Category: Comedies

Salute! Sun Yat-Sen (Taiwan 2014)

The four boys with Lefty second from left.

The four boys with Lefty (Zhan Huai-Yun) second from left.

On the surface this is a gentle comedy about young teenage boys in downtown Taipei. It is slow-paced, observational and sometimes very funny. ‘Lefty’ is a gangling schoolboy and the leader of a ‘gang of four’, each of whom is struggling to find the money to pay their school fees. One day he notices a bronze figure in a school store-room, a full-size statue of Sun Yat-Sen, the leader of the Chinese Revolution of 1911. Lefty quickly works out that he could sell the statue and make enough to fund all four boys through school. He plans the ‘heist’ in meticulous detail and the gang is all set – only to discover that someone else in the school leading another group has exactly the same intention. Despite attempts to negotiate a truce, the two gangs eventually compete to steal the statue in a long and engaging set piece. If this was just a heist narrative it would offer standard genre entertainment. But I think there is more to it than that. This isn’t so surprising since the writer-director is Yee Chih-yen whose 2002 film Blue Gate Crossing was both a critical and commercial success.

Throughout the narrative there is a focus on the relative poverty of the boys in the gangs. At one point Lefty and his opposite number (who refuses to give his name until the final reel) compete to show that they are the poorest and therefore the ones who should be allowed to steal the statue. Later, all of the boys claim they are poor because there is a long history of unemployment in their families. This is one aspect of the social commentary of the film. Sun Yat-Sen is known as ‘the father of the state’ in Taiwan and still has a profile as a leader who prepared for the ‘people’s revolution’ in the PRC. The two groups of boys struggle to take the prize for themselves even though by joining forces they would stand a much better chance of success (the statue is actually very heavy and difficult to move). Is it too much of a leap to suggest that this is might be a commentary on the history of ‘two Chinas’ since 1949? When they fight each other they achieve little, but together they could complete the task effectively.

The thieves' disguise . . .

The thieves’ disguise . . .

I enjoyed the film and found Lefty to be an engaging character as played by Zhan Huai-Yun. I was also impressed by Chen Pa-tu’s cinematography, especially the lighting of night-time streets. Why is it that in East Asian films generally, night-time streets seem so much less threatening than in the West?

The original Minnie Mouse

The original Minnie Mouse

The idea of thieves hiding behind joke-shop masks is not new but the ones in this film seem original. They are the cheapest in the store and they make the skin itchy. They appear to be modelled on an anime character – I thought of a Japanese ‘Minnie Mouse’, which seems somehow appropriate. The Japanese influence on Taiwanese school culture is also evident in what looks like a Kendo martial arts school glimpsed in the opening scenes.

Salute! Sun Yat-Sen is one of the films scheduled for VOD and DVD release by a new UK distributor, Facet Film Distribution. The release date is July 27th and the DVD can be pre-ordered from Amazon. The two founders of the company, Victor Huang and Edison Cheng are Londoners with a passion for East Asian films and their website and Facebook pages are useful resources for news and ideas about East Asian cinema. I wonder what chance they have of success. Taiwanese films in the UK have been mostly limited to the arthouse successes of  Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Tsai Ming-Liang (and earlier Edward Yang) and even these have often struggled to get UK distribution. Ang Lee’s early Taiwanese films did manage to get some form of release but it has been a real struggle for contemporary popular films. I’ve very much enjoyed the two I’ve been able to see – You Are the Apple of My Eye (Taiwan 2011) and Cape No. 7 (Taiwan 2008). I’m certainly going to look out for new releases from Facet.

Here’s the trailer for Salute: Sun Yat-Sen: 

¡Viva! Mexico #3: Paraíso (Paradise, Mexico 2014)

Carmen and Alfredo plant their tree in a local park when they leave home for the big city.

Carmen and Alfredo plant their tree in a local park when they leave home for the big city.

When I first began to write about this film I thought it would be straightforward to describe it as a mainstream ‘feelgood film’ – a romantic drama with comedy and a universal narrative. However, when I started to read a few of the other commentaries on the film and to reflect on what we learned about Mexican cinema during the ¡Viva! Weekender, I realised that there was more to it than that. The Mexican audience is growing but in the main Mexicans still watch Hollywood films over their own domestic releases. I tend not to watch Hollywood mainstream comedies, so a film like Paraíso perhaps seems less unfamiliar to me than it might to the Mexican audience. I’m referring to the concept of a very large woman as the central character of the film. Her weight is an important element of the narrative but, apart from one short sequence, the film does not ask us to laugh at her because of her weight. Instead, the weight issue is just part of who she is and how she deals with the real issue of maintaining her relationship with the man she loves and feeling good about what she does with her life. (I have seen one Hollywood film recently, Spy, in which the talented Melissa McCarthy is a large woman who triumphantly rules the narrative but that is unusual in contemporary Hollywood, I think.)

Out of place at the bank's annual dinner?

Out of place at the bank’s annual dinner?

In Paraíso, Carmen and Alfredo are a loving couple, happily together in their ‘dormitory town’ in the outer suburban area of Mexico City. When Alfredo gets a promotion in his banking career they must move into the city. From day one, Carmen doesn’t really like big city life. Part of her problem is that she now has time on her hands after being an integral part of her family’s tax and legal advice business. The crunch comes when at their first bank function when Carmen overhears two of the well-dressed and ‘toned’ bank employees describing her and Alfredo as overweight country bumpkins. Carmen stumbles into a weight-watchers operation and the couple start diets. The outcome is fairly predictable – one of them loses most of their excess weight and the other doesn’t. It’s a recipe for marital disaster.

Carmen is an intelligent and seemingly confident young woman. The comedy is gentle and mostly comes from the quirks of social interaction rather than staged pratfalls or comic dialogue. One of the few ‘mistakes’ is a brief montage of Carmen trying to adopt yoga stances with predictable results. The film feels like a romantic comedy partly because the narrative resolution is to some extent dependent on a rather formulaic cookery competition that is handled very sketchily, as if even the writer didn’t really think it made much sense. Most of the time, however, the writing benefits from careful social observation. It’s perhaps not surprising that the script is by two women, Julieta Arévalo having written the original story that is adapted by the director Mariana Chenillo. Carmen is played by Daniela Rincón and she doesn’t appear to have other credits on IMDB. If she is indeed a new screen talent this is an impressive first screen performance. Alfredo is played by the more experienced Andrés Almeida. His is quite a difficult role underplaying Alfredo who behaves sensitively towards Carmen and things go wrong that aren’t his fault. Overall this is a story about two people in love who have to go through a difficult period in order to appreciate how good they are together. I hope that it gets widely seen on DVD in Mexico and that seeing it will encourage more Mexican filmmakers to look for local stories. I realise now that it’s a film that relates to the session on ‘Latin American Cities‘ (and the alienation they can generate) delivered in the first ¡Viva! Weekender earlier this year. I’m also reminded of another film from a few years ago, Real Women Have Curves (US 2002) a Hispanic-American film which similarly struggled for a cinema release (but which eventually made $5 million). That film’s lead, America Ferrera, went on to achieve fame as ‘Ugly Betty’. I hope Daniela Rincón goes on to achieve something similar.

¡Viva! Mexico #2: En el último trago (One for the Road, Mexico 2014)

The three friends first take a taxi (from left, Benito, Emiliano and Augustin)

The three friends first take a taxi (from left, Benito, Emiliano and Augustin)

I knew this film was going to work from the first few minutes of the opening scene. Four men in their late 70s or older are sat round a table in a café-bar playing dominoes and squabbling. Suddenly one orders 5 shots of tequila. Consternation amongst the other three since none of them drink any more. The drinker explains that they are all for him and that he is ‘out’ – he has colon cancer and he hasn’t got long. He then makes the other three promise that they will deliver his most prized possession to its final resting place when he is gone. This object is a paper napkin on which are written the lyrics to a new song by the famous singer José Alfredo Jiménez. The lyrics are dedicated to the dying man and signed by the singer. This is indeed a historical document that is dated and in the handwriting of the star. The three survivors are charged with taking this sacred object to the museum in Dolores Hidalgo where the singer is buried – a trip of over 250 kilometres from Mexico City. That doesn’t sound very far, but these are old men with very little money.

The ‘three amigos’ are great performers, each very different, and I knew I would enjoy their company. The film was briefly introduced by Yossy Zagha Kababie, co-writer and producer (and brother of the director) who featured in a Q&A after the screening. He confirmed that all four of the old men are experienced performers from TV, theatre and film – some primarily working in comedy sketches or telenovelas but others as character actors. One of them, José Carlos Ruiz (Emiliano) has appeared in Hollywood films including Peckinpah’s Major Dundee (1965). Luis Bayardo (Augustin) reminded me at times of Stan Laurel with a quizzical expression and a general air of innocence.

Augustin and Emiliano meet a village 'witch' on the journey.

Augustin and Emiliano meet a village ‘witch’ on the journey.

The plot develops a road movie with a clever script that finds numerous ways of delaying the trio on their journey so that it takes several days for just one of them to reach Dolores Hidalgo and deliver the napkin. (UK readers will possibly remember a similar trip in Last Orders, UK 2001, a Fred Schepisi film based on a Graham Swift novel.) Each of the three men who start the trip has a family issue to deal with. One is a widower being forced into a nursing home by his daughter-in-law, one has a wife with dementia and one is constantly finding the ghost of his dead wife popping up and criticising him. These are universal problems for men of a certain age but the appearance of the ghost also refers us to the ways in which the film tries to connect with Mexican culture and the nostalgia for the trio in thinking about the Mexico of their youth. One of the men ‘sees’ a white horse on a couple of occasions – a reference (Yossy told us) to one of  the 1,000 songs written by Jiminéz. The men also meet a ‘witch’ and survive a dangerous premonition that involves another ghost. As one of the audience questions highlighted, the role of women in the film is quite interesting in this film about four men – the women have quite small parts but they are often characters with real ‘agency’ – assertive, organised and ‘active’. Yossy agreed that the script had tried hard to achieve this.

Yossy Zagha Kababie responds to a question from Andy Willis

Yossy Zagha Kababie responds to a question from Andy Willis

This is a genuinely funny film with laughs aplenty but also a social commentary and a moving drama. It’s a major achievement. In answering questions during a lively Q&A conducted by Andy Willis, Yossy Zagha Kababie made many revealing statements. He explained that there is a big growth in film production in Mexico, but small films (this cost just US$1.5 million) find it difficult to get screened in Mexico despite the box office boom in admissions (Mexico now rates as the fifth biggest film market in cinema admissions). Most cinemas screen American films and the 100,000 admissions for this film is a sign of success in a difficult market. He argued that as a producer with his brother they aimed to make films about Mexican culture that weren’t about drugs gangs. Comedy is popular in Mexico but mainly ‘simple’ comedy and not the character stuff as in this film. Comedy is also a harder sell to international film festival programmers. So, it’s difficult but worthwhile work that the filmmakers enjoy. The focus on music and the town of Dolores Hidalgo – one of Mexico’s official ‘Magic Towns’ with a historical role in the struggle for Independence – is part of this ‘reclaiming of Mexican culture’. I think any festival would benefit from including this film and I just wish a distribution deal was possible in Europe – it seems that a Mexican comedy like this doesn’t even travel to other Spanish language markets elsewhere in Latin America, but the Hispanic market in the US may be a taker of both DVD and TV rights? If you stumble across this film, take the plunge and you’ll have a great time.

Piku (India 2015, Hindi)

Deepika Padukone as Piku

Deepika Padukone as Piku

Piku is one of the best releases this year in the UK. I laughed, fell in love, reflected on the faded grandeur of Calcutta and admired the writing, direction and central performances. The music by Anupam Roy wasn’t bad either.

The eponymous character is an attractive young woman (played by Deepika Padukone), a singleton of around 30 working in Delhi as a partner in an architectural design company. Her busy life is complicated by the demands placed on her by her 70 year-old widowed father, a hypochondriac constantly complaining about his constipation. When he demands a trip to Kolkota to visit the house he still owns (and where his brother still lives) Piku discovers that her reputation as an angry passenger has alienated all the taxi drivers in a local company. Father decides they must be driven to Kolkota (1500 miles away), so the taxi company boss (who has his own reasons for leaving Delhi) has to take the job himself. Since father is played by Amitabh Bachchan and the taxi boss by Irrfan Khan we are guaranteed an entertaining ride.

Irrfan Khan and Amitabh Bachchan discuss diet and bowel movements.

Irrfan Khan and Amitabh Bachchan discuss diet and bowel movements.

At this point I should point you to Omar Ahmed’s posting on the film. I’m indebted to Omar for several insights into how the film works. I’ll try not to repeat things he says and offer instead some extra points. I first came across the director-writer partnership of Shoojit Sircar and Juhi Chaturvedi when I watched and very much enjoyed Vicky Donor (India 2012). That film dealt with the social issue of sperm donation and the idea of ‘designer families’ and the impact on the sperm donor. It too employed comedy and featured a Bengali family brought to Delhi (Sircar is a Bengali). The effectiveness of that film derived from the acute observation of people in potentially embarrassing situations in which they are allowed to react naturally. This is a form of social comedy approached with genuine humanism and in Piku Sircar and Chaturvedi utilise the family melodrama and the road movie in constructing their comedy narrative. In doing so they create a narrative about a ‘real’ (upper) middle-class Indian family. ‘Real’ in contrast to the ways most families are depicted in mainstream Hindi cinema.

The film could be universal except for the one aspect of Indian middle-class culture that remains beyond my understanding. There is a fourth character in the car – a servant who acts as something like the old man’s ‘batman’. He rarely speaks and is largely ignored by the other three characters, except when he is needed. The careful attention to detail in the script is illustrated by a scene in which at the beginning of the car journey the servant climbs into the front passenger seat next to the driver. The driver refuses to move and apart from a few glances in the rear view mirror, nothing is said until Piku changes places with the servant. Rana, Irrfan Khan’s character is an educated man, a civil engineer who worked in Saudi Arabia before taking over the family business. He needs to assert his social status – important to him as he must grapple with Amitabh’s Bengali patriarch Bhaskor Banerjee. Later we learn that Rana has a Bengali family name (Chowdhury) even if he comes from Uttar Pradesh. This makes him at once potentially acceptable, but also inferior to Bhaskor. These nuances, as Omar suggests on his blog, point us towards the kinds of narratives explored by Satyajit Ray. Piku is a familiar Ray woman – introduced in the opening sequence by a full length poster of Ray. Later she dismisses a potential suitor because he does not appreciate Ray’s films.

Piku has been a big hit in India – and in South Asian diaspora communities overseas. The reviews still reveal a significant portion of detractors – many perhaps angry that there seems so little in the way of ‘plot’ and excitement with three major stars. The music is all used to support the narrative without disrupting it – there are no romance set pieces or choreographed dances etc. Only a bicycle ride through traditional Calcutta (reminding me of Ray’s Mahanagar at times) breaks away from norm. The pleasures in the film come from the script and the performances. In the UK a specialised film distributor was able to make a considerable killing with the ‘Indian Independent’ film The Lunchbox (India 2013) starring Irrfan Khan. Piku has been a success for Yash Raj in the UK (two Top 15 appearances in its first two weeks) but it won’t have been seen by the same audiences that enjoyed The Lunchbox. How to put these two audiences together is an intriguing question – but I wonder if either the Indian or UK distributors really want to try?

It’s somehow indicative of the lack of interest shown by Indian distributors towards audiences outside India and its diasporas that there are no subtitles on the trailers for most new releases (even though the films themselves are subtitled). This trailer over-emphasises the romance elements and the relationship between Piku and Rana is developed in understated and subtle ways.