Tuesday, November 19, 2013

WFFBKK 2013 capsule reviews: I Have Loved

I Have Loved – Well, I'm glad I got that out of the way. This is the type of film I only see in film festivals, because I can't fathom why I'd see this otherwise. A gauzy, dreamlike swirl of romance and sadness, I Have Loved infuriated me with its pretentiousness and seeming pointlessness. But here I am days later, still thinking about this Singaporean film made in Siem Reap, Cambodia. So good job 13 Little Pictures, and directors Elizabeth Wijaya and Lai Weijie. Mission accomplished. Taking place mostly in the sterile confines of a Siem Reap luxury hotel, with a few sojourns to Angkor Wat, Tonle Sap lake and the city's streets, the story has to do with a sad young blonde woman. Mostly she's courted by a long-haired young dude. He's probably in a boy band, judging from the several verses of a sappy song he sang to her, a cappella. Shut up already. The other guy is older, rocking the white linen suit and white fedora, like he's stuck in French colonial times. T.S. Eliot is quoted, but I can't remember what was said and still don't know what the heck it all means. (2/5)

Peculiar Vacation and Other Illnesses – For my next viewing, I was relieved to find this less pretentiously arty than I Have Loved. But Peculiar Vacation is a rudderless journey. It's a story about a guy and girl moving a couch, and it seemed familiar because Indonesian director Yosep Anggi Noen made one before. He expands on his earlier short film with this feature debut. It's about a lovely young woman (Christi Mahanami) taking a job in a furniture store. She sells a sofa and then has to help deliver it, with help of a young man who drives the truck. The customers live only two hours away, but the trip takes forever, with a few overnight stops in hotels and many other meandering other side trips that bring them, ahem, closer together. "We should deliver this sofa quickly," she says to the guy, about 80 minutes in, and I swear the audience died laughing. Meanwhile, because there's always a meanwhile, there's this sad fellow who starts a business selling gasoline out of Coke bottles by the side of the road. What's that you say? He's the woman's husband? I did not know that. (3/5)

The Cleaner – This Peruvian drama was the best of my picks from the first full day of the 11th World Film Festival of Bangkok. It's about a solitary old man who works as a cleaner for a health service during a devastating epidemic in Lima. He cleans up after dead people, going into their homes, collecting their belongings and burning them. He also mops up their blood wherever they fell. There are haunting images of deserted train stations, malls and other public places, and Eusebio is the only guy around, scrubbing away with his mop while wearing his white isolation suit. Then one day, he finds a strange little boy. He has no choice but to bring the kid home and take care of him while he tries to find the boy's family. It's a very dry, quiet tale, told very simply with not much dialogue or big actory moments. I appreciated the guy's routine. He comes home to his little shambles of an apartment, tosses his keys on the table, and they miss and fall off. He picks them up and puts them on the table. Then gets a little spray bottle of disinfectant from a rickety little cabinet and sprays it on himself. Then one day the keys land on the table and stick. (3/5)

Rebirth – This Malaysian-Tamil drama goes the other extreme of I Have Loved in that the exposition is so bloody obvious that a bunch of us were giggling the whole time, which likely annoyed the heck out of director M. Suurya. Rebirth is about a Forrest Gump-like savant who is forced to perform traditional dances by his money-grubbing sister and his philandering thief of a brother. The dancer Kuttan also performs menial tasks at a goat farm. But what he really wants to do is play badminton, and he stitches up an old racket and cobbles together a pair of worn-out sneakers. He even makes a dummy to practice with in his room, in a bit that reminded me of King of Comedy. The guy's a bit insane. It's a very old-fashioned movie, not just in terms of the rustic setting, but also in the method of storytelling, which wouldn't be out of place in the silent era. Add the colorful characters and over-the-top performances, especially the domineering sister. She treats Kuttan harshly but is also protective of him, because after all, he's her cash cow. Mean as she is, and as big a jerk as his brother is, I'm not sure they deserve what's coming. (3/5)

What They Don't Talk About, When They Talk About Love – Winner of the NETPAC Award at this year's International Film Festival Rotterdam, this is likely one of the best Indonesian indie films of the year. Directed by Mouly Surya, with handsome production values, it's a coming-of-age romantic drama set in a school for visually impaired youngsters. Two girls take centerstage. One is a partially sighted teenager who wears big goggles for glasses. Having just come into womanhood, she sets her cap for a blind classmate who at first seems more interested in another girl who feeds him cake. Meanwhile, her blind roommate gets into a steamy affair with Doc, a deaf punk rocker who hangs around the school. Played by Nicholas Saputra, his character comes off skeevy at first, the way he hangs around the place at night, seemingly preying on the blind girl. Water is usually involved in their lovemaking, with them meeting in the therapy pool, and later in the shower. The film meanders about sometimes, losing its way. At times, I wasn't sure what was going on, or who the characters were. Had a girl regained her sight? It all comes together beautifully in the end though, and is bookended by colorful musical numbers. (4/5)

Stepping on the Flying Grass – This Indonesian tale of idealized childhood involves a close-knit group of schoolkids who are assigned to write about their biggest dream or aspiration. A bossy kid wants to be in the army. A girl wants to be famous actress. Another kid just sits and picks his nose, and says he wants to make people happy. But a fourth kid, Agus, only wants to eat in a nice restaurant and have a "meal fit for a king". The others laugh at him. And so the next 70 minutes or roll harmlessly and uneventfully by, as Agus puts together his case. He rides his bicycle, delivering chicken to earn spending money. Meanwhile, more about him is explained. He has a sweet mother who's a good cook. But she only cooks tahu (tofu), which his father makes in a local factory. So it's all forms of tahu for breakfast, lunch and dinner. No wonder the boy wants to eat in a Padang restaurant. (3/5)

Rock the Casbah – It's 1989, during the First Intifada, and a squad of young Israeli troops are almost ready to rotate out of fighting, and return home, or head to Amsterdam. They are sent on one last mission into the Palestinian settlement in Gaza, to show 'em who's boss. But they are taunted and lured into the warren of alleys in the city, where they are pelted with rocks and cinder blocks. Then a washing machine is pushed from a roof and crushes a soldier to death. The remaining squad members are ordered by their gung-ho commander to stay on the roof of the Palestinian family's home, keep watch on the neighborhood and find the guys who shoved the appliance. It's a tense situation that ratchets up as this taut, well-made little Israeli war drama goes on. (4/5)

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