Category: Chinese Cinema

BIFF 2014 #4: A Fallible Girl (UAE-China-UK 2013)

Sang Juan (left) as Li-fei and  Huang Lu as YaYa

Sang Juan (left) as Li-fei and Huang Lu as YaYa

Portrait Without BleedThis feature is part of Bradford’s European Competition which seems odd because it isn’t ‘European’ in content and only marginally so in finance as far as I can see – though much of the creative input is. Writer-director Conrad Clark is a Brit living in China and this film is a development of a short produced in 2010. Cinematographer Raquel Fernandez Nuñez is Spanish and editor Paul Monaghan is from the UK and has worked with Michael Winterbottom for Revolution Films. What we are offered is a genuine ‘global/local’ story set in the community of temporary migrants that constitutes the bulk of the population of the United Arab Emirates. The ‘fallible girl’ of the title might be Li-fei who with her fellow Chinese YaYa has become an entrepreneur and opened a mushroom farm in the desert between Dubai (where the two women have a small apartment) and Abu Dhabi.

A Fallible Girl has a very distinctive aesthetic which utilises a wobbly handheld camera often framing in close-up as it moves between faces. Lighting at times gives a soft washed-out look suffused in pinks and blues (and yellows in the mushroom houses). The electronic (?) music soundtrack by Orchestra Plastique and Víg Mihály works very well with the visuals and I eventually adjusted to the feel of the film (having come to terms with that wobbly camera).

The ideas behind the film are certainly interesting as Dubai is home to so many different groups of migrant workers. I’m not sure that we see many ‘locals’ except as figures in the background. Li-fei has a European boyfriend who has an apartment by the beach with a Philippina (?) maid. Li-fei’s mushroom farm employs (according to the synopsis) Bangladeshi men and her driver/translator is called Abdullah but doesn’t appear to be local. She meets a Pakistani truck driver and the shopkeepers are Indians. Most of the film seems to be set in a downtown district of Dubai with busy streets and roadside stalls like many towns in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia – this isn’t the Dubai of Western hotels.

Li-fei at the mushroom farm

Li-fei at the mushroom farm

If I’d had to guess at the nationality of the film, I would have said Chinese. At various points I thought of Wong Kar-wai’s Fallen Angels (1995), Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Millennium Mambo (2001) and Chinese independent films such as Suzhou River (2000) – all because of atmosphere and mood. The Winterbottom connection is interesting since he used the Emirates as an ‘exotic’ location in his science fiction film Code 46 (2003) but also shot migrants/refugees passing through the wider region in In This World (2002). The sense that territories like the Emirates are both ‘modern’ but also mired in the social problems of post-industrial capitalism is also there in The Fallible Girl. It certainly got me thinking and I enjoyed the film in the main. Two strange sequences puzzled me. In one Li-fei’s driver goes to eat in a canteen and meets a fellow migrant worker to discuss going home. Though clearly in keeping with the theme, this felt like it was part of a documentary shot by somebody else. Much more of a problem is a sequence of archive footage of the Emirates, seemingly taken from low-resolution video sources and therefore heavily pixellated. It looked horrendous on a large screen. I’m assuming that this was a budget problem – similar footage must surely be available on 16mm film?

There is relatively little conventional plot in the film. Li-fei’s business is struggling and she also has problems with her boyfriend and with her friend/business partner YaYa. What we get is less a straight story and more a meditation on migration, home, social networks etc. The film succeeds I think because Sang Juan in what appears to be her first film role as Li-fei  is such a strong presence. She is shown as a ‘real’ human being, not always likeable as she shouts abuse at other women drivers – in fact she shouts at everyone using her basic English. But she works hard and she treats her workers fairly. They seem to respect her.

In his introduction Neil Young expressed surprise that the film had not been shown in the UK since its Rotterdam premiere. It felt to me to be very much a ‘festival film’ unlikely to get a theatrical release but certainly well worth seeing – and I’m glad I did.

Vimeo trailer:

Inseparable (Xing ying bu li, China 2011)

'Chuck' (Kevin Spacey) and Li (Daniel Wu) meet on the top of Li's apartment block.

‘Chuck’ (Kevin Spacey) and Li (Daniel Wu) meet on the top of Li’s apartment block.

This is an important film in terms of the current developments in Chinese cinemas and I enjoyed watching it. Whether it captures the imagination of audiences in China or overseas is another question but it is about to be released on DVD in the UK and deserves serious consideration. I first came across the title at the Chinese Film Forum in Manchester earlier this year and I’ve been intrigued ever since.

Writer-director Dayyan Eng was born in Taiwan in 1975 and trained at both the Beijing Film Academy and the University of Washington. In China Eng is known as Wu Shixian. Inseparable or ‘Follow like a shadow‘ in its Chinese translation is one the first Chinese features to cast a leading Hollywood player, Kevin Spacey, in a leading role. Spacey speaks English in the film and plays a character who gets very close to Li, a young man played by the Hong Kong star Daniel Wu. Wu was born in the US and he speaks in English when with Spacey. The rest of the dialogue in the film is delivered in Mandarin and subtitled in English. The third lead is Gong Beibi who plays Li’s wife Pang.

Dayaan Eng came to the fore with festival prizes for his shorts East 22nd Street (1997), Bus 44 (2001) and his feature Waiting Alone (2004), but Inseparable aims for the popular market and its mix of popular genres might turn out to be a problem because I suspect that it will confuse some of both the popular and specialised film fans who would otherwise enjoy the film. But, if approached with an open mind, the film is enjoyable and mildly provocative in terms of social commentary. Inseparable is a difficult film to discuss because I don’t want to give away too much of the plot and spoil its narrative pleasures. I’ll try to give something of its flavour.

The pair dressed as superheroes – HLF refers to the Maoist era 'hero' figure Lei Feng.

The pair dressed as superheroes – HLF refers to the Maoist era ‘hero’ figure Lei Feng.

Lei Feng poster (from Wikipedia)

Lei Feng poster (from Wikipedia)

Li works as an engineer developing prosthetic limbs for a large corporation – enabling Eng to explore aspects of the office culture in modern China, including the pressure on workers at all levels. (The film looks great throughout courtesy of Thierry Arbogast’s cinematography, reminiscent of his work with Luc Besson.) Li has a good income and a nice apartment but is clearly unhappy and depressed. His wife is often away working as a reporter for a TV company. When Spacey mysteriously appears in Li’s apartment block neither Li or the audience is sure what to make of him, but he is persuasive and full of advice. He convinces Li that he needs to ‘discover himself’ and in effect become a ‘Superhero’, seeking out injustices and vanquishing the bad guys. This leads to the possibility that the film will become a comedy-action-drama with a focus on some of the social problems of China’s growing urban areas including the boorish behaviour of the newly wealthy, the adulteration of foodstuffs and scandals involving the health system. Li’s concept of a superhero refers back to a Mao era ‘hero’, Lei Feng – a figure used in official part propaganda as a role model. But enjoyable though this side of the film may be, the question remains, who is ‘Chuck’ the character played by Spacey? Does he exist at all? Is he like the imaginary friends of childhood? In turn, do we really understand what is going on inside Li’s head? In some ways Inseparable resembles those Charlie Kaufman-scripted films such as Being John Malkovich or Adaptation. There is also a suggestion that Li might be one of Phil K. Dick’s ‘ordinary Joes’ caught up in a world of uncertainty.

The UK trailer is here:


InseparableDVDMy fear is that the action fans and the science fiction/fantasy fans will not get enough of their genre pleasures from the film. Kevin Spacey’s presence may draw his fans in. I’m not a Spacey fan and for me his presence was the weak point of the film. However, it didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment too much and I’d recommend the film as an interesting example of what global film is now starting to become. The technical credits are excellent, the performances are good and there are many pleasures – the battle against rogue tofu suppliers was my favourite.

Inseparable is released on Region 2 DVD on August 19th. Here’s the link to Amazon’s offer on DVD pre-orders. The film is also available on Blu-ray. Thanks to Matchbox Films for sending me a review copy.

You Are the Apple of My Eye (Na xie nian, wo men yi qi zhui de nu hai, Taiwan 2011)

Michelle Chen as Shen Chia-Yi and Ke Zhendong as Ko Ching-Teng, the central two characters.

Michelle Chen as Shen Chia-Yi and Ke Zhendong as Ko Ching-Teng, the central two characters.

Why don’t we see more Taiwanese popular cinema? Most cinephiles in the West at least know about Taiwanese New Cinema and its highest profile auteurs from the 1980s Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang. The more adventurous know Tsai Ming-liang but after that we are stumped. Cornerhouse in Manchester has come to our rescue. They have previously shown one of the more recent Taiwanese blockbusters Cape No. 7 and last week, as part of the Chinese Film Forum programme, they showed You Are the Apple of My Eye. Felicia Chan, one of the organisers of the forum, gave a ‘1 hour intro’ before the screening which provided some useful preparation for the screening.

Taiwanese cinema has seen an upsurge since the mid-2000s for a number of reasons. I suspect that part of the reason must be the relative decline in Hong Kong popular cinema and the emergence of mainland Chinese popular cinema – which now seems more open to other films from ‘Greater China’ – but with certain provisos. There is certainly a greater ‘exchange’ of films between all the East Asian film industries and You Are the Apple of My Eye has broken box office records across the region, with significant audiences in Hong Kong, the PRC and Singapore as well as at home. I’m not surprised by this, but my own inclination is to place the film in the context of the success of South Korean films in the region. The film I was most reminded of was My Sassy Girl, the smash hit romcom from 2001 that found eager audiences throughout East and South-East Asia, prompting at least five remakes, sequels or alternative versions in China, Japan, India and the US. I’m not sure the Taiwanese film is as wildly original but it is similarly appealing and with careful handling might succeed outside East Asia. The biggest problem might be that because the film approaches genre repertoires such as the high school film, teen romance etc. in rather different ways than standard Hollywood fare it will be misunderstood. I think it helps if you have a good grounding in East Asian teen horror/romance films or anime/manga.

The first resemblance to My Sassy Girl comes in the source material – an autobiographical novel. Giddens Ko, the director, has adapted his own novel and set the film in the high school he attended. He’s now in his thirties, I think and the film’s action spans 1995-2005. This already signifies an approach to the material very different to Western youth pictures which invariably focus on the final year, or even term/semester of a student career. The story is told in flashback beginning with preparations for a wedding and going back to high school at 16. We then meet five teenage boys, each delineated by a personal trait and two girls, the class ‘honours student’ and her best friend. Although only one boy, the author’s character, has any family seen onscreen, this is still a collective narrative – all the characters are still there ten years later. The other interesting feature is the inclusion of a real-life event, the earthquake of September 1999 (in which over 2,000 Taiwanese died). This reminded me of Aftershock (China 2010). Most of the East Asian films of this kind that I’ve seen focus on the young women, so it is interesting to see the five young men at the centre. There are a lot of masturbation jokes (or what in the Uk would be ‘knob jokes’) which all seem rather sweet instead of being offensive – partly because they aren’t used to denigrate women as sometimes happens in Hollywood’s ‘gross-out’ comedies. (These scenes reminded me of Y tu mamá también (Mexico/US 2001).)

But I guess the central interest of the film and the main reason for its popularity is the long up and down romance between the central character and the ‘honours student’, well-played by Michelle Chen. I won’t spoil the narrative – suffice to say it’s affecting and the film’s resolution is not predictable. This romance was much less weird than the South Korean model in My Sassy Girl, but it pursued the same kind of romanticism. It was believable and I can understand why whole families in Taiwan have enjoyed the film, as Felicia pointed out in her intro.

You Are the Apple of My Eye was screened on an immaculate CinemaScope print with decent subs and it looked very good. I enjoyed it and would happily watch more. I hope Cornerhouse have less difficulty next time prising a print out of 20th Century Fox – and can somebody bring these films to the UK on a full distribution deal please?

Fox trailer with English subs:

Chinese Film Forum, Manchester January 2013

Corrado Neri of Jean Moulin University, Lyon presents a paper on 'Inseparable': The Rise or Fall of a Chinese Superhero

Corrado Neri of Jean Moulin University, Lyon presents a paper on ‘Inseparable': The Rise or Fall of a Chinese Superhero

The Chinese Film Forum was established in Manchester in 2009 as a research network involving the universities of Manchester, Manchester Metropolitan and Salford, the Chinese Art Centre , the Confucius Institute and Cornerhouse Cinema. The network is supported by a grant from the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC). The second symposium entitled: ‘The Creation and Circulation of Chinese Identities in and through Cinema’ was held at the Chinese Arts Centre in Manchester on January 29-30 with an associated screening of Memories Look at Me (China 2012) by Song Fang at Cornerhouse. (Just as good on a second viewing.)

The first symposium in March 2012 had covered the distribution and exhibition of Chinese and Asian films in the UK. I thought it was a very successful event generating plenty of discussion and I signed up for the second event without any hesitation. The programme this time included a total of 24 papers arranged in 9 panels. In the event, one presenter had to withdraw but the panels seemed to form themselves into quite logical groupings of papers in the main. The keynote paper at the end of the first day was delivered by Chris Berry (Professor of Film Studies at King’s College London). He stayed on to introduce the film screening and to contribute to discussions the following day.

With so many papers, I’m not going to attempt to report on them all, but an overall comment would be that compared to last year’s symposium this one was more wide-ranging, raising several different issues. However, because of the structure of the panels and the good organisation of the event, each panel produced a focused discussion and there was a clear sense of extending the reach of Chinese film studies rather than simply hopping from one issue to another. As one of the Forum’s leaders, Felicia Chan of the University of Manchester remarked, it was good to see that the participants had selected areas of research that stretched far beyond previously safe areas such as the work of auteurs well-known in the international film market. So, I found myself jotting down film titles and actors/directors to investigate further that ranged from stars of popular mainland cinema to Tibetan and Korean directors working in China, Chinese-American and Italian films (with Chinese characters) and popular Taiwanese films.

Chris Berry’s keynote explored ideas about female characters who are trapped between tradition and modernity – the ‘double bind of modernity’. His starting point was a Paul Willemen paper ‘Detouring through Korean cinema’ (included in The Inter-Asia Cultural Studies Reader edited by Chen Kuan-Hsing and Beng Huat Chua, Routledge 2007). In the paper Willemen reflects on his time in South Korea in 1997 and his attempts to understand what he calls ‘blockage’ in Korean culture (i.e. the struggle over ideas about ‘modernity’ and whether resolving this problem could help South Korean Cinema to become more successful in a global context). He then tried to relate this to the propensity for many South Korean films of the 1970s and 1980s to end in freeze frames – literally preventing characters from ‘moving forward’. Berry stressed the importance of comparative film studies and suggested that it would be useful to ask why Chinese films don’t end in freeze frames. He observed that a woman in a ‘public space’ is an image of ‘modernising China’. He then traced back representations of female figures representing the possibility of modernity to Cai Chusheng’s New Women (1935) with Ruan Lingyu in the lead role. He introduced a range of contemporary films, none of which I have seen unfortunately but some I will certainly look up. I confess that I missed aspects of this analysis, partly because I was reflecting on some of the other points that Chris Berry made. For example, à propos of narratives about single women in urban China, Berry suggested that a third of the huge Chinese work force could now be considered ‘mobile’. In her closing remarks Felicia Chan said that Chris Berry had been the perfect guest speaker and indeed it was impressive how during each panel discussion he asked questions, made observations and afterwards was generally accessible to delegates. I’m sure that this was useful for many of the younger film scholars presenting their papers.

I found all the panels useful, but I’ll just comment on two or three that really piqued my interest. I picked up several ideas about contemporary mainland filmmaking and questions of control and censorship. Chris Berry pointed out that 50% of Chinese films are now privately-funded but enter the mainstream film industry via the state censors whereas the other 50% avoid/evade (?) the censor and presumably find other means of distribution. He also suggested that a commercial film like Feng Xiaogang’s World Without Thieves could virtually cover its production costs through product placement. I had noticed the prevalence of Western brands in recent Chinese films but I wasn’t aware of how widespread, or how lucrative, product placement was. I’m also grateful to Anthony McKenna for an insight into the importance of Han Sanping, the Chair of the state-controlled China Film Group, who wields considerable power as the ‘middle-man’ of Chinese film. Han is able to make links between government and commercial filmmakers in terms of the blockbusters that constitute the contemporary version of a ‘main melody film’. McKenna’s paper focused on the films made since the 2008 Beijing Olympics – a period in which censorship has tightened with pressure on possible dissenters and when ‘historical event blockbusters’ have attempted to create consensus in the domestic market. Han has had a crucial role in the production of films such as The Founding of the Republic (2009) and also in attempting to ensure that these films engage international audiences and project ‘acceptable’ forms of ‘Chineseness’ overseas.

One issue that popped up in discussion during more than one panel was the ‘categorisation’ of ‘Chinese’ films. I was a little surprised by what seemed to be a passionate debate about whether particular films could be called ‘Chinese’. This occurred during Corrado Neri’s fascinating discussion of Inseparable (China 2011) – a film written and directed by Dayann Eng, a Chinese-American who trained in the US but then went to Beijing and has so far made three films in China. Inseparable is a ‘comedy drama’ about a young man (played by Hong Kong actor Daniel Wu) who fantasises about helping people with his ‘superpowers’. He finds a mentor in the form of a mysterious American played by Kevin Spacey. Wholly financed and produced in China, the film has both English and Mandarin dialogue. I would say that this was a Chinese film and I’m intrigued that anyone would want to categorise it differently – but then it is precisely the kind of filmmaking that this blog is interested in.

Hui M. Chan presented a paper entitled ‘Limehouse and its Haunted Nostalgia’ which considered representations of Chinese characters and Chinese communities in early and silent cinema. This included work on the Chinese-American star Anna May Wong who arrived in the UK in the late 1920s and featured in Piccadilly (UK 1929). The presentation asked us to think about films that were “about us, but not for us”. I was intrigued by the references to British cultural life in the 1910s and 1920s and in particular the promise of what work on Chinese representations in the UK might uncover. I was also reminded of the important discussions in the previous symposium about the difficulties faced by Chinese-British filmmakers.

Other panels discussed films and aspects of production that I have not previously had access to. One such panel discussed popular film in Taiwan so I’m pleased to be able to flag up that the next offering from the Chinese Film Forum will be a special screening at Cornerhouse in Manchester of You Are the Apple of My Eye (Na xie nian, wo men yi qi zhui de nu ha, Taiwan 2011) showing to celebrate Chinese New Year. The film (a teen ‘coming-of-age romance’) will be preceded by a ‘One hour intro’ to Popular Taiwanese Cinema by Felicia Chan.

The Chinese Film Forum will be holding a conference in the Autumn – so look out for announcements, or better still subscribe to the forum here.

Many thanks to all the organisers of the Forum, including Felicia Chan, Andy Willis (University of Salford) and Robert  Hamilton (Manchester Metropolitan University), to all the panellists and chairs and to our hosts the Chinese Arts Centre.