Monday, May 30, 2011

2nd IndBear Feature Film Festival 2011

The IndBear Feature Film Festival was a new addition to the IndBlue family last year. Along with IndPanda for short films and IndPolar for animation the team have most of the bases covered in what makes up a season of film festivals in Hong Kong. The focus is on independent cinema, so expect to unearth a few gems here that go under the radar of the bigger festivals. IndBlue themselves are a non-funded, non-profit organization working to help independent film-makers. They distribute and produce short films and features, with films being sourced from all over Asia. In addition they organize workshops aiming to set up an infrastructure for talent, and have even begun projects introducing film-making to Hong Kong secondary schools.

In its 2nd year there has been a slight downsizing of IndBear in terms of line-up, but there are some good quality films in its concise schedule. Individual films are generally only shown once or twice over the course of the events seventeen days with screenings from Thursday to Sunday so it’s advisable to book tickets in advance. The festival will be held in two cinemas in Hong Kong’s Kowloon district, the upmarket, luxurious MCL Telford and MCL Kornhill cinemas. The Telford cinema in particular is worth a visit in its own right, the impressive building being the recipient of the 2009 International Architecture Award.

One of the opening films, Invasion of the Alien Bikini took the Grand Prize at the 2011 Yubari Fantastic International Film Festival and is a is a gloriously wild, low-budget blend of comedy, sci-fi, body horror, and martial arts action. Produced on a budget of a mere $4500 by one of the stalwarts of Korean independent cinema Indiestory this kind of film is exactly what IndBear is all about.

Opening boldly with the Beethoven's 9th symphony, with more than a little nod to Kubrick, the film doesn't let up for the rest of its 75 minute running time. Oh Yung Doo's sci-fi extravaganza centres on the nerdy Young-gun, who prefers the moniker City Protector. He wanders the streets searching for damsels in distress. When he saves the sexy Monica, played by the excellent and alluring Eun Jung-Ha, she insists on taking him back to his apartment to express her gratitude. However, Young-gun has taken a vow of celibacy. Monica won't take no for an answer though and our hero must resist her increasingly tempting seductions.

Of course, Monica isn't all she seems and needs Young-gun to impregnate her to give birth to hordes of aliens and take over the earth. Throw in a father-son back story for our protagonist, random groups of high-kicking henchmen, and lots of sexual torture, and really what more do you need from a film? It might not sound like everyone’s cup of tea but it won plaudits galore at Yubari, and was the first time a foreign film-maker has ever received the Grand Prize there. Director Oh Yung-doo is definitely one to look out for in the future. It’s only being show once on June 10th so make sure you get your tickets early.

There are a couple of other interesting Korean films that feature in the schedule. Set in Busan She Came From, by Kim Sung-Ho, is the story of a director In-soo re-writing a film, a man losing his sight who is searching for his daughter, and the daughter Hye-ryun who is escaping everything on the back of a motorbike. Their paths weave together and eventually In-soo’s re- write begins to mirror actual events, exposing the boundaries between fiction and reality. In addition there is the challenging Father is a Dog that continues to explore the themes director Lee Sang-woo developed in his previous works Mother is a Whore and All About Father. The film examines the claustrophobic hell of a dysfunctional family as three brothers suffer under the heavy hand of their abusive father.

Japanese cinema has two representatives at IndBear. The return of the fascinating Imaizumi Koichi, who used to be an actor in Japanese pink movies (a type of romantic, soft-core pornography with high production values), allows festival-goers another chance to catch his film that was screened last year The Family Complete. It’s about a peculiar family living in a traditional Japanese house, suffering from a strange new virus. Featured in the Up in the Air section of the line-up, it looks like it might be an interesting companion piece to Father is a Dog.

Additionally, the international premiere of Tentsuki is one to look out for. About life in the bizarre town of Tenshi Tsukinuke Rokuchoume, it focuses on bankrupt salary-man Noboru escaping his past. As he begins to acclimatize to the weird people he meets in this strange community, he falls in love with the beautiful and free-spirited Miyuki and wonders if perhaps he’s found the right place to settle down. However, a shocking event shakes Noburo’s conceptions of his idyllic new life. With director Masafumi Yamada’s background in J-horror films this looks like an exciting and inventive bit of work.

IndBear also has a varied intake of European films on show. German star Daniel Bruhl’s new movie My Words, My Lies, My Love is about failing writer David Kern who stumbles across a transcript of a masterpiece in a second hand store. In a bid to impress the object of his affection, literati Maria, he decides to present it as his own work. Things begin spiraling out of control, and before he knows it he’s on daytime TV chat shows, and signing copies of his book. Swedish film Sebbe that won best debut in Berlin last year is the story of a bullied teenager, getting grief from kids at school and his over-worked mother. As a way to cope he develops a hobby, spending his time in the local junkyard creating new things from other people’s waste. Also, The Life and Death of a Porno Gang about a struggling film director that teams up with a porn director to start an underground cabaret has been doing really well at festivals all over the world. From Serbian director Mladen Djordjevic it is typical of the exciting stuff coming out of that country at the moment. Be warned though, it is very explicit; lots of sex and lots of violence.

Alongside My Words, My Lies, My Love and She Came From there are another couple of worthy entries in the Lost and Found section of the festival. Obselidia, the first feature from director Diane Bell, tells the story of loner George, a man making an encyclopedia of obsolete things. He interviews subjects for his work using a VHS recorder and a typewriter. While constructing his opus, he meets the silent film projectionist Sophie. The two wind up taking a road trip to the desert to interview an apocalypse prophesizing climate scientist. It might be a bit quirky, but any film that manages to use California and Nevada’s fascinating and alien Death Valley as a setting deserves to be seen. For people looking for something a bit closer to the middle of the road Love in a Cab might just be able to provide it. After New Years celebrations Ke Qing and Zhu Erget find themselves fighting over a cab, they decide to share and realise that they are both going the same way. Over the next decade they gradually begin to fall for each other, but there are a few complications. With director Han Yew Kwang’s background in sitcoms this film offers something a bit lighter for the IndBear festival.

The festival closes with a documentary on the life and death of one of the icons of the Hollywood star system of the ‘50s, Rock Hudson: Dark and Handsome Stranger. Last year was the 25th anniversary of his death, a victim of AIDS. It focuses on the double-identity of the super-star Hollywood hero, and his closet homosexuality. The film examines the duality of these two separate parts of the man, his film roles and how Hudson himself claimed that there was little difference from the image projected on the big screen and the reality of his private life. It should be a fascinating character-study and a strong film to close the festival.

There is lots to check out at this years festival, and IndBear is fast establishing itself as a solid fixture on the Hong Kong film calendar.

Ticket prices are $55-$60 for adults and concessions go for $45-$50 and can be purchased at the box-office of either cinema, online at, or over the phone 25-727-202

The Man From Nowhere - Ajeossi 2011

Director: Jeong Beom-lee

Rating: 3/5

Not the best revenge thriller out there but a solid addition to the genre.

The Man From Nowhere is another Korean revenge thriller in the vein of Oldboy, A Bittersweet Life, et al. It takes the brutality of those films, but doesn’t really advance the genre in any clear way, apart from perhaps a slight step into the mainstream. When you see the freshly harvested eyeballs floating around in their glass casing though, you might disagree. The psychological intrigue element is a bit weak, lowering some of the thrill of the thriller side of things. Even if it feels a little like it is just there to tee up the set-pieces, the plotting works nicely enough. But, the saving grace is the action which gradually intensifies to a full on violent crescendo in the second-half. The film took in a hefty chunk of box-office takings in its native Korea, maybe attributable to the kidnapped child storyline, and heart-throb casting of the lead, which has allowed it to appeal to a wider audience.

Cha Tae Sik, or Ajeossi (mister) as he is referred to for the majority, works in a quiet pawn- shop. He has a dark past it seems, with rumors flying around that claim he was a sex offender or a criminal in his past. A young girl Soo-Mi, the daughter of a heroin addict, comes by his shop to pawn off stuff she’s shoplifted. Looking for someone to care for her, Soo-mi persuades Cha Tae Sik to become a begrudging friend. It is slightly reminiscent of the bond Jean Reno and Natalie Portman struck up in Leon, albeit less risque. When her mother gets caught up stealing heroin from some gangsters, Soo-mi is kidnapped, and it looks like she might end up as an involuntary black-market organ donor. Cha Tae Sik without his knowledge has inadvertently been holding the stolen drugs, in the bottom of a camera Soo-mi’s mother pawned to him. The double-crossing gangsters promise if he returns the drugs, the girl will go free. Things are never going to be that simple though, are they?

Won Bin in the lead role of Cha Tae-Sik left me a little unsure. The role was originally intended to be for a 60 year old, that figure then became a 40 year old and then became the handsome youthful Won Bin. The role was rewritten for him after he expressed an interest and at times his youthfulness does seem to jar slightly with the story. The film might have had a bit more substance with an older lead at the reins. Bin doesn’t do anything wrong per se, in fact he does a lot of things right. His hero is morally unshakable, permanently serious and grimacing, and has some legitimate reasons for the fact he is a lean mean fighting machine. However, he looks like someone you’d expect to see singing in auto-tune and mincing about in a pop video, as opposed to cracking heads in a vengeful rage. His hair flops all over the place, in a way that feels as if each follicle has been painstakingly adjusted to perfection, not exactly your standard blood-thirsty killer. In one scene, illustrating to us that he now means business, he shaves it all off whilst eye-fucking himself in the mirror. Action-wise though he is on the money, maybe not quite bringing the sheer muscular weight that others can, but overall it’s of a high standard.

Soo-mi the elementary school student, played by Kim Se-Ron, is very good. She gives a performance with an emotional maturity far beyond her years. The film does its best to steer clear of the kind of simplistic “point camera and cry” characterization, required of most child actors. The Spielberg-esque lost child narrative works well but as the action builds, by the second act it loses its significance a touch as Soo-mi’s story gets put on the back burner. It could have done with being a more constant element of the film rather than sandwiching the main content as it does. The team of police who are tracking the gangsters, despite being there from the start are a bit too peripheral, too. Their presence feels tacked on, under-developed, and ever so slightly unnecessary. The only role they really fulfill is to offer a bit of back story on the main character.

As is often the case with such morally black and white films the best parts tend to gravitate towards the bad guys, who eat up the screen safe in the knowledge that moral equilibrium is being restored single-handedly by Cha Tae Sik. These guys are about as amoral as it gets, exploiting elementary school kids, kidnapping, drug-trafficking, and organ harvesting. They are incredibly violent, and even in their down-time are date-raping girls working at their clubs. The stand-outs from a solid bunch are the deplorable brothers Jong-suk and Man-sik who get increasingly more and more reprehensible as the minutes tick by. Amusingly, they don’t really understand why Cha Tae Sik is gunning for them and keep referring to him as the pawn-shop psycho. Kim Hee Woon (Man-Sik) just edges it overall as the funny, angry boss that snares up the hero in his gang-land power-play. He has some good lines and grandstands in a pleasingly extravagant way, but as Cha Tae Sik explains, “Guys living for tomorrow have no chance against someone living for today.”

The action was a bit hard to sum up here. At first, in the shadow of other entries into the genre it seems a little tame (by Korean standards naturally), but before long nails are being shot into peoples legs and henchmen are being used as human shields. Despite not being the sole factor upon which films like this are measured, the violence of an ultra-violent film is obviously very important and strives to be memorable. Oldboy had the video-game like never-ending 2D fight section, the recent I Saw the Devil had that insane 360 degree, in car, stab-fest, and rest assured The Man from Nowhere has a few tricks up its own sleeve, too. The men’s room scene stands out as Cha Tae-Sik closes in on his target and extracts information by getting one of the gangsters to stab himself in the shoulder. In another our protagonist is ejected from a building by a top floor window falling down into the safety of the netting of a golfing range. But the piece de la resistance is the final confrontation with an unflinching energy that feels like something that would be equally at home on a Playstation as a cinema screen.

Hand-held camera work can be a bit over-used, even distracting, as if a director is reminding you that he’s there overseeing everything. Yet, it feels entirely appropriate here, capturing the rawness of these moments and there are some other little flourishes spread throughout the film The fight scenes use some excellent point of view shots, edited into the melee, putting you into the eyes of one of the combatants and illustrating the speed of the action. This is amplified by some brilliant use of sound effects, lacing each fight with bone crunches, the whoosh of air being swiped by a knife, and the clink of steel. There is one shot as well that had me wondering how on earth they managed it. Cha Tae Sik is running away from the police with the camera following close behind him. He launches himself out of a shut window, and you wait for the cut to the next shot which just never comes. The camera follows him down seamlessly and takes off with him running in what feels like one continuous shot, though I have a sneaking suspicion it might not have actually been. Camera trickery or not, it is inventive and exciting stuff.

This is a decent Korean revenge flick, no doubts about it. It isn’t up there with the greats that have, despite their extreme content become household names across the film world. It isn’t even the best one this year, that honor goes to the far superior I Saw the Devil, which played interestingly in the grey area between hero and villain. The lost child story-line works but isn’t as captivating as some of the bizarreness that has made up the backbone of other examples of the genre. This is slick stuff however, and put together so smoothly that you might not even care or notice. Revenge film fans will lap this up as the cool, stylish film it is, and who knows? Its slightly more accessible story-line, and hunky star might even draw in a few new believers.