The Great Buddha + (2018)

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Directed by Huang Hsin-yao
Country: Taiwan

From Taiwan, and mostly shot with a lucid black-and-white mesmerism, “The Great Buddha +” is an appealing comedy-drama bolstered by the noir tones of crime. Its story develops slowly yet assuredly. 
Exploring both the philosophic side of life and the mundane world of concupiscence, the debut feature of Huang Hsin-yao, who occasionally narrates at his convenience, was expanded from his 2014 short film of the same name, depicting friendship in a zany way, but with enough personality to make us care.

Crane-games aficionado and day-time recycling collector Belly Button (Bamboo Chen) is often timid, but loses any inhibition whenever he is in the company of his friend Pickle (Cres Chuang). The latter works as a night watchman in a Buddha statue factory where he spends incessantly rainy nights around adult magazines together with his friend. Pickle’s wealthy boss, Kevin Huang (Leon Dai) is usually away, amused with his new sweetheart Gucci (JC Lei), a mixed-race beauty who loves to be called ‘puta’ when having sex in the car. However, his former lover, Yeh Feng-ju (Ting Kuo-lin), a mature yet possessive woman in her forties, demands more attention from him. The imbroglio ends up in a hideous crime, which Pickle and Belly Button had the opportunity to [witness] through the colorful images captured by a dash-cam placed in Kevin’s luxurious Mercedes.

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It’s curious to see how different the two friends are. While Belly Button can’t refrain curiosity, becoming genuinely astonished by the course of events while yearning for Kevin's colorful lifestyle, Pickle is a modest man who never complains about anything. He is more concerned with his sick octogenarian mother and prefers not to meddle in his boss’ business.

Even with a few uneven episodes, the satire focuses on social class gaps and shapes into an important statement against political corruption and abusive influence in the contemporary Taiwanese society. Darkly funny and with an uncanny finale, “The Great Buddha +”, the sensation of the 54th Golden Horse Awards, provides an unusual yet incisive look at the mentioned predicaments. 

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The Road to Mandalay (2017)

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Directed by Midi Z
Country: Myanmar / Taiwan

The acerbic art-house drama “The Road to Mandalay”, a Taiwan-Myanmar-France-Germany coproduction, depicts a story centered on the adversities of illegal immigration and comes embittered by an immoderate, destructive relationship.

Burmese filmmaker Midi Z directs from a tight script of his own authorship, returning to the fictional film after releasing two documentaries in the last couple of years about jade diggers in Myanmar, “Jade Miners” and “City of Jade”.

The long opening shot shows us a woman and a man crossing a riverside on a floatable rubber ring. She is Lianqing (Wu Ke-xi), 23, a Burmese from the water-less region of Lashio, and he is an escort paid to take her to Thailand, whose border is delimited by the other margin. From there, she proceeds to a van that will finally take her to Bangkok, where a friend should be waiting for her.
 
Unexpectedly, an unselfish young man from her hometown, Guo (Kai Ko), makes his expensive front seat available to her and jumps into the trunk. Once in Bangkok, he tries to persuade her to work with him in his cousin’s textile factory, an opportunity that eventually occurs after Lianqing realize that times have changed and no respectable company, small or big, will hire her without a work permit. 

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Before starting to work in there, obviously off the books, she was washing dishes in a small restaurant but ended up arrested during an overnight police raid. It was Guo who bailed her out, yet Lianqing, unresponsive to his romantic advances, refuses to follow his ideas. Besides their clashing personalities, they want totally different things from life. While she’s willing to risk everything to get the papers that would allow her to work in the city and consequently apply for a Thai passport, he intends to return to Burma to open a small store to sell clothes imported from China.
It’s curious how this conflicting situation sometimes weighs more than the immigration problem itself.

Avoiding overdramatic strategies or major fusses, Midi Z resorts to a slow, steady pace to set the highly articulate storytelling in motion. It is bolstered by the inherent sadness of the score, magisterially composed by Lim Giong (a recurrent choice by Jia Zhangke and Hou-Hsiao Hsien), and the dispiriting visuals captured by the debutant cinematographer Tom Fan.

Bitterness and disappointment escalate as the desperate Lianqing considers a new tactic - remarkably insinuated through an intelligent surreal scene - in order to solve her problem.

When the tale seemed to get closer to a happy ending, a brutal final blow is applied, suspending our breath for a few seconds. The deliberate visual abruptness devised by another Zhangke’s regular, the editor Matthieu Laclau, only emphasizes the raw tones adopted throughout.

Both Wu Ke-xi and Kai Ko were phenomenal in their performances and Midi Z has probably in “Mandalay” his best work so far.

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The Assassin (2015)

The Assassin (2015) - Movie Review
Directed by: Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Country: Taiwan / China / others

Movie Review: “The Assassin”, directed by the genius Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien (best director at this year’s Cannes film festival) is a pure delight to watch, even if its narrative is not so expeditious in making us quickly understand the context of the story as well as the function of some characters. This artistic meditation, whose lingering development covers a period of the 9th century’s Tang dynasty, is the first wuxia martial arts film by the experienced director, who returns eight years after the enchanting French-language drama “The Flight of the Red Balloon”. The story sumptuously follows a young woman, Yinniang (Qi Shu), who was highly trained since she was a kid by a princess-turned-Maoist nun called Jiaxin (Fang-Yi Sheu), now her master, in order to become an implacable assassin. The victims picked by Jiaxin are worthless persons who committed evil crimes, and Yinniang, always in black garments, slashes them without hesitation or remorse. Anyway, certain day, she fails to accomplish a mission when she spares the life of a despiteful governor who was carrying a baby in his arms. The upset master, realizing that her pupil gained matchless skills with the sword but still wasn’t totally resolved in her heart, assigns her the toughest task of all: she will have to go back to her hometown in the Weibo province, after 13 years living in exile, and kill a cousin, Tian Jian (Chang Chen), who was promised to marry her when she was 15. Once there, she'll have to deal with her own strong feelings, not only in regard to the man she loves but also to her parents who didn’t have another option at the time but entrust her to the princess Jiaxin. For some viewers, especially those not familiar with the director’s style, “The Assassin” may seem unexciting, extended, and slow since its long takes take the time to incisively capture the picturesque landscapes, lush costumes, and splendorous sets. Hsiao-Hsien employs winning technical aspects over a very simple plot at its core in a very sui generis way. Even the fights are exquisitely crafted like in slow motion, and you never see blood or people agonizing. The filmmaker spares us to those primitive elements, finding instead a subdued tension that slowly enraptures us. It’s a distinguished, velvety art-martial movie that needs to be praised due to its originality and refinement of processes.

Stray Dogs (2013)

Stray Dogs (2013) - Movie Review
Directed by: Tsai Ming Liang
Country: Taiwan / France

Movie Review: This is not the first time that the acclaimed filmmaker, Tsai Ming Liang, accurately depicts the desolation of some miserable lives that wander on Taipei’s shore. From all his past movies, “The Hole” from 1998 is the one that gets closer to “Stray Dogs”, not in terms of plot, but in its visuals, where the constant heavy rain, muddy landscapes, and places in ruins, compose the background of a picture whose center is an alcoholic man who struggles to feed his two children. During the day, he earns some money holding up a signboard that advertises luxury apartments, while the kids spend the day in a supermarket trying to get food samples. Watching the father making an effort to stay away of alcohol by entrusting all his money to the older son, was really heartbreaking, or the satisfaction of the belly-pinched family eating at the end of the day, somewhere on a dark street. But the days in which the father changes his mind and asks for the money to drink, a deep sadness hits the heart of the kids, who unexpectedly become the protégés of a solitary woman, employee of the supermarket where they try their luck. Super-long shots with steady camera, a huge pain reflected in the characters’ eyes and captured through intense close-ups, and the gift to compose the anguish and wretchedness, are sharp arrows pointed straight to our hearts, in a way that only Ming Liang knows how to do it. In spite of my words of praise, be aware that the style demonstrated here requires some effort from the viewer. It's a powerful, intoxicating raw cinema, showing that not everybody is blessed with a good life.

Soul (2013)

Soul (2013) - Movie Review
Directed by: Chung Mong-Hong
Country: Taiwan

Movie Review: “Soul” is the kind of film that astonishes us through its images but whose story doesn’t meet entirely our expectations. This psychological thriller with hints of horror starts with A-Chuan, collapsing in the restaurant where he works. The doctors don’t find anything abnormal, suspecting of depression, while his co-workers describe his recent behavior as very odd. A-Chuan goes to live with his family on top of the mountains, but doesn’t recognize his father and sister. Tragedy occurs when he murders the latter, making a dark association with his father, Wang, who hides obscure past secrets and reveals a mysterious detachment in relation to his daughter’s death. Curiously, A-Chuan admits to be someone else who seeks for an identity, having occupied the body left by the real A-Chuan. A game of connected dreams and contact with the dead begins, taking the film to eerie places, only sent to reality again with the arrival of a constable brought by Little Wu, a police officer and old acquainted of the family. The film was able to create the tension intended, and the killing scenes were simply fabulous, set up almost in slow motion and interrupted by momentarily black screens. However, the Lynchian script, written by the Taiwanese director Chung Mong-Hong, was perhaps too ambitious and is not exempt of holes and setbacks. Other aspect that wasn’t always keen was the dark humor presented. Magnificently shot and sophisticatedly executed, “Soul” is a feast for the eyes but a bit too nebulous for the mind.

Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow (2013)

Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow (2013) - Movie Review
Directed by: Arvin Chen
Country: Taiwan

Movie Review: Taiwanese-American Arvin Chen’s second feature-film uses appeaser tones to depict sexuality issues and uncertainty in life. The film gives us a sort of lesson by concentrating a couple of stories that oppose each other. Weichung seems happily married with Feng, with whom he had a son, but their relationship lacks fire and life becomes monotonous for both. The reason is that Weichung is gay, and during nine years he tried to deceive himself by thinking he could live the ‘normal’ family life he had carefully planned. On the other hand, Weichung’s sister, Mandy, suddenly cancels her wedding with San-San because she’s afraid of the future and routine tasks of a married woman. The themes are strong and legitimate but the ethereal tones and predominating floating score presented throughout the film, paints everything pinky too quickly. We get aware of the problems almost only through the characters’ expression, with Cheng trying to avoid real conflict among the characters. I believed he tried to create a charming atmosphere, but analyzing the adopted approach and looking deeper, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” was not so original or special, despite the humanity revealed. In the final we get everyone happy and a smiley future will shine for all the involved, whether through togetherness or separation. A generous drama, yet just a bit soapy for me…

Touch of the Light (2012)

Touch of the Light (2012) - Movie Review
Directed by: Rong-ji Chang
Country: Taiwan

Movie Review: “Touch Of the Light” is a soapy drama based on true events that constantly tests your patience with its sweetness and all-smile characters. The story follows two teenagers who are searching for recognition in what they love most. Siang (played by himself), blind since childbirth and with a special ear for music, is trying to adapt himself to his new school where he studies piano, while Jie (Sandrine Pinna) is unhappy working in a drink shop and wants to dance professionally. The two will bump into each other by chance and the encounter will be fruitful for both. Nothing stood out in this romanticized melodrama filled with manipulated tensions and encased in the same music and dance sequences. It was clear that Taiwanese director Rong-Ji Chang’s debut on fiction was aimed to reach the masses, creating an uninteresting atmosphere of frustration and personal struggle that completely put me off. The tedious pastiche that comes out of the story, written by Nyssa Li (director’s collaborator in two previous documentaries), only aggravates its lack of originality and monotone tones. Despite its numerous critical problems, the film won the PIPRESCI prize at Golden Horse Film Festival in Taipei, place where director Chang was also considered best new director. To finish, I must say this sentimental flick is totally dispensable.

Starry Starry Night (2011)

Starry Starry Night (2011)
Directed by: Tom Lin
Country: Taiwan / China / HK

Review: Since we’re on Christmas, nothing better than watch “Starry Starry Night”, a sensitive movie that evokes the season and tells the story of Mei, a 13-year-old girl, who’s passing through a complicated phase in life. With her parents splitting up and her granddad, the one who she trusts most, dying in a hospital, she will find solace on Jie, a new classmate also having some troubles at home. Beautifully shot and adding some fantasy through interesting special effects, “Starry Starry Night” shows a lyrical side when dramatizing this particular vision about youth and growth. The young actors were real heroes, showing a magical gentleness and strong commitment in every scene. Between resolute silences and nostalgic musical compositions, this was a revitalizing film, although denoting some avoidable sentimentality in its final moments.

You Are The Apple Of My Eye (2011)

Directed by: Giddens Ko
Country: Taiwan

Plot: Ko-Teng has several close friends who had a crush on Shen Chia-Yi.
Review: This Taiwanese movie about coming-of-age is making a lot of success on its own country, as well as Hong Kong and Singapore, but actually didn’t work for me. Based on the semi-autobiographical novel from director Giddens Ko, this comedy/romance begins in 1994 and ends ten years later. One or two good jokes or funny situations, couldn't hide several issues. The direction didn't catch me, while the soundtrack was terribly cheesy. With respect to the story itself, I found it flabby with a lot of insipid characters. Moreover, the symbols constantly popping up on the screen, trying to look like a video game, were annoying and vulgar. Not recommendable.
Relevant awards: Best film (Hong Kong)

Warriors Of The Rainbow (2012)

Directed by: Wei Te-Sheng
Country: Taiwan

Plot: An indigenous clan-based people living in harmony with nature find their way of life threatened.
Review: More than 4 hours of cinema in Wei Te Sheng’s epic, concerning the Japanese occupation of Taiwan and the relentless opposition from the indigenous Seediq tribe. I believe that the duration could have been reduced as well as the number of chopped heads, but the movie gained my respect and consideration for all it conveys. I was touched by the bravery, courage, honor and creeds of this people. As true warriors, they chose to fight instead of being overwhelmed by the Japanese and lead a life of poverty and sadness. Lastly, I just wanted to mention the heavenly tribal chants, which left me in ecstasy. A fierce accomplishment.
Relevant awards: Best film (Golden Horse, Taiwan).