In Other Words: Pacific Whims

Laura Irvine May 8, 2008

Laura Irvine publishes the hkinsf website, which keeps track of Hong Kong and Asian filmgoing in San Francisco.

As an Asian film fan, it’s a miracle I keep my day job at this time of year. First, the SF Int’l Asian American Film Festival, then whatever other Asian and Indian films are scheduled throughout the Bay Area, then the SF International. I’m worn out, but still feel compelled to catch as many of the Asian films at the SFIFF as I can. My almost-daily choices at the Fest have kept me busy.

The first Saturday of the Fest was a good day at the Castro. Unable to resist a big melodrama on that big screen, I worked in Leave Her to Heaven, my lone foray into non-Asian film. Restored to (almost) all of its original Technicolor glory it’s easy to love this over-the-top story about a “woman who loved too much.” The festival added its usual extra value to our screening with a fascinating short intro and on-screen demo of the restoration process by expert Schawn Belston. And speaking of big movies, Warlords, which followed on the huge Castro screen—which is exactly where a big movie like this should be seen—delivered on the cast-of-thousands battle scenes with good dramatic performances. Great energy from the audience, too, especially during one particularly exciting battle sequence that involved Jet Li bouncing off cannons and taking out dozens of soldiers at once. Not sure what it is about Peter Chan films that leave me a little unsatisfied, but I was definitely intrigued by the complex plot, the exciting battle sequences and Jet Li’s performance in what is essentially a negative role.

But the plot of Warlords isn’t nearly as crazily complex as Shadows in the Palace. I was especially excited about this film because it’s South Korean, it has an almost all female cast, and it’s produced by some of the same people who worked on my favorite South Korean film last year, The King and the Clown. They even used the same imperial village set from the King and the Clown as both films are set in the 16th-century Imperial Court. But that’s where the similarities end. Shadows is a beautiful, intriguing film, but keeping up with the myriad plot twists and red herrings is a full-time job. It’s like CSI Korea circa the 16th century meets modern J-Horror. It’s not for the squeamish.

Probably my favorite film so far has been Black Belt. Set in 1920s Japan, it’s all about three students from a Karate school who are conscripted by the Japanese army, but don’t want to go. After some bad stuff happens the two main students, who have polar-opposite fighting styles and philosophies, are eventually pitted against one another. The plot is super old-school martial arts film, but that’s exactly what I liked about it. I also liked that the actors are real karate experts—so no wire-work to be found, only good old-fashioned duel-to-the-death hand-to-hand combat.

I got lucky this year because I was given two offerings of my absolute favorite genre of film, the Chinese melodrama. Both of them are love stories involving attractive young people, the supernatural, and Hong Kong character actors that I’m always happy to see. The Taiwanese film Secret, directed by and starring pop star and actor Jay Chou, also gives us HK film veteran Anthony Wong in yet another sensitive turn a la his sweet performance several years ago in the nostalgic movie Just One Look. Secret is an appealing teen love story with a twist that’s thankfully not painfully slow like many Taiwanese films that play the fests.

The other ghost-y love story showing is Linger—from none other than cops ‘n’ robbers director extraordinaire Johnny To. While standing in line outside the Kabuki braving the freezing 40 mph winds, fellow Asian movie fan Will Chang explained that the literal translation of the title is “Fly Butterfly Fly.” Given the butterfly motif in the film, that title makes much more sense than Linger—which I thought was a rather unfortunate title because it made me think how linger-y the film’s pace was. Also disconcerting was that the supporting actors, who were mostly HK actors from To’s Milky Way stable, were dubbed in Mandarin while the lead actors actually spoke in Mandarin. But speaking Cantonese or being dubbed in Mandarin, it’s always a treat to watch To favorites Roy Cheung and Lam Suet—and interesting to see them in softer roles. My idol, Roger Garcia, former director of the Hong Kong Film Festival, introduced the film by saying that when he saw him at the Udine festival in Italy last week he told Johnnie To that he was going to be showing Linger at the SFIFF. He said that To responded by simply laughing and patting him on the back. Garcia wasn’t sure what that meant but he hoped we enjoyed the show.