Photo with Robert Rosen & Bill Nichols

August 29, 2009
With Robert Rosen, former dean of UCLA Film School & Bill Nichols, Film Professor at San Francisco State University; Photo taken on August 12, 2009.

With Robert Rosen, former dean of UCLA Film School & Bill Nichols, Film Professor at San Francisco State University; Photo taken on August 12, 2009 at Rosen's Los Angeles Residence.


The Imagined City: Literary, Cinematic, and Visual Shanghai, 1927-1937

August 27, 2009

The Imagined City: Literary, Cinematic, and Visual Shanghai, 1927-1937 (in Chinese).  Shanghai: Fudan University Press, 2009. ISBN:9787309064124

Book Cover of "The Imagined City"

Book Cover of "The Imagined City"

This Chinese book is based on the author’s English dissertation submitted to USC. It is a study of the city of Shanghai’s semi-colonial culture during the years of 1927 to 1937, the first decade of Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nanjing Government. Drawing upon a wide variety of literary, cultural, and film theories, the author investigates various genres and types of “Shanghai narratives” that have been largely neglected or rarely researched: fiction, film, architecture, advertising, and fashion. The author further contends that, with the advent and flourishing of various models of interpretation that tried to “make sense” of the metropolis, Shanghai quickly transformed from a “natural landscape” to a deeply-layered “cultural landscape.” The investigation of the competing discourses of the constructive and destructive potential of the metropolis, therefore, is more of an attempt to explore how the urban landscape of Shanghai was culturally imagined in ideological and gender terms than of an endeavor to document an already vanished past.


Review of Karmic Mahjong (China/Hong Kong; Xue zhan dao di, 2006)

August 25, 2009

Review of Karmic Mahjong (China/Hong Kong; Xue zhan dao di, 2006), A Shanghai Dachen Cultural Consulting Co. & Zhengzhou New Ideas Consulting Co. production.

Director: Wang Guangli
Producers: Mona Fong Yat-Wah, Titus Ho
Screenwriter: Wei Minglun
Music: John
Cinematographer: Lu Yutao
Art Director: Lu Yutao
Sound: Zhang Yang
Cast: Francis Ng Chun-Yu, Cherrie Ying Choi-Yi, Liang Jing, Liu Yi-Wei, Paul Chun Pui, Jia Zhangke, Wang Xiaoshuai
Running time: 90 MIN.
Release in China: 2006.
Available at: http://us.yesasia.com

Shaoyi’s Rating: C+ (Average)

Karmic Mahjong (Xue zhan dao di, 2006); d. WANG Guangli

Karmic Mahjong (Xue zhan dao di, 2006); d. WANG Guangli

Director Wang Guangli, a graduate of East China Normal University and arguably a member of the disputed Sixth Generation filmmakers (the film actually sees the appearance of the Sixth Generation directors Wang Xiaoshuai and Jia Zhangke), re-emerged from his come-and-go filmmaking practice with this supposedly comic thriller, a China/Hong Kong co-production that is neither comical nor thrilling.

The film opens with the main character Wu Yuchuan (played by the Golden Horse Best Actor winner Francis Ng) running naked at night in a dimly lighted tunnel, a recurring dream sequence that is supposedly a reflection of the character’s inner anxiety over his inability in achieving anything significant as a man in contemporary Chinese society. His “career” as a car mechanic is a proven failure as he is lured into a smuggling scheme that ends with him owing the crime boss a large sum of money. His family life is nowhere better. Despite his handsome look and macho name (meaning “universe” and “big river”), he is physically impotent and mentally “weird”, as his Mahjong-manic wife dubs him. This all-time loser becomes a sunglasses-wearing and gun-pointing hitman in the latter half of the film, partly because he is talked into the belief by the blind fortuneteller (played by Chinese TV host Liu Yiwei) that he needs to “get rid of” the “petty men” in his life, and partly because he is attracted to Jia Jia (played by Hong Kong actress Cherrie Ying), a charming beauty who conceived a baby for the crime boss for money but desperately wants the son back. Of course, such a transformation is beyond his ability. He runs into more troubles and, in one occasion, he is even mugged in man’s room by a teenage girl. The film becomes intriguing when he attempts to poison his wife, whom he believes is having an affair because he can’t sexually satisfy her. The ending, of course, is more or less a moral lesson: doing good deeds will eventually pay off. The loser is a loser because he is still kindhearted in a society full of “petty men.” He regains his male potency in the end and the sex-thirsty wife re-embraces him with charming smile.

Wang Guangli is famed for his sharp-tongued humor in real life, but it seems his own sense of humor has a difficult time being translated into this film. It’s true that the film has some funny moments, but overall it suffers from too many plot leads and a sense of uncertainty about what kind of film he really wants to make. In several occasions, the film even attempts to strike a serious tone by inserting some documentary-style street scenes and lines such as “one must believe in something”. It would be a good case if one compares this film with the recent Chinese box-office hit Crazy Stone. Both films are set in Sichuan province, and both films are working hard to break into the business of commercial filmmaking. But Crazy Stone is simply more focused and coherent, and, most importantly, smarter, darker and funnier. Last but not least, Karmic Mahjong is also a miscast for talented Francis Ng and Cherrie Ying, who provide little moment for the audience to remember. The two mainland talents, Liang Jing (a onetime TV hostess) and Liu Yiwei, on the other hand, stand out in an otherwise failed attempt for director Wang.


Review of Curiosity Kills the Cat (Haoqi hai si mao; China, 2006)

August 24, 2009

Review of Curiosity Kills the Cat (Haoqi hai si mao; China, 2006), A China Vision Group production, in association with Eagle Spirit Management. (International sales: Golden Network Asia, Hong Kong)

Director: Zhang Yibai
Producers: Jane Shao, Thomas Ho.
Executive Producer: Jimmy Wu, Niu Xinhui
Screenwriter: Huo Xin, Zhang Yibai
Editor: Zhang Yifan
Music: Daniel Walker
Cinematographer: Yang Tao
Art Director: Yank (cq) Wong
Sound: He Wei
Cast: Carina Lau, Hu Jun, Liao Fan, Song Jia, Lin Yuan, Chen Chen, Peng Jiayi, Xiaojian, (cq) Yan Yan (Mandarin dialogue)
Running time: 99 MIN.
Release in China: 2006.

Shaoyi’s Rating: B+ (Very Good)

Curiosity Kills the Cat; d. ZHANG Yibai

Curiosity Kills the Cat; d. ZHANG Yibai

Director Zhang Yibai caught critics’ attention with his stylistically daring pic Spring Subway (2002) that features a couple’s waning passion after a few years’ marriage. If time does play a role in creativity, then this new pic by Zhang is surely a proof of that. Curiosity reveals us a more mature, sophisticated, and artistically self-conscious Zhang who knows what he is doing, how to get it done, and how not to overdo some scenes when subtlety and control are needed. Teaming with noted writer Huo Xin (Kung Fu Hustle, Quitting, Shower), Zhang was able to come up with a script that is both convincing and unpredictable, a combination rarely seen in Chinese cinema. There is no question that Curiosity reminds one of many Hollywood thrillers and mysteries, Momento (2000, d. Chris Nolan) for one and Matching Point (2005, Woody Allen) for another, but it certainly has its Chinese twists and carries layers of social commentary.

The story takes place in a big city by the Yangtze River, where roads and hills are as clouded as the film’s plot: there is a couple with their son, seemingly happily married and living in a luxurious apartment beyond the imagination of most Chinese, there is an “uncultured” but fatally seductive manicure store owner, there is a security guard who seldom reveals his emotion, and there is this “curious” and cell-obsessed girl who runs a photo shop next to the apartment. Then a series of strange incidents occur, which includes the wife’s luxurious car being vandalized in red paint, the upscale apartment’s glass roof showered in red paint, the wife herself soaked in red paint, and, of course, the seductive girl being murdered one day. All these incidents, which may seem not unusual for a typical thriller, are presented in a non-linear way but smartly woven into the four perspectives of the leading characters. It is not until the very end that the filmmaker satisfies the audience’s “curiosity” by piecing the fragmented puzzle together, ultimately revealing a coherent story about lust, passion, betrayal, conspiracy, revenge, and, most of all, human’s natural “curiosity” for things they don’t have and for the lives they are seldom exposed to.  In terms of performance, while Hu Jun and Carina Lau are as good as expected, the most impressive ones come from Song Jia and Liao Fan, the former playing a passion-and-jealousy-driven country girl-turned-mistress who oftentimes looks more sympathetic than manipulative, and the latter playing a seemingly self-absorbing but ultimately envious and ambitious security guard.

Along with the 2006 domestic box-office hit Crazy Stone (d. Ning Hao), a black comedy about three thieves’ failed attempt to steal a valuable jade from a loyal but physically troubled guard, Curiosity represents a fresh and healthy trend as Chinese cinema enters its post-centennial era. First of all, the film is another proof that China can produce quality contemporary dramas (in contrast to period dramas like Curse of the Golden Flower and The Banquet) on a par with any other countries, despite the annoying hurdles of censorship. Secondly, the issue of quality scripts and smart storytelling, because of the success of these films, has increasingly become a shared concern for filmmakers and producers alike. Thirdly, the idea of films more or less falling into certain categories and China’s cinematic “takeoff” relying very much on the rehabilitation and creation of genre films is gradually taking roots in the Chinese film community. Because of these, Curiosity deserves a special round of applause.


Review of Shanghai Rumba (Shanghai lunba, 2006)

August 22, 2009

Review of Shanghai Rumba (Shanghai lunba, 2006),A Shanghai Film Studio production.

Director: PENG Xiaolian
Music: Pan Guoxing
Cinematographer: Lin Liangzhong, Wu Shijun
Art Director: Zhou Xinren
Screenwriter: Peng Xiaolian
Editor: Yang Xinyu
Cast: XIA Yu, YUAN Quan, GUAN Yi, CUI Jie, GAO Xin, LI Xuetong, DING Danni, SONG Ruhui and CHEN Hongmei
Running time: 115 MIN.
Release in China: Feb. 14, 2006.

Shaoyi’s Rating: B+ (Very Good)

Shanghai Rumba (Shanghai lunba, 2006), d. PENG Xiaolian

Shanghai Rumba (Shanghai lunba, 2006), d. PENG Xiaolian

Woman director Peng Xiaolian’s persistent take on Shanghai goes exquisitely nostalgic in Shanghai Rumba, a love story loosely based on the life of China’s legendary actors Zhao Dan and Huang Zongying and the film they starred in, Crows and Sparrows (1947).

Despite the film’s conventional camerawork and storytelling, film fans and critics would find Shanghai Rumba enchanting and irresistible. Best actor Xia Yu (Venice Film Festival) plays Ah Chuan, a well-known actor of the 1930s and 1940s whose unruly spirit is often at odds with the Nationalist regime as well as the bondage of family. The film begins with the scene in which Ah Chuan plays an underground agent during the Sino-Japanese War, but quickly shifts to the point of view of Wan Yu (played by Xia Yu’s real-life girlfriend Yuan Quan), who marries into a wealthy Shanghai family but always dreams to become a film star, the very career the wealthy family finds degrading. The unhappy marriage, which Wan Yu finds suffocating, quickly takes downturn after Wan Yu begins to play roles with Ah Chuan. There are hurdles to be crossed before the two eventually embrace each other, however. Wan Yu is married, and her wealthy husband is at least considerate and caring on his own term. As to Ah Chuan, although single, he lives under the shadow of his previous marriage, during which he is dubbed an “irresponsible” father who wants to fulfill his dream at any cost. Certainly this is the familiar trick of any love story: there got to be some hurdles to overcome before the loved ones finally get together. In the ending scene, the two meet again at a film set and the dialogue between the two reveals their true feeling…

Shanghai Rumba was officially released on Valentine’s Day, 2006. It is a perfect date film for those who believe love will conquer everything. To me, however, the film succeeds in invoking a cinematic history that is worthy of constant revisits. I was drawn to the film because it skillfully weaves together the love story and the Shanghai filmmaking scene in the 1940s. As we enjoy the behind-the-scene-like sequence of the pre-1949 Chinese classic Crows and Sparrows, the love relation between Ah Chuan and Wan Yu also develops. Yuan Quan’s balanced performance adds elegance, passion, and subtlety to the Wan Yu character, a fashion-conscious woman whose taste in “qipao” rivals that of the woman character (Maggie Cheung) in Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000). On the other hand, despite the fact that Xia Yu does a fair job in restaging Zhao Dan’s performance in Crows and Sparrows, compared to Zhao’s remarkable acting, Xia’s performance lacks real-life authenticity and the “neo-realist” touch that makes Crows and Sparrows an all-time classic.


Review of Loach is Fish Too (Niqiu ye shi yu, 2005)

August 22, 2009

Review of Loach is Fish Too (Niqiu ye shi yu, 2005), A Flying Dragon Movie & TV Co. production.
Director: YANG Yazhou
Producers: Ni Wei, Ai Qinghua
Screenwriter: Li Wei
Music: Lao Zai
Cinematographer: Wang Dong
Art Director: Huo Tingxiao
Editor: Ding Ruan, Xu Wei
Lighting: Yao Zhuoxi
Sound: Da Hua
Cast: Ni Ping, Ni Dahong, Pan Hong
Running time: 98 MIN.
Release in China: 2005.

Shaoyi’s Rating: C+ (Average)

Loach is Fish Too (Niqiu ye shi yu, 2005), d. YANG Yazhou

Loach is Fish Too (Niqiu ye shi yu, 2005), d. YANG Yazhou

Loach is Fish Too touches on the explosive subject of migrant workers, dubbed “floating populations,” flocking to the big cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou for better-paid jobs. Conservative Americans are building fences across the US-Mexico border to prevent illegal immigrants from entering the United States, but in China, the uneven development has made more than 100 million farmers flock to the big cities for opportunities. Building a fence to block them from entering the city would be both inhuman and self-destructive.

The film tells the story of two “Loaches”, female and male, embarking on a Beijing-bound train for a “better” life. The female Loach is recently divorced and carries the twin daughters with her, while the male Loach is a snakehead-like “boss” who from the beginning intends to take advantage of the female Loach’s vulnerability. Their city life, as one may predict, is full of hard labors and broken promises that involve stone-carrying at a construction site and mud-digging in an underground tunnel. As the story develops, however, the unlikely couple gets closer and intimate, and eventually becomes a real couple. Their relation is marked by punches, foul language, and constant quarrels. The male “Loach”, although a rude and money-thirsty man on surface, turns out to be a hero in the end by saving his co-worker in the tunnel.

Loach is Fish Too did a fair job in depicting migrant workers as dignified and caring human beings. As the title suggests, if “decent-looking” city dwellers are “fish”, then the migrant workers, despite being “Loaches”, are no different than their city fellows. This is certainly a noble effort that deserves our praise. On the other hand, however, the film fails to involve the audience on emotional level. Technically, it seems the film is always edited in a hurried motion, changing from one scene to anther without allowing breathing spaces in between. When it does slow down, the camera lingers on for no reason. The rhythm of the film, in other words, is not properly punctuated. Certain scenes are abruptly ended, followed by another equally abrupt scene that continues to disorient the audience. It is mainly because of this uneven rhythm, compounded by the exaggerated depiction of the “mob” character of the migrant workers that contribute to the failure of the film in the realm of emotional involvement. The film is loud, noisy, and hard to identify with. The director seems to be obsessed with the “raw” and “primitive” nature of the migrant workers, but at the same time forgets what the film really intends to convey: loach is fish, too.


Review of The Contract (China; Zu Qi, 2006)

August 22, 2009

Review of The Contract (China; Zu Qi, 2006), A Fujian Dongyu Film and TV Co. Ltd. & Guangdong Guoshi Cultural Communication Co. Ltd. production.

Director: Lu Xuechang
Producers: Xiao Feng
Screenwriter: Lu Xuechang, Gong Xiangdong
Music: Dong Wei
Cinematographer: Liu Yonghong
Art Director: Sheng Ying
Sound: Yang Jiang
Cast: Pan Yueming as Guo Jiaju, Li Min as Lily
Running time: 98 MIN.
Release in China: 2005.
Available at: http://us.yesasia.com

Shaoyi’s Rating: B+ (Very Good)

The Contract (Zu Qi), d. LU Xuechang

The Contract (Zu Qi), d. LU Xuechang

Sixth Generation director Lu Xuechang (The Making of the Steel, A Lingering Face, Cala My Dog) does not share the same fame as his schoolmates like Wang Xiaoshuai and Lou Ye, but Lu’s tireless take on the underprivileged people living in the ever changing society of contemporary China pays off in this well scripted and directed film set in modern day Beijing and Fujian. As his previous works, The Contract does not rely on fancy camerawork, lavish sets, breathtaking scenes, and glamorous stars, but succeeds in telling a touching story in a quiet, sometimes even intentionally toned-down manner. Regrettably, partly because of this approach, the film has gone largely unnoticed since its theatrical release. The general public is even unaware of the existence of such a film.

The Contract tells the story of Guo Jiaju (Pan Yueming), a bankrupted Beijing businessman, being called to visit his terminally ill father in the countryside. To bring good fortune to his sick father, Jiaju “rents” a prostitute, Lily (Li Min), to pretend to be his fiancée. Lily is a prostitute on the run, while Guo is looking to dodge a creditor and at the same time needs to return to his hometown to see his dying father. Thus the two find each other a convenient company. Before arriving in the village, they sign a contract, in which Jiaju invents a fake identity for Lily as an elementary school teacher, and in return, he will pay her 2000 yuan for being a “rented” fiancée.

But things turn out to be not as perfect as Jiaju planned. To satisfy his dying father, Jiaju, a filial son by nature, is asked by his mother to formally marry Lily, because it is believed that marriage ceremony could bring happiness and luck. The show must go on. Thus, the unlikely couple goes through a lavish marriage ceremony and, although it fails to save the life of Jiaju’s father, the performed ceremony does make the couple more intimately connected. As the film approaches the end, Lily, emotionally drawn to Jiaju, gets him out of debt trouble with her hard-earned money. Three years later, a financially sound Jiaju reemerges in Beijing, and Lily, on the other hand, is seen pregnant. Will the paths of the two be crossed?

Depicting prostitutes as having inner “good hearts” is nothing new in Chinese cinema. Wu Yonggang’s The Goddess, for example, is about a caring mother/prostitute victimized by the evil force of 1930s’ Shanghai. What makes Lu’s work outstanding is the fact that the director refuses to treat the story in a melodramatic and sentimental way. Even though the two are attracted to each other, they nevertheless go on their own paths after the marriage performance is over. Li Min’s convincing performance as a modern day prostitute in Beijing stands out from the beginning to the end. She is not treated as either a victim or a transformable/redeemable character, but simply as who she is. Acceptable or not, she is a human being who happens to be a prostitute.