Friday 3 January 2020

Defending Cinephilia (4) - Asian film specialist John Snadden looks across the region

Burning (Lee Chang-dong, South Korea)
It was a good year for film in 2019, one in which American studio releases finally showed they had the right stuff to keep audiences in theatres and away from their big screen TVs and streaming least temporarily.

Internationally, there were some worrying developments for Chinese commercial cinema in the Middle Kingdom. 

Of the new releases I watched this year, three stood head and shoulders above the rest. Lee Chang-dong's Burning was a powerful drama about obsession and retribution, which also saw the remarkable screen debut of South Korean actress Jun Jong seo. There wasn't a minute I didn't enjoy of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which was Quentin Tarantino's dog-eared love letter to a city and an industry he knows only too well. Another was Joker, a grotesque take on the Hero Myth and, arguably, a career defining performance from Joaquin Phoenix as a brutalised young man who finally discovers his calling in life.

Dragged Across Concrete (S Craig Mahler, USA)
Other titles which I really liked were Dragged Across Concrete andThe Mule, first-rate films from veteran film-maker Clint Eastwood and up and coming talent S Craig Zahler. Aquaman was a genuine surprise and the most under-rated movie I watched this year. Hotel Mumbai was easily the best Australian feature and miles ahead of the turgid The Nightingale. Director Asghar Farhadi's Everybody Knows was a vast improvement on his recent The Salesman, and certainly helped along by stars Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz.

The two worst films I sat through this year were true cinema sinkholes: the appalling misfire (and that's being particularly kind...) Holmes and Watson, and US, pretension on steroids from Get Out director Jordan Peele.

Asian Film
Extreme Job (Lee Byeong-heon, South Korea)
This year again saw South Korean cinema on a high, where both ends of the genre spectrum were covered by excellent films. Extreme Job  was a LOL culinary/crime themed comedy with a final twenty minutes that was a hoot for fans of Asian cinema. 

Parasite turned out to be a seriously likeable urban satire where a family of have-nots grab the chance to become upwardly mobile. The darker underlying elements eventually making this one of the year's most memorable movies.

From mainland China, the animated feature Ne Zha found large, enthusiastic audiences world-wide  - and no wonder considering what an entertaining and devilish little film this was.

The Crossing (Bai Xue, China)
Otherwise, in Oz, commercial mainland films were thin on the ground which led local exhibitors to screen a number of Chinese art-house releases. The Crossing, an across borders, coming-of-age crime flick, and the highly acclaimed An Elephant Sitting Still were quality films which found appreciative audiences.

Cantonese cinema was highlighted by two crime-action movies which set the bar for action cinema very much higher - something which used to happen on a regular basis over twenty years ago.

White Storm 2: Drug Lords is a tough crime thriller with a car chase sequence where a sedan poleaxes a bus and is then pursued into an Underground rail station where people on escalators and trains all become collateral damage. Mind blowing stuff!

Line Walker 2, a Mission Impossible-style spy-action flick finishes in Spain with a gob smacking foot-car chase through the crowded streets of Pamplona where bovine vs auto in a tremendous sequence - which has to be seen to be believed!

Both these passages of visceral cinema were great examples of high concept and inspired execution.

The Secret (Ann Hui, Hong Kong) Blu-ray cover
Of the HK Blu-ray discs which I viewed this year, the Special Edition restoration of Ann Hui's  The Secret (1979) was something to treasure, and is a must purchase for anyone interested in Cantonese cinema.

If you follow the dinosaur media, none (or maybe one?) of these major regional releases would be at all familiar as they were ignored by their arts scribblers.

In recent times, President Xi Jinping's demands of "moral purity" and "adherence to Communist Party philosophy" have had a major effect on Sino movie-makers and artists in general throughout China.

*  Cell Phone 2  (Feng Xiaogang)
*  One Second  (Zhang Yimou)
*  The Hidden Sword (Xu Haofeng)
*  The Last Wish  (Tian Yusheng)
*   Summer of Chang Sha  (Zu Feng)
*   The Eight Hundred  (Guan Hu) 
*    Liberation (Chang Xiaoyang/Li Shaohong)

The circumstances surrounding Zhang Yimou's film, One Second, are particularly galling, as it was withdrawn from the Berlin Film Festival when it looked to be in serious contention for the top prize. The last thing the CCP wanted was a feature about the Cultural Revolution receiving international acclaim and the associated publicity.

Instead, this year filmgoers worldwide have been served up fatuous CCP propaganda in movies such as The Wandering Earth and The Bravest, plus terrible 1950s-style teenage romances and expensive looking but bland crime movies.

The ultimate irony of the above list of suppressed films is that the final two titles are hard line propaganda pictures about China's wartime successes last century, but which had the temerity to present Taiwanese troops in an heroic light. (They won't do that next time!)

I have a feeling next year's file of Verboten titles will be even thicker.

As the year closes, please spare more than a few thoughts for the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong who are now engaged in the fight of their lives and, quite possibly, preparing for the worst of outcomes.

On that sunny note, I'd like to wish all the best to Geoff and the Film Alert crew for 2020. 

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