Despite the closure of cinemas, and having an inordinate amount of time to watch them, the films-to-see keep piling up. Recently I stumbled across ‘videos on modern Chinese culture, curated by faculty of the Department of Asian Studies of the University of British Columbia’ on YouTube giving me zero excuse not to investigate films that I’d never been able to see and had virtually no knowledge of.
Goddess, a ‘silent’ film despite being produced in the mid-thirties showing China was behind slightly in the transition to sound, proved to be a full-bloodied melodrama of maternal sacrifice. Ruan Lingyu plays the unnamed ‘goddess’; titles at the start tell us she is a prostitute and, because she is a devoted mother to her baby, the titular deity. Wikipedia tells me that ‘goddess’ was also a euphemism for prostitute in Shanghai at the time where there were 100,000 ‘street walkers’. Typically of melodrama, the downtrodden woman is the hero and the film is progressive in some ways: one of the narrative problems is that she has to overcome is social prejudice. According to Zhang Yingin, in Chinese National Cinema (2004), progressive (leftist) films in China at the time usually were a result of the scriptwriters and states that:
. . . it was not unusual that the leftists praised one film by a director and then criticized his next work. Such examples include Wu Yonggang’s Goddess…, an acclaimed leftist classic, and his Little Angel [was] judged to be reactionary . . . (68)
This is puzzling as, according to imdb.com, Wu both directed and scripted Goddess. In an interesting essay ‘The Goddess: Fallen Woman of Shanghai’, Kristin Harris shows how the film was balanced between a progressive representation but at the same time fulfilled the reactionary needs of the KMT Nationalist Party which was increasing its censorship of the arts at the time. Hence, the goddess had to be punished for her transgression, as a prostitute, even as the narrative shows her to be innocent. Of course Hollywood maternal melodrama rarely offered happy endings for their victim-heroes either.
The fact that the film strongly references Hollywood productions, Stella Dallas (1925) in particular springs to mind, is not surprising as this ‘first golden age’ of Chinese filmmaking was heavily influenced by American productions. That said, there are some very striking moments in Wu’s film, particularly at the inevitable ‘murder of the pimp’ scene where the violence is directed at the camera with Lingyu’s fierce expression clearly showing she is at breaking point.
Lingyu was a big star and killed herself only a few months after the film was completed; she was 25. Apparently the pressures of fame and gossip columns, along with an abused childhood, broke her. She’s the subject of Centre Stage (Ruan Ling Yu, Hong Kong, 1991), directed by Stanley Kwan with Maggie Cheung in the title role; a film that’s been waiting patiently on my shelf for some time so that’s another one that will need adding to the pile.
It’s striking that a two and a half plus hour melodrama doesn’t quite give enough attention to some of the characters. That’s not to say that the script by Chung Mong-hong and Chang Yao-sheng, is baggy, more that it is so rich in its characterisation; Chung also directed as well as photographing the film under the pseudonym Nakashima Nagao. It’s a family melodrama featuring, what Han Cheung, of the Taipei Times, tells us is a typical emotional landscape of a Tawainese family:
This kind of family dynamic is fairly common in Taiwanese society. Although every family member deeply cares for each other, they shut each other out and even say hurtful things, often preferring to secretly ‘help’ in ways that cause even more discord. A-wen’s character exemplifies this archetype — frail, crooked and wrinkled but unwilling to bend even a little bit.
A-wen is the putative family patriarch (Chen Yi-wen) who works as a driving instructor but is clearly himself forever learning about the responsibility and roles of a father and husband. The films starts when one of his sons, A-Ho (Wu Chien-Ho) takes part in an eye-popping assault that makes it appear we are watching a gang movie and not a family melodrama. He’s indicted and receives no support from dad in the courtroom. We spend some time in juvenile detention with A-Ho during which his mum, Miss Qin (Samantha Ho), learns he’s got his girlfriend pregnant. Miss Qin is the bedrock of the family and it’s questionable, from a western perspective, why she doesn’t chuck her husband out.
They have another son, A-Hao (Han Hsu Greg), who’s a dreamy youngster trying to get into medical college. His character is somewhat under drawn and a shocking narrative turn suffers from this. Similarly, A-wen’s girlfriend is given little space to develop as a character and disappears before the end.
There are other complications (are you keeping up?) as when A-Ho is freed his old partner in crime, the superbly named Radish in a chiling performance by Liu Kuan-Ting, returns to mess up his rehabilitation.
As you can see there’s plenty of melodramatic meat and this is served up with some stunning cinematography where green and red predominates giving a sickly and violent hue to a often hyperreal mise en scène, particularly in the night scenes. It’s not surprising that the film was a big winner at the Taiwanese Golden Horse awards (for Chinese language films), including best film, director and for Chen Yi-wen and Liu Kuan-Ting.
Although the film is slated as Chinese, it is in essence Tibetan (although writer-director Tseden Pema is Chinese): it’s set in rural Tibet and, I believe, most of the dialogue is Tibetan. Key is the Buddhist religion which, alongside China’s ‘one child’ policy, introduced in 1985, are the restraints on the ordinary people’s lives we observe. From a western perspective (I’ve never been to Tibet) the ‘slice of life’ aspect gives the film an ethnographic feel (which is one of the delights of ‘world’ cinema). Only three actors are listed on imdb so it’s likely most of the cast are non professionals which, along with the location shooting, adds to the authenticity of what we’re seeing. However, the film is also a melodrama, a heightened version of reality, and, as the title suggests, the balloons are representative.
The film starts with the Dargye (Jinpa – above right) arriving to provide supplies to his dad who’s tending sheep and the lively youngsters. We see the scene through what appears to be a misty lens which transpires to be a subjective shot from one of the boys through the balloon they found under their parents’ pillow. The ‘balloons’ are condoms and so links directly to the information we are give right at the start which informs us of the ‘one child’ policy introduced in 1985. Any family having more than one is fined and as this particular family are scrimping to send an elder son to college, this would have serious consequences. The family’s eldest child has become a nun after an unspecified trauma in a relationship with a man who now teaches at the boy’s college: a perfect example of melodramatic narrative coincidence. The teacher’s written an acclaimed novel, called Balloon, about that relationship which he gives to her when she picks up her brother for the summer holidays.
In the narrative, women are more important than men even though the society is patriarchal. The mother, Drolka (Sonam Wongmo), seeks sterilisation from an enlightened doctor (female) and when she becomes pregnant the drama reaches a crisis. There’s some humour, particularly over the young boys’ bargaining with their mates with the ‘balloons’.
The narrative deals the clashes with tradition (particularly religion) in the context of China’s oppressive policy of the time. The time is something of a confusion: at one point the dad has what looks like a small mobile phone (placing the film late in the 20th century at the earliest) and a news broadcast about the world’s first test tube baby is seen; that was in 1978. I was confused. However Lu Songye’s stunning cinematography creates a ‘bleached’ mise en scene that is accentuated with spots of colour (a red sweater, for instance). As to what the balloons represent? I think it is the future (the condoms prevent children in the future) and the teacher is trying to mend his relationship with the sister. Pema finishes with another humorous scenes featuring the boys but there’s a devastating ending too… I need to seek out the directors’ other six features.
So Long, My Son was one of the ‘must see’ films of 2019 and I’m so glad I was able to catch it before it disappeared from cinemas. The last section of the film broke me completely as the long and complex melodrama narrative moved into its final resolution. This is a narrative of 185 minutes that at times moves at a stately pace but it gripped me throughout. At a time when the ‘long-form narrative’ is lauded on TV and streaming it’s important to state that this kind of experience is only possible on a big screen. I was lucky to see it at the Duke’s Cinema in Lancaster.
The current cinema ecology in China is such that though domestic titles have thrashed Hollywood blockbusters at the box office, the numbers of high profile Chinese specialised films – those likely to succeed on the international arthouse circuit – appear to have been squeezed. So Long, My Son is an exception, winning acting prizes for its leads at Berlin and recognised at many other festivals. Director and co-writer Wang Xiaoshuai is one of the so-called Sixth Generation directors, born in 1966 and graduating from Beijing Film Academy in 1989. He grew up in South West China during the Cultural Revolution and his best known and most successful films have been inspired by his own experience and those of similar families in which the parents’ lives were disrupted in the 1960s and 1970s. After his breakthrough feature Beijing Bicycle (China-Taiwan-France 2001), he made a loose trilogy of films exploring the consequences of sending Eastern families to the South West: Shanghai Dreams (2004), 11 Flowers (China-France 2011) and Red Amnesia (China 2014). I feel lucky to have seen all four titles in the UK, although only the first two got a general release. It’s important to stress Wang’s background in placing So Long, My Son into context. This new title is said to be the first of a new trilogy of ‘Homeland’ films in which Wang explores what happened to families in the period following the end of the Cultural Revolution from 1978 through the ‘Four Modernisations’ under Deng Xiaoping and onwards through the huge changes in Chinese social history up to the current period of ‘consumer-led communism’ (or however you may wish to describe it). With the focus on families it isn’t surprising that the one child per family policy is central to the narrative.
(This description does contain a spoiler. It’s really impossible to offer a synopsis without it.)
This is the story of two closely connected families who live ‘cheek by jowl’ in a factory housing block on the outskirts of Beijing in the 1980s. Yaojun is a skilled fitter and his wife Liyun is a factory inspector of various processes. Their neighbours are Yingming who works in accounts and his wife Haiyan, the factory’s leader on family planning and the implementation of the one-child policy. Yingming’s younger sister Moli at one point becomes Yaojun’s apprentice fitter but later moves into much better paid jobs. There is also another couple, Xinjian and Meiyu – but I couldn’t work out if they were related in any way to the two central families. The intertwined relationships and what happens to them over nearly 40 years pivot around an incident in the 1980s. Xingxing and Hao, the schoolboy sons of the two central families are playing by the local reservoir on their way home from school. Xingxing, the son of Yaojun and Liyun is drowned. The parents are devastated and eventually they move south to the coast of Fujian Province where they are isolated as Mandarin speakers with their neighbours using other Chinese dialects. (Others from the factory move to Hainan, further south). They try to adopt a child. They have limited contact with their old workmates but in the final section of the narrative they return to Beijing and various issues are resolved, some in perhaps surprising ways (but conventionally for a family melodrama?).
What might be a relatively straightforward linear narrative is presented through a series of flashbacks. Movement backwards and forwards through the history of the families is not signalled by captions giving places and times. The only time when the year, ‘1986’, is mentioned is when a factory announcement is made. The film begins with the boys at the reservoir arguing about whether they should play in the water – but this isn’t the beginning of the story and the consequences of their decision are not shown until later. The storytelling is challenging. Apart from the ageing of the adult actors, the timeline of events is difficult to follow and I wonder how younger audiences with little knowledge of Chinese society and politics in the 1980s will piece the events together. You do need to understand the ‘one-child policy’ which was instituted in 1979 and not officially ended until 2015. The policy was rigorously enforced via contraception and abortion and fines or rewards for sticking to the policy. It is said that up to 400 million births were prevented but the social cost was very high. The other major policy shift was towards a consumer-led economy and the forced redundancy and movement of displaced workers and their families.
The script was co-written by Wang and Ah Mei (best known for working on Zhang Yimou’s Under The Hawthorn Tree, 2010) and it won the script prize at the Chinese Golden Rooster Awards. The cinematography by Kim Hyunseok from South Korea is terrific, beautifully-composed shots with great depth are hand-held and the effect is mesmerising especially in the opening shot of the reservoir with the boys in the foreground. I must also mention the use of songs, both recorded and sung by the factory workers. Decadent Western pop music (Boney M!) plus his hairstyle and flares are enough to see Xinjian arrested for immoral behaviour. A Chinese song using the tune of Auld Lang Syne is repeated at various points in community celebrations. The Chinese title of the film seems to refer to the song’s lyrics – ‘Dijiutianchang’ translates roughly as ‘enduring, eternal (of friendship or hate)’ which is actually a better title for the film. Equally important, the song reminds Yaojun and Liyun of the time when they were first together in the late 1970s as the Cultural Revolution was ending.
Perhaps because the narrative events needed time to be sorted out and meanings digested, I was never bothered by the slow pace, in fact I was riveted to the screen. My only distraction was provided by my tears in the final section. We tend to think about China in terms of state initiatives and mass movements but the best Chinese films tell their stories through the lives of ordinary people. The film is still around in some cinemas. In West Yorkshire it is showing at the Hebden Bridge Picture House on January 12. Don’t miss it if you have the chance to go.
The Wild Goose Chase was in competition at Cannes in 2019. I think that the Cannes competition place was won because this is a French co-production of the fourth film of writer-director Diao Yinan, a filmmaker who began as a writer for the Sixth Generation director Zhang Yang in the 1990s soon after his graduation from drama school in Beijing.
His previous film, the thriller Black Coal, Thin Ice (China 2014) won the Golden Bear at Berlin and was released in the UK. I’m sorry I missed it. This new film is described in the French press notes as a polar and US critics have described it as a film noir, but I’m grateful for the press notes in which director’s own statement suggests a hybrid of polar and wu xia (martial chivalry film). He refers to that rather wonderfully envisaged concept of the jianghu or ‘marginal world’ where things and people are not quite what they seem. I think I remember this concept as worked out in A Chinese Ghost Story (Hong Kong 1987) and The Bride With White Hair (Hong Kong 1993) both featuring the much-missed Leslie Cheung. The polar provides the battle between police and criminals and the jianghu describes the ‘marginal world’ in which the action takes place. As Diao himself puts it, the police are not in uniform, they are disguised in this night-time world where all kinds of things can happen, especially on the misty lake and in the chaotic backstreets of the town.
The film begins with a meeting at an underpass beneath a railway station on a dark and wet night. The central character Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge) is waiting for his wife, but a mysterious woman Liu Aiai (Kwei Lun-Mei) in a slinky red top appears and tells Zhou that she has been sent instead. Several flashbacks will then reveal why this meeting is taking place before the narrative moves into the inevitable noir/polar ending. I must confess that I found some of the jumps in time between sequences slightly bewildering so I’m having difficulty trying to discern a linear story. I don’t think that would worry the director. He suggests that he is more interested in ‘movement’ through the dark world than a psychological study of the ‘doomed man’ and the femme fatale. The opening is in fact quite slow but things soon speed up, moving into a series of sometimes surreal and always fascinating set pieces and chase sequences. Diao suggests that each of them has a basis in reality – a news story or something he himself had noticed. One sequence presents a ‘conference’ of local criminal gangs, meeting for a demonstration of how to steal motorbikes and a subsequent re-organisation of territories for each gang. But the aspect of the film that really caught my attention were the scenes on the ‘Wild Goose Lake’ itself where prostitutes posing as swimming beauties ply their trade. I can think of a few American films noirs where a couple are in a small boat on the water in the fog, but the most striking image I remember is the boat trip in Mizoguchi Kenji’s Ugetsu Monogatari (1953).
At points the film becomes a police procedural but the central plotline focuses on the large reward offered for Zhou’s capture. Zhou himself decides that if anyone is to get the money it will be his wife and child. But how can he ensure that this happens and who can he trust?
The key to the unusual locations is the regional setting of the film in Wuhan, a major city region and large urban sprawl in Hubei province. Diao searched for locations around the many lakes in a 200 km radius from the centre of Wuhan on the Yangtse River. He then decided to use local Wuhan dialect rather than standard Mandarin. Kwei is Taiwanese and she had to learn the dialect, as did Hu Ge. Most of the large cast are local actors or non-professionals. The production must have been relatively expensive because of the many nights (50) of shooting complicated action scenes. It seems strange that Diao would create a film for which most Chinese audiences would need subtitles. The international audience will have subtitles anyway and won’t appreciate the local dialect. So is this a rare hybrid genre-art film. Obviously this works for the South Korean auteurs such as Bong Joon-ho or Park Chan-wook, but their films are blockbusters at home as well as arthouse/specialised hits abroad. From the Unifrance website (all French films listed) it looks like the film could be distributed in the UK by MUBI so I’ll be watching out for it on my stream and hoping it gets into at least a few cinemas.
I’ve enjoyed researching the film and I think now that I’m beginning to understand a bit more. There are some extremely violent incidents (which are also quite unusual) to go alongside the surreal sequences. Overall the film is exciting and fascinating for anyone interested in Chinese cinema and that distinctive blend of Chinese and French crime genre ideas. I’m intrigued to see that this has now become an aspect of mainland cinema. I’d be interested to know what HK filmmakers like Johnnie To make of this film. Which brings me to Hu Ge. He is quite distinctive as a tall Chinese whose looks certainly equip him for the role. One review I saw suggested that he had a presence like Robert Mitchum in RKO noirs. I’m not sure that is quite right, but he does reming me of other actors in crime noirs. This is definitely a film to look out for.
I don’t know what the symbolism of the man who we see carrying a big mirror on his back throughout the film is, but there’s no doubting the message of this incredible film. Co-writer-director-cinematography Zhao Liang has produced a modern version of Dante’s Inferno but the hell we visit is on earth. On the Mongolian steppes a gigantic open-caste mine blights the landscape and the lives of all those who work in it and live by it. As the narrator, presumably Zhao, tells us, the reference to Dante is explicit.
In the early 19th century the Romantics ‘discovered’ the natural landscape and found it ‘awesome’, in the sense that it filled them with fear. It wasn’t until urban areas became sufficiently large that the town-country opposition was created and so the countryside could be seen as a distinct entity. Behemoth, too, presents awesome landscapes but they are scary because the capitalist pursuit of profit creates absolute devastation. Pastoral images of Mongolian shepherds have the industrial mine as their backdrop, the behemoth of the title. Zhao’s images are themselves awesome in the modern sense of the word. The framing and positioning is quite extraordinary, especially when we realise that he was a ‘guerilla filmmaker’ when operating within the mine; there’s no way he would have gotten permission to film. Such is the ‘beauty’ of his cinematography that it’s comparable to the photographs of Sebastião Salgado‘s and Edward Burtynsky; the open cast mine also reminded me of Godfrey Reggio’s Powaqqatsi (US 1988).
In keeping with the astonishing compositions, the narration is poetic; it tends to deal with what we’re seeing in an oblique way, as if it is impossible to comprehend the disaster in front of us. However, he is not simply dealing in abstracts as the film progresses to focus on the people who work in the hell. One scene starts with an entirely red screen and it seems that Zhao is using an expressionist device to portray the violence done to the landscape but then shadowy shapes appear and we realise the colour is from a blast furnace with workers in close proximity. Later we see some of the unfortunates who simply stare into the camera, their faces scarred by their work. They are silent witnesses to the human cost of the rampant exploitation of the environment. They are scarred inside too as many are suffering from pneumonociosis; we see protestors demanding restitution and men lying on their death beds.
The narrative is brilliantly structured, by Sylvie Blum and Zhao, as we end in what could be one of Burtynsky’s landscapes. A deserted city is seen with tumbleweed blowing across the road. Is everyone at work? Then a litter picker runs to capture the detritus of nature and then we are told it is a ‘ghost city’, one of many that were built in China but there was no one to live in them. You couldn’t make it up: the stupidity of capitalism, in the guise of property speculation here, that is destroying the planet and its people.
I tentatively look forward to seeing Zhao’s other documentaries.