AFI Fest 2014: ‘Black Coal, Thin Ice’

When you’re receiving coal for processing, you probably don’t expect to find an arm or a leg in the shipments. When legs and arms and other body parts turn up at a coal factory northern China, detective Zhang (Liao Fan) begins an investigation. That’s the black coal, but then comes the thin ice.

The year is 1999, but in China before the big economic boom. The dead man is Liang Zhijun, a worker in the coal industry and the husband of a laundry worker, Wu Zhizhen (Gwei Lun Mei).

Liang’s co-worker remembers him as “He wasn’t a talkative guy. I used to beat him at chess.” Supposedly Liang worked at the coal scales for eight years and never made an enemy.

As a detective, Zhang doesn’t exactly have a way with the ladies. When Liang’s widow breaks into tears, Zhang tells her, “There’s no point in crying. You’re just wasting time. We need your cooperation.” As it turns out Zhang needs a bit more than that, like a few more lessons on what not to do when arresting a suspect.

Zhang identifies a suspect and goes for an arrest at a hair salon,  but things go wrong and not in a Law & Order way. You almost can’t believe how the bust goes down.

Five years later, Zhang also can’t quite get over that one terrible night. He’s turned to alcohol and now makes a living as a security guard. From his old partner, he learns that there are more dismemberments. Oddly enough, all of the men are somehow connected with the widow Wu. Wu still works at the laundry/dry cleaner.

This is film noir in the urban despair of a rapidly modernizing China where the rich still coerce the poor beyond endurance and push them into murder and love or loyalty can be a chain to the past. This is a film noir without the femme fatale who displays her cleavage like bait for ravenous dogs. The widow Wu is downcast and fatalistic. Is she really a black widow or just unlucky in love.

The Chinese title “Bai Ri Yan Huo” 白日焰火 actually translates into “Daylight Fireworks.” Oddly enough, it is listed in the Internet Movie Database under its Japanese title (Hakuhyou no Satsujin 白氷の殺人 which means “White Ice Assassin”).  Director Yi-nan Diao won a Golden Berlin Bear Award at the Berling International Film Festival and Fan Liao won the Silver Berlin Bear Award for Best Actor.  In Mandarin Chinese with English subtitles.

AFI 2014: ‘August Winds’

Did you ever want to live the simple life on some relatively isolated beach? Gabriel Mascaro’s narrative film first grabs our attention with beautiful scenery–the blue waters and the bikini-clad woman alone on a boat sunning herself.

This movie, “August Winds” (Ventos de Agosto), is for adults and includes full frontal nudity–male and female. The nudity is matter of fact The woman, Shirley (Dandara de Morais), has a boyfriend, Jeison (Geová Manoel Dos Santos) While she’s sunning herself on the boat listening to rock music with violent English lyrics, he’s diving for octopus. She drives a truck that’s filled up with coconuts. Sometimes, she and her boyfriend have sex on top of the coconuts. On one of his dives, Shirley’s boyfriend Jeison finds a skull with golden teeth.

The villagers contemplate how long the man has been dead. Doesn’t a fresh body float? Is there anything worse than dying at sea? Should one allow the sea to keep what it claims?

This isn’t exactly CSI: Miami and while Jelson goes to a remote location where his cell phone can pick up signals and asks the regional police (Policia Militar de Alagoas). to pick up the body, no one comes. He’s obviously bothered that a man can die and no one cares.   Sometimes a beach paradise has a short memory and in the middle of nowhere a single man is no one when he died. As time passes, the body begins to smell and there are practical concerns to deal with.

“August Winds” asks us that at then end of our summers, before the fall of our youth, what kind of life do we choose and will that help us matter at the end of our days? (2014 Brazil. In Portuguese with English subtitles)

SDAFF 2014: ‘Limited Partnership’

Marriage and immigration. Objective or obstacle? In this documentary,  “Limited Partnership,” the objective is marriage, a marriage performed but not recognized by the government. The topic is timely and reminds us of just how far gay rights have come. The documentary follows the plight of two men, one American and one not, but both gay and both dedicated to each other.

In 1975, Filipino-American Richard Adams and Australian Tony Sullivan were one of the first same-sex couples to be legally married and because Sullivan was not an American citizen. They were married in Boulder, Colorado and it was the beginning of a long journey of love.

The American Immigration and Naturalization Service quickly came down on these two and denied Sullivan a green card as the spouse of an American because the couple was told via an official letter: “You have failed to establish that a bona fide marital relationship can exist between two faggots.” The couple wasn’t deterred; they sued the U.S. government and filed the first federal lawsuit for equal treatment for same-sex marriages.

The documentary catches the couple at the end of their time together, but the U.S. government never succeeded in separating them. The death of one of the “partners” during the filming adds a certain melancholy.  Director Thomas G. Miller brings us their story through interviews, archival photos and movie clips. These two men were pioneers and not quiet about their concerns. For that reason, they became heroes in the gay and lesbian communities nationwide.

Those who have doubts about  same-sex union, the documentary shows how a limited partnership can be as real and as tender as a heterosexual marriage.  This should be proof enough, although we shouldn’t need proof at all. What we need is more love and writers Kirk Marcolina with Miller fully recognize this.

I was surprised to learn that Asian Pacific Islanders Americans  helped set history. This doc should be on everyone’s list for Asian Pacific Islander Heritage month. The movie won the Audience Award at the Aspen Filmfest, the Audience Award at the Woodstock Film Festival and the HBO Films Best Producer Award at the Savannah Film and Video Festival.

AFI Fest/SDAFF 2014: ‘The Iron Ministry’

The title, “The Iron Ministry,” makes this sound like this could be documentary about the political organization that runs the railroad but it is actually about what kind of sights you can see on a train in mainland China and the kind of people you can meet.

The actual translation of the title in Japanese and Chinese is “Railroad” or literally “Iron Road.” 

Have you been on a train lately?  When I was living in Pasadena, I used to take the Gold Line to Union Station and then read a book or look at the coastal view on the Surfrider to San Diego. I’d read a book on the way down and another on the way back up. It was a pleasant journey. Likewise, I’ve taken a short jaunt from Chicago to Urbana.  I’ve just come back recently from Japan where I’ve ridden on the bullet train.

Things are different between my experiences in the U.S. and Japan, but nothing like some of the things I was on this documentary. The rhythm of the churning metal is the same and, sometimes the sudden blurred flashes of scenery could be anywhere in the world. People traveling to visit a festival or to another city for a better life, that’s universal, too. Yet in Japan and the U.S., I’ve never seen someone carrying on great pots of raw meat.  On the train, the slabs of meat aren’t carefully stored away and kept out of sight. The fat is trimmed and then neatly folded up.

In other cases, people board the train carrying great baskets of vegetables suspended on either end of a long thick pole. Most of the baskets are filled with vegetables. Some of the cars are so crowded, people are sitting and eating in the aisles. This isn’t how all the train cars are. In first class, there are white table clothes and people sitting across from one another for a meal.

 There are short interviews in Chinese and we learn that some people are traveling to find better job opportunities or to visit a festival. At 82 minutes, the documentary still feels a little long and director Joel Potrykus could have edited this down a bit. Potrykus traveled the rails for three years collecting footage. This is not a travelogue and it’s not critical social commentary.

The documentary received a Harrell Award at the Camden International Film Festival. The documentary was also shown at the AFI Film Festival 2014. In Chinese with English subtitles.

AFI Fest 2014: ‘Viktoria’

Director Maya Vitkova’s satirical movie takes us into a surreal world of a dysfunctional family and country in “Viktoria.” The title refers to a baby born into the world unattached to her mother by an umbilical cord and attached to the fate of Bulgaria.

Librarian Boryana (Irmena Chichikova) and her doctor husband Ivan (Dimo Dimov) want to run away from home. Home is Bulgaria and they have been making arrangements to escape from the one-room apartment they share with Boryana’s mother (Mariana Krumova). This is the 1970s on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. Despite the lack of privacy, the couple has intimate relations and Boryana takes precautions against pregnancy, but they fail.

Finding herself pregnant, Boryana makes several attempts to abort the baby. Somehow her attempts severe the cord and the child is born without a belly button. TV fans might think the girl would make a perfect genie for “I Dream of Jeannie.” Viktoria doesn’t need a wish. All of hers are granted but for ridiculous reasons. When the nation’s leaders are looking for a baby to become the “Socialist Bulgaria Baby of the Decade” from children born on 9 September–the anniversary of the left-wing uprising, they choose this belly button-less girl.

Viktoria was actually born on 8 September. The child born on the ninth, Stefcho, was born with a physical handicapped and so was passed over.

The two children grow up together but not equally.  Viktoria has become the child of the state. Her parents get a lovely red car and a nice modern apartment. Viktoria’s best friend is Comrade Zhivkov (Georgi Spasov). Zhivkov is a political hotshot and Viktoria has a private line to his office. He gives her parties where adults are forced to clap for her as she bangs on the piano and prances around. She gets a red bicycle with balloons tied to the handle on her 10th birthday.

Yet all that privilege comes to an end in 1989. The communist government collapses in November. Boryana rejoices but her daughter must face being an ordinary person to be judged on her merits. Boryana hasn’t been much of a mother, still harboring anger over Viktoria’s inopportune birth. Her husband asks, “Does the word mother mean anything to you?” and condemns her for the “pile of nasty things” she did to get rid of her.

Yet circumstances force Boryana and Viktoria together. They are not a happy family but even kids with belly buttons have dysfunctional families.

“Viktoria” says a lot about privilege and politics. The film was nominated for the New Director’s Showcase Award at the Seattle International Film Festival and the Grand Jury Prize from Sundance Film Festival.

“Viktoria” isn’t about reality and toward the end doesn’t find a way of tying up all themes yet it offers some interesting views of life during the communist rule.




AFI Fest 2014: ‘A Hard Day’

Alexander had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, but at least it didn’t involve murder and blackmail. Alexander and his family survived their day with strengthened familial bonds by nightfall, but things are markedly different for the man in “A Hard Day”

The Korean name for this movie translates as “Take It to the End” and our protagonist Go Geon-soo (Lee Sun-kyun)  is a homicide detective who has just committed a homicide.  His hard day begins at night. The death may have been an accident, but the detective the way to his mother’s funeral and decides to hide the body in his trunk. Is he having a nervous breakdown? He has a chance to come clean when he’s stopped by fellow officers, but he doesn’t. He can’t. He is guilty of other things and the body is getting in the way of his cover up.

Still, he has to make the funeral and he has to get rid of the body. You see where this is going, right? If he’s on his way to a place with dead bodies, what’s one more body?  This leads to an inventive interlude where our anxious and sweaty detective uses a toy to help hide the body. Here one must give kudos to the director because the black comedy here doesn’t seem out of place or detract from the suspense.

Director Kim Seong-hun has created a tense and moody thriller. We learn soon enough why this detective wants to hide this accident–he’s part of a corrupt squad room that is now under investigation. The accident is an inconvenience. Go doesn’t want to attract attention to himself. Yet someone witnessed the accident and threatens to expose the detective. His squad are not friends; they are feeling the pressure and more than willing to betray each other to save themselves. There’s a moment when the claustrophobia of local corruption seems blown open, but that’s due to a translation error. According to my friend Seongyong Cho, the movie is about local mobsters even though the English subtitles use the word “yakuza.” The Japanese mobsters aren’t involved here.

This isn’t a case of good cop bad cop, but bad cop worse cop. You’re not really cheering for Go, but just wondering if he will survive his hard day and what waits for him at the end.

The movie was show at Cannes under Director’s Fortnight. The movie has been nominated for seven Grand Bell Awards by the Motion Pictures Association of Korea, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Screenplay and Best Cinematography. In Korean with subtitles. This movie also screened at the AFI Film Festival 2014.

AFI Fest 2014: ‘Butter on the Latch’

“Butter on the Latch” is the first full-length feature movie by Josephine Decker and is being released in tandem with her second feature “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely.” Her second movie begins as an art film and devolves into a horror movie. This 2013 movie is listed as a fantasy drama.

Set in a Balkan folk song and dance camp in Mendocino, California. As you can imagine the community for Balkan Folk song and dance in California isn’t that big and our protagonist Sarah reunites with her friend Isolde. At almost any summer camp, you’d expect there to be romances and Sarah is interested in Steph.

The film was first released at the USA La Di Da Film Festival last year in September and was written and directed by Josephine Decker.

My screener began with that familiar color card and then showed us two women dressed in white with veils over their heads. They are obviously performing. They fall back to show their white petticoats. Outside, the women hug and we follow the one in a black leather jacket with long straight dark blonde hair. The camera swoops and swoons and isn’t always in focus. Sarah’s on her cellphone with someone who wakes up in a strange place and she’s clearly worried but the camera turns to a bicycle and a bike seat. Later we follow Sarah into the night as she walks through the city and ends up at a dance spot.  Sometimes, all we are seeing are hands and an out of focus ceiling with industrial pipes. The camera angle can disorient us. Sarah ends up half naked (yes, you see bared breasts) at a dodgy flat where she ends up running away.

This is all before the beginning credits and title roll.  The camera sometimes finds an out of focue background as we wait for the character to come into focus. When Sarah (Sarah Small) and Isolde (Isolde Chae-Lawrence)  finally meet, their embrace is out of focus.

There’s some girl talk about men and sex–neither is doing well on that. The camera work is better here although we’re watching two women with small hiking headlights on their heads while they are brushing their teeth.

Their song is about dragons entwined in their hair. If you’re unfamiliar with UC Santa Cruz’s mascot, you’ll get to see one (It’s a banana slug) before you see Sarah blow drying her hair.

While not exactly shaky cam, the camera work can be jerky as well as unfocused and the lighting definitely needs work. I was annoyed by the camera and lighting and neither of the characters Sarah or Isolde interested me even though I do have an interest in folk dance and singing. The jarring cut between unrelated scenes that can also be found in Decker’s second feature “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely” doesn’t make any more sense here.

“Butter on the Latch” is available VoD.


SDAFF 2014: ‘Fuku-Chan of Fukufuku Flats’

You might giggle when you try to read the title of this Japanese or you might even offend someone who is adverse to four-lettered words. This 2014 movie, “Fuku-Chan of Fukufuku Flats” is a gentle story about good and bad karma and high school regrets.

In Japanese the four-lettered word f**k and fuku are pronounced differently.  In this case, the fuku stands for 福 or “good fortune.” Double good fortune is still good, yet fuku can also mean to mope.  And there’s a lot of moping going around in this apartment complex.

Yosuke Fujita wrote and directs this movie which focuses on a likable guy who seems to embrace the solitary life. Yet it is not because he can’t make friends. The Fuku-chan of the title is the 32-year-old Tatsuo Fukuda (Miyuki Oshima).  The auspiciously named flats is really a run-down apartment building that he has been living in since he moved to Tokyo  after his junior high school graduation.

Fuku-chan is the peacemaker for two other single men living in the same complex. They become unlikely friends. Like many people Fuku-chan’s work isn’t especially inspiring, and he doesn’t try to make friends at work. In his spare time, he paints hand-made kites and flies them for fun. Flying kites seems like a solitary endeavor, but making kites for others is more sociable. You want people to like the designs. You want the designs to be admired.

The question then becomes: Why is Fuku-chan so withdrawn from others except those who are similarly single?

In another part of Japan, a young woman’s desire to become a photographer and be less ordinary results in a disaster. She wins a contest and she finally meets the art photographer she admired. Her prize is to work with the man who turns out to be a lecherous old man who tries to turn the photo session into a make out session. Her idol now off of the pedestal, she is directionless.

Told that she has bad karma, the woman, Chiho (Asami Mizukawa), remembers a mean prank she once played in high school. As you can probably guess, it involved the likable Fuku-chan. Chiho sets out to find forgiveness from Fukuda and by doing so, change her karma.

“Fuku-Chan of Fukufuku Flats” is a small movie without great ambitions, but it does remind us that some acts that might be deemed cool are actually cruel. And those acts of cruelty can have long term effects on the victims as well as the perpetrators.  Unlike a Hollywood movie, the actors look like regular people, someone you might have known in high school or meet at your high school reunion.

“Fuku-Chan of Fukufuku Flats” was screening at the San Diego Asian Film Festival. The movie hasn’t been released in the United States, but has also been shown at the New York Asian Film Festival, the Hawaii Film Festival and the Reel Asian International Film Festival. This movie is sweet and funny. It’s a welcome change from the samurai movies that most people watch.

For those of us who were targeted by the mean girls and boys in school, this is a thoughtful look at life’s choices and consequences. In Japanese with English subtitles.

San Diego Asian Film Festival 2014: ‘Blue Bustamante’ predictable but amusing

Once you know that the main character of “Blue Bustamante” is named George Bustamante and you’ve already seen the movie’s poster art, you can figure out that the blue stands for two things–George’s state of mind and a certain blue TV character. This low budget movie is a predictable but fun look back at the 1990s and is perhaps best meant for fans for the Power Rangers.

Writer/director Miko Livelo (with co-writer John Elbert Ferrer) takes us back to a time before cellphones, Skype and emails and brings us an age old problem–a man leaving home to support his family. That is how America was built, with the help of Chinese, then Japanese and Filipino immigrants, often exploited and subject to great prejudice. Livelo doesn’t want to dwell so much on these serious issues. His George Bustamente (Joem Bascon) is a white collar worker, leaving his insecure wife June (Dimples Romana) and their only child Kiko (Jhiz Deocareza) to work as an engineer in Japan.

Arriving in Japan, George finds himself out of work and desperate. With the help of a new friend (Roger Grace), George becomes a stunt double for a new sentai show. Sentai is the Japanese word for military unit or squadron and Super Sentai Series are TV shows in Japan which features a group of costumed superheroes like the Power Rangers. The name of the series George finds himself working on is “Force Five” and he’s the stunt double for the blue character.

As this is before Cosplay went big and San Diego Comic-con became huge, men weren’t very open to running around in lycra spandex. George was embarrassed about his new vocation and won’t tell his wife (who ends each of her whiny, longing notes with a threat). Yet in the Philippines, the “Force Five” show is also wildly popular among kids, including his son. Kiko is bullied and finds himself four fast friends–all victims of the bully.

As his son finds confidence from “Force Five,” George fends off the attentions of a lovelorn Japanese woman and begins to improve at his secret job.

This movie embraces its low budget and fashions “Force Five” as a low budget quickly assembled rip-off of a sentai series like the Power Rangers. The movie doesn’t get everything right about Japan (and I haven’t been to the Philippines) and one wonders how George expected to get a good job with his inability to speak Japanese.  The acting is sometimes a bit awkward and the editing could have tightened things up.

Still, if you have a thing for Japanese Super Sentai Series, this 2013 comedy might give you a little chuckle, particularly if you gather your own Sentai fan group and watch it together. The movie is currently making the festival rounds and is not yet available on DVD, but you can always “Like” the movie’s Facebook page.

Stan Lee’s Comikaze 2014: Shopping doesn’t have to end

If you missed Stan Lee’s Comikaze this weekend, that doesn’t mean you totally have to miss out. Sure you missed some of the panels, the autographs and even a few costume-ready events, but you can still shop.


Bored with nails that are just one color? What about nail wraps for your inner geek? Try Espionage Cosmetics. How about an Army of Vandal Eyes? Then there are Borderlands The Presequel wraps. Like LEGO? Who doesn’t! How about some Building Block nails? Are you wearing a mask as a super hero or super villain? Why shouldn’t your nails also be masked? Love your Circuit Board? You can nail that as well. Then there’s a touch of the Tim Burtonesque as well as something for the Cat Lady in training. Want to have ten tentacles for next year’s Comikaze? How about something more Harlequin? You can also go Power Rangers, Ninja Turtle, really webhead or Steampunk.  Each set costs $10 and is pretty easy to apply.


Shoes. Do you love shoes? Do you believe that superheroes and superheroines are invincible enough to stand for long hours in a convention line in six-inch heels? If you’re going to suffer that much, those shoes better look good. The San Diego-based Orion’s Originals offers you custom made shoes by DeathStarDoll and Madam Justice. A nice comic heel might not make you laugh, but they will only set you back $150. Flats will run you $80. They also take custom jobs for men and kids (and we’re not saying that men can’t wear those heels). Kids shoes run about $40.

All of their examples are hard leather or leather surfaces and not cloth. They are willing to adapt to your wishes and customize any design or design something comic book or movie themed for you.

10346200_10205378547246899_5280994473959715695_nTim Burton, the Munsters and Vampire movies have brought bats into fashion. Need a wrap? How about a bat wrap that is also a bat pack? Open the door to Th1rte3n’s Closet and you’ll find just what you need to keep you warm as long as you aren’t afraid of it sinking its fangs into your neck or shoulders. Also offered is a bat coin purse.10676176_10205378550686985_5185937159470982310_n

Cats and Superheroes 

You think that cats don’t care. That’s a part of their charm. They show very little devotion for anyone or anything but themselves. So cats as superheroes? What will they be saving? Fish for lunch?  Arm the Animals feels that cats would make good animal rights activists and artist Jenny Parks imagines felines in lycra spandex costumes as well as that metal Iron Man suit.10256229_10205378553167047_7449972421206821955_n

Arm the Animals gives you that Planet of the Apes revolution feel while Parks goes for realism…well, as realistic was you can be about cats saving the world and working with other superheroes. The company’s rescue partners are: Big Fluffy Dog Rescue, Barks of Love, Strangest Angeles Animal Rescue, Fresno Bully Rescue, The New York Bully Crew, DFW Pug Rescue, Almost Home, The Cattery, the House Rabbit Society and Priceless Pets Rescue.


Home & Garden

Do you need more Star Trek stuff, but your decor is more natural wood and you’re going green so the usual Star Trek stuff looks like it would be a better fit for the modern or neo-modern sleek interior designs? Don’t worry. Wood If I Could has just the right stuff for you including a lamp in the shape of the U.S.S. Enterprise that has several different light intensities. Of course, there is also a wood phaser.




Are you old school? Then there’s Andromeda Designs Limited. President Scot Hogan’s company makes miniatures for the science fiction and fantasy fans. You can get old school action figures. You can also get planetary displays (and include Pluto or not), flying model rockets, limited editions and pre-finished miniatures.

Got a thing for black and white? Like deceptively simple designs. Lita Lopez takes commissions for the Amazing Etch Man, Christoph Brown.










Other stark art, is the all-white 3D models from Bone Lab. Artist/creator Greg Peltz creates skeletons for things that once existed and things that we hope never existed. There’s a pretty cool vampire bat, but we were leaning toward the Pentaceratops and waiting for the T-rex kit which Peltz says will be done by December. Bone Lab also has a rattlesnake kit and for you Walking Dead fans, a zombie clawing its way to the surface.1459147_10205378553407053_4128507206350554588_n

You like things cute? Rizzo Michelle is a designer toy artist. She had Groot and others at Stan Lee’s Comikaze.

Are you the selfie king or queen of your social network? Then you might want to check out Selfi3D. You could have a 3D doll of yourself, your parents or your friends or frenemies? No news on whether this has voodoo applications.

Do you love gnomes? Do you love zombies? Or do you hate garden gnomes and want to see them die gruesome deaths? Or perhaps you’d just like to set the mood for Halloween or a marathon of “Walking Dead.” The answer to your problems is Zombie Gnomes. This company has been helping zombie-lovers everywhere since 2010 and insists that their merchandise is high quality cement and hand-painted. Each piece is then covered with UV protective exterior varnish.

You can have your own “Lawn of the Dead” with feasting zombie gnomes, mother zombie gnomes and just plain bloody-mouthed gnomes rising from your garden grounds.

This list should get you ready for holiday shopping for your favorite geek.




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