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.
San Diego Asian Film Festival (#1–10 of 6)
Apichatpong Weerasethakul sees all sorts of beings in the jungle. He hears their cries, studies their footprints, and tracks their desires. But instead of positioning these supernatural urges and symbols within a familiar art-house construct, the master Thai filmmaker relishes their company in elongated set pieces, watching the many possibilities slowly crawl through his densely layered compositions and sound design. In this sense, his is a cinema of spirits, but also their human reflections, a parallel relationship built on the foundation of mythology and spirituality. Weerasethakul’s latest treasure Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives played a late-night screening during the stretch run of the San Diego Asian Film Festival, providing local cinephile’s a rare theatrical window into the director’s challenging and beautiful headspace.
The film begins in the darkness, where a water buffalo unhinges its rope string and walks freely into the jungle. The space doesn’t just echo with noises of the night; these audible cues beckon the animal toward someplace new and staggering. Then, the silhouette of an upright beast fills the frame, its blood-red eyes piercing deep into the lens. A rare day shot follows, bringing relatives to the titular Boonmee’s (Thanapat Saisaymar) house for a family reunion of sorts. Boonmee doesn’t let a failing kidney stop him from hosting a small gathering, and this dinner scene transitions the film from a natural tone to mysteriously poetic.
House of Suh (Iris Shim, 2010). Much like John Kastner’s masterful crime documentary Life With Murder, Iris Shim’s House of Suh looks into the eyes of a young murderer and finds an evolving mystery yet to be solved. Both nonfiction films unfold like great thrillers, revealing key information slowly and deliberately at crucial parts of the story. But each consistently considers the layers of human trauma under investigation, exploring the hidden evil lurking just behind the memories and reflections of various talking heads. The title of the film refers to Andrew and his sister Catherine Suh, first generation Korean American siblings who were both convicted of planning and executing the murder of Catherine’s boyfriend Robert O’Dubaine in Chicago on September 25, 1993. Shim begins the film with a brilliantly precise family tree of all parties comprised of intricate animated etchings—connecting these characters on a superficial level only to reveal later on how fragile those links are in truth. Interviews with Andrew (now serving a 100-year sentence in federal prison), other Suh family members, O’Dubaine’s brother Kevin Koran, and various lawyers from each side make up the core analysis of the film, and Shim’s calculated layering of perspectives allows this seemingly open and closed case to grow more complex and insidious. “My identity is the one Catherine developed for me,” Andrew states late in the film, confounding the audience’s perception of his guilt even in the face of obvious misconduct. Despite all the procedural jargon and psychological analysis, House of Suh has a dark neo-noir heart pumping deception, betrayal, blackmail, and manipulation through the narrative with sly precision and unflinching honesty. It’s a devastating example of the American dream hollowed out by the rot of tradition and expectation. Hilariously, the devastating true story was notoriously remade into an all-Anglo television movie, as if the crime itself was okay to represent but the fact that the perpetrators were Asian was off limits.
City of Life and Death (Lu Chuan, 2009). Most war films depend on the physical movement of bodies, bullets, and explosions to expose the horrors of combat. But Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death, a black-and-white nightmare about the notorious Rape of Nanking by the invading Japanese army in 1938, communicates the impact of both overt atrocities and interior heartbreaks entirely through facial expressions, specifically via the eyes of each main character. Throughout the opening battle scene between the last remaining Chinese soldiers and the better equipped Japanese army, there’s an emphasis on perspective and point-of-view shots, a nonverbal back and forth between soldiers that reverts the filmmaking back to a more primal form of communication. Afterward, when the countless executions and rapes begin, dialogue remains minimally restrained to the necessary pleas for salvation and fair treatment. Instead of dialogue, Chuan advances the narrative through potent and piercing off-screen sound design, alluding to the exponential victims just beyond the frame.
Macho Like Me (Helie Lee, 2010). At first glance, this low-budget documentary/one-woman show about author Helie Lee’s six-month stint living as a man has gimmick written all over it. The opening act curdled with stereotypical jokes about Asian family dynamics, female insecurity, and male oppression certainly seems to justify concern, but somewhere between the silly PowerPoint-like presentations and pandering admissions, Lee’s experiment shifts from being a one-note ploy to an honest, vulnerable examination of what it means to be a man in today’s world. After cutting her hair, dressing in men’s clothing, and attempting to deepen her voice, Lee’s devotion to the study gets challenged immediately. “Everything you do is so graceful,” a friend says to Lee during an early stage of the film, implying that even when dressed as a boy her femininity exudes from the façade. Over time, Lee learns to subdue movement, language, and expression to pass off as a man. Throughout the process, Lee’s facial structure changes and she becomes emotionally disillusioned, beginning to understand the stark contradictions haunting her understanding of the male perspective. What starts out as a critique of male-gender advantages soon turns into an unexpected personal enlightenment for this female filmmaker.
Every cinephile wants to experience something special, singular, and rare in their collective pursuit of all things cinema. But most importantly, all of us want to experience it first. If you’re an obsessive consumer of movies living in America’s most beautiful city, San Diego, CA, in this sense life can be tough. Ignoring the multiplexes for a moment, there aren’t many local theatrical sanctuaries catering to our daily cravings for film, let alone providing something special, singular, and rare. Reading about East Coast screenings, European festival runs, and auteur-driven retrospectives on the Internet only confounds the emotional pain. Our local Landmark Cinemas valiantly programs challenging works like Enter the Void or the latest Janus reissue, and library screenings give exposure to under-seen documentary and foreign films. But there’s always a sense that we’re late to the party, arriving after everyone else is drunk off the Kook-Aid. My lifelong response has been annual trips up to Los Angeles to visit LACMA or the American Cinematheque, a shared ritual with a few devoted friends who also feel the necessity of seeing movies like The Conformist on the big screen or watch a Budd Boetticher triple feature. But these experiences only whet the appetite for something more, something new, something first.