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.