Hong Kong International Film Festival’s omnibus ‘Beautiful’ series consists of four short films directed by four different filmmakers. This year’s series was helmed by (following the order of their films’ appearances) Nakata Hideo, Alec Su, Stanley Kwan, and Jia Zhangke. As with any omnibus film, the entire work runs the risk of being inconsistent, even with a unifying theme or idea. But here, however, no immediately palpable thematic trend of ‘beautiful’ or beauty — or even their negative, ironic counterparts —runs across the four films to link them with one another. In fact, these four films could not be more disparate from each other, thematically as well as visually. Such disparity certainly has its negative elements in terms of the omnibus film but also its positive elements, for the films and filmmakers themselves.
Among the four filmmakers featured in this year’s series, Jia stands out as the star contributor and most consistent, and whose most recent feature-length film Mountains May Depart (2015) relates to his short film here; Su should be tickled pink being sandwiched among such established names as he builds up his own directorial career following his 2015 feature-length debut The Left Ear; and Nakata and Kwan, established as they are, have had a sporadic output since they began their careers in the 1980s and 1990s, respectively. Unlike, say, Kurosawa Kiyoshi, Nakata has not yet managed to transcend the 1990s (horror) genre label which he had helped to cultivate. For his part, though Kwan continues to build up a filmography centered on female characters and queer representation, none of his films in the 2000s/2010s (perhaps with the exception of 2001’s Lan Yu) have equalled the quality of the likes of Rouge (1988) and Center Stage (1992). For this reason, their inclusion in this year’s ‘Beautiful’ series is a reason to watch it, regardless of what one may think of their contributions.
At bottom, the ‘Beautiful’ series is definitely a worthwhile project to maintain for HKIFF, allowing both seasoned and emerging Asian directors to try their hand in the short film format and showcasing different facets of their behind-the-camera personas. But to continually title it as such is a bit misleading. In retrospect, it would have been more fitting to have named the series ‘hometown,’ as these four short films are ultimately connected with each other through the notion of returning or paying tribute to one’s hometown, be it for the film’s characters or the filmmakers.
Below are detailed reviews of each short film in the series:
‘Somewhere in Kamakura’ (Nakata Hideo)
Like the soft tinkling of piano keys, Nakata’s contribution opens the series with a gentle demeanour as well as with a nod to the classic postwar era of Japanese cinema of the late 1940s to the early 1960s. This nostalgic nod to that era is unmistakable for those familiar with Ozu Yasujiro’s films in particular, as the film’s title appears against a burlap background. To further center the film in nostalgia, it stars the ever-youthful Kagawa Kyoko as Mitsuko in a tale of first love and memory. The casting of Kagawa is significant because her most prolific period as an actress was precisely during that classic postwar era. Moreover, she became an established name when she starred in Ozu’s 1953 film Tokyo Story; and apart from Ozu, during that time she worked with the era’s other towering filmmakers: Naruse Mikio, Mizoguchi Kenji, and Kurosawa Akira. But it is one thing to cast Kagawa, given the particular glorious cinematic past of which she is a part; creating a story maximising both Kagawa as an actress and creatively nodding to this past is another.
Upon receiving a letter from her first love, written long ago, Mitsuko undertakes a journey to her seaside childhood home of Kamakura by train and by foot. She is unexpectedly accompanied by Saori (Oga Suzuka), her family’s domestic helper. As if respectfully attending to the pace of Kagawa’s age and walking, the film unfolds calmly as Mitsuko and Saori reach the home of her first love. While what Mitsuko finds in Kamakura proves to be touching to Mitsuko in this journey towards the past, the most interesting portions of the film is the journey to and from Kamakura. During this time, Mitsuko and Saori develop a genuine bond and understanding, especially when the former shares her story of her first love. And, as if having this first love stand in for that classic postwar era of Japanese cinema, the shots of landscapes, streets, and trains (particularly when there is no dialogue) are a lovely nod to Tokyo Story.
To call this film memorable would be a mistake, however; some would even consider it a missed opportunity, considering the presence of Kagawa. On the one hand, it is an inspired film, insofar as Kagawa and all that she refers to inspired Nakata to create this film; it is also a welcome departure from horror for him. On the other hand, the film’s deliberate pacing becomes all but sluggish, with little in the way of interest outside of Kagawa as Kagawa and not Mitsuko.
‘Dama Wang Who Lives on Happiness Avenue’ (Alec Su)
Su is a former teen idol who got his start in the late 1980s in a boy band and subsequently became a television staple in Taiwanese dramas. He ventured behind the camera only very recently with his first feature-length film last year and now this short, his second film. Su’s contribution actually presents two ‘firsts’: the first documentary for the ‘Beautiful’ series and his first short-length work. Though it begins and ends as if it were merely a clip from a longer documentary (with the shortest running time of the four films), what ends up onscreen is a favourable sign of what Su is capable of doing as a director. In fact, one hopes that it is part of a larger work that he will unveil. For the time being, despite its brevity, this film is a vibrant observational study of its energetic subject and the equally energetic city that she calls home.
The ‘dama’ (an affectionate term for an elderly woman in Mandarin) of the film’s title is Wang Suping, a widow who lives with her dog in southern Beijing and loves to dance. Su does not resort to time-honoured documentary techniques such as the interview or voiceover to help present Wang to the audience. The film maintains removed from Wang during the entire film and therefore a fourth wall, even as it follows her around her corner of the world pursuing what she loves and needs to do to get by. In this sense, operative here is an emphasis on the kinetics of the body that links Wang — and the specific population that she represents — and her city in a strong, effective way. One of the most vivid parts in the film is when the camera simply follows Wang walking across the city’s streets to reach a park filled with women her age dancing and socialising. Still without an edit, when Wang reaches the park, she passes smoothly through the crowd of women dancing and greeting her; eventually she reaches a smaller group of women that bubbly welcomes her to begin their dancing.
Whether she is among dancing crowds in a park or at a center or riding on a bus, Wang is certainly hard to miss with her poofy hair, bright lipstick, and sunglasses. To balance out this study of Wang and making her a more relatable character, the film also finds her in quieter moments of contemplation at her home or walking her dog at night. Without sensationalism or judgment, Su significantly captures Wang and a notable community of women.
‘One Day in Our Lives of…’
For filmmaker Kwan and actress Cecilia Yip, this film simultaneously marks a return of sorts to Hong Kong filmmaking as well as referencing the prolific and celebrated era of 1980s/early 1990s Hong Kong cinema. But if Yip demonstrates why her Hong Kong cinema heyday is marked by acting awards/nominations, the overall film itself proves to be an uneven exercise that ends up being as much of a letdown as Nakata’s contribution; perhaps even more so, given Yip’s acting calibre and its self-referential play.
The film centers on Liza’s recording session for the film that she is wrapping up with director Dong (Dong Luo). Liza arrives and brings with her a wind of flurrying words/movements that would befit a film diva to explain her lateness and eagerness to lay down her vocals. As she banters with Dong and his assistant, she mentions in passing ‘Anita’ and thus begins the film’s self-referential play. Liza is referring to the late Anita Mui, an actual Hong Kong film/music diva whose acting career began at the same time as Yip’s in the early 1980s (the two women were also born in the same year) and who starred in Kwan’s Rouge. Unfortunately, the recording session sees the implosion of a diva when Liza becomes embroiled in frustrated take after take, especially after a call that reveals her crumbling marriage and the frenzied media surrounding it. Kwan employs close-up after close-up on Liza, so that the sequence becomes less of a recording session than trying-to-calm-herself-while-internally-falling-to-pieces session. Yip is more than ready for the challenge, which makes her portions of the film the most focused and noteworthy.
Meanwhile, surrounding the recording session are Dong and his assistant, who in so many words reveal their film production affair; he is set to move on as soon as the film wraps, while she is inquiring about a possible future even though he is married. Such a peripheral story is just that; nay, even less than that. Granted, the casting of Dong is also self-referential, specifically in relation to Yip: this year sees the release of his directorial debut New York, New York, in which Yip has a supporting role. However, the interest in Dong and his character begin and end on that sole point. Frankly, the film falls utterly flat when Yip is not onscreen. Plus, the song that she sings repeatedly for her recording session is addictive, most notably as it plays over images of Hong Kong for the conclusion.
Jia’s contribution rightly concludes this ‘Beautiful’ series. Shot in his hometown of Fenyang, Shanxi, the film’s title is in his native dialect and, in his own words, ‘refers to the ways in which people occupy themselves in life. I have always liked this term as it contains the meaning of “running,” “working” and “carrying on.”’ The film is like a treatise on ‘carrying on’ or acceptance of the absurd, regardless of what life — and more precisely national/global socioeconomic trends — may throw at one’s face. The film revolves around three men in their late thirties and forties who find themselves out of a job after being let go from the town’s coal-mine, which is closing down due to one such socioeconomic trend. The film is subsequently about these three friends who jointly search for new jobs, which takes on an absurdist tone.
The film devotes most of its running time to accompanying the three friends on two job auditions/trials. The first one is for the position of bodyguards for ‘boss Jia,’ which pits them against applicants in their twenties and requires basic knowledge of martial arts. ‘Boss Jia’ is revealed to be played by none other than Jia himself, while the reveal through circular camera movement and Jia sporting an all-black outfit, shades, and a cigar heightens the comic absurdity of the three men’s situation. Further heightening this absurdity is when boss Jia prompts the men to display their martial arts skills, which they so clearly lack. As two of the friends lock arms as if trying to push one another against a wall, the film tops off the absurdity by cutting to an overhead shot of them and sets their ‘fighting’ to waltz music. And like the simple cut, the three men carry on. The second one is set in the Shanxi Folkland historical museum that presents ancient imperial figures and pageants. As the director of the pageants shares while he exhorts his performers to put on a good show during rehearsals, the museum cost millions to construct. Of course, the irony is that such millions go to buildings; what of the citizens such as our three characters? During the rehearsal, the three friends are eventually singled out for their contradictory behaviour. And so they carry on still…
Those who have seen Jia’s Mountains May Depart will immediately notice that this short is born directly from it. It features the same character of Liang Jianjun (played by the same actor Liang Jingdong), who in Mountains is let go from a coal mine and forced to migrate for a livelihood. Like an alternative take of a song, the short addresses all too clearly Mountains’ serious intertwined issues of labour, migration, displacement, and rootlessness within an ever-changing, ever-growing China; and just as boldly, if not more so, through its rather openly absurdist approach. Credit is due to Zhao Tao; in the film she receives co-writing credits with Jia, but Jia himself has insisted that all of the credit should be bestowed on her.