Delivering the Message. Films reviewed: Songbird, Modern Persuasion, Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue

Posted in Advertising, Brooklyn, China, Covid-19, Disease, documentary, L.A., Romance, Romantic Comedy, Science Fiction, 中国电影 by CulturalMining.com on December 11, 2020

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

This week I’m looking at three new movies – a rom-com, a thriller, and a documentary – about people delivering messages. We’ve got a romantic ad executive in Brooklyn, a courier in pandemic LA, and peasant-writers in northern China.

Songbird

Dir: Adam Mason

It’s 2022, a year in the future, and Nico (K.J. Apa) is the happiest guy in LA. He’s a courier who spends his days zooming around the city’s almost-deserted streets on his motorbike delivering packages. You see, COVID-19 has wiped out almost everyone, and those still left alive are under permanent lockdown. Rich people cower behind high-security walls while in the poor parts of town, conditions are barbaric. Everyone is under constant surveillance, forced to submit daily digital “temp tests” to prove they’re not infected. Helicopters hover overhead looking for anyone disobeying the lockdown, enforced by “Sanitation Officers”, paramilitary thugs dressed in bright-yellow Hazmat suits.

So how come Nico gets to ride around unhindered? He wears a precious plastic bracelet proving he’s immune to the virus. The one sad note is he can’t get together with his girlfriend Sara (Sofia Carson). They’re forced to press hands on either side of closed doors and communicate only by texts. And he’s always on the look out for the evil head of the Sanitation Bureau (Peter Stormare) an immune serial killer who murders with impunity. Will the virus ever end? And will Nico and Sara ever get to kiss?

Songbird is a science-fiction romantic thriller about life under COVID.  Apparently it is the first such movie conceived, shot and released during the pandemic. Aside from Sara and Nico (KJ Apa is the kiwi heart-throb from Riverdale, who regularly takes off his shirt to reveal his abs) the story also follows  William and Piper Griffin (Bradley Whitford, Demi Moore) a crafty rich family who secretely keep their infected daughter Emma alive; a young woman who works as a youtube singer and part-time sex-worker; and some lonely and depressed war vets abandoned by their government but still ready to save the day. Songbird does an OK job at capturing the pandemic in cinematic form (up to now we’ve had to rely on old movies like Contagion, Outbreak, 28 Days) but it’s not great. And with our constantly-changing news cycle, how can any movie like this keep up with Covid-19?

Modern Persuasion

Dir: Alex Appel, Jonathan Lisecki

Wren (Alicia Witt) is an advertising executive who lives in Brooklyn with her cat. She’s pretty and smart, but in her thirties and still single (gasp!). She broke up with her college sweetheart Owen when he moved to the Bay Area and made a fortune in tech. The agency – owned by brother-and-sister rich diletantes – is not doing well, so she has to land a new account soon. Luckilly, a social networking giant is interested in hiring them. It’s called “Blipper” (as in twitter… get it?) Luckilly she has two millennial assistants to help her navigate these strange waters. But when the potential client shows up, she’s shocked to see it’s Owen (Shane McRae), her lost love. And he treats her like she’s not even there, flirting with her younger assistants instead of her. It’s not like she doesn’t have suitors of her own. There’s Sam, Owen’s best friend, a middle-aged emo who listens to sad music from the 80s; and Tyler, a London hotshot who owns a rival ad agency. Her impromptu dates with Tyler are set up by her scheming aunt Vanessa (played by the great Bebe Neuwirth). But secretly, in her heart, she still pines for Owen. Does he still love her? Does she still love him? And which is more important – her career or her love life?

Modern Persuasion – as the title suggests – is a contemporary take on the Jane Austen novel. Parties in the Hamptons replace balls in stately mansions, but the story seems essentially the same (I say “seems” because I haven’t read Persuasion, but I have seen a lot of Jane Austen movie knock-offs.) Beautiful women, especially Wren, dress in modern versions of romantic gowns, while the brooding / aloof / duplicitous men are all handsome, too. Appearance – clothes, hair, shoes, bags, looks – seems to be the great determiner in this movie. It’s cute and occasionally funny, but the plot is totally predictable, and some of the lines, especially the fake millennial-talk, are excruciating: Hashtag: Justshootme.  That said, if you’re looking for some light, shallow and inconsequential entertainment, you could do worse than Modern Persuasion.

Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue 

Dir: Jia Zhangke (past interviews here and here)

In 1942 under Mao Zedong, the Chinese Communist Party held talks in Yan’an on the role of writers and artists in a future Peoples’ Republic. They declared that literature should be written by educated peasants about their lives for other peasants to read. Fiction should serve the people and the Party, and foreign influences avoided. In Jia Zhangke’s new documentary, he looks at the effect this had on Chinese writers, by looking at four authors in chronological order: Ma Feng, Jia Pingwa, Yu Hua, and Liang Hong. The documentary interviews the writers themselves but also has random villagers reciting lines from the works directly toward the camera, in the style of Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung.

Ma Feng was a writer in early Communist China. Born a peasant, he later became a writer lauded by the party. Locals in the model community Jia Family Village still talk about his innovations, like freedom to marry for love (rather than arranged marriages) and communal work teams that tackled major problems like making salty soil fit to grow crops. He was a fruit of the Yan’an Talks and studied at the Lu Xun Academy, where Western styles were frowned upon and a number of writers were purged. Ma Feng brought his learnings back to his village.

 Jia Zhangke next looks at Jia Pingwa (no relation). His ambitions were thwarted in the 1960s because his dad once attended an opera in Xi’an registered through a local warlord (before liberation). Because of this record, he was declared a spy for the KMT, and his children were also labeled counter-revolutionaries. Jia Pingwa finally broke from his tainted background by painting 8-character slogans on a stone cliff beside a reservoir (he had good handwriting.)  He’s now a noted writer.

Yu Hua is a popular novelist who used to be a dentist, a profession he hated. Although born in the beautiful city of Hangzhou, his family moved to a backwater, and lived near a morgue (an early influence). He talks about his first published stories (in the 1980s) in the prestigious magazine Harvest, and how the caring editor explained that while his writing was good, one story was too gloomy, and required a happy ending. He quickly obliged.

And Liang Hong, who was a PhD student in the 2000s tells harrowing memories of her childhood

on a farm, including spouse abuse, hunger and suicide.

Altogether, Jia Zhangke subtly reveals modern Chinese writers and how they weathered the Cultural Revolution, censorship, anti-foreign sentiments, and conformity of thought while still producing great works of literature. (I have’t read any of these authors.)

Like all of Jia Zhangke’s documentaries, Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue is slow-paced and subtle, but profound. I found it quite moving, especially the authors’ own recollections. Beautifully shot, it’s divided into 18 short chapters, each one beginning with a written text. While academic in tone, and aimed more at those interested in Chinese art, politics and history than regular fans of Jia Zhangke’s movies, I quite enjoyed it.

Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue opens today exclusively at the Digital TIFF Bell Lightbox; and Songbird and Modern Persuasion both open digitally and theatrically across North America; check your local listings

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

Daniel Garber talks with Jia Zhang-ke about his new film Ash is Purest White

Posted in 1990s, 2000s, China, Crime, Migrants, Movies, Romance, Women by CulturalMining.com on March 22, 2019

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

Photo of Jia Zhang-ke (left) by Jeff Harris.

Qiao is the girlfriend of a smalltime hood in a dingy mining city in northern China. She is confident, pretty and fiercely loyal. But after a violent showdown on a downtown street, she ends up taking the fall for him. She serves five years in prison. When she is released she discovers her one-time lover has abandoned her.

Will her journey across China — to find her ex-lover and reestablish her reputation — bring her what she wants?

Ash is Purest White is a new Chinese feature that played at Cannes and TIFF. It’s a passionate melodrama that chronicles China’s changes as it modernizes, as seen by a gangster and his moll. It is written and directed by one of China’s best and most famous filmmakers, Jia Zhang-ke.

I spoke to Jia Zhang-ke in New York City via telephone from CIUT 89.5 FM in Toronto.

Ash is Purest White opens today in Toronto.

Eurasia. Movies reviewed: Mountains May Depart, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Sing Street

Posted in 1980s, Afghanistan, China, Ireland, Journalism, Musical, Romance, Science Fiction by CulturalMining.com on March 11, 2016

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

Europe and Asia, despite what some people think, are part of the same continent: Eurasia. This week I’m looking at movies set on the Eurasian landmass, from the far east to the extreme west. There’s a love triangle set in a rapidly westernizing China, a true story about expat journalists in Afghanistan, and a coming-of-age musical set in Ireland.

48V7xJ_MOUNTAINSMAYDEPART_03_o3_8667537_1438094807Mountains May Depart

Wri/Dir: Jia Zhangke

It’s 1999 and a mining town China prepares for the new millennium. Especially Tao (Zhao Tao) who is a pretty, young performer. She’s being courted by two men. Liangzi (Liang Jingdong) is a brash but nice guy, brimming with confidence. He works in the mine store. Equally confident, but self-centred and vengeful, is Zhang Jinsheng (Zhang Yi). He’s rich and Liangzi isn’t. She wants to be friends with both of them. But she has to choose, and she chooses the one with money over vgRA2n_MOUNTAINSMAYDEPART_04_o3_8667554_1438094737the one she loves.

They have one son they name Daole or “Dollar”, named after the US dollar, what Zhang desires most. Tao stays in the mining town, while her husband moves to the city to rule his burgeoning financial empire and satisfy his perverse obsession with guns. And their son, Dollar, is sent off to a private English-language boarding school in far-off Shanghai.

GZzj65_MOUNTAINSMAYDEPART_01_o3_8667519_1438094794The second part of the movie jumps to the near future. Dollar lives in Australia now and only speaks English. He has distant memories of his country and his mother and transfers his feelings onto a rootless, Chinese-Canadian teacher named Mia (Sylvia Chang).

The movie then reveals what has become of Liangzi, Jinsheng and Tao – the original three characters.

Jia Zhangke is one of the best filmmakers in China, and a personal favourite. He has a unique style and feel that exposes the flaws and idiosycracies of modern China. But always in a funny satirical or shocking way. What other Chinese director would start his movie with people dancing on a stage to the Village People? It looks like one of his first movies Platform (2000). That said, this isn’t his best work. The first half is a good classic Chinese melodrama, but the second half, with its prediction of China’s future, feels empty in comparison.

12803308_192044051164344_2982674369886159417_nWhiskey, Tango, Foxtrot

Dir: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa (based on Kim Barker’s memoirs)

It’s the early 2000s. Kim Baker (Tina Fey) is a network TV newswriter whose career is going nowhere fast. So she jumps at the chance to relocate to a place grabbing all the headlines: Kabul, Afghanistan. She says goodbye to her boyfriend and takes off. But as soon as she arrives she sees it’s not what she expected. She’s shocked by the unvarnished crudity of the other expats. But she also exalts in her new status. She has, at her disposal, a buff kiwi bodyguard, a smart Afghan translator, and a local fixer, to name just a few. A blonde Aussie reporter named Tanya (Margot Robbie) takes her under her wing.  She says, “In New York City you’re a 6 or a 7, but here you’re a borderline ten.” Tanya also tells her who to get to know, and who to avoid. And above all, to watch out for12362989_139342373101179_5125622253715911362_o the womanizing lush Iain (Martin Freeman: The Hobbit) a Scottish journalist.

Aside from drinkin’, dancin’, cussin’, and screwing around, she also has to file stories. She’s embedded with a Marine battalion, under the misogynistic General Hollanek (Billy-Bob Thornton.) But she manages to find some real news, even venturing out of the insular, foreign enclave in Kabul (or “Ka-bubble” as Tanya calls it). Will her new digs bring her fame and fortune? Or is it a bottomless pit that swallows journalists whole?

This movie is a fictionalized account of print journalist Kim Barker’s stint as an expat in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It’s an enjoyable movie and Tina Fey and company give a good sense of what it’s like to live there as a foreigner. What it doesn’t give is what it’s like to be an Afghan. There are some good scenes of an Afghan wedding, and she has a bit of professional contact with locals like Sadiq (Alfred Molina) a sleazy government minister, but nothing that challenges existing stereotypes.

And the Afghan women in burqas? Completely silent.

12771938_228217334192440_5486446044202041047_oSing Street

Wri/Dir: John Carney

Cosmo (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is a middle-class kid at a private Jesuit school in Dublin in the 1980s. He lives at home with his parents, his little sister and older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) a pothead who dropped out of college. But when his family falls on hard times he is sent to a rougher school run by the Christian Brothers. (Canadians know the name from the Mt Cashel orphanage in St John’s, Newfoundland, notorious for its horrific abuses.) The school is run by men in black priestly gowns from neck to feet, pgo441_singstreet_02_o3_8934407_1453302712and who are not adverse to corporal punishment. They make it their goal to crush every hint of non-conformity. Cosmo gets bullied from day one, especially by a skinhead. But all is not lost. Because across the street he sees a beautiful girl who looks like a model who just stepped out of a Duran Duran video. She even has a proper model’s name: Raphina (Lucy Boynton). Thinking quickly, he invites her to star in his band’s video for their next song – and she agrees. Only problem is, there’s no video, no song, and no band. Somehow Cosmo has to make it all happen. He meets Eamon (Mark McKenna) and together they start writing songs. Soon, they turn into new wave rock stars complete with appropriate make-up and frosted hair. But will they have it all ready in time for the school prom and before Raphena leaves for London?

Something about this movie grabs me – I really like it. It’s your basic boy-meets-girl/ coming-of-age story, and it’s set in the 80s, but there’s nothing old or tired about it. Sing Street feels fresh and new featuring young actors and musicians who are all amazing.

Sing Street, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, and Mountains May Depart all open today in Toronto: check your local listings.

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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