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Hawaii International Film Festival: Johnny To's EYE IN THE SKY, FLIGHT OF THE RED BALLOON & More!!!

Hey folks, Harry here with the latest update from Hawaii and Moon Yun and Albert Lanier. Really want to see that Johnny To flick...

Hawaii International Film Festival 2007: THE KITE RUNNER: EVERY CUT IS THE DEEPEST by Albert Lanier It is Afghanistan in the 1970's and scores of young boys are engaged on rooftops and throughout city streets in the capital of Kabul in an aggressive, cutthroat competition. Are they clustered in gangs and facing each other with knives drawn? Are they armed with rifles and pistols and taking pot shots at each other? No, they're flying kites. Actually, the lads are taking part in a kite cutting contest where the object is sever or cut the line of another person kite and prevent them from soaring high and free in the sky. Therefore, the winning kite is the only unscathed by such relentless cutting tactics. The winner of this actual contest is a young boy named Amir who is aided by his buddy Hassan, the son of a servant who works in their household. Amir and Hassan not enjoy flying kites-Hassan has an almost perfect ability to judge the exact location where a kite may fall from the sky and to be there to scoop it up. Both boys also enjoy trudging off to the local cinema to watch movies like THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN though they jokingly wonder how the actors can talk with such perfect Farsi accents. However, the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 forces Amir and his Baba to flee to Pakistan and then the U.S. Amir's Baba ends up running a gas station and store in San Francisco, California and Amir graduates from a community college and intends to become a writer. Amir ends up marrying Soraya, the daughter of an Afgani Army General who have also settled in the Bay Area. It seems as if everything is falling into place. It is the year 2000. Amir's is settling down and he is the process of taking a look at his new novel when he receives a phone call from a family friend who urges him to return to Afghanistan. It is this call that propels the latter half of the new drama THE KITE RUNNER directed by Marc Forster, the helmer behind FINDING NEVERLAND and MONSTERS BALL, which had a gala screening on Saturday, October 20 as part of the 27th annual Hawaii International Film Festival. The film is the cinematic adaptation of the best-selling novel of the same name written by novelist Khaled Hosseini. Most readers of this review may be familiar with the controversy swirling around this film primarily the move by Paramount Vantage and Dreamworks, the film distributors, to delay the film's release until December because of the fear of violence and violent reprisals especially to the two young actors who play Amir and Hassan as boys (whose names-although listed on IMDB and other sites-I'd rather not list here). But I am not interested in discussing the controversy in depth but talking about whether THE KITE RUNNER works as a movie or not. Certainly, fans and admirers of the book-which I confess I haven't read-will find the characters they loved fleshed out (or nearly so) in THE KITE RUNNER. They also witness the rape of young Hassan by Pashtun bullies in what has to be the most disturbing scene in the film. Let me just say that I disliked this scene intensely and I know what some of you out there are going to say: It was an important part of the book, an important plot point in the film, necessary to provide dramatic and emotional tension between the characters. I still don't care. What bothers me is that actual children were involved in this scene (which admittedly was handled with some care). Having adult actors handle hot-button material doesn't bother me at all but children are a different story. These young actors are not old or mature enough to see the impact that such choices could have on their lives. The whole rape scene reeks of exploitation. Though there are clearly plausible reasons for its inclusion, the scene constituted the low point of the film for me. Structurally, THE KITE RUNNER begins in 2000 flashes back to 70's Afghanistan and then moves to San Francisco before returning once again to Afghanistan, this time in the 21st Century. It is Taliban-ruled Afghanistan that Amir not only witnesses what happened to his former homeland but visits a family friend Rahim Khan. Khan reveals a long-held family secret(there always seem to be secrets in these types of films) and sets Amir off on a mission that reconnects him to Hassan and his childhood. Of course, I won't reveal the secret or what Amir does in Afghanistan. You will have to watch THE KITE RUNNER-in whatever way, shape or form- to find that out. Quite frankly, THE KITE RUNNER is another "literary" product of the Hollywood adaptation machine, a device that takes perfectly good works of literature and renders them into the cinematic equivalent of Readers Digest Condensed Books. The film's script- as written by film scribe David Benioff- tends toward the simplistic, rudimentary and downright boring at times (in once scene, where Amir and Soraya talk at a market, Amir asks what Soraya is reading and she shows him WUTHERING HEIGHTS whereupon he replies "Its a sad story"-obviously an indication of the sparkling wit on display in this film). The characters are the typical chess pieces moved by the screenwriter (except generally you need to be intelligent to play Chess) as opposed to three-dimensional individuals. The acting here is generally middling. Khalid Abdalla is generally unimpressive as Amir. He covers all the bases here as Amir but nothing more. Abdalla might be a good actor but I can't tell that from this performance. Atossa Leoni does more with less as Soraya, Amir's wife. Leoni at least conveys a certain logical reticence that is right given her character's history. Their scenes together are a study of the absence of actors' chemistry. Frankly, they seem more like shy high school kids trying to get up the courage to ask each other to dance at the prom. However, Shaun Toub does fairly good work here as Rahim Khan, Abdul Qadir Farookh has a bit of a screen presence as General Taher, Amir''s father-in-Law and Said Taghmaoui turns in solid work as Farid, Amir's guide in Afghanistan. The film's best performance comes from Homoyon Ershadi as Amir's father. Ershadi does a fine job of trying sculpt a rounded performance showing several sides of Baba. In fact, Erhsadi sells one scene beautifully. A truck that Baba and Amir are riding in with several other escaping Afganis is stopped by Russian soldiers and one of soldiers wants to have sex with the wife of one of the passengers. Ershadi stands up to the soldier with such fierceness and resolute power that the soldier is nearly compelled to kill him. In the end though, I do think THE KITE RUNNER succeeds and the main reason why it does is the fine work of director Marc Forster. Forster uses the skills he brought to films such as MONSTERS BALL effectively here by eliminating a lot of the blatant melodramatic excesses that easily could have been on display in a film of this time and moving toward a measure of emotional restraint at times. Forster knows that it is better to have certain emotional outlets used only at certain peak times then be plugged in and used constantly throughout. Therefore, the film does have effective and moving moments that aren't necessarily overtly tear inducing. For me,the most touching scenes in the movie are when numbers of young boys are flying kites even though there is nothing seemingly moving or emotional about it. Given Afghanistan's history and years of warfare, these scenes are simply wonderful because they are not heavy-handed or manipulative in the waterworks or tear-producing department. Despite its flaws, THE KITE RUNNER is a modestly effective drama that manages to stir emotions quite effective despite a scene that may offend many. It is a film that convinces the viewer that best moments of life are often the small, seemingly trivial ones where even simply flying a kite is a powerful statement about joy, happiness and friendship. END of ARTICLE Hawaii International Film Festival 2007: NOTES ON A FILM FESTIVAL TAKE ONE by Albert Lanier Its late October. The Boston Red Sox are in the World Series, the Hawaii International Film Festival is up and running and all is right with the world-except if you're a Cleveland Indians fan. But enough about Major League Baseball (Just let me say though I'm as pleased as punch- as a member of the Red Sox Nation- that the sox are in the series...pleased as punch? Who the hell uses that phrase anymore?) and my happiness, time to talk cinema. The 2007 edition of the Hawaii International Film Festival kicked off on Thursday, October 18 with the screening of the opening night film FLIGHT OF THE RED BALLOON directed by the great Taiwanese Director Hou Hsiao-Hsien. People who saw the film that night have since told me they either hated or found it boring. Of course, I didn't need others to tell me that because I could hear the clack-clack of chairs snapping up as some people left. As you probably could tell by my review, I liked the movie. I found it a nice tribute to Albert Lammorise's 1957 short. Besides, what the hell do you expect from a Hou Hsiao-Hsien movie anyway? (Of course, some of these people probably believe that Michael Bay's TRANSFORMERS was an intellectual exercise in cinematic profundity) You didn't like the movie? Kiss my ass. As I write this, the first weekend of this 11 day festival has already come and gone. Attendance so far is fairly good. As usual, people turn out in droves for a select number of films while other features have to fend for themselves. Take the digitally remastered print of David Lynch's ERASERHEAD which was shown on Saturday, October 20 at Midnight. The screening was sparsely attended-I think there were less than 20 people in the theater-even though this print displayed Lynch's first effort in all its wonderfully bizarre, disturbing and milky grey chromatic glory. This is in contrast to Lynch's latest opus INLAND EMPIRE which screened at HIFF's Spring Festival this year and featured a larger audience. I guess that how film fests go though. Turnout for features such as the Korean historio-melodrama MAY 18 about the infamous Kwangju massacre, the Australian drama THE HOME SONG STORIES and director Marc Forster's controversial KITE RUNNER was excellent, nearly filling the cavernous Hawaii Theater and Regal Dole Theater auditoriums to near capacity. MAY 18 had its U.S. premiere at HIFF this year with a big screening at the 1400 seat Hawaii Theater in Downtown Honolulu on Friday, October 19. Actor Lee Jun KI was in attendance to accept a new award from HIFF-the Rising Star Award-at the Hawaii Theater that night. Lee also caused a sitr when he pulled up in a Limo outside the theater causing a number of his adoring female fans to go nuts. I found May 18 to be a fairly well-staged but one-dimensional depiction of the Kawangju massacre in South Korea in 1980. The film's story focuses on a few characters including a former Army Captain, a college student (played by Lee), his cabbie brother and a nurse. Director Kim Ji-Hun does a good job staging crowd scenes and showing the scale of the massacre but the film script is so narrow minded and uninteresting and the dialogue is often wooden and stilted. The whole effort seems like a fairly well-financed TV movie. Joan Chen was also at the festival this past weekend to accept the Achievement in Acting award from HIFF at the Hawaii theatre as well on Sunday, October 21. She was on hand to help introduce the screening of THE HOME SONG STORIES which also had its U.S. Premiere that night. HOME SONG STORIES turned out to be a surprisingly touching and effective drama well directed by Australian director Tony Ayres in this autobiographical look at former lounge singer and the peaks and valleys of her life and its impact on her children. Joan Chen does excellent work here as Rose, creating rounded portrayal a woman who loves her children but who is too much of a user and emotionally and financially dependent on men to take care of them or herself. Well, that it’s for now. See you soon. END HIFF 2007: EYE IN THE SKY: ARE YOU WATCHING CLOSELY? by Albert Lanier It all begins in a trolley in Hong Kong. A young woman notices a bespectacled man sleeping on her trolley, a newspaper on his person. He wakes up and gets off the trolley. She follows him for several blocks even into a restaurant. She changes her jacket so as try to throw off the scent of suspicion but to no avail for the man she has followed approaches her in the eatery. "Are you piggy?" he asks her. She nervously replies that she is not. This woman appears to be in trouble because her cover is now blown and her shadowing of this individual may end up being all for naught. But not quite. The man she has been tailing is actually Sgt Wong of the SU- Surveillance Unit of the Hong Kong Police Department. After introducing himself, he quizzes her on her observational powers. She provides a staggering array of descriptions of fellow passengers-women who are of medium build for example-but forgets just one part of the puzzle: the newspaper Sgt. Wong had on the trolley. No matter. Constable Ho Ka Po has passed the test and is now a character member of SU, a unit so specialized and clandestine they work out of a business office with the cover of a trading company. At the same time, the female Constable-now given the nickname "Piggy"-was tailing Sgt. Wong, another operation in observation was taking place-an illegal one. Another man wearing a dark jacket and a reddish sweater underneath was also on the same trolley and he also got off. His location was the rooftop overlooking a block which has a jewelry store located on it. A car pulls up and four men with guns get out and charge into the store. The man on the roof top sets the timer on his watch. In the meantime, there are a couple of other men on the ground including a rather plump fellow who is always eating. The plump man sees a Police Constable nearby and walks over, cocking the gun underneath his heavy jacket and ready to shoot him. However, the constable doesn't appear to be any threat and so the zaftig confederate moves on. The four men grab some jewelry, hit a couple of people and head out of the store and into their getaway cars so they can haul ass out of there. So begins EYE IN THE SKY, a crime film and police thriller directed by Yau Nai-Hoi, a screenwriter who has penned works for the great Johnnie To (who serves as a producer on the film) which was screened at this year's Hawaii International Film Festival this past October. Here, he begins with a terrific opening sequence that sets up not only the theme and subject of this film (namely the skill, importance and danger behind police surveillance) but the film's main conflict between the shadowy Shan, the man on the rooftop who runs a gang of jewel thieves, and "Piggy" and Sgt Wong who are trying to follow this gang. Along the way, Constable Ho-Ka-Po must square her instinct for helping fellow officers and people who are being shot or beat up with the strict demands of the unit which require no interference on the part of its officers. They must watch and observe only. No interference. This eventually gets put the test but I won't write anymore about the plot points and story developments of this film because I think it will spoil the fun of this first-rate film. The success of EYE IN THE SKY stems partly from its first time director Yau's fine script co-written by Au Kin Yee. Both writers create characters with enough definition to make them interesting-Sgt Wong in particular who has a penchant for cracking jokes during surveillance ops as well as the elusive, mysterious Shan who enjoys during Sudoku puzzles (a clue to his persona) and his insistence on making sure his cohorts rob store in no more than 3 or 4 minutes. Yau also does a fine job of directing here. He works especially well with his cinematographer Cheung Tung Leung to provides a more naturalistic visual look for the film that extends to a number of set ups ( including a freeway shootout that has a cinema verite, hand held quality to it almost as if it were a news segment instead of an action sequence). Yau also manages to obtain fine performances from his cast including a scene-stealing performance from the excellent Simon Yam as Sgt. Wong and nice work from Tony Leung as Shan and Kate Tsui as Constable Ho-Ka-Po. EYE IN THE SKY turned out to be the biggest surprises at HIFF this year and one of the best films screening at the fest. To be frank, I knew nothing about this film before I saw it. I went it into it blind and Iam glad I did because I wasn't tainted by my usual wariness about Hong Kong films. If anything, EYE IN THE SKY demonstrates that even in post-colonial Hong Kong-a film colony that oftens produces more lumps of coal than diamonds-that well-made films can still emerge and shine brightly in the light of international film festival exposure.

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