Don't Go Breaking My Heart. Not simply a house of mirrors reflecting the soullessness of our Internet age, each sprawling urban surface in Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai's effortless romantic comedy Don't Go Breaking My Heart is a potential window to heartfelt emotional connection. This great Hong Kong directing duo, known primarily for directing balletic actioneers, tweaks the standard conventions of the genre to make the love triangle between a downtrodden architect (Daniel Wu), a mid-level worker bee (Yuanyuan Gao), and a womanizing C.E.O. (Louis Koo) feel altogether fresh. The most notable subversion comes during the traditional meet-cute sequences where two characters see each other for the first time from their office windows, flirting via vaudeville-like performances and mosaics painted with colorful Post-it Notes. It's a lovely visual motif that favors space and distance as opposed to the classic verbal diarrhea most American romantic comedies use as a crutch. Throughout Don't Go Breaking My Heart, relationships are created with physical movement yet emotions are transferred through modern-day technology. In this sense, To and Wai establish a seamless relationship between camera, perspective, and space, allowing the charms of each character to flourish from afar, in poetic buffoonery. Considering the film's glassy mise-en-scène, layers of physical space often misdirect point of view, primarily because of angle, complicating emotional entanglements in a wonderfully postmodern way. I can't think of a cinematic concrete jungle that is this moonstruck.
Ninja Kids!!!. More a free-form jam session than an actual film, Takashi Miike's Ninja Kids!!! lacks any semblance of a coherent narrative. The basic premise is simple: A young ruffian named Rantaro (Seishirô Katô) leaves home for a Hogwarts-like school for burgeoning ninjas. But after a comparatively logical introduction of the school itself, including specialty classes (cliff climbing, weaponry), kooky instructors, and gleefully violent training montages, Ninja Kids!!! jumps the narrative rails completely, descending into a series of frenetic set pieces that are pure anarchy. A jarring plot shift midway through the film concerning two warring clans who decide to compete in an epic endurance-test series introduces one new character after another, blurring the importance of the ninja kids themselves. Miike is obviously operating in gonzo mode here after the pure classicism of 13 Assassins and Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, and his narrative looseness opens up nicely in the early moments. But the lack of structure and tangible conflict ultimately becomes too much to bear, and this cute film with such a badass name ends in a rather unsatisfying fashion. Enough of the goofing off Mr. Miike, give us something to chew on.
Aftershock. The only thing worse than pandering propaganda is overtly sentimental propaganda. China's biggest grossing movie (big surprise), Aftershock is one of those barn-burning slices of nationalist pride strategically primed to well up every pair of eyes in the house. The Tangshan earthquake of 1976 gets the movie shaking, killing countless Chinese with CGI buildings crumbling and crashing like a gigantic malfunctioning Lego set. A mother is pushed into a Sophie's Choice-like situation when her twin children are both crushed under a concrete slab. She ultimately chooses the boy over the girl, leaving her daughter behind despite the fact she's still alive! I guess checking her pulse was too much trouble. Left alone and shell-shocked, the young girl is adopted by a PLA military couple helping with the relief effort. Communism wins often in Aftershock. Over the course of two-plus hours of maddening melodrama, the film examines how both sides of the family go on living without crossing paths. Of course, it takes another natural disaster, the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, to propel the long-lost siblings back together after 35 years apart. Some have been taken with the strong performances, but none of that matters when the narrative is so seeped in reductive ideological manipulation. This bloated mess sticks in my craw like no other film of recent memory.
A City of Sadness. A cinematic behemoth, something grand, incomplete, and sweeping. Obviously more time is needed to completely process Hou Hsiao-hsien's masterful achievement (screened on a wonderful new 35mm print) documenting the tensions between Mainland China and Taiwan during the 1945-1949 time period that ultimately produced the devastating 228 Incident. Still, here are a few initial thoughts that reflect why this fractured examination of a nation's forlorn history/experience/identity is so essential even decades after the film's 1989 release. The way exterior long shots often capture collective violence, in contrast with interior static shots surrounding smaller groups at peace, is something for the ages. Hou has always been a filmmaker pivoting between omniscient watcher and active participant, and the parallelism between his two framing styles reveals this dichotomy to be alive and well in A City of Sadness. More so, there's a tonal clash during the brutal interior fight between characters that have been warring the entire film that brings brutally clashes these framing styles together. Also, I can't shake the stirring musical score, which contains elements of synthesizer tones and booming base that echoes across the grassy knolls of coastal Taiwan. Finally, that freeze-frame photograph of Wen-ching (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) and his new family is just eternal bliss, a single-frame autobiography that's something to cherish and ponder. By the end of A City of Sadness you realize Hou sees the world as it is, in all its contradictory glory. And Hou sees so much it's almost blinding.
The San Diego Asian Film Festival ran from October 20—28. For more information, click here.