Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 9, 2016

Three Asian films

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 11:04 pm

The three films under review here reflect to one degree or another the social contradictions of Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan, the respective homelands of the three directors. All are worth watching but the first is an exceptional work that will likely be at the top of my recommended films for 2016, namely “Unlucky Plaza”, a black comedy that has a plot similar to “Dog Day Afternoon” but incorporating the mordant sensibility of the hallowed Nathaniel West.

“Unlucky Plaza” derives its title from Lucky Plaza, the well-known Singapore shopping center where Filipino immigrant Onassis Hernandez (Jeffrey Quizon) owns and operates a restaurant named Porko’s that was meant to introduce the city-state’s denizens to his homeland’s cuisine. Unfortunately, things have taken a turn for the worse ever since his psychologically unbalanced Chinese chef, who he trained in the Filipino cuisine, decided to mix his bowel movement into a stew. Hernandez is in deep financial straits because of the payments made to the customers who got sick as well as a loss of business after the word got out. The reputation of Porko’s is even lower than Chipotle’s if you can imagine that.

As fate would have it, Onassis is conned into paying a $10,000 deposit on a luxurious apartment in the city’s best neighborhood at half the customary rent. Since he is about to be evicted from his current dwelling for being three months in arrears, his options are limited. Sitting at a bar nursing a beer and brooding over his misfortunes, Onassis is approached by a ravishingly beautiful woman in a slinky red dress on the stool next to him who offers to buy him a drink. This offer is tantamount to the serpent offering Eve an apple.

The woman is Michelle Chia, the wife of ex-actor and now superstar motivational speaker Terence Chia. She needs the money to finance her getaway from Singapore where she hopes to start a new life with her lover Tong Wen, the pastor of her church. Her decision to leave her husband was based partly on her unquenchable sexual desire for the diffident priest who has the manner of Clark Kent and partly on the gargantuan misdeeds of her husband whose gambling addiction has now led to a $400,000 debt to the Chinese mafia.

When he is sitting at table signing his latest “How to get rich in 10 easy steps” book, a gangster by the name of “Baby Bear” sidles up to Terrence Chia to warn him that unless he pays back the debt in a week or so, he will be killed.

When Onassis shows up at his new apartment a day after moving in, he is shocked to discover that it has been turned overnight into a brothel. Michelle and the priest conned him out of his $10,000 and the Chinese mafia has wasted no time turning it to their advantage.

He then tracks down the pastor who pretended to be a realtor and forces him with his son’s toy gun to drive to Michelle’s palatial home, where “Baby Bear” has the husband and wife cornered. The husband’s time is up and he be allowed just a couple of days to pay off the debt, being mollified for the moment by Onassis’s $10,000 that he has discovered in Michelle’s suitcase. She was packed and ready to go just as Onassis waltzed in with the pastor at gunpoint.

Onassis has no other agenda except getting his money back. When the gangster discovers that the pistol is only a toy, he tells him to get lost or else he would shoot him with a real gun. Blind with rage and desperation, he drives back to his restaurant, retrieves a traditional Filipino meat cleaver, and returns posthaste to get what he is owed. In a brief but violent confrontation with Baby Bear, he strikes the first blow—chopping off the gangster’s hand.

That leaves him with his money but still without any hope. The only solution is to leave Singapore with his son and go to some other country, maybe back to the Philippines. He ties up the pastor, the gangster, and the husband and wife with duct tape, takes out his smart phone and posts a video on Facebook announcing that unless the authorities provide him with a helicopter, he will begin killing the hostages one by one. The video goes viral and within minutes there are cops and spectators massed in front of the building, reprising the plot of “Dog Day Afternoon” but with an emphasis on black comedy rather than pathos. For example, the husband tells him that Singapore will never provide a helicopter since the authorities would prefer to see him and his hostages dead. His problem, the husband continues, is that he has seen too many movies–ostensibly including “Dog Day Afternoon”.

Ken Kwek wrote and directed “Unlucky Plaza”. His last film, which was made in 2012 and titled “Sex, Violence, Family Values”, aspired to be the dirtiest ever made about the world’s cleanest city. Singapore, as you may know, banned chewing gum in 1992 because the government was upset over how discarded wads were defacing public property. Violators were fined $700 but that was a mere bagatelle compared to the public canings that were a legacy of British rule and continue to this day. Kwek was not caned for making this film but the authorities punished him instead by having it banned in Singapore. The ban was lifted a year later under the pressure from those in positions of power who recognized the quality of his work and his acclaim internationally. As a sign of his prestige, “Unlucky Plaza” opened the 2014 Singapore Film Festival.

The film opened yesterday at the Cinema Village in New York. I give it my highest possible rating.

“My Voice, My Life” is a documentary directed by Ruby Yang about a musical production in Hong Kong that drew upon the talents of students drawn from “Band 3” high schools and those from schools serving the visually impaired. It was among the many I received from the studios in conjunction with the 2015 NYFCO awards meeting and that I am trying to catch up with now after having screened and voted upon the more mainstream fare.

I am not sure whether American public schools still maintain a tracking system but back in my day we had exactly the same system. There was an A group for those who would be applying to the best private schools like Columbia University (thank god I went to Bard instead) and the elite state schools such as the U. of Buffalo. The B group students ended up at NYU, which was a party school back then and little else, or state teacher’s colleges such as Albany State. The C group students had little to hope for except a high school diploma and a job as a guard at the local prison or with the department of transportation. As such, the C groups students, who were mostly Christian and farm boys, were the worst discipline problems because they had the lowest self-esteem.

Hong Kong’s tracking system generates the same problems. The film is about the efforts of adults and youngsters alike to transcend society’s expectations. Like Singapore, Hong Kong is a very elitist society. For the teens in starring roles or in the chorus line, it is a daily struggle to break old habits, especially smoking in the bathroom.

The film is weakened by a failure to explain what made adults decide to launch such a program and to convey anything about the musical that we see being rehearsed throughout the film. If it was “West Side Story”, we’d have no such problem. That being said, the film is captivating in its ability to show how society’s outcasts can come into their own once they are given some encouragement. I recommend this film especially to any of my readers who are public school teachers. It will make for some productive conversations with your students, especially those who have something in common with these gifted but troubled students. Look for the film when it eventually shows up on VOD.

I have to confess that “The Assassins”, another film received for the NYFCO awards, was not likely to appeal to me because it was far more interested in visual impact rather than conventional story-telling techniques and character development. With an 82 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, most critics on the positive side of the ledger said something like this MinneapolisStar Tribune film reviewer:

Nie Yinniang (the radiant Shu Qi) is a martial arts master and unstoppable secret executioner returning to her homeland after spending a generation in exile, tasked with assassinating her former betrothed. To be frank, I found the Kabuki-style reserve of the acting, the understated dialogue and the provincial conflicts of the plot line confusing. Nevertheless, the attention to the complex look of the film, from the smallest details of fabric to the jaw-dropping long shots of landscapes filmed in Inner Mongolia, is utterly amazing. Worth seeing for the cinematography alone.

I guess I am not that much into cinematography unless it is matched to a compelling script like “2001: Space Odyssey” or for that matter most Japanese or Chinese period films. For example, I regard “Sansho the Bailiff” the greatest film ever made even though its pacing was slower than “The Assassins”. It was worth seeing not only for the cinematography but also for the powerful human drama about two children trying to reunite with their mother. If the trailer above gets your juices flowing, look for it on VOD in a few months.

Also of interest was the film’s connection to the ongoing conflict between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China. “The Assassins” is set in 9th century China when the imperial court sought to suppress the rebellious province of Weibo, seen by many as a metaphor for Taiwan. Director Hou Hsiao-Hsien is Taiwanese and is regarded as a powerful voice against Chinese domination. In fact, I probably will track down his 1989 “A City of Sadness” that was regarded by some participating in the British Film Institute poll as one of the 10 greatest ever made. Wikipedia states:

A City of Sadness is a 1989 Taiwanese historical drama film directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien. It tells the story of a family embroiled in the tragic “White Terror” that was wrought on the Taiwanese people by the Kuomintang government (KMT) after their arrival from mainland China in the late 1940s, during which thousands of Taiwanese were rounded up, shot, and/or sent to prison. The film was the first to deal openly with the KMT’s authoritarian misdeeds after its 1945 takeover of Taiwan, which had been restored to China following Japan’s defeat in WWII, and the first to depict the February 28 Incident of 1947, in which thousands of people were massacred.

1 Comment »

  1. “A City of Sadness” is a tremendous film, part of Hou’s exploration of 20th Century Taiwanese history through film. His subsequent effort in this vein, “The Puppet Master”, is even better, rightly considered by some as a world cinema masterpiece. Still remember seeing it in the theatre, mesmerized by its manipulation of narrative and emotional engagement. It is one of my favorite 20-25 films ever made.

    For more information on “The Puppet Master”, go here:

    http://www.allmovie.com/movie/the-puppetmaster-v179438/review

    For more on “A City of Sadness”, go here:

    http://www.allmovie.com/movie/city-of-sadness-v174135/review

    I can’t recommend these films highly enough.

    Comment by Richard Estes — January 11, 2016 @ 3:17 am


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