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Thursday, October 6, 2022

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: The saga of Chol Soo Lee—and the...

Screen Grabs: The saga of Chol Soo Lee—and the arrival of Cinequest

Plus: 'Big Trouble in Little China' gets a screening worthy of a cult fave, and this week's new releases.

This week brings some special events, the biggest of which—at least, if you’re in the South Bay—is the return of Cinequest, now officially dubbed a “Film & Creativity Festival” to better reflect its longstanding embrace of media and technology beyond film. First launched in 1990, the event’s latest edition is back to “in-person” status after the last couple years’ COVID-related hurdles, seemingly relocated for keeps on the calendar from early in the year to late summer.

The 2022 edition encompasses some 220 titles of varying length from 55 countries, many world premieres. This year’s Maverick Spirit Award winners will be actors Jim Gaffigan (who stars in opening night selection Linoleum) and Alison Brie (of comedy Spin Me Round, which screens Wed/17 and also features Aubrey Plaza, Alessandro Nivola, Molly Shannon, Tim Heidecker, and Fred Armisen). Programming of particular local interest includes the Sat/20 debut of Laurence Madrigal’s music documentary We Were Hyphy, about the Oakland-bred oughties hiphop subgenre. Running Tue/16-Mon/29 at various San Jose and Silicon Valley venues, Cinequest’s full program, ticket and other info can be found here.

San Francisco history comes home—as well as to theaters nationwide—with the arrival of Free Chol Soo Lee. Julie Ha and Eugene Yi’s engrossing documentary chronicles a largely-forgotten local chapter that was nonetheless high-profile for some years. When a spate of recent Chinatown gangland killings culminated in another execution-style death in 1973, the political pressure was such that police hastily arrested young Korean emigre and North Beach strip-club barker Lee—railroading him to a conviction despite a complete lack of credible evidence.

His plight energized Asian American activists, including a raft of future community and government leaders. Their campaign for his exoneration was ultimately a triumph, even if Chol Soo Lee (who later wrote a potent memoir about his long, scarring prison stint) emerged too damaged to enjoy any real happy ending. It’s a fascinating story that will play many theaters around the country for one night only on Wed/17 (go here for locations), and which starts a regular run at the Roxie on Fri/19.

SF Chinatown violence of the silliest imaginable sort adds to the comic-book effect of John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China, a box-office flop in 1986 that’s developed a cult following ever since. An abduction at SFO sweeps trucker Jack Burton (Kurt Russell with a mullet and John Wayne voice) and his pal Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) swept into zany intrigue that probably got green-lit for its vague adjacency to Indiana Jones, but tonally bears more resemblance to What’s Up, Doc? It’s an elaborate live-action cartoon with gangland shootouts, swordfights, martial arts blowouts, magic flying fu with lightning bolts, monsters, several performers from SF’s trailblazing Asian American Theater Company, and a pre-Sex and the City Kim Cattrall as the most prominent among several damsels in frequent distress.

Big Trouble caught less of the flak for racial/cultural stereotyping that was directed at the prior year’s Year of the Dragon or Black Rain a couple years later, presumably because those movies took themselves seriously. (It also makes our swaggering Caucasian hero something of a useless doofus, who at one key pre-battle point fires a gun in the air and gets knocked out by fallen ceiling debris.) This one takes nothing seriously at all, though one might wish the tin-eared dialogue meant to be retro snappy patter had a little more finesse. It was all evidently too goofy, too in-jokey, too rooted in genres (notably Chinese wushu epics and antique Fu Manchu-type fantasies) that were too marginal for mainstream American audiences to grok.

The resulting commercial failure greatly disillusioned Carpenter, hastening his withdrawal from major-studio production. But it is certainly great fun—as deliberately absurd a contraption as the recent Everything Everywhere All At Once, and a lot better than many movies in this general vein (from The Goonies to Romancing the Stone) that did very well in its own same era. Movies for Maniacs’ revival screening at the Castro on Sat/20 will feature a 35mm archival print, plus M4M host and 48hills contributor Jesse Hawthorne Ficks interviewing actor Peter Kwong, who played Rain—one of “The Three Storms” equipped to take on all comers with their supernatural powers. For event and ticket info, go here.

Love is the tie that binds several of this week’s new streaming releases, though in no case do they portray scenarios you might personally envy:

Bliss

Indeed, the title is particularly deceptive in Henrika Kull’s astute German feature, since its protagonists find that state neither in their profession nor, ultimately, in their relationship with each other. Thirtysomething Sascha (Katharina Behrens) works at a Berlin brothel where she’s immediately intrigued by “new girl” Maria (Adam Hoya), an extensively-tattooed Italian. They become romantically involved, despite Sascha’s having a sometime-boyfriend. All goes well until a maximally cringe-inducing trip to Sascha’s hometown, where she has an ex-spouse and a son, reveals that she has a whole lotta “issues”—probably more than Maria can, or would want to, handle.

Kull doesn’t provide a lot of dialogue or backstory to “explain” her characters, yet we find them credibly complex. The deftly-crafted film is also impressive for its nonjudgmental take on sex work and its environments, one far less indicting than even the quasi-documentary likes of recently restored ’80s indies Working Girls and Kamikaze Hearts. Commercial sexual transactions are portrayed in frank (but not at all “erotic”) fashion, with equal attention to the women’s camaraderie and more humdrum workplace obligations when not “performing” for clients. We don’t learn everything there is to know about these characters, but what we do seems honest and unsensationalised. Dark Star Pictures releases Bliss aka Gluck to DVD and digital platforms this Tue/16.

The Immaculate Room

Coupledom is also very hard to maintain for the protagonists in this gimmick-driven piece from writer-director Mukunda Michael Dewil. Not that Mike (Emile Hirsch) and Kate (Kate Bosworth) do themselves any favors in that regard by agreeing to a 50-day stay in the titular ultra-spare, all-white space, a windowless interior in which they’ve absolutely nothing to occupy themselves with but their own thoughts, and each other’s increasingly irksome company. The prize, if they make it through, is $5 million. Needless to say, their invisible host (a shadowy tycoon apparently inclined towards orchestrating such “human experiments”) is going to make reaching that goal difficult.

You might well expect a horror or at least suspense movie (like the similarly trapped-in-an-antiseptic-environ Cube series), but Room doesn’t really go in that direction—or any other, at least not enough to justify taking nearly 90 minutes of our time. Kate is a prickly malcontent, Mike an antic manboy the performer unloads too many actorish tricks onto. We don’t particularly root for them as a couple, or even as individuals. Their relationship doesn’t seem sound enough to withstand a bum weekend, let alone 50 days of shared deprivation.

A third figure eventually appears, but even that doesn’t add much intrigue. If you stick it out in the hopes of at least discovering why the mystery tycoon created this lab-rat mindfuck, you’ll be out of luck. This film is a good example of a project with a viable idea it fails to develop beyond bounds sufficient for a short—resulting in an exasperating patience-test sans reward for the viewer. Screen Media releases The Immaculate Room to limited theaters and On Demand platforms on Fri/19.

Squeal

More entertainingly perverse is the equally-unnatural situation that unfolds in Latvian director Aik Karapetian’s “dark fairy tale,” which has previously been shown under the title Samuel’s Travels. Indeed, Sam (Belgian actor Kevin Janssens) is traveling at the outset, an apparent loner searching for a father he’s never met in an unknown country’s rural backwaters. Fate has him inadvertently collide with an escaped piglet, whose owner Kirke (Laura Silina) finds them both, and invites him into her forest cottage. Upon waking later, alas, he finds himself naked and chained in the barn next to the pigsty, expected to function as slave labor by Kirke and her father (Aigars Vilims).

Samuel does attempt escape, more than once. But he also finds that the forced physical bounds and constancy of this captive state have some appeal after his rudderless life to date. “If you want to be happy, you have to obey,” he is told. Perhaps obedience is what he’d needed to be happy, all along.

Squeal is an interesting mix, juggling elements of fable and black comedy, Babe and Barry Lyndon, with an arch omniscient narrator, dialogue in many languages (albeit mostly English), and music by such courtly composers as Handel, Rameau, and Vivaldi. It’s rather more pleased with itself than the actual level of cleverness (or pointedness) warrants. Still, it’s always watchable—with Jurgis Kmins’ handsome outdoor photography and Janssens’ copious well-toned nudity vying for the gold star as “most scenic attraction.” Good Deed Entertainment and Cranke Up Films release it to US via On Demand platforms this Fri/19.

When I Consume You

If love blossoms from potentially mortal straits in Squeal, this third feature from writer-director Perry Blackshear (They Look Like People, The Siren) posits love—sibling love, in this case—as the only thing that might halt a fate worse than (but also including) death. Daphne (Libby Ewing) and Wilson (Evan Dumouchel) are adult survivors of a shared childhood whose details we are spared, but which we’re assured was horrendous. Now she at least appears to have her life together, with a corporate job and hopes of adopting a child. He, on the other hand, is a very fragile loner just squeaking by as a janitor, with no intimates but sis. When he finds her dead in her apartment, the cops pronounce it a suicide, but Wilson is convinced she was murdered—after all, he saw a seeming perp flee the scene.

Given his own substance issues, panic attacks, and occasional hallucinations, we suspect that Wilson is just delusionally blinding himself to a bitter truth. His pathetic amateur sleuthing does lead to a suspect. But that suspect transfers the focus of its malevolent stalking to him—and worst of all, said suspect is something other than human, or even mortal. The sibling bond, however, could prove strong enough, even after death, to provide Wilson some defensive input.

When I Consume You isn’t big on plot, let alone mythological detail to illuminate its villain. What it does have, however, is a vivid sense of despair, isolation, anxiety, and helplessness—the bleak bubble of mental unwellness our protagonists inhabit is like that of Joker, on a more claustrophobic scale. The supernatural is dealt with in a matter-of-fact way that works well for characters who’ve been wrestling with demons their whole lives; now that conflict has simply gotten a bit more literal. With the most withdrawn horror-movie hero since last year’s excellent Caveat, this is perhaps less ingenious as a thriller, but even more strikingly serious as a portrait of acute psychological distress. It’s out on VOD platforms from 1091 Pictures as of Tue/16.

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