Sunday, April 24, 2016

Bangkok Asean Film Festival review: Manila in the Claws of Light, Bitcoins Heist

The titan of Filipino cinema, Lino Brocka, always focused on the unfairly exploited working class. His gripping 1975 picture, Manila in the Claws of the Light (Maynila: Sa mga kuko ng liwanag) is the pulpy story of a young man from a fishing village, who comes to the cruel metropolis to track down his ex-girlfriend Ligaya. She was lured away by a pig-woman, with promises of working in a factory and furthering her education. Yeah, right. We all know how that goes.

In rough-and-tumble Manila, he's zeroed in, locating her likely whereabouts to a certain shophouse on Misericordia Street, which he watches like a hawk.

To support his stalking efforts, Julio takes jobs in construction, and, um, other fields.

Much of the film deals with the hardships of big-city construction work, where laborers push wheelbarrows, shovel gravel, haul on ropes and die. They are building the flashy concrete high-rises that inundate the metropolitan skyline. Later, he's laid off from the construction job, and drifts into the sex trade, which Brocka depicts with flamboyantly entertaining flair.

More than a few folks in the classic film's one-off screening at the Bangkok Asean Film Festival were murmuring about how Julio, played by still-steady-working actor Bembol Roco, looked just like Thai action star Tony Jaa. So it turned into an exercise of folks imagining what it would be like if Tony mostly ditched the flying double-knee-drops and just did dramatic acting. Where, indeed, is my elephant?

Anyway, Manila in the Claws of Light is a marvel. And Martin Scorsese was well aware of the film's power. He supported efforts to have a 4K digital restoration done. One of the cinematographers, Mike de Leon, cast his eyes on the laborious wet-scanning process, and shepherded through the color-grading effort, making sure all the grit, grime and blood clearly and vividly pop off the screen with no muss and no fuss. It is Taxi Driver. It is Mean Streets. And it kicks the butts of both those films. (5/5)

Speaking of kicking butts, there's Vietnamese action cinema, which has rapidly grown and matured since the early 2000s arrival of many U.S.-schooled Vietnamese returnees who grew up watching Spielberg movies and working in Hollywood. They jump-started Vietnam's commercial film industry and make solidly mainstream box-office hits in all the crowd-pleasing genres.

Among them is Ham Tran, who made his breakthrough in 2007 with the post-American War drama Journey from the Fall. Since then, he's become solidly involved in the Ho Chi Minh City film industry, racking up a dozen or so credits as editor, including the action films The Rebel and Clash.

Adding writer and director to his name, his latest effort is Bitcoins Heist (Siêu Trộm), an action-comedy-romance that is basically the Vietnamese Ocean's Eleven, with perhaps a bit of Now You See Me tossed in.

So darn slick, I kept sliding out of my seat, Bitcoins Heist enjoyably hits the usual and expected beats of the heist flick, with team assembly, double crosses, triple crosses and sleight of hand.

The attractive and colorful cast is toplined by actresses, chiefly Kate Nhung from Tran's Hollow as Dada, Vietnam's top cyber-crime cop. She is in pursuit of Ghost, a cyber-criminal who remotely takes over people's laptops and demands ransom in bitcoins or else the device will be bricked.

An early attempt at capturing Ghost's accountant Phuc (Thanh Pham) does not go well, and Dada has to turn in her badge and gun. Ngô Thanh Vân, the action heroine from The Rebel and Clash is featured in early scenes as a sexy, tough-as-nails bodyguard to the accountant.

Now working an undercover, off-the-books operation, Dada assembles a team of con-artists, starting with a former boyfriend, the pickpocketing sleight-of-hand specialist Magic Jack (no, it's Jack Magique, he insists), played by the irrepressible Petey Majik, whose acting credits include Tran's How to Fight in Six Inch Heels.

There's a veteran jewel thief and career criminal, played by long-time Ham Tran hand Jayvee Mai The Hiep. He is assisted in thievery by his precocious acrobatic pre-teen daughter (Lam Thanh My).

And, of course, they need a hacker, a plucky young woman whose tech-savvy brother was severely wounded in the film's opening sequence, when the action tumbled into a mobile-phone repair shop. She's Vi, played by freestyling rapper Suboi, who has cyberpunk attitude to spare.

Bitcoins Heist is a welcome genre diversion from the preponderance of Southeast Asian arthouse-focused indie dramas that tend to be programmed at film festivals. It was the Vietnamese entry in the Bangkok Asean Film Festival, running April 22 to 26 at CentralWorld, with movies from all 10 countries of the Asean bloc. Even Brunei was there with the unusual female-focused martial-arts drama Yasmine. Add in the "Asean Classic" selection of three films that included Manila in the Claws of Light, there was something for everyone, and Bitcoins Heist was one for me. (4/5)

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