Winter's Bone [2010] • USA

"Here's a doobie for the road". Haven't heard that one in years. I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to sit comfortably through a couple hours of hillbilly meth heads mumbling through their problems, but Jennifer Lawrence's performance doesn't take long to latch onto. Then Uncle Teardrop shows up. John Hawkes, as Teardrop, nails the role of resident scary guy, and he almost steals the show. A young man of slight physical stature, he is nonetheless able to project frightening unpredictability and intimidation. His character is very well written with a broad development arc, from violent to thoughtful to playing the banjo. The film is worth seeing for Hawkes's performance alone, but it's got a lot more to offer.

Winter's Bone, on the surface, is a backwoods family drama about drug culture, but it's also a good mystery thriller. There are some obvious and unnatural "dialog as character development" moments, and a few scenes inserted to show a little down home familial love and bonding which are a slight cause for pause, but the overall pace is fairly swift and they are easily forgiven, especially when the it rolls out one of the saddest, most thought-provoking endings to a film I've seen in a long time ... well, at least since Confessions. And it's John Hawkes who delivers the death blow.

The ending is not ambiguous. The intended scenario seems fairly clear, but it is open to a number of possibilities. It allows the viewer to sidestep the tragedy if they want to. It's brilliantly written, not saying as much as it says, and it sort of retroactively creates another layer of emotional depth to the film as a whole. I might have been on the fence had the ending come with less of an impact. This is a film that could be a big downer, considering its subject matter, but as written and directed by Debra Granik it clings to the hopeful side of bleak, punctuated and allowed for in the end. Such is the nature of hope.

Director: Debra Granik
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Isaiah Stone, Ashlee Thompson, Valerie Richards


Dream Home 维多利亚一号 (Wai dor lei ah yut ho) [2010] • Hong Kong

Gore-hounds and violence enthusiasts should enjoy this one a lot, except that all the horror plot points are interrupted by a lot of story and social commentary about rising home prices in Hong Kong. Dream Home is a serious and thoughtful drama with a lot of blood.

The flashback narrative technique doesn't serve the film very well except for the fact that it lets the blood start flowing from the opening scene. It feels like a cop out to me when a director doesn't have the confidence to let a film build to its climax, and feels the need to begin with the climax and then retrace the steps that lead up to it.

A few of the kills in this film are fantastic, in a "Really?!?! Holy Shit!" sort of way, especially the coitus interruptus one. The fact that mild-mannered Josie Ho is performing them adds to the effect. The only problem I had is that many of them start off as failures, to build phony tension the wrong way, become successes, and then someone who should have been dead dead dead pops up for another go at it. This produces more bang for the buck by getting, say, a dozen kills out of only seven characters.

There's plenty of nudity and some graphic fucking to round things out but the cognitive dissonance created by mixing deep dramatic story lines with over-the-top bloodletting is likely to leave most viewers sitting on the fence verdict-wise. I recommend the film more to gore hounds than to connoisseurs of fine Hong Kong cinema. The film looks great and the production values are top notch, so ....

Director: Ho-Cheung Pang
Starring: Josie Ho, Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, Eason Chan, Michelle Ye, Hee Ching Paw, Kwok Cheung Tsang

LoveHK Film

Under the Hawthorn Tree 山楂树之恋 (Shan zha shu zhi lian) The Love of the Hawthorn Tree [2010] • China

Zhang Yimou reportedly auditioned 10,000 girls in search of untarnished, innocent (old school Chinese) beauty when looking to cast the lead in this film.
"These young folks are looking worse and worse with each generation. Pretty girls obviously aren't marrying handsome guys these days. They're hooking up with this sugar daddy and that old lonely bachelor with money. No wonder the kids are lacking in the looks department.

When you look at any picture of young Chinese women from the 60s and 70s period, you'll almost always have an eager face that radiates innocent beauty looking back at you. This is now a thing of the past, young folks rarely have that innocence about them any more."
I read that before seeing this film and it put an awful lot of pressure on the young actress who passed the audition. She's cute, but she's no Gong Li. She's hardly a Zhang Ziyi either, but that may have more to do with the way the film is assembled than anything else.

I'm a BIG fan of Zhang Yimou's common people films. I love his nostalgic looks at the past and his thinly veiled commentaries on the Cultural Revolution and cultural change in general, in China. But Zhang seems to have tossed this one off before finishing a proper script. Title cards are used to fill in narrative gaps (red flag) and to allow for fade-to-black wistful shots of the girl biting her lower lip, pouting, and looking like the innocent beauty Zhang craves. I think the need for fade-to-black wistful shots of the girl biting her lower lip and pouting suggests he didn't find it.

The film is adapted from a popular mainland novel which was based on a true story set during the Cultural Revolution. There's lots of good stuff and great attention to detail concerning the period, and it satisfied my desire for that. There's a pretty standard love story plopped on top of it all, complete with a terminal disease tuggin at your heart strings. But not just any old love story, it's a Japanese styled "pure love" love story. That part is fine as well. A little Korean style melodrama mixed with Japanese pure love stylings works for me most of the time. So why didn't I love this movie?

Honestly, the title cards bothered me. Not just because the girl bit her lip and pouted going into many of them (which got on my nerves as well), but because they gave the film an unfinished quality. It's difficult to remain completely faithful to a novel when adapting it for the big screen, and just as voiceover narration can be used successfully to fill in narrative gaps or it can stick out like a sore thumb, so go the title cards.

"Sun told Jing that he would be waiting for her upon her return"

Sticks out like a sore thumb.

To be fair, dancer and senior high school girl, Zhou Dongyu, from Shijiazhuang in Hebei Province, with “eyes that are clear like the mountain springs”, is pretty fetching as the young girl who is sent to re-education camp and falls in love with an upwardly mobile land prospector. The film's theme of with whom and when one falls in love being up to the discretion of Communist Party leaders is far more tragic than the terminal disease. Shawn Dou Xiao is outrageously handsome and appealing as the young man who falls in love with her.
Under the Hawthorn Tree is delicately shot and filled with wonderful period detail. My final waffling verdict is: It's a beautiful and tragic love story with some distracting blemishes. If Zhang Yimou had spent as much time fleshing out a proper screenplay as he did finding a girl to play the lead character he might have produced another masterpiece. I recommend the film to those who like pure love stories.

Director: Yimou Zhang
Starring: Dongyu Zhou, Shawn Dou, Taisheng Chen, Rina Sa, Xuejian Li


Hear Me 听说 (Ting Shuo) [2009] • Taiwan

Hear Me 听说
This light-hearted rom-com charmed its way into my top ten of the year. It's not a cinematic masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination. It's just a rom-com, delightful and enjoyable for the characters, if not the story. I like fluff as much as the next person, if it's done well.

Boy meets girl. Girl is preoccupied caring for her handicapped sister. Boy gets girl. Handicapped sister wins the Olympics. It's feel-good from head to toe, and it's beautiful that all the love is delivered in sign language.

Xiao Peng is a swimmer in training for the Deaflympics. Her sister, Yang Yang, does everything she can for her and wrestles between being over-protective and neglectful. Tian Kuo sees Yang Yang one day while delivering food to Xiao Peng's swim team facility. He sees Xiao Peng communicating with Yang Yang in sign language and makes an assumption. Take it from there.

Tian Kuo's parents must be a professional comedy team in real life because they have comic timing down pat and an assured sense of what comic relief is.

Hear Me was Taiwan's highest-grossing local movie of 2009. A good time was had by all in this house. I have no further defense.

Director: Fenfen Cheng
Starring: Ivy Chen, Eddie Peng, Michelle Chen, Lo Bei An, Lin Mei Xiu


July 32nd (7월 32일) [2010] • South Korea

I was fooled by the poster for this one. Haha. I like black with bluish-purple highlights, and I thought I detected depth in the young woman's eye(s). I thought it might be a dark independent razzle-dazzle where the filmmakers had discovered some no-name young actress with the charisma to carry a film. I thought it might be something like Shiki-Jitsu (Ritual). In some way, it is.

There are LOTS of marvelously colored and composed frames in the film. The cinematography is almost Ping Bin Lee/Christopher Doyle level awesome. This is how it's like Shiki-Jitsu, but it's also the only compelling thing the film has going for it.

July 32nd wears its character development and plot devices on its shirt sleeve. I can handle a little bit of that, but not a whole film. I don't know if it's the script or the acting, but everything comes off like a daytime soap opera with black and bluish-purple mood lighting.

Eun-Soo Park, as a man who spends his daughter's growing up years in jail and attempts to find her when he is let out, does the best Min-sik Choi he can. He even looks a bit like a softer, smaller-headed version of him. If you see the film, the irony of that will not be lost on you. (She's five when he goes to prison, about eighteen to twenty when he gets out (looking exactly the same), and the whole film is predicated on the two of them not recognizing one another, even when they get uncomfortably close to hanky panky.)

Hye-Rim Seong, as his daughter cum prostitute ... I was wrong.

July 32nd is an eye-roller but it's not offensively bad. The production values are top o' the line. Beyond the unremarkable performances of the father and daughter everyone else acts like the way most cops are portrayed in South Korean films: unattractive bumbling idiots. The film's sought after bleakness (and man, does it seek it) is ruined by all these obnoxious low-level Fredo Corleone wannabe (albeit Korean) character choices. I laughed out loud at the really bad guy who limps through the movie as if as soon as someone yells "Cut!" he's going to say "Is this really how you want me to do this?"

I don't know anything about anyone involved in making this film but if I find out who is responsible for the photography I will look for whatever they do next.

Beyond Hollywood seem to like the film.
Director: Seung-Hyeon Jin
Starring: Hye-Rim Seong, Eun-Soo Park, Jeong-Gyun Kim

Sweet Little Lies スイートリトルライズ (Suîto ritoru raizu) [2010] • Japan

There will be a lot of words written about how this film "makes you think"; how it makes you think about marriages which on the surface appear to be happy ones, and then how it (the film) proceeds to reveal the Sweet Little Lies that go on underneath in order to keep up that appearance. This will not be my approach. The idea has been Twin Peaksed to death. Nothing wrong with that. I'm just one who finds execution more engaging than idea.

Ruriko (Miki Nakatani) and Satoshi (Nao Omori) have been married for a few years and have been sexless for about the same. Satoshi, even though he's a little too grown up to be doing so, likes to sleep in and play video games. He doesn't appear to have any real love for his wife but also doesn't object to her much. It's Ruriko who demonstrates, though she may not necessarily have, all the love in the coupling. She's as dutiful as they come. She cooks breakfast, washes windows, and smiles sincerely. Both of them seem to float through life in a daze of WTF, sort of like the way folks taking a high daily dosage of Valium would. They are both stalked and then drawn into sexual affairs. Ruriko dives into hers the only way she knows how: with detached positivity. Satoshi remains lost in his cloud, but doesn't complain.

For a while I thought this film might fail. Miki Nakatani doesn't strike me as an actress with much range. She's good at contemplative WTF gazes off into space but not much more. Or so I thought. This role is perfect for her and she shines, and director Hitoshi Yazaki does a great job of capturing her in her strength. There are times when Nakatani brings the film into a surreal, Stepford Wives atmosphere with her robot-like gazing, and then she'll bust it wide open with a smile that makes you want to go crawling into her arms whimpering "mommy mommy", even though she exudes zero maternal aspects of personality.

Juichi Kobayashi, as Haruo, the man Ririko has an affair with, is a curiosity. He's a dancer, not an actor, so he's used to being adored but doesn't have any acting chops. Doesn't matter. He's a stalker so he's supposed to be creepy, if only mildly, and his role is to serve as an excuse for Nakatani to get emotional. There's great tension in sitting through the improbability of Ruriko actually falling in love with this guy, not just wanting to have sex with him, because, as unbelievable as it might seem, it's the only way Ruriko knows.

Nao Omori is a pleasure to behold as Satoshi. He's hard to figure out because he's so good at playing a man who doesn't have a clue. He's also lucky to have Chizuru Ikewaki cast as the young woman who innocently, but persistently pursues him. She elevates every film she's in and brings a controlled, mature naivete to her role that works wonderfully alongside Omori's clueless Satoshi. Both of these actors are great casting choices and in many ways, at least as a couple, they are more interesting than Haruo and Ruriko.

Sakura Ando rounds out the cast, in a small role, as Haruo's girlfriend. Yeah, Haruo is a cheater, too.

Hitoshi Yazaki directed one of my all-time favorite films, Strawberry Shortcakes, so I had pretty high hopes for this one. There were moments in the first act where I wasn't sure if things were going to work out but this is a much different film. It's slower paced and takes a while to bring you into its dreamlike world where appearances appear superficial. The brilliance of it is that when confronted with this obvious superficiality we assume it's masking a cauldron of repressed emotions, but there are no revealed emotions in this film. Nakatani's Ruriko appears to show some emotion, and she has a wonderfully teary-eyed "I Love You" scene, but it's not real. She's just executing the rituals she believes are associated with the set of circumstances. I was premature in thinking I would have to punt my suspension of disbelief at the idea of Ruriko falling in love with her stalker. It's not supposed to be believable. It's just another illusion Ruriko will play a role in.

If only Yazaki hadn't included the scene where Satoshi's sister stops Ruriko, as she attempts an abrupt exit from their afternoon tea to go meet Haruo, and says "Ruriko, you're glowing", my theories would make sense. As it stands, I am completely full of shit. Who cares?

Sweet Little Lies is shot in gorgeously austere and misty shades of gray. There are innumerable scenes in the film full of nuanced and subtle discomfort that will make you shiver. The script is smart, the performances are dazzling, and the film will make you think. Feel free to think about whatever you want.

Director: Hitoshi Yazaki
Starring: Miki Nakatani, Nao Omori, Chizuru Ikewaki, Sakura Andô, Juichi Kobayashi

Japan Times

Shanghai [2010] • USA

Solid cast, good production, engaging spy thriller with some illuminating historical context thrown in.

Director: Mikael Håfström
Starring: John Cusack, Li Gong, Yun-Fat Chow, David Morse, Ken Watanabe, Rinko Kikuchi


She, a Chinese [2009] • UK, France, Germany, China

Frustrated with life in a rural village, she's slapped by her mom, groped by her boyfriend, raped by a truck driver, moves to Shenzhen. Fired from a factory job on her first day, she volunteers to work at a Love Salon. Her lover gets killed (good thing he had a pile of money underneath his mattress). She moves to London and gets a job but her first paycheck is taken back because she has no bank account. She goes to work in a massage parlor and marries a wrinkly old white guy with a bank account who reads the newspaper too often and his cat dies. She gets pregnant by an Indian whose cultural identity is calling him home rather than pushing him away, so he leaves her. The quantity of bummers in this film is so thick it skips along too rapidly and loses credibility.

Lu Huang as Mei (The 'She' of the title) does a fine job plowing her way through the endless misfortune (she did the same thing in Blind Mountain—a great film), so props to her. The story, however, which has a heart and good intentions, asks so much of its characters it stretches the limits of credulity creating distance instead of empathy. It begins to suggest that the circumstances "She" gets into are a result of personal selfishness, or stupidity, rather than exposing or exploring the difficult climb from rural Chinese village to downtown London.

I recommend this film because many of the realities and situations it points at are worth considering. I just wish it would have pointed at a few less and explored them more deeply, or with a whisper of hope. I've got nothing against bleak films, but She, A Chinese gives the impression that once the desire to break free of tradition and hopeless circumstances begins, a stream of unrelenting nausea is likely to follow. Which in turn begs the question of whether the scenarios depicted in the film are the result of the personal characteristics of this particular She, in a sense becoming a character study, or if they are some sort of warning siren or social commentary on what a bitch life is if you begin from a certain place, look a certain way, and have unrealistic expectations concerning what can be done about it.

Broken into discreet elements—the film is broken into discreet parts with the use of title cards that offer sometimes whimsical commentary on various events—the execution is pretty good, but the overall impact is diluted. The performances are solid and the director does a good job making things appear realistic so it might just be a case of truth being harder to get on board with than fiction.

Director: Xiaolu Guo
Starring: Huang Lu, Wei Yi Bo, Geoffrey Hutchings, Chris Ryman, Hsinyi Liu


Confessions 告白 (Kokuhaku) [2010] • Japan

When I made my top ten list for 2010 I wrote I was confident that if I had seen this it would have made the list. It's a little late, but now I've seen it and added it to the list.

As par usual, I'm not going to go through a plot synopsis. Click on one of the links at the end of this entry if you want that. 

Confessions is not perfect but it's pretty close. It's dark and gorgeous. It's unsettling. It's got Takako Matsu and Yoshino Kimura; Radiohead and Boris on the soundtrack. It gets crazy and goes by quickly at times (hard to catch all the subtitles), even though a good portion of the film is in slow motion. It's a testament to the skill of the director that everything makes an impression, even fluttering by. A few times, for a moment, it seems like it might lose steam and then whoosh! There it goes again. This is hands-on film making. An audio-visual package right up there with Myung-se Lee's M. It gets physical. And that's what I like about it. Nakashima gets how to manipulate sight, sound, and time moving through time that creates both a sense of being on a rollar coaster and being suspended in time. Like being in a dream or a car wreck.

It's creepy that most of the players in the film are 14 years old, talking about killing people and their mommy problems. The film gets most of its fuel from mommy problems. Shocking that it seems so believable that these kids understand what they are talking about. Tetsuya Nakashima makes these kids smart. It's very refreshing.

The first and last acts are both tours de force. I've seen three different English translations of the last line in the film. Don't google it until after you've seen it. What an ending! Some folks have written that Nakashima throws it all away with the last line but I think it depends on how you take it. I found it eerily ambiguous and evil.

Most commenters on the film will point out the film's "social commentary", i.e., that kids under fourteen years of age can't be punished by the law for anything. I'm not big on social commentary commentating but watching the film I couldn't help but think that any thirteen year old contemplating murder sort of gets a green lit idea. And the bit about the teacher giving the unpunishable kids HIV tainted milk, as part of her revenge, is chilling but it's more that she fills the kids with a fear of their own mortality than attempting murder of her own. You'll see what I mean when you watch the film. It's just one of the many questionable aspects of the script's believability that ....

If you over think this film it can fall apart. If you're the type that does that kind of thing you won't like it as much as I did. But unless you are also sensitive to slow motion or post rock emo soundtracks it's hard not to be overwhelmed by this masterfully crafted film.

Director: Tetsuya Nakashima
Starring: Takako Matsu, Masaki Okada, Yoshino Kimura, Masakazu Ato, Atsushi Ozawa

Japan Times
Beyond Hollywood

The Emperor and the Assassin 荆轲刺秦王 (Jing ke ci qin wang) [1998] • China

EPIC. Long, slow, a little melodramatically meandering but never boring. This is a great film to watch before Hero to get a more standard historical telling of the story of China's first Emperor. It's not stuffy and stilted the way many more formal Chinese historical films can be. Most of the characters are a little wacky. I put off watching this for a long time because I'm not a fan of what I thought it was going to be: wuxia with little plot and a lot of fighting. It's not that at all. It's got palace intrigue, battle plans, and real history behind it.

There is a well-written and very informative review of the film over at Illuminated Lantern. It discusses many of the scenes and compares them to historical document. It can be read without spoiling the film because this isn't a film built on surprises. We know the story for the most part but it helps, especially western viewers who aren't familiar with the source material, to have some grasp of the impact of what is portrayed in the film in terms of shaping Chinese history.

Gong Li is fabulous, but not really the star of the film. Xuejian Li, as the Emperor, balances unhinged with forthright and hits every note in between. Fengyi Zhang goes from badass assassin to homeless bum who's given up assassinating to badass assassin again and then to someone we're not sure of, all convincing. Zhiwen Wang almost steals the show as the eunuch lover of the queen who has a plan of his own. He seems almost a little too contemporary but Kaige has assembled a film that allows for him. This is more than a standard period piece costume drama. It's history done well and it's very entertaining. Most appealing to me is my perception that this film was made for a Chinese audience, not a western, festival-circuit one.

A recent Red Cliff marathon got me in the mood for EPIC so I indulged and was quite happy—not to mention it features Zhou Xun, unquestionably my favorite Chinese actress, in a small but significant role. It's hard not to see this as a parallel to state sanctioned historiography of Mao, but no matter. Chinese unity is paramount, there will be blood.

Director: Kaige Chen
Starring: Xuejian Li, Fengyi Zhang, Gong Li, Zhou Sun, Zhiwen Wang, Chen Kaige

Official site
Illuminated Lantern

Kiss Me, Kill Me 킬미 (Kill Me) [2009] • South Korea

This one's very funny, one of those films in which the director and the actors do a dance of comic timing. Hye-jeong Kang is always good but Shin Hyeon-Jun turns out to be a real comic treat. This is an action flick with lots of humor.

Jin-young (Kang) is devastated after a breakup with her long time partner and wants to kill herself, but she wants to do it with flair so she hires a hit man to take her out. Hyun-jun (Shin) thinks he is hired to kill someone else and is surprised to discover Jin-young has slipped herself into the place of his intended target. Yeah, it's an "assassin falls in love with his target" story but the performances of the two leads makes this one a winner. The script is a little chaotic at times, lots of coincidences that challenge a suspension of disbelief, but if you just go with the flow it's a fun ride.

The film's ending unravels instead of tying things up but it's not a deal breaker. In a way, the whole film can be seen as a series of sketches that just parade by instead of building upon one another to form a cohesive whole, and that may be a valid criticism depending on the angle of entry the viewer chooses. Thriller? Romantic Comedy? Action flick? It's all of those, and it's one of the things I like about South Korean cinema. They do mashups, and they do them well, always playing with expectations and throwing in surprises.

If you are a fan of either of the two leads you will enjoy Kiss Me, Kill Me. It's fun and entertaining precisely because it's full of not what you'd expect.

Director: Jong-hyeon Yang
Starring: Hye-jeong Kang, Hyeon-jun Shin, Hyeon-a Kim, Do-bin Park

Beyond Hollywood