not come out to the family yet all conspire to put pressure on her and force her to make some important decisions.

A mainstream film with a great cast, including one of my all-time-favourites, Joan Chen!

Alice Wu manages to create a meaningful, believable modern society as a backdrop to this movie. The two main character work great together on screen for a lovable, heartwarming story with enough twists and turns to keep the audience busy from beginning to end. 

  • Big Thumbs Up

The Botanist’s Daughters (Arthouse Drama – 2006, France)

A strict but brilliant botanist lives on beautiful a garden island with his dutiful daughter. Their stable but monotonous life is turned upside down on the arrival of an intern student who falls for the daughter of the botanist, resulting in bitter consequences for all involved.

A gorgeously shot film with moments of true grandeur and beauty, dragged down by awkward plot twists and an extremely unwieldy ending. The main actresses look gorgeous, if difficult to empathize with.

  • One thumbs up

Love My Life (Drama – 2006, Japan)

An “ideal” lesbian couple’s relationship is split asunder when one of them realises that she should be concentrating on her career rather than her love life. 

Oh purleez, this barftastic amateur flick by an ex softcore porno director reeks of mediocre acting and straight to video production values. Despite being embarrassingly gratuitous, the soft focus shots of bon bon swapping are about as risque as this picture gets, mildly titillating without ever engaging.

At least with real pornography, the poor acting is offset by up close and personal visuals. Instead, the unhappy compromise choosen for this film means that it is destined to satisfy virtually nobody.

  • Myeeh
In Conclusion
So in conclusion, I can say of the seven films I watched over the last three weeks, one was stellar, three were exellent, two were good, and one was myeeh. Not a bad hit ratio, consdering the limited scope of the exercise. 
I really enjoyed watching them and have no regrets. I think that they have had a positive influence on me, in as much as I’ve broadened my horizons… even if only a little.

Film Review: Love/Juice (2000, Japan)

July 22, 2008 2 comments


Quote

"Why were we born as two separate people, and not one?"

Overview

This is the seventh film in my short season of Asian Gay and Lesbian film reviews.

I was very lucky to actually be able to find this minor offbeat flick, made on an absolute shoestring budget by Shindo Kaze, a female Japanese director and screened in 2000.

Synopsis

Chinatsu and Kyoko are two close friends who live together and share pretty much everything, makeup, spoon and even their bed. They are so inseparable as to be almost a single entity. Yet they are neither a couple in the conventional sense, or in any other sense, since although Chinatsu is professedly gay, Kyoko is to all intents and purposes straight.

The two of them own very little and live frugal lives in a practically one roomed apartment as “freeters”, a Japanese term for those with no steady job or income and not particularly interested in getting one. What money they do manage to scrape together is used to fund their recreational drug using, nightclub centred livestyles.

The two of them invariably go out together, cruising the night scenes and looking for love, Kyoko for a man and Chinatsu for a girl. But something always stops either of them from finding the partner of their dreams: each other.

Chinatsu adores Kyoko and worships the very ground she walks on and while Kyoko is with her, she can find true love nowhere else. Moreover, as if to capture her spirit, she is constantly taking photos of Kyoko throughout the film.

Kyoko loves the attention and in a perverse sort of way, leads the vulnerable Chinatsu up the garden path.

But she is a victim of her own making because Chinatsu becomes the main reason why Kyoko herself, never seems to find love and settle down. When Kyoko starts to notice this, the atmosphere of the cozy household take a turn for the worse.

Despite this however, they are both trapped by their situation and their love for each other, because let’s face it, when it comes down to it, how many people can say that they have is a friend and companion closer than anyone else in the world who supports, understands, and who is there for you, right next to you, always.

Still, even a bond so close has its limits, and Chinatsu’s increasing frustration at her inability to find herself a girl to take her mind of the infuriatingly close, yet infinitely out of reach Kyoko, comes to a head when she is played by and subsequently dumped by a stylish nymphette at a party.

That night, feeling desperately sorry for Chinatsu, Kyoko gives in to her friend’s incessant demands and things begin to get even more complicated for the two of them.

As the film progresses, we learn things that suggests their love wasn’t as one sided as it first appeared.

Impressions

First up were the expectations. As soon as the opening credits appeared I saw “Tsunku Town Productions” and sighed, expecting another Love My Life or worse. That’s because Tsunku is responsible for a lot of total and utter garbage which passes itself off as music under the umbrella project “Hello!” His most famous travesty of modern pop is called “Morning Musume” and was unleashed upon the unsuspecting world by THIS MAN. And for that sin, I pray he suffers tinnitus until the day he dies.

Those of you who know me well, will know my esteem for that steaming pig-swill of a girlie-pop unit. Those of you who don’t, just use the previous sentence as a starting point.

But they were my expectations, and over the next fifteen minutes, they were blown out of the water.

This gem of a film was clearly made on a shoestring budget, using small hand-held cameras and digital film, developed in a grainy, contrasty finish. The result is a surprisingly personal account of the two girls’ lives and hardly a Tsunku produced soft focus “Glavia” (Japanese slang for Glamour Video Idol) pop video. What I didn’t know was that Tsunku Town is a production company for aspiring Japanese film directors and has nothing to do with his other endeavours.

No flashy titillation here. No softly lit, pouting teenagers for middle-aged men’s delectation.

Oh, and you can forget insipid Hollywood vista sweeps and pans of the scintillating Tokyo harbour. This is a film by Japanese for Japanese and is not a cross cultural effort strewn with the explanatory cultural crutches required in Saving Faces and Red Doors.

Instead, you get close-up-and-personal with Tokyo’s vast selection of concrete: barren concrete backstreets, canal-side concrete embankments and graffiti strewn concrete tunnels and underpasses are the only backdrops to the characters’ antics.

And when you’re not outside you get seedy, darkened bars, depressingly cramped yet deserted local shops and the main characters’ cute but shabby little flat.

The two actresses, Okuno Mika (Kyoko) and Fujimoto Chika (Chinatsu) both put in commendable, touching performances. They are relatively inexperienced actresses, Fujimoto only appears in TV dramas and Okuno doesn’t even register on the Internet, except for this film!

This makes their efforts especially surprising and rewarding to a viewer who joins with no preconceptions: Their relationship is portrayed with both verve and mood and darts between frivolity and desperate with the incongruous but surreal grace that Asian films seem to have when dealing with wildly disparate moods.

And what a relationship! Sure, in straight terms, this is the standard one-sided unrequited love situation, where A is in love with B, but B only likes A as a friend gig. But this twist on the old story is deliciously fresh and equally painful to watch.

Chinatsu is the glam-butch cynic who only has eyes for Kyoko, the doe-eyed (but pretty much straight) wonderstruck child. Kyoko is the opposite and sees the beauty in everything, including Chinatsu,  which is really the reason why the relationship becomes so interesting.

They also turn another concept on its head. One would expect butch Chinatsu to lead the relationship. But in reality, she’s begging Kyoko for comfort and it Kyoko who’s in emotional control. Kyoko is the adorable but capricious object of desire who gets a high from all the attention, from being loved and then flaunts her straightness and her men in Chinatsu’s face as if to hurt her.

Kyoko is undeniably flirting with Chinatsu just as girls often do with guys they have no real interest in and Chinatsu lives her days and nights locked in frustration.

The way the film follows their relationship is involving and personal. The low budget plays to the story’s advantage and the handheld cameras, especially, lend the film an almost documentary-like appearance at times.

Verdict

The relationship was so novel and refreshing that I was practically hooked from the start. Chinatsu and Kyoko portray their characters so well, and they really do come across as the best of friends and more on screen.

Add to that the dashes of frivolity, drama, hurt, black humour with an ending with a sting in the tail and you have got a budget classic on your hands.

Overall, then, an unexpected gem. Rough and ready with a low budget and straight from the TV cast, it could easily have failed by glamming up the setting, puffing out the sexy bits and casting bigger actresses. But the acting was solid, the canvas was tangibly real ( I know, I’ve been to that part of town) and the characters and their relationships were drawn by a skilled hand of a very high calibre.

I’ll give this film two regular sized thumbs up!

Film Review: Spider Lilies (2007, Taiwan) – 刺青 /Cì Qīng/

July 15, 2008 4 comments

Quote

Takeko : A tattoo is just an empty image, nothing more.
Jade   : I won't accept that! I asked you for a tattoo to symbolise
         "remembered love" and you made this for me. It is love!

Overview

This award winning film by lesbian director Zero Chou, set in modern day Taiwan in the aftermath of the 1999 earthquake follows the lives of two girls, whose lives were affected by the disaster.

Synopsis

Takeko is a young woman who chose to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a tattooist after he was crushed to death when saving his son, her brother, from their collapsing house in the Taiwan earthquake of 1999. 

Her brother, Ching suffered PTSD and has only one clear memory; that of the beautiful yet haunting spider lily tattoo on his father’s arm. 

In memory of him, Takeko asks her tutor to tattoo the same design onto her own arm even though he tells her that the image of the Spider Lilies (Manjusaka), which line the path to Hell and whose poisonous root causes memory loss, is cursed.

There is another, more personal reason she wants the tattoo and that is to try and help her disabled brother. By having the tattoo copied onto her own arm, she hopes to bring her brother closer to her.  It is clear that she is filled with remorse for Ching and later in the film we find out that she blames herself for his current plight.

When not in the studio, she devotes all of her spare time to looking after Ching who tragically does not even recognise Takeko as his sister. To mask her guilt and deep feelings of loneliness, she buries herself in her work and in caring for her brother, and only expresses her emotions in the stories she tells to him of the strange and varied customers that visit her shop in search of tattoos, closing herself off from all friendship and solace. 

Jade is a local teenager living with her grandmother in a poor, run down apartment. She makes easy money as a seedy webcam chick, capitalising on her youthful appearance to bring in all of the wrong sorts of clientele. She dresses like a little girl and tells melancholy tales to her dolls, remembered from her past and flirts with the nameless clients on the other end of the camera, encouraging them to go one-on-one privately with her for a significant fee. The clients, unsure as to her actual age are quite keen to pay up.

However, Jade senses that her clients are starting to lose interest at her lack of “adventure”, so Jade makes up a spicy story about having a secret tattoo and decides to get one to go with her stories.

Jade, comes to the tattoo parlour seeking a tattoo for “a remembered love” and points to the Manjusaka design on the wall, one that she remembers seeing as a child. It doesn’t take her long to put two and two together.

She tells Takeko a cryptic tale about falling in love with someone when she was nine years old, someone who had that tattoo on her arm, like the one adorning the wall of Takeko’s parlour.

Takeko, recalling nothing of Jade however, rebuffs her off-hand, much to Jade’s chagrin and tells her that memories shouldn’t be trusted.

Jade, who’s memories are all that she has is upset but she embarks on a quest to make Takeko remember her and starts a concerted effort to revive her memories, which Takeko has spent nearly a decade trying to bury.

Impressions

The teenage cybertale beginning with it’s surreal colours and the typing coming up on screen hints at All About Lily Chou Chou (リリィ・シュシュのすべて)by Iwai Shunji and demonstrative scenes and camera facing during characters’ narrative is reminiscent of Trainspotting by Danny Boyle.

The most fascinating thing about the lead characters is how they embody the extreme approaches people take to dealing with trauma.

Jade, tries her hardest to remember everything, to hold on to every sweet moment, few and far between though they were, as if they were her last and most precious possessions. She believes that everything is transient and that existence is only as real as the memories of those involved. Be forgotten and you cease to exist.

Takeko is the opposite: Stony and cold, she has cut herself off from the pain of her past by forcing herself to forget everything, and floats lifelessly through the present like a rootless tree. For her, only the present has meaning and as soon as something becomes the past, it is left behind. Yet contradictorily she fills her days and nights with self pity and guilt for what she has done to her brother while at the same time denying herself the solace that would heal her.

 

The non-linear storyline flits from present to past in a slightly uneven and disconcerting way. Some scenes appear cut short and hurried, while others appear to linger a little longer than is comfortable. Intentional no doubt, but it does make the rhythm of the film a little difficult to follow.

These flashbacks serve to flesh out the lives of Takeko and Jade little by little, following Takeko’s slow reawakening from her morbid, empty state as Jade forces her bit by bit to remember the past and Jade herself.

As the film progresses, we see how the earthquake, and  a romantic liaison changes her outlook on life and why she blames herself. We also learn that this story is as much about the affection-starved Jade whose being abandoned and subsequently forgotten by her mother is the seed of her fixation on Takeko.

As a father, the scenes of the indescribably desperate nine-year-old Jade, though brief, were some of the most heart wrenching moments I’ve seen on screen to date and left me in tears.

The 18 year old Isabella Leong shows remarkable adaptability for this demanding role, whether its playing a high school tomboy crush, the devoted sister for Ching, the substitute mother for  Jade, the talented but troubled tattooist with a buried past or the reawakened and emotional woman she hints at becoming.

Every moment she’s on the screen, she captivates and convinces the audience, pulling them into her world.

However, just when the film starts to promise rewards to the viewer for following the winding and escalating plot with some stunning revelations, it instead starts to unravel and loose focus, plot threads fragment into what I can only, and unfortunately, describe as weird shit.

Plot lines which had been simmering suddenly come to a head, but not in a particularly coherent way. It’s more like Chou forgot the end of the film was coming until it was too late.

And just to heap even more weight onto the already emotionally encumbered lead’s shoulders, the illicit liaison towards the end of the film appears to draw the wrath of whatever gods are watching and Takeko is punished once more, just when she is coming to terms with and makes peace with her situation.

Final Verdict

This is essentially a film about memories: About choosing to remember or choosing to forget. About how we are the sum of our memories and how, if we cannot come to terms with and overcome the past, we can never be happy with what we have right here, right now.

Whether the director was searching for an extra bit of angst or melodrama at the end of the film is uncertain. It is perhaps more likely that a young and inexperienced Chou bit off a little more than she could chew and was unable to present the finale’s dense threads in coherent and comprehensible way.

As for assets, the main actresses are captivating together and prove that opposites can attract the audience as well as each other.

Then there is the highlight of the whole film, the backdrop of the earthquake and the childhood images of Jade with a young Takako are moments of magic and make this film a tearfest.


Despite this slight incoherence and the loss of focus of the jumbled ending, Spider Lilies is without doubt, an intelligent and thought provoking drama. It makes a valiant attempt at uncovering the wide vista of human emotional survival in the face of hardship and succeeds where a lesser film would fail to inspire.

Two thumbs up for this one!

Film Review: Les Filles du Botaniste (2006, France) – The Chinese Botanist’s Daughters

July 10, 2008 1 comment

This is the fourth film in my short series of Gay and Lesbian Asian film reviews.

Quote

“Think about it, if you do marry him we can be together forever”Overview

Sometime in the 90’s in the paradise of a Chinese botanical garden island run by Cheng, a famous recluse and brilliant botanical professor accompanied by only his doting daughter, An, and the occasional visits of his son, a junior ranking soldier is forever changed by the arrival of a guest from the mainland.

Their ideal, if somewhat lonely lifestyle is turned upside down by the guest and student, Li Min, an orphan who has been sent on a six-week internship to learn from the great professor, famed for his depth of knowledge, and precision if not his social skills. Min’s arrival spells great changes in An who becomes obsessed with her newfound friend, after so long being alone. An, who had suffered the childhood loss of her parents during an earthquake is thrilled to be the subject of An’s affection.

Towards the end of the six weeks, An becomes desperate to find a way to extend Min’s stay, and when a dangerous opportunity presents itself, An suggests it. Min, reluctantly at first, comes to realise that this is the only way they can be together forever, and accepts it.

Impressions

This stunningly beautiful film captures the idyllic atmosphere of the botanical gardens perfectly. You can almost feel the cool breezes of the evening and the muggy heat of the midday sun. The shots of scenery of the region and especially within the grounds of the garden are lovingly taken and create a restful, tranquil tableaux for the rest of the film.


The father and professor, played by Lin Dongfu, who’s unsympathetic demeanour towards his daughter yet obsession with work would be easy to despise. However, he is given enough chance to show his obvious genius, which mitigates his almost unbearable distaste for mistakes of even the smallest magnitude. This makes his character difficult to like, but easy to respect, perhaps like many real-world geniuses.

An is the archetypal obedient daughter, played by Li Xiaoran, who waits hand on foot on her father and attends to him day and night. She clearly respects him, if not loves him deeply, despite his dispassionate neglect of her emotional well being. In her lonliness, she has taken to concocting psychotropic herbal remedies to keep her company in the long, lonely evenings alone.

Her physical perfection alone would make her a stereotypical hollywood daughter and when added to the practically perfect behaviour she affords her undeserving father, it makes her character seem a little flat at times. However, we have to remember that China is a strongly paternalistic society and what the father says, goes, regardless of what you feel underneath. So perhaps she is a little more realistic than she appears.

But it becomes clear that she has more to her character than at first meets the eye, and that is where the film becomes interesting. Once An arrives, her priorities flip like a switch. She is besotted with the newcomer and fills her days (and nights) thinking about her. Her character undergoes a sea change, where all that was inside comes out and shatters all the veneer of her previous pretenses.

The times the two girls are on screen together are sublime rather than electric. Their relationship appears to be built on mutual need and love arising through need rather than a purer love for love’s sake.

This is made clear by the way they are portrayed as inseparable and jealous of anything and anyone that comes between them, especially the one that can keep them together. 

Verdict

Delicious visuals, captivating main characters and an original setting promise so much and you find yourself at the end of the unashamedly slow moving story surprisingly quickly. However when the end comes, it’s like a blow to the back of the head, and I can’t help but think that in his quest to spend so much time on scenery and atmosphere, Dai Sijie ran out of time or money to complete the picture in the way it deserved.

The ending, which could have been any one of shocking, thought provoking, moving or even just more of the “beauty” theme was instead nothing more than an almost emotionless and shallow epilog likean afterthought by making an immature or at best unsubtle sociopolitical statement, which some say is actually not true in any case.

I found myself suddenly detached from the film and bobbing along next to it, rather than in it as I had been up until the disappointing ending began.

All in all, a film that promises so much but never quite delivered its full potential.

I’ll give it a thumbs up on the characters and beauty of the screenplay alone, rather than for the story.

 

Film Trivia

The Chinese Government refused to sponsor the film and banned Dai Sijie from filming in mainland China. Instead, the film was shot in Ba Vi and Ha Tay in Vietnam with external funding.

Although Mylène Jampanoï is half Chinese and half French, she speaks only French. Thus she could not communicate with Li Xiaoran or the other cast at all and required interpreters.

Mylène practiced her lines for the entire film phonetically!

Film Review: Red Doors (2005, US) – 紅門

July 8, 2008 Leave a comment

Quote

[Dad, with slight frown]: Kate, there's a penis in your coat pocket.
[Daughter, shrugging]: It's not mine.

Overview

Red Doors is the most lighthearted film in my – admittedly shallow – dip into Asian movies with gay and lesbian themes. Although to be honest, calling this a lesbian film is like saying Forrest Gump is a movie about sport.

This is a mainstream hollywood feel-good comedy, no two ways about it. Oh yes, and one of the characters is a lesbian.

Synopsis

The film is about a mildly dysfunctional, middle classed Chinese family living in the suburbs of New York. The father has just retired, the mother is a dedicated home maker and the three children are all intelligent and good looking.

08door600

That would be the euphemistic way to describe the Wong Family.

Just below the surface, problems abound. The father, splendidly portrayed by “Tzi Ma”, (watching his parts in 24 season 6 first just makes his lines even more poignant!) has lost his purpose after retirement and attempts to take his own life at every opportunity.

Dad

The oldest daughter, a successful businesswoman is having second thoughts about her marriage to a successful but inconsiderate yuppie. The middle daughter, the shiest of the three is an intern in medical school and is having second thoughts about her sexuality. The youngest and only remaining teenager in the family is the wellspring of much of the movies guffawing and comic relief has thoughts only about one, special boy in her life and not much else.

The story follows their father’s unnoticed depression as his energetic wife and daughters lead their busy lives oblivious to his plight and the chain of events that ultimately lead the disparate members of the family back together again.

The women

Impressions

These types of family comedies are clear, pattern driven movies with plots that follow well trodden paths through the forest of modern society and pressured family life with all its attendant problems. More than other categories, these comedies tend to fall cleanly into two groups: shite or genuinely funny.

Luckily for Red Doors, it falls squarely into the latter category and had me in stitches at several points, leaving me feeling good without more than the occasional smidgen of wincing sappiness.

OK, so the father feels disconnected from everything, the youngest daughter is the rebellious “rocker grrl” black sheep who spurns her family’s traditions and who nobody can really communicate with. So what’s new?

The Rebel

Well, there’s the coming-out of the lesbian daughter, which hasn’t quite been flogged to death in the context of family mainstream comedies to the extent of the other bits.

Really, there are only so many things that can be told when it comes to comedies featuring entire families and this film covers no new ground in and of itself. Yet what makes this film a success is how those stories are told and bound together by the chemistry of the excellent cast and how their characters relate to each other.

And the family members really do just plain work well together, foibles and all. Their interactions are believable, charming, touching and funny in equal measures.

However, this is no “Meet the Parents” or “Me, myself and Irene”, two landmark dysfunctional-family-taken-to-extremes comedies by which I benchmark all others

Firstly, having been involved in the BBC (British Born Chinese) community in the UK, I can really say that the portrayal of Chinese-American culture in Red Doors was hackneyed, littered with stereotypes and unrealistic situations.

When Red Doors’ community is lined up alongside the rich and suggestively deep background created by Alice Wu in Saving Face, it really fails to inspire. These differences are subtle, but very important for a culturally themed movie.

Where Saving Face built up a very specific and real image of a particular Chinese community in Flushing, (Queens, NY) that had character and substance – like a masterful portrait of a living, breathing person – Red Doors is more like a postcard from Chinatown.

For example, the characters, especially the older generation, talking English amongst themselves is just plain odd. Then there are the occasional “Chinese Customs” bits thrown in to remind the audience that this fluent, English speaking family is actually really, really Chinese.

My second big issue with this movie are the peripheral male love interests who for one, all happen to be Caucasian and while they are important enough to feature repeatedly and have direct impact on the Wong’s daily life, they appear as flat as the paper their scripts were written on.

The prime example here is the oldest daughter Samantha’s husband, an entirely unlovable and irredeemable “Hi I’m a PC” jobsworth who, while being reliable and trustworthy, would be immediately marked as “dead” in any teen horror movie, but is instead marked from the outset to merely be replaced by an “And I’m a Mac” old flame, complete with designer stubble and all.

In fact, the two are so “PC v Mac” I’m reminded that this blog is actually Technojunkie and not LesbianMovieReviewWeekly

OUT DAMNED PC!

I'm a PC

BRING OUT THE MAC!

I'm a Mac

To be honest, only the youngest daughter and her love interest show any real original character development, and that relationship is one of the many touches that make this film so watchable.

I intended this this series of reviews to be a “lesbian-interest” point of view so I will just make my token mention here.

The lesbian plotline here is absolutely not a social commentary. It’s as lighthearted and humous a relationship with its shares of cuteness and mishaps as any of the other relationship in the film and is really just intended to add another twist to the movie.

Unfortunately, dispite having watched quite a few lesbian films over the last week or two, the relationship in this film looked contrived and was far more embarassing than I have come to expect from films in the last few years. I actaully found my finger hovering over the fast forward button during one or two of the cornier exchanges.

On the verge

One could argue that the fact that they just rolled it in without any special attention is a testament to how really and truly mainstream audiences of a family comedy have progressed to the point of acceptance.

As I said, this is a family comedy and not a psychosocial essay on the current interracial trends gender issues of the US, so it can be forgiven for these transgressions given the juicy characters of the father and the exploits of his three delightful daughters.

Final Verdict

Big thumbs up. Uneven but with a superb cast and some honestly side-splittingly funny bits. Oh, and not to mention the funniest T-shirt punch-lines I’ve ever seen!

Film Review: Saving Face (2004, US)

July 2, 2008 Leave a comment


Saving Face 2004

This is my first review since attempting to “Broaden my Horizons” and selecting Asian Gay and Lesbian Films as my category of choice.

This charming and gentle family drama first screened in Canada at the Toronto Film Festival in 2004. I call this a family drama and not a “gay movie” because that’s exactly what it is. It is one of the increasingly accessible breed of movies that tries to break away from the originality-destroying, art-as-product concept of “demographics”.

It’s a film where the gay aspect is central and crucial to the storyline yet neither belabours the issue to the point of preaching nor waters it down for the benefit of the right-wing American audiences, making this a true mainstream film without most of the compromises associated with them.

The main plot is so wonderfully involved that the fact of there being a gay relationship thrown in just adds to the fun. It’s one aspect among a number of interesting twists that keep this gentle and believable drama floating along with humour and verve, without the common mistakes of falling into farce or slapstick or becoming so hopelessly bogged down in emotion that you have to stop watching it half way through.

The plot hinges around a successful doctor who has been too busy for relationships for some time. She knows she’s gay and doesn’t appear to be in denial or have any issues with it per se, but it’s one of those things that she tends to suppress as an inconvenience that gets in the way of her all important career more than, say, a straight relationship would.

Michelle Krusiec as Wil

Moreover, her mother, who caught her “in the act” some undisclosed time ago knows she’s gay but has pushed it under the table in the hope that it might just go away. And to help it do so, her mother drags her along to a terrible series of dating evenings to try and get her hitched to someone, anyone, so long as they’re male.

Joan Chen

Things change when she meets a dancer, Vivian who she’d seen at one of those evenings. They hit it off, only to find that Wil’s busy schedule and continued “protecting” of her mother from the truth becomes a strain on their otherwise quite happy relationship.

The dancer and the dance - Vivian

Things start to disintegrate as Wil’s mother reveals a shocking secret, Vivian’s own career ideas start to take shape and Wil’s family suffers a tragic loss.

To be frank, I’ve never been a fan of family dramas, they tend to be a bit sappy and predictable. This one, though, has just enough meldrama and elements of surprise to bring a new, spicy twist to an old recipe of hope, disappointment, loss and personal fulfillment while -and I’m feeling a bit awkward writing this cliché- showing that lesbians are no different than anyone else. It’s so naturally woven into the fabric of the story that I completely forgot I was watching a film that triggered a ridiculous amount of controversy when it first showed!

I feel it is such a shame to see the film pigeonholed by large distribution chains into small art-house theatres and gay and lesbian “friendly” venues just because of its “lesbian-interest” moniker.

A big thumbs up recommendation for this one!

Film Trivia:

It includes the seemingly ageless definition of gorgeousness herself, Joan Chen (Those who don’t follow Asian cinema may recognise her from the 1980s TV series, Twin Peaks! How’s that for ageless?) Looking so young that it’s almost as improbable her being Wil’s mother as Wil being a surgeon.

Wil and Vivian’s first kiss on the screen was the first time they (Michelle Krusiec and Lynn Chen) kissed in real life, since there was no time for rehearsals. * It is not disclosed whether or not it was the first time they had ever kissed another woman…

The film was directed by Alice Wu, a Standford University BSc and MSc in Computer Science Graduate who went on to work at Microsoft in their multimedia division on a product called Cinemania, dispite wanting to be a film maker.

She started attending screenwriting classes while at Microsoft before deciding to leave and turn the semi-biographical book she had been writing about her own coming to terms with being gay in the Chinese community, into a film.

She fought long and hard to get the movie cast the way she wanted it, with Hollywood pressing her to cast it as a straight film, oh… and while she was at it, why don’t they just replace the Asians with nice, decent upstanding white people. Her stubborness gene kicked in, and refusing to budge she looked for another production company and found Wil Smith’s production company who were willing to cast it no questions asked the way she wanted it: Asians, lesbians and all!

Thus, another minor landmark was made: this was the first, big buget, All-Asian Hollywood film since the Joy Luck Club!