Movie Review – Girl’s Blood

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EXPECTATIONS: A trashy, sexy and fun experience.

REVIEW: For those who want to get down to the nitty-gritty, here’s the basis of the story in the film, Girl’s Blood. It involves women kicking ass in cages, with ridiculously tragic backstories of most of the characters and a lesbian love story. Now for the kicker: this is all set and wrapped up in a backdrop of female empowerment.

Now I know what you’re thinking. A film with a story such as this could only possibly be seen as a trashy and prurient experience that would feel right at home back in the 1980’s. But this film came out in 2014 and it is actually based on a novel, written by Kazuki Sakuraba, the author who also wrote My Man, which was made into a critically acclaimed film of the same name, starring Fumi Nikaido and Tadanobu Asano.

So you would now expect the film to be more conservative. BUT, the screenwriter of Girl’s Blood is Takehiko Minato, who’s responsible for many pinku films such as Be My Slave, What’s Going On With My Sister, Flower and Snake: Zero and of course, Legend of Siren XXX. But he has also written the screenplay of Bitter Honey, which is basically an adult version of Ponyo.

Moreover, the film is directed by Koichi Sakamoto, who’s famous for directing tokusatsu series like Kamen Rider, Power Rangers and specializes in fight stunt-work. So potentially, we have a film that is directed by a former stuntman, which has a story that could have a tone of both equal prurience and puritanism (sort of), based on source material from a critically-acclaimed female author, written for the screen by a screenwriter who specializes in pinku films. Will this film be a trainwreck or will it somehow transcend its origins to be more than the sum of its parts?

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The story starts by introducing four of our main characters. The first one is Satsuki (Yuria Haga), a woman who has a sexual identity crisis. The other character is Miko (Ayame Misaki), who is a S&M queen who has a haunted backstory involving being estranged from her family. The third character is Mayu (Rina Koike), a young woman who has psychological problems due to her youthful image and lastly, Chinatsu (Asami Tada), a fighter who, through numerous attempts, tries to run away from her abusive husband (Hideo Sakaki).

All four women are competing in a cage fight tournament after a martial arts faction threatens to take over the territory of Girl’s Blood. But their differences make them more like foils rather than comrades.  To make matters worse is the fact that the faction is run none other by Chinatsu’s husband. Bonds will be made, minds will be tested, demons will be unleashed; will the women overcome all obstacles and win?

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First off, it is really quite a miracle to say that this type of story actually has a sizable budget and it shows. The production values, the cinematography, the music are all well-done. Special credit goes to the sound design, which is quite striking and adds to the brutality of the fight scenes.

And now the cast. All of the main actresses acquit themselves to their roles with such sincerity and straight-faced conviction, that they give the story a lot more credibility that it ever requires. Yuria Haga is convincingly tough and conflicted as Satsuki and it must be said that she deserves credit for her brave decision to go nude for her love scenes.

Ditto to Asami Tada, who plays Chinatsu as a interesting, enigmatic presence and is quite a good sport in the fight scenes. The chemistry between the two is subtly present as they make glances and eventually become intimate with each other. Ayame Misaki is very charismatic as Miko, as she certainly has a fun presence about her; while Rina Koike is cute, but almost to a fault. Few stand out of the supporting cast, including Misaki Momose (who stood out in Gothic Lolita Psycho) who again combines cuteness and sadism in an entertaining fashion.

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As for the men, they all go over-the-top to the point that bounces between cartoony and pantomime. Hideo Sakaki is beyond sickening (in a good way) as Chinatsu’s husband while Yoshiyuki Yamaguchi is a hoot as the manager of Girl’s Blood, whenever he shows up.

It’s a credit to the above that it is as stellar as it is, since the story is incredibly ridiculous, bizarre and blatantly empowering/exploitative to the female gender. The backstories of the characters are so outlandish (one of them is haunted by her past involving cosplay while another is haunted due to confinement and, ahem, spillage) that it is a minor miracle that the film manages to become mildly poignant and affecting in the final act.

And it is because that every aspect of the film plays it out as sincere as they can. The story is told completely straight, without a sense of irony or any amount of winking from the actors. It also helps that the characters have clear motives as to why they choose to fight in the ring and they all pay off in a satisfyingly cathartic fashion.

Or the film can be seen as the ridiculous story that it is and can be unintentionally laughable when it passes its plot points and backstories as a source of drama. Fittingly, that type of shoddiness is expected from the pinku genre, but it stands out more due to its sizable budget. Either way, entertainment is still entertainment.

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And best of all, the fight scenes. Director Koichi Sakamoto knows his way around filming action and the fights are well-choreographed and well-shot, considering the numerous stunt doubles on display. The approach to the fight scenes focuses more on brutality and grappling, rather than grace and fluidity, as the editing and sound design clearly dictate, and they are thrilling to watch.

And now with the flaws. With a running time that is close to two hours, the film is overlong and could use some trimming during the character moments. Also, as much as the film is sincere in its storytelling, the tone shifts can be quite abrupt at times i.e. a scene of brutal violence can lead up to a comedic scene involving BDSM.

Also, it is quite leery and exploitative, although it is expected from the genre it inhabits. We see the women participating in mud wrestling, cosplay, shower sessions, lesbian sex scenes, training montages, BDSM sessions, sex dreams and of course the congratulatory moments that involve the use of the garden hose. If the film had a pillow fight, it wouldn’t be out of place at all, to be honest. But despite all of that, the film never goes into vulgar territory, despite a scene of sexual violence that fortunately the filmmakers convey as just that: a sickening display.

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Overall, Girl’s Blood is a bizarre mix of prurient pinku tropes and conventions told in an ultra-sincere manner that somehow makes it better than it should have been. With committed performances, brutal fight scenes, fun exploitation and outlandish characters, the film certainly earns its reputation as a guilty pleasure.

Quickie Review

PROS

Committed performances from its female leads

Well-executed fight scenes

Ultra-sincere approach to its story is surprisingly cathartic

CONS

Quite exploitative

May engender unintentional laughs

Overlong running time

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Yuria Haga, Asami Tada, Ayame Misaki, Rina Koike, Misaki Momose, Hideo Sasaki, Yoshiyuki Yamaguchi
Director: Koichi Sakamoto
Screenwriters: Takehito Minato, based on the novel “Red x Pink” by Kazuki Sakuraba

Movie Review – Extraordinary Mission

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EXPECTATIONS: A jingoistic and eventually tiresome action film.

REVIEW: Director Alan Mak is perhaps well known as the co-director of the classic HK crime films, the Infernal Affairs series, but he can be a good director in his own right, with A War Named Desire as a shining example. But for the most part, he co-directs with other collaborators like Andrew Lau (Infernal Affairs, Initial D), Felix Chong (Moonlight in Tokyo and the Overheard films).

But ever since the immensely crushing disappointment from Confession of Pain, his output has been up and down with the middling The Lost Bladesman, the Overheard sequels and The Silent War. But now, he has teamed up with cinematographer Anthony Pun, who makes his directorial debut, with Extraordinary Mission. From its previews, it looks like a throwback to 80’s action films starring Chuck Norris, but having Alan Mak could show that it’s aiming for a thriller vibe. Will the film live up to its boastful title or will it end up being a jingoistic and distasteful mess like Operation Mekong?

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Huang Xuan stars as Lin Kai, a cop who is enlisted by his superior, Li Jianguo (Xing Jiadong) to infiltrate a drug cartel, known as the Twin Eagles. In order to do his job, he befriends Eagle (Duan Yi Hong), a duplicitous and conniving man whose motivations seem to hint a lot more than just monetary gain.

Eagle also has a daughter, Qingshui (Lang Yueting) who also serves as his right-hand man, and she has reservations about Kai’s introduction into the cartel. But as time goes on, Kai’s operation starts to gradually spiral out of control when he becomes addicted to heroin, which unearths hidden demons from his past. And speaking of hidden demons, Jianguo also has some that could drive the operation amok and risk the life of Kai. Will Kai succeed on his mission?

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From glimpses of the trailer and posters, Extraordinary Mission looks very similar to Operation Mekong, an action film which also dealt with drug cartels and undercover missions AND was also based on a true story. But Operation Mekong was also unbearably jingoistic, incredibly distasteful and thin story-wise.

Thankfully, Extraordinary Mission is almost nothing like Mekong, as it has the hard-hitting action that audiences want, but it also has storytelling chops and superior acting that make it a much more substantial experience than one would expect.

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Firstly, the positives. The story may not stand out in terms of ingenuity, but it is well-told and Mak’s reliance on thrills, rather than action, makes a nice alternative approach with such a story. It also helps that Mak cares about his characters and his story, that he develops them efficiently and succinctly, without resorting to much jingoism (like Operation Mekong).

The cat-and-mouse games between Kai and Eagle makes for enjoyable viewing and adds a palpable tension that pays off in its insane climax, which contains some of the most insane stunts I’ve seen in recent years. All crisply captured with Pun as co-director/cinematographer, it must be said that cars should never be used in that type of way around humans. That’s all I’ll say on that matter.

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Another positive is the actors. While the cast are not known for their star-power, they all do very well with their archetypal roles. Huang Xuan is likable, charismatic and convincing in his action scenes as well as his dramatic scenes. In particular, the scene where his character goes through massive bouts from his heroin addiction, he never resorts to histrionics and that makes the scenes all the more powerful.

Duan Yi Hong is quite great as the villain, Eagle. Duan plays the role as surprisingly understated, considering the character’s reprehensible actions, but thankfully the script (by Felix Chong, co-writer of Infernal Affairs films; and film director) gives Eagle a backstory that makes the role more than just a moustache-twirling villain, imbuing him with surprising empathy.

Lang Yueting, whom I’ve enjoyed her performances in Office and Mountain Cry, makes the most out of her small role as Eagle’s daughter/henchman. She has very few lines of dialogue, but her subtle expressions make her stand out, making the most out of her underwritten role. The supporting cast all do well with their roles, but it is the three above that ensure credibility to the film.

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As for flaws, the story does follow a predictable path (with some twists), the drama may be a bit melodramatic (the musical score and contrived dramatic beats) and the overblown climax may take some out of the film, Extraordinary Mission is a solid thriller that lives up to its marketing, if not its title.

Quickie Review

PROS

The acting is quite impressive

The stunts are unbelievably audacious

Focus on character and plot lends power to the drama (particularly the climax)

CONS

Nothing new in terms of storytelling

Can be a bit overly dramatic at times

SCORE: 7/10

Cast: Huang Xuan, Duan Yihong, Lang Yueting, Zu Feng, Xing Jiadong, David Wang
Director: Alan Mak, Anthony Pun
Screenwriters: Felix Chong

Movie Review – The Innocents

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EXPECTATIONS: Something special along the lines of the 2013 Polish film, Ida.

REVIEW: Films based on true events are usually met with mixed reactions. So much to the point that the audience will question the validity of the liberties the filmmakers take. Whether it renders the films as potentially predictable or even unbelievable; some can potentially be inspiring and heart-wrenching. In the case of The Innocents, the film belongs to the latter camp.

Films of a similar nature however can tend to be blatant and insistent that it can alienate may people, like Schindler’s List and The Flowers of War, but some can be quietly powerful, thanks to a subtle approach to storytelling and assured direction. Thankfully, The Innocents fits in with the latter.

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Set in Poland at December 1945 (after World War II), the film starts off in a church and Sister Maria (Agata Buzek) sneaks out to find someone who can tend to the needs of the convent; someone other than a Russian. She finds a French Red Cross doctor, Mathilde (Lou de Laage) and she tends to the nuns, who are discreetly pregnant.

Through her time there, she uncovers some very dark secrets that can possibly destroy the very foundation that the church is built on. And now, with the support of the nuns, Mathilde brings it upon herself to help the nuns, the newborns while balancing her work with the French Red Cross and also evade the Soviet soldiers.

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Not to provide spoilers but the story is incredibly tough going. One of the things that is refreshing about The Innocents is that unlike the films of its type where the backdrop would usually be set during the war; in The Innocents, the story is set in the aftermath of the war, and its consequences.

Another refreshing thing about The Innocents is that we see a story like this from a female’s point-of-view. Rarely do we see stories of war and how it impacts females dealt with such conviction and depth. Director Anne Fontaine applies nuance and sensitivity to the story, making the film very eerie, poignant and shocking, without resulting into scare tactics, nationalism and hopelessly tugging the heartstrings. And in doing so, the story becomes a lot more humane, which makes it a lot easier for the audience to immerse themselves.

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Characterizations and development are also stellar. Told in the point-of-view of Mathilde, her character is a non-believer of faith and religion, but eventually she opens up to the beliefs the nuns hold dear and when she embraces the times that a shining light beams through, it becomes extremely rewarding. Every positive that Mathilde earns or feels is guaranteed to affect the audience in a way that feels rightfully earned.

It also applies to the nuns themselves. They all seem like ciphers at first in both look and personality. But throughout the course of the film, as the revelations are revealed, we notice how distinct they really are. One of them reacts with extreme guilt; another is in complete denial while another chooses to deal with it extensively, but one thing is for certain: their faith is no longer ironclad.

There’s even a scene in the film where one of the nuns questions their faith by asking whether God let their troubles happen to them. Although the theme of religious belief may irk some, Fontaine again, examines it with nuance that it never comes across as judgmental and somehow becomes a mark of change in character.

The production values certainly hold up by their end of the bargain. The cinematography by Caroline Champetier is hauntingly sterile (a simple shot of a nun running up a hill and through a forest will linger) while the musical score by Gregoire Hetzel is very effective in conveying mood and tension, even when sparingly used.

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And of course, the actors are all wonderful. Lou de Laage, who has been fantastic in films like Respire and The Wait, delivers top work as Mathilde, as she conveys her character progression convincingly. Agata Buzek (who plays another nun after the Jason Statham drama, Hummingbird) delivers with conviction as Sister Maria and she shares a nice, understated chemistry with de Laage, as the two bond over their differences in life.

Agata Kulesza (who was in Ida, another film involving nuns) is great as Mother Superior, as she balances both her faith and care for her sisters and the conflicts that she experiences. And Vincent Macaigne is very good as Samuel, a fellow doctor with Mathilde who happens to be Jewish. He provides some much-needed levity to the film, which provides some relief from the grim nature of the story.

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As for flaws, the ending is a little too neat given the events that happened prior and the pacing can be quite glacial at times, but the film is so well-executed in every other regard, it becomes quite easy to ignore them.

At last, a war film The Innocents may be quite a harrowing experience due to its subject matter, but the subtle, sensitive storytelling, the assured direction by Anne Fontaine, the complimentary production values and the fantastic performances ensure that The Innocents is a film is worth the effort.

The fact that this is a war film made by women and it is about women is remarkable and that alone makes it a must-see.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Nuanced, sensitive storytelling

Anne Fontaine’s direction

Fantastic performances

No nationalism

CONS

Ending is a bit too neat

Glacial pacing

SCORE: 9/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Lou De Laage, Agata Buzek, Agata Kulesza, Vincent Macaigne, Joanna Kulig, Eliza Rycembel, Anna Prochniak, Katarzyna Dabrowska, Helena Sujecka, Dorota Kuduk, Klara Bielawka, Mira Maludzinska
Director: Anne Fontaine
Screenwriter: Sabrina B. Karine, Alice Vial, Anne Fontaine, Pascal Bonitzer, Philippe Maynial

Movie Review – Love and Goodbye and Hawaii (OAFF 2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: None whatsoever. Chose to watch it based on the poster.

REVIEW: Break-ups are incredibly hard. While some of them can be done like quickly taking off a band-aid, some of them take ages to get over. In those latter break-ups, not all of the are arduous, but are actually dealt nonchalantly as if the break-up never happened.

And that’s how the current film fits in. In a conventional film, break-up films are either usually about the break-up itself or how one rises from the ashes of said break-up. Love and Goodbye and Hawaii fits in the latter category and there have been great films in that category like the Korean non-rom-com Very Ordinary Couple and the surprise Chinese blockbuster Love Is Not Blind. Will the film be as good as those mentioned or will it be an entry that is easily forgotten like a used band-aid?

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Aya Ayano stars as Rinko, an office worker who currently lives with Isamu (Kentaro Tamura), a graduate student, but the two are in a bit of an unusual dilemma: the two have actually broken up. Rinko still resides in the apartment that Isamu is currently paying for and ironically, the two get along much better than they ever did as a couple.

But Isamu has feelings for a young girl, Kasumi (Kato Aoi), whom also has feelings for him. But when Rinko is made aware of that fact, she too realizes that she still has feelings for Isamu, which causes quite a conundrum that affects the delicate equilibrium of their unorthodox relationship.

But rest assured: this film is not about a love triangle at all. It is about how one’s apathy towards a break-up until one realizes that they are going through a road of denial. And the film succeeds in conveying that dilemma very well. There’s a scene in the film that almost reminded me of a scene in the 2011 dramedy Frances Ha, where Rinko basically wants to take a vacation “from herself” despite her financial situation. But like Frances Ha, it doesn’t turn out the way it’s planned out to be and it ends up being depressingly funny, with all the long waits to connect with someone.

Speaking of funny, there is a nice touch of humour peppered throughout, and it is all based on character. Whether it is about characters being unable to articulate their feelings or how they want to avoid the “big issue” or how friends of the characters judge the situations of the couple, all of it is nicely done and never derails the storytelling.

Like the majority of Japanese cinema, films are dealt with subtlety it is because of that approach that Love and Goodbye and Hawaii succeeds. There are no scenes of dramatic contrivances, no scenes of histrionics and definitely no scenes of cloying music, which makes the dramatic components of the film surprisingly realistic and down-to-earth. And thankfully, the approach is held throughout, particularly in the ending, where it is both low-key and satisfying in its conclusions of its character arcs.

One of the film’s surprises is that we never truly know why the couple have broken up, but in this case, it makes perfect sense within the film’s scope, since the film never places judgment on any of the characters; which makes the audience active to judge for themselves.

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And thankfully, the cast are up to the task. Kentaro Tamura is good as the indecisive Isamu, as he makes a nice impression as to why Rinko liked him as well as why there was tension between the couple. Momoka Ayukawa is hilarious as the sister of one of Rinko’s friends, who in a serendipitous way, becomes the voice of reason.

But the biggest standout is Aya Ayano as Rinko. Whether coming up with an analogy for her break-up or feasting on fast food to ease herself on her living situation or simply having hiccups while she becomes nervous, Ayano shines as the lovelorn woman in the odd situation.

With any relationship, they all have flaws and this film has some. But with the relationships that are long-lasting, it is the supposed flaws that people usually remember the most. Love and Goodbye and Hawaii usually drags a bit in its pacing and it can be a bit too understated for some to truly appreciate, but like Rinko herself, you will end up remembering this film endearingly, hiccups and all.

Quickie Review

PROS

Good performances from the cast

Nice, understated storytelling

Refreshing changes in its approach to the relationship genre

CONS

May be too understated for some

Some slow spots

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Aya Ayano, Kentaro Tamura, Momoka Ayukawa, Aoi Kato, Risa Kameda
Director: Shingo Matsumura
Screenwriters: Shingo Matsumura

Movie Review – Eternity (Alliance Francaise French Film Festival)

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EXPECTATIONS: Something at least worthwhile on a visual and aural level.

REVIEW: For those who don’t know my nationality, I am Vietnamese. And because I was raised in Australia for all of my life, I never really experienced much of Vietnamese culture, but there were some films that I had watched that had always stuck with me. And those were the works of Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung.

Showing the true beauty in the slices of life in Vietnam, his works were always amazing on a visual level as well as an aural level. Immigrated to France at a young age, he clearly took to the customs of the country as well as its film-making style.

In other words, his films were always graceful and soothing, even during moments of realism and nihilism. Famous examples are The Scent of the Green Papaya, Cyclo and Norwegian Wood. You can’t dislike a man that introduced to you critically acclaimed Hong Kong actor Tony Leung Chiu-wai, can you?

So when I heard that he was making his first French-language film with three of the best actresses in all of France, I was excited beyond belief. Counting the fact that this was the first film of Tran‘s that I have see on the big screen, did the film meet my expectations?

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Spanning through a century, showing two generations of a family, the film starts off following Valentine (Audrey Tautou) and her life, involving her husband Jules (Arieh Worthalter) and her children, including Henri (later played by Jeremie Renier).

After finding Jules and giving birth to more than half a dozen children, Valentine then watches as nearly all of them die untimely deaths of unspecified illnesses or leaving the family home, at which point the focus shifts to Valentine’s daughter-in-law Mathilde (Melanie Laurent), who is married to Henri, being the first generation to continue the bloodline.

The story also spans on to Mathilde’s childhood friend, Gabrielle (Berenice Bejo) and her husband Charles (Pierre Deladonchamps), whom both couples live comfortably as they raise their children together.

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As you may have assumed from the synopsis, the film does not have a plot. But for those who are accustomed to Tran‘s films, those were never in service of a plot. They were all in service of mood and atmosphere and thanks to Tran‘s sheer skill, Mark Lee Ping-bing‘s stellar cinematography and great musical choices, supervised by Elise Luguern, Eternity is truly a tone poem brought to life.

The actresses rely more on their physical acting rather than their dialogue delivery, and they all do very well. Audrey Tautou makes the most out of her patriarch role as she convincingly carries the emotional turmoil of her character with nary a word of dialogue.

Melanie Laurent is the most likable and vibrant out of the three, as she gracefully lights up the screen with hope and optimism as soon as she appears on-screen. Berenice Bejo is the tempered and taciturn of the three and she makes a good impression, as her interactions with Laurent are quite good.

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And of course, what would a Tran Anh Hung film be without the director’s muse (and wife) Tran Nu Yan Khe, who not only serves as the narrator of the film (who thankfully adds a sense of pragmatism to the proceedings), but is also the art director of the film.

The film deals with death and birth in a way that is quite poignant as well as illuminating. Scenes of the children, either through birth and death, for the most part, emotionally hit their mark. But due to the numerous times that we go through, the message that Tran wants to show the audience is clear: Birth is a miracle no matter how many times we see it and death is, deep down, meaningless no matter many times it happens and hits us. It really is a simple message, but a profound one nonetheless.

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And while the film certainly accomplishes what it aims for, for viewers who are looking for something else like a plot or conventional narrative will be bored. The film would probably be defined as “installation art”, along the lines of films of Hou Hsiao-hsien. Not to mention the languid pacing, the few sets and locations and the repetitious events.

But for those who are initiated to Tran‘s body of work and those who are willing to step outside the norm of conventional film-making may find Eternity to be a sensual delight that would most likely cast a spell of wonder and poignancy that one would definitely appreciate.

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Quickie Review

PROS

CONS

SCORE: 8/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Audrey Tautou, Berenice Bejo, Melanie Laurent, Jeremie Renier, Pierre Deladonchamps, Arieh Worthalter, Tran Nu Yen Khe
Director: Tran Anh Hung
Screenwriter: Alice Ferney (based on the novel, L’Elegance des veuves), Tran Anh Hung

Movie Review – Being 17 (Alliance Francaise French Film Festival 2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: Something as good as Girlhood.

REVIEW: This will be my first review from of a few entries for this year’s Alliance Francaise French Film Festival and if Being 17 is any indication, the festival is off to a great start. Coming-of-age films are a genre that I deeply appreciate. With no need of a strong reliance on plot, seeing the progression of a protagonist through young adulthood can be compelling on a cinematic level.

So when I heard of Being 17 showing at the festival and all of its critical buzz, I was intrigued. But what sealed the deal for me was the co-writer of the film, Celine Sciamma. Having seen her last directorial project, my hopes skyrocketed, since I absolutely loved Girlhood, with its mature approach to young adulthood, showing how it feels to briefly belong somewhere and its sheer realism. So does Being 17 live up to the hype?

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The film starts off with Damien (Kacey Mottet Klein), a taciturn yet intelligent student who lives with his mother Marianne (Sandrine Kiberlein), a doctor. His father, Nathan (Alexis Moret) is a military pilot who often gets called into mission reports.

During school, Damien gets picked on by Tomas (Corentin Fila), a classmate who trips him over for no reason. Thus begins a series of violent confrontations within the school faculty.

Tomas, who is a bi-racial son of sheep and cattle farmers, has to spend 90 minutes traveling to school. During one of her house calls, Marianne gets called to Tomas’ house to lend aid to Tomas’ mother, Christine, who has been through a series of miscarriages. Hearing that Tomas is struggling with his grades at school, she takes it upon herself to invite Tomas to her home to study. With the pressing of his parents, he reluctantly agrees.

Having no say in the matter, Damien has to suck it up to reside with Tomas, but little do the two realize, that this would end up being the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

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When I was watching the film, I found the catalyst of the relationship very hard to swallow. A mother inviting a bully of her son to live together is a hard thing to shake off and it is understandable that it would turn some people off. But if you get over that, Being 17 is really a compelling film that like Girlhood, is honest, non-judgmental and emotionally satisfying. But it isn’t as good as the latter, due to some flaws that are quite unfortunate.

Director Andre Techine, whose work I’ve never seen but I’m willing to rectify, takes a subtle approach to the storytelling, with very little of the histrionics that usually accompanies the genre and it pays off beautifully. Working with less-than-usual dialogue and more reliant on physical expressions, we see the angst and confusion of the characters; like in a scene where the two boys are fighting each other in the snow.

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The film is also split into three trimesters (a name given to the terms in French schools and is also a reference to Tomas’ mother’s pregnancy status) and the seasons reflect the progression of the characters brilliantly, while the settings in Pyrenees, France are beautifully capture by DOP Julien Hirsch.

The performances certainly hold up their end of the bargain, with the two leads showing great nuance and maturity to their performances. Klein and Fila share great chemistry, whether it is hostility or intimacy, they both give life to their characters while making them truly genuine.

Sandrine Kiberlain is fantastic as Marianne, as she shows warmth, charisma and (without spoilers) is very convincing in the later stages of the film. Despite her character’s questionable actions, Kiberlain makes them believable that the character would do such a thing.

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But there are flaws that prevent this film from being truly great. Alongside the morally questionable foundation of the story, there are scenes in the film that are present for the sake of foreshadowing, but it leads to nothing. In one case, there’s a scene where Marianne has a dream about a certain character that is morally bizarre. How it adds to the story is very questionable and it should’ve been left in the cutting room floor.

But overall, Being 17 is a thoughtful coming-of-age story with great performances, honest storytelling, beautiful cinematography and subtle direction that is sure to delight. If you can overlook its questionable morals, the emotional journey that the characters go through is sure to emotionally satisfy.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Great performances from the cast

Honest, emotionally satisfying storytelling

Beautiful cinematography

CONS

Morally questionable moments

SCORE: 8/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Sandrine Kiberlain, Kacey Mottet Klein, Corentin Fila, Alexis Loret, Jean Fornerod, Mama Prassinos, Jean Corso
Director: Andre Techine
Screenwriter: Andre Techine, Celine Sciamma

Movie Review – Raw (Monster Fest 2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: Something fantastic as it is gory.

REVIEW: In the past decade, I have grown an affinity for French film, especially when they venture into the horror genre. With unbearably intense entries like Inside, Martyrs, Frontier(s); or artful entries like Amer, Evolution, Livid; and film classics like Les Diaboliques and Possession, I had an intense itch to satisfy that could only be satiated with another stellar entry.

So when I read about the huge buzz at Cannes and TIFF about a French cannibal horror film, which involves ambulances at screenings and tons of awards, I knew I had to see that film as soon as possible. Now let’s serve this review Raw, with all the sides!

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Garance Marillier stars as Justine, a shy, yet extremely bright young vegetarian who is following his parents’ footsteps (Joanna Preiss, Laurent Lucas) as well as her older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), by attending vet school. She arrives at the university and immediately gets dragged into a hazing initiation, which shows her a world of thrills and danger.

Desperate to fit in, she strays from her principles and eats raw meat for the first time. With sheer amounts of peer pressure, a bunch of alcohol and joints of drugs, Justine soon experiences terrible and unexpected consequences as her true self begins to emerge.

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From reading the synopsis, it may seem like that this film is more of a coming-of-age film, rather than a horror entry. And after seeing the final result, that is actually what it is. The storytelling is surprisingly grounded given its genre trappings and director Julia Ducournau handles the film with such an assured hand, that the film rarely feels heavy-handed, even with its unsubtle metaphors (A vegetarian who is also a virgin?).

The genre execution mixed with the plausible grounding of the story is meshed really well, like how a character eats meat for the first time, which is quite reminiscent of experimentation just to conform. Or how one goes to university to discover who they are and how they fit in the world, which is conveyed in the truly messy fashion it is, that almost anyone can relate to. And it is because of Ducournau‘s direction and storytelling chops, that we have an emotional attachment to the story as well as the characters.

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Speaking of the characters, the actors assembled for the film are all fantastic. Garance Marillier is astounding as Justine, as she handles the arc of her character like a professional, from the shyness to the depravity, to the vulnerability and finally the acceptance. She reminded me of a more daring version of Saoirse Ronan, and I hope she gets more meaty roles in the future. Equally as good is Ella Rumpf, who is a force of nature as Alexia. Her roughness, her rebellious nature and her slight paternal nature towards Justine, are all handled with nuance and the chemistry the two actresses share is believable and quite touching as it develops throughout the film. Seeing Rumpf on screen reminded me of a mix of French horror queen Beatrice Dalle (who stars in horror films like Inside and Among the Living) and American actress Fairuza Balk, whom I have loved since her first role in the cult-classic sequel, Return to Oz.

The cinematography by Ruben Impens extracts a lot of nightmarish, yet beautiful imagery from the university setting, particularly scenes involving animals. Like a scene involving the newcomers crawling through a vast, dark room, like ants following a trail. While the make-up, by Laura Ozier and SFX specialist Olivier Afonso (who has worked on Inside), is skin-crawlingly convincing. There is a scene where we see a person’s leg that is half eaten, and the make-up is so realistic, that I could not stop staring at it despite being repulsed by it.

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With all the gory, nightmarish imagery and the dark story, it would seem that the film would be an arduous experience. But thankfully, it never feels like that and one of the reasons is because of the editing. Under a tight running time of 98 minutes, the editing by Jean Cristophe-Bouzy is intricate, yet free-flowing at times, like during the clubbing sequences. Without the focused editing, the film could have been a lot harder to swallow.

Another reason the film doesn’t feel arduous is because director Ducournau peppers dark humour throughout the film. Like when a character is finished vomiting, a fellow student assumes that she has a eating disorder and quickly shows her how to vomit correctly. Or another scene when Alexis is giving Justine a session of Brazillian wax. It is these moments of mirth that give the film a comedic bite that is similar to the work of Daniel Waters, who has written the classic teen film, Heathers.

And lastly, the musical score by Jim Williams, which not only capably conveys both menacing and entrancing moods very well, but also gives the film a needed dramatic punch in the film’s most intense moments, especially the climax.

Raw was a fantastic experience that had shocked, surprised, thrilled and touched me. I’ll be really surprised if this does not make it to my top 10 by the end of the year. With its assured and professional direction, a fantastic pair of performances, a well-thought out story and a beautiful musical score, Raw is definitely a rewarding meal to savour.

Her film does remind me of David Cronenberg and Daniel Waters, but I will definitely remember her name: Julia Ducournau.

Quickie Review

PROS

Assured direction

Fantastic pair of performances

Focused and tight editing

Wonderful musical score

Nightmarish imagery and cinematography

Marries genre tropes and true-to-life situations cleverly

CONS

The ending is a teeny bit abrupt

SCORE: 9/10

Cast: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella, Joana Preiss, Laurent Lucas, Bouli Lanners
Director: Julia Ducournau
Screenwriters: Julia Ducournau

Movie Review – The Tenants Downstairs

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EXPECTATIONS: A soft and fluffy version of the Category III Hong Kong films of yore.

REVIEW:

NOTE: This review is for the revised 98 minute version, not for the 110 minute version.

Giddens Ko is well-known in Taiwan for being the author of such hits like The Apple of My Eye, which spawned renewed interest in the young love genre, as well as he comedy hit The Killer Who Never Kills and the romance Cafe, Waiting Love. Whereas Adam Tsuei is well-known for bringing musical stars into the spotlight like Jay Chou and Leehom Wang, as well as producing some of Gidden’s projects as well as the Tiny Times films.

So, when you see the two work together for their latest project, you’d expect them to work on something fluffy and crowd-pleasing. Thankfully, they brought out their latest project, The Tenants Downstairs, a depraved throwback to the Category III Hong Kong films of yore, starring genre stalwart, Simon Yam. But considering their past work, will it be homogenized and watered-down, or will it be hard-hitting and pack a serious punch?

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The film starts off with an unnamed and enigmatic landlord (Simon Yam) sitting in an interrogation room, preparing to tell a story to a police detective (Kai Fung) which is described as “a story out of your imagination”. Then it flashes back to the landlord inheriting the apartment complex and discovering the surveillance room, which has cameras in all of the apartments.

Then over time, a group of tenants reside in the complex and which include Kuo Li (Lee Kang-sheng) and Linghu (Bernard SenJun), a gay couple attempting to hide their relationship; divorced gym instructor Chang (Chuang Kai-hsun) who has a penchant for expired milk and is a ball of repressed rage that would make Adam Sandler blush; depressed single father Wang (Phil Yan) who harbours more than just love for his young daughter (Angel Ho); Miss Chen (Li Xing), an office worker with an insatiable thirst for her work in the horizontal refreshment industry and Boyan (Yan Sheng-yu) is a student who loves video-games and another private game where he always wins.

Last but definitely not least is Yingru (Ivy Shao), a beautiful and seemingly angelic young woman whose apartment is strangely stacked with many suitcases. And there’s also a victim in her bathtub who is being tortured, you know the usual. So after the landlord discovers her secret, he becomes fascinated about the dark side of human nature and decides to prod and push his tenants to embrace their darkest desires and to commit the most depraved acts.

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As you can tell from the synopsis, there really isn’t much of a plot here. And the humour in which is peppered in it is in actuality how the film is presented; humour that is macabre and twisted. And boy, is it twisted. There is a fine line between sadistic and comedic, but director Adam Tsuei and writer Giddens Ko walk on it incredibly well.

Scenes involving dragging bodies has never looked funnier, especially when the magic of “teleportation” is involved. The use of classical music alleviated the effect of the atrocities that happen on-screen with enough dark humour and the cast are wholly committed to the proceedings. Whether they are doing something physically taxing or doing something prurient beyond their sexual realms, the cast are all on their A-game.

Simon Yam shows why he’s fantastic in portraying psychos and insane lunatics back in the 90’s and he is full of life here in the role of the landlord. Whether he is dragging a body, sticking it to the man, dancing majestically or sinking his own submarine to those who are sharpening their power tools, it is a pleasure to see Yam back in a role that will please Category III cinema lovers.

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Tsai Ming-liang’s favourite collaborator Lee Kang-sheng can do any of the stuff he does in the film in his sleep, if films like Rebels of the Neon God is any indication. And even after a stroke he had suffered two years ago, Lee still does well with his performance. Bernard Senjun plays the student/mistress of Kuo Li and he gives a good performance as the gradually lovelorn yang to Kuo Li’s tempered yin.

Chuang Kai-hsun plays his jackass of a role convincingly, as he shows both repressed and expressive rage with ease. He really takes it up a notch when he acts alongside Li Xing, leading to some intense scenes. The latter is fantastic as Miss Chen, even when her character takes part in the more prurient aspects of the film, she never makes her character feel like she has no choice in the life she’s chosen. Li exudes confidence and strength in the role that probably was not present in the script.

Phil Yan is fine as the sexually repressed father, as he definitely looks the part of an average joe, which makes it creepier when he embraces both his inner child and actual child while Angel Ho is likewise fine as the daughter, who acts in scenes that really seem like the film-makers are breaking laws to film.

Yan Sheng-yu is funny as the self-gratifying slacker who believes he has the power of “teleportation”. His physical comedy does lead to some funny moments including “literally” taking one for the team and especially a part in the climax, which results in the best use of a body part since 1993’s wuxia comedy, The Eagle Shooting Heroes.

But the biggest standout of the film is Ivy Shao. Exuding an understated creepiness underneath her angelic smile and bright white wardrobe, she sends chills to the audience every time she shows up. Her performance is quite reminiscent of Eihi Shiina’s performance in Takashi Miike’s cult classic, Audition, and it is a wonder to witness.

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The film is also magnificently well-shot and edited, making the film more prestigious than it really should, but fortunately director Adam Tsuei never tells the story more than it actually is: a series of unsavory events twisted up in a line of insanity, depravity and abnormality.

If Tsuei had taken the film seriously, it would have ended up like one of Hong Kong director Wong Ching-po’s films, which can be incredibly pretentious. The production design by Kei Itsusuji and cinematography by Jimmy Yu make Simon Yam’s house of horrors look strikingly beautiful; even with the shocking events that occur, you cannot take your eyes away.

As for flaws, the film lacks a lot of explanation with its story, although that may have been the result of the shorter cut which was released at NYAFF 2016, because apparently, the full theatrical cut is 110 minutes and has scenes of exposition that further explain the landlord’s backstory, his motives, other backstories of various characters and a sense of logic to the proceedings.

But whether this is a flaw depends on your preference. If you prefer ambiguity and leaving it up to your imagination, the shorter cut certainly does that. But if you want things tied up neatly, the longer cut may do the trick.

Overall, The Tenants Downstairs is a fantastic throwback to the Category III films of the 90’s that will sicken, surprise and amuse many with its sexual deviancy, shocking depravity and sheer lunacy. And with a wonderfully committed cast and its fantastic production values, The Tenants Downstairs is my top guilty pleasure of the year that brought a huge demented smile on my face.

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Quickie Review

PROS

The entire cast are all committed to the insane shenanigans

The production values make the film look and sound fantastic

The fine line between sadism and dark comedy is trodden well

CONS

Lack of explanations of the proceedings

SCORE: 9/10

Cast: Simon Yam Tat-wah, Ivy Shao (Shao Yu-wei), Lee Kang-sheng, Chuang Kai-hsun, Phil Yan, Li Xing, Yan Sheng-yu, Bernard SenJun, Angel Ho, Chen Mu-yi, Chou Hsiao-an, Kai Fung
Director: Adam Tsuei
Screenwriters: Giddens Ko, based on his novel of the same name

Movie Review – Your Name

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EXPECTATIONS: A film that lives up to its buzz.

REVIEW: Makoto Shinkai is an animation film-maker that has been earmarked to become the next Hayao Miyazaki with his spectacular animation. But in my opinion, he’s not really there yet. Although he gets the visuals right, his storytelling is quite flawed due to the slow pace and he never gets to end his films in a satisfying manner.

The endings are either abrupt, lack impact or at one point, incredibly overwrought. But the biggest problem with his films is the use of musical montages. Whenever a film of his reaches an emotional peak, he tends to play a song over it with the intention of eliciting poignancy. But unfortunately it ends up being lazy, cheap and ruins the cinematic panache of the film, making it look like a television episode at times.

So when I heard that Shinkai’s latest film was breaking Japanese box office records AND was chosen to be in the running for Best Animated Film at the Oscars, I knew I had to watch it to see if the film lived up to its hype. So does the film live up to its sterling reputation or will it end up being underwhelming?

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Edited and expanded synopsis from Madman: Mitsuha (Mone Kamishiraishi) and Taki (Ryunosuke Kamiki) are two total strangers living completely different lives. But when Mitsuha makes an impulsive wish to leave her mountain town for the bustling city of Tokyo, they become connected in a bizarre way. She dreams she is a boy living in Tokyo while Taki dreams he is a girl from a rural town he’s never been to.

The two realize the situation that they are in and decide to make the most of it until they develop an intimate relationship. But they suddenly lose contact with each other and Taki decides to personally meet up with Mitsuha over at her hometown. Little does he know, he ventures into something that will send both into an emotional journey that few could dream of. Will their relationship survive through the tumultuous turn of events?

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Let us get the obvious out of the way. From the looks of the screenshots alone, Your Name looks visually spectacular. Everything just has a pinkish/orange hue that gives the film such a warm, optimistic feel that made me smile. The music by RADWIMPS (a change from Shinkai’s usual composer, TENMON) gets the emotional pull of the film quite well, despite some major flaws.

As for the storytelling, Shinkai thankfully has improved in some ways. First of all, the editing (by Shinkai himself) has tightened up considerably, leading to a pace that is manageable for the story as well as keeping the emotional momentum going. Secondly, he actually sticks the landing and provides a satisfying, albeit predictable ending. Without spoilers, the ending does not feel abrupt, nor does it feel overwrought and it actually feels earned and rightfully so.

Thirdly, the fun sci-fi premise never interferes with the storytelling. There is very little spoon-feeding and exposition that slows the film down and it benefits greatly from it. And finally, Shinkai finally develops a nice sense of humour that provides the perfect offset from the potentially darker turns of the story.

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As for the voice acting, all the actors give great performances. Ryunosuke Kamiki, who is a veteran in voice acting as far as his projects for Studio Ghibli go, is great as Taki, as he provides the perfect balance between brimming anger and kindness. While Mone Kamishiraishi (who was fantastic in the leading role of Lady Maiko) is no beginner in voice acting due to her performance in Wolf Chidren, is great as Mitsuha, as she makes her character likable and compelling, with a great portrayal of both naivety and hubris. The supporting cast all add life to their roles from Masami Nagasawa providing a certain sultry appeal as Miki, Taki’s senior and romantic crush; to Kana Hanazawa as Ms. Yukino, Mitsuha’s teacher and is a reprisal of a character in one of Shinkai’s previous films.

But as much as improvements go, there is always room for it and Shinkai still has ample space of it. The lightest flaw is typical of films with this premise, which leads to some plot holes and lapses in the film’s logic, but I can’t really say further, since it would spoil part of the film. The other flaw, and this is a major one, is one I stated in the beginning of this review: the musical montages. Yes, they are still present and there are more present than usual, which really harms the emotional pull of the film, as well as unintentionally making the film cheap, looking like part of a TV episode.

But overall, Your Name is Shinkai’s most satisfying and complete film to date. With its amazingly beautiful animation, a fun yet familiar sci-fi premise, a great melding of genres (sci-fi, romance and disaster movie?) and great vocal talent, Your Name is a film that is worth seeing and remembering.

Quickie Review

PROS

Spectacular animation

Fantastic voice work from the cast

Little spoon-feeding and exposition about the fantasy premise

Great storytelling and editing, ensuring a good pace

A satisfying ending

CONS

The use of musical montages

Problematic subtitles

Some plot holes and lapses in logic

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Ryunosuke Kamiki, Mone Kamishiraishi, Masami Nagasawa, Ryo Narita, Aoi Yuki, Obunaga Shimazaki, Kaito Ishikawa, Kanon Tani, Masaki Terasoma  
Director: Makoto Shinkai
Screenwriters: Makoto Shinkai

Movie Review – I Am Not Madame Bovary

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EXPECTATIONS: A comedy/drama that suffers from China censorship with a great performance from Fan Bingbing.

REVIEW: Feng Xiaogang is one of the most popular directors in all of China, but unlike other directors like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, his work is not as well-known overseas. Also unlike the directors mentioned, he was not trained at the prestigious Beijing Film Academy, making him a self-taught auteur.

His films are well-known for their comedic timing, skilled storytelling as well as its satirical touch, which has resulted in great films like Cell Phone, a film that made fun of male statuses, technology obsession as well as having astute observations of the middle-class in China; as well as being commercial successes that worked well with audiences like the rom-com films If You Are The One and its sequel, the war film, Assembly and the disaster film/melodrama Aftershock.

In his latest film, he reunites with his collaborators from Cell Phone, superstar actress Fan Bingbing and author/screenwriter Liu Zhenyun for the comedy/drama, I Am Not Madame Bovary, based on a novel by the latter. Will the film be just as good and fruitful as their previous collaboration?

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Fan Bingbing stars as Li Xuelian, a village woman, who is scorned by her ex-husband Qin Yuhe (Li Zonghan) after being swindled into a divorce. She attempts to sue him but after a ruling is made against her in the divorce proceedings (resulting in a hilarious courtroom scene), she decides to seek justice from people who are higher up in the Chinese legal system.

But when she is ignored, rebuffed and pushed away by the infinite government officials that she seeks help from, she begins an annual trip of demanding reparations to Beijing not only in order to prove that her divorce was a complete sham but also in order to redeem her reputation, and most importantly to sue the Chinese officials who failed her.

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For those who have just seen the screenshots and the trailer, you’re probably wondering, does the entire film look like we are peering through a telescope? For the majority of it, it is true. In a recent interview, Feng Xiaogang said that in his current age, he wanted to branch out from his commercial works and into more art-house fare. And seeing his newest film, it’s not hard to see the results.

The circular image can be a bit off-putting at first, but for those accustomed to Chinese art works and literature, it makes sense, visually. It also helps that the compositions and cinematography by Luo Pan looks fantastic, like peering at paintings.

The aspect ratio also changes from the circular image to the 1:1 ratio (simulating an open scroll) during the Beijing scenes until the end of the film, which is the 2.35:1 widescreen image. The reasons for the change in ratios is not just for visual purposes, but it lends a point for symbolism i.e. the circular image being a Chinese symbol for feminism while the ending ratio symbolizes the revelation that Xuelian confesses.

The beautiful cinematography is also an amusing contrast to the frankly ridiculous story, which had me belly-laughing. The same goes for the musical score by Wei Du, which adopts a thrilling and intensive vibe that brought a huge smile on my face.

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Feng still has his trademark comedy chops in check like in Cell Phone and his last film, the incredibly esoteric Personal Tailor, and it pays off with dark humour, hard-hitting satire and even some physical comedy. Feng makes sure that every actor plays their role straight-faced without a sense of irony nor self-awareness, and it pays off brilliantly.

But unlike the actors, Feng knows how ridiculous the story is and plays it more like a fable, rather than something factual. And like his previous film Personal Tailor, the Chinese government isn’t seen and portrayed in an admirable light, leading to some very funny blaming games. Between this, Shin Godzilla and the recent election, bureaucracy has turned into a running joke.

Also contributing to the film is Fan Bingbing. In my opinion, she is one of the most underrated actresses out there. Mainly seen as nothing more than a pretty face, she clearly has done great work in her career, like her dramatic turns in her collaborations with director Li Yu or her comedic turns in films by director Eva Jin. Reuniting with director Feng Xiaogang, she gives one of her best performances in her career.

Taking away her glamourous beauty away and the lack of close-up shots in the film, she really inhabits the look of a villager. Ferocious, headstrong and not willing to back away from a fight, Fan pulls off her dramatic scenes with aplomb while also nailing the deadpan tone of the film; displaying her comedic chops. The rest of the all-male supporting cast do fine with their roles, especially Guo Tao as Xuelian’s childhood friend, but Fan is a true force of nature in the role.

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Although I enjoyed the film overall aesthetically and humourously, there are some caveats that some will take issue with. The humour of the film is not of the politically correct kind which could irk some; one scene in particular involves rape and another one involves the act of suicide. And the second act does end up in a bit of a lull, and that is mainly because Fan is not on-screen for a certain amount of time, but the pacing overall is fine, though the running time is a bit stretched out.

As for the ending, it can be polarizing to some. While it does earn its dramatic peak and provides much-needed backstory and motivation for the main character, it does make you question what you just saw and it might evoke a sense of guilt; something that one might not want once they leave the theater.

But overall, I Am Not Madame Bovary was a funny, charming, satirical, feminist tale that shows both director Feng Xiaogang and actress Fan Bingbing at their best. How this film was NOT considered as a submission for the Foreign Language Film Oscar is baffling beyond belief.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Dry, satirical and hilarious humour, dealing with themes like infidelity, murder, rape, government bureaucracy

Beautifully surreal cinematography

Fantastic technical values enhance the humour of the ridiculous story

Fan’s fantastic performance as Pan Jinlian Li Xuelian

CONS

The ending and humour might polarize some

A slight lull in the second act

Slightly overlong running time

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Fan Bingbing, Guo Tao, Da Peng, Yin Yuanzhang, Feng Enhe, Liu Xin, Zhao Yi, Zhao Lixin, Jiang Yongbo, Liu Hua, Li Zonghan, Huang Jianxin, Gao Ming, Yu Hewei, Zhang Jiayi, Tian Xiaojie, Zhang Yi  
Director: Feng Xiaogang
Screenwriters: Liu Zhenyun, based on her novel “I Did Not Kill My Husband”