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Documentary Features Live Action Movies

Daughter Of Shanghai

Directors – Michelle Chen Miao, Hilla Medalia – 2019 – China – Cert. N/C 15+ – 90m

****1/2

A chronicle of the life and on-off career of Chinese-born, RADA-trained actress and screen legend Tsai Chin – available to rent online until Wednesday, May 12th in the UK & Ireland in the Chinese Cinema Season 2021 as part of the Approaching Reality documentary strand

“I was born in a trunk when my parents were on tour in Tianjin.” The daughter of legendary Peking Opera star Zhou Xinfang, Tsai Chin came to London towards the end of her  seventeenth year when she was the first Chinese person to be accepted at RADA where she found herself alongside the likes of high-born, Welsh socialite Elizabeth Rees-Williams who in footage alongside her now husband Jonathan Aitken is one of the main interview subjects here. As well as a recent interview with Tsai Chin herself, the other main interviewee is the late lawyer Carlo Colombotti, a personal friend and a wealthy lawyer who moved in the same London circles in the sixties.

Her story, although it contains specific international and cross-cultural reference points, is, basically, an actor’s life: early success on stage and screen through the fifties and sixties, followed by a period in the seventies and eighties in relative obscurity and a later period when her rediscovery by Hollywood in the nineties restarted her career.… Read the rest

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Assassins

Director – Ryan White – 2020 – US – Cert. – 104m

*** 1/2

Documentary explores how two women unwittingly assassinated ruling Korean family member Kim Jong-nam at Malaysia Airportin virtual cinemas and on VoD from Friday, January 29th

In 2017, Kim Jong-nam, half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, was killed at Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) by two young women who appeared out of nowhere – one of them clad in a T-shirt bearing the legend LOL – to press VX nerve agent, apparently the deadliest chemical on earth, into his eyes. The whole thing was captured on security cameras and the two women arrested soon after. Stranger still, neither seemed to know why they were being arrested.

This is one of those current affairs documentaries where the makers have been fortunate to stumble on an incredible story. Although the film details the assassination at some length, its real subject matter is the fall guys – or, more specifically, fall girls. Neither was Malaysian: both were immigrants – Siti Aisyah from Indonesia, Doan Thi Huong from Vietnam. We are introduced to the world of the social media video prank, where for example a woman will appear and hold the hand of a man she’s never met before or unexpectedly kiss him in public for the camera, as a comic episode.… Read the rest

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76 Days

Directors – Hao Wu, Weixi Chen, Anonymous – 2020 – China, US – Cert. 12– 93m

***1/2

A US documentary edited out of footage shot on the Wuhan Covid-19 hospital frontline by two Chinese reporters allowed access – on VoD from Friday, January 22nd

Documentary film making is a curious medium – one might even say genre – and this is a curious piece of work. On the level subject matter, it hits paydirt. The city of Wuhan, China has a population of 11 million. When it went into lockdown on January 23rd, 2020 as the authorities attempted to curtail the spread of Covid-19, who knew a global pandemic was coming? Few if any in the West and perhaps no-one in China either.

Be that as it may, two journalists, Chen and one who has kept his / her name off from the film, started shooting what was happening in four hospitals in that city, a lockdown which continued for the eponymous 76 days until the local outbreak was considered safely under control. Given what happened later, interest in the footage they shot and the film subsequently made is now far greater than they may have initially imagined.

Documentary film maker Wu was appalled by China’s initial cover-up of what was happening in Wuhan and sought out journalists who’d had access to events and documented them on camera with a view to exchanging information and making a film himself about the pandemic situation in the US, a project eventually cancelled.… Read the rest

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Memories To Choke On, Drinks To Wash Them Down (Ye heung, yuen yeung, Sham Shui Po)

Directors – Leung Ming Kai, Kate Reilly – 2019 – Hong Kong – Cert. N/C 15+ – 77m

**1/2

Four stories from contemporary Hong Kong comprise three dramas and a closing documentary segment – online in the UK as part of Hong Kong Focus 2021 from Tuesday, February 9th to Monday, February 15th

An anthology of four stories from contemporary Hong Kong – three fiction and one documentary – showing the city’s diversity: Forbidden City, Toy Stories, Yuen Yeung and It’s Not Going To Be Fun.

Forbidden City features an old lady (Leong Cheok-mei) and her immigrant carer (Mia Mungil). The first time ‘grandma’ mentions that her son is now a big shot but used – as the not quite right subs put it –to scratch his wee-wee when he was young, it’s funny. The second and third times, it becomes obvious she has dementia and keeps repeating the same phrases over and over. Mia initially refuses to accompany her charge to a reunion in town, but after taking a video of the old lady swearing that she won’t take her carer to her son’s office (“if I do that he’ll fire me,” the carer says), she agrees to accompany her on the bus into town.… Read the rest

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Documentary Features Live Action Movies

Assassins

Not such a harmless prank

Assassins
Directed by Ryan White
Certificate 12, 104 minutes
Released 29 January, online

In 2017, Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia briefly became headline news when Kim Jong-nam, half brother of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, was killed there. The story behind his assassination is truly unsettling, involving as it does two young women who seemingly had no idea what they were getting into… [Read more]

Review for Reform magazine.

See my alternate, longer review on this site.

Assassins is out in virtual cinemas and on VoD in the UK from Friday, January 29th.

Trailer:

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Documentary Features Live Action Movies

MLK/FBI

Director – Sam Pollard – 2020 – US – Cert. 12 – 104m

****1/2

Documentary traces the complex relationship between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and black civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr.– on VoD from Friday, January 15th

Probably more than any other single individual, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-68) contributed to the cause of the civil rights campaign in America. His story and the story of that struggle has been told before, but what’s new in this documentary, following newly declassified documents under the Freedom Of Information Act, is its unflinching look at the role of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in monitoring the man and attempting to discredit him in the minds of the American people.

The years 1924 -72 saw the FBI and its predecessor organisations run by J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972) and this film takes a hard look at Hoover’s personal identity, how that was stamped on the Bureau during his tenure and the effect that had on its dealings with Dr. King.

Interviews with experts, academicians and recent FBI Director James Comey feature heavily on the soundtrack, although only rarely do they appear on camera as talking heads. As the voices, male and female, effectively blur into one long narration even though the names are often put up on the screen when the voice over switches from one person to another which means it becomes quite hard to tell who’s talking .… Read the rest

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Animation Documentary Features Live Action Movies Top Ten

Top Ten Movies (and more) 2020

Work in progress – subject to change.

Top Ten (UK theatrical + online movie releases 2020)

All films received either a theatrical or an online release in the UK between 01/01/20 and 31/01/20. I’ve never previously included online releases (well, maybe the odd on or two as a special case) but this year the film distribution business has been turned upside down by COVID-19. How 2021 and beyond will look is anyone’s guess.

Please click on titles to see reviews. (Some links yet to be added.)

1. Parasite (S.Korea) reviews one and two

2. Coup 53 (UK)

3. A Hidden Life (US/Austria/Germany)

4. Akira (1988, IMAX reissue) (Japan)

5. The Eight Hundred (China)

6. Possessor (Canada) reviews one and introductory link to two

7. Misbehaviour (UK)

8. Dick Johnson Is Dead (US)

9. Away (Latvia, no dialogue!)

10. Snowpiercer
(2013, Eng lang, S.Korea, UK theatrical release in 2020 – finally!)

11. Run (UK)

12. Sócrates (Brazil)

13. County Lines (UK)

14. First Love (Japan)

15. Parasite (Black & White) (S.Korea)

16. The Vast Of Night (US)

17. I’m Thinking Of Ending Things (US)

18. Over The Moon (US/China)

19. WolfWalkers (Ireland) reviews one and two

20. Sheep Without A Shepherd (China)

21.… Read the rest

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Totally Under Control

Directors – Alex Gibney, Ophelia Harutyunyan, Suzanne Hillinger – 2020 – US – Cert. 12 – 123m

***1/2

Documentary looks at the Trump administration’s handling of the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic in the US – in cinemas from Friday, October 23rd and on iTunes, Amazon, Google, BFI Player, Curzon, Sky, Rakuten, Virgin. On BBC iPlayer from Sunday, November 1st.

This is a documentary shot, as it were, on the hoof. It constitutes a record of near-contemporary events as they unfolded in the recent past, in two of three very specific geographic locations. Two or three because the subject is the early months of the 2020 global COVID-19 pandemic in the origin of which the third country, China, specifically the city of Wuhan, played the major part. But this film isn’t really about China beyond that country’s being the source of the infection.

Nor is it really about the second country, South Korea, here quite reasonably held up to the audience as a paragon of virtue in its handling of the crisis. The film is really about the first country, the US, during this period, which had a playbook ready and waiting should such a crisis come to pass.… Read the rest

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Documentary Features Live Action Movies Music

Delia Derbyshire: The Myths And Legendary Tapes

Director – Caroline Catz – 2020 – UK – 98m

*****

Docudrama explores the ten years the legendary electronic musician spent at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop – on BFI Player as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2020 from 8.30 Thursday, October 15th to 18.30 Sunday, October 18th

Part documentary, part drama and part performance art, this is a fascinating examination of Delia Derbyshire, the woman who between 1962 and 1973 worked in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. The film does examine her life and career before and after that, but only briefly. After studying mathematics and music at Cambridge, she became interested in music as an expression of mathematics and, as such, knew that the Radiophonic Workshop was the place she wanted to be.

We see Delia (writer-director Caroline Katz) interviewed for a job at Decca Records only to be told that women don’t work in the technical department but there are openings for secretaries. It’s easy to see that as sexism now, but at that time such attitudes were commonplace. She wonders if her interviewer was the person who turned down the Beatles. We see interviewed Dutch video artist Madelon Hoodykas with whom she collaborated in The Netherlands after her BBC period and there’s some brief footage of the LYC museum set up by Li Yuan-chia near Hadrian’s Wall where she spent some time after a disastrous marriage to a man with whom she had little in common with beyond drinking.… Read the rest

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Dick Johnson Is Dead

Director – Kirsten Johnson – 2020 – US – 89m

*****

The director imagines the death of her dad in a film which celebrates both the man himself and the art of cinema – on Netflix worldwide from Friday, October 2nd

I was alerted to this movie both because not only was Johnson’s prior Cameraperson (2016) excellent but also the subject matter of this new film looked promising. Johnson spent three decades as the cameraperson on numerous documentaries (among them Farenheit 9/11, Michael Moore, 2004 and Citizenfour, Laura Poitras, 2014) before making her previous feature out of interesting bits and pieces of footage she had lying around. Her new film is highly personal and almost fits into the home movies or personal diary school of film making – lent an inevitable, additional gravitas given Johnson’s prior artistic and technical career.

C. Richard Johnson (b. 1932 – ) is Kirsten Johnson’s dad. One day, like all of us, he is going to die. So his daughter decided that while he was still alive she would make a film about his dying, filming his possible deaths and staging his funeral service ahead of time.

There’s a huge contradiction at the heart of this idea.… Read the rest