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Chinese & Japanese Film-a-Palooza

By Peter Wong

World film lovers living in the San Francisco Bay Area have the advantage of having expanded film-going opportunities.  Such film lovers need not settle for seeing new Asian films on just a few, sporadic multiplex screens. Depending on the time of year, a Bay Area film festival can bring at least half a dozen new films from Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, and other Asian countries at once!  Thanks to the film scheduling stars lining up, this weekend and the following two weeks offer opportunities in both San Francisco and Berkeley to catch new films from Hong Kong and Japan as well as a small series of Chinese cinema classics.

Hong Kong Cinema

The Brink

Kicking things off from September 28-30, 2018 is the 8th annual series of new Hong Kong Cinema.  Presenting organization SFFILM also puts on the annual San Francisco International Film Festival.  Previous editions of this series have screened films by such Hong Kong cinema masters as Stanley Kwan, Ann Hui, and Johnnie To.

This year’s edition at the Vogue Theater (3290 Sacramento) in S.F. features seven films, including four first features.  The films’ subjects run the gamut from dramas about living with the developmentally disabled to a rock biopic to a contemporary crime drama.  For those with limited time and/or money, they may want to try the following offerings:

In Jonathan Li’s contemporary crime thriller “The Brink,” Cheng Sai Gu happens to be the Hong Kong police force’s worst (if effective) cop.  Internal Affairs understandably wants to nail Cheng. But while fending that department off, Cheng’s trying to shut down a fishing operation that’s actually a front for an international gold smuggling ring.  Among Cheng’s obstacles is a woman specializing in crafting explosive booby traps. But the biggest challenge will be the final throwdown in the midst of a raging typhoon. (Screens at 7:00 PM on September 30, 2018)

In “I’ve Got The Blues,” director Angie Chan hopes to create a  documentary that will call attention to her multi-talented friend, the artist/musician (among other hats) Yank Wong.  The only trouble is, Wong doesn’t seem particularly interested in fame or fortune while Chan is stubbornly determined to create a film that shows what makes her Renaissance man friend tick.  The push and pull between Chan and Wong will make you wonder if there’s footage of Chan punching out Wong on the cutting room floor. But whether Wong plays with seeing what happens when a GoPro is attached to an umbrella or is just doing a music jam with friends, Chan’s subject is clearly an entertaining enigma. (Screens at 2:00 PM on September 29, 2018)

Another director named Chan directs the far different film “House of the Rising Sons.”   Antony Chan’s rock biopic shows how a group of friends eventually became the popular late 1970s Cantopop band The Wynners.  The director draws from personal experience in telling this tale, as he used to be The Wynners’ drummer. But what partly makes the film an entertaining ride is wondering just how many of the events depicted in Chan’s film actually happened.  Did one member of The Wynners really shave himself bald to protest a dictatorial teacher? Did the future Wynners really do a musical faceoff with a guitarist who nonchalantly tossed a woman’s high heeled shoe into their soup? Did they really meet a future band member thanks to a coffin crashing through their performance space ceiling?  “House of the Rising Sons” also distinguishes itself by de-emphasizing the “who will make it to the top and who won’t” dynamic of other rock biopics. Here, the film’s ultimate tension comes from wondering whether stardom for some Wynners members will come at the expense of abandoning old friendships. (Screens 6:30 PM on September 29, 2018.)

Japan Film Festival Of San Francisco

Japan Film Festival Of San Francisco

As the name indicates, this film festival is dedicated to showing new Japanese films of all stripes.  Previous editions have shown everything from the anime classic “Your Name” to “Uzumasa Limelight,” the story of a now unemployed kirare-yaku (a film extra who specializes in getting killed by a samurai sword) having to figure out next steps.

The 6th edition of this festival, presented by SUPERFROG Project, also starts up on September 28, 2018.  But it runs until October 7, 2018. The festival venue is the New People Cinema (1746 Post), a small theater located in the basement of the New People building.

Filmgoers attending this year’s festival can see dramas, horror, anime feature films, and even a couple of concert films.  Viewers will even get a second chance to see films that had brief theatrical runs earlier in the year, such as the Kiyoshi Kurosawa theatrical adaptation “Before We Vanish.”  “Ramen Heads” had a slightly longer theatrical run, but seeing the film in Japantown means hungry viewers can afterwards look for a restaurant that will satisfy their sudden craving for ramen.

Given that the 6th Japan Film Festival features twenty-one programs, here are some suggestions for the time-sensitive:

If you can only see one film, make it Shinichirou Ueda’s Japanese box office sensation “One Cut of the Dead.”  A low budget zombie tale is being filmed in an old water purification plant. Local legend has it the plant used to house weird human medical experiments.  But an actual zombie attack shows the story is more than just legend. This development turns out to be the first of several head fakes in the film. Where it all ends up will surprise you. (Screens at 5:45 PM on October 6, 2018)

“Namie Amuro Final Tour 2018 – Finally – At Tokyo Dome (Final Performance)” is the culmination of the legendary Queen of J-POP’s final tour before she retires from performing.   As a gift to her fans, the setlist for this celebratory performance consisted of 24 songs voted on by fans plus 6 new songs. The performance itself is in Japanese without English subtitles.  Rather than being put off, non-Japanese speaking viewers are advised to put on their O.G. anime fan hat and enjoy the melodies, Amuro’s vocal performances, and the sheer spectacle. (Screens 7 PM on September 29, 2018)

“Cinema Kabuki: The Tale Of Bunshichi” delivers a kabuki tightrope act.  Kabuki legend Kanzaburo Nakamura XVIII teams once again with director Yoji Yamada to bring a popular but difficult kabuki play to big screen life for modern audiences.  Plasterer Chobei’s gambling addiction pushes his family into poverty and his daughter Ohisa into prostitution. Ohisa’s Madame is touched by her selflessness to arrange a loan to pay Chobei’s debts.  But has the plasterer permanently ruined his family by giving the loaned money to a young man who lost his master’s money? (Screens at 4:50 PM on September 29, 2018)

Triptych animated film “Flavors Of Youth” comes from CoMix Wave Films, the studio behind “Your Name.”  It looks at Chinese city life through three separate tales. In “The Rice Noodles,” memories of eating rice noodles help Xiaolong remember key moments and relationships from his youth.  Star model Yi Lin in “A Little Fashion Show” tries to regain passion for her work as a younger model starts stealing the spotlight. Finally, the desire to listen to a forgotten cassette tape causes recent graduate Li Mo to return to his childhood home in “Love In Shanghai.”  There, he faces the regrets of his youth. The film as a whole celebrates the sensual memories that make life worth living. (Screens 2: 45 PM on October 7, 2018)

The documentary “A Tale Of Love And Honor: Life In Gion” takes viewers to Kyoto’s historic Gion district.  Every night in Gion, nearly 100 geiko (traditional entertainers) perform music, dance, and other classical arts in selected teahouses.  Kimi Ota runs one such teahouse, which has been run solely by women for 200 years. But at 77, Ota needs a daughter to eventually take over teahouse operations…yet she cannot marry.   (Screens at 3:30 PM on September 29, 2018)

Chinese Cinema Classics: Screen Idols And Stardom Re-examined

The smallest of the film series mentioned here runs October 5-14, 2018 at the Berkeley Pacific Film Archive (2155 Center Street, Berkeley).  Only five films are being screened in “Chinese Cinema Classics: Screen Idols And Stardom Re-examined,” held in connection with the publication of Paul Fonoroff’s new book Chinese Movie Magazines 1921-1951.  Three of the films deserve particular notice.

“Still from “The Goddess” Courtesy BAMPFA

Make time to catch the two films starring the great Chinese silent film actress Ruan Lingyu.  In “The Goddess,” Ruan is a nameless poor woman forced into prostitution to keep her son clothed and fed.  Her continual efforts to keep her son out of the social gutter she’s trapped in gets undermined by societal ostracism. (Screens at 7 PM on October 5, 2018)

“New Women” is the morbidly fascinating of the two.  Its real-life inspiration was the suicide of actress Ai Xia.  Ruan plays Wei Ming, a music teacher and aspiring writer living in 1920s Shanghai.  But institutionalized sexism sabotages Wei’s efforts to establish her personal independence.  Gossip and societal pressure pushes Wei to commit suicide. Ruan would also kill herself a few months after this film’s release.  (Screens at 4 PM on October 7, 2018)

Finally, make time for the Chinese cinema classic “The Spring River Flows East.”  In 1930s Shanghai, factory workers Su Fen (Bai Yang) and Zhang Zhongliang meet and get married.  When the invading Japanese Army approaches Shanghai, Zhongliang manages to flee to Chongqing but loses touch with the family he left behind.  While Su Fen slips deeper into poverty over the next eight years, Zhongliang prospers in his new life and marries into money. Fate allows Su Fen and Zhongliang to meet again, but the reunion will obviously not be a happy one.  (Screens at 7 PM on October 11, 2018)

Here’s hoping that readers who take in all three film series will check out more films from the Asian regions.

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