MY PEOPLE, MY HOMELAND
Be it science-fiction, family animation, action, crime thrillers or martial arts, Chinese movies aimed at the mainstream audience are laced with patriotic messages, like minced vegetables hidden in a kid's serving of meatballs.
By normal reckoning, the five-story anthology film My People, My Homeland ought to be bursting with political pride, as it is made expressly for release during China's National Day (Oct 1)holidays.
The storytelling here is actually stronger because of that pride. The film-makers seem thrilled to tell the story of how the masses rose from misery to middle-class in the 71 years since the nation's founding, and that confidence is infectious.
The first short film, the comedy A Good Man - Beijing, directed by Ning Hao, is a standout. The bald and prolific actor Ge You plays a sweet-natured Beijing resident who turns to identity fraud to help an uninsured relative get medical attention. A credulity-straining body-switch caper ensues, but there are a couple of unexpectedly sweet moments, even as viewers learn about the government's plan for universal subsidised healthcare.
The other short films deal with the state's efforts to fight poverty, rural depopulation, the erasure of ethnic minority identity and desertification. Most of the stories are told with craft and care - even the ones with dubious messages, such as Ma Liang And His Magic Brush, starring Shen Teng and Ma Li. This is another comedy about characters going to absurd lengths to deceive others - all for a higher good, naturally.
It is a weak piece because it sells the notion that civil servants deserve thanks because sometimes, they are inconvenienced by a hardship posting to the boondocks. Given how glorious the countryside looks in the movie, a song of sympathy played on the world's tiniest violin would be appropriate.
The tragicomic The Last Lesson packs a lump-in-the-throat emotional punch, in spite of how its plot is curiously similar to the 2003 German movie Good Bye, Lenin!. Lao Fan (Fan Wei) is a dementia-stricken senior who believes he is living in the 1980s, when as a teacher, he was posted to a remote hamlet to set up its first schoolhouse. Should his delusions be shattered, doctors say, the shock could kill him.
Not for the first time in this anthology, characters scramble to craft an elaborate Potemkin reality. In this case, the artifice mimics China in the 1980s - poor, but in thousands of ramshackle single-room schools across the country, teachers like Lao Fan gave the children of farmers a chance their parents never had.
Adulting comedy is a new and apt way of describing movies about people aged between 25 and 35 with failure-to-launch issues, including the inability to hold down a job or pay the rent. Throw in a neurosis or two and a habit for homing in on the worst possible sexual partner, and you have a leading character.
Fans of the British comedy series Fleabag (2016 to 2019) will be able to relate, as will fans of film-maker Noah Baumbach (dramedies Greenberg, 2010, and Frances Ha, 2013).
First-time feature director Alex Thompson, working with a screenplay from partner and lead actress Kelly O'Sullivan, has made an adulting comedy that steers clear of the worst talky, navel-gazing indulgences of the genre.
In this bracingly frank study of what it means to be a young woman at a pivotal stage in life, O'Sullivan is Bridget, a single woman who, at 34, must reckon with the idea that she is on the verge of what doctors call a "geriatric mother". Not that she cares - she does not like kids nor does have plans to have any.
Desperate for cash, she bluffs her way into a job as a nanny for a family with two mothers by faking a childcare resume as well as a love for babies and toddlers. Her charge, the fierce and precocious Frances (Ramona Edith Williams in a scene-stealing performance) smells a rat.
In scenes that are just as long as they should be - without a moment wasted on showy dialogue or acting - Bridget gets to test every theory she holds about motherhood. The forthright Frances is there to ground her in a reality that shatters every illusion she ever had.
THE WAR WITH GRANDPA
This family comedy has attracted top names like Uma Thurman, Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken, but proves again that staffing a project with strong actors only makes weak material look weaker.
Based on a book of the same name by American children's author Robert Kimmel Smith, the movie tries to extract mirth from a kids-versus-grownups scenario in the most frustratingly polite and half-hearted manner possible.
Ed (De Niro) is a senior who requires constant attention, so his daughter Sally (Thurman) moves him into her home. War is declared between him and his grandson Peter (Oakes Fegley), because the older man has taken over the boy's bedroom, leaving the child with nowhere to go but the attic.
The movie's lack of drive must stem from how audiences have come to expect a degree of slapstick sadism and cartoonish violence from the old-against-young set-up. There is a Goldilocks zone between too much fighting and too little and sadly, this project has chosen to stay on the side of safety.
Another film opening this week but not reviewed is Indonesian horror flick Kutuk. It stars Shandy Aulia as Maya, a nurse in a nursing home who is troubled by apparitions having to do with another nurse who worked there some time ago.
My People, My Homeland (PG, 154 minutes, opens Oct 8): 3 stars
Saint Frances (M18, 106 minutes, opens Oct 8 exclusively at The Projector): 4 stars
The War With Grandpa (PG, 98 minutes, opens Oct 8): 2 stars
Kutuk (NC16, 83 minutes, opens Oct 8)