Women around the world. Films reviewed: Nina Wu, White Elephant, French Exit

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Spring is here and so is Toronto’s film festival season, even with all the theatres still closed. First up is the Canadian Film Fest which is on now.

This week I’m looking at three new dramas about women around the world. There’s an actress haunted by an audition in Taipei; a high school girl crushing on a white guy in Scarborough; and an insolvent socialite retiring in Paris.

Nina Wu
Dir: Midi Z

Nina Wu (Wu Kexi) is an aspiring actress in Taiwan. Originally part of a rural theatre company, she moved to Taipei to make it big, but so far, six years on her big break has yet to show itself, So when her agent offers a possible role in a festival-type feature looking for an unknown actress to play a complex character in a psychological drama, she jumps at the chance. But there’s always a catch: the part calls for full frontal nudity and explicit sex. That’s not all — there’s a gruelling, and highly competitive hiring process she has to past through first. Luckily she lands the lead role. Unluckily, the director, in order to get a “real” performance out of her, treats her like hell on set and off. He works her into a frenzy, slaps her face, insults her and puts her very life in danger. She understands what an actor has to go through to deliver a spectacular performance. But that’s not all. A dark, hidden secret from the recent past, still haunts her, and is gradually pushing her to the edge. Someone is stalking her. She has disconnected memories of walking down endless narrow corridors in a red gown, passing identically dressed women at every corner. What is happening? What does it all mean? And can she survive?

Nina Wu is an exquisitely beautiful mystery-thriller about the life of an actress suffering from PTSD. It’s about her, her dreams and hallucinations, as well as the movie in the movie. So at any given moment she could be acting her role, having a nightmare, or experiencing a hallucination — and you don’t always know which one it is. Nina Wu is a collaboration between the director, Midi Z, originally from the Shan State in Myanmar, and Wu Kexi a stunning and emotionally powerful Taiwanese actress, based on her own experiences. With haunting music, striking costumes and set, beautiful cinematography and a fascinating story, Nina Wu shows the dark side of the movie industry coated with a vibrant and flashy gloss.

White Elephant
Dir: Andrew C

Its the mid-nineties at a Scarborough high school. Puuja (Zaarin Bushra) is a
16-year-old Toronto-born girl who doesn’t quite fit in. She’s too Canadian for her Indian-born friends Preet and Amit (Gurleen Singh, Dulmika Kevin Hapuarachchi), too Indian for Indo-Caribbeans, and too brown for the white kids. Her main pastime is going to movies and hanging at Tim Horton’s. But when a random encounter at a theatre with a white guy she thinks is cute, things start to change. Trevor (Jesse Nasmith) doesn’t go to her school, but he’s from the neighbourhood, and hangs with his friends nearby. He seems to like her, at least as a friend. Pujaa starts lightening her hair, changing her style and wearing green-tinted contact lenses to fit in. But can a brown girl date a white guy in Scarborough? Or is their Romeo and Juliet friendship bound to fail?

White Elephant is a look at the racial division, rivalry and prejudice among kids in a multi-cultural community, as seen through the eyes of Puuja. It’s a shorter than average-film, just one hour long, but it covers a lot of ground.

There are some strange details. I’ve never heard of Canadians putting their hands on their hearts during the national anthem — that’s an Americanism. And why would Pooja’s Calcutta-born Dad scolds her for not speaking Hindi. (Wouldn’t he speak Bengali?) But these are minor quibbles. Acting was good all around, the costume design was fun, and the film gave a voice to groups rarely seen on the screen.

French Exit
Dir: Azazel Jacobs
(Based on the novel by Patrick DeWitt)

Frances (Michelle Pfeiffer) is a Park Avenue socialite known for her attitude. She can cut down the fiercest critic with a withering glance, and if snubbed by a waiter she’s apt to set her table on fire. She’s not one to be underestimated. When her husband died she withdrew her nondescript son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) from prep school and brought him home. Eight years later, the coffers run dry, and she’s insolvent. So she sells her jewelry and paintings and pulls a “French exit” —an unannounced getaway — on an ocean liner with a satchel full of Euros. She’s accompanied by Malcolm and their cat. Malcolm is sad because his girlfriend Susan (Imogen Poots) refuses to follow him to Paris. (Oh to be young-ish and in love-ish again, says Frances.) They set up house in her best friend Joan’s pied à terre and start to enjoy life in Paris. And they soon have a motley crew of friends dropping by: Madame Reynard, a lonely fan, Madeleine, a psychic, Julius, a private detective, and others. Frances is spreading the wealth, handing off wads of cash to everyone she meets. It’s almost as if she’s trying to use it all up before she says goodbye. But first she must find her runaway cat, whom she believes is a reincarnation of her late husband. Can Malcolm adjust to life in Paris? Will he ever see Susan again? What is the real reason Frances came to Paris? And what will happen when her money runs out?

French Exit is a leisurely-paced, whimsical story, based on a novel. Lucas Hedges as Malcolm is so low key and introverted, you can barely notice him; while Michelle Pfeiffer Frances is a fantastical creation. It feels like a modern-day version of Auntie Mame. It’s written by Canadian novelist Patrick DeWitt based on his own recent book, which gives it lots of room to develop characters and supply funny lines. It may be light and inconsequential, but it’s a pleasure to watch.

French Exit and Nina Wu both open today; and White Elephant is playing at the Canadian Film Festival.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

 

Issues. Films reviewed: Minari, Test Pattern, The Mauritanian

Posted in 1980s, 2000s, Africa, Courtroom Drama, Family, Kids, Korea, Prison, Romance, Sexual Assault, Terrorism, Texas, Thriller, Torture, Women by CulturalMining.com on February 26, 2021

Movies are entertainment, but they can also inform. This week I’m looking at three new American movies that look at important issues. There’s a Korean-American family living the immigrant experience in Arkansas, a black woman dealing with sexual assault in Texas, and a young man enduring prison life in Guantanamo Bay.

Minari

Wri/Dir: Lee Isaac Chung

It’s rural Arkansas in the 1980s. Young David (Alan Kim) just moved there from California with his small family, just his sister Anne and his parents. He’s not allowed to run and play because of his heart murmur. His Dad  (Steven Yuen) spent their life savings on a plot of land and an old mobile home. He wants to start a new life there, growing vegetables for the burgeoning Korean-American market, immigrants like themselves. He’s sure they’ll make a fortune. In the mean time, Mom and Dad (Yeri Han) have to continue working at a poultry factory where they sort newly-hatched chicks. The girl chicks go to poultry farmers, while the boy chicks are incinerated and belched out of a sinister-looking chimney behind the plant. The problem is, despite Dad’s relentless enthusiasm, Mom hates it there and wants to move back to California. She’s a city girl. So they’re fighting all the time adding to their kids’ anxiety. To calm the waters they get Grandma, Mom’s mother (Yuh-jung Youn), to come live with them. 

She shares a room with David who doesn’t know what to make of her. She cracks foul-mouthed jokes and ogles pro-wrestlers on TV. When he wets his bed, she tells him his ding-dong is broken. You’re not a real grandmother, he says.  Mom is unhappy, and Dad is increasingly on edge — farming isn’t as easy as it looks. Will the family business go bust? Can David and Grandma learn to get along? What about his heart murmur? And can a dysfunctional family learn to like one another?

Minari (the title refers to a leafy vegetable grandma plants by a stream in the woods) is a warm, tender and funny look at the lives of an immigrant family trying to make it. It’s told through the point of view of an anxious little kid observing the strangeness of rural Arkansas. Things like diviners renting themselves out to find wells, and their grizzly old farm hand (Will Patton),  prone to bursting into prayers and exorcisms at a moment’s notice. The storytelling is rich and colourful, the locations are warm and rustic, the acting is terrific, and while the plot is bittersweet, it leaves you with a good feeling.

Test Pattern

Wri/Dir: Shatara Michelle Ford

It’s Austin Texas. 

Renesha (Brittany S. Hall) is a beautiful young black executive originally from Dallas. She’s starting her new job as a manager at a pet-rescue charity. She lives with Evan (Will Brill) a scruffy, white tattoo artist. They met at a nightclub and are deeply in love.   And to celebrate her new position, Amber (Gail Bean) takes her on a “girl’s’ night out” at a local bar. She promises Evan she’ll be home early to get a good night’s sleep. But she wakes up, hungover, dizzy, disoriented and in pain, in the bed of a strange man. What happened?

Evan can tell, it was something bad. She was sexually assaulted by a stranger, a rich, e-commerce guy they met at the bar who plied her with drinks and strong drugs. Momentary flashbacks start appearing in her head, adding to her unease. Renesha just wants to shower and sleep, but Evan insists they go to a hospital to pick up a rape kit. What follows is a gruelling exercise in medical incompetence, legal boundaries, and an unsympathetic system, as the two of them travel from hospital to hospital trying to get the tests done. What effect will that night have on Renesha? Can she go back to work? Can their relationship survive? And will justice be served?

Test Pattern is a dark look at the results of a sexual assault on one woman and the ripple effects on her boyfriend. The story alternates between a study of that one awful day after, and of the much nicer times in their relationship leading up to it. It also chronicles the indignities a woman has to endure — things like not being allowed to urinate before she takes the tests — at the worst possible time, as they try to preserve evidence of the assault.  Test Pattern is not a happy movie, but rather a sympathetic and realistic view of trauma.

The Mauritanian

Dir: Kevin MacDonald

It’s November, 2001, on the western edge of the Sahara Desert. Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim) is a young man, from engineering student in Mauritania.  He’s celebrating with family and friends in a huge tent, when black limos pull up. It’s the corrupt local police force.  The US authorities, they say, are going crazy since 9/11. They just want to talk to you about something. That’s the last his family saw him. Five years later, Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) a successful partner at an Albuquerque, law firm, decides to investigate his case. With the help of a young associate named Teri (Shailene Woodley) she discovers Mohamadou is being held without charge, in Guantanamo. The government is going to try him in court, under the prosecution of a military lawyer named Crouch (Benedict Cumberbatch). They agree to be his pro bono defence attorneys because that’s how trials work. But the cards are stacked against them. He is one of Al Qaeda’s main recruiters, a close friend of Osama Bin Laden, personally connected to one of the hijackers on 9/11, and responsible; for the deaths of more than 3000 Americans. (Or so they say.) 

But when they fly out to Gitmo to meet the defendant, his story seems quite different. In a series of redacted letters, he records his experiences over the past 5 years, at the hands of CIA and military interrogators. Is Mohamadou a terrorist, or just a random guy they arrested? Is the evidence against him real? What did they do to him at Guantanamo? And will he ever be released from that hell hole?

The Mauritanian is a harrowing legal drama based on the true case of Mohamadou Slahi. The film deals with torture, corruption, secrecy and a flawed legal system. French actor Tahar Rahim is terrific as Mohamadou, the main character of the movie, as he records what life is really like in that notorious complex. Foster, Woodley and Cumberbatch (with a very believable southern accent) support him well, though in less exciting roles.

Test Pattern is now playing digitally at the Revue Cinema; Minari starts today; and the Mauritanian opens on Tuesday.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

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