Love in the Buff (春嬌與志明)
In the follow-up to director Pang Ho-cheung’s (彭浩翔) 2010 Love in a Puff (志明與春嬌), advertising man Cheung Chi-ming (Shawn Yue, 余文樂) and cosmetics saleswoman Yu Cheun-kiu (Miriam Yeung, 楊千嬅) split up, move to Beijing to work and see new people. But old flames are reignited after the two bump into each other in the Chinese capital. Filled with director Pang’s signature snappy dialogue and amusing cameos by Chinese heartthrob Huang Xiaoming (黃曉明) and Hong Kong’s Ekin Cheng (鄭伊健), the film scores well as a work of lighthearted entertainment, but what makes it interesting is the way it addresses how Hong Kongers feel about China. Here, Beijing is painted as a trendy metropolis full of opportunities, and the two protagonists’ new Chinese lovers are beautiful, wealthy and too good to be true. It is a place that looks familiar, but the two Hong Kongers never feel completely comfortable there. They complain about the food and the weather, and their faces light up whenever they see each other.
The American Pie franchise celebrated an adolescent infatuation with sex, so it seems silly to criticize American Reunion, its fourth iteration (not counting four straight-to-video spin-offs), which revisits the gang’s members in their 30s, for maintaining the mood of lubricity. To put a positive spin on the movie, it celebrates the inner adolescent that exists even when teenage years are left behind. The characters have remained largely unchanged, as have their basic personalities; all that’s different is that they now have a veneer of middle age, and for those who have nothing invested in the previous films, the shopworn humor might seem flat. Eugene Levy as Jim’s dad, offering unsought advice and cringe-inducing memories, is still worth watching and he gives the film something resembling a soul.
Bi, Don’t Be Afraid
Family drama set in Hanoi by first-time director Phan Dang Di. With its bold treatment of sex and frank handling of the collapse of family ties, Bi, Don’t Be Afraid packs a powerful emotional punch. The film picked up the SACD Best Screenplay Award at Cannes International Critic’s Week in 2010, but the director’s strenuous art house earnestness can be a trifle annoying. Bi, the small boy of the title, watches the people around him as they strive to come to terms with their lives: a grandfather approaching death, a father’s transfer of his affections away from the family, and an aunt who falls for a 16-year-old student.
A Happy Event (Un heureux evenement)
Barbara (Louise Bourgoin) and Nicolas (Pio Marmai), two beautiful people, get it on in a passionate relationship; then decide that they want a child. The step is initially taken in the spirit of joyful abandon, but gradually changes in the course of pregnancy and birth to become a burden that threatens to tear the relationship apart. A Happy Event, based on a novel by Eliette Abercassis, mixes comedy and tragedy as the two central characters begin to question all the things that made their love blossom in the first place. Fine performances, and a willingness not just to subvert genre conventions, but to take a hard look at love and love’s passing make this a film that resonates long after the credits role.
The film tries, and on the whole fails, to bring alive the plight of a group of survivors who are saved from a nuclear holocaust in their apartment basement, but are also trapped there, waiting out the apocalypse in the face of dwindling supplies and rising tensions. The group descends into a kind of Lord of the Flies, dog-eat-dog hell of rape and torture, which the cast, including Rosanna Arquette and Milo Ventimiglia of Heroes, engages in with gusto. But there really seems little point to all the horrors, which never let up and never have very much to say beyond a reworking of the usual torture-porn tropes.
The Girlfriend Experience
It is odd to find this low-budget Steven Soderbergh film from 2009 suddenly appearing in Taipei, most especially as it aims particularly to capture a moment in the lead-up to the last US presidential election and the sense of fin de siecle luxury and imminent disaster. The story, such as it is, traces the career of top-of-the-market call girl Chelsea as she refines her portfolio of clients. She is played by Sasha Grey, whose career to date has been in the sharp end of hard-core pornography, a casting choice designed to provide further frisson. The largely non-professional cast and use of portable high-def video give the film a fly-on-the-wall intimacy that is quite effective.
The House of the Devil
Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) is a babysitter who takes on a job at a suitably ghoulish house and discovers that rather than looking after the kids, she is all set up as the centerpiece of a satanic ritual. Director Ti West is solid on his genre cliches and works them effectively, creating a film that is more about atmosphere than gore, full of unsettling moments that pay homage to early 1980s horror. Adequate acting and careful pacing provide a great buildup, but unfortunately The House of the Devil falls flat in the dash to the finish.
An interesting take on the biopic/mockumentary, JCVD has action star Jean-Claude Van Damme as its topic, mixing up bits of action drama with a look-behind-the-scenes of the life of the man also known as the “Muscles From Brussels.” Van Damme opens himself up to the camera in a way that is not expected of a man who made his name in martial arts action flicks. The film shows him embroiled in a legal battle for custody of his daughter and losing an action role to Steven Seagal. Van Damme reveals that he has more skills and intellect than is usually apparent from his chop-socky oeuvre.
Stanley’s Tiffin Box
A film by Indian director Amole Gupte, who has already earned a reputation for his well-crafted films about children that are a million miles from the usual Bollywood fare. Stanley’s Tiffin Box is another heartwarming story of a young boy and his friends trying to have as much fun as they can, watched over, kept in line and occasionally ill used by their teachers, a group of grown-ups with as many idiosyncrasies as the cast of children.