Reviews January 2006

Breaking News

Screened at Cannes in 2004, Breaking News is opening in a limited number of theaters prior to its release on DVD. On the surface a gripping, twisty cop thriller, the film also tackles how the media influences the behavior of both police and criminals. More important, it is another in a long line of expertly made Johnnie To films. While it may not be the director’s best work, it has some knockout sequences.

Chief among them is the opening, a seven-minute shot that starts with a panorama of the Hong Kong skyline, drops to street level, ascends up and into an apartment, and then floats out over a city block to document a botched police stake-out and its violent aftermath. Captured on TV, the bloodbath threatens to send the police department’s popularity with the public plummeting. Inspector Rebecca Fong (Kelly Chen) comes up with the idea to take control of the media by feeding it the police version of the subsequent investigation.

Detective Cheung (Nicky Cheung), a streetwise, old-school cop, pursues the crooks his way, skirting the law and ignoring Fong’s orders to drop the case. But when he corners them in an apartment complex, Fong takes control, ordering the evacuation of the building. The evacuation flushes out two other crooks who complicate Fong’s efforts. That’s when Yuen (Richie Jen), the chief crook, forces his way into an apartment, taking cab driver Yip (Lam Suet) and his two young children hostage.

Bookended by extraordinary action sequences, Breaking News has its share of lulls during the hostage negotiations. But To knows how to get the best out of his actors, especially the reliable Lam Suet, a fixture in his films. Also notable is You Yong, who plays a cornered hit man with grace and humor. Cheung, better known in Hong Kong for his comedies, is striking as a hardbitten cop who responds to every calamity with, “I’m going to nail the bastard.”

To’s satirical look at the media surrounding the hostage crisis sometimes feels a bit obvious, but otherwise Breaking News is an admirably professional and efficient piece of work that ranks far above recent Hollywood thrillers. The restless camerawork, taut editing, and brilliant split-screen montages provide the tension and technical expertise that have become hallmarks of To’s directing. After The Longest Nite, The Mission, Fulltime Killer, PTU, and last year’s Election, he is amassing one of the best resumes in Hong Kong film. It’s a shame no distributor here has taken a chance on the director’s equally impressive romantic comedies like My Left Eye Sees Ghosts or Turn Left, Turn Right.

Cast and credits

Cast: Richie Jen, Kelly Chen, Nick Cheung, Cheung Siu Fai, Hui Siu Hung, Lam Suet, You Yong, Ding Hai Feng, Li Hai Tao, Simon Yam, Maggie Shiu.
Credits: Directed by Johnnie To. Written by Chan Hing Kai, Yip Tin Shing, Milkyway Creative Team. Produced by Johnnie To, Cao Biao. Executive producers: John Chong, Yang Bu Ting. Associate executive producer: Jiang Tao. Director of photography: Cheung Siu Keung. Production designer: Bruce Yu. Costume designer: Steven Tsang. Edited by David Richardson. Music by Chung Chi Wing, Ben Cheung. Stunt coordinator: Yuen Bun. A Media Asia Films and China Film Group presentation of a Milkyway Image (HK) Ltd. production. In Cantonese and Mandarin with English subtitles.

La Petite Jerusalem

Low-key but affecting, La Petite Jerusalem examines an Orthodox Jewish family trying to find its place in modern society. Centering on two sisters, one observant, one more skeptical, the script takes an approach that sometimes seems too schematic and simplistic. Two factors keep the film on track: Karin Albou’s sensitive direction, and an ingratiating performance by Fanny Valette.

Valette plays Laura, a philosophy student who is modeling her life on Immanuel Kant. Rejecting her religious heritage is difficult enough, but Laura still lives with her sister Mathilde (Elsa Zylberstein), a devout believer who adheres to Orthodox law. The sisters share a cramped apartment along with Mathilde’s husband Ariel (Bruno Todeschini) and three children. Add a grandmother (Sonia Tahar) who still believes in her native Tunisian folk spells, and it’s easy to understand Laura’s frustrations.

Preoccupied with her own concerns, Laura doesn’t realize that Mathilde’s marriage is in trouble. Mathilde surprisingly defends her sister when she wants to date Djamel (Hedi Tillette de Clermont Tonnerre), an Arab who works with her cleaning an elementary school. But when the local synagogue is firebombed, and Ariel is beaten in an anti-Semitic attack, Laura wonders if she can continue seeing Djamel.

Making her feature directing debut, Albou, who also wrote the screenplay, sympathizes with her characters while still seeing their shortcomings. Mathilde and Ariel start out as stock figures, but grow into complex adults struggling with earthly issues. Even the superstitious grandmother, at first just comic relief, gets the chance to explain herself. The director works well with actors, eliciting performances that feel unforced and authentic. Albou’s restraint gives the film a documentary realism, but prevents it from becoming a truly engaging story. The deliberate pace and meticulous camerawork make it too easy to step back from the action, especially during the script’s weaker stretches. Albou goes into such detail about Mathilde’s and Ariel’s sexual problems that the film threatens to turn into a religious marital aid lecture.

The best reason to watch La Petite Jerusalem is Fanny Valette, who is utterly convincing as a girl struggling between intellect and passion. A bona fide beauty, she brings a commitment and gravity to scenes that don’t always deserve them.

Cast and credits:
Cast: Fanny Valette, Elsa Zylberstein, Bruno Todeschini, Hedi Tillette de Clermont Tonnerre, Sonia Tahar, Michael Cohen, Aurore Clément, François Marthouret, Saida Bekkouche, Salah Teskouk.
Credits: Written and directed by Karin Albou. Produced by Laurent Lavolé, Isabelle Pragier. Director of photography: Laurent Brunet. Production designer: Nicolas de Boisuillé. Edited by Christiane Lack. Music by Cyril Morin. Costume designer: Tania Shebabo Cohen. A Gloria Films presentation of a Gloria Films and Film Par Film production, in association with Canal +, Ile-de-France Region Media, and CNC. In French, Arabic, and Hebrew with English subtitles.

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