Christian Petzold’s new film Undine is due for release in the UK in the next few weeks. In the meantime, MUBI have announced a Petzold season and the first title that has popped up is this film from 2008. I actually bought the DVD of this title from Germany a few years ago but, as is often the case, I didn’t have time to watch it when it arrived so this was a real treat with the knowledge that whatever happened I could finish it this time round. We are big Petzold fans on this blog and possibly even bigger Nina Hoss fans. She stars in this alongside Benno Fürmann who I remember from an early Thomas Tykwer film The Princess and the Warrior (Germany 2000).
In Jerichow Fürmann is Thomas, who has recently left the Germany army with a dishonourable discharge after a stint in Afghanistan. He has returned to his mother’s house in Jerichow, a scattered community along the Eastern bank of the River Elbe in the East of Germany. His mother has just died and after an altercation with a gangster acquaintance he finds himself penniless. But soon he gets a job with Ali (Hilmi Sözer), a retail entrepreneur who runs a chain of local snack bars and, having lost his licence, needs a driver. Nina Hoss plays his wife Laura. Thomas quickly spots that Laura is abused and eager for a new man. At this point, most critics make a reference to James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice first published in 1934 and filmed at least four times in direct adaptations.
I thoroughly enjoyed the film and I find the few online reviews rather baffling. Christian Petzold had already emerged as one of the first of the so-called ‘Berlin School’ to get wider recognition outside Germany and this film played in competition at Venice in 2008. Petzold had already achieved a profile outside Germany with Yella (2007) which also starred Nina Hoss and explored capitalism in the new Germany (i.e. from the perspective of East Germans). Prior to that Nina Hoss and Benno Fürmann had been paired in Petzold’s Wolfsburg (2003) which I haven’t managed to find yet.
Part of the problem for critics, especially in North America I think, is the temptation to make the James M. Cain inspiration more important than it is. The context for the triangular relationship is not the Great Depression of the 1930s but East Germany less than 20 years after re-unification. In addition, Ali is an important character as a Turkish entrepreneur whose chain of snack bars includes some run by other migrants. Ali is a complex character. Some readings suggest he is named in reference to the character in Fassbinder’s film Fear Eats the Soul (1974) but that film takes place in the early 1970s in West Germany, in a period when Turks in Germany were just beginning to think about what would happen after the Gastarbeiter scheme ended in 1973. (And Fassbinder’s Ali is Moroccan, not Turkish). Perhaps Ali had been brought to West Germany as a child in 1973/4? Though Petzold gives us some background to Ali’s plans (to return to Turkey, buying a house in the Taurus Mountains), he doesn’t develop this as Turkish-German directors such as Fatih Akin might do. (I note from a Senses of Cinema essay on Petzold that he deliberately attempted to respond to the Gastarbeiter films in Jerichow – but I don’t know which films these might be.) The focus in Jerichow is on the economic impact of reunification on East Germany. The location of Jerichow is significant in that the Elbe was earlier part of the border between West and East Germany. (The filming was actually carried out in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern nearer the Baltic Sea coast.)
Jerichow offers an almost procedural study of the snackbar business. Ali soon susses out that Thomas has the intelligence and the skills (including hand to hand fighting) to quickly learn the business and take over while Ali briefly visits Turkey. Ali explains that many of the operators of the snack bars attempt to pocket small amounts of money which over time can mean that he loses a substantial sum. On occasions Ali terminates their contracts and gets someone else to take over. Ali then takes Thomas to a supplier where they spy on Laura. Is she also ‘on the take’ or is she having an affair? I don’t want to spoil more of the plot but it is important to note that Laura’s marriage to Ali is about money and at one point she rejects Thomas with the cry that nothing is about love, it’s all about money. We get only a little background on Laura and nothing about Thomas apart from the intimation that he had an East German childhood. Ali presumably grew up in West Germany and I’m not sure about Laura. Would the German audience notice things I’ve missed?
Several reviews suggest that Laura and Thomas have a very cold relationship. It’s complicated because their sexual attraction is obvious but Laura must be affected by Ali’s abuse. At one point Ali pushes the two of them together to dance, almost as if he is showing off Laura to Thomas. Rather than the film noir about a doomed man who would be the Thomas character in the earlier adaptations, Petzold’s film is a character-driven acting tour de force in which money underpins the lives of all three characters. The ending of the narrative moves further away from the Cain novel. It makes more sense to view the film alongside Yella than to think about it as an adaptation. I’m surprised that there hasn’t been more interest in the UK in looking at Petzold’s output since his first fiction feature in 2000. Nine films in 20 years would make a good season and Nina Hoss appears in five. She is also due more exposure. I should also add that Jerichow features several important collaborators who have been with Petzold on many of his features including cinematographer Hans Fromm, editor Bettina Böhler and music composer Stefan Will. There is more to say about this film and I hope to return to it at some point.
MUBI has recently included several films by the Chinese auteur Lou Ye as part of its rolling monthly programme. They titled their mini-season of Lou’s films ‘Freedom and Defiance: The Cinema of Lou Ye’. Lou Ye (born 1965) made his first features in China in 1994 and 1995, but it was not until 2000 that he became well-known internationally through the screenings of Suzhou River at international festivals. Suzhou River got a UK release and I used it for a couple of education events associated with ideas about New Wave cinema in China. I think only one of Lou’s subsequent films has even managed even a DVD release in the UK.
Suzhou River gained attention for three reasons I think. First it appeared to be a deliberate attempt to ‘play’ with the narrative ideas of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (US 1957). Second, it did so using a subjective camera and other distinctive aesthetic choices and thirdly its presentation of Shanghai as a modern ‘global city’, coupled with the first two points, led to it being seen as a good example of a ‘postmodern’ film at a time when ‘postmodernity’ as a concept was fashionable.
Lou Ye found himself in 2000 being described as a ‘Sixth Generation’ Chinese director, something which he resisted. The label has to some extent stuck though it has now dropped out of discussions about contemporary Chinese art cinema. In 2000 it generally described a group of younger Chinese ‘independent’ filmmakers, born after the Cultural Revolution who sought to make low-budget films rather than progress through work with the major state-controlled studios. Co-productions with France, Japan etc. were not uncommon as were links to TV, popular music and other ‘non-cinematic’ institutions. MUBI’s reference to ‘Freedom and Defiance’ was prompted mainly by Lou’s 2006 film Summer Palace which confronts questions about the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 and led to a Chinese ban on Lou’s films for 5 years.
Purple Butterfly is in some ways a companion piece to Suzhou River, again a film about a Shanghai romance with strong hints of film noir and a complex narrative structure. The film starts in Manchuria in 1928 where there is already a significant Japanese presence following victory in the Japanese-Russian War of 1895 and the subsequent control over the Southern Railway. Japan had also annexed Korea, bordering Manchuria to the east. Zhang Ziyi plays Hui Ding, a young Han Chinese working in a bookshop and learning Japanese. She has fallen in love with Itami Hidehiko (Nakamura Tôru) an older Japanese man and the couple spend blissful hours together, seemingly oblivious of the gathering tension in Manchuria. But eventually Itami is recalled to Japan.
The narrative jumps forward to 1930 and the similarly febrile atmosphere of Shanghai, the ‘global city’, a trading port where the Western nations have ‘concessions’. In the next few months Japan will fully invade Manchuria and prepare for invasion of the rest of China. In the meantime, Shanghai is awash with secret agents and resistance groups of various kinds. A young Chinese couple meeting at the railway station are mistaken for another couple and are attacked because they are believed to be carrying secret documents. The young woman (played by Li Bingbing) is killed but her partner Szeto (Ye Liu) survives and begins a search for vengeance. Hui Ding (aka ‘Cynthia’) is now in Shanghai as a member of a secret Chinese resistance group ‘Purple Butterfly’ and it won’t be long before Itami arrives in Shanghai as a Japanese secret agent.
Given the relatively simple plot this is a surprisingly long film (128 mins) with some sharp bursts of violence as the agents of the Japanese and Chinese clash. But it is also languorous in dealing with the personal relationships and uses flashbacks, forcing the audience to piece together their understanding of the narrative flow. The big question is will Ding and Hidehiko get together again? If they do, will love triumph over commitment and patriotism? And how will Szeto view Purple Butterfly – which may have been responsible for his girlfriend’s death?
I found the film to be less successful than Suzhou River in fully engaging my attention and I was surprised by this as the background for the romance interests me a great deal. It may be that, as a film drawing heavily on film noir and stories of treachery and deceit, it fails to offer all the genre pleasures inherent in such narratives. Lou seems more interested in the look and ‘feel’ of Shanghai in the thirties than in the narrative events themselves. Ironically he ends the film with newsreel footage from the full-scale Sino-Japanese War that developed after these initial skirmishes – as if he had a wider perspective all along.
Perhaps I was spoiled by my relatively recent experience of watching The Age of Shadows (South Korea 2016) a genuine ‘resistance thriller’ by Kim Jee-woon set in Seoul in the 1920s? That film didn’t have the same level of intense ‘romance’ but it offered much more beautifully choreographed action. However, I don’t want to ignore Lou Ye’s beautiful evocation of Shanghai in 1930 or the strong central performances. Cinematographer Wang Yu (associated with Jia Zhang-ke and Ann Hui among others) offers us many close-ups in scenes with shallow focus and creates a real sense of the crowded streets of night-time Shanghai. I wanted to watch more of the MUBI season, but as is often the case, I couldn’t find the time to complete my viewings of two other films before they disappeared.
This clip from the film has French subtitles and demonstrates the camerawork and lighting that creates the noir world of Shanghai:
Ek Tha Tiger introduced the pairing of Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif as ‘super spies’ in a Hindi cinema blockbuster for Eid 2012 that became a big commercial hit. It’s interesting to re-visit now that the sequel has been similarly successful after release during the Christmas period of 2017. Though both films are instantly recognisable as mainstream Hindi cinema (or ‘Bollywood’ if you prefer) there are some interesting aspects of both films – and the films themselves have significant differences.
In this first outing, Indian RAW agent ‘Tiger’ (Salman Khan) is sent to Dublin where an Indian scientist is working at Trinity College and potentially vulnerable to surveillance by Pakistani agents of ISI who could steal valuable data from him. Tiger and Gopi (Ranvir Shorey) attempt to make contact with the scientist but only get as far as his part-time housekeeper Zoya (Katrina Kaif). Tiger falls quite heavily for Zoya but is attacked by Pakistani agents. Perhaps it’s a SPOILER but I can’t really discuss the film without revealing that Zoya is herself a Pakistani agent. The Dublin sequence ends without revealing what finally happened, but Tiger clearly hasn’t forgotten Zoya and eventually sets out to find her at an Istanbul conference. From here on the two decide to run away together despite knowing that neither security service will rest until they have been silenced in case they compromise their employers. In the last section of the film they are discovered in Cuba.
This very sketchy outline perhaps suggests the kind of ‘romance thriller’ that is often termed ‘Hitchcockian’ since it became that director’s most favoured format, most famously perhaps in North by Northwest (1959) with Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. This might sound an unlikely reference but there are actually a number of parallels. Like Hitchcock, director Kabir Khan (whose background appears to be in documentary) has an eye for exciting action sequences in well-known settings and Ek Tha Tiger makes excellent use of Dublin city centre with a remarkable supertram fight sequence. Istanbul is the second well-exploited location and full use is made of old Havana for both romantic and action sequences.
Most Indian popular films are ‘multi-genre’ and here the two elements of the romance thriller are joined by the extension into fight sequences from international cinema. The other familiar genre tropes refer to the use of music in Indian blockbusters. There are, if memory serves, two traditional choreographed dance sequences. One which effectively pauses the action in Dublin and a final credit sequence in a fourth location, not identified. Possibly Morocco? In addition there are other songs accompanying, for instance, an extended montage of the couple enjoying the delights of Havana. This is a typical example of how more recent Hindi films have preserved the idea of six songs promoted separately to the film, but reduced the number of ‘performance songs’. Ek Tha Tiger runs for 132 minutes, perhaps 30-50 minutes less than the traditional masala film of earlier periods.
The Pakistan-India history of conflict is reflected in the fights in the film – the conflict is differently handled in the second film. I was intrigued that Havana was used as a location. It was still seen mainly as a tourist destination, but I was impressed that the two central characters did get into the more interesting parts of the city (watching a boxing match for instance) and I did detect a different ‘feel’ to the way in which the narrative was working compared to Anglo-American representations of the city.
Having watched both ‘Tiger’ films over a couple of days, I think I prefer this earlier film. (I’ve written about Tiger Zinda Hai (2017) on ‘The Case For Global Film’ blog.) Partly, my preference is because Ek Tha Tiger involves more ‘romance’ and fewer explosions. It has what seems to be a lighter touch and feels more coherent.
Alfred Hitchcock’s films made in the UK in the 1930s have tended to be overshadowed to some extent by his later work in Hollywood, even if some of the titles have gained a high profile after repeated UK TV screenings. The key text for film scholars is Charles Barr’s English Hitchcock (Movie Books, Cameron and Hollis, 1999). Young and Innocent is seen as the odd one out in the series of six successful thrillers Hitchcock made between 1934 and 1938. It is the only one that doesn’t focus on some form of political intrigue. On the other hand it does share elements with several of the other films. What marks it out for me is the terrific performance by Nova Pilbeam, the ‘young’ of the title, who was still only 17 when shooting began. The original title for the film, which was subsequently used for the North American release was The Girl Was Young – a dreadful title in my view and quite misleading. Like many Hitchcock films this one was based on a novel. A Shilling for Candles (1936) was one of the first crime fiction novels by Josephine Tey. She later became a celebrated writer of crime fiction as well as plays and other novels. Barr is quite scathing about the novel and it seems that most of it was changed by Charles Bennett and the other writers who worked on the screenplay. Nova Pilbeam’s character is elevated from a minor character to joint lead.
The plot is instantly recognisable because of resemblances to The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935). Pilbeam is Erica, the daughter of the Chief Constable of a South of England county police force, who by chance meets a young man, Robert Tinsdall (Derrick De Marney), who has been arrested on suspicion of the murder of a woman on a nearby secluded beach. He protests his innocence (thus the second half of the title) and events lead Erica to help him escape. Along the way they fall for each other but they have no time to get well acquainted as the police are chasing them and Robert must find a vital piece of evidence – and this might in turn help the couple find the murderer. The film is entertaining and engaging because of the skills of Hitchcock and his team which includes future Ealing director Charles Frend as editor, Bernard Knowles as DoP and the great Alfred Junge as art director. Pilbeam’s future husband Pen Tennyson (also to become an Ealing director) is listed as Assistant Director. But I think that a great deal of the vitality of the film comes from the pairing of Pilbeam and De Marney. I was struck by something about Nova Pilbeam that reminded me of Keira Knightley’s early lead roles in Bend It Like Beckham (2002) and Pirates of the Caribbean (2003). De Marney was actually aged 30 when filming began but, as Barr suggests, he seems younger. They seem a very ‘modern’ couple for the 1930s.
Unfortunately, the vitality of the film is let down at various times by the cheap studio production work. This was a Gaumont-British production, based initially at Shepherd’s Bush, but also at Pinewood. Barr reports a suggestion that the leading cast members might have been on location only rarely since in the outdoor scenes the characters are mainly seen in long shot. Given the results that Junge was able to achieve ten years later in his evocation of the Himalayas filmed in Surrey for Black Narcissus, I do wonder what he made of the model work, especially in the case of the railway station which becomes the location for an exciting chase sequence. The film’s pre-publicity made a lot of noise about the use of location work and Hitchcock generally uses it well. There is also a striking crane shot on the large studio set representing the dancefloor of the ‘Grand Hotel’ where the narrative climax plays out (in a manner something like the music hall ending of The 39 Steps). This sequence is notable for the band whose members are ‘blacked up’ even though they are dressed in lounge suits rather than minstrel outfits. The jazz band is quite good and I was reminded of the best Jessie Matthews musicals of the 1930s. British cinema could match Hollywood at times, but the lack of resources meant that something often had to be skimped. The extras on the DVD from Network include an intro by Charles Barr and a short documentary on Hitchcock. One of the contributors suggests that what attracted Hitchcock to move to Hollywood was the prospect of the resources to do all the things his imagination could dream up.
It’s striking how strong Nova Pilbeam’s performance is. For one so young she commands her scenes like a much more experienced actor. Wikipedia suggests that David Selznik, who would eventually sign a deal with Hitchcock in 1939, was very impressed with Pilbeam and wanted to sign her as well but her agent thought a five-year contract was not appropriate. She didn’t go to Hollywood and instead made several more British pictures as well as working in the theatre. Her career ended in 1950 when she was still a young woman. The decision not to go to America (a similar decision was made by Jessie Matthews, for similar ‘professional reasons’) was later faced by bigger stars such as Deborah Kerr and Jean Simmons, who both went and made a success of the move. Erica does seem to me to be a character who has equal ‘agency’ with Robert. It would be interesting to compare the role with that played by Margaret Lockwood in The Lady Vanishes (1938).
I was surprised to discover that it is Donald Spoto in his Hitchcock biography The Dark Side of Genius, Frederick Muller 1983, who gives a more interesting reading of the film than Charles Barr. Barr focuses mainly on narrative structure but Spoto offers various observations that convince me that his general argument is sound. His basic point is that the film is essentially a gentle comic melodrama, but that it offers ‘markers’ for some of the dramatic highlights of later Hitchcock triumphs and that ideas about illusion and not ‘seeing’ clearly are woven throughout the narrative. So Robert escapes police custody by wearing a pair of spectacles with thick lenses through which he can barely see but which form a good disguise. At the end of the film, the murderer is ‘unmasked’ by the tic he suffers which makes him blink uncontrollably. Spoto reports Hitchcock stating that he placed a children’s birthday party at the centre of the story to act as a symbol as well as a narrative device. The children blindfold a character which allows the central couple to escape the party. This ‘play acting’ is matched by a couple of occasions when characters don a uniform or a costume to pass as somebody else. In terms of ‘markers’ the film includes some interesting set pieces carefully shot on sound stages that perhaps suggest scenes in later Hollywood films like North by Northwest (1959) and The Birds (1962). If you haven’t seen it, Young and Innocent is well worth tracking down. I watched it on Network’s DVD, a Special Edition as part of ‘Hitchcock: The British Years’.
Black is a difficult film to discuss because there are several contradictions in what it presents. On the plus side this is the first film I’ve seen which presents second generation immigrant communities in Belgium – and in particular Maghrebi and West/Central African teenagers. Also a plus, the film is lively with good technical credits and strong performances mainly from non-professionals. But on the down side the film has at least one scene of sexual violence which seemed to me to be exploitative and degrading – and not necessary to show in this way. As a consequence, the film received a ’16’ certificate in Belgium and an ’18’ in the UK (though it may be that the language – in translation – was enough to make it an 18 for BBFC). This effectively excludes much of the target audience. The film is based on two popular ‘young adult’ novels in Flemish (Black/Back by Dirk Bracke) and the official film website includes an Education Pack (in French and Flemish). I wouldn’t want to use the film with 17 year-old students because of the rape scene. My second major concern is that the two groups of young people in opposing street gangs are represented quite differently.
The ‘1080s’ (named for the postcode of Molenbeek, the Brussels district at the centre of recent fears about terrorism) are petty criminals, snatching bags from cars and pedestrians. They are mainly Moroccan youths. The ‘Black Bronx’ are heavily typed as drug dealers and misogynists with few redeeming features. They are mainly Congolese and are also involved in a turf war with another similar gang, The Black Panthers. It seems an odd approach for Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, the two Maghrebi filmmakers, the only North Africans in their art school. They seem to be arguing that both gangs are ferocious in defence of their identity because there is no future for them in ‘white Belgium’, but they load the most negative traits onto the Congolese.
My frustration with the film’s UK release is that it was heavily promoted via a feature article in the Guardian as an update/commentary on the two French films La haine (1995) and Girlhood (2014) and a full-page ad in the Guardian G2. But the film opened in only four arthouse cinemas alongside a VOD release. There seemed to be a confusion over what kind of film it might be. The filmmakers also quote other films as reference points including City of God (Brazil 2002) and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) – and their admiration for Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee. They make it clear that they are not interested in arthouse cinema and indeed they are now in Hollywood working on Beverly Hills Cop 4.
15 year-old Mavela is the new kid in ‘The Black Bronx’, arrested for the first time for shoplifting. In the police station she meets 16 year-old Marwan from the ‘1080s’. Despite warnings from other gang members the two meet up later and a relationship ensues. Mavela is gradually sucked into the worst extremes of her gang’s behaviour and it is clear that eventually the couple will be found out and that the two gangs will clash with Marwan and Mavela at the centre.
The bare outline above excludes various sub-plots to avoid too many spoilers. The main narrative is very familiar. It doesn’t have the subtlety of La haine nor the visual audacity and wit of Girlhood (although it has a strong music track and a camera style that shows off Brussels very well). I laughed out loud at one brief sequence of three young women dancing in the sunlight coming through the windows of a high-rise – a seeming ‘borrow’ from La haine without any narrative function. The only other La haine link I could see is Mina, the Maghrebi police officer who knows Marwan just as Samir knows the young men in La haine. Unlike the ’empowering’ young women of Girlhood, the young women in Black are treated (very badly) as sexual objects by the male gang members. (The young men in Girlhood are not angels but they are not as brutal as those depicted in Black.)
The script by the directors and by the more experienced Hans Herbots and Nele Meirhaeghe struggles to find motivations for the characters. This is particularly true of the scenes with Mavela’s mother. There is a complicated set of relationships involving mother and daughter and another gang member, Mavela’s cousin, which seems to be little more than a plot device, though there is also something about the sociology of the community in there as well. At one point we see ‘X’, the leader of the Black Bronx, watching a TV documentary seemingly about the civil wars in the Congo. Was he a child soldier in those wars? Does this explain his brutality?
The local issue that does appear – and which is articulated by the directors – is the sense of divided identities in Belgium. Since the decline of the industries of the Meuse valley in Francophone Wallonia, Flemish Belgium to the north has become the dominant and wealthier half of the country. Brussels is an island between the two language cultures. It is predominantly Francophone, yet located within the Flemish region. In the film, both Marwan and Mavela see Flemish as the ‘wrong’ language. They use it only to curse and the only Flemish-speaking characters are the white cops who the kids see as racist. What is surprising is that much of the funding comes from Flemish funds and the filmmaker’s mentors are also from the Flemish industry. Fallah himself comes from Antwerp and suggests that he experienced racism from as a teenager. Black‘s narrative generates its conflict by pushing at the conflict between the Moroccans and the Congolese – even though as the filmmakers suggest, such conflicts are relatively rare. It’s worth pointing out that in La haine, the three young men are together and opposed to the police and local Nazis. In Girlhood, the focus is entirely on African-Caribbean communities with no mention of Maghrebi youth. These two films are by white directors, wary perhaps of getting involved in inter-racial conflicts. Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah have more experience of the relationships between their young characters but I do wonder if they have thought through how the film will be read. They have skilfully worked the conventions of a genre movie as a calling card for Hollywood but that’s perhaps as far as it goes.
None of the films discussed here enter into a discourse about religion as such, nor links to ‘terrorism’ in the current context and that’s probably a good thing, especially in the case of Black. I’m glad I saw the film and I’m pleased that young Maghrebis in Belgium are able to make a genre film with high levels of skill and visual imagination (Black is actually their second film after the ‘thriller’ Image in 2014). Perhaps we’ll now see more – and more nuanced – films based in the Brussels? One aspect of Black that I would like to know more about is the locations. The Moroccan gang is in Molenbeek and this is characterised by familiar high rises. The Brussels district of Matonge is often quoted as the centre for Congolese Belgians but this is an ‘inner city area’ close to the city centre with relatively few Congolese residents. The Black Bronx are often seen arriving in the centre by train – as in La haine – implying their estate is farther out. The area in which Mavela lives has very distinct architecture which I haven’t been able to place. Anyone know where it is?
Here’s the official Black trailer (which seems very dark to me – it looked fine in the cinema). It’s available on VOD from iTunes, Virgin and Sky and in various (mostly London) cinemas over the next few weeks:
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?)