Most of the other pictures I took were of food, so yes, when I wasn’t hiding in my hotel room, I was that American abroad, taking artfully arranged pictures of my tabletop, determining which Instagram filter brought out the shadings of my exquisite, cultured meal just so. I ate a few fancy meals, all of which were reasonably priced (once I got over the sticker shock of the conversion rate, in which one U.S. dollar is roughly eight Hong Kong/Macao dollars, and thus it isn’t strange that your fruit drink is $38). The best ones, at risk of also being that American abroad, were the ones I had at tiny, out-of-the-way noodle shops, where I ate a giant bowl of delicious noodles, beef, and broth for about six bucks USD. Those made me glad I’d left the hotel.
Diamantino opens with a charming scene in which its hero, soccer superstar Diamantino Matamouros (Carloto Cotta) explaining how he executes a goal, a process that involves tuning out everyone but himself… and “the fluffy puppies,” cotton candy-like imaginary doggies that fill the field and the screen. Directors Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt seem to be establishing a light, slightly silly tone for this story of the childlike athlete’s spiritual journey after a crushing failure, but they end up throwing so many elements into the stew, it curdles. There are moments here and there that work, but the mixture of fairy tale storytelling, real-world violence, slapstick comedy, and social commentary, while ambitious, is ultimately unsustainable. The fluffy puppies are awfully cute, though.
School’s Out opens with a teacher opening the classroom window, gazing at the blue sky outside, and then leaping right out. What follows is a bit of a bait-and-switch; a substitute is brought in to take over his classes, with special focus on a tight-knit group of “Intellectually Advanced Children,” and we settle in for an earnest tale of a teacher who struggles for, but eventually wins, their respect. This… is not that. Co-writer/director Sébastien Marnier slyly situates his protagonist as the outsider who can’t quite make his way in, and who begins to go a touch mad, augmenting his paranoia with a healthy dose of nightmare imagery — and setting the table for a genuinely unnerving, anything-goes conclusion.
The Indonesian rom-com Aruna and Her Palate concerns a single gal (Dian Sastrowardoyo) who takes a culinary trip with her chef friend while investigating a bird flu outbreak, and if you think the food-travel-romance and outbreak investigation angles would make for a rather strained marriage, you’re right. The script is frankly a mess, but director Edwin (just Edwin apparently?) is so light on his feet, and the performers are all so engaging, it barely matters. The standout is the incredibly charming Sastrowardoyo, who is allowed to break the fourth wall throughout (“Things like this are why I can’t scratch him off my list”); she’s got a way of shooting the camera a sideways look that is utterly disarming. Who says you can’t have some frothy fun at an international film festival?
“Behind every mind-blowing story are some pretty bad decisions,” notes Surya (Abhimanyu Dasani) in the opening voice-over of The Man Who Feels No Pain, and the film that follows proves him right. It’s one of the more literal titles of this festival, concerning a young man who can be injured, but he won’t feel it (“it’s a rare medical condition, you can google it later,” he assures us). The resultant movie is, frankly, pretty nuts — 135 minutes of action, slapstick comedy, fantasy, and pathos, all at full blast, full of fight scenes that are simultaneously thrilling and funny (like vintage Jackie Chan), maintaining the childlike heart and spirit of the early passages, set when the hero is of that age. Wild and undisciplined, it’s a lot of movie, and it can get exhausting. But it’s an awfully good time.
Before I left, a critic friend advised me to eat a Portuguese egg tart while I was there, and I sought one out the first night, and was promptly hooked. The Portuguese egg tart is a like a tiny custard pie, which you can find just about anywhere for $10 HKD (about a buck and a quarter American). They’re insanely delicious. Towards the end of the week, clearly attuned to our fear/restlessness, a second media tour took us to, among other places, the British bakery where (in true British fashion) they supposedly introduced the egg tart and successfully made it the island’s signature food. Buncha colonialists.
They also took us to a panda pavilion, though only one panda was about. He was adorable:
“You probably won’t recognize Macau,” the evil-ish lawyer tells his client, early in Empire Hotel. “But take a walk, it’s… interesting.” I’m not saying that the Macau location shooting is how a movie as leaden as Empire Hotel made it into this festival, but I’m imagining it didn’t hurt. This snapshot of massage parlors and dance halls doesn’t have much plot to speak of; it’s mostly a hang-out movie, though one that seems to forget that even in a hang-out movie, things still need to, like, happen. You can only coast for so long on mood and atmosphere. But hey, the city looks great.
The title of Hiroshi Okuyama’s Jesus isn’t a metaphor — it’s story of a fifth-grade kid who transfers in to a private, religious school, where a crucifix-sized Messiah becomes his first friend. It’s not as absurd or silly as it sounds; there’s a wonderfully specific sincerity to Okuyama’s unassuming style, which lands somewhere between Ozu (lots of long takes in medium-wide shots) and Wes Anderson. And the movie doesn’t rest on its central gimmick; our hero soon makes another, more flesh-and-blood pal, turning Jesus into a lovingly authentic portrait of youth, friendship, and loss. It’s a marvelous little movie.
Zhang Ming’s The Pluto Moment is, to put it mildly, a touch aimless — but it’s intriguing nonetheless, and to give credit where due, that aimlessness is baked into its plotting. Its best critical appraisal may be found in a line of its own dialogue: “I’ve never understood any of your films, but I quite like them.” So no, I’m not quite sure what’s going on with the peculiar mismatches in audio and image in the opening scenes (Is this an alienation device? Is he emphasizing artificiality?), and I’m still not certain where the business with the old book was leading. But I know that there’s a sidebar in the third act that takes the movie over, for the better — it’s a marvelous a little short story about desire and frustration — and I certainly appreciated the inter-festival circularity of this exchange: “Art-house film? Is it the kind of film Zhang Yimou makes?” “We don’t have that kind of money.”
Yimou’s Shadow was the closing night selection for the festival, a mixture of martial arts, mysticism, and gobsmacking images that I’d put among his best works. It showcases a beautifully, fully realized vision: he tells his story in the blacks and whites of traditional ink drawings, in sharp contrast to the sumptuous saturation of something like Curse of the Golden Flower. Of course, those blacks and whites are offset in the back half by the copious splashes of scarlet blood, which he also yields less like a fight choreographer than a visual artist — the battles are as much about patterns on the “page” as they are about hits and bruises, as much about aesthetics as they are about acrobatics. It’s a beautiful blast.
A festival as young as IFFAM — this is only is third year — is hard to access. There is clearly money being spent on it, not just to fly in and put up international journalists (hi) but to bring in the likes of Nicolas Cage as “talent ambassador” to make a splash at the opening ceremony and give an extended interview/master class. It does, however, seem to be a resource that the city itself has not yet tuned in to; most of the screening I attended were about half full (including the Cage master class, though the festival website had labeled it “sold out” for several days), and I was often the only occupant of shuttle busses zipping from one venue to the other.
But again, it’s early — they’re still figuring this stuff out. The shift in festival culture took a bit of adjustment; Q&As come before the movie, rather than after, which means the questions tend to be a bit vague and table-setting, rather than in-depth. On the other hand, they also don’t go to the audience for questions, so they’ve got that advantage over Sundance and SXSW. The filmmakers who weren’t in attendance recorded brief, amiable video introductions, often on laptop cameras or iPhones, to introduce their films and thank us for coming, and there was something charming about this handmade touch.
Most of the absent filmmakers were from the west, though Happy New Year, Colin Burstead’s Ben Wheatley and his producer were on hand, and alums, even; their Free Fire was at the festival’s inaugural edition. I like to think that Wheatley, like me, was all about a free trip to China. And, like me, he looks like a guy who can put away some Chinese food. We didn’t get to hang out. Maybe next time.