Thursday, March 22, 2012

[HKIFF 2012 Review] Beautiful 2012 (World Premiere)

What's Real?

What is Beautiful?

In previous editions of the HKIFF, the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society (HKIFFS) had commissioned a series of short films under the "Quattro Hong Kong" anthology, where filmmakers both in Hong Kong and from abroad are welcomed to create stories either shot in the territory, or what Hong Kong means to them. Continuing in this series of commissioned works by the HKIFFS and produced by Chinese internet platform Youku, Beautiful 2012 sees the works by Hong Kong director Ann Hui, Taiwan based director Tsai Ming Liang, China's Gu Changwei and Korea's Kim Tae-yong, bringing together a very diverse series of shorts that underlines their particular brand and style of filmmaking. Beautiful 2012 world premiered at the HKIFF in this order:

You are More Than Beautiful
Directed by Kim Tae-yong, the story takes place in Jeju Island, where a man employs a woman (Gong Hyo-jin) to pretend to be his fiancee, so that he can fulfill his ill father's wish to see his son about to getting married. The first half of the short is a road trip of sorts, with pit stops at a restaurant and a horse ranch, where the couple, or rather the woman/employee tries her best to ice-break the stuffy atmosphere between two strangers, because anything less would mean their ruse is up. It's very transactional in nature where you're paid to do a job, but the second half, when the trick is no longer required when the father goes into a coma, leads to Gong Hyo-jin having to perform a classical Korean opera piece to a room full of sick men, is amazingly shot and captured that forms the true centerpiece of this film. Just when you thought that things would move from the cold to the warmth and compassion shown, we're pulled back to reality, back to the transactional emotion of the beginning, where some things are just not meant to be.

Trust Tsai Ming Liang to come up with a slow moving piece for a fast moving society. Known for his filmmaking style of incredibly long takes, Tsai puts his actor Lee Kang-sheng, shaved bald and in bright red monk robes, one hand holding a piece of bread and the other a plastic bag of what looks like a cup of drink within, into the streets of Hong Kong, moving at a snail's pace, one step after another, in what would essentially be a silent film if not for the ambient noise captured. We all know that with life whizzing by all the time, we're often told to take time off to stop and smell the roses, and Tsai forces everyone, audience, and the crowd captured on film, to do just that within the duration of his short. Lee's deliberate slow, and forceful motion forward draws attention to itself, with his head never looking up, making his lack of interaction pretty much for others to take notice, and avoid.

Walker takes his character to places in both day and night time commonly seen in Hong Kong utilizing different angles, long, wide shots and closeups, such as the starting point of a dimly lit, narrow stairwell, to the busy sidewalks amongst gleaming skyscrapers, tram stops, in front of billboards or of a music playing Softee van, and the best centerpiece in the film, the pedestrian cross junction that I thought could be in Mongkok (then again I can be wrong here). Here, your eyes dart around the busy cityscape starved for some action given the lack thereof by the titular character, and soon you'll find that glimpse into the mundaneness of life all over, as the camera puts you into taking just a moment to stand around, and people watch. Reactions by those captured during this scene, is priceless, and fun to observe in this modern day and age, with people who just don't give a damn, and those with the proliferation of technology, developing voyeuristic tendencies. But ultimately, being the longest offering of the lot at 26 minutes, there's a nagging feeling that it could have been a tad shorter as it overstayed its welcome, and I was glad that piece of bread got utilized just as it was intended, with Sam Hui's song to accompany and break the monotony.

Long Tou
Probably the most oblique amongst the short films, this episode by Gu Changwei centers around three individuals who talk about death, suffering and life in general, raising examples to reinforce their respective discussion points, although whether or not you choose to agree with any of them depends on your personal philosophy on these topics. The introductory discussion on death with the examples of abandoned babies was harrowing, to say the least, before other smaller characters, such as a dancer, weight lifter, garbage collector and a mysterious man who doodles genetalia, take over the narrative, if there was one.

Almost documentary like in fashion and nature, Long Tou boasts a stunningly beautiful struming guitar soundtrack, but ultimately it's lack of a proper narrative made this feel like it's all over the place, until the shocking finale that came out of the blue, and took everyone by surprise. Would have preferred to see a more structured approach to the themes rather than a very scattered treatment.

My Way
Saving the best for last, this short film by Ann Hui sees Francis Ng in drag most of the time, as we follow him from his home in Wanchai and going about some daily activities, anxious about his upcoming operation that he's saving for to completely transform him into a woman by the complete removal of the male genetalia. But it's all not smooth sailing, not only the mental preparation despite having good natured friends who have gone through the procedure sharing tips with him, but because he's carrying emotional baggage from his estranged marriage to his wife (played by Jade Leung), with teenage son in tow as well.

Yet again Ann Hui displays very deft storytelling abilities without a tinge of sensationalism, crafting a very human tale about not denying oneself, and to live life and not live a lie. Characters, no matter how fleeting, all serve a purpose and a point, and Francis Ng once again is an acting force to be reckoned with, playing a man whose lie had hurt others, especially his wife, who has to come to terms and resign to fate for falling in love with a man who harbours deep down to be a woman, where signs were already showing through some flashbacks. Their interactions are always emotionally charged for this betrayal, and just how this would be played out at the end, makes this film extremely engaging. Brownie points also goes out to the three actors playing the transsexual friends of Francis Ng's character.

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