Movies

citizenfourCitizenfour directed by Laura Poitras (Documentary) viewed May 7, 2015 (and April 23)

Broadway Cinematheque, Yau Ma Tei, Kowloon, Hong Kong Review written, May 7

At the time the Edward Snowden story broke, I had been a close follower of Glenn Greenwald’s columns, moving with him from Salon.com to the Guardian, where he was at the time the Snowden story broke, and to The Intercept, (TI) where he currently makes his reportorial home. This movie is a perfect way for the rest of the world to play catch up on what happened behind the scenes, to the extent it is at all possible to do so, given that precautions I am sure have been taken to “protect the innocent,” as immortalized in the opening words of “Dragnet.”

It’s something wonderful to see this movie in Hong Kong, knowing you are within easy walking distance of The Mira where Edward Snowden, or ‘Ed,’ as he said he preferred to be called, made his historic debut onto the world’s stage. I clearly remember watching the news and seeing his initial interview after the first leaks were published. Ed Snowden completely blew me away with his intellect, his poise, his principles, his commitment, his demeanor, his forthright speech and obvious foresight.

The movie is well-structured and moves us through a recreation of the initial e-mail messages that Laura received. We see the emphasis on encryption, the gathering of information and source documents and the journalists who finally converged on the 10th floor of The Mira Hotel, in Tsim Sha Tsui, in the first week of June, 2013. For someone, such as myself, who cares about privacy, liberty, freedom, intrusive, overreaching governments, (as well as corporations) Poitras did a masterful job of maintaining interest and even some suspense although we already know how this part of the story ends.

The high points for me were:

  • Seeing the behind the scenes images of stories I had seen and read, both at the time and subsequent to Snowden’s being granted temporary asylum in Russia.
  • Learning in greater depth and in a more personal way, something more about the people whose names I had seen in connection with Snowden or with privacy issues, for example Ladar Levison, the man behind Lavabit, who decided to shutdown his encrypted webmail service rather than compromise all of his subscribers as demanded by the FBI. His outrage and indignation at being asked to violate deeply held principles was palpable. A shout out to you, sir!
  • Seeing how different governments handled the revelations. (Brazil – there’s more than samba, beaches and soccer balls there. They’ve got Greenwald and a drive to uncover the violations to their sovereignty.)
  • Seeing top government officials blatantly lie to the public and to Congress and get away with it even after being caught at it.
  • Seeing the title of a book in Snowden’s room, possibly one he was reading. Regardless, just being in his room is enough of an endorsement for me to get it, Homeland by Cory Doctorow, an ironic title in this context, anyway you look at it. (Apparently, Doctorow saw the movie and has uploaded that quick shot of his book on his website: (http://craphound.com/category/littlebrother/) where the first book of the series, of which Homeland turns out to be the second, is available for free download.)

I had to admit being worried when they showed a window purporting to be the house where Snowden and his partner, Lindsay Mills, are living in, in Moscow. I have to believe these guys are smart enough to have totally disguised the house, used body doubles and a removable fake potted plant.

The final scenes of the film are of special significance. Greenwald shows Snowden the results of a new leak regarding Ramstein, and drones. This got my immediate attention as only a few days before, I had read an article on TI by Jeremy Scahill, who is also in the movie, about the US military base in Ramstein, Germany being the relay heart of the US drone programme. (https://firstlook.org/theintercept/2015/04/17/ramstein/) Scahill quotes this source, that we learn about in the movie, ‘’…Without Ramstein, drones could not function, at least not as they do now,…’” What struck me was that the movie had to have been made longer ago than this article was written so there would seem to have been a lengthy delay in reporting it. Perhaps that’s an indication on the care the reporters are taking in verifying their stories.

The movie shows something that isn’t in the article. Greenwald is handwriting information on a piece of paper that he hands to Snowden and mentions it in the context of a new leak. The paper showed two things, a chart of command pointing to “POTUS” (and for many in the Hong Kong audience who might not know, that stands for President of the United States). The other was “1.2 million names” on a “watch list.” Was this related to the drone programme? If so why wasn’t it in Scahill’s article? If not, then what is it related to and when is that article coming out? (1.2 million names is a hell of a big list.) I’m not sure about what the new whistleblower brought to the table. Was it the Ramstein story or something yet to break? If Ramstein, then were they able to find supporting documents in the files Snowden turned over as Snowden’s documents is how the story reads?

This was my first complete viewing of this film. On April 23, there was a screening at 7:10 with director Laura Poitras in attendance. I work until 7:30 but there was no way I was going to miss this opportunity. I bought a ticket knowing I’d be late but I’d be there in time to watch some of it, (the last third, from the second row) and, more importantly, to hear her remarks. Let’s just say it’s definitely better to watch the whole movie and from a row farther back but the second row is good for seeing the post-screening talk and taking photos.

LauraP1It was the first time Laura had been back to Hong Kong since 2013.

I took the opportunity to thank Poitras, I hope I did, anyway, and to pass on to Edward Snowden that it wasn’t only young Italians who thought he was a hero, referencing an article I had just seen that said young people, born between 1988 and 2003, believed that he was a hero, with the highest percentage being among Italian youths. Bravissimo! (The ACLU had commissioned the poll of ten countries and in every country: Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Britain, Italy, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Spain and the U.S, there was a hugely positive opinion of Snowden, ranging from 76% to Italy’s leading the group with 86%.)

I asked her why she decided not to mention what had happened to Evo Morales’s plane, he being the president of Bolivia. Three European countries denied him their airspace and his plane was forced to land in Austria because Snowden was incorrectly believed to have been on the plane. This action was in complete violation of Bolivia’s sovereignty, and surely was done at the behest of the US government. I thought, therefore, it was worth a mention in the film.

She agreed it was important but also mentioned that there were other important things that weren’t in the movie and explained that, as a filmmaker, she wanted scenes with visual impact. She had no footage of this incident and therefore decided to omit it.

Speaking of images and visual impact, Poitras showed a short bit of footage of the destruction of the hard disks of the Guardian newspaper, for whom Greenwald had been working when the story broke. The UK government sent people to destroy their computers. The issue was important but she didn’t have the more impactful footage that Luke Harding, Guardian journalist, showed on his own hard drive when he was in Hong Kong for the Literary Festival last year and gave a talk on his book, The Snowden Files. (Not the best book I ever read.) As part of his talk, he showed the video. (Is video even the right word anymore?) It was longer and very dramatic. The Guardian, in order to save the computers from destruction offered to destroy the hard disks themselves. We saw the police come in and we watched them dismantle the computers and saw the disks being ground down in intense detail which really would have been great in the movie. Because Harding had shown it, I realized, when the film didn’t, that in the world of investigative journalism, not all is sharing.

LauraP2A couple of people that were in the movie joined Laura in the front of the small movie venue. One was Robert Tibbo, (at the right-hand side in the photo) barrister, (that’s  British speak for attorney) whose voice we heard giving Snowden advice regarding his application for refugee status with the UNHCR’s representative in Hong Kong. The other was Jonathan Applebaum, internet activist (at far left-hand side) who suggested after the talk to use ‘startpage’ for a secure search engine. Check. Although Jacob Applebaum is in the movie for only a short time, in it he makes a crucial point: what we are now calling ‘privacy’ is what we used to call ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom.’ It somehow seems easier to give up privacy rights than liberty and freedom, thereby showing the power of framing and word choices to make qualitative changes in perception that can render acceptable what is otherwise unacceptable.

It seems less important to discuss directorial techniques, in a film that is so important for its content but a few remarks. Poitras was obviously constrained in her choice of setting and location. She made the best of this circumscribed situation by showing the hallway, scenes outside the window of the hotel and by changes in angles and the use of the occasional extreme close up. I am grateful for no lengthy ceiling and floor shots.

Additionally, we got side trips to Rio to follow Glenn Greenwald’s story and a couple of quick visits to Berlin where Poitras has a place of refuge. One interesting contrast to looking out of the window in Hong Kong, was looking into the window in Moscow.

What should you do about the threats to personal liberty and freedom, aka privacy? End-to-end encryption online and basically whatever you can to reverse this destructive and totalitarian road the human race seems hellbent on.

As for the movie? ‑ See it.

***

Dagiger poster2rk Star: HR Giger’s World – Directed by Belinda Sallin
(Documentary)

Viewed and review written April 3, 2015 HK International Film Festival

Until recently, when it came to Switzerland, it was pretty much chocolate, snowy mountains, yodeling and cheese. I didn’t think about world domination or mind-boggling art. But two things have changed that in the past few months. One was the amazingly interesting, jaw-dropping in fact, book by Adam Lebor, entitled Tower of Basel: The Shadowy History of the Secret Bank that Runs the World. The second was this movie.

Just figuring out where to begin a review is a real challenge when the subject is as brilliant, compelling, and disturbing as H R Giger’s art. And no movie about Giger is solely about him but it is about his work. Surely Giger has created the Art Nouveau of hell and we learn that the images inside him frightened him so much that his expression of them was an attempt to gain a degree of mastery and control over them.

For many Giger is known from his work in Hollywood where he won an academy award for his work on Alien where he fashioned the incredible monsters that still are a standard reference even today.

aliens aliens2

 

Giger was certainly a master of showing the phallus as a sword or instrument of destruction and hgiger2is images often included birth, sex and death deeply intertwined. Because Giger’s images were so violent toward women, the film makers would have done well to have confronted the issue of misogyny in Giger’s work.

Giger, himself, came across as vulnerable; someone who loved women and who had women in his life who loved and took care of him. This split between what he was and what he depicted was very pronounced. Interestingly, some of the speakers, all of them male, said Giger was bringing into the light images of the dark side that they too harbored. I wondered how many women would have felt the same way. They seemed not to have been asked. Regrettably, for many reasons, it’s not possible to include here some of the more disturbing images that the film shows.

The film uses a sequence of narrative voices that come and go during the film and they attempt to bring some degree of understanding of Giger’s work, which encompasses an astonishing range of media from paintings to thethree dimensional, including individual pieces of sculpture to physical installations large enough to walk through. There’s even a train he designed and a setting through which it travels.

The first talking head is that of a psychiatrist who believes that Giger is reliving the trauma of birth where the security of prenatal life ends in total destruction of that earlier world. It’s an interpretation that can be supported in multiple aspects of Giger’s work. There were few alternatives discussed.

His work is violent but many are also extraordinarily beautiful. For the most part there is a static calmness about them which makes believable, what one person claimed, that it was as if Giger was reporting from the dark side. There was no indication, in the movie, that he saw these visions as a something desirable or that he advocated or lived what he depicted.giger1

From the film we learn that a number of his most iconic images are of his first wife who committed suicide. Her death was still obviously painful to Giger although it happened many years earlier. He remarked to the effect that he couldn’t help her and that even his painting couldn’t help her. He seemed both devastated and bewildered by this.

hr giger

Giger says toward the end of the film that he believes when you die that’s it. He said he had done everything he wanted to do in life and that he wouldn’t want to come back and go on that dark ride again.

Hans Reudi Giger died shortly after this film was completed. Surely he deserves to be free of his demons at last. RIP.

***

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Xi Xi1My City – Fruit Chan’s debut as a documentary director.

Viewed and Reviewed March 31, 2015 Hong Kong International Film Festival

Imagine directing a documentary about a writer. Now picture it’s your first documentary. Fruit Chan’s initial foray into this genre is an exceptional portrait of a most unusual woman and writer. Fruit Chan came to prominence with Made in Hong Kong, noted for its gritty, realistic, handheld, pseudo-documentary style. Interestingly, there’s almost none of that in this actual documentary.

The subject is Hong Kong writer, Xi Xi (not to be confused with another noted Hong Kong writer, Xu Xi, which was what happened to me. I bought the ticket and so glad I am.) There seems to be very few translations in English but I will try to find what there is and encourage more translations to be made.

So how do you make a documentary about a writer, especially one who isn’t doing much writing? You use talking heads, of all kinds, human and not. You put interesting people, including Nobel Prize winning Mo Yan, in interesting locations to get their comments and you film them slantwise and crosswise and every other way you can think of that enhances your subject rather than detracting from it. This is what creative documentary film making is all about.

Xi Xi’s style has been pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable in literature since she began. She included drawings and non-verbal elements in her works. Xi Xi’s life changed irreparably a few years back when she was diagnoseXi Xi2d with breast cancer. She also has a physical degeneration or an injury to her right hand which makes it nearly unusable. Physical therapy introduced her to making stuffed animals and her tenacity at that work is amazing. She has won prizes for her meaningful triptychs, including characters from the Chinese classic, Water Margins. This turn in her life led to her three most recent books. She has great strength and has overcome obstacles that would have crushed others less determined, less talented. It was a joy to meet her in this film.

Director Fruit Chan was in the audience for the screening and held a question and answer session afterwards. From a question asked, we learned that this was a Taiwanese projeFC QAct and they selected him for this film about Xi Xi. He agreed immediately. He also admitted that he had gone back to read her books but had not managed to get all the way through any of them but plans to do that when he has time. A member of the audience said that she felt he had captured much of Xi Xi’s own style in his film. You couldn’t ask for a better compliment.

Fruit Chan door

 

Fruit Chan at the door where the lighting was so much better.

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***

modMerchants of Doubt directed by Robert Kenner (Documentary) viewed and reviewed March 24, 2015, Hong Kong International Film Festival

This is a savvy and entertaining production that raises the question: why don’t the good guys make films like this more often? The film gives an excellent history of how the public’s understanding of scientific evidence is subverted by creating, manipulating and magnifying uncertainties, even when those doing the manipulating know there’s nothing uncertain about it.

The frame for the movie is a magician who uses magic to entertain and who explains that his tricks leave his audience no worse off than when they arrived. Not so of those featured in the film. We are introduced to those who have few scruples and some who seem completely amoral and proud of it, such as tobacco executives testifying that nicotine is not an addictive substance when they had the hard evidence that it was.

The film takes us through the dark days of the cigarette companies as they continued to lie and peddle their death-dealing products with full knowledge of the truth. At one time, because of the many house fires caused by cigarettes, there was a campaign for self-extinguishing cigarettes. We learn about a side-product of the tobacco companies’ manipulation which was switching the blame for fires from cigarettes onto the furniture for catching fire. They even inserted a stealth lobbyist into a group representing firefighters and used that group to help transfer the blame. As a result, Americans, and others, were dosed with damaging flame-retardant chemicals that induced sickness and chronic health problems without actually being effective at slowing down fire. We saw a hearing in which a doctor testified about a burned baby which effectively stopped the legislation that would have banned such products. This witness turned to out to have fabricated the story and had done so at other hearings.

Studies have shown that many people with strong opinions, when faced with facts contrary to their belief, will cling even harder to those beliefs. This was made apparent inside a libertarian convention where the anger and outrage was on loud display. It was directed towards someone who asserted that there is not a debate within the relevant climate scientific community (a readily verifiable fact). A vivid reminder of the old image of the ostrich with its head in the sand as danger approaches.

The film touched on the idea that many who deny our role in global warming are deeply concerned with what they believe goes hand in hand with such acceptance, that of total government control and having to give up their preferred lifestyle. If to save our planet, we are asking people to turn their backs on all the ideas, things and people that make their lives meaningful, then this is surely a most critical issue. There is no them and us. If we are really serious about saving the biosphere. We will succeed or fail together.

I came away with two names I will not soon forget. One is Marc Morano who was and may still be an employee of Sen. James Inhofe, R-OK, chair of the United States Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. Sen. Inhofe has publicly stated that “climate change is a hoax.” (But interestingly, Inhofe didn’t reject the science and become a denier until after he saw how much money addressing it would cost.) Morano wasn’t interested in the science and described how he enjoyed going after scientists personally. He thought it was great fun and was oblivious to any possible or real harm that he might cause. Regardless of how odious Morano appeared, it was refreshing to see such behavior discussed candidly and not wrapped in a mantle of disinterested-sounding hypocrisy.

The other name to remember is Bob Inglis, former US Congressman from South Carolina, a rare man who saw facts and changed his opinion on global warming because of it. This principled behaviour cost him his congressional seat but he has continued speaking out on this issue. He is a conservative and he speaks to those who think similarly on other matters. I hope that he has a strong network of loving friends to support him in this vital but seemingly fruitless task. Thank you Bob Inglis for being an example of what a man of integrity looks like. He believes that the free market will save us, others feel the solution lies elsewhere. We must all take the steps we can in the face of an increasing yet still stoppable peril.

Do I wish the film had explained who the Koch brothers are and what else they are responsible for? Should the film have focused attention on the role of money and the way politicians vote on such issues? Might there have been an indication that the rest of the world matters, not just Americans? Yes to all three. Nevertheless, congratulations to the producers and the director of this important film. It will probably be viewed primarily by those who are already convinced of global warming but it may intensify the audience’s commitment to take action. The film has a website that is about more than simply promoting the film:

http://www.takepart.com/merchants-of-doubt

This film opened in North America on March 6 and continues opening throughout the month in cities across the USA, with the biggest number of screenings beginning on Friday, March 27.

***

Dearest_2014_film_posterDearest, directed by Peter Chan Ho-sun, starring Wei Zhou, Huang Bo, Li Hongqin, Tian Wenjun  – viewed and reviewed March 24, 2015, Hong Kong International Film Festival

Hong Kong director Peter Chan Ho-sun’s latest is a departure in story and tone from what I have come to expect from him. After all, he’s the director of He’s the Woman, She’s the Man, a lighthearted comedy and Comrades, Almost a Love Story with its tender homage to Teresa Teng. This film is much darker with undercurrents and ambiguities that are seldom encountered in Hong Kong films. Perhaps it’s understandable because it isn’t strictly a Hong Kong film but one with a significant Chinese component and China has a rich tradition of serious, nuanced and complex.

Knowing that this film is based on a true story of a child abduction in Shenzhen, China in 2009, raised certain expectations as to a possible venture into Johnny To territory with a gritty undercover police story as they attempt to track down and foil a dastardly gang. I also considered that I might encounter a rather intense emotional melodrama centered on the missing child’s family as they dealt with this devastation. To some extent I was right about the latter but this story is anything but predictable and if that’s a spoiler, I am so sorry.

The acting is among the best I’ve seen in Hong Kong movies in many years and certainly is deserving of accolades. The cast ranged from credible: the child actors, to riveting portrayals by the adults. The HK Film Awards has nominated Dearest for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, and Best Actress. Zhou Wei was also nominated as Best Actress in the Asian Film Awards.

This is a thoughtful production, and Peter Chan is to be commended for bringing this story to the screen with skill and sensitivity. He has guided the film and kept it from toppling over into outright sentimentality. It walks a fine line in this respect and for the most part it succeeds. This film doesn’t feel like heavy handed manipulation but affects true emotions.

Bring plenty of hankies as few will remain untouched by the anguish. Those familiar with Hong Kong movies know that anguish is a rare feeling indeed.

****


Viewed and reviewed – March 16, 2015
dragon-blade-02

Dragon Blade – Written and directed by Daniel Lee
Starring Adrian Brody, Jackie Chan, John C
usack

(Lee directed Three Kingdoms. He is not the actor Danny Lee of HK police drama City on Fire fame.)

Prediction – This movie makes the Guinness Book of Records for having the most producers ever.

Disclaimer – Bias

It would make me extraordinarily happy to tell you that Jackie Chan’s latest movie, with its important themes that are dear to me, was great or even good. The themes are wonderful – uniting all people across races and cultures. bringing an end to war, turning your foes into friends and promoting the idea that a hero isn’t someone who is not afraid to kill others but some

one who is not afraid to save others.

This movie was a good illustration of what they tell you in writing class, “Don’t start with the purpose of delivering a predetermined message or point. Instead let the story and events unfold naturally as the characters develop their actions from the inside.”

This story was implausible, had no tension, no comedy, fewer and less interesting choreographed actions scenes, no dramatic narrative. It was impossible to care about the characters. The opening and closing scenes existed solely to introduce the flashback and were pointless. I liked hearing several languages that I have never heard onscreen before, including Uyghur, and other Turkic languages.

I didn’t like hearing Chinese and Romans speaking Mandarin and English a thousand years before either existed. The only moments that held my attention were the intermittent encounters with Adrian Brody who played the Royal Evil Incarnate royally. Seeing Brody was like having the sun shine in the middle of a stormy day. It seemed he had stumbled out of a parallel universe where he was playing in a Shakespearean tragedy and remained totally unaware of the changed venue. I kept expecting the dialogue to catch up to his efforts but alas, the inanities remained inviolate. At one point, I laughed out loud. Poor Adrian.

Final note – (bias showing) I believe Jackie is always sincere in his movies, especially when expressing these types of heartfelt themes, which are not new for him. Unfortunately the most memorable line in the whole film was, “It does get boring when things are so predictable.”

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