My quest to watch 30 films in the month of December got off a slow start, which was caused by my sister’s wedding and post-America illness (at least these are my excuses). I didn’t watch my first film of the month until December 6, and I’ve been playing catch-up since then. By December 11, I’m at eight films. While averaging one film per day is really nothing for a full-time critic, the same cannot be said for an average dude who has other priorities in life. At least, I’m free enough to give this a go in December. For those who are interested, here are the snippets of my thoughts on the films I’ve watched so far.
1. Breaking the Waves (directed by Lars Von Trier, 1996)
I watched this for the 20th anniversary of Broadway Cinematheque, which got me all excited about seeing it in 35mm. Okay, I get that any old print is going to have some signs of wear and tear but this print they were showing is beyond watchable. I’ve seen my fair share of damaged prints (most were way older than 1996) during my days working at the Hong Kong Film Archive, but this print’s color is absolutely unrecognizable and the flickering in the first reel is out of control. The only reason that stopped me from making a formal complaint is the low admission price of HK$20 but I still consider it to be highly irresponsible for the cinema to have the audience endure 2 hours and 39 minutes of such quality. It definitely gave 35mm a bad name for those who were uninitiated.
But thank goodness I’ve seen this Lars Von Trier classic before and am a big fan of it. This film does not cease to move me. It is still mind-blowing how a film about a woman misguidedly sacrifices herself for her paralyzed husband by fucking random gross men is one of the greatest stories about love and faith. Transcending and demolishing conventional morality and social contract, Von Trier was at the heights of his powers in 1996. Breaking the Waves is unequivocally one of the best films of the 1990s. Side note: rest in peace, Katrin Cartlidge.
2. House of Bamboo (directed by Samuel Fuller, 1955)
This is one of two Japanese-themed movies directed by Samuel Fuller that I know of (unless you count the Nisei element in The Steel Helmet too). Set in Little Tokyo of Los Angeles, The Crimson Kimono is a gem of noir that deserves to be seen by more, not to mention Fuller’s sharp eye for depicting racial issues. Hence, I had high hopes for House of Bamboo, which was shot in Japan. The widescreen crime drama is gorgeously photographed in the vibrant colors of Cinemascope. The cinematography alone should cement its place among the greats. But I found the plot meandering and dull at times. The narrative just doesn’t move as smooth as Fuller’s better efforts. Shirley Yamaguchi (aka Yoshiko Yamaguchi aka Li Xianglan) lights up the screen with her beauty. Her English pronunciation is perfect but lacks the natural grace of her usual Japanese performance—that speaks to the complexity of the art of acting. On the other hand, Robert Ryan, who plays the villainous Sandy, is pitch perfect.
3. Kubo and the Two Strings (directed by Travis Knight, 2016)
I missed this film in theaters earlier this year mainly because it came and went away quietly and quickly in Hong Kong. That’s a shame because this is the most refreshing and exciting animated film I’ve seen in the past few years. While Pixar is preoccupied with pushing tears (albeit expertly so) and Disney (Pixar’s owner) sets its sights on pushing merchandise, independent production studio Laika has been churning out sleeper hits since Coraline. Directed by company CEO Travis Knight, Kubo and the Two Strings is Laika’s most epic picture yet, featuring a magical story about a Japanese boy armed with a shameisen and super origami powers on a hero’s quest as he escapes from his mother’s evil family. In addition to the seamless blend of 3D technology and traditional stop-motion animation that contributes to the film’s unique visual sensibilities, the filmmakers also demonstrate the sort of restrain in storytelling necessary for this poignant story of family and redemption to flourish. It’s a shame that the film didn’t perform quite well in the box office, but I’m guessing the son of Nike founder Phil Knight is not exactly hurting for money.
(More on other films I’ve watched coming soon)