Following Crystal Swan, my second LFF choice turned out to be almost the opposite kind of film. A Family Tour is a much more serious and thoughtful film but is perhaps too low-key to catch the attention it deserves as a commentary on the lot of independent filmmakers in China. The narrative is based on events in the life of the film’s director Ying Liang. It concerns an independent filmmaker from North East China whose film has been banned in the PRC because it discusses a local criminal trial viewed as having political implications. Director Yang Shu (Gong Zhe) has been forced to leave China and join her husband Cheung Ka-Ming (Pete Teo) and small son in Hong Kong where father and son have the protection of birth in the SAR (‘Special Administrative Region’) whereas Shu herself must keep seeking the right to remain. She can’t go back to the mainland in case she is detained. However, Shu’s mother Chen Xiaolin (Nai An) is now ill with heart disease and Shu feels she must see her again.
The opportunity to meet comes when Yang Shu is invited to present her film at the Formosa Film Festival in Taiwan. Her elderly mother can join a tour party in Taipei (one of the few ways in which trips to Taiwan from China are allowed) and Yang Shu and her family can book into the same hotel. They can’t however meet Mrs Chen directly. Instead they must pretend she is simply a family friend and meet her ‘accidentally’ as the tour bus visits various tourist destinations. The tour party is led by a small but ferocious woman briefed by the PRC authorities and she is keen to enforce the rules (and to receive ‘sweeteners’ from Cheung Ka-Ming). As this strange family reunion trundles around Taiwan, several different discourses about home, family, loyalty, exile and identity emerge. There is an emotional desire to see her grandson in the flesh from Mrs Chen (she has kept in touch via Skype) but for Yang Shu there is pain and anger as she learns more about what happened to her father and also a different kind of loss when Mrs Chen tells her about the changes in her home town. Cheung Ka-Ming wants to support his wife and mother-in-law, but in some ways his capacity to move between the mainland and Hong Kong makes his wife feel more isolated.
Meanwhile, the film festival occasionally intrudes and more importantly, Yang Shu’s next film, a Hong Kong production which features the Umbrella Protests in 2014, runs into problems which might be caused by the mainland authorities. I found the Variety Review of the film by Jay Weissberg to be informative and insightful. I can see that there are many interesting aspects of the narrative and that it conveys the anguish of exile and separation and the impact of learning about the past in subtle and affecting ways. It is a well-made and attractive film to watch but somehow it just felt too restrained. The problem is no doubt with me. Yang Shu is reserved and her anger is often internal, Cheung Ka-Ming is more outgoing, kind and considerate – but then he is not under pressure in the same way. I haven’t seen the previous films from Ying Liang. Reviewers suggest he has introduced some more intimate shots into his usual long shot style. The consensus seems to be that this film is a welcome development in the handling of what is quite an austere aesthetic approach and that it should have a successful run on the festival circuit.
Eat Drink Man Woman is the third film in the loose trilogy of features that form the first stage in Ang Lee’s directorial career. Although made in Taiwan and presented in Mandarin, it feels like a ‘transnational film’, a traditional Chinese (family) melodrama filtered through an American sense of international cinema. It’s co-scripted by Lee’s long-time contributor James Schamus and Taiwanese writer Wang Hui-Ling (who would go to script Lee’s other Chinese films). I can’t quite put my finger on why this Taiwanese film might have faint American feel – other than Lee and Schamus sharing time together in the US. Immediately after this production Lee directed his first English language film and tackled an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility – not perhaps an enormous leap from a Taiwanese family drama.
There is a useful overview of Ang Lee’s early career by David Minnihan on Senses of Cinema in its ‘Great Directors’ section. He discusses Lee’s move to the US for his education and his subsequent early production career. Minnihan takes an auteurist approach in which he sees Lee’s early work, especially the ‘Father Knows Best’ trilogy of Pushing Hands (1991), The Wedding Banquet (1993) and Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) as an expression of Lee’s difficult relationship with his own father. The same actor, Lung Sihung, plays the father in each of these otherwise unrelated family comedy-dramas (as IMDb lists them). Each of the three is a Taiwan-US production. I haven’t seen the first two films but they both appear to deal with Taiwanese migrants in the US. Coming at Eat Drink Man Woman from a slightly different angle my first question concerns Lee’s Taiwanese background and why he doesn’t seem to be more closely concerned with the work of the Taiwanese directors who comprised the ‘New Taiwanese Cinema’ (NTC) of the 1980s. Lee was born in 1954 making him around seven years younger than the two most prominent directors of NTC, Hou Hsaio-Hsen and Edward Yang. Lee would have been in America finishing his Film MA when Hou and Yang began making their first NTC films. He wouldn’t make his own Taiwan-set film until Eat Drink Man Woman and he was surprised at the changes in Taipei when he returned. In some ways, Eat Drink Man Woman is similar to Yang’s masterpeice Yi Yi (Taiwan-Japan 2000) but Lee had not spent twenty years exploring the social history of Taiwan since 1945 like Hou and Yang.
The family at the centre of the film comprises the father on the brink of retirement and his three grown-up daughters. Father is the joint top chef of a prestigious restaurant. He has a well-equipped kitchen at home with everything he needs to create a feast and every Sunday he cooks an enormously elaborate meal which has become the setting for the weekly family meeting. Important announcements will be made at this meal but much of the time the four family members don’t really communicate. Lee spends a great deal of time (and expense) showing the father making such a lunch and I was pained to see how little of it was actually eaten. A similar amount of care goes into a long tracking shot which follows the chef through the restaurant and into the kitchens when he is summoned in an emergency. It’s tempting to see this as Lee trying out the kind of long-take style demonstrated via a similar shot in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (US 1990). Something similar, though in a very different location, occurs in the large high school where the eldest daughter teaches. The camera follows the teacher down the open walkways around the large playground where volleyball is being played. This combines a long shot and long take approach. Lee also employs a long shot of a Taipei crossroads with heavy traffic much like a ‘pillow shot’ in an Ozu film.
The eldest daughter is introduced as a kind of ‘old maid’ character who was jilted by a lover at university and has now converted to Christianity and adopted a subdued approach to life. The middle daughter is in some ways the key character. In Minnihan’s terms she is the character who embodies Lee’s own feelings. As a teenager she had shown the most interest in cooking and wanted to be a chef or a restaurateur only to be discouraged by her father and urged to continue her education. Now she is the high-flyer, working for an airline in a senior position and wondering whether to stay in Taiwan or work abroad. The youngest daughter (whose story seems to get the least attention) works in a fast-food outlet and is seeking her independence. Her father seems less concerned about her ‘challenge’ to his love of fine cooking.
Each of the family members has a story and the narrative moves between the four stories, bringing them together at the Sunday meal. As I’ve indicated, the main story for me is that of daughter No 2 played by Wu Chien-Lien. There are also other significant characters like the other top chef ‘Old Wen’ whose actions provide a contrast (or a warning?) for the father. I did find the introduction of another set of characters quite confusing. I think these are ‘returnees’ from a previous migration and a failed marriage who are invited to stay in the family house. Lian Jin-Rong and her mother knew the chef’s family when Jin-Rong (Sylvia Chang) was a girl who played with the three daughters. Now she has a child of her own and needs to re-start her life. Her predicament and that of her mother has a bearing on what will happen to the father/chef in perhaps surprising ways.
My overall view is that Eat Drink Man Woman is a carefully scripted, very well-acted film narrative skilfully constructed by Ang Lee and his crew. I watched it on my TV via MUBI in two or three parts which isn’t ideal and therefore I’m not sure if I’m being fair in suggesting that the film doesn’t in the end ‘lift off’ to become something really distinctive and that’s perhaps what suggests a kind of ‘internationalism’ about it – as if it doesn’t quite have the confidence to be a ‘contemporary Taiwanese’ story. It explores migration, education and other familiar issues but it doesn’t ‘feel’ like other Taiwanese films I’ve watched. I’ve tended to think that Ang Lee’s best films have been based on acclaimed novels/short stories, e.g. The Life of Pi or Brokeback Mountain. On the other hand it could be that there are too many central characters and not enough time to explore them all in detail? In a family melodrama like this the central conflict needs a strong focus and here the youngest daughter seems like a peripheral character. Even so, I feel like I’ve learned more about Ang Lee’s work and I’m primed to watch some other Taiwanese melodramas in my unwatched piles of DVDs.
This is a fine picture from a writer-director making her début. Jenny Lu began in the industry in 2011 and graduated from assistant/second director to make first a short and then this feature. She benefited from film festival support in developing the script and production. I’ve read some quite uninformed reviews from ‘professional’ critics and one excellent and perceptive review by IMDb ‘user’ Joe Bevan which I recommend.
The Receptionist brings together a number of familiar scenarios and references several key films (which Jenny Lu might not have seen – I’m not suggesting she borrowed ideas or that her script is not original, merely that it is recognisable). Tina (American-Taiwanese actor Teresa Daley) is an Eng Lit graduate in London searching for a job (it isn’t clear if her degree was in Taiwan or the UK). Her search becomes more urgent when her boyfriend loses his first job as an architect’s assistant. Tina must find the money to pay the rent and some to send back to Taiwan. Eventually she is forced to take a job as receptionist/dogsbody at a small brothel set up in a suburban house somewhere in London. This reminded me of the film Personal Services (UK 1987) inspired by the real-life case of Cynthia Payne in the Streatham street where I delivered the Christmas post in the 1970s. Tina’s brothel is an undertaking by ‘Lily’, a Taiwanese madam and her two workers SaSa (also Taiwanese) and Mei (Malaysian Chinese). Soon after Tina starts work, Anna (from rural China?) also starts work. What follows is part tragedy and part comedy with a mixture of brutality and humanism. Despite what some reviewers convey, not all the men who visit the house are ‘disgusting’. Some are and the violence and misogyny are there on screen. But some are sad older men who appreciate the welcome they receive. The real humanity though is expressed between the women, who despite the pressure and the squabbles over money do care for each other, despite protestations of indifference. The film’s final section deals with Tina’s eventual return to Taiwan where she becomes involved in clearing up and renewing her home town after the impact of a typhoon.
In some ways the film works as a chamber piece in the claustrophobic setting of the brothel. The claustrophobia is emphasised by the curtains and sealed up windows necessary to stop the smells and sounds of sex work reaching the neighbours. Symbolically it is represented by the worms which die in the back garden/yard – they “can’t live too long cut off from the earth” as one character puts it. (These looked to me like brandling worms which don’t live in soil but are found in compost heaps or any pile of rotting vegetation.) The function of this chamber narrative is to stimulate the women to reflect on their individual lives, their families and their ‘journeys’ which for the three younger ones are most wrapped up in migration. We don’t learn much about Lily (except that she has become pragmatic above all) and I would have liked to know more about SaSa. I think she could become the central character of another complete narrative. I wonder why Jenny Lu set her film in the UK? Her film set me thinking about several other films I’ve seen over the last few years. Farewell China (Hong Kong 1990, dir. Clara Law) is one of the earliest, following Maggie Cheung’s difficult journey to the US and her husband’s subsequent attempt to find her there. Nick Broomfield’s Ghosts (UK 2006) tells the story of the Chinese cockle-pickers who died in Morecambe Bay and A Fallible Girl (UAE-China-UK 2013) deals with Chinese migrants living a marginal life in the United Arab Emirates. I was also reminded of Lilting (UK 2013) a micro-budget British film about a Chinese diasporic character by British-Cambodian-Chinese director Hong Khaou which though a very different kind of narrative has a similar power to expose an audience to life for migrant characters.
Alongside Teresa Daley, director Lu has assembled a fascinating cast for The Receptionist. Sophie Gopsill as Lily is a Hong Kong-born singer who has appeared in many opera houses and theatres in South East Asia and in the UK where she has lived for several years. SaSa is played by Chen Shiang-Chyi an accomplished and celebrated actor who first worked in Taiwan for Edward Yang in the early 1990s and then for Tsai Ming-liang. More recently she was the lead in Exit (Taiwan 2014) in a very different role in which she was equally good. Teng Shuang who plays Anna appears to British-Chinese? She trained as a lawyer but decided to pursue her love of acting. After shorts and theatre work this is her first feature. It’s also a first feature for Amanda Fan, an experienced Taiwanese actor whose previous credits have all been in Taiwanese TV series. The Taiwanese-UK connection is carried through in the production by editor Hoping Chen, whose career began in Taiwan and who then studied at the National Film and TV School in the UK and edited another form of migrant film in Ilo, Ilo (Singapore 2013).
I hope audiences aren’t put off by the setting of The Receptionist or its ’18’ certificate. I think is a very worthwhile first feature and I hope we get to see more films exploring the migrant experience. The film is showing at the Regent Street Cinema in London on August 14 with a Q&A. Well done to Munro Film Services for getting The Receptionist into UK distribution.
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.
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:
This is just to remind you that some of our new posts are now appearing on The Global Film Book Blog. Recent posts include Cape No. 7 (Taiwan 2008), Boomerang Family (South Korea 2013) and Jack Strong (Poland 2014).
France / Taiwan / People’s Republic of China, 2004. Colour, with English subtitles.
The screening at the Leeds International Film Festival was accompanied by an introduction from the director and scriptwriter Tsai Ming-Liang [with a translator]. This was an engaging little talk as the filmmaker expressed his pleasure in visiting the Hyde Park Cinema. It reminded him of ‘a special kind of memory’ from his youth. He also won my approval by saying that he preferred his film to be seen in the 35mm format rather than on DVD. He did warn the audience that the film contains some shocking scenes, dealing with sex and violence. But he promised there would also be the pleasure of some beautiful ‘old Chinese music.’
The film is set in modern Tapei in Taiwan. Currently there is both a severe water shortage and a glut of watermelons. The former is expensive and rare, the latter ubiquitous. At the start of the film there is a scene with two of the main characters, an unnamed young woman and Hsiao-Kang. They are involved in a fairly explicit sex scene, with a watermelon as a crucial prop. Later I realised that they were actually performing for a pornographic film. Such scenes recur throughout the movie. At times we see the girl and Hsiao-Kang separately trying to achieve a climax: the only time he succeeds is unintentionally, when he has to ‘withdraw’ whilst filming. Presumably it is against porn ‘rules’ for the male protagonist to actually ejaculate in the female. Meanwhile, there is a third main character, another young woman, Shiang-Chyi. She spends much of her time collecting plastic bottles, which she films with water at every available opportunity. It transpires that Shiang-Chyi and Hsiao-Kang are old acquaintances. [It seems that both appeared in earlier films of the director, and apparently this film picks up on these]. When not involved in porn film-making Hsiao-Kang visits Shiang-Chyi’s apartment, but they do not get round to having sex.
Late in the film Shiang-Chyi finds the unconscious girl porn star by the lift in her apartment block. She drags her into the apartment. Unable to rouse her she watches a porn DVD and recognises both the girl and Hsiao-Kang acting in the film. The porn film director appears and Shiang-Chyi helps him carry the still unconscious girl back to the apartment used for filming. Here she watches as Hsiao-Kang has violent sex with the comatosed girl whilst the crew film them. A sudden cut changes the action to Hsaio-Kang having oral sex with Shiang-Chyi through a wooden lattice. He appears to ejaculate into her mouth. The film ends.
The early sex scenes, [which appeared to me to be actual sex] were quite funny to watch. But gradually the recurring scenes became as repetitious and monotonous as actual porn movies. Quite possibly this is a deliberate ploy. However, the final scene, with the limp, unconscious girl being pummelled and pumped by Hsaio-Kang struck me as quite appalling to watch. This also seemed to be the response of the watching Shiang-Chyi. But the sudden cut to oral sex between her and Hsiao-Kang seemed to completely displace that, both in terms of plot and of any critical comment on the action. There is some point made here: Hsiao-Kang achieves the orgasm which he was singularly denied earlier in the film. What that might intend I am not sure?
I struggled to find some sort of salutary point of view in this film. There are possible interpretations that could have the film commenting on pornography, sex as a commodity and even the repressive social situation in which these event occur. But the film’s overall tone and presentation fail to make that point. The interesting context regarding the contradictory rise and fall of water and melons also seemed to fade away in the later stages of the film.
The festival catalogue reproduces comments on the film that run, “a surreal, erotic and outrageous musical drama and one of Tsai’s finest films.” If I can comment on these in turn.
I did not find any surrealist sensibility in this film. The Surrealists saw the world of dreams and the unconscious as an alternative reality. But I failed to discern such an alternative here. I did not even find the film erotic, pornography rarely is. The best surrealist art shocks but it also illuminates issues like sexuality.
And I did not think the film was really a musical. There are a number of musical interludes offering both song and dance, but they are insertions into the film, the songs do not seem to dramatise the characters or their situations. The songs were in Chinese, but they all appeared to be ‘remakes’ of popular North American songs from the 1950s, with new lyrics. The final number, The Wayward Cloud, is actually a version of The Wayward Wind, which I remember from my youth. [The music and original lyrics have been running through my head ever since].
I have not seen any of Tsai Ming-Liang’s other films, so this may indeed be his best work. But I find it really inferior to the films of other major Taiwanese filmmakers. Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day (Gu ling jie shao nian sha ren shi jian, 1991, restored to its original version in 2009) deals with youth, sexuality and alienation, and is at times genuinely disturbing. But I found its comment on relationships and violence much more powerful than this film. And if I can refer to a genuine surrealist film, Belle de Jour, (Luis Buñuel, 1967) deals with sex as commodity and fetishism, but subversively.
The director is quoted in the catalogue on his work and film; “sex has prominently featured in my films. I am the first Chinese director to shoot masturbation . . . Sex to me is completely normal thing, but in Chinese communities it is a taboo . . . When I was making The Wayward Cloud, I felt that society’s attitude to sex had matured thanks to video, cable TV, the Internet, where porn is in abundance.”* Whilst I can sympathise with objections to sexual taboos, I do not think that easily available pornography is a step forward. The director does not explain what was the function of ‘shooting masturbation’. And I remain unclear as to why there was so much explicit pornographic material in The Wayward Cloud. I find it disturbing that the film’s conclusion offers the transition from effective rape to what appears to be consensual oral sex. My response presumably sounds moralistic. I note that pornography tends to present itself as amoral, and that this film [perhaps not intentionally] appears to do the same. The filmmaker’s comments suggest that he believes that merely revealing what was forbidden offers a critical stance. I would suggest that the presentation and the context are crucial to a critical standpoint. The presentation in this film does not seem very different from actual pornography and the context fades away as the film develops.
I first got interested in the ‘New Taiwanese Cinema’ director Hou Hsiao-hsien back in the 1980s when he was making films that explored the recent political history of the island through a series of family melodramas. I remember taking a friend to the NFT to see a new film by Hou in the London Film Festival. I think it must have been Daughter of the Nile (1987) which tells a tale about young people in Taipei. I remember that my friend was not impressed and I found it difficult to defend the film. I thought about that experience again when I saw Millennium Mambo. I realise now that I was unprepared for Daughter of the Nile which in some way was a precursor of Millennium Mambo.
As the title suggests, this is a film set around the millennium, told by a young woman from ten years in the future so it’s a bit weird to watch it now. There is little plot. Vicki (Shi Qi) is a stunningly beautiful young woman who appears to have drifted into a slacker mode living with her boyfriend Hao-Hao in Taipei. They fall out and she has a relationship with Jack, an older man who is some kind of criminal, works in a bar as a hostess and at one point travels to Hokkaido with two brothers who have a Japanese mother.
The film has four formal elements that are perhaps more important than the narrative content itself. Firstly, the experience of watching the film is ‘disturbed’ and perhaps made more dream-like, through a dislocation of the voiceover and the image track. The narrator tells us about events which are not on screen at that moment but which will appear some time later. This sense of confusion is compounded by a camera that is fixed much of the time and peers into the couple’s apartment, into bars and restaurants etc. so that much of the ‘action’ is in long shot unless characters move up close to the camera. Further confusion comes from the deliberate lack of focus at the start of some scenes so that the screen shows only shimmering colours which move behind a distorting lens. Even within scenes, the field of focus is so shallow that characters seem trapped in a woozy environment.
The shimmering colours are also present through deliberate design of costumes, lighting and interior decor. The camera shoots through flimsy curtains, hanging mobiles of reds and greens and blues, window frames and doorways. Vicky wears bright reds or white. The lighting in clubs and bars (and seemingly the apartment) uses ultraviolet (?) so that, for instance, Vicky wears a white bra or tee-shirt that literally glows in the dim surroundings. Finally, running throughout much of the film is a music track of ambient/techno music, mainly by Lim Giong. As you can tell, this isn’t my scene and I don’t know quite how to describe it!
This clip from the opening of the film demonstrates the hypnotic quality of the camerawork, setting, voiceover and music:
We do learn a little about Vicky’s past – she and Hao-hao came to Taipei from Keelung – and Vicky makes a second visit to Japan when Jack travels there attempting to solve a problem in his criminal activities. The Japanese sequences are visually different, mainly because the camera strays outside onto the streets (and peers at the rushing trains – an Ozu moment perhaps?). The town in Hokkaido is holding a film festival and there are many beautiful posters of classic and not-so-classic films (Jean Gabin v. Charles Bronson?). In Taiwan all the ‘action’ is claustrophobic and every shot is of an interior – or perhaps the balcony of the apartment.
I guess that Hou’s films are the ultimate test of cinephilia. Whereas in his earlier historical melodramas there was something for the average art cinema fan to chew on, in these films the pleasures on offer are limited to formal questions and teases about questions of narration and narrativity. The film seems to be a challenge to viewers. Does it have a metaphorical purpose? I’m not sure. (Hou himself has commented that young people, especially young women, seem to live their lives much faster now. Perhaps the film is a reflection on time – as the young woman sees it?) At times I was bored and frustrated and then angry with the abusive Hao-hao. Vicky is a seductive creation (seemingly on the verge of smoking herself to death) and I probably enjoyed the scenes with Jack the most, although the trips to Japan were also inviting. Shi Qi is undoubtedly a star (she also appears in Hou’s later film, Three Times) and I was interested to find out more about her from various fansites (such as shuqi.org). I hadn’t realised that she started in soft porn modelling and films in Hong Kong and that at one point she was in the running for the role in Crouching Tiger that went to Zhang Ziyi. I hope she gets challenging roles in the future.
I think that I would like to show this film to film students in order to discuss how Hou creates its hypnotic feel combining music, images and editing. The cinematography is by Mark Lee (aka Lee Pin-bing) whose work I now realise I have seen several times before (and look forward to on several upcoming movies). All the time in Millennium Mambo I was thinking about Wong Kar-wai’s Fallen Angels (HK 1996) which shares not only elements of the visual style, but also allusions to youth culture and criminality. I notice now that Mark Lee was an assistant to Chris Doyle on that shoot and that he later shot Wong’s In the Mood For Love. There is an interesting blog on the audio work in Millennium Mambo here.
The comparison with Wong Kar-wai is interesting. Wong’s films are for me more entertaining and Hong Kong is a more familiar milieu. Hou seems more for cinephiles in some of the films. However, I’ve got a couple more of Hou’s films to view in the next few months and I’m aware of the cult status that Millennium Mambo seems to be developing from the YouTube comments. You can follow our other Hou entries via this tag.