While the Hong Kong cinema scene isn't quite for everyone, those who appreciate the films of Johnny To and Takeshi Kitano are likely to have massive appreciation for American director Bennie Woodell's ultra-indie tribute to Asian cinema, The Sad Cafe.
The Sad Cafe
is, at its very essence, an Asian cinema-styled love story with the romance playing a more subtle role in this accounting of Jack (Bradley Fowler), a reclusive loner who visits the same diner day in and day out quietly longing for Rose (Katie Lanigan), a beautiful young waitress who isn't so much out of his league as she is out of his entire world.
Jack is a hired killer, not exactly the kind of occupation that invites fairytale romances and happy endings. Jack has already learned this the hard way after his employer had his wife killed. So, Jack, tries to ignore the feelings and focus on the work.
When a rather unexpected encounter leads to his performing a rather heroic act, Jack begins to reconsider his doomed fate and, against his better judgment, he and Katie start a relationship. This doesn't exactly please Jack's employer and long-time mentor, Ares (James Jeske), a rather sadistic chap with no sense of loyalty and an absolute willingness to do whatever it takes to get a job done and protect himself.
While there's no question that the low-budget nature of The Sad Cafe
is occasionally obvious, it's a rather remarkable example of microcinema and a terrific tribute to the best of Asian cinema. Woodell perfectly utilizes a narrative voice-over, a rarity given the often gimmicky usage of the narrator in contemporary cinema. Woodell's dialogue, however, is so spot-on that the narration feels like an actual character and adds an infinite number of style points to the film. The film's production design is similarly compelling, giving the film a dark yet not quite ominous feeling that keeps you hoping beyond reason that all will work out in the end for our ill-conceived lovebirds. Woodell also utilizes the use of slo-mo action, a staple of Hong Kong cinema, yet he does so in a way that nicely fits the mood and atmosphere of the film.
Bradley Fowler gives a top notch performance as Jack, part brooding yet always remarkably authentic. It's a tribute to Fowler as an actor that he can hit such intense melodramatic tones without ever going too far over the edge, and it's his performance that really keeps you mesmerized for the entirety of the film's running time. Fowler also has a fantastic chemistry with Katie Lanigan, whose Rose seems to have so many emotions bubbling underneath.
D.P. Macario Cortes III does an amazing job in capturing the look and feel of Hong Kong cinema, while also creating a tremendous intimacy in the scenes between Jack and Rose. The melodrama, when it bubbles up between Jack and Rose, actually brings to mind another similarly ill-fated Jack and Rose, that of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in Titanic.
But, I really digress.
Lisa Haley's art and production design and Scot Fontaine's stylish costuming weave themselves together to create a lasting impression long after the closing credits.
The Sad Cafe
was an official selection of the 2011 Action on Film Festival, and continues on its festival run where it's likely to be quite popular on the indie and underground circuit. While not without its flaws, The Sad Cafe
is an excellent example of the simple fact that imagination, talent and commitment can nearly always overcome a modest budget.
For more information on the films of Bennie Woodell, visit his website.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic