Tuesday, March 27, 2012

"Late Autumn" by Kim Tae-yong Review (unpublished)

The beginning of Late Autumn, directed by Kim Tae-yong, is sleek, stylish and attention-grabbing. Clear wide-angle photography and quietude of pace make the loneliness and isolation of main protagonist Anna (Tang Wei) almost palpable as she travels alone through the Pacific Northwest of the United States. But somewhere along the way, about the middle for me, Late Autumn loses itself completely. Its creeping pace becomes tedious, and the director Kim seems so focused on continuity of style that he forgets real storytelling and plot. Its trilingual dialog (English, Chinese, and Korean) is ambitious, but artificial; the English dialog having the quality of being written by someone whose first language is not English. And most frustrating of all, the film seems to have no idea when, or how, to end itself.

This is actually the second remake of Late Autumn, the original made in 1966 and first remake in 1982, all three Korean productions. It is a tragedy by nature, about two very different outsiders, who meet and work out the semblance of some companionship. The central figure is Anna, a young Chinese American living in San Francisco, who has killed her abusive husband in a fit of passion, and is now serving an extended prison sentence for her deed. Upon her mother’s death seven years later, she is granted a 72 hour hiatus from jail to attend the funeral in Seattle. Heading north alone by bus, she meets a cocky young Korean, Hoon (Hyun Bin), who wiggles and inches his way into the company of the cold and repellant Anna. It turns out that Hoon is a gigolo who makes his living pleasing older, affluent Korean women, and has his own issues haunting him connected to his dubious profession. Hoon appoints himself to be Anna’s companion for her long weekend on the outside, as she must face her emotionally distant family and the man from her past that she truly loved and whom may be responsible for the turmoil between her and her late husband.

Some central concerns of mine focus on the relationship between Anna and Hoon, the core of the film. Anna seems incapable of snapping out of her gloomy daze, despite the relentless efforts of Hoon to break through. Perhaps a ladies man like Hoon would see cracking her despondent disposition a challenge, but I doubt a real gigolo like Hoon would give a woman like Anna the time of day after their first encounter (in which he needs to borrow money from her for his bus ticket), unless she were willing to be a paying costumer. There is utterly no chemistry between the two, and their romance to me is inconceivable, despite what might be seen as Anna’s desperation for male attention after being in prison for seven years. (Early in the film, the two attempt an awkward love scene at Anna’s request, also unbelievable that her character would stoop to such a thing.)

Furthermore, while Anna is clearly a tragic figure, I would feel more sympathy for her if she felt anything other than self-pity for herself, rejecting those around her and preferring to wallow in despair. Only in one scene towards the end, during the funeral reception dinner at her late mother’s Chinese restaurant, does Anna break out of her stoic veneer and express some powerful emotion, finally commanding more sympathy from her on looking family, as well as the audience. Otherwise, she remains static in despair and never really makes the transformation Hoon or audiences will be waiting for.

If the film does have a transformation point or climax, it is when Anna and Hoon finally engage in an epic, three minute long kiss. The kiss comes at a foggy highway rest-stop on their way back to California, after Hoon is suddenly accosted by a tough American Mafioso who is married to one of Hoon’s clients, and comes to exact retribution (although the bad guy looks more like he’s headed to dinner at a fancy country club than threatening). Hoon realizes this is his last chance with Anna, and expresses himself accordingly. Again, I would be happy to applaud such expression of passion if I felt it viscerally between the two characters, but I never could. And though it is filmed with sensitivity and beauty, it hardly feels triumphant or like the culmination of a passion that has been brewing between the two.

They say give credit where credit is due, and in Late Autumn, Kim Tae-yong has done some solid, artful photography, and has a unique pace of telling his story that I want to like. The film’s scenes of Seattle even serve as a lovely homage to the city. But his artistry is too much, at times becoming like misplaced avant garde, and it cannot maintain viewer attention or convey his message clearly. In the end, you may feel something for the tragic companions who find one another in a lonely world, but you’ll probably be too exhausted by the aimlessness of the lingering plot to care, and just be glad it’s over.

"A Simple Life" by Ann Hui Review

If you’ve had an at least somewhat respectable upbringing, you’ve probably been told before to respect your elders, consider how the elderly are marginalized in society, and not to forget that old people were once young like you. And though this theme pops up from time to time in any mainstream culture, it has special relevance in Asia, where filial piety is of utmost social importance.

It is this universal theme that largely carries A Simple Life, directed by Ann Hui, a gentle and unpretentious Hong Kong drama based on the true story of Hong Kong film producer Roger Lee. But of course, more than just a theme, it is a story, and like its title says, a simple story about a simple life, told through the relationship between central characters Roger, played by Andy Lau, and his ailing family maid, Sister Peach, played by the subtly excellent Deanie Ip. And though the story’s message is fairly obvious and quite traditional in nature, don’t be afraid it will lecture you; you’ll probably be enjoying the film’s genuine wit and warmth too much to notice.

The film’s main perspective is Peach, loyal maid of two generations to Roger and his middle-class family, all of whom are now residing in the United States except for Roger. Though in his fifties, Roger is still unmarried, with only Peach to look after his domestic caretaking in his Hong Kong apartment while he lives a busy life as film producer. After Peach suffers a stroke and requires rehabilitation and care, Roger finds himself in the uncharted territory of how to care for himself, as well as how to care about the mother figure, though maid, who raised him since infancy. In her illness, Peach must spend time in a retirement care center, a very shameful place to send one’s elderly parents in traditional Chinese custom, and also very contradictory to Peach’s headstrong sense of self-reliance. Roger in his propriety wonders if he is doing the right thing by letting her stay there. After all, she’s a servant, but kind of like family, too, right?

It is worth noting that in its examination of servitude and its complicated combination of subordination and intimacy, A Simple Life is comparable to the recently Oscar-nominated The Help, also highly talked about these days (though obviously A Simple Life is without the race issue). But unlike the brightly colored and overly-dramatized Help, A Simple Life is real and without affectation, not preaching or ramming its message through, but instead providing a glance into the rhythms and challenges of an unglamorous life. Its camera angles are blunt and candid, dialog at times very scarce, and music is used very sparingly, only serving to occasionally accentuate the emotionality of short moments. It’s not unlike the true life of a maid or the resident of a retirement home, but nonetheless engaging. This is no doubt a testament to Hui’s strength as a filmmaker, relying on realism to tell a real story, and omitting the grandiose melodrama all too common in typical Hollywood scripting.

In the time Peach spends at the care center, we get an honest glimpse at the decadence of life there, but also a fun host of supporting characters, who live through their own ups and downs, sometimes to comedic, and sometimes to tragic effect. But Hui does not ask us to feel sorry for them or for Peach; she unapologetically presents them as they are, letting your own sense of pathos do the work if it wants to.

In the end, the story’s core remains the relationship between Roger and Peach, as soon the pretense of the maid-employer relationship fades, and Roger desires more and more to care for Peach with sonly commitment. Peach in turn shows the motherliness and strength she always has, even as her health continues to decline.

Lau delivers a solid performance in a role that is not easy, despite its simplicity, playing an honest character, but also reserved and at times unsure. But in fact the real star is Ip, playing a character fairly older than herself. Without delivering any long monologues or hardly raising her voice, she commands viewer attention with each expression, posture, and sentiment: fragile, perhaps, but brave, and never self-pitying.

A Simple Life is far from big-budget, popcorn-chomping entertainment, and may bore the less conscientious members of the crowd. But even they will probably find something to like in this universally appreciable and sincere film. Be sure to bring your parents along or even maid, if you have one. After seeing the film, you might have the urge to show them just a touch more respect.