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April 28, 2014

Far East Film Festival - Day Four

nobodys child.jpg
Josephine Siao in Nobody's Child

Another restored film to start the day: Nobody's Child (Kuer liulang ji). Released in February of 1960, Bu Wancang has a film that is quite different from other Hong Kong films I've seen from that era with its country settings. Aside from my interest in Hong Kong films from that time, the big draw was seeing Josephine Siao as a child star, eleven years old at the initial time of filming. Additionally, there is the "Denver connection" at work here, as Ms. Siao, received her Master's in Child Psychology from Regis University as part of her segue way from acting full-time.

Young Mei enjoys life on the small farm. Her absentee father, unseen for eight years, returns following an injury to his leg. It is then that Mei discovers that she was adopted by the woman she has called mother. An elderly street performer takes Mei under his wing, where the young girl learns to spin plates, sing and juggle. The street performer gets arrested for supposedly beating up to bigger and younger men, and Mei is left to travel and perform alone with a monkey and three dogs. She is temporarily adopted by another kindly woman who lives on a boat, acting as companion to the woman's bedridden daughter. The street performer is released from jail after two months, and Mei rejoins him for the itinerant. Disaster hits the pair when they are stuck in snow country, with the old street performer freezing to death. Young Mei is rescued by a family staying just long enough to say goodbye to the only kind paternal figure she has known, before hitting the road for the town she thinks of as home.

For those who only know Josephine Siao as Jet Li's mom from the two "Fong Sai Yuk" movies made a little more than thirty years later, here we can see that Siao has been a gifted physical performer well before she became a character actress. Lo Wei, latter to be best known for directing the pair of Bruce Lee movies that became international hits, is seen here as the "father" who pushes Mei out of the only home she has known. The digital restoration was from a 16 mm print, that show some deterioration in the beginning, from the Hong Kong Film Archive. The scenes in the snow were filmed in Hokkaido, Japan. Siao also sings three songs, one, about mothers, was a popular hit. Yeah, it's a tearjerker, but I can live with that.

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Brontosaurus Love poster

On a far more cheerful note comes Brontosaurus Love (Cinta Brontosaurus). As I understand it, the movie is more about the misadventures of Raditya Dika after he published his book of the same title. Playing himself, Dika finds himself thoroughly discouraged in looking for love, certain that no relationship can last more than six months. A chance meeting with Jessica looks to be the change needed, but as expected, the road to true love is never smooth. Indonesian films rarely get festival screenings stateside, but hopefully this very charming film will be an exception.

Much of that charm comes in the form of cutie-pie Eriska Rein whose Jessica matches Dika for some off-center humor, but also has a sense of awareness that Dika eventually gains by the end of the film. Among the comic moments are the first date at a French restaurant where Dika is finds the menu unpronounceable, followed by the pair eating instant noodles on the roof of a gas station. Dika is talked into selling the rights to his book to a director of horror movies. This allows for satire with a director whose pretensions are even more foolish than his series of movies involving zombie nurses.

Black Coal, Thin Ice poster

It's been noted by others that in Hitchcock's films, you sometimes can't tell whether two characters are trying to kill each other or kiss each other. There is such a moment in Black Coal, Thin Ice (Bai ri yan huo) when the ex-cop played by Liao Fan is on a ferris wheel with mystery woman Gwei Lun-Mei one cold winter night. That the film has made its stateside debut at the Tribeca Film Festival suggests that it is being fast tracked for distribution rather than waiting for the usual Fall showcase. Certainly a film that begins with a shot of a dismembered arm on a coal conveyor belt is indication that officially sanctioned films from mainland China have moved quite a distance from the historical dramas that were the usual mainland fare.

One wonderful scene is of Liao visiting his ex-wife at her dance studio, and doing a joyful solo dance to a disco song, a scene of unexpected exuberance that reminded me of a similar moment in Bertolucci's Luna. There is also a moment where we just see the close up of hands, the rebuff of touching, and what appear to be hand signals. That this film won the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival may set off unmatched expectations of what is onscreen, but there is enough going on to make this another film worth seeking out.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at April 28, 2014 10:30 AM