“Trans-Border Chinese-Language Commercial Cinema” Workshop

September 29, 2009
Visiting Scholar at the “Trans-Border Chinese-Language Commercial Cinema” Workshop; Jan-Feb. 2008, Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Visiting Scholar at the “Trans-Border Chinese-Language Commercial Cinema” Workshop; Jan-Feb. 2008, Chinese University of Hong Kong.


Review of You and Me (我们俩;China, 2006)

September 25, 2009

Review of You and Me (China; 我们俩, 2006), A Beijing Film Studio presentation of a Fourth Prod. Co., China Film Group, Feima Southwest Movie & TV Art Development Center of Sichuan production. (International sales: China Film Group, Beijing.)

Director: Ma Liwen
Producers: Han Sanping, Jiang Tao, Lu Hongshi.
Executive Producer: Wang Daqing
Co-Producers: Zhao Haicheng, Wu Yakang.
Screenwriter: Ma Liwen
Editor: Zhan Haihong
Music: Dou Wei
Cinematographer: Wu Di, Wu Wai
Art Director: Liu Kedong
Sound: Zhang Jinyan
Cast: Jin Yaqin, Gong Zhe
Running time: 83 MIN.
Release in China: 2005.
Available at: http://us.yesasia.com

Shaoyi’s Rating: B+ (Very Good)

You and Me (Wo men liang, 2006); d. Ma Liwen

You and Me (Wo men liang, 2006); d. Ma Liwen

With two features dealing with the aged women and their troubled relations to either their siblings or strangers, woman director Ma Liwen, a graduate from Beijing-based Central Academy of Theater Arts, gains solid ground on a profession that is disproportionately dominated by BFA-educated (Beijing Film Academy) filmmakers. Gone is the One Who Held Me the Dearest (2002), Ma’s directorial debut, is adapted from a novella by a famed Chinese writer. This time, however, Ma scripted her own film, and the result of which is a story with literary refinement and psychological depth that looks as if it was adapted from a literary work.

You and Me is punctuated by four seasons, a structure that is increasingly favored by directors of art film. Picture starts with an impressive wide shot of the snow-covered barren landscape of Beijing, in which Xiao Ma, a newly arrived college freshman, is introduced. Looking for a cheap yet well-located place to live, she knocks on doors in cold weather and ends up with no choice but renting a cramped room in a siheyuan (a four-walled compound surrounding a central courtyard) owned by a seemingly stingy old woman in her 80s. From the first day Xiao Ma moves in, the unlikely couple finds each other intolerable and stubbornly selfish. While the old woman insists on unreasonable charges for phone, gas, and electricity, Xiao Ma fights her way to get it even. As the two feisty women spit out insults on each other, they also develop a strange closeness when the spring sunshine gradually melts away the cold winter. The old woman finds Xiao Ma a delightful remedy to her lonely life, while Xiao Ma discovers a warm and caring old lady behind the “mask” of stubbornness and eccentricity. The picture ends with Xiao Ma becoming an intimate friend to the old lady in her last days.

From the very beginning, the picture is dominated by a suffocating bluish look, which perfectly matches the spatial confinement resulted from extreme close-ups and monotonous life in the shabby siheyuan. The director skillfully explores the space and color, which almost turn into a third character besides the old lady and Xiao Ma. Jin Yaqin’s performance, for which she was crowned Best Actress at the Tokyo International Film Festival and the Golden Rooster Film Festival of China, is unforgettably superb and mesmerizing. Gong Zhe, on the other hand, brightens the film with her convincing portrayal of a college student in Beijing.

Ma’s script is not without flaws, however. In the scene where Xiao Ma comes home with a video camera to interview the old lady, for example, Ma could have used the rare opportunity to let the old lady reminisce her past so as to add depth and likeability to the character. The closeness between the old lady and Xiao Ma could have been exclamatorily reinforced by adding a scene in which the old lady hands the painting, although almost a part of her life, to Xiao Ma when she moves out of the siheyuan. It is true that film is the art of regrets, as the old saying proclaims, but these script flaws could be easily fixed before the camera starts to crank.

Global Media Policies: New Perspectives

September 19, 2009

Global Media Policies: New Perspectives (Co-Editor; 国际传媒政策新视野).  Shanghai: Shanghai Joint Press, 2005.
ISBN: 7-5426-2186-6

Book Cover of "Global Media Policies: New Perspectives"

Book Cover of "Global Media Policies: New Perspectives"

This is a book I co-edited with my colleagues JIN Guanjun and ZHENG Han, which includes 24 articles translated from a variety of English journals. Issues covered in the book include “Theory and Method”, “National and Supranational Regulations”, “WTO and the Global Media Market”, “Comeptition, Monopoly, Copyright, and New Media Order”, and “New Technologies and Media Transformation”.

The book is the first in a series that deals with media transformation and media policies. The second book in the series, which specifically focuses on Asia (particularly East Asia and India), will come out from the same press this year. Currently we are working on the third volume of the series, which devotes its attention to new media (including game, the Internet, and social networking) and new technologies in a transformed media landscape.

Photo with actress Vivian Wu

September 15, 2009
Photo with actress Vivian Wu (The Pillow Book, The Soong Sisters, The Founding of a Republic; second from the left) at the "Chinese Cinema at 100: Art, Politics, and Commerce" conference, April 2008, USC.

Photo with actress Vivian Wu (The Pillow Book, The Soong Sisters, The Founding of a Republic; second from the left) at the "Chinese Cinema at 100: Art, Politics, and Commerce" conference, April 2008, University of Southern California.

Review of The Big Movie (大电影之数百亿; China, 2006)

September 12, 2009

Review of The Big Movie (大电影之数百亿; China, 2006), A Shengshi Tuhua Film & TV Company production

Director: Ah Gan
Producers: Zeng Zhiwei (Eric TSANG Chi-Wai), Deng Chiheng
Screenwriter: Ning Caishen, Ah Gan
Cinematographer: Yu Guobing
Cast: Yao Chen, Huang Bo, Zeng Zhiwei (Eric TSANG Chi-Wai), Jiao Yang
Running time: 120 MIN.
Release in China: Dec. 22, 2006.

Shaoyi’s Rating: C+ (Average)

The Big Movie (Da dian ying, 2006); d. Ah Gan

The Big Movie (Da dian ying, 2006); d. Ah Gan

When “The Bloody Case Caused by a Bun,” a cheaply made DV short by a Shanghai amateur parodying Chen Kaige’s $30-million-plus blockbuster The Promise, was posted on the Internet and became an instant hit throughout China, it caused an uproar from the veteran filmmaker, who onetime even threatened to take the amateur to court. Since then, “e-gao” (恶搞), a Chinese term referring to “parodying with an evil intention,” has become a popular practice in the entertainment circle of China. Many people, particularly the young, find it amusing and trendy to parody the established and the famed by using alternative media such as home video and the Internet. Ah Gan’s The Big Movie, which parodies quite a few popular titles from mainland China, Hong Kong, Korea, and Hollywood, is the latest example that even somewhat established filmmakers don’t want to let this gold-digging opportunity slip. This time, however, no fusses were reported from either side. Perhaps those who were parodied have become smarter. After all, as any Hollywood studio head would say, there is no such thing as bad press in the show business.

Besides obvious Stephen Chow-style “nonsense,” The Big Movie does have something serious to say, or at least it pretends so. To some extent, the film can be viewed as a satirical comment on the housing market “fever” in Shanghai, which sucks in all the energies of the three leading characters: a small businessman from Hong Kong, who dreams to make a fortune in booming Shanghai, a waning film star, who works as a spokesman for a housing project in hopes of getting funding from the realtor for his film, a sharp-tongued office lady whose involvement is to get her 50,000 yuan deposit back from the realtor. Money and greed are the driving forces behind everyone’s action, and the Shanghai real estate industry is oftentimes portrayed like an underground gangster world where kidnapping, cheating, and fighting speak the truth. All these are interludes, however. The film’s real intension is to make fun of (or, to use director Ah Gan’s phrase, “to pay tribute to”) all the “big movies” the director finds worthwhile. This is also where fun and laughs come from. Without sufficient knowledge of the films The Big Movie refers to, such as the opening line “Life is like a dish of roasted pigeon…,” which apparently parodies the line “Life is like a box of chocolate…” in Forrest Gump, one wouldn’t get the jokes. The same is true with the restaged scenes that make fun of Brokeback Mountain, Kung Fu Hustle, In the Mood for Love, House of Flying Daggers, and Daisy.

The Big Movie is a testament of how Chinese cinema has changed from a politics and propaganda-centered medium to the one that prioritizes light-hearted entertainment. To a certain extent, China needs this kind of films. Since the 1930s, cinema has been largely used as a tool to advance social causes and convey blatant ideological messages. Too often is it the case that Chinese cinema looks self-righteously serious and heavy-hearted. In this sense, The Big Movie offers the audience a refreshing look at how cinema can take other directions. However, this is also where the problem lies: like Borat, a recent Hollywood production that chooses laughs over meaning, The Big Movie also cannot escape the fate that, after the audience leaves cinema, there is almost nothing left for them to ponder.

Photo with Director Wang Quan’an (Lunar Eclipse; Tuya’s Marriage)

September 10, 2009
Photo with director WANG Quan'an (Lunar Eclipse, Tuya's Marriage; second from the right) at the 2007 Shanghai International Film Festival, June, 2007.

Photo with director WANG Quan'an (Lunar Eclipse, Tuya's Marriage; second from the right) at the 2007 Shanghai International Film Festival, June, 2007.

Review of Courthouse on the Horseback (马背上的法庭; China, 2006)

September 8, 2009

Review of Courthouse on the Horseback (马背上的法庭, 2006), A 3C Films, Beijing Children’s Art Theater production

Director: Liu Jie
Producers: Liu Jie, Hsu Hsiao-ming
Screenwriter: Wang Lifu
Editor: Liao Ching-song
Cinematographer: Harrison Zhang
Art Director: Cao Jiaan
Sound: Yang Xin
Cast: Li Baotian, Yang Yaning, Lu Yulai, Li Tingliang (Mandarin/Chinese dialect dialogue)
Running time: 105 MIN.
Release in China: 2006.

Shaoyi’s Rating: B- (Fair)

Courthouse on the Horseback (Ma bei shang de fa ting, 2006); d. Liu Jie

Courthouse on the Horseback (Ma bei shang de fa ting, 2006); d. Liu Jie

Although Liu Jie was a relatively unknown before his directorial debut Courthouse on the Horseback won the prize for a film in the Horizons section at the 2006 Venice International Film Festival (Jia Zhangke’s Still Life won Golden Lion at the same festival), he has been a no stranger in the Chinese film circle. Graduated from the Cinematography Department of the Beijing Film Academy in 1991, Liu worked as a cameraman/DP for Wang Xiaoshuai’s The Days (1993) and Beijing Bicycle (2001) and has been a close friend of the diversifying group of filmmakers collectively labeled the “Sixth Generation.” As his debut, Courthouse shows a versatile Liu who has a potential to become a force to be reckoned with in the art film world.

Set in Southwest China’s Yunnan Province, a location that has been favored in recent years by such filmmakers as Zhang Yimou (Rising Alone for Thousands of Miles), Zhu Wen (South of the Clouds), and Zhang Jiarui (The Road, When Nuoma was Seventeen), Courthouse opens with a static shot of a female courthouse clerk Auntie Yang being advised that she will be no longer needed after her last trip to the mountainous region (a similar framing and narrative strategy used in the opening shot of Beijing Bicycle). Then, the camera shifts its focus to a long and meandering red-earth path, which echoes the monotonous pace of the film, where a traveling courthouse group of three, the female clerk included, slowly walks into the frame. The group is led by judge Feng (played by famed actor Li Baotian) in his mid-50s, who is not always as serious as he first appears, and joined by the female court clerk, who belongs to the Moso Ethnic Group (the minority that is believed to still retain the social structure of matriarchy) and Ah-Luo, a recent college law graduate of Yi Ethnic Group. They share a companion in an old horse, which is carrying all the court facilities, including a round-sized national emblem, the symbol of the state authority. According to the director, there are nearly one thousand such mobile courthouses in China, and their job is to deliver court decisions to as well as to make on-site settlements for the disputes of the ethnic minorities living in the isolated regions that are impossible to reach through normal transportation means (a parallel to Huo Jianqi’s Postmen in the Mountains). The group travels from village to village and, in the process of settling the disputes, which range from an ancestor grave dug up by pigs to the killing of sheep trespassing on the arbitrarily drawn “territory” of a neighboring village, the three also find themselves oftentimes at odds with each other: judge Feng and Auntie Yang apparently have developed a tacit intimacy over the past years, but the two are never able to directly express their feelings; Auntie Yang sometimes gets a little uneasy when judge Feng becomes irritated with all the trivial disputes brought up by the local people. On the other hand, Ah-Luo is in constant argument with judge Feng and, by the end of the film, he simply runs away with his bride after a confrontation with Feng, leaving the latter traveling lonely in the zigzagging path (Auntie Yang stays in her own village after the duty is over). The film ends with judge Feng walking out of the frame, an indication that he might have followed the path of his old-time friend…

Courthouse is a decent film with subtle political and social messages. This is especially clear when the national emblem is lost and then found with judge Feng claiming the emblem is just as “holy” as the image of Buddha worshipped by the local ethnicities. The film also has an ethnographic dimension, which oftentimes makes it look more like a documentary than a fictional film. With a small budget (just over three million yuan), it is intended to be an “art film.” The audience, therefore, should not feel surprised when they are presented a film marked by prolonged static shots (the camera seldom moves), slow/monotonous pace, amateurish performance (with the exception of the lead actor Li Baotian), little drama, and an absence of music score. This is where the film’s weakness lies: perhaps the director should have made a documentary instead of a feature out of the subject.