He Directs, She Directs: Two Films From the LA Film Festival

July 9, 2015 § Leave a comment

Bryan Greenberg and Jamie Chung in "It's Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong"

Bryan Greenberg and Jamie Chung in “It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong”

The contrasting fortunes of male and female film directors are much in the news these days. Thanks to studies by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media http://seejane.org and Women in Film http://www.wif.org it’s no longer possible for executives to shrug off the fact that male first-time directors often get hired to direct studio films while comparable female directors struggle for independent financing. A bright spot in this wildly unequal equation is TV, especially Netflix and cable channels, whose original programming has provided new opportunities for women directors.

None of this was particularly on my mind when I got tickets to two films, one written and directed by a man and the other written and directed by a woman, at the recent LA Film Festival. But because they were like night and day in quality, I couldn’t help wondering how the two directors would fare in their next projects.

I’m not going to name the male-directed film, but it got a big, well-publicized screening at the festival, complete with a director Q & A, and featured some interesting actors. Also on the plus side, it was shot on film and boasted a number of long shots, which are increasingly rare now that everything is made with television in mind. Unfortunately, neither the director nor the DP really knew how to use film–or cameras, for that matter. The advantages of film weren’t evident on the screen, and there was some whipsawing, nauseating camerawork. There was also a glaring misuse of split-screen. As anyone who has ever seen a Doris Day-Rock Hudson movie knows, a split screen is called for when the characters are talking on the phone to each other or doing parallel activities in different locations. But here the director split the screen for two versions of the same shot: one taken from a great distance and one from relatively close by. It was baffling, and it didn’t work. Then there was the sound, which my viewing companion, a distributor, called terrible.

On to the script. There were long Tarantino-esque speeches without the wit, and bursts of David Lynch-ian mystery and violence without the inventiveness. Oddest of all was the lack of clothing on almost all the actresses, and not just the ones working in strip clubs. One woman not only answered the door to a total stranger while bottomless but proceeded to have a long, half-naked conversation with him. Afterwards I overheard a young woman in the ladies’ room sum up the moviegoing experience: “None of those girls had any pants on!”

Fortunately the second film couldn’t have been more different, both in its scope and execution. First-time director Emily Ting made a self-assured debut with “It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong,” a love story reminiscent of “Before Midnight.” The story concerns two chance meetings between Ruby (Jamie Chung), a Chinese-American visitor to Hong Kong, and Josh (Bryan Greenberg), an American banker and longtime Hong Kong resident. During their first meeting, Josh escorts Ruby, who is lost, to her destination. The two strike up a flirtation as they walk and talk, but nothing comes of it because Josh has a serious girlfriend. The second chance meeting takes place a year later, when the two meet on the Star Ferry. Ruby, now living in Hong Kong, is engaged to be married, while Josh has quit his banking job to be a writer, a career change that has strained his relationship with his girlfriend.

Beyond the pitch-perfect script and the charm of the two leads, I was impressed by the technical aspects of the film, which was shot entirely at night in busy public places in Central and Kowloon. Because I was born in Hong Kong and have visited many times since, I know how challenging it was to shoot and record sound amid the omnipresent crowds. (Strangely, most Hong Kong movies and TV shows feature eerily empty public spaces, cleared of people and probably shot at dawn, to create an aspirational and unreal atmosphere.) Despite the many obstacles, everything was done beautifully, lit by neon and recorded by lavaliere mics. As for the script, Richard Linklater has nothing on Emily Ting. “It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong” has some distribution in place, and I hope it gets the audience it deserves.

In comparing these two films, I’m not saying that men make big movies and women make small ones–Richard Linklater and Kathryn Bigelow, among other directors, prove that’s not the case. But I believe that if a woman director had made a movie with as many mistakes as the first one, it wouldn’t have been accepted by a major film festival, let alone been given a splashy premiere.

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