Beautiful 2013: Hong Kong Review

Beautiful 2013 Still H
Festival anthology film still a mixed bag but scores better than its predecessor.

The Hong Kong International Film Festival's second shorts collection brings together some regional heavyweights for both literal and abstract mediations on beauty.

A blue collar kung fu master, an introspective Taiwanese father, a prince on a quest for true wisdom and a ballroom dance instructor are the players in Beautiful 2013, the second in what is shaping up to be a series commissioned by the Hong Kong International Film Festival and China’s answer to YouTube, Youku.

Like the first film, Beautiful 2013 features four prominent filmmakers from around the region: Japan’s Kurosawa Kiyoshi, writer Wu Nien-jen from Taiwan, Lu Yue from China and Hong Kong’s Mabel Cheung. The Beautiful films work better than some other recent anthologies, largely on the strength of their modest scope. Paris je t’aime and 10+10, both of which swing more dramatically in tone and content, spring to mind immediately as even trickier concepts not because of the talent involved but simply on the basis of volume. But like any anthology film, the result is a mixed bag that runs the gamut from simply dull to overly sentimental. Given the directorial star power here however, Beautiful 2013 is a sure bet for the festival circuit, and completist film buffs may give the collection a life on DVD.

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First up is the kung fu quasi-comedy “Beautiful New Bay Area Project” from Kurosawa Kiyoshi (Cure). A disinterested development heir (Emoto Tasuku) with no real desire to lead his company has a change of heart when he meets beautiful dockworker Yoko (Mita Mao). She’s a bit of an enigma and has no time for him, but when he swipes her nameplate from the staff board she shows her true colors. Yoko unleashes her inner kung fu master and proceeds to mow down the front office, security staff and anyone else that stands between her and her precious nameplate. Set in seaside Yokohama, Kurosawa fashions a fantasy that doesn’t say anything profound (despite the heroine’s badassery), going instead for a fun romp. It mostly works, but the heir is so insipid we root for Yoko by default.

In “A New Year, The Same Days” by writer Wu Nien-jen (Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A City of Sadness, Ann Hui’s Song of the Exile), a typical Taiwanese dad (Lo Pei-an) has a moment of introspection and a brief existential crisis on New Year’s Day. In a bid to really communicate with his family, he calls them into the living room to hold court and is faced with a wife that interrupts every few words and two kids who are too busy texting and Instagramming to listen. When dad reaches his tipping point of frustration, he storms out and compels the family to rethink its relationships. Wu’s portrait of marriage and mortality and how the latter forces reconsideration of the former is recognizable but ultimately a little flat. “New Year” has the touch of a filmmaker more comfortable at a keyboard than behind a camera.

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In the strongest entry this time around, cinematographer turned director Lu Yue’s “1 Dimension” recounts the Chinese legend of "Prince Piety from the Land of Toto," and his quest to learn true wisdom and benevolence before he takes the throne. Told in a fairy tale form in beautiful, stark black and white silhouette, Lu’s film is the most thematically packed and densely layered segment (it’s also the shortest), effortlessly raising basic but thorny questions about morality, the nature of good and evil, personal ethics and what makes a person fit to lead. Lu’s only misstep is a brief break with form for a short debate among the filmmakers within the film over Buddhist, Taoist, Christian and philosophical interpretations of Prince Piety’s story. Lu was doing a fine job implying multiple readings he didn’t need to rip viewers away from the mesmerizing images to spell it out.

Rounding out the quadraset is Mabel Cheung’s “Indigo,” starring Taiwanese veteran actress Elaine Jin as a single mother trying to juggle the demands of her ballroom instructor job on Christmas Eve, her angry teenaged daughter’s demands for attention and her autistic son’s needs. Cheung (An Autumn’s Tale) can indulge in flagrant emotionalism, and the combination of holiday, struggling moms and so-called disabled children is a recipe for tears. When autistic Michael wanders off his sister grudgingly looks for him, but as he stays missing she starts to genuinely panic. When they’re reunited the young woman finally realizes the beauty he brings to their lives. It’s a hoary notion that’s been done before that just as often feels like a vanity showcase for (the admittedly fabulous) Jin rather than a comment on the small joys hidden among family stresses.

Directors: Kurosawa Kiyoshi, Wu Nien-jen, Lu Yue, Mabel Cheung
Cast: Mita Mao, Emoto Tasuku, Lo Pei-an, Lin Mei, Hsu, Chao Wei, Jia Shen, Elaine Jin, Wang Zhou-liing
Screenwriters: Kurosawa Kiyoshi, Wu Nien-jen, Lu Yue, Mabel Cheung
Executive Producer: Zeo Xie
Directors of Photography: Saitoh Ryo, Chang Hsiang-yu, Ke Yuming and Qian Tiantian, Derek Ng
Editors: Sakugawa Mizuki, Lan Lin, Meng Peicong, Lin Man

No rating, 102 minutes