Saturday, May 14, 2011

5 Centimetres per Second


Directed by Makoto Shinkai

Makoto Shinkai's second full length film, "5 Centimetres per Second" confirms his incredible talent both as a storyteller and visual artist.

"5 Centimetres per Second" is divided into three chapters which follow three main characters -- Takaki, Akari, and Kanae -- from elementary school to young adulthood. The first chapter focuses on Takaki and Akari, who attend the same elementary school and hope to attend the same middle school until Akari moves away. Chapter 2 follows Takaki, now in high school, and Kanae, his classmate who is hopelessly in love with him but can't find a way to tell him. The last chapter, the shortest of the three, follows the three characters into young adulthood.

Since the release of "Voices of a Distant Star" in 2002 Shinkai's critical acclaim has gone from overwhelming to almost hyperbolic. The excitement over his work is absolutely and unquestionably well deserved, however, and each time I watch one of his films I can't help but wish that he had a bigger catalogue behind him so I could feast on his gorgeous works in abundance, rather than watchings his limited filmography over and over again.
"5 Centimetres per Second" hits on many of the same themes that run through Shinkai's work; distance, time, and the enduring, and often debilitating, forces of memory. Shinkai is incredibly adept at exploring these themes, especially the concept of the elasticity of time which can seem infinite one moment and incredibly finite the next. In all of Shinkai's works the characters, always in their teens, often want to say things or do things but often wait for a perfect moment to do so that usually never comes. In other instances their life circumstances pull them apart and seemingly trivial moments (in the case of "5 Centimetres per Second" a broken spark plug, a delayed train) become heavy with importance. It's a universal theme, I believe, and all of us can certainly think of moments in our lives that seemed fleeting or trivial but have, over time, taken on a tremendous amount of importance. Shinkai is a master at exploring this theme and also in giving these moments an emotional weight, often discovered in hindsight by his characters, that give them a tremendous sense of authenticity.
As good as the content of Shinkai's work has been, his animation is probably an even better reason to check out his work. His animation is exquisitely rendered and his use of light (or creation of it, as it is) is second to none. It's a treat to look at and, when coupled with his terrific storytelling, Shinkai's work elevates itself far beyond usual animated fare.

Friday, May 13, 2011

C'est la Vie mon Cheri


Directed by Derek Yee

Sean Lau and Anita Yuen star in this much beloved Hong Kong tearjerker, directed by the alternately brilliant and puzzling Derek Yee (One Night in Mongkok).

Lau plays Kit, a down on his luck saxophonist who moves into a crumbling apartment block after getting dumped by his more successful girlfriend. His new neighbours are a family of musicians who perform a middlebrow street show to get by. The family's daughter, Min, is a bubbly and optimistic singer who quickly strikes up a friendship with the morose Kit. Min's irrepressible good cheer slowly breaks down Kit's defences and romance begins to bloom between the unlikely pair. Unsurprisingly, their blissful happiness does not last long as Min is soon with a terrible disease.

The biggest problem with tearjerkers is that, in an effort to manipulate the audience, they very rarely accomplish anything resembling true emotional resonance which usually leaves the audience split into two groups -- those who cry profusely at the theatre and then forget about it and those who just roll their eyes and yawn. Yee's film is most definitely a tearjerker but what saves it from becoming another "Lorenzo's Oil" or "A Walk to Remember" (which, based on how well both those films did at the box office, probably isn't something a director would want to be "saved" from come to think of it...) is that it finds a way to connect on an emotional level beyond the scenes that are tailor made to draw tears. For instance, one of the most touching scenes in my opinion was when Tracy (Carina Lau) visits Min in the hospital and the two have a frank discussion about Kit, tinged with both regret, envy, and mutual respect that comes off as far more authentic than any of the film's more nakedly emotional moments.
The other thing that saves Yee's film is the strong acting, anchored by Sean Lau and Anita Yuen who both give charismatic and believable performances that stay as far away from maudlin and overwrought as possible, though at times they both obviously bow to the demands of the script and lay on the melodrama. Lau is one of Hong Kong's best and most consistent acting talents and whoever cast him in this role should be thanked profusely because a lesser actor probably would have sent this one into even cornier territory.