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Anthology films by their very nature run hot and cold, and the past Beautiful pics, the Hong Kong International Film Festival’s signature commission, suffered from mixing the insipid (Tsai Ming-liang’s No No Sleep last year) and the inspired (Lu Yue’s 1 Dimension in 2013). Beautiful 2016, however, is the most consistent of the entries yet, though consistent merely signals a lack of real stinkers. Talent isn’t the problem as this year’s slate of contributing filmmakers demonstrates, but as the series wears on, the theme — what is beautiful? — has become diffuse, bringing the film to within striking distance of being an exercise in indulgence. Names above the title such as Jia Zhangke and Stanley Kwan will generate strong festival interest for Beautiful in whole or in part.
Less concerned with the nature, power or definition of beauty, Beautiful 2016’s vignettes are more meandering snapshots from various lives than conventional storytelling. This edition begins with the most linear of the set. Hideo Nakata’s Somewhere in Kamakura follows the elderly Mitsuko to the small town of her youth after she receives a letter from her first love, Yuzo. Accompanied by her attendant Saori (Suzuka Ohgo), she heads to the town south of Tokyo, along the way sharing her ideas about love, regret and seizing the day with Saori. She gets her closure and the two women forge a new relationship.
The real coup here is the casting of the preternaturally youthful Kyoko Kagawa as Mitsuko. Though Kagawa, who shot to fame in Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, occasionally falls into mid-century acting patterns, her presence brings an instant, sunny nostalgia to Kamakura, and that’s a good thing: not much else goes on. Best known for his horror films — Ring, Dark Water — Nakata steps out of his comfort zone here and it shows. Kamakura is a slight, aimless diversion that’s skin deep and wastes a performance by Kagawa, but it’s a step up form the execrable Ghost Theater.
From there, things pick up, beginning with former pop star Alec Su’s (The Left Ear) documentary-ish Dama Wang Who Lives on Happiness Avenue. The shortest of the quartet, Dama Wang slowly morphs into an oddly compelling chronicle of a middle-aged widow’s average day. As the “da ma” of the title, Wang Suping simultaneously demonstrates all the label means — the big, frizzy hair; heavy lipstick; gloriously drawn eyebrows; an utter lack of interest in her surroundings — and pokes holes in the image. As Su tracks her aggressive routine, he humanizes her in a way the fascination with “da ma” elsewhere in the media has not. With little in the way of words, we learn about what really defines Suping, with Su and cinematographer Zou Gongbao creating some subtle and evocative images that range from baffling to heartbreaking. And the observational doc style of Dama Wang breaks up the Beautiful tone just when it needs it most.
Perhaps most disappointing is the welcome return of Kwan, who hasn’t made a film of any length in five years. One Day in Our Lives of … puts a young director, Dong (Luo Dong), and his (possibly) love-struck assistant (Gao Ting Ting) in a recording studio with Liza (Cecilia Yip, Kwan’s Centre Stage) as the press gathers outside when Liza’s marriage (and Liza herself) publicly implodes. Channeling the spirit of Anita Mui (who starred in Kwan’s breakout Rouge) the quasi-meta One Day feels more like a draft of a full feature, what with half-drawn characters and situations that demand guesswork. The lingering looks and heightened emotions smack of Kwan, but the extremes of show-don’t-tell structure fall short in the face of such bland players.
Not surprisingly, Jia’s entry is the high point of Beautiful 2016. Depending on taste, his brand of static, observational filmmaking is either pretentious or luminescent, but it works for the vaguely absurdist The Hedonists. Revisiting the subject matter that’s defined Jia’s oeuvre so far, chiefly the rapid development of China and the impact that its had on the average working stiff, the story focuses on three unemployed Shanxi laborers and their quest for work. Their last hope is as performers at a surreal cultural amusement park, from which the chain-smoking Sanming (Han Sanming) gets canned for pointing out inaccurate dynastic costumes. The Hedonists is the kind of ironic, gently angry commentary on modern China Jia does so well, unfussy in its aesthetic and revealing in its machinations.
Production companies: Heyi Pictures, HKIFF
Cast: Kyoko Kagawa, Yu Koyanagi, Suzuka Ohgo; Wang Suping; Cecilia Yip, Luo Dong, Gao Ting Ting, David Yang, Cai Pang Fei; Liang Jingdou, Han Sanming, Yuan Wenqian
Directors: Hideo Nakata, Alec Su, Stanley Kwan, Jia Zhangke
Screenwriters: Junya Kato, Ryuta Miyake; Qiu Min, Fang Lei, Zou Li; Jimmy Ngai; Zhao Tao, Jia Zhangke
Producers: Li Wenwen, Hao Xiaonan
Executive producer: Liu Kailuo
Directors of photography: Ryuta Kondo; Zou Gongbao; Chris Lee; Yu Likwai
Production designer: Patrick Tsui
Editors: Naoko Aono; Fan Polei, Fang Lei, Wang Song, Zou Li; Wing Mohang; Matthieu Laclau, Guo Weisong
Music: Hidekazu Sakamoto; Yu Yat Yiu
World sales: HKIFF Society
In Mandarin, Shanxi, Japanese and Cantonese
Not rated, 96 minutes
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