SFIFF Review: Big Blue Lake

2013 SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL SELECTION!
Unrated
98 minutes

*

It’s difficult to pinpoint precisely where Jessey Tsang Tsui-Shan went wrong with “Big Blue Lake,” her semi-autobiographical second feature film. There’s a good story in there somewhere. Instead she presents us with something that, when it’s not being trite, is an utter snoozefest.

Lai Yee (Leila Tong) is a thirty-ish actress who returns to her small village in Hong Kong after a ten-year absence to find everything different and her mother suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s. To earn money for her mother, Lai Yee takes odd jobs that utilize her acting skills (because pretending to be blind to test restaurant service is totally a job that someone could have). During one assignment, she bumps into Lam Chun (Lawrence Chou), an old school chum who happens to be in between two unsuspecting dates. For no apparent reason, the two reconnect and he comes to live in her brother’s old room. The plot then abandons Lam Chun’s lothario storyline and puts him on a quest to reconnect with an old love at the titular lake both he and Lai Yee remember from their childhood.

There isn’t an interesting character or story line in the film. Part of it is the performances, which feel clunky and amateurish, and that’s with them speaking Cantonese, which I do not speak in the slightest. Tong makes a lot of over-expressive Katy Perry style faces whenever she is trying to really get an emotion across, but I’m STILL not really sure what she’s trying to convey. Her mother toddles around almost like a sitcom version of an Alzheimer’s sufferer. Everyone else barely registers in terms of performance.

The story also feels fairly contrived. When Lai Yee shows up, she finds her mother, May (Amy Chum), alone in the house and clearly suffering from dementia. No one called to tell her that her mother was sick. Later her brother explains (by phone) that she never calls so he didn’t think to tell her. Really? That’s EXACTLY WHEN you would call an estranged relative. Then she learns that her brother and father both left town without her mother. There is some flimsy “emergency” excuse for both of them, but they left with no real contingency plan set in place. They didn’t even know that Lai Yee was coming! I guess they just assumed their Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother would be fine alone for a couple of days.

Lai Yee gets lots of passive-aggressive comments from the neighbors about her long absence. It seems like the entire population is angry with her. Is this really what happens in small Chinese villages? It doesn’t really seem like any of their business.

Lai Yee’s story is beyond boring. She spends much of her off time in contemplative silence, and Leila Tong is not a nuanced enough actress to pull that off. Lai Yee is relatable only to the extent that she does what we all do when we’ve returned to a place we haven’t been in a while. We continuously remark about how everything has changed. It’s a natural impulse that kicks in somewhere in your mid-twenties and only gets worse the older you get. But it can’t be very much fun for other people to listen to.

Alzheimer’s is emotionally devastating for everyone but the sufferer and it can be a heartbreaking plot point in films (such as Sarah Polley’s “Away From Her”), but in Jessie Tsang’s clumsy hands, it feels disingenuous. If this is really a version of her life, I’m sorry for her. I’m sure it’s terrible. But an audience needs more than abstract sympathy to connect with a character. Perhaps she was too close to her material to remember to make it interesting.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).

2013 San Fran International Film Fest Wrap-Up

Spring is a funny time for a film festival. I understand that the host cities want to show off during the most temperate season; San Francisco is beautiful year-round, but Spring is the only time it’s not nestled under a blanket of clouds. Such is the nature of film festivals; you end up spending an awful lot of time inside dark theaters. When you leave a screening, the sun admonishes you for your insolence.

Fortunately, SFIFF makes it easier for you to make the most of the festival and the city at the same time. Currently in its 56th year, SFIFF is spread out over fifteen days and, thanks to the many screens at the Sundance Kabuki Theatre, they are able to keep things pretty contained. There were never any screenings scheduled before noon, so you can always get a couple of hours of exploration in before it’s time to sit on your butt. The SFIFF lineup is comparable to other major film festivals, but the lengthy duration makes for a more relaxed experience. I was only able to stay for a week, but in that time I managed to see sixteen films as well as make the most of my time in the City by the Bay.

The festival kicked off with “What Maisie Knew” and ended with the third installment of Richard Linklater’s “Before [Whenever]” series. Either SFIFF has an excellent programmer or I’m just getting better at choosing films to screen. I saw way more great films than bad ones.

THE BEST:

“After Lucia” – Beautifully acted, but so brutal that I’m still a little traumatized. Tessa Ia gives a staggering performance as the teenager who decides not to bother her recently widowered father with the trivial matter of being literally tortured by her classmates.

“Dom: A Russian Family” – Time will likely prove this the definitive Russian gangster film.

“Ernest & Celestine” – Based on the stories and water color illustrations by Gabrielle Vincent, it tells a poignant tale of the unlikely friendship between a mouse and a bear, whose kind are the sole mortal enemies in an anthropomorphic animal world. Friendship despite adversity is one of the greatest messages that a kid’s film can impart because it teaches children that the black and white rules set by authority aren’t always wise or informed.

“Key of Life” – Though foreign comedies tend to suffer from the hindrance of translation, writer/director Uchida Kenji makes it looks easy with his tale of three lost souls who find themselves by stepping out of their comfort zones and into each other’s lives. The dialog is sharp and the performances are understated perfection, playing the affable screwball characters so straight that the absurd comedy clichés (chance meetings, amnesia, mistaken identity, freak accidents) seem entirely plausible.

“Kings of Summer” – This quirky coming-of-age tale about a troika of restless teenage boys who build the ultimate clubhouse in the woods is going to be the sleeper hit of the season. Megan Mullalley, Alison Brie and Ron “Fucking” Swanson round out the supporting cast.

“Pearblossom Hwy” – An excellent follow-up to Mike Ott’s “Littlerock”, “Pearblossom Hwy” is a uniquely told story of two small-town twenty-somethings whose ambitions don’t stretch too far beyond the need to escape.

“Sofia’s Last Ambulance” – One of those movies you need to see every once in a while to remind yourself that our mess of a country could be so much worse.

“Stories We Tell” – At this point, I can safely say that Sarah Polley is one of the most creative and elegant filmmakers working today. Her third film is a video memoir of sorts that explores perspective and memory through a profile of the mother she lost when she was a little girl.

“Unfinished Song” – This is one of those British Schmaltzfests that is so well acted, you play right into their hands and walk out of the theater with a wet sleeve and puffy eyes. Terence Stamp is an absolute treasure.

“You’re Next” – Adam Winegard’s tongue-in-cheek home invasion Mumblecore Horror film stars a Super Group of well known actors within the sparse genre including Joe Swanberg, Amy Seimetz and Kate Lyn Sheil. Lionsgate seems well aware of that fact and snatched it right up. Catch it at a theatre near you this August.

THE WORST:

“Big Blue Lake” – Major snoozefest about an estranged actress who returns home unexpectedly and is surprised to learn that her mother has Alzheimer’s. As boring as it is depressing.

“Night Across the Street” – Highly French New Wave influenced final film of now deceased Chilean filmmaker Raúl Ruiz. I wouldn’t say I’m glad he’s dead, but at least he can’t make any more films.

“Rosie” – Swiss comedy about a stubborn old lady and her author son who must return home to take care for her, despite the fact that neither of them are too keen on the idea. It’s not nearly as funny or heartwarming as it thinks it is.

THE MEH:

“Much Ado About Nothing” – As a huge Joss Whedon fan, I normally lap up everything he puts in front of me. Shakespeare isn’t such a bad writer either. Unfortunately, “Much Ado” is one of the harder plays to update because the very premise is archaic and misogynistic. The usual suspects of the Whedonverse navigate the language with grace and thoughtfulness, but nothing they do can counter the fact that it’s a romantic comedy about arranged marriage and female “purity.”

“Outrage Beyond” – The person who introduced this film claimed that it wasn’t necessary to see the first “Outrage” film to follow the story in the sequel. Regardless, I had the nagging sense I was missing something throughout. Maybe it was a bad subtitle translation, but exciting camera work and over-the-top violence aside, this film left me beyond wanting.

GOLDEN GATE AWARD WINNERS:

Best Documentary Feature – “A River Changes Course”, Dir. Kalyanee Mam (Cambodia/USA 2012)

Best Bay Area Documentary Feature – “The Kill Team”, Dir. Dan Krauss (USA 2012)

New Directors Prize – “Present Tense”, Dir. Belmin Sölyemez (Turkey 2012)

Honorable Mention – “La Sirga”, Dir. William Vega (Colombia/France/Mexico 2012)

FIPRESCI Prize – “Nights with Theodore”, Dir. Sébastian Betbeder (France 2012)

Best Narrative Short – “Ellen Is Leaving”, Dir. Michelle Savill (New Zealand 2012)

Best Documentary Short – “Kings Point”, Dir. Sari Gilman (USA 2012)

Best Animated Short – “Kali the Little Vampire”, Dir. Regina Pessoa (Canada/France 2012)

Best Bay Area Short, First Prize – “3020 Laguna St. In Exitum”, Dir. Ashley Rodholm, Joe Picard (USA 2013)

Bay Area Short, Second Prize – “More Real”, Dir. Jonn Herschend (USA 2012)

New Visions – “Salmon”, Dir. Alfredo Covelli (Israel/Italy 2012)

Best Family Film – “Luminaris”, Dir. Juan Pablo Zaramella (Argentina 2012)

Family Film Honorable Mention – “I’m Going to Mum’s”, Dir. Lauren Jackson (New Zealand 2012), “Jonah and the Crab”, Dir. Laurel Cohen (USA 2012)

Youth Work – “The Dogmatic”, Dir. Lance Oppenheim (USA 2012)

Youth Work Honorable Mention – “Last Stop Livermore”, Dir. Nat Talbot (USA 2012)

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).