Saturday, November 23, 2013

WFFBKK 2013 capsule reviews: Stray Dogs

Stray Dogs – I didn't fall asleep during Tsai Ming-liang's latest piece of contemplative cinema, but I did hear snoring. And it's easy to be lulled by this hypnotic film, reputedly Tsai's last. It holds its gaze for long periods of time on people sleeping, or just standing there staring at a painting in an abandoned building. Staring at people staring. It's at it's best for the first 100 minutes or so, as the story follows a homeless family through their daily routine. While dad works as a "human billboard", holding a sign at a busy city intersection, the young son and daughter scavenge for food in the supermarket, filling up on samples. Wearing a brightly colored poncho, dad braves the typhoon-like wind and cold rain. The camera zooms in on his face. Hey, it's Lee Kang-sheng, Tsai's go-to leading man! Dad is at first loving, but becomes creepier and creepier as the movie goes on. Smoking more cigarettes and turning to booze, he's like a desperate animal as he devours his daughter's cabbage-head doll. Later, in a interminable scene that is likely still playing, he stands behind a woman and the tension mounts as he gets closer and closer to her, and I half expected him to take a big chomp out of her face. There are three actresses – Chen Shiang-chyi, Lu Yi-ching and Yang Kuei-mei – and I'm not certain if they are playing the same woman. I liked Lu Yi-ching the best. She's a frozen-foods manager at the supermarket who takes sympathy on the kids. (3/5)

Tabu – And now for something completely different. This Portuguese drama Miguel Gomes left me gape-mouthed in wonder. It's an homage to a 1931 F.W. Murnau film of the same name that I've never seen. In fact, Tabu is like nothing I've ever seen, though it did remind me of Aki Kaurismaki or early Werner Herzog. There's actually three segments, beginning with a prologue about an explorer in Africa a long time ago. The scene then cuts to present-day Lisbon, where a woman named Pilar frets over the well-being of her elderly neighbor. I suppose Pilar is attracted to the colorful neighbor lady because her own life is so rather dull. As the feisty old Aurora is dying, Pilar is dispatched to track down an acquaintance, a rugged old man who lives in a nursing home. They are too late, but the man tells Pilar his story. And so the scene flashes back to 1960s colonial Africa, following a steamy romance between upper-class white expats – the fiery, big-game-hunter Aurora and the adventurous Ventura. The man's narration is the sole source of dialogue during this segment, so it is almost a silent film, except for key atmospherics, crucial sound effects and some great music from the rock band Ventura drums in. Also, there's a scene-stealing little crocodile. The aspect ratio is old-school squarish, and caused the subtitles to be cut off. But someone noticed, and they fixed it. They then stopped the film and started it over, about five minutes in. (4/5)

Instant Mommy – "It's about a woman who fakes a pregnancy," director Leo Abaya told me. So it's a comedy, right? "Not exactly," he replied, an answer that intrigued me enough that I made the trip across Bangkok in the middle of the day to catch this entry from the Cinemalaya Film Festival. Eugene Domingo stars as a middle-aged Filipina who's in the midst of an online love affair with a Japanese man. Through their Skype chats, it's revealed that she's pregnant. She's shopping for a new house in the suburbs for him and his new family, but he's also bogged down by a messy divorce in Japan. Meanwhile, Bechay continues working as a wardrobe mistress at a film company, an occupation that comes in handy later. Because she ends up having a miscarriage, and her life falls apart. The Japanese dude cuts off contact and Bechay, biological clock exploded, questions her self-worth. But she somehow gets through to her boyfriend, and impulsively tells him "false alarm ... baby ok". Borrowing a fake belly from the wardrobe department, she then has a hectic time, racing around, constructing her illusionary pregnancy. This includes enlisting the help of her brother's pregnant ex-girlfriend (he's not the dad), and getting a film crew to pose as doctors in a hospital's operating room while Bechay acts out a birth scene. It's a plan she really hasn't thought through, but is going ahead with anyway. The real fun comes when the Japanese dude comes to town, and Bechay has to navigate her way through a succession of awkward situations. (4/5)

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