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.
Following Crystal Swan, my second LFF choice turned out to be almost the opposite kind of film. A Family Tour is a much more serious and thoughtful film but is perhaps too low-key to catch the attention it deserves as a commentary on the lot of independent filmmakers in China. The narrative is based on events in the life of the film’s director Ying Liang. It concerns an independent filmmaker from North East China whose film has been banned in the PRC because it discusses a local criminal trial viewed as having political implications. Director Yang Shu (Gong Zhe) has been forced to leave China and join her husband Cheung Ka-Ming (Pete Teo) and small son in Hong Kong where father and son have the protection of birth in the SAR (‘Special Administrative Region’) whereas Shu herself must keep seeking the right to remain. She can’t go back to the mainland in case she is detained. However, Shu’s mother Chen Xiaolin (Nai An) is now ill with heart disease and Shu feels she must see her again.
The opportunity to meet comes when Yang Shu is invited to present her film at the Formosa Film Festival in Taiwan. Her elderly mother can join a tour party in Taipei (one of the few ways in which trips to Taiwan from China are allowed) and Yang Shu and her family can book into the same hotel. They can’t however meet Mrs Chen directly. Instead they must pretend she is simply a family friend and meet her ‘accidentally’ as the tour bus visits various tourist destinations. The tour party is led by a small but ferocious woman briefed by the PRC authorities and she is keen to enforce the rules (and to receive ‘sweeteners’ from Cheung Ka-Ming). As this strange family reunion trundles around Taiwan, several different discourses about home, family, loyalty, exile and identity emerge. There is an emotional desire to see her grandson in the flesh from Mrs Chen (she has kept in touch via Skype) but for Yang Shu there is pain and anger as she learns more about what happened to her father and also a different kind of loss when Mrs Chen tells her about the changes in her home town. Cheung Ka-Ming wants to support his wife and mother-in-law, but in some ways his capacity to move between the mainland and Hong Kong makes his wife feel more isolated.
Meanwhile, the film festival occasionally intrudes and more importantly, Yang Shu’s next film, a Hong Kong production which features the Umbrella Protests in 2014, runs into problems which might be caused by the mainland authorities. I found the Variety Review of the film by Jay Weissberg to be informative and insightful. I can see that there are many interesting aspects of the narrative and that it conveys the anguish of exile and separation and the impact of learning about the past in subtle and affecting ways. It is a well-made and attractive film to watch but somehow it just felt too restrained. The problem is no doubt with me. Yang Shu is reserved and her anger is often internal, Cheung Ka-Ming is more outgoing, kind and considerate – but then he is not under pressure in the same way. I haven’t seen the previous films from Ying Liang. Reviewers suggest he has introduced some more intimate shots into his usual long shot style. The consensus seems to be that this film is a welcome development in the handling of what is quite an austere aesthetic approach and that it should have a successful run on the festival circuit.
In 2017 I visited the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester to watch Vertigo Sea, an ‘installation’ film by John Akomfrah. A few weeks ago I managed to catch Isaac Julien’s Ten Thousand Waves in the same gallery. I first came across both artists when they were young independent filmmakers in the workshops Black Audio Film Collective and Sankofa respectively. Isaac and John both became directors recognised in international independent/festival/auteur cinema before moving into more art-orientated forms and attracting wide attention for their installation works. Both have focused on issues associated with their own ideas about identity. John Akomfrah has long been fascinated by migration and it’s interesting that Isaac Julien should join him in making a piece about a specific tragic moment of contemporary migration.
The deaths of twenty-three Chinese migrants in Morecambe Bay in 2004 was a horrific event which resulted in the conviction of three Chinese for trafficking with one also as a gangmaster responsible for manslaughter. Isaac Julien was shocked by the events and he teamed up with the Chinese poet Wang Ping to make a trip to Morecambe Bay and then to explore a multimedia arts project about Chinese migration and the sea. This was the beginning of the project in 2006 and it was completed for the Sydney Biennial in 2010. Since then the work has been on show in several galleries, sometimes as a complex nine-screen multi-media show and sometimes, as here in Manchester, as a three-screen video installation accompanied by two large photographic exhibits. Since I’ve already written about the viewing conditions at the Whitworth, I won’t repeat my complaints, but it’s a shame that an otherwise excellent venue can’t do more to make viewers more comfortable. Like Vertigo Sea, Ten Thousand Waves takes around 49 minutes for a complete run through its narrative and most people stayed for only part of the full experience when I watched the film. Unlike Vertigo Sea in which the three screens seemed sometimes to offer different material and sometimes to produce meanings by the juxtapositions of sounds and images on adjacent screens, Ten Thousand Waves seemed to be playing the same sequence of images, slightly out of synch with each other, on all three screens. But since it is impossible to focus on three large screens simultaneously, I can’t be sure. I entered the installation partway through and stayed until I was sure I’d seen the whole thing.
There are three distinct sections of the narrative, although two of these also use two or more different kinds of material within them. What I assume is ‘found footage’ from the screens of the Liverpool Coastguard shows helicopter footage of the discovery of one of the survivors of the tragedy in Morecambe Bay and is accompanied by some of the phone and radio dialogue associated with the emergency. A further sound layer has Wang Ping’s poem about the events read by the British-Chinese actor Benedict Wong. This is all very affecting, although the poem strikes an odd note with references to the ‘North Wales Sea’ since no such body of water exists (it’s the Irish Sea and specifically Morecambe Bay). It’s an understandable mistake for a Chinese poet, but a bit sad that a British filmmaker doesn’t know his geography. Perhaps it is deliberately a ‘fantasy name’? Either way it’s odd for someone like me who knows that coastline well. The second section is filmed in Shanghai and offers sequences of the actor Zhao Tao (known for her work with her partner the auteur director Jia Zhang-ke) dressed in 1930s period costume on the streets of the Bund as it would have been in the film melodrama The Goddess (China 1934). This is presented as a reconstruction so we see the camera following the actor as she goes into buildings and a tram clanks down the street. It occurred to me later (when I learned of the intended The Goddess connection) that Julien here is mirroring the work of Stanley Kwan on the film Actress/Centre Stage (Hong Kong 1991). In that film, Maggie Cheung plays the 1930s actor Ruan Ling-yu (the star of The Goddess) in a biopic which also works as a kind of documentary-drama about Maggie Cheung herself and her performance alongside interviews with survivors of the 1930s Shanghai film industry and archive sequences from the original films. I’m assuming that these streets in Shanghai are preserved/reconstructed as both tourist attractions and film locations. After Ten Thousand Waves, I watched Lou Ye’s 2006 film Purple Butterfly, possibly filmed on the same streets for a 1930-set Shanghai film. Isaac Julien also offers us short scenes of modern Shanghai (urban motorways) and other brief images which might be of young people in some form of protest march (I didn’t take notes, so this was just a fleeting image).
The third major section of Ten Thousand Waves is also in two parts and also features Maggie Cheung. Ms Cheung is now largely retired from feature films but here she appears in flowing white robes as if dressed for her part as ‘Flying Snow’ in Zhang Yimou’s Hero (China-HK 2002) (but also wearing an incongruous pair of white sports shoes). Once again, Julien shows the construction of this footage so we see Maggie on wires being pulled along against a green screen with a wind machine blowing. These movements are then laid over footage of a river gorge in South China in which also we see a group of men travelling down the river in period costume. It is from this footage that the two large still photographs exhibited alongside the film are taken, one of Maggie Cheung in flight (‘Maiden of Silence’) and one of the men (‘Yishuan Island, Dreaming’). Also in the studio, we see master calligrapher Gong Fagen who uses a large brush to write on glass, which is then rubbed off. The notes accompanying the exhibition also mention ‘video artist Yang Fudong’ and the music score which “incorporates music and original score by Jah Wobble and the Chinese Dub Orchestra as well as by the classical composer Maria de Alvear”.
What does all this mean? The notes tell us that:
. . . the film interweaves moments of Chinese history, custom and legend to explore contemporary experiences of desire, loss and separation. Central to the film is the ancient Chinese myth of Mazu the Sea Goddess, the protector of seafarers, alongside scenes of the Ghangxi province in Southern China, where the cockle-pickers’ spirits journeyed back to the ‘middle kingdom’.
I find it difficult to articulate what I felt watching the film and thinking about it later. A few weeks earlier I had sat on the banks of the River Kent estuary in Morecambe Bay watching the ‘Arnside Bore’, the racing tide which is signalled by warning sirens. It’s horrific to think of cockle-pickers caught by such tides at night and totally unprepared. Whether that feeling of helplessness and horror that comes from the archive footage can be linked to the Shanghai footage so that, to quote the notes again, “[the film] penetrates the realities of labour, landscape and migration that continues to define our times” is an open question.
Since I know something about the two cinematic references the installation uses, I suppose I can make some kind of connection. I was also to some extent primed for the experience by the Manchester-based Chinese film scholar Felicia Chan who sent me her paper ‘Cosmopolitan Pleasures and Affects; Or Why Are We Still Talking about Yellowface in Twenty-First-Century Cinema?’, Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media, Issue 14, Winter 2017, pp. 41–60. Dr Chan is concerned that the orientalist images of ‘exotic China’, first created or ‘captured’ in the West and then repeated within contemporary Chinese culture, have come to dominate global representations of ‘Chineseness’. She uses Ten Thousand Waves as one of several examples, picking out a comment by the Guardian‘s correspondent in a report about the acquisition of rights to present the installation at the Whitworth:
. . . these images are continually reprised for Western ‘cosmopolitan’ consumption, even when spoken of as a ‘homecoming’ to the north of England (Brown 2016). The ‘local’ on this occasion, whether of Morecambe, the north of England, or the plight of the Chinese migrants cannot really compete with the scopophilic power of the Chinese exotic once again.
(ref: Brown, Mark, ‘Film on Morecambe Cockle Picker Disaster Bought for UK Art Collections’, the Guardian, 22 March 2016, www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/mar/22/film-isaac-julien-morecambe-cockle-picker-disaster-uk-public-art.) (Felicia Chan is the author of Cosmopolitan Cinema: Cross-Cultural Encounters in East Asian Film. I.B. Tauris, 2017)
I’m with Felicia Chan on wondering why Isaac Julien chose such well-known images and references from Chinese recent visual culture in constructing his story. I’m also saddened to realise (admittedly only some time after experiencing Ten Thousand Waves) that Julien might have discovered other historical migration links for the waters of Morecambe Bay. A few miles south of Hest Bank (the closest coastal settlement to the site of the tragedy) is Sunderland Point, on the headland of the River Lune estuary. In the 18th century this tiny village became part of slave trade practice. Lancaster was then the third largest English slave port and ships that were too large to reach its rapidly silting docks dropped cargo at Sunderland. As well as slavery, the ports of the Irish Sea were also embarkation ports for migrants from the UK to North America in the 18th and 19th centuries. (The main English port for migration from the region would have been Liverpool). Finally, just south of Lancaster is another possible Chinese connection via the silk mill at Galgate which operated from 1792 until 1971. Each of these connections might have enabled a different kind of analysis of the local-global perspectives on the Morecambe Bay cockle-pickers tragedy.
Viewing the 3 screen installation seems like a somewhat diminished version of Isaac Julien’s vision and in the clip below he talks about the 9 screen original and its sense of immersion. In other similar clips on YouTube he talks about the visual qualities of his work (shot on 35mm) and the importance of the best available projection. From the glimpses of the 9 screen version I can see that the moving camera becomes more noticeable – and there also seems to be material that either isn’t in the 3 screen version, or which is less pronounced in the overall presentation. As an artwork, Ten Thousand Waves is certainly impressive but the questions it raises need discussion.
Eat Drink Man Woman is the third film in the loose trilogy of features that form the first stage in Ang Lee’s directorial career. Although made in Taiwan and presented in Mandarin, it feels like a ‘transnational film’, a traditional Chinese (family) melodrama filtered through an American sense of international cinema. It’s co-scripted by Lee’s long-time contributor James Schamus and Taiwanese writer Wang Hui-Ling (who would go to script Lee’s other Chinese films). I can’t quite put my finger on why this Taiwanese film might have faint American feel – other than Lee and Schamus sharing time together in the US. Immediately after this production Lee directed his first English language film and tackled an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility – not perhaps an enormous leap from a Taiwanese family drama.
There is a useful overview of Ang Lee’s early career by David Minnihan on Senses of Cinema in its ‘Great Directors’ section. He discusses Lee’s move to the US for his education and his subsequent early production career. Minnihan takes an auteurist approach in which he sees Lee’s early work, especially the ‘Father Knows Best’ trilogy of Pushing Hands (1991), The Wedding Banquet (1993) and Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) as an expression of Lee’s difficult relationship with his own father. The same actor, Lung Sihung, plays the father in each of these otherwise unrelated family comedy-dramas (as IMDb lists them). Each of the three is a Taiwan-US production. I haven’t seen the first two films but they both appear to deal with Taiwanese migrants in the US. Coming at Eat Drink Man Woman from a slightly different angle my first question concerns Lee’s Taiwanese background and why he doesn’t seem to be more closely concerned with the work of the Taiwanese directors who comprised the ‘New Taiwanese Cinema’ (NTC) of the 1980s. Lee was born in 1954 making him around seven years younger than the two most prominent directors of NTC, Hou Hsaio-Hsen and Edward Yang. Lee would have been in America finishing his Film MA when Hou and Yang began making their first NTC films. He wouldn’t make his own Taiwan-set film until Eat Drink Man Woman and he was surprised at the changes in Taipei when he returned. In some ways, Eat Drink Man Woman is similar to Yang’s masterpeice Yi Yi (Taiwan-Japan 2000) but Lee had not spent twenty years exploring the social history of Taiwan since 1945 like Hou and Yang.
The family at the centre of the film comprises the father on the brink of retirement and his three grown-up daughters. Father is the joint top chef of a prestigious restaurant. He has a well-equipped kitchen at home with everything he needs to create a feast and every Sunday he cooks an enormously elaborate meal which has become the setting for the weekly family meeting. Important announcements will be made at this meal but much of the time the four family members don’t really communicate. Lee spends a great deal of time (and expense) showing the father making such a lunch and I was pained to see how little of it was actually eaten. A similar amount of care goes into a long tracking shot which follows the chef through the restaurant and into the kitchens when he is summoned in an emergency. It’s tempting to see this as Lee trying out the kind of long-take style demonstrated via a similar shot in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (US 1990). Something similar, though in a very different location, occurs in the large high school where the eldest daughter teaches. The camera follows the teacher down the open walkways around the large playground where volleyball is being played. This combines a long shot and long take approach. Lee also employs a long shot of a Taipei crossroads with heavy traffic much like a ‘pillow shot’ in an Ozu film.
The eldest daughter is introduced as a kind of ‘old maid’ character who was jilted by a lover at university and has now converted to Christianity and adopted a subdued approach to life. The middle daughter is in some ways the key character. In Minnihan’s terms she is the character who embodies Lee’s own feelings. As a teenager she had shown the most interest in cooking and wanted to be a chef or a restaurateur only to be discouraged by her father and urged to continue her education. Now she is the high-flyer, working for an airline in a senior position and wondering whether to stay in Taiwan or work abroad. The youngest daughter (whose story seems to get the least attention) works in a fast-food outlet and is seeking her independence. Her father seems less concerned about her ‘challenge’ to his love of fine cooking.
Each of the family members has a story and the narrative moves between the four stories, bringing them together at the Sunday meal. As I’ve indicated, the main story for me is that of daughter No 2 played by Wu Chien-Lien. There are also other significant characters like the other top chef ‘Old Wen’ whose actions provide a contrast (or a warning?) for the father. I did find the introduction of another set of characters quite confusing. I think these are ‘returnees’ from a previous migration and a failed marriage who are invited to stay in the family house. Lian Jin-Rong and her mother knew the chef’s family when Jin-Rong (Sylvia Chang) was a girl who played with the three daughters. Now she has a child of her own and needs to re-start her life. Her predicament and that of her mother has a bearing on what will happen to the father/chef in perhaps surprising ways.
My overall view is that Eat Drink Man Woman is a carefully scripted, very well-acted film narrative skilfully constructed by Ang Lee and his crew. I watched it on my TV via MUBI in two or three parts which isn’t ideal and therefore I’m not sure if I’m being fair in suggesting that the film doesn’t in the end ‘lift off’ to become something really distinctive and that’s perhaps what suggests a kind of ‘internationalism’ about it – as if it doesn’t quite have the confidence to be a ‘contemporary Taiwanese’ story. It explores migration, education and other familiar issues but it doesn’t ‘feel’ like other Taiwanese films I’ve watched. I’ve tended to think that Ang Lee’s best films have been based on acclaimed novels/short stories, e.g. The Life of Pi or Brokeback Mountain. On the other hand it could be that there are too many central characters and not enough time to explore them all in detail? In a family melodrama like this the central conflict needs a strong focus and here the youngest daughter seems like a peripheral character. Even so, I feel like I’ve learned more about Ang Lee’s work and I’m primed to watch some other Taiwanese melodramas in my unwatched piles of DVDs.
This film was screened in Bradford as part of the UK’s ‘China Film Week’. Bradford was the first UNESCO ‘City of Film’ and is now linked to the similar UNESCO City of Film in Qingdao. The screening was introduced by David Wilson, Director Bradford City of Film and then by the film’s writer Li Chunli. I wasn’t sure what to expect but after watching it, I think When a Peking Family Meets an Au Pair was in some ways the right choice, but in other ways an unfortunate choice.
Ms Li told us that this was a ‘family film’. It was advertised as a comedy and it came across as a family melodrama with a strong comedy element. I’m not sure why a film from 2014 should be chosen, but the film’s theme is certainly contemporary and, perhaps surprisingly, it is shared with Jia Zhang-ke’s Mountains May Depart (China-Japan-France 2015) and has a long history going back to Clara Law’s Farewell China (HK 1990) and earlier. I’m referring to the aspiration of many middle-class Chinese families to emigrate to the ‘West’ for various reasons – and in particular to think about taking their children (or more likely ‘child’) with them to receive a ‘good’ education. This desire has been caught by Qin (Xu Fan), who after fifteen years of marriage to Su (Chen Jianbin), decides that she must prepare to get a job abroad and that her small daughter Pipi (Chen Yinuo) would benefit from the presence of an au pair who speaks English – help with Pipi is also needed because both parents work long hours. Interviewing candidates from around the world she selects Natalie (Gianina Arana), a bubbly young woman from Colombia who speaks good English and passable Mandarin. The problems begin soon after Natalie arrives.
Pipi is being brought up like a little ‘princess’ who is only allowed out in taxis, never public transport. She has organic fruit and her soup is filtered to remove fish bones – and so on. Natalie is a free spirit who likes to play with children and to ‘set them free’. Qin is a make-up artist for film and TV. Her husband (who often sides with Natalie) earns less than his wife as a producer of traditional Peking Opera. Together their salaries can barely pay for the extravagant style of Pipi’s upbringing. It gets worse when Qin signs on with an agency that promises to find her a job abroad (for a substantial fee). At one point Qi meets an old friend who is briefly home after migrating and who tells Qin of the stress she suffers.
The comedy comes from the clash between Qin and Natalie and their ideas about how to raise children – and the mayhem that Pipi is capable of creating as a result. Dad remains in the background but the marriage is clearly suffering and this provides the drama alongside some of the dangerous consequences of the au pair situation. As Natalie points out, if Pipi is always wrapped in cotton wool, she won’t be able to survive in the real world outside. Shu does however chide Natalie at times, pointing out that there are reasons why Chinese families do things that she doesn’t understand. Natalie is a ‘typed’ foreign character and mainstream Chinese films suffer from this kind of typing in the same way as Hollywood and European films. It’s useful, I think, that UK audiences are able to reflect on this. As well as the migration issue, the film picks up on other topical issues like the traffic jams in Beijing, but overall this is the tourist view of affluent China which says little about the rest of the country. It also demonstrates how Chinese comedy films exaggerate awkward situations to develop broad comedy potential with forms of slapstick. I didn’t notice any reference to Natalie’s racial difference but she is typed as being materialistic and individualistic in her approach to life – wanting to be the richest and most successful. Qin acts as if she wants to be the same but recognises that this might be unacceptable. There is an interesting set of questions about ideology here.
But while the content of the film may be a useful insight into aspects of the lives of the Beijing middle classes, the presentation of the film might be more of a shock for UK audiences. I’m familiar with DVDs of Chinese and Hong Kong films and the practice of subtitling in English and Simplified Chinese and I’m used to subtitling generally. But in this case, the very rapid cutting between characters speaking quickly was at first difficult to follow. Overall, the editing in the film seemed to struggle to hold the narrative together. This is odd because as far as I can see the film’s editor, Zhou Xinxia, is the only really experienced head of department in a crew working with an inexperienced director and writer. Perhaps it is the use of music which underlines all of this. Every scene is scored to underline the changes of mood from comedy to romance to drama. The non-diegetic music is relentless and the abrupt changes of musical style are jarring. I’m afraid that the film doesn’t represent the high quality of much of the mainstream (and arthouse) cinema produced in China today. Perhaps the industry has just grown too quickly? We were told that the film featured many well-known Chinese star actors. As far as I can see, most of them are in minor roles. The exception is the lead pair Xu Fan and Chen Jianbin as the parents in the family. Xu Fan has a thankless role as the mother but I found the father to be the most interesting character. Chen Jianbin once featured in Jia Zhang-khe’s 24 City (China-Japan-France 2008). When a Peking Family Meets an Au Pair has shown twice now in the UK and I found another screening advertised in Belgium. I’m assuming that the Chinese cultural agencies have sanctioned these screenings for the China Film Office whereas an independent Chinese film would not have been deemed suitable. (Ironically the music recording in the film was listed as being carried out in Singapore and Taiwan.) We might at least have been offered a Feng Xiaogang film (in which Xu Fan has played leading roles in the past) or something from another mainstream director of standing. Still, I’m glad I attended the free screening and I hope for good things from the Bradford-Qingdao partnership.
Here’s the Chinese trailer (no English subs):
The latest film by Jia Zhang-ke to reach the UK has taken two years since its appearance at Cannes in May 2015. I’m not sure why it has taken so long but it certainly seems to have confused a few critics. Jia has made several different kinds of films over his career and this one looks back to his earliest films, but also forwards to the future. I found it fascinating, not least in its use of popular music – the film begins and ends with the Pet Shop Boys version of ‘Go West’ which Jia has said was a favourite at the height of the disco boom in China in the late 1990s. In some ways, the film is quite straightforward as a story narrated over three distinct periods. But it’s easy to miss some of the important underlying ideas. I recommend reading the Press Notes which can be downloaded from the Cannes website.
Outline (trying not to give too much away)
The story begins in 1999 with a triangular relationship in Fenyang, Shanxi province in Northern China, with Tao (Zhao Tao) attempting to decide between two suitors. She will marry one and the other will leave the city. Several years later Tao has a son.
In 2014 Tao has separated from her husband and doesn’t see her son who lives far away. Tao helps her old friend and former suitor when he returns to Fenyang. A family event brings her small son back to the city for a visit.
In 2025, Tao’s son is living in Melbourne and as a 19 year-old is adrift and not sure what he wants out of life. Does he want to find his mother? What has happened to her?
The outline doesn’t sound very much but I’ve purposively kept it simple. Here’s the director’s explanation of what the film is ‘about’:
From the very start I conceived Mountains May Depart as a film about ‘love and relationships’. In China, we generally put those two words together in the word qingyi: the component qing means emotional affection, and the component yi means bonds of loyalty and obligation. In Shanxi, though, we’ve tended to distinguish between qing and yi; for us, yi has more to do with commitment and responsibility. Even when people grow apart over time, yi of some kind can still exist.
Reflecting on the film (which I saw before reading the Press Notes) this statement makes a lot of sense. What Jia appears to be doing is going back to Fenyang to rediscover qing and yi and then ‘testing’ the characters and their relationships to see whether economic growth and the lure of individualistic capitalism can break those bonds of yi. It isn’t just money, but also the prospect of migration that causes change. It seems significant that Jia originally thought of setting the third section of the film in the great migrant communities of Vancouver, Toronto or New York, but in the end opted for Australia. He explains that it isn’t so much the distance to Australia, but more the different seasons in the Southern hemisphere that make it seem more ‘on the edge of the world’. He does, however, include an important character in the last section who originated in Hong Kong, but has lived in Toronto before arriving in Melbourne. Australia and New Zealand are certainly important destinations for Chinese migration today.
The three sections of the film are presented in different aspect ratios. I’m not sure if it’s quite as strictly defined as that (I noticed that the ratio had changed, but not necessarily when it changed.) 1999 is presented in Academy, 2014 in 1:1.85 and 2025 in 1:2.39. The reason for this appears to be completely pragmatic (though it also ‘marks’ a change in technologies over time). Jia grew up in Fenyang and made his first three films there with cinematographer Yu Lik-Wai. These films (Xiao Wu, Platform and Unknown Pleasures) are very much concerned with the ‘feel’ of the city and its youth and Jia and Yu shot quite a lot of footage using early digital equipment with a 4:3 image format. Some of this is used in the 1999 sequences and again in the 2014 section (when the documentary material was shot on an Alexa in 1:1.85). It then seemed logical to present the third section in ‘Scope. The use of documentary footage certainly enhances the sense of place – but it also disrupts or ‘makes strange’ the narrative with the insertion of odd events – a plane crash, an old truck nearly losing its load.
I’ve seen several several reviewers refer to Mountains May Depart as a melodrama. I’m not sure that is the most helpful categorisation here. It’s true there is music and there is a symbolic use of colours (the film tending to move from reds to blues and greens) and objects such as sets of keys – and there is a family drama. But Jia tends towards films that refuse conventional descriptions. This is perhaps closer to an ‘essay film’ about the Chinese future. It is the last sequence that has exercised Western critics most. The section is mostly in English and has a focus on language and identity (and in which the Taiwanese and Hong Kong star, actor-director Sylvia Chang plays a significant role). There is only a minimal concern with ‘futuristic’ objects, including some very attractive translucent tablets (complementing the moment in the 2014 sequence when iPhones are ceremoniously given as wedding presents). The concept of a Chinese community struggling with identity in Australia seems quite plausible to me. I’ll be thinking about this film for a long time and it may well send me back to looking again at Jia’s earlier films. I’m beginning to think that it is the links between films that need to be foregrounded and I was struck by how this film links to Wrath of Silence (China 2017) in selecting the private ownership of coal mines as an indicator of potential problems for Chinese society. On the other hand, several critics have suggested that Jia deliberately courted the Chinese government by including various lines of dialogue in this film after they banned the release of his previous feature A Touch of Sin (China-Japan 2013). Zhao Tao is extraordinary in this film, offering a performance that spans 26 years and convincing the audience each time. I’m always impressed by the work of Yu Lik-Wai, who has also worked on three films by the Hong Kong auteur Ann Hui.
Here’s the US trailer (note that the trailer doesn’t use the three different aspect ratios):
(It has been pointed out to me that the Australian scenes in the last section were shot in Western Australia as well as Victoria. I took the location to be Melbourne because of what I thought was a reference in a subtitle for a line of dialogue. It doesn’t really matter as long as it signifies Australia since the last section is an imagined future.)
Wrath of Silence is a remarkable film from the relatively young (he was born in 1984) writer-director Xin Yukun. This is his third film and I’m now eager to see his earlier work. Accompanied by two equally youthful producers from Bingchi Pictures, Xin spoke about his ambitions to make new kinds of Chinese films in the Q&A following the screening. Wrath of Silence offers a recognisable action thriller genre narrative which develops a fantasy strand in the final section and also delivers a powerful statement about some of contemporary China’s most important social issues. The casting of Jiang Wu as the villain of the narrative recalls his role in Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin (2013) and his presence suggests perhaps that the film might be edging towards arthouse territory. But this idea is undermined somewhat by the enthusiastic presentation of the first of several violent action sequences featuring the film’s hero Baomin (Song Yang).
The story suggests a universal action scenario which for most western audiences will be familiar from spaghetti Westerns. The landscape is an important element and perhaps the touchstone here is the kind of action thriller from Korean cinema such as the Good, The Bad and the Weird (South Korea 2008). The mix of personal drama/action and crime/corruption also makes it similar to a film like Memories of Murder (South Korea 2003). Baomin is a stubborn farmer in the mountains of Northern China, close to the Mongolian border in 2004. Needing money he’s had to seek work in a mine some distance away and he returns to his sick wife to discover that his son, who was tending the family’s few sheep, has disappeared. Baomin is mute, having bitten off his own tongue in a fight and his temper hasn’t improved since, though his martial arts moves have! In his search for his son he will eventually come face to face with Jiang Wu’s villain Chang who operates a corrupt mining business whose illegal activities are carried out with the backing of a gang of thugs. Chang is portrayed as a man with a passion for meat and a hobby involving simulated hunting with his own indoor shooting range. The narrative is provided with a third strand which involves Chang’s lawyer – a young father whose daughter will also go missing. Xin is able to mix genre tropes and issues which bring together familiar Chinese stories – missing children, the rape of the environment, the rise of entrepreneurs and the new urban educated class – with genre elements such as action and fantasy.
The London Film Festival screening I attended was in fact the film’s international première following its appearance in the new Chinese festival earlier in the year. The film is handled by Fortissimo Films, the former Dutch-Hong Kong sales house that is now Chinese-owned. In the interesting and useful interview with Xin and his producer on the Eastern Kicks website, Xin asserts that they are able to deal with the Chinese censors even with a potentially difficult film like Wrath of Silence. Yet it now appears that the film’s Chinese release scheduled for 13th October has been postponed indefinitely. It isn’t difficult to see why the Chinese authorities might be wary of the critique of corrupt business power and its impact on local communities. The film deals in metaphors for China’s recent rapid economic development and the problems it poses.
Reading the reviews of its LFF screenings it seems that, while praising the films vitality and the director’s creativity, most reviews suggest the film is too long. Personally, I did find the level of violence and the length of the action scenes to be excessive. I’m sure they would work in a more tightly focused action film but here they need to gell with the more measured dramatic sequences. The narration is presented in a complex way with flashbacks to explain plot and motivation and the final chase is followed by an extraordinary scene which like other elements of the story, is based on experiences of the director as a boy growing up in the same region (as is the use of meat, especially lamb/mutton as a major part of the local diet). The film’s title might be interpreted as both the anger of the mute miner, but also the anger of the ‘silent majority’ of oppressed peasants, or even perhaps the anger of the hills themselves suffering from ‘rape’ by the mining companies. This is an ambitious film and I’m prepared to forgive the uneasiness of the mix – perhaps it is even a strength? The trailer below doesn’t have English subs but the images present the story effectively.
The title ‘Old Stone’ is a play on the English translation of the Mandarin name Shi Lao, a taxi driver in a ‘third tier’ city in Eastern China. Impressively played by Gang Chen, Shi is the unfortunate man caught up in the scandal of road accidents in contemporary China. When a drunk passenger pulls his arm and causes him to knock over a motor-cyclist, Shi foolishly forgets about the ‘proper procedures’ and takes the injured man to hospital where he undergoes emergency surgery and then falls into a coma. Shi then finds himself liable for all the hospital bills. The taxi company’s insurers won’t pay out because Shi moved the injured man (and therefore what caused his subsequent condition cannot be determined). The police won’t release Shi’s taxi or an accident report.
The sensible course for Shi would be to tell the man’s family that he has no money. As soon as Shi’s wife realises that he is paying hospital bills ever day, she closes their joint account and distances herself from him (she runs a children’s nursery). I won’t spoil the narrative further but clearly this situation can’t go on. Gradually Shi is moved to take drastic action. In reality, those who cause motor accidents in China are sometimes driven to running over the victims again and fleeing. The financial penalty for causing death on the road is less than the cost of paying insurance bills. Old Stone will eventually become a form of film noir in which Shi is the doomed man. As his name implies, Shi is stubborn and obstinate in maintaining his responsibility – he remains true to a collectivist spirit which has been lost in China’s headlong rush into ‘modernity’. Eventually however he is going to be forced into desperate measures.
Writer-director Johnny Ma left Shanghai for Canada aged 10 and returned to work in New York and Shanghai after graduating in 2010 from Columbia. Old Stone was made by a mixed Chinese-Canadian crew and lensed by Leung Ming-Kai from Hong Kong on location in China. At a concise 80 minutes this is a tightly edited and very effective slice of social realism morphing into a film noir crime story. It is remarkable as a first feature. I was reminded of both a Fifth Generation film like The Story of Qui Ju (Zhang Yimou, 1992) and a Sixth Generation film like Beijing Bicycle (Wang Xiaoshuai, 2001). Both these films take a simple premise in which a working-class character seeks some form of justice in the face of bureaucracy and a changing society and, as the title of the second implies, they draw inspiration (directly or indirectly) from neo-realism and films like Bicycle Thieves (Italy 1948). Neo-realism also offers the possibility of melodrama and the noirish ending of Old Stone reminded me of a tragic sequence in Rocco and His Brothers (Italy-France 1960). In North America, the legal problems around car accidents might lead to the arrival of ambulance-chasing unscrupulous lawyers and in Carancho (Argentina 2010) Pablo Trapero explores similar forms of criminality around car crashes in Argentina. This is a universal issue effectively used in this new form of independent cinema in China (i.e. ‘new’ in the sense of the mixed crew and the tighter edit).
I feel I must also say something about the look of Old Stone. When the film began I struggled for a moment when plunged into the middle of a street scene. It struck me that some films seem made for a smaller screen. At times the image looked very grainy when seen close on the large Vue screen. I wondered if it had been shot on 16mm, or perhaps post-produced to give that effect. Either way it enhanced the sense of the neo-realist approach. By contrast Ma also offered us lush shots of treetops blowing in the wind, seemingly as abstract images but later revealed as associated with the film’s finale. Again these images struck me as reminders, first of the start of Wong Kar-wai’s Days of Being Wild (no connection I could spot, except that they are both enigmatic) and, more directly, Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (South Korea 2003) – a film mixing social and political commentary with a crime investigation by a disorganised and corrupt police team.
Old Stone has impressed at various festivals with Nominations and Prizes. It will definitely be released in North America and I recommend it. Here’s a good trailer.