Review of The Knot (云水谣; Mainland China/Hong Kong/Taiwan, 2006)

October 23, 2009

Review of The Knot (云水谣; Mainland China/Hong Kong/Taiwan, 2006), A China Film Group Corporation, Hong Kong Emperor Classic Films Company Ltd. , Taiwan Long Shong Entertainment Multimedia Co. Ltd., and CCTV Movie Channel production

Director: Yin Li
Producers: Zhang Xun, Guo Musheng.
Executive Producer: Yin Li
Screenwriter: Liu Heng, based on the original script by Zhang Kehui
Editor: Zhan Haihong
Music: Zhou Ye
Cinematographer: Wang Xiaolie
Art Director: Lu Yuelins
Cast: Chen Kun, Xu Ruoxuan (Vivian HSU), Li Bingbing, Gui Yalei (GUA Ah-leh), Qin Han (CHUN Hon), Yang Guimei (YANG Kuei-Mei), Liang Luoshi (Isabella LEONG)
Running time: 112 MIN.
Release in China: 2006.

Shaoyi’s Rating: B+ (Very Good)

The Knot (Yun Shui Yao, 2006); d. Yin Li

The Knot (Yun Shui Yao, 2006); d. Yin Li

Although a graduate of the famed 1982 class of the Beijing Film Academy, which was later labeled the “Fifth Generation” of Chinese filmmakers, Yin Li has been a less well known name in the film circle (partly due to his TV career) until his film Zhang Side, a “main melody” (a code name for propaganda films in China) production that features top leaders of the Communist Party during the Civil War period, including Mao, swept the best film, best director and best leading actor awards at the 2006 Golden Rooster Film Festival. If his winning of the Best Director title is somewhat controversial, then the crowd-pleasing love melodrama The Knot could probably silence the critics who usually tend not to vote for “main melody” films.

Starring popular mainland actors Chen Kun, Li Bingbing, and Taiwanese actress Vivian Hsu, The Knot tells the story of a Taiwan leftist’s love life between the later 1940s and early 1960s, the period when politics and war made love and personal life a luxury. The story unfolds in 1940s’ Taiwan, where a medical school student named Chen Qiushui is offered an English tutor job at a local dentist’s family. Qiushui and Wang Biyun, the dentist’s child-looking daughter, fall in love at the first sight. But love cannot conquer everything. At the sensitive time when GMD/KMT is consolidating power on the island of Taiwan to prepare its imminent retreat from the mainland, any dissident voice has to be silenced. Qiushui, because of his left-leaning ideas (which is only suggested in the film), is forced to flee from the island on the eve of the 228 Incident. The two are forever separated since then by the hostile straits of Taiwan.

For a love melodrama to work, however, it is almost an unspoken rule that the romance needs to involve a “third” party or multiple parties. Thus comes Wang Jindi, Biyun’s “mirror image” after Qiushui joins the Communist army in the mainland. The two become friends at the end of the Korean War and eventually get married in Tibet after Wang Jindi re-names herself “Wang Biyun,” an act that would probably annoy many female filmmakers and writers. The film ends with the tragic death of Qiushui and Jindi in Tibet, and Biyun, now an old woman and painter living in New York, paints the snow-covered Tibetan mountains in red.

With the exception of the relationship between men and women, which may oftentimes look “politically incorrect,” The Knot is a well-made film with great set design, beautiful cinematography, and memorable performances of almost all cast, particularly Li Bingbing, whose acting makes the audience wonder why it takes so long for Qiushui to fall for her. The film proves once again that Yin Li is particularly talented in handling period dramas. The long take (modified and prolonged through special effects technique) in the beginning of the film, which smoothly covers the multi-faceted nature of the everyday life in 1940s’ Taiwan, is in itself a daring achievement. The frequently used fade-to-black transitions between sequences and shots, even in its two-second cut-aways, however, are hard to swallow. Maybe this is a mark of Yin Li’s personal style, but it often disrupts the audience’s focused attention.

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Photo with Stephen Lesser

October 22, 2009
With Stephen Lesser and his "clone", grandson of Sol Lesser (1890-1980, Hollywood film producer and presenter), at Stephen's 70th birthday party, October 10, 2009, UCLA Faculty Center.

With Stephen Lesser and his "clone", grandson of Sol Lesser (1890-1980, Hollywood film producer and presenter), at Stephen's 70th birthday party, October 10, 2009, UCLA Faculty Center.


(Re)Inventing China: A New Cinema for a New Society, 1949 – 1966

October 22, 2009

(Re)Inventing China: A New Cinema for a New Society, 1949 – 1966
New York, September 26 – October 6

The 47th New York Film Festival (September 25 – October 11, 2009) will highlight the history of global cinema, including a special program of films from China. (Re)Inventing China: A New Cinema for a New Society, 1949-1966, is a twenty-film anthology of works from the crucial early years of the People’s Republic of China.

Following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, a series of debates emerged as to the role of the cinema in the new socialist state. What kind of balance should filmmakers strike between the education of the masses and their entertainment? What should be the place of Chinese cultural traditions in creating a national cinema? This film series presents 20 films from the so-called “Seventeen Year” period—from the founding of the PRC to the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution—that sought to respond to these debates about what kind of cinema this “New China” should have. The following are the films to be screened, including a number of works never before seen in the U.S.:

Before the New Director Arrives / Xin ju zhang dao lai zhi qian
Lü Ban, China, 1956; 70m

new_director_is_coming_thumb“Let a hundred flowers bloom,” said Chairman Mao in 1956. “Let a hundred schools of thought contend.” Within weeks, multiple films were offering criticisms of revolutionary China that would have been unthinkable even a year prior, including this story of a zealous bureaucrat whose enthusiasm for the title arrival is overshadowed by the director’s selfish motivations. Based on a popular stage play inspired by Gogol’s “The Inspector General,” Lü’s gentle comedy doesn’t attack the system, only those who abuse it for their own ends, a provocative theme in a society in which authority was largely beyond challenge.

Big Li, Little Li and Old Li / Da Li, Xiao Li he Lao Li
Xie Jin, China, 1962; 100m

big_li__young_li_and_old_li_thumbUnion leaders Big Li and Old Li regard sports as a waste of time, unlike Old Li’s son Little Li, who gives sports precedence over just about everything. But when the workers jokingly elect Big Li head of their local athletic association, he surprises everyone by taking the position so seriously, he becomes a sports enthusiast. Xie’s madcap factory comedy uses a fascinating cross-section of characters—as well as slow motion, freeze frames, animation, and screen masks and cutouts—to great comic effect.

Bridge / Qiao
Wang Bin, China, 1949; 100m

bridge_thumbConsidered the first People’s Republic film despite being shot months before Mao’s final victory, Bridge chronicles the construction of a bridge vital for the movement of advancing Communist forces: The pessimistic lead engineer lacks the time and materials to complete the project, but Liang Risheng, a local union leader, comes up with a bold, innovative plan to bring it home. The film is a template for much of the PRC cinema that followed, emphasizing the clash between technical expertise and class consciousness. With Lü Ban, who would later direct Before the New Director Arrives and other popular films.

Family / Jia
Chen Xihe and Ye Ming, China, 1957; 130m

the_family_thumbThe mid-’50s saw a wave of films based on works by the May Fourth generation, writers who sought to open Chinese literature and culture to foreign influences and address the reality of contemporary China. In Family, based on the novel by Ba Jin, the fortunes of a large, well-off family decline in the early 20th century after the end of the Imperial government. Painting a rich portrait of the period, Family’s meticulous, beautifully choreographed tracking shots recall Ophüls’s films, creating the incessant feeling of time running out on a certain way of life.

Five Golden Flowers / Wu duo Jinhua
Wang Jiayi, China, 1959; 100m

five_golden_flowers_thumbOne of the most charming examples of the National Minority film—a genre that emerged from China’s efforts to decentralize its film industry, resulting in a need for local material filled by non-ethnic PRC citizens—Five Golden Flowers follows Ah Peng, from the Bai minority. He is smitten with an elusive young woman named Golden Flower. They plan to meet in a year, but when the date comes, Golden Flower is absent. Ah Peng’s search leads not only to comic misunderstandings and musical interludes, but a celebration of the solidarity of all Chinese people.

Keep the Red Flag Flying, aka Song of the Red Flag / Hong qi pu
Ling Zifeng, China, 1960; 107m

keep_red_flag_flying_thumbThe new national cinema of China often endeavored to create a visual history of the PRC’s founding. here, veteran director Ling Zifeng follows small farmer Zhu Laogong (Cui Wei) through long years of hardship and dreams of revenge before he arrives at a new political consciousness. Keep the Red Flag Flying shows how much more powerful the anger and discontent of the common people can become when it is grounded in revolutionary theory and expressed in solidarity with others. Cui won the Hundred Flowers award (then the Chinese Oscar) for best actor for his performance.

Li Shuang Shuang
Lu Ren, China, 1962; 110m

li_shuangshuang_thumbOne of the era’s most popular films and winner of four Hundred Flowers awards including Best Picture, Li Shuang Shuang offers up another round in the battle of the sexes wrought by China’s revolutionary society. Straight-talking Shuang Shuang (Zhang Ruifang) launches a corruption investigation into her own husband, commune accountant Xiwang (Zhong Xinghuo), that forces him to leave. When they meet again, Xiwang claims that he is a changed man, but will Shuang Shuang take him back? A rollicking character study with great performances, influenced by a favorite of Chinese filmmakers: ’30s Hollywood comedies.

Living Forever in Burning Flames / Lie huo zhong yong sheng
Shui Hua, China, 1965; 138m

liehuoIn the waning days of the civil war, clandestine Communist leader Xu Yunfeng (the great Zhao Dan, in his last major performance) is sent to the notorious Red Crag prison, where he’s tortured and beaten. As the situation grows worse for the Nationalists, prison officials step up their oppression, announcing plans to execute all the prisoners. One of the last films completed before the Cultural Revolution temporarily ended film production in China, Living Forever focuses not on heroics but on the interpersonal support the prisoners give each other, confronting the sacrifices made to achieve the final victory.

Mysterious Traveling Companion / Shen mi de lu ban
Lin Nong and Zhu Wenshun, China, 1955; 100m

mysterious_traveling_companion_thumbOne of the classics of the PRC’s popular spy film genre, Mysterious Traveling Companion follows two secret agents working for the Americans who smuggle weapons and communication equipment to a Catholic priest. When they arouse the suspicions of a local woman, the border patrol assigns two of its own agents to infiltrate the smugglers’ operation. Wonderful plot twists and a taut, suspenseful ending frame a National Minority story, as the many non-Han Chinese characters finally reveal an unquestionable loyalty to Beijing.

New Year Sacrifice / Zhu Fu
Sang Hu, China, 1956; 100m

new_year_s_sacrifice_thumbIn New Year Sacrifice, based on a key work by the great May Fourth writer Lu Xun, a young widow (veteran actress Bai Yang) is sold by her in-laws to a mountain peasant. He turns out to be a kind man, but when fate deals her another blow, she is regarded as a pariah despite her ultimately devastating attempt to be forgiven by making a major donation to a temple. Lu hoped to show through his story the oppressive weight of tradition, which only increases the burdens on widows while offering little comfort.

Nie Er
Zheng Junli, China, 1959; 130m

nie_er_the_musician_thumbNie Er re-united two powerhouses of the pre-1949 Shanghai cinema, director Zheng Junli (The Spring River Flows East and Crows and Sparrows) and celebrated actor Zhao Dan, to create a massive studio production chronicling the life of Nie Er, the composer of the PRC’s national anthem “March of the Volunteers,” who died in 1935. The period recreation is breathtaking, as Zheng and his screenwriters offer a powerful variation on a perpetual meditation: the role of art and artists in times of revolutionary change.

Platoon Commander Guan / Guan lian zhang
Shi Hui, China, 1951; 120m

captain_guan_thumbVeterans of dozens of battles, Commander Guan (director Shu Hui, one of the greatest film talents to have emerged at the end of the war) and his men come off R&R with orders to attack enemy headquarters in Shanghai. But Guan discovers that the targeted building is actually an orphanage, with hundreds of terrified children still inside. Brilliantly acted and consistently challenging, Platoon Commander Guan offers one of the most richly nuanced portraits of the liberation struggle. As a result, many contemporary Chinese directors, including Jia Zhangke, cite the film as an all-time favorite.

The Red Detachment of Women / Hong se niang zi jun
Xie Jin, China, 1961; 115m

the_red_detachment_thumbEscape-prone servant girl Chunghua is bought from her master by a wealthy businessman who turns out to be an organizer for the Communist party. She joins up eagerly, but her desire for revenge overshadows her commitment to the revolution, until she becomes a danger to her new comrades. One of the best films of the period, The Red Detachment laces its politics with great expressions of personal passion and scenes of remarkable physical transformation. It was a favorite of Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, forming the basis for one of her “eight model plays.”

Sentries Under Neon Lights / Ni hong deng xia de shao bin
Wang Ping and Ge Xing, China, 1964; 130m

sentinels_under_neon_lights_thumbShortly after the liberation of Shanghai, a PLA unit is billeted in the late-night hotspots along Nanjing Road. The temptation proves too much for the soldiers, and the local political supervisor Lu Hua is left to bring them back into the Party fold. This free use of questionable main characters was not to defend their bad behavior but to show that, with proper guidance, even the most decadent citizens can be reintegrated into the new China, a direct challenge to the hard-line attitude that judged people on class background alone.

Seventy-Two Tenants / Qi shi er jia fang ke
Wang Weiyi, China, 1963; 90m

those_72_tenants_thumbAn old Guangzhou tenement house serves as a microcosm of China in the months before the establishment of the PRC. When the tyrannical landlord announces plans to convert the ramshackle building into a pleasure palace, the loose band of merchants, artisans, and artists unite to save their homes. Chockfull of side stories and wonderful comic passages, Seventy-Two Tenants uses a favorite plot device of the era: the sudden coming to consciousness of a group of otherwise apathetic citizens.

This Life of Mine, aka The Life of a Beijing Policeman / Wo zhe yi bei zi
Shi Hui, China, 1950; 110m

this_life_of_mine_thumbBased on a novel by Lao She, one of China’s most important writers, This Life of Mine follows a nameless man (director Shi Hui) who, as a Beijing policeman near the end of Imperial regime, witnesses many of the major events of modern Chinese history: the May Fourth movement, the rise of the Guomindang, the Japanese invasion, the war. Shi brings astonishing depth to the character, offering both visceral pain and the persistent fear that he’ll eventually get caught on the wrong side of the struggle.

Two Stage Sisters / Wutai jiemei
Xie Jin, China, 1965; 112m

two_stage_sisters_thumbThe unrivalled masterpiece of the Seventeen Years cinema follows peasant girl Chunhua, who escapes an arranged marriage by hiding within a traveling Shaoxing opera company. Soon, she and Yuehong, the manager’s daughter, earn fame and perhaps too much attention as a scintillating on-stage duo. With ravishing art design and a unique approach to filming opera, this brilliantly executed work is studio filmmaking at its finest. Nevertheless, Jiang Qing despised the film, inciting so much anger that a group of Red Guards destroyed the magnificent 16th-century stage that appears in the opening scenes.

Visitors on the Icy Mountains / Yi ge shi zhe dui sheng zhe de fang wen
Zhao Shinshui, China, 1963; 100m

visitors_on_the_icy_mountain_thumbShortly after the liberation, a group of spies plan to infiltrate China through the forbidding mountain passes in Xinjiang by exploiting the unrequited love of a vulnerable border guard. But the commander of the border guards has his own secret weapon: the guard’s old flame, who has begun working for the Chinese. Several exciting mountain sequences and romantic subplots underscore this popular spy thriller, a prime example of how skillfully Chinese filmmakers could wrap their openly patriotic messages within rich, hugely entertaining narratives.

Woman Basketball Player No. 5 / Nü lan wu hao
Xie Jin, China, 1957; 94m

women_basketball_no5_thumbNot the most lyrical title in film history, but Woman Basketball Player No. 5 is a work of tremendous feeling that launched the career of one of China’s greatest filmmakers. After refusing to throw a game, star basketball player Tian Zhenghua is kicked off the team while his love Jie, the team owner’s daughter, is married off. Eighteen years later and a successful coach, he is amazed to discover that his star player is the daughter of his old flame. The before-and-after-the-liberation narrative was a staple of the period, allowing filmmakers to depict the decadent bad old days and celebrate the changes wrought by the new China.

Woman Hairdresser / Nu li fa shi
Ding Ran, China, 1962; 100m

woman_barber_thumbHua Jiafang goes against her Party husband’s wishes and enrolls in a hairdressing course. Landing a good job in a prominent salon, her reputation soars, and soon she is attracting clients from all over—including her unknowing husband. One of the few films of the era to discuss the lingering presence of class prejudice in China, Woman Hairdresser makes an impassioned plea for the dignity of all work, as well as the right of women to determine for themselves the course of their lives.


Review of One Foot off the Ground (鸡犬不宁; China, 2006)

October 11, 2009

Review of One Foot off the Ground (鸡犬不宁; China, 2006), A Huayi Brothers Co. production

Director: Chen Daming
Producer: Chris Lee, Wang Zhonglei
Cinematographer: Yang Shu
Screenplay: Chen Daming
Editor: Zhou Hanliang, Chris Lee
Art Design: Han Chunlin
Music: Evan Chen, Ma Shangyou
Sound: Wang Xueyi
Cast: Xu Fan, Li Yixiang, Xiao Xiangyu, Jin Hong, Yao Lu
Running time: 102 MIN.
Release in China: October 25, 2006.

Shaoyi’s Rating: B- (Fair)

One Foot off the Ground (Ji quan bu ning, 2006); d. Chen Daming

One Foot off the Ground (Ji quan bu ning, 2006); d. Chen Daming

In its publicity campaign prior to the nationwide release, One Foot off the Ground was dubbed “Crazy Stone No. 2,” a reference to the small-budget miracle Crazy Stone that cost only 3 million RMB to make but made more than 20 million RMB in Chinese box-office alone. The film does bear certain superficial resemblance to Ning Hao’s Crazy Stone: both films speak local dialects (One Foot in Henan dialect, and Crazy Stone in Chongqing dialect), and both films are sugared with light-hearted humor for a wider audience, departing from the seriousness and artiness often seen in festival-oriented Chinese films. But the resemblance largely stops here, for One Foot off the Ground is more ambitious, oftentimes trying to say more than it can handle.

Set in Kaifeng, Henan province, a rundown city that prides itself as the capital of the Northern Song dynasty of China, One Foot off the Ground tells the story of a struggling local opera troupe and the uneventful lives of three leading performers after the troupe is forced to disband. In China’s march toward freewheeling capitalism, yuju, or traditional Henan Opera, is faced with a dwindling audience and lack of sponsorship. To add to this dismay, the troupe’s hard found sponsorship has gone missing after its director’s motorcycle crashes onto a suddenly stopped bus. At this point, the film cuts to the scene of three-month later, where the three leading performers start their lives anew: one opening a photo studio, one selling stolen dogs, and one trying to make a fortune in cockfighting. Although the three manage to get by, particularly the photo studio owner, who looks almost like a “new rich” thanks to his father-in-law’s support, they have to deal with new problems in their life: the dog-seller’s wife, who used to be a Henan opera star, returns back from the south and is suspected to have developed an extramarital affair with the troupe’s director, the cockfighting maniac finds his relation with his wife, both sexual and communicative, deteriorates day by day, and the photo studio owner is burned with a desire for a wannabe model, which sends his own wife on edge. As a dramedy (drama plus comedy), however, the generic convention requires a beefed-up finale. Thus, the dog-seller’s wife regains her husband’s trust, the cockfighting maniac’s wife comes back to her husband, asking for “forgiveness”, and the photo studio owner, out of nowhere, regrets his fancy for the young hot. This is compounded by the happiness of their master’s belated marriage and the news that the troupe is about to set off for Hong Kong.

Cinematically, the film is balanced and smooth in cutting and rhythm. There is nothing bold about filming, but it is also hard to identify any technical flaws. The major problem of the film, as said above, lies in its overextended ambition. It touches upon many social issues, such as unemployment, extramarital affairs, traditional culture vs. modernity, the nationwide “craze” for money, and dysfunctional family and sex, but to ask a less-than-two-hour-film to sufficiently address these is just too much. For a foreign audience, who is not necessarily updated with contemporary China and Chinese culture, One Foot off the Ground also suffers from a lack of focus: too many characters, too many side stories, and too much reliance on dialogue. Unlike Crazy Stone, which uses an emerald to weave together the plot line, the stolen purse in One Foot does not seem to play such a role, although the director’s intention might be the opposite.


Review of Dreams May Come (梦想照进现实;China, 2006)

October 1, 2009

Review of Dreams May Come (China; 梦想照进现实, 2006), A Kaila Productions Co. Ltd. and Cinerent Beijing Ltd. production.

Director: Xu Jinglei
Producers: Xu Zijian, Liu Xuan
Screenwriter: Wang Shuo
Editor: Zhang Jia
Music: Mars Radio
Cinematographer: Wu Liang
Art Director: Zhang Wu
Sound: Chen Chen
Cast: Han Tongsheng, Xu Jinglei
Running time: 105 MIN.
Release in China: 2006.
Available at: http://us.yesasia.com

Shaoyi’s Rating: F (Failed)

Dreams May Come (Mengxiang zhaojin xianshi, 2006); d. Xu Jinglei

Dreams May Come (Mengxiang zhaojin xianshi, 2006); d. Xu Jinglei

Actress-turned-director Xu Jinglei’s (My Daddy and I, Letter from an Unknown Woman) third feature Dreams May Come fails on every level as a film: producing, directing, writing, and acting. With endless talks between the two characters and nothing really happening, one has to wonder why Xu made her mind to direct such a poorly conceived film in the first place, which would make her a fool if she was in Hollywood, and how such a film, utterly narcissistic and self-important, got made in an increasingly audience-oriented film market of China.

“A man, a woman, a room, plus a whole night’s endless talk”: this is the “selling point” printed on the film’s DVD cover. If this can be called “promotion”, then the whole curriculum of Harvard’s business school would have to be re-designed.  Although not a smart marketing slogan, it is actually an exact description of what the film is all about. Filmed entirely in a messy room that leaves little space for the characters to maneuver, Dreams May Come tells the “story” of a TV director’s efforts in persuading his female lead, tired of acting like a mindless doll, not to ruin his TV drama by quitting. The director (Han Tongsheng) first tries to sweet-talk the actress (Xu Jinglei) into acknowledging the value of the work, then pretends to give up the whole work by further depreciating the script himself. In the end, the actress seems to have gained an upper hand. As the day dawns, the two temporarily forget their roles as the director and actress, and start to talk about the dreams they’ve cherished, although still in a sarcastic tone.

Scripted by once famed novelist Wang Shuo, Dreams May Come is another proof that Wang is becoming increasingly irrelevant to today’s Chinese society, despite he might be in utter denial of the fact. Wang emerged as a cult figure in Chinese literary and film scenes in the late 1980s and early 1990s with the creation of a series of “hooligan-like” young rebels who dare to say no to Communist ideology and the official versions of Chinese history. His Beijing-based witty dialogues and politically charged sarcasm had a huge fan base, particularly on college campuses. But time has changed. Today’s young generation is nurtured after naked commercialism, and their idols are “super girls” in their twenties and teen writers like Han Han and Guo Jingming. Wang Shuo became famous because of the specific times, and he becomes passé also due to the change of times. It is no wonder he lends his voice to the director in the film, lamenting the impossibility of the dreams of his generation, and uttering the lines like “the future is ugly”.

It is understandable that Wang Shuo might want to use this film to make a statement, a statement that few in today’s China would care to listen to, but it is almost beyond this reviewer’s comprehension that Xu Jinglei, with a promising directing career ahead of her, thought such a script could work. If she was working in Hollywood, her name would be permanently tarnished because of this film. Furthermore, it wouldn’t be even possible for her to get another chance to sit on the director’s chair.