The above article from the Chinese media seems to reinforce the impression I’ve heard through the grapevine regarding Nanking, Nanking or City of Life and Death—namely, that it’s a hard, brutal film to watch. However, the article merely points out that during some test screening of the film that some audience member in Shanghai cursed and threw a bottle at the screen and then walked out. I tend to be skeptical about the importance of these things, but then again, I’m not the moneyman financing this film. The article points out the bleakness of the black-and-white film might have gotten to said audience member. However, the article irresponsibly spoils the ending of the film, not so much in terms of what happens, but in terms of what the last shot is, and the emotional tone that it sets—and then proceeds to quote Lu Chuan about the making of the film, and how depressing and difficult it was at times, and how that ending (perhaps they shot the script in sequence) was a moment of relief and redemption.
I was never one to really care to know about how “grueling” the filming process was for directors since after all, whatever hardships they endure during the process, it is, after all, just the making of a movie. It’s long work hours and emotionally exhausting, perhaps, but I think it’s a lot better than being a janitor your entire life.
But I digress. Well, it seems that the movie ought to hit the screens in Shanghai fairly soon, after premiering in Beijing and Nanjing a few days ago. If all goes well, expect a review right on China Film Journal soon!
Normally I prefer to write a straight up review, but in light of an unusual experience in watching film, I thought I’d make this a meta-review of sorts:
I went to watch this film at Zhongshan park in Shanghai last Tuesday. When the lights dimmed, a “documentary” about Tibet came on. As you know, this is the sensitive year for anniversaries in China, and is, in particular, the 50th anniversary of the uprising in Tibet that led to the exile of the Dalai Lama.The documentary was called, quite pointedly, “China’s Tibet, Past and Future”. If you’ve followed this issue at all, none of the information presented in this film are surprising:
*Tibet has always been part of China and the Tibetan rulers have acknowledged Chinese suzerainty since ancient times. Here are pictures and images of various historical documents that prove this point.
*WHy bother decrying the vetting of Tibetan religious leaders by China’s central government? Emperors used to do this, including with the latest Dalai Lama, so what’s the big deal if the CCP inherits this role.
*Tibet was a despotic, feudal system before the Chinese liberated it. It was a cruel theocracy of vast socio-economic inequality. The lamas and their families–the upper strata of the ancien regime–owned everything, including virtually all the arable land and other resources of production. Regular people had next to nothing.
*China liberated Tibet and gave it a good dose of progressive socialist ideology–and things improved greatly.
*Tibetan heritage is fluorishng and the standard of living has steadily improved.
It was clearly and unambiguously agitprop, but 21st. century China style, wrapping the historical narrative of Tibet up in and interweaving it with that of modern China as a whole, including the successful Beijing Olympics and the upcoming World Expo. At fifteen minutes, it was long and tendentious, and made me a bit impatient, since even after it finished, there was yet another long preview (of a regular movie), so that the film we came to watch didn’t start until a good twenty or twenty five minutes after the time stated on the ticket.
*24 City (24城記）*
Jia Zhangke has said, over the years, that he wants to alternate making docs and fiction films, and in this case he has melded the two.There are real people mixed with actors doing recreations–Joan Chen, Lv Liping, Zhao Tao, among others–but while these actors put on some decent performances these interviewees, the film doesn’t end up being more than a series of vignettes. I doubt that Jia intended to put together some systematic history of the place, but there is an unfinished, work-in-progress feel to this movie that tends to work towards its detriment. However, many of the interviews with the real people are better, because you know they are real–so here, again,is a meta-level question–how does the fact that you are watching Joan Chen change your perception of what’s being shown? It’s obvious that no matter how good Chen’s acting chops are, what she is doing is a performance. Most of the time, of course, we accept this–because that’s what makes fictional films possible in the first place–however, in this case, while Chen and the others are fine, they are still a bit actorly–and you wouldn’t really notice that fact unless you had all these more “real” performances to compare them with.
Jia is probably too intelligent not to notice this himself, but it still took me aback when he confronted this head on during the Joan Chen segment, where she says in her youth, at the prime of her beauty, her coworkers at the factory compared her to the actress Joan Chen. A little pomo joke? Maybe, but it made me a bit skittish. I suppose I still relish the suspension of disbelief,and don’t like the feeling of being taken for a ride, even if the ride, for the most part, is an enjoyable one.
That said, there are some moving moments, both from the actors and the real interviewees–enough to remind you that Jia Zhangke is one of the only Chinese filmmakers out there that can convey the gravity of China’s changing. That pathos, that uniquely Chinese pathos that glossier magazines and Western media don’t–or rather, *can’t* pick up on–are captured by Jia’s lens. One can almost forgive the lack of polish for that very reason–Jia, more than other filmmakers is continually creating audiovisual artifacts for us, the rest of the world, Chinese and non-Chinese alike–that will, I believe, stand the test of time,not only for their aesthetic excellence but because they are excellent chronicles of China. They are chronicles of physical reality, of its metamorphosis–but more than that,they are chronicles of the spirit, of what Chinese people call *jingshen*, which can mean anything mental, intellectual, spiritual–and in Jia’s case, it’s the emotional undertow, the things that are not said, that are glossed over and ignored by ideological or mainstream rhetorics that finally, as it were, get their say.
It is this kind of pathos that you don’t normally see among the audiovisual artifacts being produced today: and that’s what makes the contrast with the Tibetan propaganda film so striking. Jia was once an unofficial or underground filmmaker–and he no longer is, and he is, as well as know, no longer a skint and scrappy indie guy. He makes money. He’s got connections. But there’s still something very real, and very heartfelt at the core, and in a world of cinematic
phoniness, there’s something to be said for that stick to your guns type mentality.
To bring it back to Tibet: it is a strange juxtaposition, watching these two films together–we’re so used to seeing just previews before the movie that to see this stylish bit of agitprop is a bit startling: it hearkens back to newsreels of old, a time when the news was delivered on big screens, or when the political just had to intrude everywhere
because the world was in the throes of war or what have you. I feel obliged to mention that when we went, on Tuesday afternoon, even with the half off discount the theater was nearly empty.I highly doubt that Jia is going to make much money off this film, at least on the domestic market. Likewise, watching propaganda in the afternoon with a handful of other people didn’t quite jibe with I am sure that they play the Tibet film before the other, popular movies, so that before you settle down to watching “Transporter 3″ you get a good dose of “historical” education about the Tibet issue. Just in case things get hairy and out of control in Tibetan areas this March, or throughout the rest of this sensitive year.
China changes, or China never changes. Same ideological posture, except now in IMAX. However, Jia’s world, everything changes–and the only thing that lasts, the only thing that binds us are memories.Children are lost to their parents. Migrations, emotional rows, generation gaps all tear families asunder. The ligature of memory is strained as people get older–it seems strong when they are recalling it in front of us–but of course, we know that simply recalling something and saying it verbally doesn’t really do justice to the “strength” or “saturation” of that memory among the many memories that are stored in your brain or the salient memories constitutive of the sense of self and identity. Therefore, you get the uneasy sense that you are watching something that was unearthed quite by accident, and could very well have been lost. Maybe these “little people”, these “laobaixing” don’t mean much in the large scale of things: you read media articles with Chinese government planners, bureaucrats and energy scientists that are talking about the year 2100 like it’s tomorrow. Just about all of us who are alive now will be dead by that time, and our secrets and wounds, the maybes and could have beens–both individual and collective–will be just as gone. I’ve always been afraid that the official Chinese meta-narrative would swamp and subsume everything else–which is why it’s that much more incumbent on artists, in whatever medium, to keep recording the micro-sadnesses, vicissitudes, twists and turns, warp and woof of the individual life and consciousness. Lest it be completely be forgotten by History.
This film is about the Chinese that left China in the 19th c. to build railroads in Canada and the US, and of course, has a bit of intrigue and romance as well.
The story follows Little Tiger (Sun Li), a plucky girl living the hard scrabble life on the streets of Hong Kong. Without family or friends, Little Tiger has to pretend that she’s a boy (a la Mulan) and work odd jobs to keep herself afloat. Her dream is to learn English and then go to the “Gold Mountain”, where she thinks she can make some real money and perhaps find her long-lost father, who went there and was never heard from again.
Fate has it that she runs into James Nichol (Luke McFarlane), the dashing young lad that is sent by his railroad tycoon father to get 2000 coolies to Canada right quick, lest they not able to finish their railroad and thus forfeit everything to their debtors. From there on in you can expect plenty of fortune cookie type moments thrown in, and you can guess who falls in love with who, and you can almost guess if there is a happy ending or not.
The two performances that I enjoyed the most were not by either of the main actors, but by Tony Leung Ka Fai as the bookman with the mysterious scar on his face as well as the venerable Peter O’Toole, who gets to play a drunken, aging old China hand responsible for finding workers for the Nichols. Peter O’Toole’s performance is of note, and not because it’s bad–I think it’d be hard for an actor of his caliber to be awful, but there are some ropey lines in there, especially when O’Toole is speaking Chinese and says some cheesy things like “forgive him, he is but a foreign devil” or just “oh shit”…it’s the kind of role that are easy paychecks for O’Toole John Hurt and the like–a sagging face, a slurred voice, drunken roues, world-weary philosophers, a still posh English accent–its still a joy to watch but there is, truth be told, nothing of real value in a role or performance of that sort. It adds nothing new. It is, literally, just a role.
The story itself, when it moves to Canada, has the normal ups and downs. There are a couple of secrets, a couple of conspirators, an couple of racist baddies, etc. There is also supposed to be this streak of melancholy because of all the Chinese workers that lost their lives in this process–they said 3 for every mile of railroad–and they hit this point home fairly often enough in the movie, when random Chinese workers get tragically killed. There are some bits about the emotional lives of the workers–but for the most part, the story is focused on Little Tiger, the she that is a he, as well as James Nichols, who learns a little something about Chinamen, building railroads, and himself in the process.
On the whole, not too bad, but nothing that you really want to waste your time watching if you have something more pressing to do, or something of real quality to watch.
We all know how these biopics go. You have the kick-ass kungfu master: he’s not morally perfect, but he’s a good guy.
He has integrity when it counts. Family and nation above all. He doesn’t want to become famous, he doesn’t want to be an icon. But those dirty Japs just keep going around shooting, raping, and pillaging. So he has to show them we Chinese may be down, but not out. We will no collaborate to save our own skins. And those who do, well, their comeuppance will come in due time.
Like Wong Fei-hung, Fok Yuen-Gep (both played by Jet Li), Ip Man’s general storyline is fairly standard. What makes the film slightly better is that it lacks the wire-fu and melodrama. The whole movie is fairly down-to-earth and generally un-annoying, a virtue in itself. The real star of the film is Wing-Chun style of kung-fu—which is visually quite distinctive, the movements are compact and yet powerful. Instead of heavy left-hooks, you have all four limbs moving together; it’s both fluid and poetic. In fact, it seems that part of the reason why Wing-Chun always beats other types of kung-fu (including karate, and Thai boxing, in some videos seen on the net), is because it lets the opponent make these huge, flailing moves: the roundhouse kicks, etc.— and then takes advantage of the temporary chinks in the armor that these moves expose.
Anyhow, Donnie Yen is a bit more fun to watch than Jet Li, if only because we are too Jet Li-saturated. Yen plays Ip just right. No melodrama, no over-acting. Just the normal amount of emotion you’d expect from someone in his sometimes unenviable position.
Last note: his wife, played by Lynn Hung (Xiong Dailin)—her acting is nothing to write home about. But she is ineffably lovely as the typically virtuous Chinese wife.
Each generation of youth in Taiwan deserves its own movie, a paean to the times, to the challenges they faced. Director Tom Lin does this for a group of nine high schoolers living on the edges of Hsin Chu city in northern Taiwan. The cultural landscape of mid-1990s Taiwan is all there: cigarettes, baseball, girls, fights, pool halls, motorbikes. And like Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day, tragedy lurks behind it all, and the forces of fate test the bonds of friendship.
It’s not as if this turf hasn’t been covered before, but Winds of September does make a worth successor to this sub-genre. Beautifully shot in some kind of eternal spring/autumn where there is always a gentle breeze and its never too cold to go skinny-dipping.
Winds of September manages to walk the tight rope between slow arthouse film and something more commercial, and while it doesn’t have the blockbuster potential of Cape No. 7, it doesn’t take itself too seriously, or despite the tragedy at the center of the film, get too dark. The film’s most impressive feat is in its pacing and exposition: the deft interweaving of both dramatically light and dark scenes, humor to leaven tension, and no untoward attempts on the audience’s heartstrings. The movie begins with nine undifferentiated characters, and while you have your instantly recognizable stud, nerd, hooligan, fat kid, and pretty girl character types, they do, through each scene, outgrow the cardboard-cutout version of themselves, developing into distinct personalities, with their own thoughts about what the bonds of friendship mean and what responsibilities and obligations they, as friends, have towards each other.
Director Tom Lin has worked as an assistant director for Tsai Ming-liang and Winds is his second feature, part of Hong Kong actor Eric Tsang’s series of three films, all set in different Asian countries, but all telling the same basic story of the vicissitudes of youth and friendship.
Reading the Wikipedia article on Connected makes us laugh: it says that director Benny Chan tried to make the characters more “real and believable” than the Hollywood film Cellular, of which it is a remake.
Though we haven’t seen the original, if Connected is “real and believable” than Star Wars might also be loosely based on a real story. Barbie Hsu (widely known as Big S) plays Grace Wong, a single mother who gets kidnapped, along with her school-age daughter, on account of something her brother did. The baddie is played by Chinese actor Lou Ye, and the hero by Nicholas Koo. The movie unfolds when Grace is able to patch together an old phone in the place where she is being held and make a call to Koo, who must now decide if he ought to save a stranger in distress.
There are some half decent action scenes and good car chases, and the whole thing is not meant to be realistic, but even so, there is just something amateurish in the way the movie was crafted. Nick Cheung’s performance as the good cop that smells something fishy in all these proceedings hits the right notes, but in the end it is only Koo’s performance that manages to (barely) rise above mediocrity.
You know that China has fully entered the world of late capitalism when good Chinese folks are willing to blow $100 million on a sci-fi film for an American audience. Today’s Variety reported developments on this “ultra-ambitious” CGI film known as Empires of the Deep, an English-language tale of “mermaids, mermen and a hero who saves the world from an evil empire”. The $100 mil budget is impressive considering they were it was a $50 million project one year ago. Previously called Cutthroat Island, I mean Mermaid Island, it will be directed by special-effects guy Pitof of Catwoman fame (they actually mention that in Variety), with a screenplay written by Randall Frakes, and Irvin Kershner attached as producer.
Kershner, Frakes, and um, Pitof are not exactly household names. Sci-fi fans will recognize Kershner as the nominal director of The Empire Strikes Back. Those fans will be equally quick to note that George Lucas was fully in control of that blockbuster. That’s not to say that Kershner, the quintessential journeyman director, did not have his moments, including the thriller Eyes of Laura Mars and the bootleg Bond film Never Say Never Again. It is to say that Kershner has not directed a film since 1990’s RoboCop 2, and has only one real producer credit, a direct-to-video number. And he is 85.
Frakes has been more active recently, scripting (actually, co-scripting) a number of direct-to-DVD actioners starring Mario Van Peebles, Charlie O’Connell (brother of Jerry), and Mark Dacascos (martial artist, now of Iron Chef America fame) According to IMDB voting, his most widely-viewed work is 1987’s Hell Comes to Frogtown with then-wrestling star “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. Screenwriters aren’t wholly responsible for the fate of their works, of course. Acting, directing, production values count. If only he’d had Irvin Kershner to direct. I think the script will be scripted first by co-writer Jiang Hongyu, and then translated into English and film convention by Frakes, who has done is share of co-writing and novelization work.
And the mono-monikered Pitof? Again, I went to trusty IMDB to find his next film, called Only in New York. One of the user comments is titled simply, OMG! Pitof? NOOOOO!!!!! Apparently the commenter fears for the career of Jim Cavieziel (The Passion of the Christ, The Thin Red Line). To his credit, Pitof directed the well-received Vidocq, the Gallic fantasy which was the first filmed entirely with high-def Sony-Panavision cameras, using technology that Lucas developed for the Star Wars prequels. And he did visual effects work with Jean-Pierre Jeunet on City of Lost Children and Alien Resurrection.
What’s really going on? Even with the weak dollar, 100 million is still nothing to sneeze at. The Variety fluff piece goes on to say the film is being put together by “China’s Fontelysee Pictures in collaboration with the Emagine Studio of Hollywood.” Though that line depicts a grand US-Chinese partnership, I believe these two entitles are in fact run by the same people, and that “Emagine” is a Chinese company with offices in the US. Check out for yourself: here is the Chinese Emagine site, and here is the US Emagine site. Even the name “Emagine” seems designed to conflate it with Imagine Studios, a real Hollywood entity, much in the manner of those Asian knockoff “Adidos” and “Pummas”. Same with Irv Kershner – the very mention of his name is supposed to evoke sci-fi spectacular, though his involvement in high-profile movies is two-decades old. Chinese entrepreneurs will soon learn Western audiences and mass-media are more sophisticated than that.
The real connection between the two, and the actual producer of this film, is “Harrison Liang, PhD” whose bio on the Chinese site states he was an investment banker who moved to China in 2001, and is now Fontelysee’s CEO as well as head of China’s sister city program. Somehow I feel comforted that a competent businessman will be in charge instead of an 85-year-old. Even if this venture does not become, as Mr. Liang puts it, “Star Wars under the sea”, it will be one interesting step into the brave new world in commercial movie-making.
I read in the news recently that this sensitive film has been vetted by Chinese censors and will show in the theaters here in mainland China. That is good news for Chinese audiences, though the DVD has long since been available (we watched the film several weeks ago).The film might be somewhat sensitive from a political standpoint, though anyone can see that it’s an apolitical rom-com and there is really nothing too sensitive. The real drama lies in how SARFT, the PRC government agency that controls what can see the light of day in Chinese media, will take each film. Will they show the film ,or won’t they–and if they do, will it be edited in order to be appropriate for Chinese audiences. It’s become something of a pasttime for movie buffs and maybe just anyone that lives here in China to guess how the far from invisible hand of SARFT is going to alter the movie.
I didn’t think especially highly of the film, but there were a couple of things worth mentioning: one is that the modern day love affair between the Taiwanese male and Japanese female protagonists suggests that in the present, Taiwan and Japan can meet as “romantic” equals, that is, they can, in their own circuitous way, fall for each other. In the present day, Japan is gendered as a woman, Taiwan as a man. Both are initially wary of each other, afterwards, its rip each other’s clothes off, head over heels.
In contrast, in the flashback love affair, which happens at the end of the second World War, Taiwan is gendered as a woman, Japan as a man, and it is only the man that speaks of his love of the woman and Taiwan. He cannot take the woman with him: why, exactly, we are not sure. Japan had to relinquish Taiwan and other colonial pretensions. But again, it is only the Japanese man’s voice that we hear. The woman is never fully seen—we get a few brief glimpses of her in the past, as she watches the boat with her Japanese lover leave the harbor, and in the present, we only see her back and weathered/withered hands. We never hear her side of the story, and thus we never understand her pain. I think this is quite interesting–it seems that the Japanese male never mailed the letters, and so the Taiwanese woman never replied–nonetheless, that isn’t exactly a justification for why her voice is absent from the film. It does suggest that people of that generation, and especially those that had “sensitive” relations with the colonizers, have many more secrets than we’ll ever know, things that we of the latter generations may accidentally happen upon, or even consciously uncover, but which will always just be the tip of the iceberg.
On a less highfalutin level, there is also the fact that this film has been the most successful local film in Taiwan for a long, long time, and everyone is trying to figure out why that happened. One of the more thought out articles on this is from Asia Pacific Arts magazine, where writer Brian Hu comes up with a list of seven reasons why he thinks the film was so successful in Taiwan, while debunking some of the pat and what he thinks are incorrect answers. His list begins with 1. Because it appeals to both local and cosmopolitan sensibilities. Hu points out that in this regard, this film can only be understood within the context of the Taiwanese film industry, including among other things the Hou Hsiao-Hsien pioneered Taiwanese New Wave of the 1980s and 1990s. Hu argues that the appeal of Cape is not in some “realism” a la the Taiwanese New Wave. Verisimilitude and social realism don’t necessarily equate with box office success. Hu’s second point: 2.Because it makes people laugh. Anyhow, there are seven total and the article is a good read.
Hu’s conclusion is quite thoughtful and is worth quoting here in its entirety:
Cape No. 7 got great word of mouth because it got great word of mouth. For a local film — that most despised category of film in Taiwan — to get good buzz was enough for everyone to want to see it to believe it. In that sense, this inflated box office may only be a one-time deal, since the next Cape No. 7 won’t come with that element of surprise. But what the Taiwanese industry doesn’t need are more shocks like Cape No. 7. What it needs are directors interested in making comedies that are funny, romances that are romantic, and melodrama that’s moving. I’m fearful that Cape No. 7 will lead to copycats rather than craft, which is what Cape No. 7 demonstrated most impressively. The industry can’t rely on word-of-mouth to win back the audience. It needs to win back the audience’s trust, not just its attention.