Sunday, December 04, 2005

About Movies

Ming-liang Tsai, the Malaysian director (b.1957), has directed 13 films. These include All Corners of the World, The Last Dance, My New Friends and Fish Underground (A Conversation with God). He has been awarded honours and prizes at the Asia-Pacific Film Festival, the Berlin Film Festival, Cannes, Chicago, Edinburgh and many others. His second feature film, Vive l'Amour (1994), won the Golden Lion (best picture) at the 1994 Venice Film Festival.

We watched his 2003 film Good Bye Dragon Inn (Bu San) last night. The basic story line is simple. A Japanese tourist takes refuge from a rainstorm inside a once-popular movie theatre, a decrepit old barn of a cinema that is screening a martial arts classic, King Hu's 1966 "Dragon Inn." Even with the rain bucketing down outside, it doesn't pull much of an audience -- and some of those who have turned up are less interested in the movie than in the possibility of meeting a stranger in the dark.

It was dreadful. Dull, boring, snoreiffic! Probably the worst film I have ever seen, and I have seen a lot. When it was shown at the London Film Festival, from a packed theatre only a handful of people remained after the painful 82 minutes were over. Nothing happens in this film – it makes Seinfeld and The Royle Family (TV sitcoms about nothing) look like action movies.

Some people love this movie – one reviewer said “What can be said about Ming-liang Tsai's "Goodbye, Dragon Inn" ? “Brilliant", "Genuine", "Honest", "Heartbreaking" are some of the adjectives that come to mind”. Well, she needs to get out more. My list of adjectives cant be printed on a blog for fear of being sent to the “.xxx” domain.

Despite being dreadful, dull, painful it won the Gold Plaque at the Chicago Film Festival, the Golden Horse at the Golden Horse Film Award, the Special Jury Prize at the Hawaiian Film Festival and two prizes at the Nantes Film Festival. Perhaps the idea was that if we give the director enough prizes he will retire and not make any more excruciating movies!

No such luck. Since 2003 he has made Welcome to Sao Paulo (2004) and The Wayward Cloud (2005). Films I shall be careful to steer away from.

Contrast this awful movie with a documentary, Mad Hot Ballroom (2005) about New York Grade 5 students (aged between 10 and 12) who have to learn ballroom dancing and some then enter competitions for the City’s best student ballroom dancers. The kids are enticing and dynamic, the storyline full of ironies and skilled observation and the competition itself compelling. The film brings back to us what it was like to be a kid (and maybe wonder which of those we see here that we would have been most like?), the whole process of learning, of growing up, of the transition of thoughts and expectations kids have about what lies beyond puberty, the relation between caring adults (teachers – parents are noticeably absent) and children, the emotions teachers have about the ones they lose and the ones they win, and about competing.

It is an excellent, compelling movie in the tradition of Spellbound (2002). Directed by Marilyn Agrelo (her first film as a director), working with her collaborator, Amy Sewell, and filmed in such a way that enabled the kids to largely ignore the camera. They captured the kids as they bounce back-and-forth from juvenile to young adult and back to juvenile in a matter of seconds. You feel you are the observer and not the camera. The movie simply looks honest and truthful.

Mad Hot Ballroom won the audience prize at the Philadelphia Film Festival, the best documentary prize at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival and has been nominated for a Gotham. It was also awarded the Truly Moving Picture Award at the Heartland Film Festival. Heartland created the Truly Moving Picture Award in 2000 as a way to honour theatrically-released films that inspire and enrich lives – they picked a true winner here.

The current top 10 US movies are: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (I’ll wait for it on TV), Walk the Line (story of Johnny Cash, so I’ll give this a miss), Yours, Mine and Ours (the Dennis Quaid, Rene Russo comedy – also a miss for me), Chicken Little (animation with an interesting voice cast, including Patrick Stewart but not enough to get me interested), Rent (the film version of the Pulitzer and Tony Award winning musical about Bohemians in the East Village of New York City struggling with life, love and AIDS, and the impacts they have on America), Just Friends (an avoidable romantic comedy), Pride and Prejudice (which will be worth seeing just for Donald Sutherland’s performance), Derailed (the Clive Owen / Jennifer Aniston movie which is a real drama and probably worth seeing), In the Mix (the less said the better) and The Ice Harvest (John Cusak, Billy Bob Thornton and others in a richly textured movie, worth seeing). So that’s four out of ten for me.

I want to see three specific movies as soon as they are out on DVD: Good Night and Good Luck (the George Clooney written and directed movie about Ed Morrow, the broadcaster), Syriana (starring George Clooney and Matt Damon in a piece about oil, politics, power and passion) and Memoirs of a Geisha (from the book of the same name, which is wonderfully written, this films trailers suggest it is stunning and initial reviews are all outstanding).

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