Reel Asian 2016 Review: The Lockpicker

Toronto high-school student Hashi (newcomer Keigian Umi Tang) is mourning the loss of a close friend, Tess. She killed herself, and now Hashi cannot focus in class or outside the school’s walls. The teen starts stealing money from his peers and dreams of an escape from his lower middle-class life. As visions of Tess flood his head, the troubled teen tries to grapple with his own mortality.

The feature debut from Canadian director Randall Okita is a startling and absorbing drama. The Lockpicker captures the angst of a young man trying to figure out his life as he recovers from immense trauma. The camera rarely leaves the protagonist’s side, and slowly, Hashi’s fears become palpable and even unsettling. In his first performance, Tang capably anchors this heavy film on his shoulders, projecting rage and vulnerability. Okita’s decision to limit Hashi’s dialogue in the first third attaches us to the actor’s wavering moods and expressions. This deepens our interest as Hashi descends into hurt and heartbreak more violently.

The Lockpicker is harsh and harrowing. Audiences should be prepared for some uncompromising explorations of teenage insecurity. Manipulated audio (muffling and sharpening certain noises) and drowsy visuals masterfully bring us into Hashi’s state of mind. Tech triumphs aside, there are a few storytelling blips. For instance, there is too little about Hashi’s family life. The initial vagueness of these relationships eventually undercut plot developments in the final third.

Reel Asian 2016 Review: The Bacchus Lady

The Bacchus Lady requires a bit of context for a Toronto audience. A bacchus lady, typically an older woman in her 50s and 60s, and even up into her 80s, frequents parks where elderly men gather to socialize and play chess. There, the bacchus ladies sell men bacchus, a Korean energy drink, and typically also offer sexual favours for a price. In traditional Korean society, families readily embraced the responsibility of caring for their elderly parents, but because of the rapid modernization in Korea in recent decades, the Korean welfare system has failed to effectively embrace the care of elderly people, who now face the highest rates of poverty in the OECD. Elderly Korean women are acutely effected: roughly three quarters live in dire poverty.

The Bacchus Lady follows Youn So-young (Youn Yuh-jung), a woman in her 60s who works as a bacchus lady. She spends her days trolling parks for prospective clients, often servicing them in cheap motels or, quite often, in the parks themselves. She lives in a small, worn-down apartment; her closest neighbours include a young transgender woman and a young man with a prosthetic leg. A side story involves Youn taking in the young boy of a Filipino woman who accuses a Korean doctor of being her son’s father.

The film is a slow-paced, seemingly randomly episodic narrative that involves Youn encountering clients, other sex workers, and the families of long-time clients. But the payback is sitting through the entire film, for it is actually a meditation of loneliness, death, relationships and sacrifice. Youn, who gave up her family early in life, has deep, meaningful physical and emotional connections with her regular clients; in some cases, Youn sacrifices at great cost to herself to help these elderly men find happiness.

It’s a sad story, so prepare for it. It’s a film that will leave you haunted.

Reel Asian 2016 Review: Seoul Station

Seoul Station is the animated prequel to Train to Busan from director Yeon Sang-ho. While the connections between the two films seems almost non-existent, Seoul Station definitely delivers an equally entertaining zombie film. After a homeless man collapses in front of Seoul’s central subway station, basically ignored by those around him, a deadly zombie outbreak begins. Trapped in the middle is Hye-Sun, a young woman who has left her boyfriend behind after an argument. Trapped in the middle of the zombies, Hye-Sun is forced to survive while her boyfriend and her father search desperately for her.

On the surface, Seoul Station is a straight up zombie film, and entertains in the ways that you would expect from the genre. If you care to dig a little deeper, you can start to see comments on the way we treat those around us, especially people who may not be in the same position financially. Either way you view it, the film is tense and exciting, and features more than enough zombie action to please fans of the genre.

Not content to just offer up a simple zombie story, Yeon Sang-ho’s script offers some great twists and makes sure to show us that the uninfected can be just as terrifying and horrible as the zombies that threaten them. It’s something that every great zombie story is quick to point out now, and Seoul Station is no exception. The only downside to this film may be the animation. It’s not always as smooth and detailed as some viewers could want, and there are a few scenes that lack the tension they deserve because of this, but it’s a small complaint for a largely successful film.

Reel Asian 2016 Review: Tsukiji Wonderland

The Tsukiji Fish Market is renown as being the biggest fish market in the world, a well deserved title but some feel that doesn’t even properly describe Tsukiji as it is in many aspects one of a kind. In Tsukiji Wonderland we get an in-depth look at the market and its inner-workings, from the 14,000 people that play various roles working within the market, to chefs who reap the benefits of their expertise, to researchers and archivists looking to encapsulate into words the magic that exists within this institution.

Much of Tsukiji Wonderland feels like it’s dedicated to the praise of their ‘Intermediate Wholesalers’, which is not unfounded given the importance of their role in selecting the fish that is best suited for their clientelle. Celebrity chefs, fishmongers, and virtually everyone they interact with comments on their distinct knowledge and the great focus they place on relationships with their customers, recognizing how that is even more important than the fish itself. From their different perspectives, we gain an understanding of how complex the role of the Intermediate Wholesaler really is, and how they may be the unifying element within the market. Truly the compliments are endless throughout the film, it drives the message home but at points reach redundancy for the audience.

Audiences are also given a glimpse of the different areas of the market, from the ice manufacturing workers, to multiple auction halls for every variance of fresh and processed seafood imaginable. Some nice breaks from the long string of interviews include footage on tricks of the trade to keep fish fresher for longer, explanations about the practice of aging fish intentionally to bring out their best flavours, and a run down of how seasonality affects the availability and characteristics of the fish resulting in Japan’s distinct seasonal menus.

As far as filmmaking technique goes, portions of the interviews in Tsukiji Wonderland employs a sound design wherein the background noise of the market is optimally mixed with interview soundtracks. We see interview subjects and shots of the market unrelated to the sound sources but they tie nicely together to recreate the ambience of Tsukiji Market. Also included is an 80 year old film on the construction of the first market, which again, nicely breaks up any monotony from the continuous interviews with the market workers.

The Tsukiji Market was and is still revolutionary in its market operations, as well as groundbreaking in its methods of commerce and architecture design.  Tsukiji Wonderland is a loving salute to all of the above.

Reel Asian 2016 Review: Soul Mate

The Reel Asian Film Festival kicks off Tuesday, November 8, 2016 with Derek Tsang’s Soul Mate. A moving tale of friendship between two young women that is put to the test when a young man enters their life, soon followed by other harsh realities that growing up can bring. This is the story of 20 years portraying the ebb and flow of a relationship between two women.

Ansheng and Qiyue become friends amidst a moment of mischief in the schoolyard when they are 13 and form a bond that will connect them for better or worse throughout their lives, in which they will share their most inner desires, secrets, and dreams. Each girl’s admiration for the other entwines them, but in moments of jealousy also rips them apart. The wedge causing their greatest divide being Jia-Ming, Qiyue’s boyfriend whose devotion and repressed emotions could destroy them all.

It’s limiting to classify any film as appealing to one particular gender, but if there was ever a film targeting young women and marginalizing the importance of males, Soul Mate might be it. On one hand it’s nice to see a film focusing on female friendships that don’t rely on physical comedy gags, or cliché man-hating rants. Soul Mate truly centralizes on Qiyue and Ansheng, with the male lead Jia-Ming present in a clearly-defined supporting role. Jia-Ming’s character is somewhat weak, and given the length of time he’s actually present in the film, there’s little detail and development. One can’t help but notice he’s only ever present to be led around by one of the girls, to help them, or be told what to do by one of them.

In their portrayals of traditional good girl Qiyue (Ma Sichun) and wild child Ansheng (Zhou Dongyu), both actresses nail their parts. Zhou Dongyu shines in her spirited performance as Ansheng, who hides her pain behind a bright smile, burying her troubles in unbridled partying, the never ending search for new experiences, and chameleonic tendencies to find herself a place in the world. She moves through life and the screen transitioning seamlessly from apathetic to tender as if they were cut from the same emotional cloth. Qiyue’s restricted character requires Ma Sichun to refrain from such emotional range, but in climatic moments she holds her own against Zhou Dongyu’s Ansheng.

Based on the Chinese novella, July and Ansheng, Soul Mate with its coming-of-age themes also gives us a very genuine view of a platonic friendship between adolescent girls and how this continues to evolve as they reach adulthood. The plot is simplistic through two thirds of their tale, with twists only incorporated near the end of the timeline. Some events are more surprising than others, but unfortunately these twists also bring into question plausibility and logic. The film has been rooted in realism throughout, to ask the audience to take these leaps of faith at the end distracts them from the full emotional impact director Tsang intends.

For those viewers who are invested enough in the story, it may not matter as they see the ties of Qiyue and Ansheng as the most important aspect of the movie. Soul Mate is captivating and unfolds in manner that keeps the viewer invested. While it does contain imperfections, Soul Mate will leave audiences watery-eyed, and clutching their friends a little closer as they exit the theatre.

Reel Asian 2015 Review: Full Strike

Ng Kau-sau is a disgraced badminton champion, the demise of her career brought on by her uncontrollable temper. Now a dejected waitress in her brother’s restaurant, she finds herself thrown together with three ex-cons looking for redemption from their criminal pasts. Together they form a team of misfits hell bent on winning a new championship and showing they world they are not beaten.

Full Strike is the ultimate badminton underdog story. That said, it is also the only badminton underdog story so there is no real measure in which to convey how truly uninspiring it is.

Playing on its own campiness and every sports cliché in the book, Full Strike winds up coming off as vapid and severely lacking in substance. Characters are formulaic and never grow out of their molds, audiences are brought to the brink of caring at which point the mediocrity of the plot development instantly makes their interest fizzle again.

The second half of the film picks up a bit, with the badminton competition to peak audience interest. Unfortunately it’s not enough to make up for the first hour. Josie Ho does her best with the material she’s given, and the appearance of former Shaw Brothers sex symbol Susan Shaw in the supporting role of Aunty Mui is certainly reason to see this film. Don’t set your expectations too high though.

Reel Asian 2015: Two Thumbs Up

After being released from a lengthy stint in prison, petty thief Big F (Francis Ng) gets his old gang (Simon Yam, Patrick Tams and Mark Cheng) back together to rob a delivery van transporting corpses full of cash from mainland China into Hong Kong. They disguise themselves as police officers and retrofit an old minibus into a police van, but as they move to execute the robbery, another gang of criminals arrives with a similar plan, and these guys come stocked with semi-automatic weapons to boot. When these rival criminals kill the delivery men and threaten the life of a little girl, Big F’s motley crew has to rise to the occasion and play heroes for a day in order to save her.

Lau Ho-leung’s Two Thumbs Up is a nostalgia trip for a national cinema growing increasingly modern and impersonal. Bursting with bright colours, garish split-screens, and loud performances, Lau’s film recalls the goofy crime comedies of the 1980s and early 1990s, when Hong Kong films were eager to dig deep into caricature and slapstick in order to entertain an audience. The result is a charmingly hyperactive film, one that never stops entertaining even as its chaotic style and increasing schmaltziness do little to recommend it beyond genre diehards.

The plot of Two Thumbs Up spins in all directions before landing on the crime caper that lends it narrative heft. Lau would’ve done better to streamline and jettison most of the surrounding narrative, including an inexplicable subplot involving a cockroach outbreak. At least the performances are more focused than the narrative. Simon Yam, known for his cool performances in the crime epics of Johnnie To, disappears under an afro wig and a garish tracksuit, clearly revelling in his outlandish supporting part.

It’s this kind of cheerful enthusiasm that makes Two Thumbs Up an enjoyable experience, even if it falls short of the films that inspire it.

Reel Asian 2015 Review: Seoul Searching

Seoul Searching should be intelligent and thought provoking, as it tackles cultural identity and immigrants’ kids’ experiences. Unfortunately, in execution and tone, it is a sloppy and lazy John Hughes spoof that treads into Porky’s and Animal House.

Set in 1986, the film opens with a documentary style montage telling us that the South Korean government hosted a cultural exchange program, inviting expatriates’ kids to Korea to learn about their heritage. The movie then jumps into the story, and that’s where things falter.

The story has three story arcs: Sid (Justin Chon, of Twilight), from California, dresses like Sid Vicious and pines for Grace (Vancouver’s Jessika Van), who dresses like Madonna; Sergio (Esteban Ahn), from Mexico, who’s desperate to have sex and well-groomed Klaus from Germany (Teo Yoo), who helps Kris (Rosalina Leigh), adopted by a white-American couple, find her biological Korean mother.

The movie’s perfectly set up to be an homage to John Hughes teen movie—think Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club—with which it shares a hard-ass educator (Pyo Cha in a good performance). But Seoul Searching lacks the sophistication of John Hughes because of the dull, one-dimensional writing.

The first 20 minutes of the movie are the weakest. The kids arrive at the airport where Korean teachers and officials await them. And insultingly, as each girl walks through the gates, the camera needlessly focuses on her derriere, conveniently dressed in tight-fitting clothes. This lowers the movie from a John Hughes-esque teen comedy to Porky’s. (Although Hughes did write about sex-addicted teens—Weird Science anybody?— he was more sophisticated in execution.) And because the movie’s story is episodic, when the kids talk about the hardships of their joint Korean and Western identities, there’s no reason to care.

Reel Asian 2015 Review: Mina Walking

Yosef Baraki’s entry into this year’s Reel Asian film festival is the morose story of 12-year-old Mina, an Afghani girl whose day-to-day activities reveal the hardships of children—particularly female ones—in war-torn Kabul. From taking care of her senile grandfather to making time to attend school to selling trinkets on the streets to be the family’s sole breadwinner, Mina Walking is an engrossing depiction of life in Afghanistan and how it’s unnecessarily more difficult for women than it is for men.

When her grandfather suddenly passes away, Mina needs to get him buried as soon as possible as per Islamic custom. Her father is passed out, high as a kite and Bashir—who is her employer as well as her father’s drug supplier—uses force to stop Mina from taking her father home to take care of her grandfather. It’s the scene that most prominently shows what is shown throughout the movie and that is that Mina is unrelenting and the world around her seems to be on a mission to stop her doing what she feels she needs to do for herself and/or her family.

I didn’t expect to like this movie because stories of women in Islamic countries tend to have a set of stock characters that provide nothing we don’t already know. Mina Walking is different because its title character is different. Though only 12-years-old, Mina is not at all shy and is far more extroverted than the western world expects Muslim girls to be.  The situation in which she is forced to end up would test the patience of any grown human and yet Mina handles it with the common sense and insight of an adult but in a way that is reminiscent of the outspoken child.

Reel Asian 2015 Review: Port of Call

Drawing from events that transpired in Hong Kong 2008, Port of Call is based on the true story of the murder of a troubled 16 year old girl.  While working as prostitute, Jiamei confided in Chi-Chung Ting, her customer and a disturbed man, of her desire to die. In what he perceives as an act of mercy, he decides to grant her wish.  Port of Call’s events unfold through the eyes of Police Detective Chong, who experiences instability in his own life as he becomes increasingly affected by the grim events of the case as he uncovers each detail.

Port of Call, penned and directed by Philip Yung, is a hard-boiled detective tale, but more heavily reminiscent of David Fincher’s Se7en than those of his Hong Kong predecessors. The film’s dramatic lighting set-ups and stylistic cinematography can be attributed to the skills of Asian cinema veteran Christopher Doyle, the film features scenes with single source lighting, further enhancing its noir-ish feel.

The narrative is not entirely linear, the story jumps through time, sometimes with clear indication of which year we’ve moved to, other times it’s less defined. Some of the flashbacks prove a little confusing, distracting to the viewer as they grapple with the time shift. Luckily, for the most part, the order in which events are presented to the audience helped to progress the story rather than hinder it too much.

Prepare yourself for gruesome crime scenes in Port of Call; Yung doesn’t hold back.  However explicit they may be, it’s important to note that the gore in Port of Call is never excessive in its attempts to convey the true horror discovered by Detective Chong and his investigative team. From start to finish, this is not a tale of the faint of heart.

Reel Asian 2015 Review: Off the Menu: Asian America

Korean-American filmmaker Grace Lee’s documentary Off the Menu: Asian America is part of a larger multi-media project, but the core focus of both is the same – the exploration of Asian American culture through geography and food.  Lee travels across America meeting with chefs, food manufacturers, and farmers to get their take on food and identity.

In Off the Menu: Asian America, Lee is looking at immigrant culture as much as she is about food.  Lee would argue in the study that one could not be done without the other.  The film unfolds like a travelogue as Lee makes her way through Texas, New York, Wisconsin, and Hawaii.

Lee eloquently narrates early in the film, describing how she sees food as the window into other cultures, and through food she begins to feel closer to those cultures.  Well-spoken but the point is reinforced so many times through her imagery, as well as during interviews at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, that she doesn’t even have to spell it out.

Throughout the film, Lee also raises interesting observations. For example, as the proclaimed “Sushi King of Texas” stands in a supermarket showing off his most popular creations, Lee is quick to point out a product that is Vietnamese as opposed to Japanese. This raises an interesting point about assimilation and authenticity.  Lee’s documentary isn’t about giving you answers so much as providing thought-provoking fodder for you to chew on at the dinner table.

Reel Asian 2015 Review: Siti

In a small coastal Javanese town, a young woman (Sekar Sari) sells seaside snacks during the day and works as a hostess at an illegal karaoke joint at night in an effort to pay off her paralyzed husband’s debt. Set over one day and two nights, Siti takes us through the meticulous daily rituals of the eponymous character as she struggles with the burdens of motherhood and poverty, and works towards a better life for her family.

Shot on location on Parangtritis Beach in Indonesia, in black and white Academy ratio no less, Eddie Cahyono’s Siti immediately recalls post-war European cinema and specifically the Italian Neo-Realist movement in its rigid attempts at naturalism and focus on the domestic struggles of an ordinary person. Its kitchen-sink dramatics only enhance the comparison as the film follows Siti as she does laundry, feeds her husband, sells crackers to tourists at the beach and works a karaoke nightclub, plying money from an admiring policeman to pay off debt.

Cahyono’s filmmaking is aggressively simple here. He doesn’t shoot conventional coverage for any of the film’s conversations. He mostly favours long takes: the camera following characters around, showing their work in unbroken detail. It’s a good thing that his attention to detail and the strength of his actors come through. If the film’s formal elements weren’t in perfect concert with its content, it’d be dull.

Luckily, Siti is a gentle film of quiet power.

Reel Asian 2015 Review: Zinnia Flower

In the meandering and ultimately pointless Zinnia Flower, two strangers struggle to cope with the loss of their significant others and take part in the 100-day Buddhist mourning ritual. Unfortunately, this leads to such an inane exploration of loss that it may leave you wishing for a quick cremation.

Taiwanese director Tom Lin Shu-yu’s Zinnia Flower follows Lei (played by Taiwanese musician Stone), who survives a crash and in an early scene is asked by doctors to choose between his pregnant wife or the fetus (neither of whom ultimately survive), and widow Ming (portrayed by Vancouver’s own Karena Lam), whose fiancé dies in the other car. The two people deal with their losses in very different ways: Lei becomes angry and emotionally and physically distant from those close to him and engages in meaningless sexual encounters, while introverted Ming, unable to cope with her loss, chooses to go on the trip to Japan that she and her fiancé would have taken during their honeymoon.

The movie suffers from a cultural distance: Western audiences may be unfamiliar with the drawn-out mourning process of the Taiwanese (or Buddhist) culture, although the movie’s inter-titles explain key days during the mourning process. Unfortunately, there is little emotional pay-off, so the film becomes one long, painful exercise in movie watching. It’s a movie in which there is little interest in the main characters, who go nowhere and evolve little. And that’s a shame. The movie should offer more.

Reel Asian 2015 Review: Miss Hokusai

Katsushika Hokusai was one of the great painters of the Edo period in Japan, crafting brush paintings of erotica and most famously, “Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji,” a collection which includes the iconic “The Great Wave off Kanagawa.” Miss Hokusai tells the story of Hokusai’s daughter, O-Ei, who has mostly faded from the historical record but was also a great painter in her own right. The film explores her relationship to her father, her artistry, and lightly imagines what life might have been like for this obscure artist living during the male-dominated Tokugawa Shogunate.

Based off Hinako Sugiura’s manga series, Keiichi Hara’s Miss Hokusai is a refreshingly female-centric look at an historical artist. The central character O-Ei (Anne Higashide) is an idiosyncratic, complex woman: she smokes, drinks, paints erotica that’d make most people of the period blush and doesn’t shy away from socializing with courtesans and drunkards. She’s demure in public (as Japanese etiquette dictates), but in private she’s outspoken and confident. O-Ei is thrillingly modern, perhaps even punk—a characteristic that Hara emphasizes by using guitar riffs to underscore her introduction. Miss Hokusai doesn’t play as a conventional biopic, but it does celebrate what a remarkable individual this artist must have been.

The film as a whole is not seamless. It’s episodic. There are inexplicable moments throughout, including an uncomfortable sex scene involving a transvestite courtesan. As well, the animation is overly rigid. It never achieves the looseness and spontaneity of Studio Ghibli, for instance.

But with such an intriguing character at its centre, and some lovely animation throughout, Miss Hokusai is a solid, mature work.

Reel Asian 2015 Review: Kirumi

Kathir, a young married man with a child in South India, spends most of his days drinking with buddies, gambling, womanizing and daydreaming about ways to make a quick buck. One night after he’s picked up by the police for public intoxication, Kathir is introduced to the world of semi-professional snitching by a kindly father figure named Prabhakar. Kathir quickly takes to his new job informing the police of illegal activities (at times working as a brutal physical enforcer), and he loves the attention and money the less-than-honourable job brings in. But when he gets caught up in a dispute between two potentially corrupt police officials and $2.5 million goes missing from a seizure at an illegal gambling den, Kathir finds his life and the lives of everyone he holds dear in danger.

What starts out as a witty and perceptive character study of an unlikable social climber becomes an intensely paced thriller in the Tamil language offering, Kirumi. Writer and director Anucharan Murugaiyan takes time to build Kathir as a person before throwing him to the wolves he secretly wants to be like. There’s something comedic about watching this young man try to be his own master, when really he’s in no position to be given any kind of power by any sort of authority. He’s a liar and a cheat, but certainly not irredeemable. Once things turn dark and serious, it’s hard not to feel for his situation. It might actually be the only thing to teach him some sort of responsibility.

It’s also a very stylish film, gorgeously shot and expertly edited. The plot doesn’t have an ounce of fat and, surprisingly, it wraps up with less ambiguity than most viewers will probably be expecting. It’s a nifty little thriller.

Reel Asian 2015 Review: The Royal Tailor

Three years after the death of the previous king, long time royal tailor Cho Dol-seok gets the call to make new garments for the heir to the throne, the queen, and the royal court. Things are complicated due to a historical turning over of power from the royal family to that of a prime minister. Styles and attitudes are changing. Even the ruling class is in upheaval since the monarch finds himself torn between two potential queens. Dol-seok finds his job and status threatened by the arrival of a younger, hotter new designer, Gong-jin, a former fashioner of courtesan dresses. A sometimes amicable, increasingly tumultuous rivalry starts between the two men, and both are drawn into the personal lives and problems of the king and his potential suitors.

With only his second film, Korean filmmaker Lee Won-suk has proven to be a major talent to watch. With both The Royal Tailor and his previous outing, the offbeat romantic comedy How to Use Guys with Secret Tips (which played Reel Asian back in 2013), he proves to be a master of both comedy and drama. Won-suk blends broad comedy and high drama without ever making his films seem like soap operas. His tonal shifts make perfect sense, and it especially befits a tale of mostly good, but flawed people stuck in jobs they can’t stand doing.

It looks wonderfully opulent; a huge step up from his previous film. It’s also densely plotted, but constantly engrossing, with audience sympathies constantly shifting throughout the story. It’s definitely designed to be a crowd pleaser, but it’s a very thoughtfully made and constructed one.

Reel Asian 2015 Review: Driving with Selvi

Forced into a physically and psychologically abusive arranged marriage at the age of 14, Selvi contemplated suicide as her only way out of a torturous life. Instead, she hopped on the very bus she was thinking of throwing herself underneath and ran away. While away at a home that protected her from harm, she learned how to drive and became one of the first and only female taxi drivers in her region. Today, Selvi has found some degree of happiness, acting as a human rights advocate and raising a happy family of her own.

Driving with Selvi, from Canadian filmmaker and cinematographer Elisa Paloschi, is a well-meaning documentary that touches on some important subjects with a great deal of uplift and poignancy, but it also frustratingly doesn’t have much of an idea where its going or what it wants to do. All of Selvi’s tragic life gets put out in the open very quickly, and since no one—including the film’s subject—wants to relive the bad times in too great of detail, there’s not much there.

It becomes the story of a woman who doesn’t want to get too personal, but still wants to tell her story. It makes her an interesting, but not all that captivating subject. The film is sorely missing other perspectives and contexts to bring the issues around arranged marriage and child brides to light. It’s a massive problem, and this doesn’t feel urgent enough despite the dark subject matter.

Also, about halfway through, the film stops being about Selvi overcoming her demons and starts being a story about living below the poverty line in India. Again, a great idea for a documentary, but this isn’t fully fleshed out, either.

It’s not a bad film, and only a true cad would dismiss the subject and themes, but considering the amount of time Paloschi spent with Selvi, there should really be a lot more to this one.

Reel Asian 2014 Review: Manny

Manny Pacquiao is one of the world’s most famous athletes. He holds the record for the most world titles in boxing. His fights bring the Philippines, his native country, to a standstill – and even ceasefire in times of war. The Filipino superstar also serves his country’s Congress, where he was elected twice. Behind the championship and celebrity, though, he is a man with a lot to fight for.

Ryan Moore and Leon Gast’s documentary is like its subject: brisk, energetic and tough to dislike. Pacquiao seems like an anomaly, a small man for the sport with a broad smile every time he enters the ring who manages to pack a lethal punch. His underdog persona is endlessly endearing. Regardless, Manny is at its most compelling when the boxer speaks to the camera, explaining the rags that came before his riches. The sports doc is largely entertaining and, to little surprise, is packed with triumphant musical cues and montages.

Despite its quick pace, some sections of Manny should have been expanded. We hear less from the boxer’s wife and mother than from some of his trainers and managers. The doc does not go into much detail into the politics of the Philippines or of boxing, points of context that would bring more clarity to the man’s struggle.

Reel Asian 2014 Review: Fandry

Jabya (Somnath Awghade) is an adolescent boy in rural Maharashtra, whose Dalit family endures constant abuse from fellow villagers, due to their heavily impoverished status. Jabya falls in love with a classmate named Shalu (Rajeshwari Kharat), even though he is forbidden to be with her, due to Shalu’s higher caste status. Spurred on by local legend, Jabya hopes to find a black sparrow, which would allow him to break free from his caste and be with Shalu.

At its core, Fandry is a condemnation of India’s caste system, with the film showing the ugly realities of the discrimination that happens between different castes. The title of the film is translated from Marathi to mean “pig,” which is an apt description, since Jabya and his family are called pigs by the higher caste villagers, with the family also being tasked with chasing down the wild pigs that populate the village.

While his family puts up with the way they are treated, Jabya is desperate for a better life for himself, so he can be with Shalu. The film keeps it somewhat ambiguous whether Shalu returns Jabya’s affections, since she is really only ever seen from a distance. However, there is no secret made about the disdain the village as a whole has for Jabra and his family, which leads toward a climatic moment when the tensions reach their peak.

Reel Asian 2014 Review: Brahmin Bulls

Brahmin Bulls tells the story of Sid (Sendhil Ramamurthy), an architect who is recently split from his wife. Living a somber and unfulfilled life in Los Angeles, he gets a surprise visit  from his estranged father Ashok (Roshan Seth), who comes to  LA as part of a business trip. As the two begin to mend their fractured relationship, Sid finds out about his father’s true motives for his surprise visit; to reconnect with Hellen (Mary Steenburgen), a woman Ashok had an affair with in the past.

The film is a mellow drama with a nice touch of comedy at some portions. We see Sid and Ashok’s growth throughout the film as they try to reconnect. Sendhil does a great job in showing his character’s frustration with his life and how he resents his father’s usual advising on how to do things. Roshan plays the role a worried father figure nicely, and excels in scenes featuring him and Mary Steenburgen. Ashok and Hellen’s scenes give a sense of poignancy and a realistic feel that the viewer can relate to.

Director Mahesh Pailoor gives a decent feature film debut, and his direction in the film is straightforward and on point. Brahmin Bulls understands what its story is and follows through nicely, though at a few points the story seems to lag a bit. But all in all, the film does its job well.