Foreign Language Films

So the Oscars nomination list is out. The Oscars used to be a pretty big deal but its pull is getting lesser and lesser nowadays, but I doubt it will become a Miss Universe pageant thing.

Astro’s A-List channel actually has some pretty good titles coming up this first half year. Just have a look at a partial list of titles programmed for the coming few months:

  1. SON OF SAUL (Hungary)
  2. MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART (China)
  3. MUSTANG (France/Turkish)
  4. RAMS (Iceland)
  5. LABYRINTH OF LIES (Germany)
  6. THE HIGH SUN (Croatia)
  7. MASAAN (India)
  8. YOUTH (Italy)
  9. THE SECOND MOTHER (Brazil)
  10. LAMB (Ethiopia)
  11. JIA ZHANGKE, A GUY FROM FENYANG (Brazil/Mandarin)
  12. THE PRESIDENT (Georgia/France/UK/Germany)
  13. THE CLUB (Chile)
  14. BABAI (Kosovo)
  15. GOODNIGHT MOMMY (Austria)

And for South East Asian films:

  1. CEMETERY OF SPLENDOUR (Thailand)
  2. THE MISSING PICTURE (Cambodia)
  3. TAKLUB (The Philippines)
  4. NORTE, THE END OF HISTORY (The Philippines)
  5. DREAM LAND (Cambodia)
  6. FAERYVILLE (Singapore)
  7. A COPY OF MY MIND (Indonesia)
  8. WHAT WE DON’T TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT LOVE (Indonesia)
  9. VAKANSI YANG JANGGAL DAN PENYAKIT LAINNYA (Indonesia)
  10. SNAP (Thailand)

Film enthusiasts will  be able to enjoy these in the coming months.

And this is just a partial list of the titles and more great titles are getting added every month. And for only RM15.90 per month for 8 new films every month, it is a bloody good deal.

cemetary

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10 Films You May Have Missed on A-List

It’s the new year. 2016 is now here and I have been blogging for the past 11 years. Happy new year.

FOUR IN THE MORNING

The hour from night to day.
The hour from side to side.
The hour for those past thirty.

The hour swept clean to the crowing of cocks.
The hour when earth betrays us.
The hour when wind blows from extinguished stars.
The hour of and-what-if-nothing-remains-after-us.

The hollow hour.
Blank, empty.
The very pit of all other hours.

No one feels good at four in the morning.
If ants feel good at four in the morning
–three cheers for the ants. And let five o’clock come
if we’re to go on living.

– Wislawa Szymborska

I read somewhere that the body is weakest in between 3.00 a.m. and 4.00 a.m. and it is between this time that death while sleeping happens. But yes, if you can make it past 4.00 a.m. everynight, one still won’t feel very good but 5.00 a.m. is a good time to wake up.

Anyways, here is a list of the ten films that you may have missed which were shown on Astro’s A-List channel (Channel 456). This is not my top 10 films for 2015, just the 10 films that I thought you could have watched on that channel. My top ten is yet to come and some cannot be included here because of hold-backs etc. which prevented it from showing on other windows.

  1. TANGERINES (Zaza Urushadze)
  2. TOKYO FAMILY (Yoji Yamada)
  3. SOMBOON (Krissada Tipchaimeta)
  4. WINTER SLEEP (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
  5. HAN GONG-JU (Lee Su-jin)
  6. LEVIATHAN (Andrey Zvyagintsev)
  7. WILD TALES (Damian Szifron)
  8. NUOC (Minh Nguyen-Vo)
  9. AN (Naomi Kawase)
  10. TALES (Rakhshan Bani-Eternad)

Each one of this films is worth every minute of your time. All of them has a very strong story which is very well told in their own ways.

Watching them, one feels like having read a really good book and often, one feels transported into that world. It also leave a dent intellectually, challenging you to explore both your heart and your mind. Most important of all, these films asks what it means to live in the world now.

TANGERINES talks about war and its devastating effect on the livelihood of people but more than that, it also tells how two enemies can finally see eye to eye and found respect for each other under the roof of a small house with the watchful eye of a tangerine farmer.

TOKYO FAMILY is Yoji Yamada’s remake of Ozu’s TOKYO STORY, with family and filial piety at its core. There is a lot of resemblance especially in terms of composition but to compare the two directly is missing the point. You got to watch it yourself to know.

SOMBOON is a docu-feature which is a real story of how a man cared for his dying wife, day-in, day-out. You will see first hand the trial and tribulations, the emotional flare-ups and frustrations but at its core, you will see what it really means when you say ” I do”.

WINTER SLEEP is a long family drama, sort of. But is is really about searching for who you really are versus who you appear to be. The lead character is a confident, wealthy owner of a holiday resort but through a series of intense conversation with his young wife and family, we get to see who he really is, and also see him discover it himself.

HAN GONG-JU tells the story of a girl who is gang-raped, led by the son of a powerful official. Every moment after the event is a horrible reminder of that act. How does one even recover from such thing? Very well directed by a first time helmer and the acting is superb.

LEVIATHAN is set in a small town in Russia and how powerful people and corrupt officials can wreck people’s life. Greed and lust in broad daylight no thanks to a corrupt regime. And this applies to everywhere. Don’t we see it everyday where we live how corrupt officials destroys life?

WILD TALES is actually six short films with revenge tying them together. And it is electrifying! What an amazing film from start to finish. It is engaging and entertaining. This dark comedy examines the desire for human to take revenge and the law into their own hands but the final short gives a glimpse on what is really happening in the human heart.

NUOC is set in the future where climate change has devastated many places and turned land into sea and sea into land, thus destroying livelihood and all. But this film is more than just another cautionary tale of climate change. It is really about how climate changes the landscape but how the landscape of the heart cannot be changed, both love for each other and for the motherland.

AN is one of my favourites for the year. Heart-warming, well directed and acted. A superb film not really about dorayaki and its red bean paste but really about our misconception and prejudices and how people overcome these misconceptions and prejudices and go beyond the surface to really know a person and who he or she really is and what they live and fight for.

TALES is perhaps the best Persian film I watched this year. Like WILD TALES, it is made up of several short stories but the way it is connected is different. Each of the short stories is actually a continuation of the director’s previous feature length film, i.e. the characters and stories flows from these previous films but by itself they still makes sense. The common theme is the examination of relationships between people and this is very effectively done. This film got me glued to the screen for a long time.

Watch these films if you can.

I will probably write about the top 10 films I watched this year on all media, but I will focus on theatrical releases and right now I can tell you the number one film and it is IP MAN 3.

 

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South East Asian Cinema – Some Recent Films

Tilman Baumgartel wrote a book called SOUTHEAST ASIAN INDEPENDENT CINEMA published by the Hong Kong University Press in 2012. In the same year, Cornell Southeast Asia Program Publications published a book called GLIMPSES OF FREEDOM, INDEPENDENT CINEMA IN SOUTHEAST ASIA edited by May Adadol Ingawanij and Benjamin McKay that features essays by an eclectic group of writers.

Much has happened since then. Whilst many of the directors mentioned in the books are still making films, there is an upcoming group of directors from this region that is making their mark in Southeast Asian cinema and especially so in festivals.

Yes, Apitchatpong Weerasethakul, Lav Diaz, Brillante Mendoza, Eric Khoo, Riri Riza, and heck, even Amir Muhammad are still making films, there is a group of new directors particularly in The Philippines and Indonesia that is making their rounds in festivals.

In this post, I would like to talk about a few recent films from this region.

Before I get into the films themselves, this is what I feel about Malaysian “independent” cinema at the moment:

Malaysian “independent” cinema: Many people separate recent Malaysian independent cinema into Yasmin Ahmad period and before and post Yasmin Ahmad after her untimely demise in the year 2009. After her death, to many people, Malaysian cinema felt like it died with her.

(note: the word “independent” is very sensitive and some directors/films mentioned here are not exactly independent. Maybe what I really mean is Malaysian cinema minus those local films with very, very long and stupid names, if you know what I mean)

I wrote about The Malaysian New Wave back in 2008 (I left the industry in late 2008 and just recently got back mid of last year). Most of these “New Wave” directors are still making films but unfortunately there seems to be no successor in sight although there are many attempts.

Young directors like Nik Amir Mustapha are trying to make a mark with the very promising first feature KIL in 2013 and followed up with TERBAIK DARI LANGIT in 2014 which did not live up to expectations although it also travelled to festivals and Chris Chong made the excellent KARAOKE in 2009 which went to Cannes in 2009 and got itself nominated for the Golden Camera but have not made another film since then. Another director Chiu Keng Guan who started with WOO HOO in 2010 and made the box office hit THE JOURNEY is one who aspires to make films for Malaysians reminiscent of the late Yasmin Ahmad but his film has yet to enjoy much critical acclaim despite being box office hits. His upcoming film OLA BOLA is slated for release on 28 January 2016 and we await anxiously for that film.

The lack of Indian directors in Malaysia is also another noticeable vacuum. Deepak Menon who made the critically acclaimed CHEMMAN CHAALAI in 2005 but has not been heard since after he made the equally successful CHALANGGAI in 2007. Daven Raghavan made the excellent HIS FATHER AND HIS CELLULOID in 2002 and recently made the Malay language CCTV in 2015 but unfortunately CCTV did not gross well in the cinemas nor travelled much in festivals. However, recently Shanjhey Perumal who won the BMW Shorties for his work MACHAI in 2009, made JAGAT which is a Tamil language film which I found very promising although the box office potential is rather perilous. JAGAT is due for release in Malaysian cinemas in December 2015.

In summary, since the so called “New Wave” or “Little Cinema” directors, and after Yasmin Ahmad, there did not seem to emerge a new batch of directors with a strong voice that is consistently making films that travels and gets awarded in major film festivals. There are new directors of course, such as Charlotte Lim who has immense potential. But until these new directors make a bigger wave and make films consistently, we still have to look at the “old” “new wave”, so to speak.

In The Philippines, Lav Diaz and Brillante Mendoza are both still making films and they are still really good. Lav Diaz’s FROM WHAT IS BEFORE (2014) and NORTE, THE END OF HISTORY (2013) are sweeping awards all over the world, with NORTE, THE END OF HISTORY being nominated for Un Certain Regard in the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. Brillante Mendoza’s TAKLUB (2105) was also nominated for the Un Certain Regard in the 2015 Cannes Film Festival and it is not his first time in Cannes, having won Best Director in the 2009 edition of the Cannes Film Festival for his film KINATAY.

The Filipino directors are really carving a name for themselves, not far away from Thailand who has poster boy Apitchatpong Weerasethakul winning the Palm d’Or for UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES in the 2010 Cannes Film Festival and again nominated for the Un Certain Regard in for his CEMETERY OF SPLENDOUR in 2015. Thailand has a long history of successes in international festivals. Even Singapore has gotten the Golden Camera for ILO ILO in the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.

This is not to say that festival wins are everything but it does say something when your film gets a major award at a top international film festival especially so in the so-called big three of Berlin, Cannes and Venice. The key is winning, not merely nominated although getting nominated is no small feat and is an achievement in itself. But all directors wants a win at at least one of the big three, no matter what their mouth says. I have a caveat here in case people misunderstand me. A film that doesn’t win awards does not mean the film is not good. We all know how this works, so don’t bitch.

Okay, back to some recent films from this region. You may google the titles. Some of the titles below you will be able to watch on Astro A-List channel 456 accompanied by interviews with the director hosted by renown film critic and historian En. Hassan Muthalib.

SWAP (2015) by Remton Zuasola. Philippines. Remton is a very interesting director, not only because of his personality but also his storytelling method. He is known for his one-take technique and has a very strong voice. Watching SWAP is like watching a very well-choreographed stage play. Surely a director to look out for from the Philippines.

JAGAT (2015) by Shanjhey Perumal. Malaysia. As mentioned above, Shanjhey is the most interesting new director coming out of Malaysia right now, in my opinion. This film is a great effort to tell the story of ethnic Indians in Malaysia and is full of visual subtext although the general story is very apparent. I hope he keeps making films consistently.

A COPY OF MY MIND (2015) by Joko Anwar. Indonesia. Joko’s personal philosophy is very well mirrored in this film. Social justice and injustice, of dreams and hope but ultimately what it means to live in a system of corrupt politicians, a capitalist society mostly devoid of morality. This is part of the intended trilogy, the next being A COPY OF MY SOUL. Can’t wait to watch that.

SNAP (2015) by Kongdej Jaturaransamee. Thailand. Kongdej has a commercial touch to his films, or at least his recent films, important stories told in a way that is “commercial” in execution. In this new world of social media, we are not who and what we really are. Our social world and our real world can be really different. In a way, our online life is sort of like Second Life but what is really going on in the real world?

2030 (2014) by Minh Nguyen-Vo. Vietnam. What does it mean to live in a place that is victim to climate change. The human instinct to cling to our land even it is submerged in water. And what does love mean in this situation? Is love as fickle as climate change or is love a universal feeling no matter how the world changes? How to live and die, and love when the world that we know no longer exist.

DREAM LAND (2015) by Steve Chen. Cambodia. We see how Cambodia comes out into the capitalist world. The old world is nowhere to be found and a kingdom so ancient, with Angkor Wat and all is now no more. All you see are new developments, new houses. New condominiums. A relationship is waning and the feelings of the past is not so sure anymore. Everything seems to be in the line of fire. How does one deal with this changing landscape, both externally and also in the heart? A refreshing film.

There are many more films to talk about, such as 7 LETTERS from Singapore, Mouly Surya’s WHAT THEY DON’T TALK ABOUT WHEN THEY TALK ABOUT LOVE, Yosep Anggi’s PECULIAR VACATION AND OTHER ILLNESSES, Apichatpong’s CEMETERY OF SPLENDOUR, Brillante Mendoza’s TAKLUB, MEN WHO SAVE THE WORLD by Liew Seng Tat, THE MISSING PICTURE by Rithy Panh and such.

Actually, South East Asia is a very rich place full of stories and talent. It is an exciting place to be and this is true not just of now but has been an exciting place to be for centuries. Let’s watch some South East Asian films!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Case of Two Mei Niangs

There is Sun Mei Niang in Mo Yan’s novel SANDALWOOD DEATH and there is Wu Mei Niang of the Empress of China fame.

Their similarities are that they both play Go.

No that’s not true. There are no evidence that Sun Mei Niang plays Go although we do see Wu Mei Niang playing Go in the TV drama. Oh man, they play so much Go in that drama I thought it is a Go promoting drama with its beautiful Go sets.

But that is not really what this post is about although whatever that precedes this is a sad attempt to promote Go. But really, Go is a wonderful game.

On the surface, it seems that these two women uses their beauty to get what they want in life. But the reality is that women have a much stronger sense of survival, inner strength and endurance in the face of adversity. This perhaps has its roots in maternal instinct to protect their children but whatever its roots, once this strength is unleashed, its power is enormous.

SANDALWOOD DEATH essentially is a sick novel. It is intended to make you sick. The detailed description of punishments is a treatise on the sickness of the human mind to torture and mutilate their own kind. Imagine preserving the life of the prisoner with top grade ginseng so that you can keep him living longer and you can torture him for the maximum amount of time before he finally dies.

This is nicely wrapped within the background of tail end of the Qing Dynasty and set during the Boxer Uprising. It is at once a few things: a critique of the decay of the Qing Dynasty, a critique of the exploitations of the imperialist plundering nations, a critique of the decay of family life. But it is also a portrait of the capability of human to be compassionate in the face of all these adversities.

Each of the four characters in the book represents one aspect of the society at the time. The Executioner is the representation of old China, those thousands of years of history with all its bureaucracies and corruption as well as the embodiment of culture and class of those olden dynastic times. The pride of China’s past refusing to believe that its time has long past. The Magistrate represents the present times where the people wants change but is powerless and also too weak to do anything at all. In fact it is just hot air and resorts to sex and sensual enjoyment. But there is a flame of goodness in him and will shine when the opportunity comes but himself is too weak to be the leader of the pack.

Mei Niang’s father is a fine opera singer turned revolutionary due to circumstances. The bullied citizen forced into being a Boxer rebel and finally met his terrible fate. But the Boxers themselves are superstitious bunch doomed to failure because unlike the Taiping guys, they lack proper organization and military talents, but more importantly, they are finally betrayed by their own government, which is the key difference between the Taipings and the Boxers. The Taiping’s aim is to overthrow the government. The Boxer’s aim is to drive out the imperialists with the backing of the government but is ultimately betrayed by their own kind.

Mei Niang’s husband is an incapable gentle lamb who knows nothing but has a good heart. He doesn’t even know nor believe his wife is cheating on him and is simple minded. These are the population who doesn’t know that they have been raped and thinks that their government is still protecting them, loyal to them even when the government has royally screwed them. You pity them and yet you feel they deserves it because of their laziness to think.

THE EMPRESS OF CHINA drama starring Fan Bing Bing turns out to be really good. I thought it is going to be a piece of lousy historical drama. What impresses me is how the makers of this drama series paints Wu Mei Niang as a person not as evil as what the world was made to believe. Yes the romance part is over done and all but the presentation of Wu Mei Niang as not that evil bitch is quite refreshing, just like how Cao Cao was portrayed in the series THREE KINGDOMS. Works like these are refreshing and very enjoyable.

The Cambridge History of China, a series many thought is authoritative on Chinese History at least in the English language, mentioned that in actual fact Li Shimin is not really that much into Wu Mei Niang. For instance, historical records shows that the repeated Venus sighting really happened and indeed there was a prediction of the fall of the Tang and Li Shmin actually ordered everyone that the astronomer suspected to be executed but the astronomer declined, saying that this is fated and cannot be avoided.

There are many other things where the producers took liberty to change to suit the drama but the general events are more or less correct, at least according to the official histories. This is where the problem lies.

China has a great tradition of historical records but the problem with them is at least twofold: they are written by the side that won the war and thus painting a negative image of the dynasty that was overthrown and they are written by Men, usually of strong Confucian learning. These two added together is detrimental to the image of Wu Mei Niang. For Confucian scholars, the idea of being ruled by a woman is absolutely absurd and runs against the flow of the universe. Exactly why no one knows. Did Confucius really say that or is it just merely the interpretation of followers, just like in many religions nowadays?

But one thing that needs to be pointed out is that during the reign of Wu Mei Niang, Tang China experienced a period of peace, economic prosperity and also the military was mighty and won wars that even Li Shimin himself failed. Not to mention also the blossoming of Buddhism in China. Yes, in the court things may get messy but this is politics! In politics, one cannot be a lame leader but must exert themselves but ultimately, the test of leadership is whether their subject has had a better life after taking over the leadership and not cheat their citizens of their future.

If Wu Mei Niang is a man, she will be painted favorably just like Li Shimin and gang. If Li Shimin is said to be a great emperor after killing his siblings and his siblings entire family and imprisoning his father, then I don’t see why Wu Mei Niang is seen so much more adversely as an evil devil.

Thus, two Mei Niangs. Both different paths. But both dealing with circumstances largely beyond their control but with inner strength and perseverance, carved their own path using whatever that is within their disposal for survival.

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Il Cinema Paradiso

Who can forget CINEMA PARADISO if one has watched that film even once. How can one even forget the soundtrack? No, one never forgets CINEMA PARADISO. Or at least those suckers like me.

For the same matter, who can forget BICYCLE THIEVES and not get shocked and awaken from cinematic slumber by the neorealist style if one has not been exposed to that before? Who doesn’t hate the ending when they watched it for the first time and wonders if the director has used up all his budget and thus cannot complete the story?

But once the taste of neorealist cinema is acquired, one desires for more. For many people, BICYCLE THIEVES is the introduction to this genre and then once hooked, perhaps then ROME, OPEN CITY which was said to be the first neorealist Italian film based on the short German occupation during WWII. And then if one watches UMBERTO D., who wouldn’t sympathize with the man and his dog?

But Italian films are not just about its neorealist although it is very important and influenced a whole lot of directors from Godard to Fruit Chan to Satyajit Ray to Jia Zhangke, and certainly many of our Malaysian “new wave” filmmakers. However, one of the poster child of Italian films is no other than Fellini himself.

Mention Fellini and some people will shudder and roll their eyes. What self-obsessive cinema is that! But that is only part of the story. Yes, Fellini made LA DOLCE VITA, one of the most iconic films in the history of world cinema but he also made LA STRADA. For me, Fellini’s films are superficially happy and flamboyant but I almost always feel sad after watching his films. Empty and sad.

It is the same feeling after watching THE GREAT BEAUTY. Yes, pomp and music and party and sex but at the end, it is one’s loneliness and emptiness that one has to face and fear. And what is the purpose of your short stop on earth? What is the great beauty that you are striving for, after all?

I do find Italian cinema under appreciated here in Malaysia. In fact, world cinema is under appreciated here in Malaysia. Maybe it is a world problem where people just want simple entertainment. Maybe life is too hard and too busy. But this is false. In fact, through films, I find calmness and consolation on the stuffs life throws at me.

When watching a good film, I find peace. I am finally with myself. And those absurd and silly worldly things, those egos of people and their flawed logic which they somehow want to impose on others because of some powers that they have which came with their position, is temporarily put aside, to be dealt with after I have had my alone time with my films. And then I feel happier, having refreshed my mind and heart with a good and well made film. It is indeed cinema paradiso.

I don’t know, maybe I am too conservative or old-fashioned. But things like a movie like BICYCLE THIEVES, a good fountain pen, a good game of Go and for this matter, the Chopin nocturnes that I am listening to right now while writing this at 3,00am in the morning, are things that I treasure and fear will disappear from the face of this earth, being a victim of the celebration of mediocrity that everyone seems to embrace nowadays.

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New Go Center

Hello everyone.

Just wanted to announce that we are opening a new Go teaching center in Bandar Mahkota Cheras, Kuala Lumpur. This is our third center, the other two being at Puchong and Setapak.

We are all very excited at the development of Go in Malaysia and we are seeing a lot of interest in the game, both from children as well as adults.

This new center is now open as of 1 February 2015 and is now open for registration.

I will be personally teaching a class every Sunday (except holidays) from 12.00pm to 1.30 pm. This is an adult intensive class and will be delivered in English. The objective of this class is to lay a solid foundation to a beginner and train the beginner to achieve a solid mid-kyu ranking, so that he/she can then take the next class to progress to higher levels.

The main theme will really be building a solid foundation and using the new method of teaching by Mr. Yang Yujia from Chinese Taipei, i.e. learning Go by observation. I find this method really refreshing and I feel this is the correct way to teach a beginner.

Other classes, especially tailored for children, is also available.

For more information, please visit our website : http://nworldbmc.weebly.com

Here are some photos from the soft launch on the 1 Feb 2015. 30784153960205-19619747123537717113315144162942779380682738299404227586

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New Year Poem

I started blogging in 2005. Looking back at my blog posts, I used to have a New Year poem posted but it seems the last one I posted was in 2008. That year, I posted a poem by Pablo Neruda whom I love and his TONIGHT I CAN WRITE THE SADDEST LINES stroked me right at the heart. But in 2008, I posted his poem LOVE SONG.

In 2007, I posted an excerpt from Wislawa Szymborska’s OUR ANCESTORS’ SHORT LIVES and the line “Life, however long, will always be short…” hits my G Spot. In 2006, again, it was a poem by Szymborska titled LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT.

This year, maybe I will post one by one of my all time favorite authors, Rabindranath Tagore. This poem is from Gitanjali entitled GIVE ME STRENGTH. This poem is very inspiring.

*******

GIVE ME STRENGTH

This is my prayer to thee, my lord—strike,
strike at the root of penury in my heart.

Give me the strength lightly to bear my joys and sorrows.

Give me the strength to make my love fruitful in service.

Give me the strength never to disown the poor or bend my knees before insolent might.

Give me the strength to raise my mind high above daily trifles.

And give me the strength to surrender my strength to thy will with love.

*******

In this new year of 2015 and in the light of the events of 2014 both personal and national, these lines give comfort and in daily struggles, always strive for strength to raise one’s mind high above daily trifles and always stay focused on the bigger picture.

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