Category: Chinese Cinema

Glasgow FF15 #6: Dearest (China-HK 2014)

Zhao Wei as the woman fighting for her 'family' in DEAREST.

Zhao Wei as the woman fighting for her ‘family’ in DEAREST.

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.

Glasgow FF15 #5: Red Amnesia (Chuǎngrù zhě, China 2014)

Mrs Deng (left, facing the camera) is one of the 'neighbourhood watch'-type guardians of her housing block. Is that the mysterious teenage boy she can see?

Mrs Deng (left, facing the camera) is one of the ‘neighbourhood watch’-type guardians of her housing block. Is that the mysterious teenage boy she can see?

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?

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

Tony Leung as Ip Man

Tony Leung as Ip Man

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

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

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

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

Zhang Ziyi as Gong Er

Zhang Ziyi as Gong Er

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

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

Here’s the US trailer for the shortened version:

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

BIFF 2014 #4: A Fallible Girl (UAE-China-UK 2013)

Sang Juan (left) as Li-fei and  Huang Lu as YaYa

Sang Juan (left) as Li-fei and Huang Lu as YaYa

Portrait Without BleedThis feature is part of Bradford’s European Competition which seems odd because it isn’t ‘European’ in content and only marginally so in finance as far as I can see – though much of the creative input is. Writer-director Conrad Clark is a Brit living in China and this film is a development of a short produced in 2010. Cinematographer Raquel Fernandez Nuñez is Spanish and editor Paul Monaghan is from the UK and has worked with Michael Winterbottom for Revolution Films. What we are offered is a genuine ‘global/local’ story set in the community of temporary migrants that constitutes the bulk of the population of the United Arab Emirates. The ‘fallible girl’ of the title might be Li-fei who with her fellow Chinese YaYa has become an entrepreneur and opened a mushroom farm in the desert between Dubai (where the two women have a small apartment) and Abu Dhabi.

A Fallible Girl has a very distinctive aesthetic which utilises a wobbly handheld camera often framing in close-up as it moves between faces. Lighting at times gives a soft washed-out look suffused in pinks and blues (and yellows in the mushroom houses). The electronic (?) music soundtrack by Orchestra Plastique and Víg Mihály works very well with the visuals and I eventually adjusted to the feel of the film (having come to terms with that wobbly camera).

The ideas behind the film are certainly interesting as Dubai is home to so many different groups of migrant workers. I’m not sure that we see many ‘locals’ except as figures in the background. Li-fei has a European boyfriend who has an apartment by the beach with a Philippina (?) maid. Li-fei’s mushroom farm employs (according to the synopsis) Bangladeshi men and her driver/translator is called Abdullah but doesn’t appear to be local. She meets a Pakistani truck driver and the shopkeepers are Indians. Most of the film seems to be set in a downtown district of Dubai with busy streets and roadside stalls like many towns in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia – this isn’t the Dubai of Western hotels.

Li-fei at the mushroom farm

Li-fei at the mushroom farm

If I’d had to guess at the nationality of the film, I would have said Chinese. At various points I thought of Wong Kar-wai’s Fallen Angels (1995), Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Millennium Mambo (2001) and Chinese independent films such as Suzhou River (2000) – all because of atmosphere and mood. The Winterbottom connection is interesting since he used the Emirates as an ‘exotic’ location in his science fiction film Code 46 (2003) but also shot migrants/refugees passing through the wider region in In This World (2002). The sense that territories like the Emirates are both ‘modern’ but also mired in the social problems of post-industrial capitalism is also there in The Fallible Girl. It certainly got me thinking and I enjoyed the film in the main. Two strange sequences puzzled me. In one Li-fei’s driver goes to eat in a canteen and meets a fellow migrant worker to discuss going home. Though clearly in keeping with the theme, this felt like it was part of a documentary shot by somebody else. Much more of a problem is a sequence of archive footage of the Emirates, seemingly taken from low-resolution video sources and therefore heavily pixellated. It looked horrendous on a large screen. I’m assuming that this was a budget problem – similar footage must surely be available on 16mm film?

There is relatively little conventional plot in the film. Li-fei’s business is struggling and she also has problems with her boyfriend and with her friend/business partner YaYa. What we get is less a straight story and more a meditation on migration, home, social networks etc. The film succeeds I think because Sang Juan in what appears to be her first film role as Li-fei  is such a strong presence. She is shown as a ‘real’ human being, not always likeable as she shouts abuse at other women drivers – in fact she shouts at everyone using her basic English. But she works hard and she treats her workers fairly. They seem to respect her.

In his introduction Neil Young expressed surprise that the film had not been shown in the UK since its Rotterdam premiere. It felt to me to be very much a ‘festival film’ unlikely to get a theatrical release but certainly well worth seeing – and I’m glad I did.

Vimeo trailer: