Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage of the Reel Asian International Film Festival. For more information on the festival visit reelasian.com and follow theReel Asian International Film Festival on Twitter at @.
Blue Bustamante (dir. Miko Livelo, 2013)
For his debut feature, a Cinema One original, Livelo offers an affectionate nod to Asian live-action superhero team TV serials as well as to overseas Philippine workers. Livelo unites these two elements through engineer George Bustamante (Joem Bascon), who currently resides in Japan for better-paying work, away from his wife and young son. After losing his initial engineering-related job, however, he lands a stuntman gig for the famous Japanese live-action superhero team serial ‘Force Five,’ with the help of his friend and fellow overseas worker Roger Grace (Jun Sabayton). The simultaneously dramatic and comic irony lies in the fact that while George is embarrassed with his new job, his son at home—who resents his father’s absence— idolises the masked Blue Force whom George serves as the stunt double. With this premise, the film’s humour, character dynamics, and emotion not only develop organically but also address a socioeconomic issue (overseas foreign workers and labour) in a different way that is no less poignant. More specifically, the film deviates from the (often gendered) suffering martyr trope that is very common in Philippine films on overseas workers, as well as other concomitant aspects such as class and skill. The film’s comedy has an effortless touch in the sense that it does not take itself too seriously in either the humour or drama department, as it follows George’s experiences of being an Asian foreigner in Japan and, moreover, one who performs on a popular TV serial. The film, especially its great comical dialogue, owes much of its charm and impact to the talented ensemble cast led by Sabayton. Sabayton steals the show as a goofball figure that lies between a character and a self-referential voice in relation to the narrative and George, whose body is often a focus of his envy and obsession.
The Continent (dir. Han Han, 2014)
As if conquering the publishing world with his novels and blogging, taking up professional rally driving, and releasing a music album have not been enough, jack-of-all-cultural-trades Han Han has now a feature film under his belt. His film falls within the road movie genre, as three young men—Haohan (William Feng), Jiang He (Berlin Chen), and Hu Sheng (Gao Huayang)—friends from China’s small easternmost island, undertake a road trip from east to west. The motivation is to bring geography teacher Jiang to his new teaching post in western China, but also to leave their island for more varied prospects and perspectives, as so many others have done before them. Constituting their journey are their encounters with three women and an eccentric hitchhiker-biker (Wallace Chung), each of whom provides a different emotional-comical tone to the film. The narrative moves unevenly between peculiar on-the-road sequences and encounters with friends/strangers, almost like comedy sketches. In a sense, the three young men (and then two) are ciphers through which to present formidable female characters; the men become faint and one-dimensional in comparison, despite their jokey personalities and the equally jokey situations into which they stumble. Childhood neighbour Zhou Mo (Joe Chen) wants to be an actress and harbours no illusions about the work/will that it takes. The other two women encountered later on are similar in strength of attitude: Su Mi (May Wang), a prostitute, tries to escape her complex circumstances (which involve Jia Zhangke making an appearance!), while Liu Yingying (Yolanda Yuan) is Haohan’s longtime pen pal who destroys his illusions about their letter romance and his father’s death. With its deadpan comic touches, solid performances, and striking visual landscapes (outweighing flimsy plot and philosophical points), Han’s debut effort is an amusing take on the journey as metaphor for escape and desires.
Mourning Grave (dir. Oh In-cheon, 2014)
On the surface, Oh’s debut feature is a horror film. The muted, serious prologue of In-soo (Kang Ha-neul) seeing a ghost in the subway and being followed by it to his apartment seems to confirm this classification. Yet when In-soo moves back into his parents’ house in his hometown to live with his uncle Sun-il (Kim Jeong-tae), who also sees ghosts, the film then treads on a bit of comedy and gives the impression of being a lighthearted take on the genre. When he begins at a new high school and sees a different ghost, the film takes yet another shape in that it reveals a traumatic past that had led In-soo to leave his hometown in the first place and that continues to haunt and fill him with regret. This traumatic past then segues to a more recent traumatic past, which In-soo finds to be related to a recent series of murders of high school students in the neighbourhood—with the help of a friendly female ghost. On the one hand, the presentation of these plot strands is rather convoluted and even bumpy, and at times makes one wonder where the film is going. On the other hand, director Oh ultimately uses elements of horror and the ghost story, as well as the high school and romance film, to build up a story on social pressure and bullying in a small town. The last third of the film is thus the strongest and most emotionally affecting portion, as one finds out more about the ghost who is apparently behind the student killings. Through multiple genre layers revolving around horror, Oh effectively positions all that had come before with ghosts and such less horrific than the experience of bullying as a mark of the human capacity for cruelty and torture.
The Midnight After (dir. Fruit Chan, 2014)
After a ten-year gap—not counting his 2009 remake of Nakata Hideo’s 1996 film Don’t Look Up—Chan returns with a feature based on the 2012 web-novel ‘Lost on a Red Mini Bus from Mong Kok to Tai Po’ by a young writer whose moniker is Pizza. The story taps into the sci-fi, post-apocalyptic category, as a group of Hong Kong inhabitants converge on the same minibus headed from Mong Kok to Tai Po in the wee hours of the night and suddenly find themselves the only people in the city. The film thus moves from the busy district of Mong Kok early in the night, expressed by the film’s kinetic opening sequence that follows the nearly dozen different characters going about their lives, to the increasingly quiet suburb of Tai Po deeper into the night, with beautiful shots of Hong Kong spaces in their emptiness and stillness. The gradual shift from populated bustle to uninhabited silence, from commonplace to unusual, as the minibus shuttles along is constructed well and constitutes the film’s most memorable section—buoyed by a superb, eclectic ensemble cast that includes Kara Hui, Simon Yam, Lam Suet, Cantopop Shine duo, and Chochukmo vocalist Jan Curious. When several characters get off and one of them begins to look ill and zombie-like, the tension increases. But the tension slowly undoes itself when the core group leaves the minibus and splits up to go to their respective places, as if highlighting how everyone remains so involved with their own lives even when confronted with a crisis. This genre undoing only continues throughout the rest of the film, resulting in an uneven, eventually slow-going, bloated second half (barring Curious’ rendition of David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’), capped by an undermined climax in favour of an emotional outpouring of home and place.