On the surface this is a gentle comedy about young teenage boys in downtown Taipei. It is slow-paced, observational and sometimes very funny. ‘Lefty’ is a gangling schoolboy and the leader of a ‘gang of four’, each of whom is struggling to find the money to pay their school fees. One day he notices a bronze figure in a school store-room, a full-size statue of Sun Yat-Sen, the leader of the Chinese Revolution of 1911. Lefty quickly works out that he could sell the statue and make enough to fund all four boys through school. He plans the ‘heist’ in meticulous detail and the gang is all set – only to discover that someone else in the school leading another group has exactly the same intention. Despite attempts to negotiate a truce, the two gangs eventually compete to steal the statue in a long and engaging set piece. If this was just a heist narrative it would offer standard genre entertainment. But I think there is more to it than that. This isn’t so surprising since the writer-director is Yee Chih-yen whose 2002 film Blue Gate Crossing was both a critical and commercial success.
Throughout the narrative there is a focus on the relative poverty of the boys in the gangs. At one point Lefty and his opposite number (who refuses to give his name until the final reel) compete to show that they are the poorest and therefore the ones who should be allowed to steal the statue. Later, all of the boys claim they are poor because there is a long history of unemployment in their families. This is one aspect of the social commentary of the film. Sun Yat-Sen is known as ‘the father of the state’ in Taiwan and still has a profile as a leader who prepared for the ‘people’s revolution’ in the PRC. The two groups of boys struggle to take the prize for themselves even though by joining forces they would stand a much better chance of success (the statue is actually very heavy and difficult to move). Is it too much of a leap to suggest that this is might be a commentary on the history of ‘two Chinas’ since 1949? When they fight each other they achieve little, but together they could complete the task effectively.
I enjoyed the film and found Lefty to be an engaging character as played by Zhan Huai-Yun. I was also impressed by Chen Pa-tu’s cinematography, especially the lighting of night-time streets. Why is it that in East Asian films generally, night-time streets seem so much less threatening than in the West?
The idea of thieves hiding behind joke-shop masks is not new but the ones in this film seem original. They are the cheapest in the store and they make the skin itchy. They appear to be modelled on an anime character – I thought of a Japanese ‘Minnie Mouse’, which seems somehow appropriate. The Japanese influence on Taiwanese school culture is also evident in what looks like a Kendo martial arts school glimpsed in the opening scenes.
Salute! Sun Yat-Sen is one of the films scheduled for VOD and DVD release by a new UK distributor, Facet Film Distribution. The release date is July 27th and the DVD can be pre-ordered from Amazon. The two founders of the company, Victor Huang and Edison Cheng are Londoners with a passion for East Asian films and their website and Facebook pages are useful resources for news and ideas about East Asian cinema. I wonder what chance they have of success. Taiwanese films in the UK have been mostly limited to the arthouse successes of Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Tsai Ming-Liang (and earlier Edward Yang) and even these have often struggled to get UK distribution. Ang Lee’s early Taiwanese films did manage to get some form of release but it has been a real struggle for contemporary popular films. I’ve very much enjoyed the two I’ve been able to see – You Are the Apple of My Eye (Taiwan 2011) and Cape No. 7 (Taiwan 2008). I’m certainly going to look out for new releases from Facet.
Here’s the trailer for Salute: Sun Yat-Sen:
The second Chinese film I saw in Glasgow offered both similarities of theme and great contrast in aesthetics. Dearest directed by the Hong Kong producer-director Peter Chan is more commercial and possibly more exploitative for some than Wang Xiaoshuai’s Red Amnesia – but it is also a much more popular film at the box office taking $54 million in Summer 2014. Peter Chan has a strong track record in various genres and I was very impressed by his 1990s melodrama Comrades, Almost a Love Story (HK 1996). Recently he made the timely mainland film about the new private schools in China, American Dreams in China (China-HK 2013).
This new mainland film is set in Southern China with Mandarin as the main language, but also some local dialects (the different status of the two languages is an element in the dialogue). The story is adapted from a news story in 2011 in the city of Shenzhen close to the border with Hong Kong. The social issue here is the criminal activity of child abduction – and the subsequent legal wrangling over the future of abducted children, which I take to be a partial outcome of the ‘one child’ policy which existed for several years in China. Tian Wenjun is divorced from Xiaojuan who has remarried. On the day that she brings their son Peng-Peng back to Wenjun’s computer parlour, the 3 year-old wanders off and disappears. Both parents feel guilty and they join a group of parents whose children have been abducted. Wenjun tirelessly searches for his son. One day all his advertising and offers of rewards finally pays off. Without wanting to spoil the narrative, I’d just like to report that the narrative then takes a sharp turn to focus on the seemingly unwitting ‘mother’ of the abducted boy. She is played by one of the leading stars of Chinese Cinema Zhao Wei (‘Vicky Zhao’) and the emotional levels are raised when she begins to seek legal help to keep her other child, also an abductee, who she will maintain was abandoned. This character is in some ways the traditional ‘suffering woman’ of the East Asian melodrama.
Dearest is a powerful emotional film and there are moments when it seems similar to the family melodrama scenes in Kore-eda Hirokazu’s Like Father, Like Son (Japan 2013) – especially in the family court scenes. However, while Kore-eda’s film negotiates the melodrama with some delicacy, Chan ramps up the emotion. Regular readers will know that we are not against full-blown melodrama and I found Dearest to be engaging throughout, offering just the kind of narrative I like. However, this kind of East Asian popular drama is a hard sell in the West and it is noticeable that whereas Red Amnesia has a UK distributor, Dearest has so far not been picked up for the UK. I think it’s our loss if we don’t get to see both films and are able to compare them. Having said that I worry about how Dearest would be received.
The first part of a double bill of new Chinese films at the Glasgow Festival (see comments on Dearest to follow) is Wang Xiaoshuai’s third part of a loose trilogy about the impact of the Cultural Revolution on the ‘rightist’ families from the East of China sent to factories in the Western part of the country. The first two parts dealt with life in the Western cities in Shanghai Dreams and 11 Flowers. The third film focuses on the Deng family in Beijing and it is some time into the film that we realise the connection to the other two films.
Wang is a ‘Sixth Generation’ director who, unlike his peers such as Jia Zhangke and Lou Ye, has tended to produce films that seem to be more like the social realist art films of the West. Red Amnesia begins as if it is going to be a form of ‘social issue’ film in which the central character is Mrs Deng as a woman in her late 60s who is seen as something of a nuisance by her grown-up sons. She lives in her old apartment in Beijing after the death of her husband and visits both her married son and her gay son, as well as her own mother in a care home. Is the issue the care of the elderly (or merely ‘old’) in a society which for generations has venerated them? Certainly her daughter-in-law, a thoroughly modern, ‘globalised’ woman, doesn’t want her ‘interference’. Soon, however, the film changes genres and we seem to be in thriller mode with mysterious phone calls and other disturbances. At one point I thought that the intention was to enter J-horror territory as Mrs Deng, who regularly converses with her dead husband, seems to be being followed by a teenage boy who doesn’t seem quite real when she invites him to dinner. (I’m thinking here of Nakata Hideo’s films like Dark Water.)
Eventually, we will learn that the boy is a link to Guizhou in South-West China where Wang’s family were placed and he was born. Did the Dengs do something which has prompted retaliation now they are back in Beijing? The Guizhou references reminded me a little bit of Jia Zhangke’s 24 City with its tales of workers being sent to a factory in the South-West for strategic reasons. Only in the later sequences do we realise that the credit sequence at the beginning of the film had actually shown us the abandoned factory in Guizhou.
As Mrs Deng, the theatre actor Lu Zhong is wonderful and the other performances are strong. This well-made film should attract audiences but in the West, as the years go by, I wonder how many of the younger audience will appreciate the points about the Cultural Revolution?
It’s been a long time since Wong Kar-Wai’s previous full-length feature, 2007’s My Blueberry Nights. I gave that a miss and the one before that, 2046 in 2004, although clearly important didn’t really work for me. So, like many others I suspect, I was hoping for a return to the Wong of In the Mood For Love, one of my favourite films of the last twenty-five years. The Grandmaster seems to have taken Wong nearly a decade to prepare and shoot/post-produce and it is in many ways an impressive piece of work. Unfortunately, however, the UK release is the severely shortened version of the original 130 minute Chinese cut. But this is a Wong Kar-Wai film and he has often re-cut films after festival screenings etc. The difference here is that although he has re-cut it, it would seem that Mr Evil – Harvey Weinstein – is once again involved as a distributor.
Wong’s purpose appears to have been to address ‘cultural difficulties’ expected to face Western audiences. Some (quite a lot) of material was removed and the nonlinear Chinese cut re-organised into a more conventional linear narrative. I’ll have to watch the Hong Kong Blu-ray from YesAsia to see what all this means.
The 108 minute film I watched in the cinema offers a narrative with four possible strands. The first is a partial biopic of ‘Ip Man’, the Southern Chinese master of Wing Chun kung fu who settled in Hong Kong in 1950 and proceeded to teach a succession of martial artists including Bruce Lee. The second strand is about the history of kung fu in China during the 1930s/40s and the ‘succession’ to the Northern ‘Grandmaster’ Gong Baosen (Wang Qingxiang). Ip Man is part of this story which is set in the context of the Japanese invasion of first Manchuria and then Southern China after 1937. This story, which involves the different forms of kung fu (three from the north), involves ideas about honour codes that link this narrative to both Japanese samurai stories and the American Western (and possibly the gangster film – the music for Once Upon a Time in America is listed in the credits). The third narrative strand concerns the potential relationship between Ip Man (Tony Leung) and Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) – the daughter of the Northern Grandmaster. Finally, the film explores a personal Wong Kar-Wai story, familiar from most of his films – the experience of Chinese ‘exile’ in Hong Kong in the early 1950s (complete with some Hong Kong archive footage ‘squashed’ into the wrong ratio which won’t please Keith).
None of these four strands is fully worked out – or, at least, that is how it seems from a first viewing. Neither the kung fu fans or the arthouse fans of Wong are likely to be satisfied. Even so, there are many pleasures to be had from the film. Enormous care has been taken in choreographing fight scenes (credit to Yuen Woo-ping) and production design by Wong regulars Chang Suk-ping and Yay Wai-ming. Japanese composer Umebayashi Shigeru’s score is immediately recognisable, though here he is joined on the soundtrack by French composer Nathaniel Méchaly – who IMDB lists as working on several French-produced ‘international’ thrillers. The cinematography is by another Frenchman Philippe Le Sourd whose previous credits are not extensive but who acquits himself well here.
Given the focus on martial arts skills there is a great deal hanging on the performances of the two leads Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi. Both have previously worked in wu xia films, the best known being the Zhang Yimou epics such as Hero in which they worked together. These required wire work and swordfighting skills. For The Grandmaster they needed to be world-class kung fu artists and there are many stories about the length and the extent of their training. I’m not a kung fu expert but the moves look impressive to me. Tony Leung is about as good as it gets as an actor in global cinema but I think he isn’t given enough to do in The Grandmaster (having said that he ‘does nothing’ wonderfully). Zhang Ziyi actually has a bigger role than the film’s overall story might suggest. Other than the two leads, the mystery for me is why two of the other leads are marginalised in this shorter version. Chang Chen who is given third billing in the credits has had a major sequence removed and the Korean actress Song Hye-keo who plays Ip Man’s wife also disappears from the narrative in the second half of the film. There is no explanation (that I remember) of why she can’t join her husband in Hong Kong after 1950.
My understanding is that the 130 minute cut is superior – but still has the mix of genres and with a non-linear narrative poses other issues for audiences. I think that I still want to see the longer cut. My sense is that the film will not do very well in UK cinemas but that a full length Blu-ray might do well. This comparatively expensive ($25 million) film did very well in China and other East Asian territories plus France and the US to reach $64 million worldwide.
Here’s the US trailer for the shortened version:
and this is the version promoted by Shaw Brothers Cinemas in South East Asia: