The Story of Qiu Ju (1992)
The Story of Qiu Ju (秋菊打官司) is a 1992 Chinese comedy-drama film. The film was directed by Zhang Yimou and, as in many of his films, stars Gong Li in the title role. The film tells the story of a peasant woman, Qiu Ju, who lives in a rural area of China. When her husband is kicked in the groin by the village head, Qiu Ju, despite her pregnancy, travels to a nearby town, and later a big city to deal with its bureaucrats and find justice. I read somewhere that other than 3 professional actors, the rest were just playing themselves. Zhang shot everything using a hidden camera. In so doing, he came out with a film that is shot in natural light and people in their comfortable behavioural patterns. Humour comes in unexpected circumstances. Gong Li as a helluva stubborn woman has not one tinge of glamour on her. The narrative got a little repetitive in the middle act because we all know she will keep on going up the hierarchy to get justice. Then in the third act something tumultuous happens that sends her stubbornness crashing down. It was all going towards a happy ending and then Zhang gave us one more gut punch. An instantly memorable film that lets you see a China like never before.
Wildlife is a 2018 American drama film directed and co-produced by Paul Dano (in his directorial debut), starring Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal. The screenplay, written by Dano and Zoe Kazan, is based on the 1990 novel of the same name by Richard Ford. I like this a lot. It is your basic disintegration of family values, erosion of one’s moral core and the death of the American ideal narrative, but done without the histrionics. It has a rhythm and tempo that is distinctively its own. The acting is nuanced and finely calibrated. The ending is heart-achingly bittersweet. A superb directorial debut by Paul Dano, and you can feel it is a very personal project.
A Place in the Sun (1951)
A Place in the Sun is a 1951 American drama film based on the 1925 novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser and the 1926 play, also titled An American Tragedy. It tells the story of a working-class young man who is entangled with two women: one who works in his wealthy uncle’s factory, and the other a beautiful socialite. The film was a critical and commercial success, winning six Academy Awards and the first-ever Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Drama. In 1991, A Place in the Sun was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. This is one lavishly mounted production and exquisitely acted. Montgomery Clift was superb in the role of a nobody becoming a somebody. He communicated so much with his posture, gait and mannerisms. Truly masterclass acting. You should be hating him from the get-go, but I am sure you will sympathise with him when he gets himself stuck between a rock and a hard place. Elizabeth Taylor is stunning. From the first frame she appears in, I was seduced by her classy beauty. The film doesn’t even feel dated at all. We followed this up with another George Stevens film…
Woman of the Year (1942)
Woman of the Year is a 1942 American romantic comedy-drama film directed by George Stevens and starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. The film’s plot is about the relationship between Tess Harding—an international affairs correspondent, chosen “Woman of the Year”—and Sam Craig—a sportswriter—who meet, marry, and encounter problems as a result of her unflinching commitment to her work. In 1999, this film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. This is the first of nine collaborations between the two leads and their chemistry is electrifying. The black and white cinematography didn’t bother me one bit because I was entranced by their antics, believable situations and the numerous quotable lines. If you are getting married soon, you need to watch this to get the essence of what constitutes a marriage. Better to get in with your eyes opened and not closed thinking it’s going to be spring every day. There are so many hilarious scenes and for me the standout appears near the end. Tess finally understands why she needs Sam and wants to win him back… through his stomach. The prolonged sequence in the kitchen is filled with so many nail-biting gags that we laughed till our eyes streamed down.
Coming Home (2014)
Coming Home is a 2014 Chinese historical drama film directed by Zhang Yimou and starring Chen Daoming and Gong Li. This is Zhang Yimou’s minor masterpiece. It’s a weepie but there is an epic sweep to the proceedings. It’s one of Zhang’s fave narratives – how the communist government in one fell swoop changed the lives of people, but this time he chooses to study a married couple. It’s emotionally devastating to see this. At the end of the first act is an incredible sequence – upstairs, downstairs, in the driving rain, up the bridge and down the bridge… beautifully choreographed with a Hitchock-ian movement of suspense. The ending is a downbeat but it’s also a testament of everlasting love.
Carlos, also known as Carlos the Jackal, is a 2010 French-German biographical film/miniseries about the life of the 1970s Venezuelan terrorist Carlos the Jackal (Ilich Ramírez Sánchez), covering his first series of attacks in 1973 until his arrest in 1994. This is a 5h 30min mini-series and I almost sat through in one sitting. It moves at a brisk pace and it’s not boring. Édgar Ramirez puts in a calling card bravura performance. Oliver Assayas’ direction is uncompromising and propulsive. It is essentially a fictionalised version of a terrorist’s life, but he kept to the timeline of the events, giving you a terrifying portrayal of an egotistical and cold-blooded terrorist and Europe was his playground. It is an astonishing film from start to end, it’s a history lesson based on thorough research. The cigarettes, women, explosions and guns… brilliant. If not for this lockdown I wouldn’t have taken the Criterion blu-ray out for a watch, but now I am scouring my shelves for gems I have picked up.
No Mercy (2010)
No Mercy is a 2010 South Korean action thriller film written and directed by Kim Hyeong-jun. Sol Kyung-gu won Best Actor at the 18th Chunsa Film Art Awards for his performance. In addition, the film has been picked up by audiences due to its shocking twist. Sol Kyung-Gu plays a staff member of the National Institute of Scientific Investigation (NISI) in South Korea. He attempts to uncover the identity of a mysterious serial killer who decapitated his victims. Ryoo Seung-Bum plays an environmentalist who holds clues to unravel the mystery. I thought I had seen all the best stuff from Korea and this totally flew over my radar. It’s riveting all the way to that final twist that made my jaw drop. The only weak spot is the villain(s) is/are not well-casted and well-developed. This one falls just a rung below Oldboy and that’s the biggest thumbs up for it.
Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000)
Barking Dogs Never Bite is a 2000 South Korean independent dark comedy-drama film. The film’s original Korean title is a satirical take on A Dog of Flanders, a European pet story that is very popular in parts of East Asia. It is also the directorial debut of Bong Joon-ho. Barking Dogs Never Bite tells the story of an out-of-work college professor who is irritated by the sound of barking dogs in his apartment building, and eventually resorts to abusing and kidnapping them. Meanwhile, a young woman working at the apartment complex decides to investigate the matter after she starts receiving notices from the tenants about the missing dogs. Lead actress Bae Doona stated in 2019 that the film contained the most memorable scene of her career, in which she is being chased by a homeless man throughout the apartment. Let’s put this perspective, 3 years from this movie, his directorial debut, he went on to make Memories of Murder and the rest is history. This one has his usual themes like ambition drives Koreans till the point they succumb to corruption and the ineffective government. All ingredients for an interesting movie, but this one flounders around with little bite. Other than a few surreal and hilarious scenes, nothing coalesced to something potent. It’s good to see where Bong Joon-ho began but other than that novelty there isn’t much reason to see this.
The Captain (2019)
The Captain (中国机长) is a 2019 Chinese drama film directed by Andrew Lau and is based on the Sichuan Airlines Flight 8633 incident. Ever since Wolf Warrior 2 I shy away from jingoistic China is #1 movies, but a pal’s wife saw this at the cinema last year and she came out in tears. Yes, she is from China. It got me curious so I gave it a shot. The first 10 minutes practically shows you that China is way ahead with its airlines in terms of every aspect. It was like I was watching a James Bond movie with Q showing off the gadgets. The movie doesn’t waste time with a lot of expositions and when the accident happens in mid-flight my mouth hanged agape. I thought “sure die” but the pilot is calm and knows exactly what needs to be done. I am being intentionally vague about the problem because telling you will rob you of the excitement. How he manoeuvres the plane back to the airport is incredible. The movie does a decent job of showing you the perspectives of passengers in the plane and the ground personnel. It’s like Apollo 13 all over again and this is about people doing 110% of what they are trained to do. In my book, he beat Captain Sully. Okay… I have to admit the last 10 minutes is chest heaving China Number One territory and it’s absolutely skull numbing. Just subtract that last 10minutes and this is one sleek movie and what the Captain did deserve my highest respect. Oh… I get why she cried… I was on the brink of tears too but that last 10 minutes sucked all the tears back up.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a 2019 French historical drama set in France in the late 18th century, the film tells the story of a forbidden affair between an aristocrat and a painter commissioned to paint her portrait. The movie has minimal dialogue but an emotional ache that just intensified till the final scene. It’s love, but it’s between two girls. Exquisitely composed and impeccably acted, like layers upon layers on an acrylic oil painting. As final scenes go, this one is up there with the best.