Category: Chinese Cinema

The Grandmaster (Yi dai zong shi, Hong Kong-China 2013)

Tony Leung as Ip Man

Tony Leung as Ip Man

It’s been a long time since Wong Kar-Wai’s previous full-length feature, 2007’s My Blueberry Nights. I gave that a miss and the one before that, 2046 in 2004, although clearly important didn’t really work for me. So, like many others I suspect, I was hoping for a return to the Wong of In the Mood For Love, one of my favourite films of the last twenty-five years. The Grandmaster seems to have taken Wong nearly a decade to prepare and shoot/post-produce and it is in many ways an impressive piece of work. Unfortunately, however, the UK release is the severely shortened version of the original 130 minute Chinese cut. But this is a Wong Kar-Wai film and he has often re-cut films after festival screenings etc. The difference here is that although he has re-cut it, it would seem that Mr Evil – Harvey Weinstein – is once again involved as a distributor.

Wong’s purpose appears to have been to address ‘cultural difficulties’ expected to face Western audiences. Some (quite a lot) of material was removed and the nonlinear Chinese cut re-organised into a more conventional linear narrative. I’ll have to watch the Hong Kong Blu-ray from YesAsia to see what all this means.

The 108 minute film I watched in the cinema offers a narrative with four possible strands. The first is a partial biopic of ‘Ip Man’, the Southern Chinese master of Wing Chun kung fu who settled in Hong Kong in 1950 and proceeded to teach a succession of martial artists including Bruce Lee. The second strand is about the history of kung fu in China during the 1930s/40s and the ‘succession’ to the Northern ‘Grandmaster’ Gong Baosen (Wang Qingxiang). Ip Man is part of this story which is set in the context of the Japanese invasion of first Manchuria and then Southern China after 1937. This story, which involves the different forms of kung fu (three from the north), involves ideas about honour codes that link this narrative to both Japanese samurai stories and the American Western (and possibly the gangster film – the music for Once Upon a Time in America is listed in the credits). The third narrative strand concerns the potential relationship between Ip Man (Tony Leung) and Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) – the daughter of the Northern Grandmaster. Finally, the film explores a personal Wong Kar-Wai story, familiar from most of his films – the experience of Chinese ‘exile’ in Hong Kong in the early 1950s (complete with some Hong Kong archive footage ‘squashed’ into the wrong ratio which won’t please Keith).

None of these four strands is fully worked out – or, at least, that is how it seems from a first viewing. Neither the kung fu fans or the arthouse fans of Wong are likely to be satisfied. Even so, there are many pleasures to be had from the film. Enormous care has been taken in choreographing fight scenes (credit to Yuen Woo-ping) and production design by Wong regulars Chang Suk-ping and Yay Wai-ming. Japanese composer Umebayashi Shigeru’s score is immediately recognisable, though here he is joined on the soundtrack by French composer Nathaniel Méchaly – who IMDB lists as working on several French-produced ‘international’ thrillers. The cinematography is by another Frenchman Philippe Le Sourd whose previous credits are not extensive but who acquits himself well here.

Zhang Ziyi as Gong Er

Zhang Ziyi as Gong Er

Given the focus on martial arts skills there is a great deal hanging on the performances of the two leads Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi. Both have previously worked in wu xia films, the best known being the Zhang Yimou epics such as Hero in which they worked together. These required wire work and swordfighting skills. For The Grandmaster they needed to be world-class kung fu artists and there are many stories about the length and the extent of their training. I’m not a kung fu expert but the moves look impressive to me. Tony Leung is about as good as it gets as an actor in global cinema but I think he isn’t given enough to do in The Grandmaster (having said that he ‘does nothing’ wonderfully). Zhang Ziyi actually has a bigger role than the film’s overall story might suggest. Other than the two leads, the mystery for me is why two of the other leads are marginalised in this shorter version. Chang Chen who is given third billing in the credits has had a major sequence removed and the Korean actress Song Hye-keo who plays Ip Man’s wife also disappears from the narrative in the second half of the film. There is no explanation (that I remember) of why she can’t join her husband in Hong Kong after 1950.

My understanding is that the 130 minute cut is superior – but still has the mix of genres and with a non-linear narrative poses other issues for audiences. I think that I still want to see the longer cut. My sense is that the film will not do very well in UK cinemas but that a full length Blu-ray might do well. This comparatively expensive ($25 million) film did very well in China and other East Asian territories plus France and the US to reach $64 million worldwide.

Here’s the US trailer for the shortened version:

and this is the version promoted by Shaw Brothers Cinemas in South East Asia:

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: