At The Movies: An inventor and a hawker are dreamers facing great odds

Still from the film Tesla.
Still from the film Tesla.PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION

SINGAPORE - The movies reviewed this week are Tesla and City Dream.

Tesla

(PG13, 103 minutes, opens Jan 7, 3 stars)

Anyone expecting this to be a straightforward biopic of the electrical pioneer should think again. This portrait by avant-garde American film-maker Michael Almereyda contains made-up elements - fantasy sequences, anachronisms, breaking the fourth wall - that puts this work squarely in the semi-fiction category.

Let's just say this movie is inspired by the life of the Serb immigrant and inventor.

Nikola Tesla's star has been rising in the last few decades, prompted perhaps by Silicon Valley culture going mainstream. The story of the man who helped make city electrical grids a reality holds huge appeal to tech industry workers the way Vincent van Gogh's story does for artists: Both represent that idea that revolutionaries will be overlooked or oppressed, but will be celebrated by coming generations.

It's a romantic notion that persons such as billionaire Elon Musk, who named his electric car company after the inventor, has embraced.

Tesla has a story that is more arguably more compelling and cinematic than Van Gogh's in that it has a villain. Thomas Edison, the man behind the phonograph and light bulb, hired Tesla in 1884. After their falling out, Tesla would go on to develop one system for distributing electricity across a city while Edison would back another.

In movies, such as 2017's The Current War, two sides square off. One side is represented by Tesla and more powerful allies, and the other by Edison, who would try to win the public over with theatrical acts of electrocution - of animals and one condemned criminal - to prove that Tesla's system was more dangerous.

Writer-director Almereyda, perhaps knowing that the feud between Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) and Tesla (Ethan Hawke) has been portrayed ad nauseam in films and television, opts for a meta-storytelling method, shown in one absurdist scene involving food. But it lasts a moment before a switch to other methods, such as moving forward in time to have a contemporary narrator played by Eve Hewson provide exposition and historical context.

The acting is fine, but the jumble of storytelling styles is jarring. It requires viewers to pay close attention, especially when there are invented threads, probably inserted to show that even in Tesla's early 20th-century context, fake news and disinformation existed.

The mix causes the work to feel like disconnected vignettes. It's fine in small doses, but makes for an exhausting watch.

City Dream

(PG, 103 minutes, now on Kinolounge, 4 stars)


Still from the film City Dream. PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION

Pity the urban enforcement officer in the Chinese city of Wuhan. His job is to clear Lumo Street of its hawkers so a chic new retail complex can be built.

But there is a problem in the form of a 70-year-old stallholder. Mr Wang Tiancheng has for years run a clothing and fruit stand there and is a beloved neighbourhood fixture. He will not go without a fight.

Documentary maker Chen Weijun has captured in this fascinating film the contradictions that make modern Chinese society: an aggressively capitalist system that has enshrined a time when the poor overthrew the rich; a place where social mobility through education is sacred but physical mobility is restricted by hukou, or the household registration system.

Chen's camera distils these currents down into a feud that beats anything on American reality television. The feisty Mr Wang, when served with eviction papers, reacts in a way that can only be called theatrical, because he wants to make his cause the cause of the crowd gathered to witness the fracas.

At the risk of making fun of the vendor's plight, the confrontations between Mr Wang and the enforcement officers will remind viewers of the classic "Help! I'm being repressed!" scene from the comedy Monty Python And The Holy Grail (1975), when knights from King Arthur's court accost some annoyingly politically aware and highly dramatic peasants.

Film-maker Chen gets access to discussions at the municipal office, showing the frustration officers feel in enforcing laws on someone who feels that rules don't apply to him because they come from a corrupt source.

Chen also films Mr Wang's life. Inside his shabby apartment, a touching portrait emerges of a family who moved to the city to escape the poverty of the village. A ray of hope is Mr Wang's granddaughter, a star student who, unlike Mr Wang, his wife and his son, was born without a disability.

This is a study of old and new, of a society in a hurry to get rid of its old ways and move forward while trying to deal with the human cost. But in watching Mr Wang express his rage, there is also the guilty pleasure of seeing a quixotic individual tilting at windmills.

City Dream is available to rent on Kinolounge, kinolounge.shaw.sg at $9.99 for a 48-hour viewing period.

The Promised Neverland

(PG, 119 minutes, opens Jan 7, not reviewed)


(From left) Rihito Itagaki, Minami Hamabe and Kairi Jyo in The Promised Neverland. PHOTO: ENCORE FILMS

This is the live-action adaptation of the hugely successful fantasy-thriller manga and anime series of the same name. Everything seems perfect at the Grace Field orphanage until Emma (Minami Hamabe), Ray (Kairi Jyo) and Norman (Rihito Itagaki) discover the horrible truth of their situation and decide to break out.