Category: Chinese Cinema

Love Education (Xiang ai xiang qin, China-Taiwan 2017)

Xiaoping, Weiwei and Huiying visit the village and the burial ground

Love Education is a Chinese family melodrama presented as a ‘quality film’ which has made appearances at major film festivals in Asia such as Busan and Hong Kong, winning several prizes. Strangely, it doesn’t seem to have made much impact outside East Asia, despite being a film by the celebrated Taiwanese singer, actor, writer and director Sylvia Chang. I was just able to catch it on its UK MUBI run via VOD. Sylvia Chang acted in Ang Lee’s Eat Man Drink Woman (Taiwan-US 1994), a similar kind of family melodrama which got a wider circulation in the West, presumably because of Lee’s American contacts. I was reminded of Lee’s film but oddly I thought Love Education was in some ways more ‘universal’ as a narrative.

Nanna with one of the younger men from the village

‘Love Education’ seems a strange English title. Google suggests that the Mandarin title was originally ‘Love and Love’, which isn’t much clearer but makes more sense at a simple level. The story pivots around Sylvia Chang’s own character Qiu Huiying, a woman in her fifties approaching the expected retirement age for a female school teacher in an unnamed ‘second tier city’ in the PRC. The narrative begins at the bedside of Huiying’s dying mother who is having visions of joining her husband in paradise. (Short fantasy/dream sequences feature a couple of times in the film.) Huiying is desperate to hear her mother’s dying words and convinces herself that she has asked to be buried with her husband. This is problematic since the grandfather’s remains have been returned to the village he left way back in 1946. Huiying determines to go the village, exhume the remains and rebury them in the city. She sets out with her patient and probably long-suffering husband Yin Xiaoping (played by the Fifth Generation director Tian Zhuangzhuang) and her more wilful daughter Weiwei (Lang Yueting). But when the trio arrive they discover that ‘Nanna’ (Wu Yanshu), grandfather’s first wife, has vigorously defended his remains since they were returned to the village in 1996. Despite not having seen him for 50 years, Nanna still believes he is her husband and she is determined to join him in his grave when her time comes.

Da and Weiwei on the train

Weiwei has a job with a TV company. She films the melée when Huiying tries to have the grave opened and Nanna physically defends it (with the support of the villagers). This footage will lead inevitably to media coverage – in the week which has seen ITV taking The Jeremy Kyle Show off air in the UK this seems even more tragic. As well as this central narrative, there are two or three sub-plots, the most developed of which involves Weiwei and her boyfriend, Da, a musician. Huiying and Xiaoping also have their own minor sub-plots not directly linked to the central narrative. The title could refer to the three family members and Nanna, each of which has to learn about/reflect on what ‘love’ means in their various relationships.

I think that most of the reviews have focused on the family relationships, comparing the film with an earlier Sylvia Chang film, 20:30:40 (HK-Taiwan-Japan 2004). I’ve not seen this film which deals with three women at those age points in their lives. Clearly there is a parallel in Love Education with Weiwei in her 20s, Huiying in her 50s and Nanna nearly 90. However, I’m surprised that relatively few comments have been made about the satirical possibilities of the central issue of the burial rights. The three women represent both the personal, familial issues the three women face but also the three different periods of Chinese social history. This is where I think the narrative is universal. It is about tradition v. modernity, rural v. urban and social class divisions about cultural norms. I was reminded strongly of the Cuban satire on bureaucracy by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, Death of a Bureaucrat (1966), in which a widow cannot claim her pension because her husband’s ‘worker’s card’ has been buried with him and she needs the card to get an exhumation – cue bureaucratic meltdown. There are many other similar stories I’m sure. One that comes to mind is Guelwaar (Senegal 1992), Sembène Ousmane’s satire on religion and politics. A different issue (a Christian political activist has been buried in a Muslim cemetery) but the same sensitivities about burial rights and exhumation. In Love Education, Nanna is the pre-revolutionary peasant woman who is married at 17 in 1945 when the Civil War is replacing the war against Japan. Her husband leaves to seek work a year later and she doesn’t see him again but she remains loyal and her ideas about ‘love’ are represented by the ‘chastity arch’ built on the outskirts of her village. Huiying is the single child of born in the late 1950s/early 1960s who would be a child/young teenager during the Cultural Revolution (and would also ‘lose’ her husband Xiaoping to the PLA while she presumably trained to be a teacher. Weiwei, born in the 1990s is the ‘beneficiary’ of the PRCs rapid economic growth during her lifetime. If we accept this then we have to try to understand how the current society responds to the two older women’s claims to ‘rights’ to a burial place/resting place for the ashes of the grandfather. The city records before 1978 have been lost and with them the proof of a 1953 wedding. In the village, Nanna has no evidence that she was formally married, even though the villagers accept that she was.

Love Education film

Xiaoping and Huiying. What kind of a marriage do they have?

I was partly pushed down the route of satire/social commentary by memories of a number of Zhang Yimou films. Perhaps I was prompted by the casting of Tian Zhuangzhuang? Just two examples: in The Story of Qui Ju (1992), Gong Li plays an unlikely peasant woman who pursues a complaint against a village chief through several tiers of Chinese bureaucracy. That film was received badly by officials but Not One Less (1999) was seen in the West as pandering to the same authorities. A 13 year-old schoolgirl Wei is left in charge of a remote village school. When a boy leaves the village she sets out to find him to fulfil her task of keeping all the children in school. In this she is eventually helped by a sympathetic TV crew who feature her story on the local news. I’m not suggesting that Sylvia Chang intended any references to the films I’ve mentioned or that she intended any kind of ideological analysis in her social commentary. Audiences will read films as they see fit. All I would say is that Love Education is worth analysis into what it might be saying. It’s interesting, for instance, that Weiwei is to some extent ‘redeemed’ by the narrative – she is whiney and brattish in the opening scenes – and she befriends Nanna in unexpected ways. She isn’t directly related to Nanna but the closeness of grandchildren and grandmothers is again a universal phenomenon. But how do we read it here.

Overall, I thought all the performances were very good – Xiaoping and Da as characters are more involved in the narrative than my outline might have suggested. The film is beautifully photographed by Mark Lee Ping-bin, well-known for his work with Hou Hsiao-hsien and other auteur directors. The photography is matched by the editing of Matthieu Laclau who has worked on the last three Jia Zhang-khe films. The music score, which I enjoyed very much, is by Huang Yun-Ling.

I’ve Got the Blues (Hong Kong 2018)

Angie Chen and Wong Yan-kwai . . . and the cat

This unusual documentary played at HOME in Manchester with a Q&A featuring the director Angie Chen. It was part of a mini-season of Ms Chen’s work and another contribution to HOME’s year-long programme presenting women  working in global cinema. Angie Chen, born in Shanghai, raised in Hong Kong and Taiwan, trained in the US and returned to work in Hong Kong Cinema in the 1980s as part of the Hong Kong New Wave.

I’ve Got the Blues is a very entertaining and thought-provoking work that ‘presents’ the artist Wong Yan-kwai, popularly known as ‘Yank’, and in doing so explores questions about how we might approach documentary films and film narratives more generally. What it doesn’t do is try to ‘explain’ or analyse Yank’s work as a painter. Partly that’s because he expressly forbids anyone filming him painting and also because he refuses to discuss what his paintings ‘mean’ or what they ‘represent’. He’s the one who says he simply ‘presents’ his work. The other aspect of his story which struck me forcibly is that he is clearly a very accomplished musician, photographer and writer with a deeply felt sense what it means to be an ‘artist’ (though he refuses that title!).

A rare shot of Yank at work

Yank went to Paris to study to be a painter and lived there for some time before returning to Hong Kong. He and Angie Chen have known each other since the 1990s. Angie said that although she knew Yank, she didn’t actually know that much about his life. She set out to make a documentary without knowing exactly what kind of film it might turn out to be. In turn Yank clearly didn’t want to be in a conventional film and he persistently thwarted the filmmaker. As well as refusing to be filmed during his work as a painter, he also challenged the filmmaker saying that she had an agenda and he would not go along with it. Angie Chen’s solution to this was quite neat. She organised a shoot of a meeting she had with Yank during which they both seemed to get angry, shouting at each other about what they would and wouldn’t do. She uses this scene close to the beginning of the film and close to its ending. She also persuaded Yank to film himself at work.

Yank with his guitar, surrounded by his work. Will Angie sing?

Once ‘in’ the film, Angie goes on to appear in it regularly, joining Yank for a trip to a Macau exhibition, joining a musical evening in which she sings the blues of the title with Yank on guitar and meeting his two grown-up daughters (at separate times). Yank is cantankerous but also playful and witty. Most of his interactions with friends are accompanied by what I can only describe as ‘heroic smoking and drinking’. Angie told us that sometimes shoots at his home or a local bar might go on until the early hours.

An impromptu ‘jam’. This might be in Macau?

Reflecting with Rona on the experience of watching the film and enjoying the lively Q&A chaired by Prof. Sarah Perks (who met Angie Chen many years ago on one of her regular trips to HK), we agreed on a couple of points. First, this is a fascinating film about documentary practice. I was surprised that Angie Chen suggested it was an unusual strategy for a documentary filmmaker to appear in her film. Perhaps I misunderstood what she said, but it is now quite a common practice to use what Stella Bruzzi calls the ‘performative’ mode of documentary (in New Documentary, Routledge 2006). Angie Chen is certainly a ‘player’ in her film, often acting as a form of provocateur – causing Yank to react in different ways. Second, although the doc. is well-structured and entertaining, there is a distinct tension between the playfulness of the Angie-Yank relationship and two narrative questions which are not resolved or ‘explained’. The first of these refers to Yank’s relationship with his daughters, seemingly with different mothers, both with French backgrounds. The mothers seem to be completely marginalised in the narrative without any comment whatsoever. The second intriguing question is about Yank’s politics, a topic explored very interestingly in a couple of scenes but then somehow left dangling. I would need another viewing to be clear about what was actually said. There is a Region 3 DVD from Hong Kong and there may be others available (that question came up in the Q&A).

I realise that I haven’t said anything about Wong Yan-kwai’s paintings but then that’s not really what the film is about. I do want to know more about his time in Paris and about his relationships and his politics. I also want to see more of the films by Angie Chen. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get to Manchester to see the other films Angie had brought with her from Hong Kong. I want to thank Angie Chen for bringing her film and entertaining us in the Q&A, Rachel Hayward and Andy Willis for organising the mini-season and Sarah Perks for chairing the Q&A. And I must not forget the cat, who tolerates Yank and often appears on screen with him.

Here’s a trailer for the film. It’s a good trailer that gives a sense of the film and intrigues the viewer:

(This posting has been edited to correct details of the event.)

GFF19 #3: Cities of Last Things (Xing Fu Cheng Shi, Taiwan-China-France-US 2018)

In the present a young Taipei cop (Lee Hong-Chi) hooks up with a French woman (Louise Grinberg)

I knew this was a ‘Chinese’ film but at first I couldn’t place its location. The sexual action early in the film suggested it wasn’t the PRC and I guessed it was either Hong Kong or Taiwan. The location in the openings scenes is in any case not meant to be instantly recognised since this is a genre narrative involving SF and film noir. The narrative is in four parts (three main parts and a short coda) each of which takes a step back in time from the future to the present and then to the past. The story focuses on a single character, Zhang Dong Ling, and explains how and why he does what he does in the future section.

Writer-director Ho Wi Ding is from Malaysia, but trained at the Tisch School in New York and now he works out of Taipei. He draws on several genre traditions from different countries in creating both the narrative world and its ‘feel’ in this film. I’ve seen a review that suggested that there is something of early Wong Kar-Wai in the film and I can also perhaps see something of Johnnie To. The film’s cast is drawn from Taiwan, China and France. It’s also photographed by the French cinematographer Jean Louis Vialard. The credits suggest that there is also a South Korean production element. One reviewer has suggested that in its futuristic mode the film suggests a reversal of the Blade Runner setting — an Asian future with elements of Americana.

I found the film to be well acted and there are some interesting ideas in the SF section, especially in terms of identity and chip technology as well as surveillance and drones. It’s frightening how plausible these developments seem in 2019. The future is seen as a society where everything is experienced through and with technology. The representation of women seems exploitative and female characters crave ‘rejuvenation’ devices. Most reviewers agree that the strongest section is that depicting the past and Ning Ding as a female crime figure is singled out for her performance so perhaps overall the film manages to avoid charges of misogyny.

Cities of Last Things was well received at Toronto in 2018 and it may do well in some markets. I wonder if it will actually play in the PRC? It didn’t totally convince me and at times my attention wandered. Perhaps some sequences are too familiar in genre terms. I’m also not keen on the title. For some reason I just can’t remember it and that can’t be a good thing. However, don’t let that put you off, it’s definitely worth a look if it comes your way.

An Elephant Sitting Still (Da xiang xi di er zuo, China 2018)

This title runs for 230 minutes, a challenging length that we know some punters find too long. So it was reassuring when fifty people turned up at the Hyde Park Picture House last Sunday for what appears to be the only local screening. Several people had to take pit stops during the film but [I think] only two members of the audience gave up before the end.

To start with the title; several characters tell the story of an elephant in Manzhouli, (a northern city right near the border with Mongolia and Russia) which just sits and ignores the onlookers, even when they attempt to feed it, prod it or similar. As the narrative proceeds various characters plan to visit Manzhouli to see this elephant. And the elephant does close the story, though in an unexpected manner.

The actual action takes place in a Chinese city which does not seem to be identified. It could be Shenyang, but that seems a little too far from Manzhouli, being near to the border with North Korea, The main action runs for less than a day, from about 6 a.m. to late in the day. A journey of indeterminate length ends the film. Where ever this is a bleak, exploitative and oppressive environment. There is not one really happy character in the film. All seem weighed down with the bleakness of the environment and their lives. The film opens in high-rise flats where the power is not on in all flats, where toilets leak and the grim concrete stairways lead out to an area of rubbish and decay. There are several strands in this story but what mainly drives the development of the plot is the injury and death of a school student and the ramifications that follow this.

If the characters seem desolate they also seem alienated in the full sense of the word. For much of the film the main characters are more introspective than social. When they do carry out actions involving other people it seems misdirected, illegal or just likely to go wrong. The characters are mainly working class though some fall on the boundary between working class and petit bourgeois. And some are genuine lumpen-proletarians. The writing of the characters and the performances are very good. They appear complex and their actions are sometimes surprising.

The film’s style mirrors the bleakness of the environment. The interiors are drab and low-key. And exteriors are fairly low-key as well; I do not remember any sunshine. The cinematography by Chao Fan was shot (I assume)with a Steadicam. There are full sequences that are presented in a single take. The narrative is elliptical. The editing by Bo Hu, the director, frequently cuts to leave a point unfinished. There are regular cuts between protagonists ins different settings, both partly commentating on the characters but also developing a certain mystery for the viewer in the unfolding of the plot. This is reinforced through the camerawork. Frequently the camera angle deliberately avoids showing an action or character. At one point, when a dog is mauled, this may be reticence but at other times it is clearly designed to make the viewer wait for information.

Bo Hu scripted, directed and edited the film so all of this treatment of narrative is his intent. In addition whilst the film appears to have a linear presentation the time frame seems ambiguous. There are the parallel cuts but others that seem to cross to different times. At one point a character’s mobile phone shows 1100; if that is the time the plot so far seems almost in real time. But the film does not run twelve or more hours. And at least one sequence in a café seems like a flashback as it is preceded by two other character observing the café, and possibly the two characters within.

This is unconventional but workable treatment. But on occasions the ambiguity seems excessive. And there are a couple of sequences late in the film that seem unnecessarily prolonged. Part of a similar strategy? I did think a scriptwriting partner could have made the plot development sharper, But that would have only shortened the film by minutes. It does seem to me that the form and subject of the film do justify the running time of over three hours. And the way that we follow the characters was sufficient reason to forgo an intermission, a point some of us noticed.

The elephant of the title seems clearly intended as symbolic as well as actual. One review sees the elephant as representing an indifference to the world, a world the film presents as cruel and painful. I did wonder whether it had a particular significance in terms of Chinese culture, but no review I found commented on this. It might be meant as a reference to the famous parable of the ‘blind men and the elephant’. There is a Buddhist version of this moral tale. Its relevance to the story here is that not one of the characters appear to understand the nature and causes of their plight. [I was reminded of this parable by a character in Koreeda Hirokazu’s The Third Murder / Sandome no satsujin. 2017). The director, Bo Hu, was a fan of Béla Tarr. Another review described them both as practitioners of ‘miserabilist’ cinema. Not really accurate. But Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies / Werckmeister harmóniák (2000) features a whale that seems to represent the alienation of the village setting; perhaps an influence.

This will be the only directorial credit for Bo Hu as he committed suicide after the film was finished but before its release. Suicide suggests that the despairing alienation felt in the film was a personal expression. How far this has effected the film we have is unclear. It has been reported that the producers tried to shorten the finished film by well over an hour. Fortunately it remains in what appears to be a mostly complete form.

The film was shot on 4K Redcode RAW and Dolby Digital 5.1. The version exhibiting here in Britain does not wholly reflect that. Partly this may be that it is distributed on a 2K DCP, in standard widescreen and colour with English subtitles. Some of the sound seems uneven and some of the interiors lack the contrast you would expect from 4K or from 35mm film. It remains a fascinating and powerful drama. It certainly reflects on the exploitation now experienced in China where capitalism has been restored. Compare the alienated characters with those in one of the dramas from the dawn of the Socialist Revolution in 1949 – Crows and Sparrows / Wuya yu maque, (both films are in Mandarin). The latter film has a real sense of community and people struggling together. Still, An Elephant Sitting Still is a worthwhile film to see and repays the time spent sitting in an auditorium.