Like last year's series, the selections are all over the map in more ways than one. Nine films from nine different countries, from the great to the very silly. Most notable is A Single Spark, from Park Kwang-su, arguably Korea's best filmmaker this side of Im Kwon-taek. It's a wrenching look at life under a dictatorship, and the making of a radical. A fugitive writer in 1975 is working on a biography of the life of a political martyr from the '60s. The film slips back and forth between the two decades, and between black-and-white and color, in a structure so beautiful that even a simple dissolve from one time period to the other can be as tender and heartbreaking as are the stories themselves. Devastating and illuminating, A Single Spark is the one unmissable film in the series.
Made by a former director of commercials, Fun, Bar, Karaoke (Thailand) shamelessly plunders every hipster movie ever made, from The Graduate to Reservoir Dogs, with a heaping helping of (who else?) Wong Kar-wai to seal its post-postmodern credentials. Pu is a teen-age girl having ominous dreams about her dead mother. Her father is a rogue who's in big trouble with a mobster for spending too much time with his favorite moll. Pu goes to hilarious lengths to avert her father's almost inevitable rub-out. The story's unlikely, the characters are unconvincing, and you'll groan at the film's self-referentiality, but Fun, Bar, Karaoke makes up for it all with its energetic impertinence. Slight, but fun.
You can't film a spirit, and that's the problem with movies about spiritual journeys like Deep River (Japan). Three Japanese travel to the holy city of Benares in India, each on a quest to fill an empty hole in his life. The film is a fine travelogue of sacred Indian sites, but listening to a bunch of depressed characters talk endlessly about their search for spiritual fulfillment is like being trapped at a party with a chatty crystal healer. Long, dull, earnest, humorless -- and Toshiro Mifune, in one of his last roles, is on for all of two minutes.
Carnal Desire (Taiwan/Hong Kong) depicts another kind of journey, albeit with considerably more humor and plenty of T&A to boot. The 1991 Hong Kong hit Sex and Zen is virtually a shot-by-shot remake of this story of a well-to-do scholar determined to sleep with every beautiful woman in China. Yes, it includes the penis transplant (his own equipment being less than impressive) but, unlike the outrageous Sex and Zen, Carnal Desire is a mild, occasionally amusing soft-core flick.
12 Storeys (Singapore) follows the denizens of three apartments in a govern-ment-subsidized apartment block. It's an ambitious idea -- a panoramic look at the very unhappy lives behind the sterile public smile the government mandates -- but in the event it's just 100 painful minutes of unpleasant, pathetic people screaming and whining at each other in half a dozen different languages.
The Red Doors (India) and Milagros (Philippines) are both solemn melodramas about crumbling families. The Red Doors depicts a loveless, middle-aged marriage suffering from an acute case of inertia, as well as a fixation with the long-lost past of childhood delight (he daydreams of his youth) and passionate love (she's making time with an old flame). In Milagros, an ex-stripper moves in with a family to help pay off her dead father's debts. Her guilelessness and casual sexuality tear the family apart. Both films are fascinating attempts to dissect the modern social forces eating away at their traditional worlds, and both end on strangely metaphysical notes.
Mad Phoenix (Hong Kong) is an epic, decades-spanning comedy/drama that follows the life of Kiang-yu Kou, a celebrated but singularly noxious Cantonese Opera playwright. It's a handsome period piece, with lots of colorful backstage detail and an impressive, go-for-broke performance by Tse Kwan-ho as the pompous, asshole genius. It's an old-fashioned family film, with a forced charm and sentimentality that's intended strictly for your parents.
The Opium War (China) is also an epic -- the overstuffed, lumbering kind that aims to impress with its cast of thousands and historical scope. It's the "official" Chinese version of the conflict that led to Britain annexing Hong Kong; it was released last July 1 to celebrate the return of the colony to China. Though not nearly as self-serving as it could have been (after all, any way you look at it, the British were the bad guys in this one), it's ham-handed and decidedly unthrilling -- a historical curiosity only.
-- Tod Booth
New Asian Cinema runs at the Four Star, 2200 Clement (at 23rd Avenue), Wednesday through next Thursday, May 20-28. For a complete schedule, see Reps Etc., Page 158.