Beautiful 2014 (Mei Ho 2014/Mei Hao 2014): Filmart Review

Beautiful 2014 - H 2014
Hong Kong Film Festival

Beautiful 2014 - H 2014

Stuttering levels in narrative sophistication and production values undermine the latest entry's attempts to match previous editions.  

Separation is the key to the third installment of HKIFF and Youku Tudou's omnibus film project, with stories touching on family reunions, stifled sexual desires and children's struggle with real life.

Now into its third edition, the Hong Kong International Film Festival and Youku Tudou's portmanteau project has shown some obvious signs of wear and tear alongside the occasional moments of visual flair. Similar to its predecessors, Beautiful 2014's wildly varying tone is nearly inevitable -- a fact pre-determined by the abstract theme and a near-absence of a central plumb-line which runs across the four entries -- but more worrying is a creeping sense of middling deja vu in the content on show.

While previous editions boast of pleasant formalistic surprises (such as Tsai Ming-liang's meditative Walker, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's heady office-romance-turned-action-romp Beautiful New Bay Area Project or Lu Yue's black-and-white contemplation on mortality in 1 Dimension) or empathetic human stories (Ann Hui's account of a man braving the ramifications of his sex-change surgery in My Way), this year's offering is thin on the ground with such engagement with the viewer.

With such omnibus features still welcome currency in the festival circuit, the Hong Kong Film Festival this year will actually see in the world premiere of yet another of this kind of project, in the form of the three-parter Three Charmed Lives - Beautiful 2014, which should probably still find a healthy lifespan in Asian showcases, especially with the cachet held by participants like Kang Jye-gu (Shiri), Shu Kei (Hu Du Men), lensman-turned-director Christopher Doyle and Zhang Yuan (Beijing Flickers). A replay of Beautiful 2012's international breakout -- when it unspooled as far afield as Cannes and Toronto -- will probably be a pretty uphill challenge.

If one is to really locate a specific theme that underlines Beautiful 2014's four shorts it will be the idea of separation, brought about by chasms in ideology, gender, class and sexuality. Let's call it the magnificence of melancholy: It's the two sadness-drenched "micro-movies" that stand out here, with Kang's and Doyle's episodes actually responding to what makes -- or could have made -- the world human, humane and indeed beautiful.

Kang's Awaiting begins with a young woman traveling with a coach full of elderly people along the barbed-wire borders South Korea shares with its estranged sibling-nation to the north; Yeon-hee (Moon Chae-won) flicks through color photographs of a young woman (not her) and a matriarch, and also a black-and-white picture of herself with a man. She thinks of her daily routine of doing domestic chores in her traditional homestead in the city, struggling with her fast-deprecating memory and making exquisite meals for a husband whom she said she wouldn't allow to "cross over" to the other side again given the political situation of the day.

Yeon-hee's real existence is present when she glimpses an older version of herself on the other side of the mirror: The perennial youthful porcelain beauty on show is just a manifestation of someone's life being frozen in time, at the moment her marriage was torn apart by the Korean War. Slowly, subtly and smattered with a smidgen of sentimentality, Kang has provided an emotive piece chiming in with the brief cross-border family reunions across the Korean DMZ earlier this year.

Meanwhile, Doyle's HK 2014 -- Education for All is an even more melodrama-stripped affair. The third segment of Beautiful 2014 unveils the challenges faced by youngsters in a school, and how they engage with them with comically (and a tad disturbingly) adult-like ways. Sometimes speaking in voice-overs and sometimes delivering lines in tableau-like sequences -- imagine a less rigorous take of Ulrich Seidl's visual template, and minus the Austrian auteur terrible's provocative subjects -- this awkward bunch (Chung Pui-kit's gangly pet-shop-running teen; Vodka Wong's poor, chubby rich boy living in a mountain-top mansion) of schoolchildren muses about (and reacts against) cram schools, absent parents exacting control via Skype.

Lip Ching-man's elementary schoolgirl is perhaps the most startling specimen, as she grapples with her family's below-the-breadline toils (and her unseen "naughty" brother) by becoming a multi-denomination devout, filling her fishing-boat home with icons. In contrast, the only dramatic element in the piece -- a courtship between a schoolteacher (Selene Cheung) and a socially awkward beat-boxer (Kevin Lau) -- is an artificial thread looking out of place.

The humanity of these two segments sandwich perhaps Beautiful 2014's faux pas. An adaptation of a author-filmmaker Evan Yang's short story about a 1950s middle-class woman's stifled sexual desires, veteran critic-cum-director Shu Kei's The Dream ends up a celebration of a voyeuristic, male gaze. The piece bears an uncanny resemblance to the Wong Kar-wai's trademark dreamy retro-vibe -- the unfulfilled wife fantasizing on unattainable pleasure in a wardrobe signaling allure and aloofness -- but it lacks the psychological nuances of, say, Wong's similarly-themed short Eros.

While one could argue Wong's films channels similar fetishes on characters, The Dream lacks the sophistication to gloss all this over -- the screenplay (and the actors) simply couldn't channel the sensuality of the original text, a point driven painfully home when  Shu Kei runs some of Yang's original lines onscreen. Rather than a modern take on a woman's release of her caged carnality, The Dream just makes sex objects out of lead actors Erica Yuen (as the woman) and Yau Hawk-sau (the young man on the beach she imagines having sex with).

Frisson is also central to Boss I Love You, the Zhang Yuan short which concludes Beautiful 2014. While feigning some kind of edgy formalism -- not a single line is said throughout the half-hour segment -- it's also the most straightforward piece in this collection, as a young chauffeur (Lu Yulai) contends with and finally acts on his infatuation with his tall and handsome boss (Li Quan). The performances are certainly precise and production values are slick -- perhaps because the automobiles, attire and apartments are so slick themselves -- but the story rings hollow.

Once, the beauty of same-sex love on mainland China was because it has to thrive in the age of persecution, as Zhang himself made much clearer 18 years ago with East Palace West Palace; Boss I Love You speaks now of differences in class and sexuality, but just a love fanatic spurned. For the chauffeur, his passion withers away as his boss reacts furiously towards his love; all things beautiful must come to pass. Perhaps the same thing could be said about the Beautiful project too.

Venue: Hong Kong International Film Festival

Production Companies: Big Picture, Four Parts, Pica Pica Media and Beijing Century Good-Tiding in a joint presentation by Youku Tudou and the Hong Kong International Film Festival

Directors: Kang Jye-gu (Awaiting), Shu Kei (The Dream), Christopher Doyle (HK 2014 - Education for All), Zhang Yuan (Boss I Love You)

Producers: Victor Koo, Frank Wei

Executive Producers: Luke Lu, Zeo Xie

Cast: Moon Chae-won, Son Sook (Awaiting); Erica Yuen, Yau Hawk-sau (The Dream); Chung Pui-kit, Vodka Wong (Education for All); Lu Yulai, Li Quan (Boss I Love You)

Screenwriters: Kang Jye-gu (Awaiting); Shu Kei, Philip Yung, Yau Hawk-sau, Tang Wing-yan (The Dream); Christopher Doyle (Education for All); Fan Jiuwei (Boss I Love You)

Directors of Photography: Lee Jong-youl (Awaiting); Zhang Ying (The Dream); Christopher Doyle (Education for All); Zhang Jian (Boss I Love You)

Editor: Park Gok-ji (Awaiting); Chak Hoi-ling (The Dream); AQ Lee (Education for All); Wang Gang, Wang Jingyong (Boss I Love You)

In Korean, Cantonese and Mandarin

117 minutes