This is the third film by Feng Xiaogang that we’ve reviewed on the blog and it stands up well alongside Assembly and Aftershock. Like those films, it is a ‘big’ genre film with major stars and an ‘uplifting’ tone. In some ways it proves to be the closest to a Hollywood film that I have seen from East Asia – yet there are elements in the film that are distinctively Chinese and which I’m not sure I fully appreciate.
I think that generically this is a romance thriller crossed with a heist movie (there is no heist as such, but many of the elements of a film like Ocean’s 11 are utilised), mainly staged on a long train journey from Tibet back towards Beijing. The romance couple are a pair of consummate con-artists and skilled thieves played by the major stars Andy Lau (as Wang Bo) from Hong Kong and Rene Liu (as Wang Li) from Taiwan. (Lau and Liu are both pop stars too – of ‘Cantopop and Mandopop’ respectively.) At the beginning of the narrative they are in the process of falling out after another successful con that has won them a BMW. She wants to quit and focus on her pregnancy, he wants to carry on. Her decision is confirmed by a visit to a Buddhist monastery, after which she befriends a young man returning to his village in the East with his savings from 5 years of work. He naïvely believes that there are no thieves in China and indeed announces on the train that he is carrying the money. She decides to try to protect him from thieves – and this probably means thwarting her erstwhile partner. On the train there are various characters in disguise including a gang of thieves led by ‘Dr Li’ (played by the famous Chinese actor Ge You) and a police detective. The main part of the film becomes a four-way battle of wits and trickery plus spectacular action between Andy Lau’s character, the thieves and the police with Rene Liu attempting to protect the hapless young man and his money.
I love train movies and this one includes many of the familiar elements of chases through corridors, dining car, private rooms etc., false identities, overheard conversations etc. It also introduces an extra dimension utilising the space beneath the carriage roof and the ceiling of individual compartments – and of course the carriage roof itself as the site for fights. The train sequences feature several confrontations which Feng films in the exaggerated style familiar from martial arts films but here they are performed in the confined spaces of the train. These scenes – as well as the ‘Scope photography of the train in the landscapes of Western China – provide the spectacle in the film. However the real story of the film is the relationship between the central couple and the promotion of a kind of family solidarity which is constructed via the warring ‘parents’, the pregnancy and the attempt to protect the boy (he’s a young 21) and his money. This makes the film recognisably a family drama to match Aftershock. Lau and Liu work well together for me. Both stars are in their 40s and I found their squabbling and occasional glimpses of real feelings to be believable.
The ideological work of the film includes an attempt to portray Tibet as an integral part of China and an enthusiastic celebration of the new railway line as a prestige achievement. The crime scenario draws on what I understand to be a common occurrence of theft on Chinese Railways. The marked difference from Hollywood action films perhaps comes in the relatively slow pace of the beginning and end sequences of the narrative and the use of music – classical strings rather than the more rock/techno-flavoured scores of American action films.
Feng should be better-known in the West. His films are an antidote to the more scholarly action/costume films of Zhang Yimou or the indie/arthouse style of Sixth Generation directors such as Jia Zhangke. It is Feng’s films which are likely to carry elements of Chinese popular culture into the future global blockbuster films. The description of him as ‘the Steven Spielberg of China’ has more than a grain of plausibility in reference to representations of a kind of middle-class Chinese life (however that class status is achieved).
(There is one mystery. IMdb lists the Chinese version as a few minutes shorter than the ‘International’ version – yet the Chinese version includes a pre-credit sequence showing the con by which they acquire the BMW. Does anyone know what was cut from the rest of the film for the Chinese release?)
Aftershock was the biggest box office success in modern Chinese Cinema when it was released in June 2010. It was still some way behind Avatar but nevertheless marked the rapid expansion of Chinese exhibition in 2010 which saw more than four new cinema screens opening every day. Most of these new screens are digital and 3D compatible. Aftershock was also released on IMAX screens in China.
This major release came from Feng Xiaogang – dubbed by some commentators as the ‘greatest entertainer in Chinese Cinema’ or ‘the Stephen Spielberg of China’. Feng came out of Chinese TV to establish himself in the late 1990s as one of the most successful directors of ‘Chinese New Year’ movies. These are popular romcoms with broad humour all designed to make audiences feel good over the holiday season. This recent film sounds much more grim and anyway it was a Summer release. However, although the title refers to a tragic event, most of the movie is concerned with the long aftermath up to almost the present. This proves to be an emotional journey with a poignant ending that left many of the students on our Chinese Cinema weekend school in tears – but ultimately satisfied. Based on a novel, the English language title doesn’t really convey the personal, emotional force of the story. The tagline is better “23 seconds and 32 years” – or how a moment of horror can affect families over decades.
In 1976 the Tangshen earthquake, one of the biggest ever recorded in China, devastated a major city and caused in excess of 240,000 deaths. In 2008 the rebuilt city decided to commemorate the dead and to part-finance a movie about the story of one family caught up in the destruction. The Fangs are a young couple with twins aged 6. When the quake happens (during the night) the parents are unable to reach the children who are sleeping. Father is killed by falling masonry and the children are trapped in the rubble. In the frantic rescue period, Mrs Fang is told that because of the dangerous state of the building the rescue team can only get one child out – the other will be buried alive. The frantic mother is eventually forced to decide in favour of her son (as tradition demands?). The little girl hears her mother give her decision to the rescuers. But later when the boy has been saved and the bodies are being taken from the rubble the concussed girl wakes up and is taken to an army rescue centre where she refuses to tell anyone what has happened. Eventually she is adopted by a childless PLA couple. Over the next twelve years she is brought up by the army couple in another city unknown to her mother and her brother who create a new life for themselves in rebuilt Tangshen. It is fairly clear that at some point brother and sister will meet again (i.e. because we know the conventions of a melodrama). It would happen sooner but the girl, Deng, is unwilling to speak about her mother and her adoptive parents assume that she is an orphan (or that they cannot find her parents).
Feng Xiaogang doesn’t attempt anything new in what is a conventional melodrama. Having said that, this is a powerfully emotive film. The CGI earthquake scenes are effective, the actors are well-directed and give convincing performances. Apart from the sheer enjoyment of the narrative, the real interest for viewers in the West is the representation of Chinese social history and particularly the emergence of the ‘New China’ over the past ten years. There are relatively few direct references to the great political changes in China in the period even though the earthquake occurred just before Mao’s death and Deng enters university just before the Tiananmen Square protests. Instead we can see the changes expressed through the economic circumstances of the characters. The film opens with the excited purchase of a fan to combat the stifling heat – and ends in a world of shopping malls and BMWs. My slight disappointment with the narrative is that the twins both ‘get on’ quite well so that the story focuses on the new middle class. Deng goes to university to take medicine – which is not so surprising since her parents are relatively privileged as PLA soldiers. But her brother is seen to have real entrepreneurial spirit and despite his lowly background – with a single mother trying to raise her child after losing her home – he becomes a successful man in the New China. Partly, I suspect, this success is required by the narrative so that Feng can use product placements to help fund the film – BMW, insurance companies and other brands all feature prominently.
Because the film is a family melodrama, it is interesting to focus on the family relationships. Here traditional and modern China meet head on. There are two cases of mothers being almost forced to give up their sons to the care of their husband’s mother (i.e. to follow tradition). Resistance to this threatens the younger woman’s chance of working and building her career so she is torn between parenting and working to ‘consume’. Somewhere in the mix is also the pressure that the ‘one child only’ policy put on Chinese families during the 1980s in particular.
This kind of film offers an interesting case study for scholarly work that hasn’t really started yet – comparing the ways in which Chinese and Indian Cinema have represented the economic and social changes in their societies since the 1980s. Traditionally India has been more ‘open’ during national emergencies so that an equivalent natural disaster such as this 1976 earthquake would have been widely reported and aid would have been accepted from overseas. In China the government controlled the release of news and aid was only internal. At the end of Aftershock there is another quake in China but this time it is reported internationally – and now there is a Chinese diaspora, especially in North America, who are there to help (just as the South Asian diaspora responded to the Pakistani floods of 2009). Chinese Cinema is not yet at the point where the presence of a large overseas market is a major factor in domestic film production as it is in India but Aftershock is a possible indicator of how things might develop in the future.
Aftershock did get a UK release, but only a nominal one in order to promote the DVD release. It is definitely worth seeing on the big screen. Here is the official HD trailer – which focuses unsurprisingly on the CGI earthquake scenes. But don’t be misled – the other two hours are the most important bits of the story:
And here is a useful background article on Feng Xiaogang. We did review one of his earlier films, Assembly, but certainly now I’ll be looking out for Feng’s work as it becomes available in subtitled versions.
The range of Chinese films distributed in the West is increasing. This popular genre picture from 2007 has been distributed in UK cinemas and on DVD by Metrodome. The film is a biopic about a hero of the People’s Liberation Army who joined up in 1939 and was invalided out after an incident in the Korean War in 1951. Gu Zidi is first seen as the Captain of the 9th Company of a regiment fighting street battles with the Kuomintang Nationalist Forces in 1948. Reprimanded for his treatment of POWs, Gu is then required to base his depleted company on the rise formed around an old mine and to defend it until the last man is standing. He is instructed to retreat only if he hears the ‘Assembly’ call by the regimental bugler. The defence of the old mine is undoubtedly heroic but Gu loses all his men and is himself rendered unconscious. Apart from a later incident in the Korean campaign, most of the rest of the film is presented via flashbacks as Gu attempts to get the authorities to find the grave of his dead comrades who had all been taken into the mine. His story never waivers but he can’t be sure if the bugle call was ever played because he has lost much of his hearing. Did the Army abandon his company? Was the fault his?
The film has generated interest amongst Western fans of military action films (with their detailed interest in campaigns, weapons and strategies). Several commentators compare the film to Saving Private Ryan (a film that has undoubtedly been of great importance in influencing the representation of battles, but is possibly overpraised as a drama). A more helpful comparison would be the South Korean film Taegukgi (Brotherhood, SK 2004) and possibly Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima (2006). The Korean connection is strong in many ways (I’m sure I read somewhere that there was some contact between the two groups of filmmakers). Because the original incident is a Civil War battle, there is a strong sense of the ‘home front’ mixed with the military action and of the confusion over identities which also occurs in the Korean story. There is also a similar attitude towards the absolute horror of war and its representation via CGI. For me, Assembly was perhaps too gory – I’m happy to accept that “war is hell” and I don’t need to see so many dismembered bodies. It did seem at times that arms and legs were too easily severed by a single rifle shot. On the other hand, director Feng Xiaogang did choose to play all the battle scenes via a much reduced palette of blues, greys and reds that certainly didn’t glamourise the violence.
The problem for Western action fans is that the biopic spends plenty of time on the struggle to establish where the bodies are buried. The action is crammed into the first half only – apart from a few flashback scenes. The whole history of the long war – more than 20 years from the first Japanese incursions into Manchuria to the stalemate across the 38th parallel in Korea in 1953 – for what became the PLA is barely known about by audiences in the West and this history and how it is explored is what I found most interesting about Assembly. The film is propagandistic in some ways and also as sentimental as many Hollywood films, but overall it is quite a sober and moving account of an important period. I hope we get to see more Chinese films like this.