Love Education is a Chinese family melodrama presented as a ‘quality film’ which has made appearances at major film festivals in Asia such as Busan and Hong Kong, winning several prizes. Strangely, it doesn’t seem to have made much impact outside East Asia, despite being a film by the celebrated Taiwanese singer, actor, writer and director Sylvia Chang. I was just able to catch it on its UK MUBI run via VOD. Sylvia Chang acted in Ang Lee’s Eat Man Drink Woman (Taiwan-US 1994), a similar kind of family melodrama which got a wider circulation in the West, presumably because of Lee’s American contacts. I was reminded of Lee’s film but oddly I thought Love Education was in some ways more ‘universal’ as a narrative.
‘Love Education’ seems a strange English title. Google suggests that the Mandarin title was originally ‘Love and Love’, which isn’t much clearer but makes more sense at a simple level. The story pivots around Sylvia Chang’s own character Qiu Huiying, a woman in her fifties approaching the expected retirement age for a female school teacher in an unnamed ‘second tier city’ in the PRC. The narrative begins at the bedside of Huiying’s dying mother who is having visions of joining her husband in paradise. (Short fantasy/dream sequences feature a couple of times in the film.) Huiying is desperate to hear her mother’s dying words and convinces herself that she has asked to be buried with her husband. This is problematic since the grandfather’s remains have been returned to the village he left way back in 1946. Huiying determines to go the village, exhume the remains and rebury them in the city. She sets out with her patient and probably long-suffering husband Yin Xiaoping (played by the Fifth Generation director Tian Zhuangzhuang) and her more wilful daughter Weiwei (Lang Yueting). But when the trio arrive they discover that ‘Nanna’ (Wu Yanshu), grandfather’s first wife, has vigorously defended his remains since they were returned to the village in 1996. Despite not having seen him for 50 years, Nanna still believes he is her husband and she is determined to join him in his grave when her time comes.
Weiwei has a job with a TV company. She films the melée when Huiying tries to have the grave opened and Nanna physically defends it (with the support of the villagers). This footage will lead inevitably to media coverage – in the week which has seen ITV taking The Jeremy Kyle Show off air in the UK this seems even more tragic. As well as this central narrative, there are two or three sub-plots, the most developed of which involves Weiwei and her boyfriend, Da, a musician. Huiying and Xiaoping also have their own minor sub-plots not directly linked to the central narrative. The title could refer to the three family members and Nanna, each of which has to learn about/reflect on what ‘love’ means in their various relationships.
I think that most of the reviews have focused on the family relationships, comparing the film with an earlier Sylvia Chang film, 20:30:40 (HK-Taiwan-Japan 2004). I’ve not seen this film which deals with three women at those age points in their lives. Clearly there is a parallel in Love Education with Weiwei in her 20s, Huiying in her 50s and Nanna nearly 90. However, I’m surprised that relatively few comments have been made about the satirical possibilities of the central issue of the burial rights. The three women represent both the personal, familial issues the three women face but also the three different periods of Chinese social history. This is where I think the narrative is universal. It is about tradition v. modernity, rural v. urban and social class divisions about cultural norms. I was reminded strongly of the Cuban satire on bureaucracy by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, Death of a Bureaucrat (1966), in which a widow cannot claim her pension because her husband’s ‘worker’s card’ has been buried with him and she needs the card to get an exhumation – cue bureaucratic meltdown. There are many other similar stories I’m sure. One that comes to mind is Guelwaar (Senegal 1992), Sembène Ousmane’s satire on religion and politics. A different issue (a Christian political activist has been buried in a Muslim cemetery) but the same sensitivities about burial rights and exhumation. In Love Education, Nanna is the pre-revolutionary peasant woman who is married at 17 in 1945 when the Civil War is replacing the war against Japan. Her husband leaves to seek work a year later and she doesn’t see him again but she remains loyal and her ideas about ‘love’ are represented by the ‘chastity arch’ built on the outskirts of her village. Huiying is the single child of born in the late 1950s/early 1960s who would be a child/young teenager during the Cultural Revolution (and would also ‘lose’ her husband Xiaoping to the PLA while she presumably trained to be a teacher. Weiwei, born in the 1990s is the ‘beneficiary’ of the PRCs rapid economic growth during her lifetime. If we accept this then we have to try to understand how the current society responds to the two older women’s claims to ‘rights’ to a burial place/resting place for the ashes of the grandfather. The city records before 1978 have been lost and with them the proof of a 1953 wedding. In the village, Nanna has no evidence that she was formally married, even though the villagers accept that she was.
I was partly pushed down the route of satire/social commentary by memories of a number of Zhang Yimou films. Perhaps I was prompted by the casting of Tian Zhuangzhuang? Just two examples: in The Story of Qui Ju (1992), Gong Li plays an unlikely peasant woman who pursues a complaint against a village chief through several tiers of Chinese bureaucracy. That film was received badly by officials but Not One Less (1999) was seen in the West as pandering to the same authorities. A 13 year-old schoolgirl Wei is left in charge of a remote village school. When a boy leaves the village she sets out to find him to fulfil her task of keeping all the children in school. In this she is eventually helped by a sympathetic TV crew who feature her story on the local news. I’m not suggesting that Sylvia Chang intended any references to the films I’ve mentioned or that she intended any kind of ideological analysis in her social commentary. Audiences will read films as they see fit. All I would say is that Love Education is worth analysis into what it might be saying. It’s interesting, for instance, that Weiwei is to some extent ‘redeemed’ by the narrative – she is whiney and brattish in the opening scenes – and she befriends Nanna in unexpected ways. She isn’t directly related to Nanna but the closeness of grandchildren and grandmothers is again a universal phenomenon. But how do we read it here.
Overall, I thought all the performances were very good – Xiaoping and Da as characters are more involved in the narrative than my outline might have suggested. The film is beautifully photographed by Mark Lee Ping-bin, well-known for his work with Hou Hsiao-hsien and other auteur directors. The photography is matched by the editing of Matthieu Laclau who has worked on the last three Jia Zhang-khe films. The music score, which I enjoyed very much, is by Huang Yun-Ling.
I knew this was a ‘Chinese’ film but at first I couldn’t place its location. The sexual action early in the film suggested it wasn’t the PRC and I guessed it was either Hong Kong or Taiwan. The location in the openings scenes is in any case not meant to be instantly recognised since this is a genre narrative involving SF and film noir. The narrative is in four parts (three main parts and a short coda) each of which takes a step back in time from the future to the present and then to the past. The story focuses on a single character, Zhang Dong Ling, and explains how and why he does what he does in the future section.
Writer-director Ho Wi Ding is from Malaysia, but trained at the Tisch School in New York and now he works out of Taipei. He draws on several genre traditions from different countries in creating both the narrative world and its ‘feel’ in this film. I’ve seen a review that suggested that there is something of early Wong Kar-Wai in the film and I can also perhaps see something of Johnnie To. The film’s cast is drawn from Taiwan, China and France. It’s also photographed by the French cinematographer Jean Louis Vialard. The credits suggest that there is also a South Korean production element. One reviewer has suggested that in its futuristic mode the film suggests a reversal of the Blade Runner setting — an Asian future with elements of Americana.
I found the film to be well acted and there are some interesting ideas in the SF section, especially in terms of identity and chip technology as well as surveillance and drones. It’s frightening how plausible these developments seem in 2019. The future is seen as a society where everything is experienced through and with technology. The representation of women seems exploitative and female characters crave ‘rejuvenation’ devices. Most reviewers agree that the strongest section is that depicting the past and Ning Ding as a female crime figure is singled out for her performance so perhaps overall the film manages to avoid charges of misogyny.
Cities of Last Things was well received at Toronto in 2018 and it may do well in some markets. I wonder if it will actually play in the PRC? It didn’t totally convince me and at times my attention wandered. Perhaps some sequences are too familiar in genre terms. I’m also not keen on the title. For some reason I just can’t remember it and that can’t be a good thing. However, don’t let that put you off, it’s definitely worth a look if it comes your way.
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.