Black Comedy

Fantasia 2017 Review: Have A Nice Day

A stupid guy steals one million yuan from his boss in the Chinese animated neo-noir Have a Nice Day.

Have A Nice Day (Hao Ji Le) is a very clever, animated neo-noir film from China. I don’t remember seeing such a thing before. You?

The character Xiao Zhang, on the other hand, is not clever at all. In fact, he’s dumber than the proverbial sack of hammers. As a fan of movies like The Godfather, he ought to know that stealing from your sadistic, criminal boss, is a very bad idea. Mistake No. 2 was taking the bag full of money (100 million yuan = $187,090.52 Canadian) from a fellow employee at knifepoint, so there’s no mystery about who the culprit is.

Maybe he could have gotten away with this for a short time, but the idiot doesn’t even leave town! And he isn’t any good at covering his physical tracks, nor his digital ones.

The crime boss, Uncle Liu, sends his henchman Skinny, who is also a butcher (gulp!) after Xiao Zhang. Of course, once other people hear about the stolen money, they go looking for him, too. He draws attention to himself by using a large bill to pay for a cheap meal. His rudeness towards a guy at an Internet cafe leads the man’s friends to beat up Xiao Zhang and take the bag.

That bag passes through many hands, rooms and vehicles in the course of Have A Nice Day.

This is Uncle Liu, the baddest bad guy in Chinese animated film Have a Nice Day. Would you mess with this man?

BTW: There’s no question that Uncle Liu is sadistic – early on we see that he’s holding a hostage – a half-naked, bruised and bloodied man who’s tied to a chair. When Uncle Liu tells an embarrassing anecdote about him we realize that they’ve known each other since childhood, though we never do find out exactly why the man is tied to a chair.

In old U.S. films, a guy might do a stupid or dangerous thing (robbery, kidnapping or a boxing match) because a sick mother, brother or sister needs surgery to prevent blindness, replace a failing kidney, etc. But Xiao Zhang has stolen the money because his his fiancée’s plastic surgery did not go well. He wants to take her to South Korea to get the job done right. He must make her happy, so they can marry, have children and make his mother happy. Filial piety is still a thing!

These are just two of the many people chasing after stolen money in the Chinese neo-noir animation Have a Nice Day.

Philosophical remarks about the different levels of freedom, and an animated music video that mocks the iconography of Chairman Mao’s era are among the many things that make Have A Nice Day entertaining. We are so very far from that era now. People dye their hair all sorts of colours, including blue; they wear U.S. T-shirts; they have U.S. film posters on their walls, they struggle to send their children to university in the U.S. or U.K., they talk about Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Brexit. We even hear a few words from Donald Trump on the radio! Some practice Christianity, while others just wear crosses as a fashion statement. I didn’t see anyone riding a bicycle, either!

The Chinese animated film Have a Nice Day contains a music video mocking the iconography from the era of Chairman Mao.

Director Liu Jian also wrote the film and his name appears in several other places in the credits, too. Seems like a multi-talented guy! And I wonder if he jokingly named the villainous crime boss after himself?

Have A Nice Day was shown in competition at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year. Variety says that Strand Releasing has bought the distribution rights for the U.S. and the company plans to show the film there in the fall.  Memento Films International has sold distribution rights for Have A Nice Day in the U.K., Spain, Benelux, Switzerland, Greece, Turkey and Eastern Europe.

If you get a chance to see Have A Nice Day you really, really should! (Did I mention that the music is great, too? It includes tunes from the Shanghai Restoration Project.)

Meanwhile, lucky Montrealers can see it on Wednesday, July 19, at 3:15 p.m., in Salle J.A. De Sève of Concordia University, 1400 de Maisonneuve Blvd. W., as part of the Fantasia International Film Festival.

Have A Nice Day, China, 2017, 77 minutes long
In Mandarin with English subtitles
Directed by: Liu Jian
Written by: Liu Jian
Voice cast: Zhu Changlong, Yang Siming, Ma Xiaofeng, Zheng Yi, Cao Kai
Company: Memento Films International

Visit the Fantasia web site for more information.

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Fantasia 2017 Review: Free and Easy

The Chinese film Free and Easy has two screenings at the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal. The film won the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Cinematic Vision at the Sundance Film Festival.

Free and Easy is low-key, black comedy that takes place in an unnamed Chinese town in winter. Many of the town’s buildings have fallen down, while others are in an advanced state of disrepair.

There’s some symmetry in Free and Easy: two con men, two policemen, two guys pasting posters on walls. Eventually we see a con woman, too, and a third person pasting posters.

One con man asks people to smell the soap he’s selling. Something in it quickly renders them unconscious. He takes their money, phones and watches while they’re knocked out. Pretty easy as far as it goes, but the pickings can’t be great in such a rundown place. There aren’t many people out and about, either, though it’s not clear if they’re sticking close to home or if the town is more or less abandoned. If there were more people around, surely they’d warn each other about this guy.

The other con man is an alleged monk who offers “free” amulets, but then requests a “donation,” to rebuild his burnt-out temple. If they don’t want an amulet, people can touch him “for luck.” Of course, he wants money for that, too.

When the monk and the soap man walk along some railroad tracks, there are ugly grey hills in the distance, the kind of scenery we see in films by Jia Zhang-ke. Is this place a former mining town?

The policemen don’t seem to have much to do; they smoke and eat in the station house, even sharing their medications in a weird, comradely way. One of them has plenty of time to make unwelcome visits to a woman who runs a boarding house. Coincidentally, the soap man rents a room from her, and her husband, who’s in charge of a reforestation project, is the man looking for the missing tree. This tree man is a very quiet sort. Slow moving, too. He might be bored out of his. . .tree, exhausted, or suffering from narcolepsy, who knows?

As for the poster-pasters, one is looking for his mother, who has been missing for years, while the other is looking for a very large tree, which vanished more recently.

The jokes in Free and Easy are subtle; there aren’t any martial-arts battles, or car chases (hardly any cars at all, actually). There is a troublesome dead body that has to be dealt with, though. Free and Easy won the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Cinematic Vision at the Sundance Film Festival. Music in the film is from Chinese band Second Hand Rose. Second Hand Rose has a web site, and a Facebook page. The New Yorker wrote a profile on the group back in 2014.

Free and Easy
China (2016) 99 minutes long, in Mandarin with English (subtitles)
Directed by: Geng Jun
Written by: Liu Bing, Geng Jun, Feng Yuhua
Cast: Xue Baohe, Gu Benbin, Xu Gang, Yuan Liguo, Zhang Xun, Wang Xuxu, Zhang Zhiyong
Company: FilmRise

Free and Easy will be shown on Thursday, July 20, 2017, at 5:30 p.m. in Salle J.A. De Sève of Concordia University, 1400 de Maisonneuve Blvd. W., as part of the Fantasia International Film Festival.

Visit the Fantasia web site for more information.

FNC 2016: My Short Report From Day 2

In this screen grab from the French documentary Merci Patron!, director Franois Ruffin reads a Robin Hood story to his children. Merci Patron is being shown at the Festival du nouveau cinŽma in Montreal.

In this screen grab from the French documentary Merci Patron!, director Francois Ruffin reads a Robin Hood story to his children. Merci Patron is being shown at the Festival du nouveau cinŽema in Montreal.

Thursday Oct. 6 was the second day of Montreal’s Festival du nouveau cinéma. (It was Day 1 for me though, because I did not attend the opening film Two Lovers and a Bear.)

I saw four films on Thursday and liked three of them. That’s quite decent. Here are very brief descriptions of the films. Real reviews will follow.

In the morning I attended a press screening of the French documentary Merci Patron! Director François Ruffin, who is also the editor-in-chief of alternative news outlet Fakir, put a lot of effort into trying to get Bernard Arnault, CEO of LVHM and the richest man in France, to do the right thing for at least some of the thousands of workers who lost their jobs when he closed their factories and moved the jobs elsewhere.

Merci Patron! is a great film, I’m glad I saw it and I’d certainly recommend it to my friends. It will only be shown once at FNC, and that will be on Sat. Oct. 8, at 5 p.m. at Quartier Latin.  You can read more about it here on the festival’s web site. There’s a link for buying tickets online, too.

Next, I saw Welcome to Iceland. In this black comedy from Swiss director Felix Tissi,  a suicidal man, a couple and a family of four on a trekking holiday meet each other in an inhospitable Icelandic landscape. They are all German-speaking tourists.

I’m glad I saw it and I’d certainly recommend Welcome to Iceland to my friends. Welcome to Iceland  will be shown again on Saturday, Oct. 8 at 9:30 pm at Cinéma du Parc. Read more about it, buy tickets, on the FNC web site.

Then I saw The Death of J.P. Cuenca. This falls between documentary and mock doc. Writer, director and star J.P. Cuenca is a highly praised Brazilian author. One day he finds out that he is officially dead, because a dead man’s companion gave the authorities Cuenca’s birth certificate. He sets out to find out who the man really was, how and why he had his birth certificate, etc.

The film got off to an OK start, but it lost my goodwill before it was over. Obviously some people like it, or it would not be in the FNC lineup, or at other festivals, either. But I’m NOT glad I saw it, and I would not recommend The Death of J.P. Cuenca to my friends. I wish that I had watched something else, or gone for a walk in the sunshine.

If you want to see it anyway, The Death of J.P. Cuenca will be shown again on Sunday, Oct. 9 at 9:15 pm at Cinéma du Parc.

Read more about The Death of J.P. Cuenca on the FNC website.

Next, I watched Late Shift, an interactive film from England. (Before the film started audience members were invited to download an app to their smart phone or tablets.) Matt is a university student who works the night shift in a parking garage. He is kidnapped and forced to take part in a robbery at an auction house. Every few minutes audience members were invited to make a choice for Matt. Help the tourist in the subway, or ignore him and jump on the train? Do what the kidnapper says, or try to run away? The film has seven possible endings. Directors Tobias Weber and Caroline Feder were here for a Q&A.

I enjoyed Late Shift very much and would certainly recommend it, but sadly, it will not have a second screening at FNC. The filmmakers hope to release a non-interactive version in North America within the next few months. They already have distribution deals for several European countries. Keep your eyes and ears open for this one! Read more about Late Shift on the FNC site.

I saw all of the above films at Cinema du Parc. I was hoping to end the evening with 76 Minutes & 15 Seconds With Abbas Kiarostami, over at the Quartier Latin, just off St. Denis. Well. . .

Staying for the Late Shift Q&A ate into my available travelling time, but I don’t regret doing that. In retrospect, taking the 24 bus on Sherbrooke, instead of continuing down the street to the Place des Arts metro, was a bad decision, though. There is so much construction on Sherbrooke that I could not get off the bus anywhere near St. Denis. Since I was already running quite late, I decided to abandon the attempt. So, don’t take the 24 to go to Quartier Latin.

76 Minutes & 15 Seconds With Abbas Kiarostami will be shown again on Wednesday, Oct. 12, at 9 pm at the Pavillon Judith-Jasmin Annexe (former NFB/ONF on St. Denis). With luck I will see it then.

The Festival du nouveau cinéma runs from Oct. 5 to Oct. 16, 2016.

2015 Fantasia Film Festival Review: Hong Kong film Robbery

Derek Tsang, left, and J. Arie  in a scene from the Hong Kong film Robbery. They play convenience-store employees whose lives are in danger when they are help hostage in the store. Robbery will be shown at the 2015 edition of the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal.

Derek Tsang, left, and J. Arie in a scene from the Hong Kong film Robbery. They play convenience-store employees whose lives are in danger when they are help hostage in the store. Robbery will be shown at the 2015 edition of the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal.

The Hong Kong film Robbery will make you think more than twice about a late-night visits to the dep (or convenience store, for you non-Montrealers).

Robbery is a very black comedy, that’s to say, many parts are hilarious, but several people do end up dead. I was expecting the laughs, but not the deaths. Surprise!

In an early scene, Robbery’s main character, Lau Kin Ping, (played by Derek Tsang, 曾國祥) seems like a slacker, and a stoned one at that, but you can’t blame him much; he’s just one more poor guy in the cutthroat world of Hong Kong. After watching Bruce Lee’s advice to “Be like water, my friend,” Lau remarks that he’s 32, the same age the martial-arts actor was when he died, and adds: “I’m just a joke.”

Late one aimless night, Ping impulsively applies for a job in a 24-hour convenience store; he’s hired right away. The store is called Exceed. You know, as in “excessive.” This name is no accident, my friends.

The storeowner is played by Lam Suet (林雪). Anyone who’s seen more than a handful of HK films will probably know his face. He usually plays gangsters, and he often plays them for director Johnnie To. As the boss he’s quite cranky and insists that his employees push sell that night’s special, a $5 package of Pop Rocks. (Don’t freak out, one Hong Kong dollar is only worth 82 Canadian cents. Pretty good deal, actually!)

Ping’s co-worker, Mabel, is played by pop singer J. Arie. Ping is embarrassed because she’s better than he is at scanning etc., and she’s kind of smug about it, too, despite this, they soon establish a rapport.

Ping barely has time to settle in before his first customer arrives. One thing leads to another, very smoothly too, and before you know it, there are three unstable, unpredictable criminals, with assorted weapons, in the store. They are NOT working together, either. Far from it. Ping, Mabel, their boss and one unlucky customer are trapped in the store with these dangerous loons. Hmmmm, I wonder if they use the expression “Murphys’s Law: in Hong Kong?

Every time a new customer walks in, crooks and hostages try to act perfectly, excruciatingly, normal until that customer buys something and leaves. Lots of laughs and tension in those episodes. The film could have ended after the arrival of several police officers – but then it would have been a short, not a feature.

Derek Tsang, left,  as a newly hired convenience-store clerk and Lam Suet as his cranky boss in a scene from the Hong Kong film Robbery. Robbery will be shown at the 2015 edition of the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal.

Derek Tsang, left, as a newly hired convenience-store clerk and Lam Suet as his cranky boss in a scene from the Hong Kong film Robbery. Robbery will be shown at the 2015 edition of the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal.

There’s lots to like in Robbery – writer/director Fire Lee (aka LEE Ka Wing, or Ka Wing LEE) has fun with film clichés like macho posturing, super-observant people: training montages; walking in slow-motion, defusing a bomb, while seconds tick by on a conveniently large display; people pretending to be someone they’re not, and/or being perceived as someone they’re not; the old Mexican standoff (people standing in a circle pointing guns at each other), etc. Several flashbacks put a whole new light on the characters. And then there are the platitudes like this one: “Pain is good. . . pain is a feeling, it lets humans know they are alive.” Not to mention: “But you have ME!”

Quibbles: One female star has to wear a skimpy outfit in her scenes at the store, and perform an amateur strip tease, along with other humiliations. In regard to the outfit, writer/director Fire Lee might claim that he was showing: 1) how people judge a book by its cover; 2) the person who forced her to do these things is a very evil dude; 3) that he was mocking a cliché. Maybe, but to me this is just pandering to a segment of the male audience. Before anyone asks if sex is bad while deaths are OK, I’d say that the film could have been quite funny without either.

Somewhat random info and thoughts connected to Robbery: Fire Lee wrote the script for revenge flick Sasori, which was shown at Fantasia in 2008.
Actor/director Derek Tsang is the son of actor Eric Tsang. Derek Tsang is 35 now, and might have been 34 when Robbery was made, though he looks much younger. Derek Tsang went to the University of Toronto; he used to live in Vancouver.

J. Arie’s real name is Rachel Lui. She’s an accomplished piano player who also has a degree in law (to make her traditional parents happy.)
The berets that the Hong Kong police wear look quite dashing. Are their shirts really so form-fitting?

Robbery will be shown at the Fantasia International Film Festival, which runs from July 14 until Aug. 4, 2015.

Read more about it on Robbery’s page at the Fantasia web site.

Robbery: Written and directed by Fire Lee ( Ka Wing Lee)
Starring: Derek Tsang, J.Arie, Lam Suet, Feng Tsui Fan, Philip Keung, Anita Chui, Eric Kwok, Aaron Chow, Edward Ma
In Cantonese with English subtitles
90 minutes long

Saturday, July 18, 2015 at 18:45, and Tuesday, July 28, 2015, at 15:10, in the J.A. de Sève Theatre, 1400 de Maisonneuve Blvd. W.