Fantasia 2018: In Big Brother, Donnie Yen plays the teacher we wish we had in high school

Donnie Yen plays teacher Henry Chen Xia in the film Big Brother.

Dedicated teacher tries to get rebellious high-school students to smarten up and take school seriously. This is a familiar plot, but the teacher in Big Brother is played by martial-arts superstar Donnie Yen, so that’s a big plus.

Even though Yen’s character, first-time teacher Henry Chen Xia, is smart, funny and caring, we know he won’t be accepted right away, he has to win the students over. Watching him do it is part of the fun.

Each student has at least one problem on the home front that has contributed to their seeming indifference to school; Chen tries his best to solve all those problems.

The future of the entire school is in Chen’s hands, since the Hong Kong education department will close it if the dismal pass rate doesn’t improve. On top of that, gangsters are waiting to pounce on the school site so they can build luxury condos on it.

But, but. . .what about the fights? It wouldn’t be a Donnie Yen film without them, but by Yen’s own choice, Big Brother is more about education than anything. It isn’t wall-to-wall fighting that’s barely held together with a paper-thin plot.

Donnie Yen as Henry Chen Xia, ready to defend his school.

 

Chen’s search for a missing student leads him to a locker room just before a (crooked) mixed-martial arts tournament. This gives Yen a chance to mix it up with burly, scary looking guys played by Kang Yu, Lockhart Ogilvie, Jess Liaudin, Brahim Achabbakhe, Tom Caserto, and Semiquaver Iafeta. “Look, guys, I’m not looking for any trouble,” he tells them in English. Ha, ha! Fans know what to expect next!

Conveniently enough, Kang Yu’s character is also involved in the development scheme, so he and assorted minions will battle Chen again in the schoolyard and inside the school, shattering glass, throwing desks and breaking many things while they’re at it.

A long-ago fight, with Lin Quinan playing the young Henry Chen, is quite impressive, too. This young man has star potential! In fact, he was in a 2016 film called Long quan xiao zi (Kungfu Boys).

in Donnie Yen’s film Big Brother, Lin Quinan (left) plays Henry Chen Xia in his student days. Kang Yu (right) plays the main villain. 

From my description, the film might seem terribly corny but it did not feel that way while I was watching it. There are some “I see what you did there!” moments, and I was fine with them, too.

I appreciated that Yen’s character is not just a fighting machine, he’s a caring human being. Teacher Chen has had his share of problems, and seen many horrific things, but he survived to tell the tale. He doesn’t want his students to give up on themselves while they’re still in their teens. And if life is unfair, why not fight to make it better? Just as important, he doesn’t want the education authorities to give up on the “difficult” students, either. Does closing an underperforming school really solve anything? Why not work to improve them?

Donnie Yen put his money and his star power behind this film, which is obviously dear to his heart. If Big Brother encourages some students to stay in school and leads school administrators to rethink their methods, Yen will have accomplished a lot. And more power to him!

I’ll include other details about Big Brother in a post about Kam Ka-Wai, the film’s director. Kam participated in a Q&A session after the film and granted me an interview as well.

BTW: I saw the World Premiere of Big Brother with lots of Donnie Yen fans at a sold-out screening at the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal – the very best of circumstances! Donnie Yen even sent us a video greeting! He wanted to present the film in Montreal himself but logistics didn’t allow it. (He’s shooting a film in Japan and cannot be away from the set for long.)

Big Brother will open In Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore on August 16, 2018, and in China and Taiwan on August 24. No word about a North American or European release yet, so maybe Donnie Yen fans should get going on social media and ask for it.

BIG BROTHER
Hong Kong, China (2018)
101 minutes, In Cantonese with English and Chinese Subtitles
Director: Kam Ka-Wai
Writer: Chan Tai Lee
Cast: Donnie Yen, Joe Chen, Yu Kang, Lou Mingji
Contact: Mega Vision

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Fantasia 2018: Tremble All You Want Review

In this scene from the Japanese romantic comedy Tremble All You Want, Yoshika (Mayu Matsuoka) is trapped between her crush Ichi (Takumi Kitamura, foreground) and dorky, would-be boyfriend Ni (Daichi Watanabe).

Briefly: Tremble All You Want is a Japanese romantic comedy. It’s funny, with gusts to hilarious. There are some sad moments, too. I enjoyed it immensely, even though I do not like, agree with, or approve of the ending, and some other script decisions.

Would I recommend it to my friends, and to others?

For sure I would! I was going to say, I would recommend it to all but the most cynical friends. But on second thought, cynical people might find it funny too! Read the synopsis on the Fantasia web site by clicking on Tremble All You Want.

 

In a scene from the Japanese romantic comedy Tremble All You Want, Yoshika (Mayu Matsuoka) enjoys her magical fossil. (It’s called an ammonite. You could look it up!)

TREMBLE ALL YOU WANT

DIRECTOR/ WRITER: Akiko Ohku
CAST:Anna Ishibashi, Takumi Kitamura, Mayu Matsuoka, Daichi Watanabe

Tremble All You Want
Tuesday, July 17, 2018
3:00 PM
Salle J.A. De Sève
1400 de Maisonneuve West
(Metro Guy-Concordia )

P.S. This is very short for a review, right? I will write more soon, but wanted to get these few words up to encourage Montrealers to see the film.

RIDM 2017 Review: Tongue Cutters (Tungeskjærerne)

 

Ylwa and Tobias, charismatic stars of the Norwegian documentary Tongue Cutters (Tungeskjaererne).

“Small children, big knives.” That’s one of the tag lines for the Norwegian documentary Tongue Cutters. There are some scary spikes, too. And forklifts zipping back and forth.

Ylwa, 9, leaves Oslo for two weeks to stay with her grandparents in Myre, northern Norway. At a fish processing plant there she will learn to cut cod tongues just as her mother and her aunt (the film’s director, Solveig Melkeraaen) used to do. Tobias,10, is already an old hand at it, and he shows Ylwa how it’s done. The first day, she can’t even bring herself to try it, but as the end of her stay nears, she’s ready to enter the “world cod-tongue cutting competition.” Is that “world” as in “World Series?” Does anyone from outside Norway enter?

When Ylwa and Tobias aren’t cutting cod tongues, they take his cute dog Alvin for walks or hang out at his spacious home, which has wall-to-wall windows with a view of the mountains and the sea. (I couldn’t help wondering – what does it cost to heat that place? Are those triple-paned windows?)

Ylwa and Tobias are such likeable characters I enjoyed watching and listening to them, whatever they were doing. They goof around with his hover board, talk about pets and the hassles of having parents who are divorced or separated. They act like the camera isn’t even there.

Tobias Evensen and Ylva Melkeraaen Lundell in Tongue Cutters (Tungeskjaererne).

Ylwa is a big sushi fan and she’s disappointed that Myre doesn’t have any sushi restaurants. When she was still in Oslo, she was astounded to learn that sushi was not available when her mother was her age. “How did you survive, and not die?” she asked theatrically.

Nowadays, boys and girls cut cod tongues to earn some spending money, but many years ago, when times were harder, a young boy might have to leave school to do it full-time to help support his family. Archival photos from that era show us what life was like back then.

Tongue Cutters (Tungeskjærerne)
Directed by: Solveig Melkeraaen
Country: Norway
Year: 2017
V.O: Norwegian
Subtitles: English
Duration: 79 minutes
Cinematography : Håvard Fossum
Editing: Mina Nybakke, Elise Solberg, Erland Edenholm, Solveig Melkeraaen
Production: Ingvil Giske
Music: Håkon Gebhardt
Sound Design: Niels Arild

Tongue Cutters will be shown Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017, 6:30 p.m., at Cinéma du Parc 3, 3575 Ave du Parc

RIDM (Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal) ends on Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017. Visit the RIDM web site at ridm.ca for more information.

RIDM 2017 Review: Do Donkeys Act?

The documentary film Do Donkeys Act? was shot at four donkey sanctuaries, including one in Guelph, Ontario.

Do Donkeys Act is a charming, calm, contemplative film that just shows donkeys doing what donkeys do when left to their own devices. There are no experts explaining the evolution of donkeys, their place in history, or whatever.

So what do donkeys do? They gallop, they eat, they sleep, sometimes they just stand around, occasionally they’ll kick. Now and then one will decide he isn’t going anywhere and stubbornly dig in his hooves. (“Who enjoys going to the dentist?” asks narrator Willem Dafoe.)

I had a moment of dread when I saw a sign on a wall that said “knock down box.” I thought it was another way of indicating euthanasia, but no, the donkey was being given an injection to knock him out in preparation for surgery, surgery that looked like it was done on an inflatable mattress.

The most surprising thing for me was the great variety of sounds that a donkey can make. Braying, sure, I’d heard that before, but a donkey can also sound like a barking dog, a purring cat, a squeaky door, a foghorn, a whistle, a trumpet, or a wheezing asthmatic.

Donkeys enjoy a spirited run in the documentary film Do Donkeys Act?

Do Donkeys Act was filmed at four donkey sanctuaries in Guelph, Ontario, the U.S., Ireland, and the U.K., and it moves seamlessly between them. Sometimes an an Irish accent led me to assume that a scene was in Ireland, otherwise it’s anyone’s guess. (Please excuse me if those places were identified in the first few minutes of the film; I arrived a bit late because the film I saw before Do Donkeys Act did not start on time.)

Most of the talking in this film is done by Willem Dafoe, and I have very mixed feelings about that. He does a fine job and seems to be enjoying himself at times, but I’m not sure that the words he was given to say contribute that much to the film. Sometimes they interrupt the mood. Google tells me there is another version of the film, called Sanctuary, that does not include Dafoe.

Do Donkeys Act?
Directed by: David Redmon, Ashley Sabin
Country: United Kingdom
Year: 2017
V.O: English
Duration: 72 minutes
Cinematography: David Redmon, Ashley Sabin
Editing: David Redmon, Ashley Sabin
Production: Deborah Smith, Dale Smith
Sound Design: Tom Hammond

Do Donkeys Act? will be shown Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017 at 4 p.m. in Salle Fernand-Seguin of the Cinémathèque Québécoise, 335 de Maisonneuve Blvd. E.

RIDM (Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal) ends on Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017.
Visit the RIDM web site at ridm.ca for more information.

RIDM 2017 Review: Don’t Miss Dragonfly Eyes!

In the Chinese docu-fiction Dragonfly Eyes, Qing Ting, a woman who has spent several years living in a Buddhist monastery decides that she must leave.

Dragonfly Eyes is one of my favourite films of RIDM 2017. It’s inventive, fascinating and more than a little disturbing.

While the dialogue in Dragonfly Eyes is read by actors, the video portion of the film is made entirely from snippets of surveillance video found on the Internet. This gives new meaning to “found footage” and it’s more entertaining to me than those films about people who get lost in the woods or the jungle and then spend an hour shrieking at each other until someone drops the camera. (Rant over!)

Qing Ting (Dragonfly) has spent the last few years living in a monastery. She was sent there for its calming effects, and considered becoming a nun, but changes are in the offing at the monastery and she does not feel comfortable there anymore.

She goes to the city and takes a job at a dairy farm. (Sounds weird when you think about it, that’s not a calm place, either. Are there dairy farms in cities? It seems so!) The work is hard, it doesn’t pay much, the bosses are disrespectful and the cows and workers are under constant camera surveillance. The people who watch the screens are watched as well.

Everyone and everything seems to be under surveillance in the Chinese docu-fiction Dragonfly Eyes.

At the farm, Qing Ting is noticed by the technician Ke Fan, and they start spending time together, visiting restaurants, and driving out into the countryside. Soon he is calling himself her boyfriend, even though she doesn’t seem to want one. Ke Fan does things that he thinks will please her, again without asking if that’s what she really wants. He’s quite violent, though not towards her. After assorted incidents that I won’t spoil here, Qing Ting loses her job at the dairy. She is insulted in her search for a new job and insulted some more once she gets one.

Ke Fan is sent to jail for several years, and starts looking for Qing Ting as soon as he gets out. It’s not easy, because she does not want to be found.

What do I mean by disturbing? Ke Fan’s violence, other violent instances we see, celebrity culture, an obsession with money and appearances, and all that surveillance video. In many places I couldn’t help but think, why would anyone need to watch or tape those places, or this activity?

Director Xu Bing collected hundreds of hours of video from the Internet to make the film. In many instances, the people who installed the cameras had not changed default passwords and other default settings, and they probably did not even know that they were broadcasting to the Internet.

Dragonfly Eyes

Country : China
Year : 2017
V.O : Mandarin, English
Subtitles : English and French (depending on the screening date)
Duration : 81 Min
Director: Xu Bing

Editing : Matthieu Laclau, Zhang Wenchao
Production : Matthieu Laclau, Zhai Yongming, Xu Bing
Writer : Zhai Yongming, Zhang Hanyi
Music : Yoshihiro Hanno
Sound Design : Li Danfeng

Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017
Dragonfly Eyes, 81 minutes long, in Mandarin with French subtitles, at Cinémathèque Québécoise, Salle Principale, 335 de Maisonneuve Blvd E.

RIDM (Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal) runs until Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017.
Visit the RIDM web site at RIDM.ca for more information.

RIDM 2017: Review of documentary film Taste of Cement

In the documentary film Taste of Cement, Syrian construction workers build a highrise in Beirut, Lebanon.

Taste of Cement is a melancholy, sympathetic, and arty documentary about Syrian construction workers in Beirut, Lebanon.

They are building a high-rise apartment building near the Mediterranean shore. When their working day is over, they retreat to bare-bones lodgings in the building’s basement. No commute time! But it’s a dark place, divided into haphazard units, with little privacy, and no security for valuables that I could see. Water dripping from above leaves puddles here and there. The living quarters are quite far from the entrance, which must contribute to a sense of claustrophobia. What’s the air like down there?

Some men have makeshift beds, while others sleep on thin mattresses or pieces of cardboard placed on the floor (ouch).

When they aren’t on the job, Syrian construction workers in Beirut, Lebanon, stay in this dark basement full of puddles.

They wash their clothes in buckets and hang them on the wall. There was at least one TV down there. Many men use their phones to look at photos or news reports on the devastation back home.

Meagre evening meals include oily sardines plonked onto pita directly from the tin, and something that looked like ratatouille, eaten out of a pot. In the morning, a man used a Barbie Pink mirror while shaving. A dollar store find? A gift from a daughter?

This living arrangement is not voluntary – a sign says that there is a 7 p.m. curfew for Syrians and that violators will be prosecuted. Essentially, they are a captive workforce, even if they do get paid. I was hoping they weren’t paying anything to live in that basement.

Syrian workers in Beirut, Lebanon, must obey a curfew.

Nothing could make that basement look welcoming or arty, but the outdoor scenes are another matter. The framing is masterful and many images could be mistaken for still photos if not for waves, or changing images on far-away video billboards. Colours are beautiful – the blue sky, the blue water, orange safety vests, red poles, yellow bulldozers.

The views from the building are stunning, but the men are probably too busy with work, and trying to stay alive, to notice. Many work without hard hats, or gloves, or harnesses; they are welding and running big saws without safety glasses. Just watching is scary.

 

The film has a narrator – I was not sure if he was supposed to be a specific person, or more of an Everyman. He tells of his father who also did construction work abroad, and whose hands always smelled of cement. He and his father are part of a cycle of destruction and construction. Buildings and cities are destroyed by war and then repaired. Certainly Lebanon has seen its share of destruction. I wonder, the workers must wonder. . .when or if Syria will be repaired? After all, the destruction is still taking place.

Many business owners are eager to do it, not for any humanitarian reasons, but to earn a profit. Even back in 2016 Robert Fisk wrote about that in The Independent. In August of 2017, the Associated Press said that ”markets across the Middle East are anticipating a mammoth reconstruction boom that could stimulate billions of dollars in economic activity.”

Taste of Cement
Country : Germany, Lebanon, Syria, United Arab Emirates
Year : 2017
V.O : Arabic
Subtitles : English
Duration : 85 Min
Cinematography : Talal Khoury
Editing : Alex Bakri, Frank Brummundt
Production : Ansgar Frerich, Eva Kemme, Tobias N. Siebert, Mohammad Ali Atassi
Writer : Ziad Kalthoum, Talal Khoury, Ansgar Frerich
Music : Sebastian Tesch
Sound Design : Ansgar Frerich, Sebastian Tesch

Presented in Collaboration with CSN, Goethe-Institut Montréal, Institute of International Education, Cinema Politica, La Maison de la Syrie, Kazamaza Restaurant and Bell Media

 

Taste of Cement will be shown Friday, Nov. 17, at 7:00 p.m. at Concordia University,
1455 de Maisonneuve W., Room H-110, Montreal, as part of the RIDM film festival, which runs until Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017.
Visit the RIDM web site at RIDM.ca for more information.

RIDM 2017 Review of documentary film Cielo

The documentary film Cielo takes us to Chile’s Atacama Desert where the stars shine bright and clear.

The documentary film Cielo is set in the Atacama Desert of Chile. I put Cielo on my “must-see list” after seeing extracts from the film at the press conference for Montreal’s RIDM film festival.

The film is full of absolutely stunning images of the desert, and night skies full of more stars than you could imagine. And the Milky Way! Just stunning! In time-lapse sequences, the heavens seem to be rotating. The occasional shooting star zips by.

The Atacama desert is one of the driest places on earth. That dryness, the desert’s high altitude, and the lack of air pollution and light pollution make it an excellent spot for scientific star gazing and there are several observatories there. There are traditional ones, with big domes and huge telescopes, along with the ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array). That is a single telescope of revolutionary design, composed of 66 high precision antennas located on the Chajnantor plateau, 5,000 meters altitude in northern Chile.” Those antennas look a lot like satellite dishes. When they swivel in time-lapse photography they also look like a field full of disembodied ears. Very weird!

Canadian director Alison McAlpine takes us inside a traditional observatory as the dome opes and the telescope is moved into position (cue metallic noises); she talks to astronomers and to people who live in ramshackle dwellings in the desert. They share some local lore, banter about gravity, etc. Because the desert is so inhospitable, I wondered how they managed to survive there. How far do they have to travel for food, etc? One man is a miner, others are described as algae gatherers in the credits and press kit, while others are described as cowboys. I saw their animals so briefly I could not tell if they were goats, llamas or vicuña. From previous films and reading I did not think there would be anything for those animals to eat, but apparently there are some very scrubby grasses. And maybe these animals live in the edge of the desert?

There is additional astounding imagery of stars and galaxies that I thought was shot through telescopes, but the press kit revealed that most of that footage is really “organic effects” of the kind seen in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life.

Now for some gentle criticism. Cielo is well worth seeing for the images, but I feel that director McAlpine’s narration does not do it any favours. It might be intrusive no matter what, but because  she is addressing the stars, rather than simply sharing them with us, I felt further removed from the film. Hearing her say “Now I can’t stop watching you, I’m trying to understand your crazy beauty,” felt weird, like eavesdropping, maybe.

Atacama Desert, astronomy, voice overs – those ingredients might remind you of Patricio Guzman’s Nostalgia de la Luz (Nostalgia For the Light.) While Cielo is worth watching, it does not approach the level of that masterpiece. Guzman’s narration sounded like poetry, in Spanish and in translation, even when he was talking about the atrocities of the Pinochet era. His film juxtaposed the beauty of the stars, the mysteries of the universe with the evil of the dictatorship and the grief of the bereaved who were still searching the desert for the bodies of their murdered loved ones. You can buy or rent Nostalgia for the Light on iTunes (and elsewhere, I imagine). And you really should! Here is a link to the review of Nostalgia for the Light I wrote for the Montreal Gazette in 2011.

CIELO, directed by Alison McAlpine
Country : Quebec, Chile
Year : 2017
V.O : Spanish, English, French
Subtitles : English And French
Duration : 78 min
Cinematography : Benjamín Echazarreta
Editing : Andrea Chignoli
Production : Carmen Garcia, Paola Castillo, Alison McAlpine
Music : Philippe Lauzier

Cielo will be shown on Monday, Nov. 13 at 5:45 pm at
Cinéma du Parc 3 (the printed schedule says 6 p.m.)

Cielo is part of RIDM (Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal) runs until Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017.
Visit the RIDM web site at RIDM.ca for more information.

(I found some interesting web sites while doing research for this review. I’ll add them later. Please come back to see them!