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.
The prolific Johnnie To was ‘discovered’ by the international film festival circuit around 1999 (more than ten years into his career) but it was not until 2005’s Election that his films began to appear regularly at festivals. I’ve seen To quoted as being interested primarily in the Hong Kong market and not wanting to draw on global films for inspiration. However, on the Criterion website he gives his own Top Ten Films which include three by Kurosawa Akira and two by Jean-Pierre Melville – and his films do seem to refer to well-known films from Hollywood, Bollywood, Europe and Japan. Or perhaps he and his co-writers just happen to come up with similar ideas? IMDB carries a ‘Trivia’ item claiming that “Alain Delon is his favourite actor”. In 2007/8 rumours began to circulate that To would direct a remake of Jean-Pierre Melville’s classic polar, Le cercle rouge (France 1970), with Alain Delon in a lead role. Delon turned down the opportunity for whatever reason (he was then in his early 70s) but To was still sought by a French production company to direct a France-HK co-production – in English.
The significance of this background is that Delon was a major influence on at least one aspect of John Woo’s ‘Heroic Bloodshed’ films – namely the modelling of Chow Yun-Fat’s characters in films like The Killer (HK 1989) and A Better Tomorrow (HK 1986). Johnnie To is one of the main inheritors of Woo’s position as a creator of Hong Kong crime films and so a potential replacement for Delon was found in the form of the French pop/rock singer and actor Johnny Hallyday. The resulting film Vengeance achieved a cinema release in both France and the US but went straight to DVD in the UK (where To films like Exiled (2006) have had cinema releases). More surprising, perhaps, is that Vengeance was shown in competition at Cannes.
Vengeance features three or four of To’s regular ensemble in lead roles and its setting is in Macau, suggesting to some fans/critics that it is part of a loose trilogy of Macau-set crime films alongside Exiled and The Mission (1999). The plot is simple. Three hit-men arrive at a house and kill a family of four – apart from the wife/mother who survives but is rendered quadriplegic. She is the daughter of a French chef/restaurant-owner and he arrives in Macau bent on revenge. Using a clue he steals from the police investigation, he finds another trio of hit-men and offers them all his wealth to find and kill his daughter’s attackers. The chef turns out to have once been an assassin himself and he still has some ‘professional’ competence but is hampered by loss of short-term memory caused by a bullet lodged in his head. In the ensuing slaughter he needs Polaroids of his own men and his family to avoid mistakes and to remember why he now kills again.
Vengeance received mainly positive reviews but some crime film fans dismissed it and Joe Queenan in the Guardian described it as ‘insane’. Partly, its reception depends on familiarity with the Hong Kong crime film. Certainly the script by To’s production partner and writer Wai Ka Fai relies more on interesting set-ups for action and our familiarity with the bonds of friendship and loyalty among the gang members than on a carefully worked out narrative. To professes not to work with detailed scripts. The set-ups for shoot-outs here are indeed creative – one in a picnic spot at night with moonlight revealing and obscuring the action, another on a waste tip with highly choreographed moves behind bales of waste materials. The familiar actors are Anthony Wong and Suet Lam on the ‘home team’ and Simon Yam as the chief villain – who ordered the original hit. As usual with To, cinematography is the preserve of Cheng Siu Keung and the film looks good, making the most of the locations.
What is odd is to see Johnny Hallyday as the ‘last man standing’ and by the time the dénouement arrives the narrative does seem to have morphed into something more spiritual and philosophical. Apart from the amnesia narrative, the dialogue in English also lends the proceedings an air of strangeness. Hallyday presumably speaks English well enough but some of the other leads are dubbed. I’m not sure about To’s facility with English as a working language (he sometimes has a translator) and shooting some of the scenes in the film must have been slightly surreal. I presume the English dialogue helped sell the film on the international market. It also serves to push the film towards the more ‘personal’ and idiosyncratic end of To’s output.
This screening in the CRIME: Hong Kong Style season at HOME featured a Q&A with director Felix Chong chaired by season curator Andy Willis. The director’s responses made for an entertaining post-screening discussion but it was the film itself that made the most impression. Interest in the screening meant that we were in HOME’s biggest cinema auditorium and the film was projected from a 35mm print in good condition for its UK première appearance.
Once a Gangster is a comedy crime film with the same mix of slapstick and violence as The Pilferer’s Progress earlier in the season, but it is much more concerned with what used to be term ‘intertextuality’ in the high period of postmodernism. In other words, many of the laughs in the film are based on recognition of the comic targets drawn from other films. The basic premise of the narrative mirrors that of Johnnie To’s Election (2005) (showing later in the season at HOME). The election of a new triad chairman is being organised and three candidates are being promoted by their supporters, two of them very reluctantly. The film’s climax will involve a search for the authentic Dragon Bone – the symbol of the chair’s authority (here neatly stamped with the legend ‘Made in Hong Kong’). The innovation here is a prologue set several years earlier in which we see a young chef joining the triad in order to be successful in the restaurant business. This is ‘Roast Pork’ who will become one of the contenders for Chairman in the main narrative. Meanwhile ‘Swallow’ (or ‘Sparrow’) has been in prison and is nominated by his mother as another candidate. The joke here for HK crime film fans is that these two contenders are played by Jordan Chan and Ekin Cheng, stars of the 1990s series Young and Dangerous.
Felix Chong takes a pot-shot at his own work as well. He was one of the main scriptwriters on the Infernal Affairs trilogy in the early 2000s and here he introduces an undercover cop played by Wilfred Lau as a ‘look-alike’ Tony Leung. This hapless character is the personal assistant of the third contender for Triad Chairman, the equally gormless ‘Scissors’ (Conroy Chan). There are probably several more references like this but they escaped me during the screening. I did react to the music which from the opening credits announced the nature of the fictional world about to be presented to us. I recognised the reference to Italian popular films and later Felix Chong confirmed that he had chosen “spaghetti western music” simply because he thought it was funny. The film also delivers several very funny sight gags, some with an almost cartoonish quality (including a nod to the ‘One-Armed Swordsman’).
The film overall has a strange ‘out of time’ feel. A series of flashbacks are presented in grainy, scratched and colour degraded stock but the prologue and the ‘present’ both feel like they could be the 1980s. ‘Swallow’ emerges from prison proclaiming the ‘wise words’ of Milton Friedman, the economist responsible for the spread of monetarism in the 1980s. Friedman did visit Hong Kong and promoted its economy as a good example of the ‘free market’. I guess his ideas do fit a gangster’s conception of the world but I thought the appearance of Friedman’s book was the most terrifying thing in the film. The book appears in a scene featuring a bookshop and several audience members responded to this with recognition of the current censorship by the mainland government and the ‘disappearance’ of booksellers. There may well be references to the 2010 political situation in the film, but I didn’t notice them.
In the Q&A Felix Chong admitted that the film had not been a big hit. He told us the budget was small and that he had only 20 days to shoot the film so in the circumstances he did rather well! Most interesting, he told us that when he screened the film, both police officers and gangsters asked him how he knew so much about what happened in these kinds of situations. We take this with a sackful of salt perhaps but I take much more notice of his comments that the ‘godfathers’ of crime are now sending their sons (and daughters?) to university to get MBAs. In the film, Swallow is a reluctant contender for triad chair because he wants to go to Hong Kong University to study economics (again a trope recognisable from Election in 2005).
Felix Chong also wrote and co-directed three Overheard films (2009/11/14). Two of these have already been screened in the CRIME: Hong Kong Style season and the third is tonight with Felix Chong again present for a Q&A. I wish I could be there – I’m sure it will be another treat.
This was one of the more unusual screenings in CRIME: Hong Kong Style at HOME, Manchester. Fraser Elliott from the University of Manchester introduced the film and gave us some interesting context. This was the fifth film from John Woo and a box office smash in Hong Kong. At this point Woo was working for Golden Harvest the local company taking over from Shaw Brothers as the leader of the HK industry. For those (most of us?) who only know John Woo from his ‘Heroic Bloodshed’ period and his later flirtation with Hollywood before the return to China, this broad Cantonese comedy might be something of a shock.
The simple plot sees conman, ‘Dragon’ in an uneasy alliance with would-be body-guard ‘Poison’, played by local stars Richard Ng and Ricky Hui, brought together in adversity and forced into a game of punch and counter-punch with a wealthy but crooked businessman ‘Rich Chan’. Chan has stolen some diamonds and our two heroes end up trying to get them back on behalf of the film’s romantic interest, ‘Mary’, whose uncle is the real owner. Our two heroes also hope to make some money on the side.
Fraser argued that the film appeared at a time when Hong Kong’s economy was in turmoil and many workers in traditional industries had lost their jobs. Stories about making money were popular – and the new wealthy types were unpopular. In terms of the film industry there was a move away from the Mandarin language wuxia and melodramas and the rise of Cantonese cinema and kung fu. The Pilferer’s Progress can be seen as a then new form of hybrid genre. Clearly modelled on the ‘buddy movie’ (John Woo seems to have been a fan of Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid amongst other films) popular in 1970s Hollywood, there are plenty of other filmic references as well as direct imports from the Bruce Lee films of the early 1970s also from Golden Harvest. As well as martial arts sequences there are traditional slapstick routines, references to spy movies (Dragon is a gadget freak with a new gadget for each task) and an hommage to Jules Dassin’s Topkapi (1964), later to appear in Mission Impossible (see the still above) and thus referencing the ‘caper’ movie.
Omar Ahmed’s post on the screening draws parallels between Hong Kong cinema in the 1970s and what was happening in popular Hindi cinema (not yet generally known as ‘Bollywood’, more often as masala films) in the same period. Omar suggests that it was a one-way traffic between the two with India importing martial arts display from Hong Kong, but both cinemas were also absorbing popular traits from international hits. Dragon’s use of technology perhaps refers to The Conversation from 1974. At the same time, both Cantonese and Hindi films drew on long-standing comic types in offering fun to popular audiences and The Pilferer’s Progress refers to local cultural figures – such as “the Golden Shaolin Warriors” as one IMDB user calls them. I think this is a reference to the final fight sequence in which the bad guy gets dipped in paint.
The ‘comic business’ in the film was familiar to me from slightly more recent New Year films and I confess that at the start of the film I did wonder whether I could cope with this for 90 minutes. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the sheer athleticism of the performers and their comic timing won me over and I laughed/groaned out loud on several occasions. It was good to see some gags that had survived since the 1920s or even earlier. Before CGI performers really did have to ‘perform’ in these kinds of films.
From what I could glean from the credits, the print came via Star TV and carried a 1993 logo. The programme notes suggested that we were watching a DigiBeta copy of the film on HOME’s second largest screen. The ‘Scope print did indeed show it’s age and was in places distorted and degraded but again it’s to the credit of Woo and his team that the entertainment level was maintained. It’s great that the HOME programmers and their sponsors could get a print at all but it does show the dire state of archiving from the period – a problem that goes way beyond Hong Kong and in the new digital age will continue to grow without more international co-operation.
The Hong Kong Crime Season, currently underway at HOME Manchester and then on tour in the UK, is showing a range of HK films, including the classic Election (2005) by Johnnie To (on March 21st in Manchester). I’m reviewing some Johnnie To titles not in the season as my offering in support of a really worthwhile venture.
Johnnie To is one of the most prolific – and most successful – filmmakers in Hong Kong with a filmography dating back to 1978 in film and TV. He is primarily focused on making films for a local Hong Kong audience and it wasn’t until the early 2000s that his films began to feature on the awards lists of major international film festivals. Although he has made all kinds of films, it is his crime films from the early 2000s that have generated international interest and comparisons with crime film specialists such as Jean-Pierre Melville. To works through his own production outfit Milkyway Image Company and works with a small stock company of actors and creative personnel (writers, cinematographer etc.). His partner in Milkyway has been the writer/producer and occasional co-director Wai Ka-fai. The festival awards that some films have won has led to UK distribution for several of the recent Milkyway films.
PTU (Police Tactical Unit) is a good starting point for anyone new to To’s work – a short and ‘contained’ film set over one night on the streets of Central Hong Kong. The PTU puts two small groups of uniformed police on patrol in the nighttime streets. The night begins with news of a fellow officer killed on duty during a raid on an armoured car and then the PTUs come across a wounded plain-clothes officer from the Anti-Crime Unit. Sergeant Lo (Suet Lam) has been beaten up by four thugs from a local crime gang and in the process has lost his gun (a serious incident that should be reported). PTU Sergeant Mike Ho (Simon Yam) agrees to help Lo find the gun and not to report the incident until morning. In the meantime however a crime boss has been assassinated and Lo becomes involved in the battle between two gangs. The assassination also comes to the attention of a CID squad who don’t trust Lo. Ho also finds his authority challenged by Kat (Maggie Shiu), the other Sergeant leading the second PTU squad. She wants to ‘play by the book’.
The remainder of the narrative develops into a tense drama in which the two crime bosses both try to use the desperate Lo to set up an ambush while the PTU and CID attempt to follow events and to pursue slightly different agendas. In true crime genre style, all the main characters end up in a shoot-out and To ties up all the narrative strands very neatly. It’s clear from the outset that Johnnie To knows exactly what he is doing. The film succeeds because the script is tight (with some nice humorous touches), the performances by the leads are strong and the cinematography by Cheng Siu Keung is excellent throughout with a good balance between long shots and close-ups.
The Region 2 DVD carries interviews with both Johnnie To and Simon Yam. To explicitly addresses the behaviour of Ho as a police officer prepared to bend rules and coerce suspects. He seems to support this kind of action, arguing that it certainly happens. The moral question here – the end justifies the means – is complicated by the strong performance by Simon Yam, the most convincing ‘heroic’ police character. To’s position is further complicated by his decision to make both of the two female police characters ‘weak’. He attempts to justify this in his interview, arguing that the two weak characters are important and that they stand out because they are women – i.e. I think he is saying they are not weak because they are women! This is to say the least dubious, especially since there are no other significant female characters. All the interviews I’ve seen with To have been translated so perhaps I have misunderstood this?
To’s films are clearly first for Hong Kong (and mainland Chinese) audiences. The HK audience will no doubt recognise many of the locations and the actors but even they may be a little taken aback at the shift from full-on crime genre to more ‘personal’/arthouse approaches to genre. PTU has action sequences at the start and the end of the film but also long periods of stalking through the streets and in particular up the staircase of a warehouse for several minutes with minimal dialogue. Often the PTU members seemed to be choreographed moving in formation and standing in tableaux (see the image at the head of this posting). IMDB reveals what happened when PTU was released in North America and the lack of action was noted – but also the music comprising guitar riffs and synths. I found this fine but it really upset IMDB’s ‘Users’. Clearly scoring of crime films in Hong Kong does not match US conventions as far as US fans are concerned.
The fact that the narrative is completed within 24 hours is a distinct bonus, I think and I was reminded of Fruit Chan’s The Midnight After (HK 2014) which Cornerhouse/HOME screened as part of the Asia Triennial Festival in December 2014. ‘One Night In . . .’ is a concept in several important films such as La haine (France 1995) (also with a lost police gun) and The Warriors (US 1979) and it works just as well in PTU. I’m impressed with Johnnie To – more to follow.
HOME in Manchester is on a roll. With the last weekend of its excellent Jim Allen-scripted film season still to come, we now have the announcement of an extensive Hong Kong Crime Fiction season running during February, March and April. CRIME: Hong Kong Style is also a touring programme showing at various venues around the UK. It’s supported by the BFI and Lottery Funding as well as the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office. The programme is produced by Rachel Hayward and Jessie Gibbs and curated by Andy Willis. If it is as good as their recent programmes for ¡Viva! this should be a must see. As well as the films there are several events, including film introductions, illustrated talks and Q&As presented by Andy Willis, HOME Visual Art Director Sarah Perks, HOME’s local Chinese cinema scholar Felicia Chan and Wong Kar-Wai scholar Gary Bettinson.
The films are organised into different groups, sometimes by director, sometimes focusing on stars or writers, sometimes by production period or around more specific themes such as Hong Kong’s influence on Hollywood directors. The earliest film is The Swallow Thief from 1961 and the programme includes the UK Premiere of Ringo Lam’s Wild City (2015). The stars include Jackie Chan, Sandra Ng, both Tony Leungs, Andy Lau and many more. Each film appears to be showing only once (but I need to check that) at HOME. Check with your nearest venue for the films in the touring programme (see the HOME website for a list of venues).
The first Manchester screening (on 35mm, celluloid fans) is Wong Kar-Wai’s As Tears Go By (1988) with Introduction by Gary Bettinson at 18.15 on Thurs February 4th. Wong Kar-Wai’s début film is a gangster flick with a romance element. Still in the early parts of their careers, Andy Lau and Maggie Cheung are the cool guy and his beautiful cousin, while Jacky Cheung plays the hot-headed junior partner who keeps needing to be kept out of trouble. IMDB suggests Maggie Cheung had 11 (!) films released in 1988, including Police Story 2 with Jackie Chan. The original Police Story (1985) screens on February 25th at HOME. These films need to be seen on a big screen.
I hope to catch some of the screenings and events at HOME and to write about them here.
This film was screened several times in the Official Section at Leeds International Film Festival. The director, Hou Hsiao-hsien won the Best Director Award at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. This is a stunningly beautiful film. Note it opens in black and white and then changes to colour. And whilst the bulk of the film is in Academy ratio [1.37:1], there are two sequences (of only two shots each) in widescreen ratio [1.85:1] .
If you know the earlier films of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Three Times (2005) Zui hao de shi guang or The Puppetmaster (1993) Xi meng ren sheng, you will know what to expect. Some of the audience in the Victoria [Room at Leeds Town Hall] presumably were excepting a typical martial arts film: they left early. The UK marketing uses the martial arts genre in the publicity, which is a mistake. Apparently similar marketing and responses took place when the film received a mainstream release in China. This is a slow, artful film with a fairly opaque plotline: it has parallels in terms of plot with Hero (Ying xiong 2002). Moreover, for a western audience, I think it takes some time to identify the separate characters, especially when for much of the time they wear the formal clothing of the period. In addition the film moves around in different time periods, but without the usual signing of flashbacks.
How well you manage depends on the manner in which you view films. One friend managed most of the characters and plot at his first screening: impressive. I managed the basic characters and plot at my first screening but it was only the second time round that I followed the whole coherently. Another friend was a neither informed or impressed: and his complaint was about the paucity of subtitle information in English and the difficulties produced in identifying characters in the numerous long shots.
Rather than describe the plot, the main point of which is relatively simple, it may help to describe those I believe to be the main characters: (based on the descriptions on Wikipedia).
Shu Qi as Nie Yinniang, the eponymous assassin
Chang Chen as Tian Ji’an, cousin to Nie Yinniang, formerly betrothed to her, and military governor (Jiedushi), ruling Weibo Circuit.
Zhou Yun as Lady Tian, Tian Ji’an’s wife. (Belongs to family of a separate Provincial ruler.)
Satoshi Tsumabuki as the mirror polisher. (Unidentified by name, the character’s title action is easy to miss: he appears late in the film when there is an attack in woods and he comes to the rescue.)
Ethan Juan as Xia Jing, Tian Ji’an’s bodyguard
Hsieh Hsin-Ying as Huji ( her name means ‘orchid’), Tian Ji’an’s concubine and a dancer
Ni Dahong as Nie Feng, Nie Yinniang’s father and Tian Ji’an’s provost
Yong Mei as Nie Tian
Fang-Yi Sheu as Princess Jiacheng and her twin sister, the princess Jiaxin turned Taoist nun
And there is an older whiskered character who I believe is Jacques Picoux as Lady Tian’s teacher: he appears twice sitting in his study.
The opening segment of the film is in black and white Academy. This is a prelude to the main story and we meet two key characters; Yinniang and Jiaxin. Then the film changes to Academy colour. The setting in Weibo and the main characters here are carefully introduced. Whilst the plot deals mainly with a series of actions involving these characters, the context is tensions between the Imperial Court and provinces on the periphery, like Weibo, and who will exercise power. But there is also personal conflict, partly motivated by personal experiences from the past, and partly motivated by the power conflicts at the court and, from a distance, Imperial / provincial relations. The two sequences in New Academy seem to be a suggestion on a central metaphor of the film. We see a zither, an instrument that recurs the last time that we see Jiaxin, perhaps a confirmation of this.
For me the film holds ones attention completely: it was a pleasure to watch it twice. It has an immaculate mise en scène and a distinctive sound track. There are few of the action sequences beloved in martial art films. But there are many formal settings where what is left unsaid seems as potent as what is said. And there are also informal settings of personal interaction, but never really informal. The film uses decor, mirrors, light and shadow, candles and lanterns, gauzes and even smoke to offer settings with subtle variations. If the interiors tend to the strictly formal, there is something of the same sense in the exteriors, which are also beautifully captured.
One must pay compliments to the production team working under the director.
Music by Giong Lim
Cinematography by Ping Bin Lee
Film Editing by Chih-Chia Huang . . . (edited by)
Ching-Song Liao . . . (as Liao Ching-Sung) (editing director)
Production Design by Wen-Ying Huang
Costume Design by Wen-Ying Huang . . . (as Hwarng Wern-Ying)
Sound Department Shih Yi Chu . . . sound, Duu-Chih Tu . . . sound, Shu-yao Wu . . . sound
Special Effects by Ardi Lee . . . special effects
The camera work relies to a degree on long shots and fairly long takes. In both interiors and exteriors there is both deep focus and deep staging: there are lovely moments when an outline or a shadow emerges in deep field. The camera movements are varied but the most common are slow and slight dollies, with slow pans and tilts in interiors. And there are some fine tracking shots in the exteriors.
The editing is often elliptical, which can make for difficulties in following the developments, but this enables the film to draw the parallels between the complex interactions among characters. The soundtrack is also a treat. The music is sparse but very evocative. There is the slow playing of drums and percussion. There is zither music. And, over the end credits, some exhilarating music from flutes or bagpipes. But for much of the time we enjoy natural sound, including bird songs and cicadas.
And the production design is truly impressive. One review thought the film was ‘too pretty’. In fact, it is ornate, as it would seem were the Chinese courts of the period. The settings, especially the interiors, provide a great canvas for the cinematography.
Hou immersed himself in reading and research for the film. In quotes in the Festival Catalogue he notes the subtlety and complexity of the period.
“For example, there were different ways of taking a bath, depending on whether you were a wealthy merchant, a high official or a peasant. I also looked into the story’s political context in some detail. It was a chaotic period when the omnipotence of the Tang Court was threatened by provincial governors who challenged the authority of the Tang Emperor: some provinces even tried to secede from the Empire by force.”
We actually see the preparations for a royal bath. Reviews have tended to praise the style of the film, but some also express reservations about the plotting of the story and even the sheer physical attraction of the settings right through them film. The film though, focuses on a particular social segment, one with great wealth and privilege. And we only see the peasants mentioned by Hou briefly, though in an important sequence.
The film was shot on Kodak 35mm and has been transferred to DCP via 4K. However, I think most audiences in the UK will only be able to see it in 2K. Even so it does look and sound good. It runs for 107 minutes and crams a lot into that space.
Released in UK cinemas by Facet Film in April and now out on DVD and online from iTunes and other services, Exit is a perfect example of an East Asian art film. The writer-director Chienn Hsiang has a reputation as a gifted cinematographer and the film’s central character is played by Chen Shiang-Chyi, best known for her roles with the auteur Tsai Ming-liang. Exit is clearly a cinematographer’s film. Every shot is beautifully composed – perfect for the meaning of the narrative. At the same time this is an actor’s film. Chen is on screen in virtually every shot and she completely inhabits the character of Ling, a 45 year-old woman living in a block of flats in Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s second city. When her daughter (who doesn’t seem close to her mother) returns to university in Taipei, Ling is alone – her husband is working in Shanghai but never answers his phone. Ling is employed as a seamstress in a small clothing workshop but this too is moving to Shanghai. She spends her spare time sitting with her non-communicative mother-in-law in hospital. The older woman is waiting for a hip replacement operation.
Ling’s loneliness is compounded by the fact that she has been told that she is entering early menopause. Without support from husband or daughter, the loss of her job is doubly damaging. Ling responds by trying to find new points of contact. A friend gives her a dance instruction video and in hospital she develops a wordless relationship with an injured man recovering in the same room as her mother-in-law.
From this brief plot outline it’s clear that this isn’t a date movie and it’s also true that it isn’t a plot-driven drama. Instead it’s a meticulous character study constructed with great care. Chienn has said that the underlying theme of employment moving to China is a major social issue in Taiwan and that he wrote the story after one day sitting on a bus and noticing what he termed a ‘middle-aged woman’. He created the character as one of those ‘left behind’ by the move to Shanghai. The notion that at 45 you are more or less finished as a social being if you don’t have family around or employment is disturbing. How much is this a function of the representations of women in East Asian films? I think many 45 year-old women in the UK would find this an offensive description with its suggestion that 45 is ‘old’. It might be interesting to compare Ling’s character and her story to that of the older but more adventurous woman in The Postmodern Life of My Aunt (China 2006) by Ann Hui. But perhaps Ling is very recognisable for Taiwanese audiences? I don’t know the answer to that question but I do recognise a fine performance. Chen Shiang-Chyi is a beautiful woman who is able to move with the gait and expression of someone who is facing defeat and she conveys the emotional impact of her situation perfectly. She won two Best Actress awards in Taiwan and nominations in other festivals during 2014.
The way in which Ling is represented/presented in Exit raises questions about melodrama and realism/naturalism. Most reviews suggest that Chienn avoids melodrama and chooses realism. But I think that the cinematography and mise en scène are in a way ‘excessive’ in their presentation of the marginalised and isolated figure trapped in an environment. If I’d watched a sequence from this film without knowing anything about its production background I think I would still have placed it as Taiwanese based on my memories of Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Edward Yang and Tsai Ming-liang. As well as any cultural signifiers in the images it’s a matter of style and specifically the long take/long shot sequences. Here are a series of images demonstrating how Chienn and his camera operator Howard Hsu frame Ling in doorways, corridors, windows etc., emphasising her isolation and round corners and columns, from above or below suggesting her marginalisation:
It’s the tension between the isolation produced through the visual imagery and identification with the character via Chen’s performance which makes the film work for me. Most of the scenes use only diegetic sounds so the the single prominent use of non-diegetic music associated with the promise of the dance class has more resonance. I don’t want to spoil moments in the film so I’ll just mention that there are several interesting examples of ‘real’ issues about living in her flat that also represent symbolically Ling’s sense of being trapped and isolated.
Exit is perhaps an unfortunate English language title but I recommend the film as a character study and an excellent example of camerawork and mise en scène.
Facet Film website for further details. The DVD has interviews with both the director and leading actors.
UK trailer from Facet Film: