Hong Kong Sundance Film Festival 2015: what to see

Hits from US Sundance Film Festival including Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Dope, and People Places Things will be shown at The Metroplex

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 September, 2015, 12:36pm
UPDATED : Friday, 04 September, 2015, 7:00pm

One of the best things about trekking to the Sundance Film Festival in the US state of Utah is that the films in the main American sections are mostly new – only select buyers have seen them, so there’s an excitement in the constant unveiling that happens less at other festivals.

 After a lacklustre programme in 2014, this year the nation’s premiere independent film festival, which takes place amid the snows of January, delivered one of its best selections yet.

Now many of the prizewinners will screen at Sundance’s Hong Kong edition at The Metroplex in Kitec, with most titles coming from the festival’s flagship US Dramatic Competition.

As in 2013 when Fruitvale Station took  both the jury and audience awards for best film, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s irresistible coming-of-age story, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, claimed both prizes this year.

Close behind in popularity was  energetic teen caper Dope, which took an editing prize. The film’s writer-director, 42-year-old Rick Famuyiwa, draws on his own experience as a black teen and how easy it could be to fall in with gang culture.

“No one sets out with the intention of being a drug dealer when they’re born,” he says. “This film is about trying not to be defined by the circumstances you’re born into.”

The story focuses on the nerdy Malcolm (Shameik Moore), a bit of a dope for getting stuck with a bag containing US$100,000 worth of Ecstasy. We’re rooting for him and his two similarly geeky sidekicks, Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori from The Grand Budapest Hotel) as they dodge the Los Angeles gangsters, one of whom is played by Harlem-born rapper A$AP Rocky, who admits he sold drugs in his youth – in fact, “most rappers sold drugs at some part of their lives”, he claims.

The film features a star-making turn from Moore, who manages to pull off an outrageous 1990s flat-top while singing, rapping and dancing. “I felt like the film was written for me and what I can do,” says the 20-year-old, who is currently filming  Baz Luhrmann’s Netflix series The Get Down, about the origins of hip hop.

One of my personal favourites at the festival was People Places Things, which marks the first leading role in a US movie for Flight of the Conchords star Jemaine Clement – and he gets to keep his Kiwi accent.

The 41-year-old, who co-directed and co-starred in What We Do in the Shadows with Taika Waititi (himself on the 2015 Sundance World Cinema Dramatic jury), is known as a huge comedic talent. The pair recently signed for a HBO TV series with Judd Apatow. Yet with his Sundance film, Clement has become a romantic lead, without being completely aware of it.

 A light grown-up romance, People Places Things follows his New York-based cartoonist who is suddenly dumped by his girlfriend and struggles to co-parent his twin six-year-old girls, played by the ultra cute Gia and Aundrea Gadsby.

 “It’s not up to me, it’s the director,” a modest Clement insists when I refer to his adoring female fans. “It was all in the script.”

 Yet the film’s director, James C. Strouse (Grace is Gone) says the movie works because of Clement’s talent and charm.

“What’s so beautiful about Jemaine’s kind of comedy is that his mind is so well tuned into the story. For some funny people the joke is the most important thing, but for Jemaine, it was always about ‘What is the moment?’, ‘What is the scene about?’ and he would enhance it in subtle ways. Some of my favourite lines were improvised by him.”

 Three very gifted  female filmmakers of East Asian extraction made their presence felt in two Sundance entries.

Berkeley-born writer-director Jennifer Phang (Half-Life), who is of Chinese-Malaysian and Vietnamese heritage, and Korean-American co-writer and actor Jacqueline Kim won a special jury prize for their collaborative vision on Advantageous, a low-budget feminist science fiction drama.

In a low-key version of the near future that is not too dissimilar to our own reality, Kim’s single mum struggles with economic and personal concerns during a recession when women are being pressured to give up their work to make way for men. In order to keep her job at a biotech company, she is considering undergoing a risky procedure, which could transfer her brain into a younger body. Ken Jeong, the hilarious Mr Chow from the Hangover movies, takes a serious role as a man from her past. “Given my body of work, for Jennifer and Jacqueline to have that faith in me really meant a lot,” he says. “If anything, I came on set very serious and may have overcompensated!”

The second film, Songs My Brother Taught Me, marks the debut of another emerging talent, Chloé Zhao, who was raised in Beijing and England and is a student at New York University’s graduate film programme.

Developed during her time at the Sundance Directors and Screenwriters Lab, the film is a complex portrait of contemporary life on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Working with only an outline and largely crafting her film in the editing room, she explores the harsh realities of life  via the bond between a brother and his younger sister.

This year’s directing award went to The Witch, Robert Eggers’ artful and bone-chilling horror tale. Set in 17th-century New England – where witches were burned at the stake – it follows a Puritan family living alone on the edge of the wilderness as their infant son disappears and their daughter is suspected of witchcraft.

“I’m from New England and as a kid the area’s history was part of my consciousness,” Eggers explains. “Trying to understand what a witch was to a person in the 17th century was scary and attempting to present her as real proved exciting.”

Three of the festival’s most fascinating films are based on true stories. The Stanford Prison Experiment emerged a big winner, receiving both the screenwriting award (Tim Talbott) and the Alfred P. Sloan prize for a film that focuses on science or technology.

Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez recreates social psychologist  Philip Zimbardo’s 1971 study where he had university students role-play prison guards and prisoners in the hope of understanding how an institution can affect an individual. After six days Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) abandoned the study  – even in this re-created environment, the guards were tormenting the prisoners. Zimbardo was involved in the film over many years and worked on the screenplay.

Matthew Heineman’s Cartel Land, winner of the directing and cinematography prizes in the US Documentary section, also deals with hard facts. The film, one of whose executive producers is Kathryn Bigelow, chronicles the battle against Mexican drug cartels by two vigilante groups on ether side of the border: the Arizona Border Recon and a rebel uprising group in the Mexican state of Michoacán.  

The most absurd and confounding reality though can be observed in The Wolfpack, Crystal Moselle’s Documentary Grand Jury Prize winner. It follows six brothers and their elder sister who werekept inside a Manhattan apartment for 14 years, isolated from the outside world by their parents. Their only interaction with the “real world” came through movies.  

 The Hong Kong festival programme also screens James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour, which chronicles Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky’s (Jesse Eisenberg) interview with novelist David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel), and the former’s reaction after hearing of the latter’s suicide 12 years later.  

James White, the audience prize winner in Sundance’s Next programme, follows the difficult relationship between a New York slacker (Christopher Abbott) and his cancer-riddled mother (Cynthia Nixon).

Sundance Film Festival: Hong Kong, September 17-27, The Metroplex, Kitec, 1 Trademart Drive, Kowloon Bay. For more details, go to hk.sundance.org