Living up to Tradition: Perry Lam reviews ‘Heukseok Kids’

This film review is part of Rochford Street Review’s coverage of the 2017 Golden Koala Chinese Film Festival.

The opening film of the Golden Koala Chinese Film Festival Heukseok Kids is a clear message of the festival intentions of both showcasing new Chinese cinema as well as to present the works of up and coming directors.

Heukseok Kids tells the tale of Defu, a Chinese film student based in Seoul, after 8 years overseas, he is informed of his mother’s terminal illness and has to return home. When Defu returns home, he not only has to come to make amends with his dying mother, but also discover his role in his dysfunctional family as a husband and father.

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Arthouse features have a tendency to be extremely personal pieces of celluloid. Unlike commercial fare, the vision of the filmmaker takes priority over all commercial considerations, this is the case with Heukseok Kids, which is based on Chinese director Liu Defu (whom the character of Defu is named after) experiences living overseas in Korea as well as in his home country of Mainland China.

This personal quality permeates through all levels of the film, its screenplay, its performances and its cinematography. There is a sense of intimacy in the narrative, we are always close to Defu and his narrative transformation. The sequence in Korea features a confident, even more virile representation of Defu as a character, he is outgoing, engages in one night stands and cracks jokes with his food photography obsessed Korean friend. However, upon his return to China, all Dionysian traits are drained from his personality, as he comes face to face with, and at times fall short (due to his time abroad) of his responsibilities as a man in Chinese society. This Dionysian/Apollonian dichotomy is novel in its concept, and is an issue that is a rarely explored facet of Chinese cinema.

The film services extremely well as a character study of Defu but due to its prioritizing of its protagonist, it fails in developing its secondary characters, with most of them being reduced to caricatures that we know all too well. The bitter wife, the bum brother, the quiet and hapless father. The secondary characters serve more as shattered reflections of the protagonist than actual characters, every interaction with them only serves to inform us more on Defu, his past actions and their consequences than on the other characters themselves. This is not necessarily a bad thing, the narrative’s myopic focus on Defu actually paints a fascinating portrait of a man stuck in two cultures. A brilliant example of this is Defu and his wife’s discussion about their passionless marriage and his obligations as a husband and father, his wife carries much of the dialogue of this scene but it is Defu who gets the bulk of the character development, as he sits on the couch, too preoccupied texting his Korean buddies. He doesn’t care.

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The narrative does take a weaker turn, as it limps to its ending, as Defu becomes a more confused and conflicted character, so does the narrative. The first two acts are strong in its execution of theme and tone but it abruptly ends with nothing resolved. I do understand that a film does not need to answer all its audience’s questions but while the build-up is consistent on the first two acts, we do not see any pay off for all the character development that was invested in Defu and that may leave some people wanting.

The cinematography isn’t beautiful in the aesthetic sense of the word but brings a poetic elegance to the film. Great cinematography has always been misunderstood as ‘great looking images’ but these images may distract from the narrative. This is not the case with Heukseok Kids, as the cinematography, while at times ugly, serves the story first, it is realistic and borderline documentarian in its approach. The world of Heukseok Kids is a claustrophobic one, constant use of over the shoulder shots and tight mid shots imprison Defu into the frame. An even bigger marvel is witnessing how Liu Defu (The Director) manages to make wideshots look oppressive and contrainted, one of the most haunting images of the film comes in the form of Defu (The character) eating in the corner of a dark living room, with old photos of family members and ancestors hanging prominently on the walls behind him. The message is clear, Defu is failing to live up to tradition.

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Ray Argall, President of the Australian Director’s Guild presenting the Certificate of Selection to the director of Heukseok Kids, Liu Defu.

While the dysfunction of youth is a strong theme, the film offers a stronger examination of Chinese tradition. The male characters constantly fail constantly at being a ‘Chinese Man’, images and ideals that are set upon them whether through tradition or family. In a memorable scene, Defu’s daughter realizes that her father himself is also still a student, like her. Despite Defu being a father, as a student, he is unable to fully provide for his daughter, likewise to Defu’s brother, who in their father’s words, is a ‘loser’, more a hindrance than a provider to the family. On another note, the father daughter scene brings to fore Chinese society’s obsession with education and how this obsession has become a tradition, unchanged for generations, from father to daughter. Which adds an interesting crease to how we view tradition, if we don’t go against it, wouldn’t all our outcomes be the same?

At its source, Heukseok Kids is a film about questions. It questions the strict traditions of Chinese society, it questions its protagonist’s role in his life, most of all, it questions the importance of your obligations versus your aspirations. While it does not provide a solid answer nor a satisfying pay off, Heukseok Kids is nonetheless a strong debut from a talented young director and provides a thought provoking time at the movies, one to ponder over drinks with friends.

 

*** out of 5

A strong, if at times uneven meditation on the role of the man in contemporary Chinese society. Like the best of arthouse cinema, it is the questions they raise that are much more satisfying than the answers.

 

 

If you like this, you should watch:

Lost In Translation- All millennials should watch this movie. Beautifully written and acted film about loneliness and alienation in the big city.

Taxi Driver- Like how Heukseok Kids confront the idea of what a man is and should be in Chinese society, Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece does the same (and goes further) with American society.

Caché– Heukseok Kid’s narrative structure and visuals bears resemblance to Michael Haneke’s frustrating meditation on the scars of French colonialism. From its ‘drop  off’ third act to its realistic, if mundane visuals of everyday life.

 

 

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Perry Lam is an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review. He is the director of  the documentary short film BLACK RAT  has been selected for numerous film festivals both in Sydney and overseas.  https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/02/02/welcome-perry-lam-rochford-street-review-associate-editor/

The Golden Koala Chinese Film Festival kicks off on 2nd of February 2017 and takes place at venues across Australia. For further information go to http://www.cff.org.au/.

The Crime of Comedy: Perry Lam reviews ‘North by Northeast’

North by Northeast is the second feature of controversial director Zhang Bingjian, whose works are known for exploring politically sensitive subjects, such as Chinese government corruption and propaganda.

North By Northeast, whose title is a clear reference to Hitchcock’s classic North By Northwest, takes place in 1978 China. 2 years after Mao’s Cultural Revolution, a serial rapist is on the loose in Northern China and it is up to the incompetent police captain, Captain Li and a motley crew of villagers to capture the rapist before he claims another victim.

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Despite the dark story, North By Northeast is billed as a comedy. While the film does have its comedic moments, all of it is slapstick, laugh out loud moments, they aren’t as common as one would expect and the film feels like drama at times. Though these funny moments are few, the film is always compelling; each new clue or new attempt at capturing the rapist only draw the viewer more into the world, kudos to the screenplay, it is well paced and punchy enough to provide interesting dramatic set pieces between the characters as they come into conflict with one another, whether the conflict is regarding their own personal philosophies and beliefs or the method to capture the rapist.

Nevertheless, its plot always seem to threaten to steer the film into another sinister direction, as the story unfolds and the rapist claims more victims in the night. Zhang Bingjian constructs an ambitious narrative that is heavily dependent on the time of day, Captain Li and the villagers mainly operate in the day, searching for clues and footprints left in the aftermath of the crime, yet they are almost never successful, bumbling at each of their attempts.

While the night is ruled by the rapist, who commits his vile crimes and leaves the clues for the villagers to pore over the next day. Such a narrative deserves applause for even being attempted, we get essentially two films and one could respect Zhang Bingjian’s ambition to turn the darker plot into a slapstick comedy, the film still fails to entirely balance out the darker happenings of the night with the comedic incompetence in the day. This also accentuates the biggest flaw of the film, the tone fluctuates too much. We get jokes and wisecracks in one scene and a sudden cut to a tension filled rape attempt in the next. The final fifteen minutes drives the film into dark territory, as the rapist is revealed, the perverted and fractured figure is laid bare.

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This identity crisis is also evident in the cinematography. Though beautiful, showcasing the lush landscapes and the diverse colour palette of rural Northern China, doing an exceptional job in telling the story. Yet, the problem with tone rears its head again, the film is shot both like a comedy and a crime thriller adding to the awkward difference in style and therefore takes the viewer out of the film to question the narrative logic.

Day sequences are lush with emphasis on wide shots to exaggerate the comedy aspect, while night sequences are intense blue-hued thrillers. There is no overall consistent visual style that unifies the entire film, what is always shown is either comedy or crime but never both at the same time; we never see the comedy of crime, or the crime of comedy.

The performances however, are the stand out of North By Northeast, they are universally good. With the two leads bringing their best, the incompetent Captain Li and the village’s livestock breeder and Cultural Revolution exile, Cai Bing. Both are a powerful contrast when they are on screen together, both represent opposing views to investigating the case and their performances not only display the character’s convictions but also the moods and thoughts of China at that moment in time.

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The characters serve as reflections of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, each re-enacting to the cultural norms and mentalities of the period. Captain Li stands out as a critical look at Mao’s regime, full of himself and illogical investigative deductions; he is a buffoon who sees people as tools for his impractically large scale police operations. Much can be understood about the Cultural Revolution and its effects on China from Captain Li. In additional to those flaws, he is, for all his boisterous claims and show of authority as a police captain, sexually prude and impotent, make of that what you will. Cai Bing is the opposite, a political exile, she does not believe in the dogma and propaganda of the Communist regime, she instead relies on her knowledge of Traditional Chinese Medicine to investigate the rape cases, in spite of her knowledge, no one listens to her. The voice of logic that no one listens to, until it is too late.

North By Northeast has one huge problem, its indecisiveness in what kind of film it wants to be. While that is a enormous handicap, the film is bailed out by its screenplay, cinematography and characters. All of which works in tandem to provide a critical and sometimes humorous look at a time in China that is rarely explored, much less critiqued.


Rating: ***

An extremely inconsistent but beautiful looking film that opens a window to a time in China we rarely see. At the end of the day, its pluses outweigh its minuses.

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Perry Lam is an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review. He is the director of  the documentary short film BLACK RAT  has been selected for numerous film festivals both in Sydney and overseas.  https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/02/02/welcome-perry-lam-rochford-street-review-associate-editor/

The World goes on without Them: Perry Lam reviews ‘ATA’

This film review is part of Rochford Street Review’s coverage of the Golden Koala Chinese Film Festival.

Like many films of the Golden Koala Chinese Film Festival, ATA is helmed by a debut director and Chakme Rinpoche, who won Best Director at the Golden Koala Chinese Film Festival.

ATA takes place in desolate and dusty rural China, and weaves a tale of a blind boy, Tianyu who aspires to be something else than a blind table tennis player that his mother wants him to be, the film takes a harrowing turn when Tianyu disappears, forcing his mother to searching for him by placing herself in his position.

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Make no mistake about it, this film is a film. Rinpoche seeks to challenge your idea of what cinema is and can do. There is no sag in this character driven narrative but neither are there narrative bursts either. It is a long, even trek with a woman through desolate landscapes as she searches desperately for her son. And you will be with her every step of the way. You feel her despair when she discovers her son is missing; you will experience her fear when she puts on a blindfold to learn what it is like being blind.

While the narrative cruises at a single speed, never screeching to a halt or accelerate, there are compelling scenes that strongly convey the various emotional states of the characters. One outstanding scene presents the blindfolded mother attempting to find her way out of a labyrinthine parking lot of buses. The result is terrifying, as she screams and cries, knocking into bus after bus hapless in her ability to navigate without her eyes.

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The theme of helplessness is echoed in the cinematography. At first glance unremarkable, with heavy use of master shots and awkward timing of close ups; but in this apparent lack of style, it is a style in and of itself. Rinpoche’s heavy use of wide master shots allows a window to the harsh reality of rural China. Dust and sand stain every shot. Buildings are old and decrepit, and bridges look like they could collapse at any time. We are witnessing degradation at work.

These wide yawning master shots also make the characters seem insignificant in their struggles, no matter how hard they try. Tianyu’s attempts to break out of the mould seem doomed to failure; his mother’s search for him appears fruitless. In success or failure, the world goes on without them.

ATA is not an easy film to get into; it does not serve as entertainment but rather, as an experience. One of the reasons for this is because the strongest element of ATA is not visual, something that, like Tianyu’s mother, we tend to take for granted. Rather fittingly, it is the sound design that serves as the film’s signature. Brimming with a spares piano score and occasional fade ins and outs of diegetic sound, the sound works in tandem with the cinematography triumphantly, conveying the moods and emotions of the story and characters, you will know what the characters are feeling.

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The main performances themselves are robust enough; the two blind boys who played Tianyu and his blind table tennis practice partner do a great job as non-actors. Wang Ning, who plays Tianyu’s mother, turns in a performance that is great for the film, realistic and understated. Just what the movie needs. However, the film’s sole supporting character is a bit of a problem. Jiao Gang, who plays the Tianyu’s table tennis coach, sticks out like a sore thumb. With his comedic mannerisms and exaggerated expressions, he does not fit into the world or even the genre of the film. Every time he shows up on screen, the film seems to tease us into comedy territory and it takes the viewer out of the harsh reality these characters live in.

Cinema can be entertaining, as it has been the primary use of the medium, we want to laugh, cry, and escape to another world, to be in awe. Or in the case of ATA, it can make us feel. Make us think. Make us experience the world through someone else’s eyes. This film is not merely entertainment, it is a journey.

Rating: ****

This film is not for everybody, it is a challenge. But for those who this is for, you will love it madly.

 

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Perry Lam is an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review. He is the director of  the documentary short film BLACK RAT  has been selected for numerous film festivals both in Sydney and overseas.  https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/02/02/welcome-perry-lam-rochford-street-review-associate-editor/

The Golden Koala Chinese Film Festival kicks off on 15th February 2016 and takes place at venues across Melbourne, Sydney, Gold Coast and Perth. For further information go to http://www.cff.org.au/.

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Materialism is the New God: Perry Lam reviews ‘A Fool’

This film review is part of Rochford Street Review’s coverage of the Golden Koala Chinese Film Festival.

A Fool is the directorial debut of veteran Chinese actor Chen Jianbin, who also stars in the film. It is an admirable debut for the showbiz veteran. A Fool is about the Latiaozi, a honest farmer who is struggling to bribe government officials for the early release for his son from prison, in between his attempts, he picks up an intellectually disabled man, the eponymous ‘fool’ and reluctantly allows him to stay at the farm. This simple act of kindness would lead to horrendous consequences for the honest farmer, as deceitful individuals swoop down to take advantage of his kindly nature.

The film seems hell-bent to appal; shock and disgust its viewers. I mean that in the best way possible, it is a horror movie about the lack of morals in society.  Everything from the characters to the mise en scene seems exaggerated to achieve maximum contrast. The opening scene brilliantly sets the tone for the entire film, performers put on a vibrant street performance as onlookers watch, while the entire frame of the shot is enveloped by every form of billboard and advertising conceivable, crass commercialization for the masses. We are then introduced to our protagonist, Latiaozi, who is sitting under the stage in his dirty, ragged clothing eating a bun.

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This sharp, distinct contrast is evident in the production and costume design as well, Latiaozi’s farm, is a simple slab of concrete in the middle of a desolate wasteland, but yet, just a short distance away from a heavily commercialized city. Latiaozi and his wife are predominantly dressed in faded, single colour rags, while characters that inhabit the city, such as Datou, are decked out in high end aviators and leather jackets.

Character relationships also reveal tremendous insight into the social dynamics of the different classes, the poor, represented by Latiaozi and his wife are considerably more traditional in their morals and their stringent allegiance to it has allowed them to be easily manipulated and fooled. The upper class are represented by younger characters, such as Datou. They are brought up in modern, materialistic trappings but it is taken to an extreme, money is now the only value that is of any worth and they will do anything to get their hands on it. Materialism is the new god.

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Latiaozi is constantly taken on wild goose chases by people who want to take advantage of him for their own gain, yet he is unable to learn or even suspect their intentions at every turn. What this seems to do is highlight how ill prepared the rural communities of China are in regards to the modernization and the resultant economic boom of their country. It is a damning exhibition of the widening gap of rich and poor in China, the modern and rich want nothing to do with the poor unless it is to take advantage of them and the poor are far too ill equipped to protect themselves from it.

The cinematography is unspectacular but effective, with a heavy reliance on still shots and long takes, the cinematography seems mundane with standard coverage and no stand out stylistic flourishes. If anything; the cinematography is intended to serve the performances, which are phenomenal. Cheng Jianbin is brilliant as Latiaozi, playing the farmer with deer-in-the-headlights naivety, you constantly worry for Latiaozi, especially when his situation takes a turn for the worse in the 2nd act of the film, as his naivety (or one can argue, stupidity) gets him into more trouble than he bargained for. Yet you do not feel put off or even frustrated by such misplaced innocence, which is a testament of Cheng Jianbin’s charisma and ability to reel the performance in to realistic levels. There are occasional portions of slapstick comedy, all of which succeeded solely on Jianbin’s ability to emote through his body language and posture.

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Special mention must be made for Wang Xuebing who played Datou (literally ‘Big Head’ in Chinese), Latiaozi’s dodgy contact to bribe prison officials. With his shifting postures, wild gesticulations and clamorous line delivery, he is crass and deception personified, you can almost feel the slime dripping from every pore of the character.

Narratively, the film moves at a smooth even pace yet it is never predictable. The film subverts dramatic conventions of letting the good guys win, replacing it with a darker and one can argue, more realistic approach. The good guys constantly face terrible consequences for their actions and are always one step behind the antagonists. This theme of ‘good guys finish last’ is also worked into the narrative of the plot, there are several comedic scenes in the film but all of them are at the expense of the kindly Latiaozi and by the end of the film, one would ponder who really was the eponymous fool is.

With strong performances, a highly original story and razor sharp social commentary. A Fool is an entertaining look at the effects of overcommercialisation in modern China.

 

Rating: **** out of 5

Cheng Jianbin successfully pulls double duty as director and lead actor in a cautionary tale of altruism in modern China.

 

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Perry Lam is an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review. He is the director of  the documentary short film BLACK RAT  has been selected for numerous film festivals both in Sydney and overseas.  https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/02/02/welcome-perry-lam-rochford-street-review-associate-editor/

The Golden Koala Chinese Film Festival kicks off on 15th February 2016 and takes place at venues across Melbourne, Sydney, Gold Coast and Perth. For further information go to http://www.cff.org.au/.