The Case for Global Film

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Archive for the ‘Chinese Cinema’ Category

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

Posted by Roy Stafford on 31 March 2014

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:

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Inseparable (Xing ying bu li, China 2011)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 31 July 2013

'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.

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

Posted by Roy Stafford on 25 February 2013

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:

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Chinese Film Forum, Manchester January 2013

Posted by Roy Stafford on 9 February 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.

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Life of Pi (Taiwan/India/Canada/US 2012)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 5 January 2013

Pi (Suraj Sharma) attempts to tame the tiger.

Pi (Suraj Sharma) attempts to train the tiger.

The Life of Pi is an interesting phenomenon in contemporary cinema. I watched it in 3D from the front row of a small cinema – not necessarily the seat I would have chosen (I usually go for the third or fourth row) and the sensation of animals jumping into my lap was definitely odd. I can’t decide if the overall film was just an enjoyable traveller’s tale or whether there is a more profound narrative that I wasn’t reading properly. What is clear is that the film has captivated audiences around the world and set the electronic bulletin boards aglow with questions, theories and seemingly whole packs of ‘trolls’. Like Scorsese’s Hugo, this 3D presentation by a filmmaker with great skill in visualising a story and carefully handling his characters has gone some way to justifying this still cumbersome technology.

When Yann Martel’s original novel won the Booker Prize, I remember being put off reading it by the usual nonsense that surrounds awards ceremonies. I’m usually interested in Canadian literature but I didn’t explore this title further. If you don’t know the story, it begins in Montreal where a novelist visits Pi (Irrfan Khan) looking for inspiration for his next project. Pi tells him the fabulous tale of how many years earlier he survived months drifting across the Pacific in an open boat accompanied by a fully-grown Bengal tiger. The narrative mainly comprises a long flashback to when Pi was first a small child in Pondicherry, the French enclave in Tamil Nadu which finally joined the Union of India in 1954, and up to the disaster when Pi was trapped with the tiger as a 16 year-old. Pi’s father owned a zoo in Pondicherry but changes in his financial circumstances forced him to sell-up and take his family to Canada – along with some of the animals which he hoped to sell in North America. At the end of the fabulous tale, the novelist learns that there is another, alternative story about what happened to Pi in the boat and he is invited to choose which one he believes.

For those of us who don’t profess any religious beliefs, the film might seem a little off-putting since the novelist is told that the story will make him think again about the existence of God. Yann Martel is certainly interested in ideas about religions and he travelled to India partly to see temples, mosques and churches. As a 14 year-old, Pi tries out Hinduism, Islam and Christianity in his attempt to understand the world. Especially in North America, audiences (and critics) seem to want to focus on the religious dimension. For those of us in the increasingly secular UK (shown in the 2011 census) I suppose it’s good to be reminded that millions of people around the world do have religious beliefs. However, I don’t think that Life of Pi has to be understood through religious metaphors and allegories. It’s a mixture of fantasy and realism that exposes the central character’s humanity.

What’s most interesting about the film for me is that a Hollywood studio (Fox) thought that it had acquired a ‘property’ to develop into an American blockbuster movie only to discover eventually that while the film remains ‘American’ in terms of its script by David Magee and the excellent CGI effects work by Rhythm and Hues, everything else about the film is truly ‘international’. The proof is in the box office. Released first in North America, the film made $88 million in what Hollywood calls the ‘domestic’ market – making it a ‘flop’ given its budget of over $100 million. But in the ‘international’ market (i.e. the rest of the world) it has already made over $220 million with the Chinese and Indian markets together making over $100 million. That has to mean something.

Adil Hussain and Tabu as Pi's parents

Adil Hussain and Tabu as Pi’s parents

The film is visually spectacular without the need for much dialogue in many scenes and its story is ‘universal’, but much of the credit must go to director Ang Lee and his refusal to use Hollywood/Bollywood superstars – Tobey Maguire and Shah Rukh Khan are reported to have been considered at some point. Irrfan Khan and Tabu represent the cream of Indian acting talent (note to self – must find more Tabu films) and Gérard Depardieu makes a suitable villain – hiss! – in the present climate (he’s a tax dodger). I thought Suraj Sharma, the 17 year-old student who played the lead, was terrific. Lee made the film in Taiwan, India and Canada and it doesn’t at any point feel like an American film. It was worth staying to the end of the credits to hear the golden voice of Lata Mangeshkar on a song which I think comes from a 1970s Hindi film.

I’d like to watch the film again – on a bigger screen – and really get to grips with what Lee and his crew have been able to put together. There is a sequence in which the aspect ratio changes. The action at that moment was itself spectacular so I barely registered the change in ratio. Later I read that there are four different ratios used in the film at various times. In the opening credits sequence, the credits themselves are animated and the 3D effect is pronounced as animals move through the depth of the image. I found this very beautiful and quite arresting – although at other times I didn’t notice the use of 3D at all (apart from the darkened image and the heaviness of the glasses over my own specs). The other success is of course the digital effects that create the tiger on the boat. I can’t imagine that there are many cat lovers (or even dog lovers) that didn’t experience an emotional jolt when Pi lifts the massive head of the tiger weakened by hunger onto his lap. I felt the weight of a ‘real’ tiger and wanted to stretch out and scratch its ears.

To return to the India/China axis, Life of Pi seems like a breakthrough of sorts. I don’t think that it was just the presence of Irrfan Khan and Tabu that made me think of The Namesake, a film by Mira Nair, an Indian based in the US adapting another tale of a journey from India to North America. Ang Lee has already demonstrated his ability to make films about different modes of American culture as well as a British literary adaptation and explorations of his own Taiwanese film culture. He’s moved between very different genres and very different cultural contexts with ease. Perhaps with Life of Pi he’s begun to point towards the greater exchange of ideas about cinema between India, China and North America. I think that is where the future lies for cinema in global terms and Lee seems much more adept than the more conventional Hollywood forays into separate productions in India and China.

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LFF 2012 #1: Memories Look at Me (China 2012)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 13 October 2012

Song Fang and her mother in Memories Look at Me

Memories Look at Me was a good place to start my visit to the 2012 London Film Festival. Writer-director Song Fang is known to arthouse audiences in the West as the young Chinese film student who appears in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Paris-set Flight of the Red Balloon (France/Taiwan 2007). In this, her first feature, she has Jia Zhangke as executive producer. With two of the leading masters of Chinese cinema as mentors, it isn’t surprising that she has absorbed something from both filmmakers and that this feature seems so confident and composed. Inhabiting that territory between fiction and documentary that features in much of Jia’s work, Memories Look at Me is a meditation on growing up and growing old – and also a critique in many ways of the changing China and, in particular, the one child policy.

Song plays a character like herself, on a visit home to her parents’ small flat in Nanjing. Her real family play themselves (though, presumably, as fictional characters). Almost all the ‘action’ takes place in the flat and this, for me, was the only disappointment in that I would have liked to see more of Nanjing. It was frustrating to be peering through the rain-spattered windows of a car and to be told that a decaying building was the cinema where Song’s parents often went, only for her doctor father to receive an emergency call part way through the film. But then, the film deals with the interior lives of the family members and what they remember as they talk in the confined space of the house.

The film is almost an exercise in restraint and it works very well in allowing us to begin to understand the characters and their circumstances. There are relatively few moments of real drama such as when a neighbour brings the family a chicken which seems then to be kept temporarily in the shower room. Song proves inept at securing the chicken’s legs and we see no more of the bird. I presume that somebody must kill it so that they can eat it?

There are several references to Song as an unmarried woman who has passed 30 and I confess that it might have been interesting to see how she got on with the blind date that her brother and sister-in-law were keen to arrange for her. But this is one of the moments of restraint – nothing more is heard of the idea. The ‘one child’ policy crops up several times, e.g. when Fang asks her mother why she seemed so old when Fang was a child and her mother explains that she was five years older than the other mothers in Nanjing because she had already had Fang’s brother – and all the other mothers only had the one child. Fang’s uncle had no children and so Fang’s brother was important to him and later Fang visits her parents’ friends who are worried about the health of their only child.

I think it is remarkable that a woman in her early 30s should make such a mature film about getting older and realising that you have simply not taken in the import of the things that have happened to your parents’ generation. I wish that I had been that aware and mature at her tender age. Not a film I would recommend for a rollicking Friday night out, but definitely one to savour at a more sober time of the week. I hope this gets a wide distribution.

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The Legend of Tianyun Mountain (Tianyun Han Chuanqui, China 1981)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 20 August 2012

Song Wei (Wang Fuli) and Feng Qinglan (Shi Jianlan) (right)

This melodrama by the great Chinese director Xie Jin was a big popular success in its home market in 1981 – but also a film criticised by younger critics and filmmakers as being old-fashioned. Xie was one of the major artists to attract the wrath of the Gang of Four during the Cultural Revolution but this film goes further back in Chinese political history and tells the story of the wrong done to a ‘good man’ in the Anti-Rightist Campaign of the late 1950s. (Xie himself in this interview says that he got a lot of positive feedback from audiences and the film didn’t cause any problems.)

The central character in the story is Song Wei, who as a young woman is part of a team sent to the remote Tianyun Mountain region in the mid-1950s to explore the development possibilities of the region. She works hard and gradually falls in love with a geologist, Luo Qun. Wei is then sent to a school for political officers in the Chinese Communist Party. During the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1958 Luo is falsely accused along with another member of the team – both had tried to prevent mistakes being made in local projects. The local political chief Wu forces Wei to give up contact with Luo and she ends up marrying Wu and leaving the district. Twenty years later, Song is Wu’s deputy in the administration of the region, having recovered from persecution herself during the Cultural Revolution. A young woman approaches her with a story about Luo who eventually married Song’s close friend Feng Qinglan from the original team – one of the few people who stood up for him. Wei has lost touch with them but she reads a long letter from Qinglan and determines that the administration should finally bring Luo back from exile (in which he works as a cart driver). Her actions inevitably cause conflict with her husband but when she learns that Qinglan is ill she is determined to find her.

Qinglan takes a sick Luo Qun home to care for him.

In some ways it is difficult to believe that this is a film made in 1980. It feels more like a 1930s or 1940s melodrama. Modern audiences might find it difficult to take but I love 1940s melodrama and I revelled in the expressionist moments in the film. Xie uses all kinds of devices associated with classic melodramas from a rich musical score to violent weather, mirrors and smashed objects, ‘excessive’ editing transitions and so on. The narrative proceeds in long flashbacks as Wei learns about what has happened to Qinglan and Luo Qun. At one point they seem to speak to each other as Qinglan asks a question in the letter that Wei is reading and Wei answers out loud.

Although the story is ‘political’ in its attempt to show how important it is to re-instate those who have been falsely accused, Xie’s presentation of the story manages to weave the ‘personal’ and the ‘political’ together, so Wu’s reluctance to reinstate Luo is to a significant extent fuelled by his fear about losing Song Wei to her former lover.

Everything I’ve seen by Xie suggests a director happiest telling women’s stories in a style he has made his own which marries classical Hollywood, socialist realism and Chinese melodrama traditions. You can view the whole film (the resolution isn’t great but it’s watchable) on this Chinese cultural agency website: http://video.chinese.cn/en/article/2009-10/09/content_72253.htm

Posted in Chinese Cinema, Melodrama | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

A Simple Life (Tao Jie, Hong Kong 2011)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 16 August 2012

One of the most garlanded films from East Asia in 2011 has finally made it into UK distribution – and it immediately goes into my Top 10 of 2012 releases. A ‘simple tale’ this may be, but it is exquisitely made and packs a mighty punch both in the emotions it arouses and the subtle commentary it makes on contemporary Hong Kong society – and on the power of nostalgia. It’s a star-laden production from the leads to the cameo appearances and the creative talent behind the camera. Ann Hui is the doyenne of HK directors, Andy Lau is the superstar of Chinese cinema and Deanie Ip, a significant figure herself in the 1980s, has come out of retirement to win the acting prizes. The film looks terrific thanks to Yu Lik-wai (best known for his work with Jia Zhangke) and the minimal piano score by Law Wing-fai is perfect.

A Simple Life is in some ways a nostalgic film – or at least a film about how memories inform the last few months of a powerful relationship in a middle-class Hong Kong family. I recommend the film’s quite beautiful website with its explanation of the role of the amah in Hong Kong households. I’ve deliberately chosen the nostalgic poster above to illustrate this.

I take the amah to be a colonial legacy (similar to the ayah in India). The amah was a maid cum nanny, often recruited as a young teenager, who would pledge herself to a family in which she would gradually assume charge of the children as and when they were born. She wore a uniform of black pants and a white blouse. Under British colonialism, the amah would serve in both the coloniser’s homes and those of the local middle-classes. The bond between amah and child would be very strong and would carry through to adulthood. A Simple Life is based on the real world experience of producer Roger Lee. In Susan Chan’s script Deanie Ip plays Ah Tao, the amah of Roger (Andy Lau), the last remaining Hong-Kong based member of a family in which his mother and siblings (now with children and later in the narrative, even grandchildren of their own) have migrated to California. Ah Tao has been ‘in post’ since she was a young teenager – over 60 years. Roger is an accountant in the film industry, often away on business. One day, on his return from Beijing, he discovers that Ah Tao, now his housekeeper, has had a stroke. He decides to acquiesce to her wish to retire and live in a care home and when she leaves hospital, he takes her to one that he has found, owned by an old and rather disreputable friend (played by the Hong Kong actor-director Anthony Wong).

Roger finds himself maintaining his close relationship, visiting Ah Tao and taking her out. Her decline is gradual but inexorable but in the process she develops relationships with several of the other residents in the home. The home itself isn’t too bad and it is in the local area that she knows and wants to remain in. Ann Hui chose the district herself as a location for the shoot. It is quieter than the more bustling streets well-known to film lovers. Hui was one of the pioneers of a form of social film with a realist aesthetic during the period of the Hong Kong New Wave in the early 1980s and A Simple Life feels very ‘located’. The film offers us a commentary on the realities of social welfare in Hong Kong and on the new system of ‘service’. Roger remains impassive when the charges for ‘escorts’ (the carers who take the residents out for hospital trips etc.) clearly delineate the Filipinos, Mainlanders and ‘Foreigners’ etc. (I confess that I didn’t grasp all the details but the sociology is interesting). This is confirmed when we see the interviews for a new ‘maid’ to help out in Roger’s flat – the candidates are clearly not prepared to consider the kind of work the amah did. Status is important in Hong Kong and some of the funniest moments come when Roger, because of his casual clothes, is mistaken first as an air-conditioning maintenance man and then as a taxi-driver. In the home, Roger describes himself as Ah Tao’s godson. There is a whole discourse about service and social class bubbling beneath the surface of the exchanges in the home. The older residents probably recognise the real relationship but the younger staff and visitors take it at face value.

Deanie Ip and Andy Lau, the amah and her erstwhile charge, in a cafe eating steamed fish and vegetables.

The irony is that I’ve read that Andy Lau really is Deanie Ip’s godson (although she is only 14 years his senior). This and other relationships on the set infuse the film. Many of the actors and crew have worked together before dozens of times going back to Ann Hui’s earliest work. The directors Tsui Hark and Sammo Hung play versions of themselves. In an interview, Hui points out that most of the female leads in the film have won a Best Actress award. The film seems as much about validating and celebrating the history of Hong Kong cinema as it is about the amah system.

In the end, however, this is a family melodrama and when the whole family celebrate the first birthday of Roger’s great-nephew (a child who is now American-Chinese-Korean), I was forcibly reminded of scenes in Edward Yang’s Yi-Yi (A One and a Two, Taiwan 2000) and the stories of extended families coming together. A Simple Life uses both the Chinese New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival (Moon Festival) as foci for the presence/absence of family and the importance of social interaction. Although the film is, I think, technically a melodrama, it is marked by the absence rather than the ‘excess’ of expressionism in music or mise en scène. Everything seems restrained and low-key – meticulous rather than colourless though. If there is excess it is in the detailed focus on rituals like cooking and eating. The emotional attachment between Roger and Ah Tao is expressed through the food they make for each other – and how they talk about it. Chinese culture surely revolves around the pot! When we discussed the film after the screening I think one of the most interesting aspects of the film was the way in which Roger handled the inevitable death of his amah. How he behaved seemed to demonstrate a real difference between Anglo-Saxon and Chinese attitudes towards a ‘death in the family’. His actions seem far less sentimental than actions in a similar Western film – but they don’t detract from what we know is his deep emotional attachment to his amah. On the other hand, Deanie Ip says that she thinks Roger could have done more for his ‘Tao Jie’ and she feels it was a very difficult role for Andy Lau. I must see the whole film again, but especially the last third. I realise that there are large chunks of back story that are not explored – unless I missed a cue. Has Roger ever had a wife or a lover? How important was the heart surgery he had some time earlier? In many ways Roger seems like as much of an anachronism as Ah Tao in his flat with few of the accoutrements of modern living.

I’ve seen reviews of this film in the Western press which refer to its long running time (118 mins) and dismiss it as a ‘crowdpleaser’ for older audiences – i.e. not the kind of film to interest ‘real’ cinephiles. I couldn’t disagree more. It’s a wonderful film that will reward attentive audiences.

Here’s a trailer (no English subs, but they aren’t really necessary):

and one with subs:

Interesting blog from Singapore remembering the amah in that culture.

Posted in Chinese Cinema, Films by women, Melodrama | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

 
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