Day two. Why can't every morning for the rest of my life begin with a Johnnie To movie?
To's films appear in San Francisco with a sort-of regularity; Full Time Killer, Breaking News, and the inimitable The Mission have all hit local screens in recent years. A semi-sequel to The Mission, Exiled is probably my new favorite To film. With homages to Scorsese and, especially, Leone (a gold heist, a lone harmonica player, pistols used to play keep-away...and Anthony Wong's outfit is dead-on Lee Van Cleef), Exiled follows a quartet of gangsters who're charged with killing an ex-comrade who's left the triad behind, or so he'd hoped. Of course, nobody sees anything wrong with letting the guy make one last score, so at least he can leave some cash behind for his wife and baby. Nobody, except several sneering crime bosses (including Simon Yam, who goes literally balls-to-the-wall at one point), who aren't above double-crossing each other if the price is right. It's dark, it's funny, and boy, is it loud. The gun-fu in this movie is fucking spectacular.
Tsai Ming-liang -- whose watermelon-y 2005 film The Wayward Cloud graced the cover of the Guardian's 2006 San Francisco International Film Festival issue -- continues on the things-that-make-you-go-hmm tip with I Don't Want to Sleep Alone. That title is pretty much more words than any of the film's characters speak; the Toronto program guide calls Tsai the "master of absurd minimalism," which works for me. Every shot is artfully composed, which is a good thing, considering the director favors long takes and static camerawork. Is there anyone else who can alchemize pervasive ickiness into such striking beauty? Sleep is set in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where a filthy mattress brings together a homeless man (Tsai muse Lee Kang-shen, who also appears as a completely paralyzed hospital patient) with three other random citydwellers. Cough-inducing smoke is inhaled. Fiber optic lights appear at odd moments. Brightly-colored beverages are sipped through straws from plastic bags. Radio news and music videos blare in the background. A rhythm of ordinaryness emerges. Alas, no dance routine with umbrellas this time.
By contrast, theatricality plays a big role in Hana, from After Life and Nobody Knows director Hirokazu Kore-eda. The film owes a debt to Kurosawa (samurai!) and Shakespeare (the play's the thing!) and maybe a little dab of The Princess Bride too. "Lucky you, your father left you a score to settle," a neighbor tells Soza (dreamy Junichi Okada), an 18th century samurai who arrives in a run-down Edo 'hood determined to avenge his father's death (a noted warrior, the man died during a dispute over, uh, a board game). Complicating matters, Soza's a pitiful swordsman -- plus, he's grown close with a local widow and her young son. The guy who killed Pops (a fairly unrecognizable Tadanobu Asano) turns out to be a likable fellow. There's the local "revenge play" -- held every spring under the cherry blossoms -- to prepare for. Also, there happens to be yet another revenge plot afoot, thanks to some other samurai who've coincidentally been hiding out and biding their time next door. The sweet and lowdown Hana is nowhere near as gobsmacking as 2004's Nobody Knows, but Kore-eda is clearly carving out a career worthy of all the attention it's getting.
I'm finishing up the blog early today because I'm hitting The U.S. vs. John Lennon, a doc about how the singer's anti-war activism made him the subject of FBI investigation, later tonight. Tomorrow morning, I can answer the question that opened this entry: because some days, ya gotta go Bollywood. Three hours of song, melodrama, and Shah Rukh Khan-gazing awaits!