Category: Hong Kong cinema

Love After Love (Di yi lu xiang, China 2020)

Love After Love was screened at Venice in 2020 where its director Ann Hui was awarded a Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement. Two of her earlier films were also screened at previous Venice festivals, including A Simple Life (Hong Kong 2011), one of her most celebrated titles. Unfortunately Love After Love has not fared so well with critics. But it is a beautifully-made film and as a sumptuous romance melodrama is expected to eventually find its audience in East Asian territories. It was released in China in October 2021 and became available on MUBI in the UK a month or so ago. The key to the film is arguably that it is an adaptation of a short story by Eileen Chang. Ann Hui directed two earlier Chang adaptations, Love in a Fallen City (1984) and Eighteen Springs (1997). Eileen Chang (1920-1995) was a major Chinese literary figure who lived in the US from 1956. Her complicated personal history involved marriage to a collaborator with the Japanese in Shanghai under occupation that later affected her reputation in the People’s Republic. It thrived, however, in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Perhaps the best known Chang adaptation in the West is Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (Taiwan-US-Hong Kong-China, 2007) set in Hong Kong and Shanghai during the Japanese Occupation.

Weilong (Ma Sichun) making her way to her aunt’s grand mansion at the beginning of the film

Ann Hui was born in Manchuria in 1947 and moved to Hong Kong as a child. She has made a number of films that reference aspects of Chinese history and her own personal story including The Postmodern Life of My Aunt (2006) and The Golden Era (2014). The Golden Era is a biopic of another major Chinese literary figure, Xaio Hong. Love After Love is adapted from a short story by Eileen Chang, ‘Aloeswood Incense: The First Brazier’ which was first serialised in a Shanghai magazine in 1943 and made Chang’s name as a writer in the city. The story is influenced by Chang’s own biography and presents us with Ge Weilong, a girl of perhaps 16 or 17 in Hong Kong in the 1930s. Weilong (Ma Sichun) came to Hong Kong with her parents a year or two earlier when the Japanese threat of invasion of Shanghai became apparent. But when her parents decide to return to Shanghai, Weilong decides to to try to finish her education in Hong Kong and asks her aunt, Madame Liang (Yu Feihong) if she can stay with her. Her father’s sister ‘married’ an older wealthy man and when he died she inherited the house and a rich life-style. To maintain this she lures other wealthy men to her house, attracting them with the pretty young girls who act as her maids. Weilong risks being seduced by her aunt’s wealth and relaxed life-style in the louche world of high society Hong Kong in the years leading up to Occupation by Japan at the end of 1941.

The two maids who effectively run the house (under Madame Liang’s instructions) are at first suspicious of the new arrival

We are in the territory of a Chinese melodrama presented with costumes by Emi Wada (who worked on Kurosawa’s Ran in 1985) on her last film and detailed interiors presented in compositions by Christopher Doyle reminding us of his earlier work with Wong Kar-wai, Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige among others. The score by Ryuichi Sakamoto is restrained for a melodrama but becomes more prominent in sections and is appropriate, I think, for the romance depicted. I note that that all the principal creatives are industry veterans and their work is a joy to behold.

Weilong and George (Nicky Peng) on the day of the garden party

Why then does the film get the thumbs down from so many critics? ‘Empty’ is a common summation. I don’t think the length helps at 142 minutes with some critics feeling that the narrative drags. I found it engaging throughout but it was only really when I watched it a second time that I began to fully appreciate its qualities. This is a complex narrative using several narrative devices in subtle ways. Several critics, especially in the West, tend to compare this film to similar Hollywood films such as Dangerous Liaisons (1988). The similarities are there but the cultural context is different. This film refers to a particular society at a particular time – a colonial Chinese society at a specific moment. Weilong finds herself both constrained by her own traditional background and unsure how to respond to her aunt’s world – “The British Way” in Hong Kong as her aunt puts it. I was also conscious of the class differences. The young girls brought to the house, almost as concubines, are at the lowest level and Weilong finds herself in the middle – between the girls and her aunt’s friends and acquaintances. The romance in the film involves Weilong with a mixed-race young man, the son of a wealthy Chinese man who married a European woman. It occurs to me that the Chinese view of ‘Eurasians’ is slightly different to that of the Indian view of Anglo-Indians in the same period. In Chang’s story, the wealth of Chiao’s family means the son George can’t be marginalised but there is still a stigma attached to his identity and his general behaviour contributes to this. George is played by the Taiwanese-Canadian Nick Peng, now a major star in Chinese cinema. George’s sister Kitty is played by Isabella Leung, originally from Macau.

‘Sir Cheng’ Chiao between his daughter Kitty and Madame Liang

Mr Situ who Madame Liang persuades to act as Weilong’s teacher in the social mores of Hong Kong’s ‘British Way’

I think I need to explore my partial understanding of the status of wealthy Chinese in the British Empire in the 1930s. Britain had exploited China in the 19th century and this continued through what was the unique arrangement in the global city of Shanghai for all Western powers. But the UK had also developed the colony of Hong Kong after taking the island from China during the Opium Wars of 1841 and 1860, finally acquiring the New Territories on mainland China on a 99-year lease in 1899. Hong Kong maintained strong links with Shanghai and also with Singapore and parts of Malaya. Crucial to the economic development of these colonial possessions were two groups of Chinese, the poorer migrants who could provide cheap labour and the wealthier merchants and trading families. Hong Kong and Singapore and to a lesser extent George Town in Penang developed as entrepôts –transhipment ports which facilitated British Imperial trade across South-East and East Asia. The wealthy Chinese families retained and grew their wealth, developing a distinctive culture and status under colonial rule. This is apparent in the opening scenes of Love After Love when Weilong first arrives at her aunt’s magnificent house and gardens. In the evening the maids are first outside lighting the lamps on the drive. This could almost be a scene from Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern (China-Hong Kong 1991) which is set in the home of a Chinese war lord in the 1920s. Later in the evening, after the mahjong, the dancing begins and British officers are among the guests. Earlier Weilong is quizzed by Mir Situ as to whether she can play the piano and play tennis – she nervously replies that she has learned both a little in school. As she sits upstairs in her room listening to the music from the dancing below she might be a young girl in a British country house drama. I don’t think similar scenes took place under the Raj in the same way in India. As if to emphasise this, ‘Sir Cheng’ the head of the Chiao household has an Indian chauffeur. At a later garden party when Madame Liang invites the choir which Weilong has joined, there are Indians and ‘foreign nuns’ in attendance.

Lo Sui-Lun, the young man who wants to study medicine and who is attractive to both Weilong and Mme Liang

I don’t want to spoil any more of the narrative. The story events are generally familiar, as are the characters. There have been some complaints that Ma Sichun is not strong enough in the central role of Weilong. I don’t agree. It is a difficult role in that she has to grow from shy schoolgirl into someone who can move through the upper echelons of colonial Hong Kong. She is us as she tries to negotiate the pitfalls and grow and learn in her social role. She is also the young woman being offered a ‘sentimental education’. It is true, however, that the real star of the show is Faye Yu (Yu Feihong) who plays Madame Liang with great relish. I do wonder what Eileen Chang wanted to say in her story and why Ann Hui chose to adapt it. The adaptation is by Wang Anyi, a distinguished writer and academic from Shanghai and seen as a successor to Eileen Chang. She also wrote the original story for Chen Kaige’s 1996 period film Temptress Moon. So, with three distinguished women involved in creating the characters, Love After Love can be seen as a female-centred melodrama with characters located in specific socio-economic strata of Hong Kong’s colonial society. Each is trying to find some form of fulfilment in her life but is constrained by the social situation. Weilong is the naïf, Ni’er is the country girl and the most constrained in her role as maid. Kitty is in one sense the most privileged but, like her brother, has to contend with her Eurasian identity: she is also the character who seems under-explored in the script. At the centre is Mme Liang whose position depends on her own wits and talent for social intercourse. Is she the feminist hero of the narrative?

Aunt and niece. Everything revolves around Mme Liang

I should mention three other aspects of the narrative. At various points Weilong offers a spoken commentary. At the beginning this is in the form of a reading of the letter she sends to her aunt asking to stay with her. At crucial points we are offered flashbacks to Mme Liang’s early life. These involve traditional rituals/ceremonies that are difficult for non-Chinese audiences to interpret perhaps. This is also true of the use of the wall of photographs in the Chiao household and the subsequent presentation of formal photo opportunities of tableaux of the family. Finally, as part of Weilong’s ‘education’, she has moments where she, in a sense, sees a ghost. This isn’t a straight realist melodrama or a conventional romance, though it has several conventional elements. Surprisingly perhaps, the narrative does not contain any further references to the Japanese occupation of Shanghai or Hong Kong after the opening statement. This seems to make the whole narrative a kind of fantasy.

To repeat, this is a very beautiful film. It must look (and sound) fabulous on the big screen, where it should be seen. The costumes are similarly fabulous. Ann Hui is a great filmmaker, under-appreciated in the West.

(In this review I present the names as they appear in the subtitles on MUBI. The romanisation arguably suits the period and the Hong Kong colonial setting?)

Dragon Gate Inn (Taiwan-Hong Kong 1967)

Polly Ling-Feng Shang-Kuan takes on one of the Dong Shang leaders outside the inn

Dragon Gate Inn (a.k.a. Dragon Inn) is one of the best known and most influential wuxia films by the Chinese director known as King Hu. Both this film and the equally celebrated A Touch of Zen (1971) are currently streaming on MUBI. Dragon Gate Inn is also available on separate Blu-ray editions (Masters of Cinema in the UK and Criterion in the US) of the 2013 restoration of the film. I remember these films from the 1970s in the UK in cinemas and later on prints broadcast by Channel 4 and I think I must have seen at least extracts from then but it wasn’t until I bought a DVD of the 1992 remake that I really began to explore wuxia – more of that later.

King Hu was born in Peking in 1932 and attended art school before joining the flow of exiles to Hong Kong in 1949. He joined the Shaw Brothers Studio in 1958 a nd worked in various capacities on the studio’s Mandarin films and came under the influence of the Taiwanese director Li Han-hsiang. Hu directed his own films starting in 1965 and it was his second film, Come Drink With Me (1966) which introduced his update to the wuxia. Soon after this he left Shaw Brothers, moving to Taiwan where Dragon Inn was produced for the Union Film Company – a local producer giving Hu the chance to try out his own ideas.

Chun Shih as Xiao who travels to the inn to meet the inn-keeper

Wuxia

Wuxia is an ancient Chinese form of fantasy literature that in the 20th century developed in new forms such as newspapers and magazines and, soon after, cinema. The term refers loosely to the idea of ‘martial chivalry’ and the idea that highly trained warriors would roam the country righting wrongs. After 1949 the nationalised Chinese film industry reduced its reliance on these kinds of action genre films and the development of the genre fell to the exilic directors in Hong Kong and Taiwan. There is a suggestion that wuxia began to be influenced by Japanese chanbara (swordplay) and Japanese cinema was accessible in HK and Taiwan. King Hu developed a particularly elegant and ‘open’ style of traditional wuxia in which he maintained roles for female martial artists and staged swordplay in spectacular natural environments, presented in CinemaScope formats and with traditional music scores.

Outline

The plot of the film is relatively straightforward. In 1457 AD, during the Ming Dynasty period, the Empire is being controlled by a group of eunuchs in the Imperial Palace who have already framed the Defence Minister Yu as a traitor and executed him. His two surviving children are to be sent to a remote destination in the desert but the Dong Chang ‘Eastern Agency’, in effect a military group controlled by the eunuch Ciao (Ying Bai), has been ordered to ambush and kill the children and their guards. Their first attempt to do so is thwarted by two sibling warriors (Polly Ling-Feng Shang-Kuan and her brother played by Han Hsieh) and the eunuch’s men decide to descend on the Dragon Gate Inn which is the children’s ultimate destination. The Eastern Agency announce themselves as working for the Ministry of Justice, expecting to find some Imperial Guards at the Inn, but they are not expecting the presence of other independent warriors including master swordsman Xiao (Chun Shih) and the innkeeper Wu (Chien Tsao) who turns out to be one of Yu’s warriors. At the inn a series of encounters between the Eastern Agency troops and the four warriors loyal to Yu’s memory escalates and Ciao himself arrives to try to finish the job. The ending may be predictable in that ‘good’ triumphs over evil, but each contest is different and the narrative is gripping throughout.

Xiao waits in the inn – the studio set enabling an action mise en scène

Hu’s legacy

There are several reasons why Dragon Gate Inn became a massive hit in Taiwan and later Hong Kong (where Shaw Brothers delayed the film’s release to help one of their own films. Whatever you might think of action films and ‘martial arts’ films in particular, watching this film for ten or twenty minutes will convince you that Hu was a master filmmaker. Hu was originally an actor and an art designer before becoming a writer-director. In wuxia the characters are individuated through action and the visual qualities of their performances, including facial gestures and body postures as well as their martial arts skills and athleticism. Hu handles his actors well and he makes excellent use of his resources. There is just one studio set in the film as far as I can see – the inn itself which offers many opportunities for imaginatively-staged action set pieces – overturned tables, staircases, roofs, balconies, balustrades, windows/doors etc. This is then contrasted with the vast open spaces of deserts, mountains and river-beds. The Taiwanese interior offered so much more than the limited spaces of Hong Kong and Hu presents them on screen using CinemaScope ratio (2.35:1) and often extreme long shot framing by Hua Hui-Ying. But what makes him a special director is the ease with which he shifts from extreme long shot to close-up and a whole range of framings. His staging in depth is equally impressive.

An extreme long shot of the Dong Chang with Ciao beneath the parasol

Hu’s knowledge of Peking Opera informs the staging of  his swordfight sequences and these are presented without the later wire work. Much is achieved by the editing which suggests movement rather than presenting it directly. The final ingredient is the music score by Chow Lan-Ping which is evocative of Japanese as well as Chinese cinema. Put all these ingredients and Hu’s skills together and stand back. You can recognise now that Hu’s masterpieces comes at a particular time in the late 1960s and early 1970s when American, Japanese and European cinema are converging around the Japanese chanbara and Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah’s Westerns (these latter two directors equally drawing on Kurosawa’s work). We might look even further back to John Ford Westerns (which influenced Kurosawa). The isolated inn in the desert is in many ways similar to the Edwards homestead  in The Searchers or the inn in Stagecoach, both set in the landscapes of Monument Valley.

The shift to close-up, here of Ciao

Dragon Gate Inn was more than a major hit film, it raised expectations of what a wuxia film could be and without it the later global blockbusters by Ang Lee with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Zhang Yimou with Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004) would not have had quite the impact they eventually achieved. But before that, Hu’s success encouraged the filmmakers of the Hong Kong New Waves with Wong Kar-wai’s Ashes of Time (1994) and Ann Hui’s Romance of Book and Sword and Princess Fragrance (both 1987). I haven’t seen these last three titles but my own introduction to appreciation of wuxia came through films produced by Tsui Hark in Hong Kong and starring action heroes such as Brigitte Lin and Michelle Yeoh. In particular, I enjoyed the remake of Dragon Gate Inn (New Dragon Gate Inn, 1992) with Brigitte Lin, Tony Leung Ka-fai and Maggie Cheung (as the inn-keeper) and Donnie Yen as the evil eunuch. The remake uses standard modern widescreen (1.85:1) and the exteriors are limited by comparison, but the performances and dialogue as well as action choreography make for an entertaining film.

A classic long shot with staging in depth. Look closely for the sibling warriors in the background and their would-be assailant behind the rocks in the foreground

In Taiwan, King Hu is still an important figure in Taiwanese film history and his status was confirmed by Goodbye Dragon Inn (Taiwan 2003) in which the auteurist direct Tsai Ming-liang constructs a narrative around the final screening at a major classic single screen cinema. Only a few fans are present and various encounters take place between them during a screening of Dragon Inn. I do struggle with Tsai’s films but I saw this one in Bradford with a small audience in Pictureville cinema if my memory serves. I wish I’d seen the whole of Dragon Inn at that point. I would have perhaps made even more sense of Tsai’s tribute.

I recommend the Blu-ray by Masters of Cinema (which also includes a DVD version of the film). The extras include a David Cairns visual essay and a newsreel of the films opening in Taipei plus a booklet with pieces by Tsui Hark, Tony Rayns and Edmond Wong. The Criterion release has similar material by different scholars/industry personnel/actors.

(My apologies about names for actors and crew in this posting. The various sources I’ve consulted don’t use either the Wade-Giles romanisation of Mandarin names (as in Taiwan at the time) or the Hanyu Pinyin which replaced it in the PRC in the 1950s consistently and I may have unintentionally mixed them up.

Trailer for the Criterion Blu-ray release:

I’ve Got the Blues (Hong Kong 2018)

Angie Chen and Wong Yan-kwai . . . and the cat

This unusual documentary played at HOME in Manchester with a Q&A featuring the director Angie Chen. It was part of a mini-season of Ms Chen’s work and another contribution to HOME’s year-long programme presenting women  working in global cinema. Angie Chen, born in Shanghai, raised in Hong Kong and Taiwan, trained in the US and returned to work in Hong Kong Cinema in the 1980s as part of the Hong Kong New Wave.

I’ve Got the Blues is a very entertaining and thought-provoking work that ‘presents’ the artist Wong Yan-kwai, popularly known as ‘Yank’, and in doing so explores questions about how we might approach documentary films and film narratives more generally. What it doesn’t do is try to ‘explain’ or analyse Yank’s work as a painter. Partly that’s because he expressly forbids anyone filming him painting and also because he refuses to discuss what his paintings ‘mean’ or what they ‘represent’. He’s the one who says he simply ‘presents’ his work. The other aspect of his story which struck me forcibly is that he is clearly a very accomplished musician, photographer and writer with a deeply felt sense what it means to be an ‘artist’ (though he refuses that title!).

A rare shot of Yank at work

Yank went to Paris to study to be a painter and lived there for some time before returning to Hong Kong. He and Angie Chen have known each other since the 1990s. Angie said that although she knew Yank, she didn’t actually know that much about his life. She set out to make a documentary without knowing exactly what kind of film it might turn out to be. In turn Yank clearly didn’t want to be in a conventional film and he persistently thwarted the filmmaker. As well as refusing to be filmed during his work as a painter, he also challenged the filmmaker saying that she had an agenda and he would not go along with it. Angie Chen’s solution to this was quite neat. She organised a shoot of a meeting she had with Yank during which they both seemed to get angry, shouting at each other about what they would and wouldn’t do. She uses this scene close to the beginning of the film and close to its ending. She also persuaded Yank to film himself at work.

Yank with his guitar, surrounded by his work. Will Angie sing?

Once ‘in’ the film, Angie goes on to appear in it regularly, joining Yank for a trip to a Macau exhibition, joining a musical evening in which she sings the blues of the title with Yank on guitar and meeting his two grown-up daughters (at separate times). Yank is cantankerous but also playful and witty. Most of his interactions with friends are accompanied by what I can only describe as ‘heroic smoking and drinking’. Angie told us that sometimes shoots at his home or a local bar might go on until the early hours.

An impromptu ‘jam’. This might be in Macau?

Reflecting with Rona on the experience of watching the film and enjoying the lively Q&A chaired by Prof. Sarah Perks (who met Angie Chen many years ago on one of her regular trips to HK), we agreed on a couple of points. First, this is a fascinating film about documentary practice. I was surprised that Angie Chen suggested it was an unusual strategy for a documentary filmmaker to appear in her film. Perhaps I misunderstood what she said, but it is now quite a common practice to use what Stella Bruzzi calls the ‘performative’ mode of documentary (in New Documentary, Routledge 2006). Angie Chen is certainly a ‘player’ in her film, often acting as a form of provocateur – causing Yank to react in different ways. Second, although the doc. is well-structured and entertaining, there is a distinct tension between the playfulness of the Angie-Yank relationship and two narrative questions which are not resolved or ‘explained’. The first of these refers to Yank’s relationship with his daughters, seemingly with different mothers, both with French backgrounds. The mothers seem to be completely marginalised in the narrative without any comment whatsoever. The second intriguing question is about Yank’s politics, a topic explored very interestingly in a couple of scenes but then somehow left dangling. I would need another viewing to be clear about what was actually said. There is a Region 3 DVD from Hong Kong and there may be others available (that question came up in the Q&A).

I realise that I haven’t said anything about Wong Yan-kwai’s paintings but then that’s not really what the film is about. I do want to know more about his time in Paris and about his relationships and his politics. I also want to see more of the films by Angie Chen. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get to Manchester to see the other films Angie had brought with her from Hong Kong. I want to thank Angie Chen for bringing her film and entertaining us in the Q&A, Rachel Hayward and Andy Willis for organising the mini-season and Sarah Perks for chairing the Q&A. And I must not forget the cat, who tolerates Yank and often appears on screen with him.

Here’s a trailer for the film. It’s a good trailer that gives a sense of the film and intrigues the viewer:

(This posting has been edited to correct details of the event.)