Review of Tuya’s Marriage (图雅的婚事; China, 2006)

November 29, 2009

Review of Tuya’s Marriage (图雅的婚事, China, 2006), A Maxyee Culture Industry Co. production, in association with Xi’an Motion Picture Co. (International sales: Cineclick Asia, Seoul.)

Reviewed by USC Student Betsy Lastar

Director: Wang Quanan
Producers: Yan Jugang
Executive Producers: Yuan Hanyuan, Wang Le, Zhang Dehang
Cinematographer: Lutz Reitemeier
Art Director: Wei Tao
Screenwriters: Lu Wei
Editor: Wang Quanan
Running time: 86 MIN.
Cast: Yu Nan, Bater, Sen’ge, Zhaya (Mandarin dialogue)
Release in China: 2006

Shaoyi’s Rating: A- (Excellent)

Tuya's Marriage (Tuya de hunshi, 2006), d. Wang Quan'an

Made in 2006 by Wang Quanan, Tuya’s Marriage follows the story of a Mongolian woman named Tuya as she faces the prospect of remarriage in order to continue supporting her family. Her current husband is unable to work due to an injury; therefore, Tuya must work alone to support her husband and two children. However, the strain begins to take its toll on her body and it becomes apparent that her only option is remarriage. Yet Tuya does not want to be parted from her current husband; therefore, her new husband must be willing to allow her old husband to live with them as well. After many offers and failed negotiations Tuya eventually ends up marrying her neighbor after he finally manages to divorce himself from his wife.

The film is as much about the environment that the characters live in as it is about the characters. The harshness of the land Tuya and her family lives on shapes them as a people. Although the film focuses on the human drama of the characters’ problems, the surrounding environment is at the root of all their problems. The injury of Tuya’s husband, which occurs before the movie begins, came as a result attempting to master the land through digging a well. Yet not only did his attempt fail as he injured himself before he could reach water and make the well usable as a reservoir, but now his wife must shoulder his load of the work as well.  In order to be able to survive in the unforgiving environment Tuya must become tough too. This toughness comes out not only in her refusal to quit until she literally collapses from over exhaustion, but also in her unwillingness to let her husband be removed from her home even if it interferes with her prospects of remarriage. Like the land she lives on Tuya does not bend easily to the will of others.

The difference between the closeness in framing inside the home versus the distance of the camera from the characters when they are outside draws attention to the difference in the characters’ power over their environment. When out herding sheep, Tuya is depicted small against the vast landscape that seems to stretch on forever, yet when she is in her home the camera remains close to Tuya. Tuya can do little to change the land she lives on. The landscape exerts its power over her, but when she is in her home she is the one in control over the environment. In the earlier portion of the movie, when the hay loaded truck tips, trapping Shenge, the camera pulls back to show the looming tower of hay piled on the truck framed against the empty sky alone in the landscape. Tuya is dwarfed doubly in this scene, first by the immensity of the landscape and second by the immensity of the truck. The double diminishment of her stature serves to draw attention to her powerlessness in the situation. Her strength alone is not enough to move the truck and free Shenge. In contrast to the tiny figure that gets lost in the outside world, inside the walls of her home Tuya looms much larger within the frame. The aura of being at the mercy of the environment that she has when depicted against the terrain is replaced with the figure of a woman in command.

Tuya’s Marriage
is concerned with presenting an image of a specific people; therefore, the place in which they live is an essential part of the film. Even though the film pushes the human aspects to the front of the story, behind everything looms the landscape as a silent actor within the narrative.


Top 10 Chinese Films of 2005

November 23, 2009

Top 10 Chinese Films of 2005

1.  Dam Street (红颜), d. LI Yu.
Despite a few technical flaws, this film is really a gem that comes out of the direction of a promising young female filmmaker who has great potential in art-house productions. I saw the film in Shanghai during the traditional Spring Festival with a group of Shanghai film critics. Some of us lingered at theater and were so overwhelmed by the power of the film that we went to a nearby bar and discussed the film and its freshly presented but sometimes twisted mother-son and mother-daughter relationship. We all thought the film is another evidence that Chinese cinema is on its right track toward another period of “glory” that rivals the “golden” period of the 1930s.

2.    Electric Shadows (电影往事), d. XIAO Jiang.
Again, a small film with a touching story that rivals Cinema Paradiso.  Remember Jiang Wen’s award-winning film In the Heat of the Sun? Electric Shadows has certain feel of that film, but is told with a female sensibility. Cinema is closely connected to our inner self as well as our memory of the past, and this film is a proof of that. Besides the memory of the Cultural Revolution it invokes, isn’t it true that the film also bring forth the lost memory we had about our childhood, when the friendship, love, and human interaction were supposedly purer and more delightful? Strangely, like the case of Dam Street, many people in China have never heard of such a good film.

3.    Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (千里走单骑), d. ZHANG Yimou.
This is not the best of Zhang’s amazing filmography, but the well-controlled pace and TAKAKURA Ken’s performance give the film a great lift. I saw the film at the 25th Hawaii International Film Festival and was amazed by Zhang’s perfection in making non-professionals so natural and unforgettable. The tour guide, for example, is a Beijing Film Academy teacher who happens to be very good at Japanese. Some people say that Zhang achieved this because he has money to shoot a scene as many times as he wants. This might be a fair argument, but a mediocre can never achieve this degree of success even he has miles-long celluloid.

4.    Perhaps Love (如果爱), d. Peter CHAN.
Chinese musicals rarely resemble their Hollywood counterparts, with the exception of this film. Amazing singing and dancing sequences plus excellent cinematography make it one of the best that may lead to the revival of musicals in China. This film is not for everyone, since some people are instinctively against musicals, and others will be simply turned off by the film’s extended distance to the everyday-ness of contemporary China. But perhaps it’s time for Chinese cinema to diverse its look and really make rooms for a variety of genres? I just finished an essay on Chinese musicals, and was quite surprised during the research process that there are very few “musicals” in the 100-year history of Chinese cinema.

5.    Shanghai Dreams (青红), d. WANG Xiaoshuai.
Like Riding Alone, this is not Wang’s best, but the love-turn-to-tragedy story again shows Wang’s talent in finding the balance between grand history and individual life.The film’s bleak ending is as powerful as some of the scenes in Zhang Yimou’s To Live. Wang is one of the key figures of the so-called “Six Generation” filmmakers of China, and his “underground” spirit used to be the selling point when his films were marketed in the West, but no longer does this work, because the film, surprisingly, passed the Chinese censors and had a limited release in China. The film didn’t do well in the Chinese box-office, however. Perhaps Wang needs to cast away his combative attitude and re-position himself in the Chinese film market?

6.    You and Me (我们俩), d. MA Liwen.
Another talented woman director whose tenacity paid off at the 2005 Golden Rooster Award Ceremony (dubbed as China’s Oscars). She won the prestigious Best Director award for this film. Ma seems to be particularly comfortable in directing old women. One may think of her first film Gone is the One who held me Dearest in the World (what a long title!) as a proof. In both films, there are always moments one might label as “subtle touches of feminism,” which may well become this filmmaker’s trademark.

7.    A Time to Love (情人结), d. HUO Jianqi.
Huo is probably the most underrated Chinese director in the international film community. His films are quiet, lyrical, well-paced, subtle, and beautifully shot. They are often scripted by Huo’s talented wife. With the exception of A Love of Blueness (2003), I love all his works. Some of Huo’s titles ought to be watched at least twice in order to be fully appreciated, such as Life Show, Nuan, and Postmen in the Mountains. Fans of ZHAO Wei will see her best performance in A Time to Love.

8.    Gimme Kudos (求求你表扬我), d. HUANG Jianxin.
Huang is mostly known for his early political satire Black Cannon Incident. Kudos is another display of Huang’s socially and politically charged satire and black humor, only less powerful and relevant to an increasingly  de-politicized society. To go beyond this dilemma, Huang might want to take Woody Allen as a model and extend his satirical touch to a more universal level, showcasing the dilemma and paradoxical existence of human beings in general. There is a danger for Huang to lose his satirical edge, and this film is a sign.

9.    Sunflower (向日葵), d. ZHANG Yang.
An ambitious work that starts with the end of the Cultural Revolution and ends with the late 1990s when China was quickly transformed into a capitalism-oriented society. Zhang has a great talent in storytelling, but he also suffers from this talent, since the film oftentimes resembles a multi-episode television drama. I saw the film twice on big screen, first at the 25th Hawaii Film Festival, second at a Shanghai theater. Some films can be watched again and again, while others should be only watched once. This film falls into the latter. It was when I watched it the second time that the film appeared to me more and more like a soap opera. Too many dialogues, too much acting, and most importantly, the film is too long. The ending is particularly annoying.

10.    The Promise (无极), d. CHEN Kaige.
This year’s most-talked-about and most expensive film, a fantasy built on some abstract ideas and moral teachings, which Chen Kaige is famed for. I don’t particularly dislike the film, but I also find “The Bloody Case Caused by a Bun,” a satirical “re-make” or re-interpretation of the $35 million-plus film and single-handedly made by an amateur in Shanghai and posted on the Internet, equally amazing and powerful. Perhaps this tiny “re-make” should be also on my Top 10 list? There are reports saying that Chen is sueing the amateur for violating the integrity of his creative work. No matter what the result is going to be, this “re-make” will be an important part of the “Promise” legacy, also a landmark in the development of the Internet in China.

Structural Transformation of the Media Industry in Asia

November 19, 2009

Structural Transformation of the Media Industry in Asia (Co-Editor; 亚洲传媒发展的结构转型).  Shanghai: Shanghai Joint Press, 2009.
Price: 56 yuan

Book Cover of "Structural Transformation of the Media Industry in Asia"

The book is the second in a series that deals with media transformation and media policies around the globe. It specifically focuses on recent developments of the media industry in Asia, with a marked emphasis on East Asia and India. Issues covered in the book include “Globalization and Media Transformation in Asia”, “Public Television and Commercial Networks in Asia”, “National Cinemas in Transnational Perspectives”, “Political Activism, Social Networking, and the Internet”, and “Telecommunication and the Internet in Asia”.

Same as the first in the series, articles included in the book were translated from a variety of leading English journals. The third volume of the series, which devotes its attention to new media (including game and the Internet) and new technologies in a transformed media landscape, will come out next year.

Review of Suzhou River (苏州河; China, 2000)

November 12, 2009

Review of Suzhou River (苏州河, China, 2000), A Dream Factory production.

Reviewed by NYU Student Jacqueline Sia

Director: Lou Ye
Producers: Nai An and Philippe Bober
Music: Jorg Lemberg
Cinematographer: Wang Yu
Art Director: Li Zhuoyi
Screenwriters: Lou Ye
Editor: Karl Riedl
Running time: 83 MIN.
Cast: Zhou Xun (Moudan/Meimei), Jia Hongsheng (Mardar) and Yao Anlian, Nai An and Hua Zhongkai (Shanghai residents) (Mandarin dialogue)
Release in China: N/A

Shaoyi’s Rating: A- (Excellent)


Suzhou River (Suzhou he, 2000); d. Lou Ye

Suzhou River follows the love story of Moudan and Mardar, and how it intertwines with the love story between the narrator and Mei-Mei. The film is all in the point of view of the narrator, who is also a videographer. The narrator is obviously an amateur at filmmaking, noted by the jerky camera movements and the content that he films. The narrator’s job is to film anyone anywhere and for however long his customers want to be filmed. Because of that, he becomes a voyeur, where every person caught on camera becomes a character in his film, or his life. The camera techniques of close-ups, long one-shot takes, and jerky camera movements that imitate a person’s eyes all add to the idea that the audience and the narrator are voyeurs upon other people’s lives. Though the love story between Mardar and Moudan appears to be a figment of the narrator’s imagination (because the narrator could not have been present when that happened), nevertheless it still follows elements of a voyeur until the main character changes from the anonymous narrator to Mardar.

The opening montage of Shanghai from the point of view of Suzhou River establishes the mood of voyeurism. The camera movements are jerky and move back and forth between the left and right banks of the river. There are close-ups and then medium shots all jumbled together, emphasizing certain characteristics of the city or the people on the river. Then the voice-over of the narrator helps in making the audience think that they are standing in the narrator’s place because one never sees the narrator’s face. His hands may stretch out before the camera, thus emphasizing that the point of view is from the person’s eyes.

The next scene where the videographer looks outside his window and tracks the different “stories” happening on the bridge also establishes the mood. The audience sees people working, couples fighting with each other, traveling on bikes and mopeds, and any daily activity that is both public and yet also private. The camera tracks them until it sees something else more interesting. There is a feeling of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, where from the point of the window (in the safety of one’s own room), the main character spies on everyone else’s lives. The scene also shows Shanghai as a gritty city rather than the magnificent images of the Bund and Pudong that audiences are usually used to. By showing the “real” Shanghai, Lou Ye also emphasizes the idea of voyeurism; after all, voyeurism tracks reality and does not dare gloss over the details in the world.

Another impactful scene that unsettles viewers as well as reminds the audience that they are in the point of view of the narrator is the part where the narrator and a boatman see Moudan as a mermaid, and the boatman looks directly at the camera in bewilderment. The boatman breaks the “fourth wall” that the camera usually creates by looking directly at the camera. While he acknowledges the audience staring back at him, he is also acknowledging the fact that he is looking at the narrator in the eye. At that moment, the audience becomes the narrator and stares right back at the boatman, and the situation becomes even more real and present for them.

Even when the narrator switches to the love story between Moudan and Mardar, Lou Ye retains some voyeuristic techniques. Mardar watches Mei-Mei undress and change into her mermaid costume at the bar, and the camera peeks through a small opening and remains still the entire time. It is one of the longer single-take shots in the film, moving only when Mardar’s eyes would move and track Mei-Mei. Another voyeuristic moment is when Moudan is trapped in the abandoned building and there is a long close-up of her face. Her expression changes from shock at the betrayal to utter sadness, where the camera breaks away only after her eyes become glassy from the tears. Voyeurs catch innocent people when they are most vulnerable, and this is an extremely private moment for Moudan. Nevertheless, the audience and the camera watch her and stay very close to her. Also when Moudan goes out on the balcony to relieve herself, Mardar stands close and watches her. The camera/audience also intrudes into this private moment by alternating close-ups between the two characters.

Lou Ye’s choice in having an anonymous narrator becoming a voyeur for the audience’s benefit adds the sense of uncertainty in the story. Because it is all from one perspective, no matter how realistic and omniscient the narrator seems to be, the story is still seen with a biased point of view. What the audience sees is what the voyeur wants to see, implying that the narrator (whom the audience does not know if he can trust) is showing a skewed perspective of Mei-Mei/Moudan and Mardar. The audience always understands the narrator’s point of view, thanks to voice-overs and the camera angle. However, the audience has to rely on the narrator being honest about what is being said and what is going on. The narrator has the power to skew the audience’s opinion with the voice-overs and the camera angle, and so he can become biased and prevent the audience from understanding the story from another perspective. And to take it a step further, the narrator is Lou Ye, so the director ultimately shapes the audience’s opinion and perspective, and he shapes the image of Shanghai that he wants portrayed to the audience. Controlling what one sees onscreen and manipulating one’s opinion in a certain way is what, in its most basic sense, film is all about, and that is what Lou Ye achieves successfully with Suzhou River.

Review of The Banquet (夜宴; Mainland China/Hong Kong, 2006)

November 3, 2009

Review of The Banquet (夜宴, Mainland China/Hong Kong, 2006), A Huayi Brothers Pictures (Mainland China) / Media Asia Films (Hong Kong) presentation of a Huayi Brothers Pictures production. (International sales: Huayi, Beijing/Media Asia, H.K.).

Director: Feng Xiaogang (“A World Without Thieves”)
Producers: Wang Zhongjun, John Chong
Music: Tan Dun (“Couching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, “Hero”)
Cinematographer: Zhang Li (“A World Without Thieves”)
Art Director: Tim Yip (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”)
Screenwriters: Sheng Heyu, Qiu Gangjian
Dance Choreographer: Wang Yuanyuan (“Raise the Red Lantern”)
Executive Producer: Yuen Wo-Ping (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”)
Editor: Liu Miaomiao;
Piano: Lang Lang;
Costume: Tim Yip;
Sound (Dolby Digital): Wang Danrong;
Visual Effects Supervisor: Phil Jones;
Running time: 129 MIN.
Cast: Ziyi Zhang, Ge You, Daniel Wu, Zhou Xun, Ma Jingwu, Huang Xiaoming. (Mandarin dialogue)
Release in China: Sept 15, 2006; Korea: Sept 21, 2006.

Shaoyi’s Rating: B+ (Very Good)


The Banquet (Ye Yan, 2006); d. Feng Xiaogang

I’ve written somewhere else in Chinese, arguing that The Banquet, Feng Xiaogang’s Hamlet-inspired period drama, is very close to what Japanese director Shunji Iwai called the “extreme film”. This can be substantiated through both style and content. Stylistically, the film’s use of color prioritizes black, white, and red, the three colors that present great contrast to each other and give the film a dark and sinister look that perfectly matches the theme of the film, which is about desire, power, and revenge. In terms of content, Feng seems to have successfully transformed himself from a light-comedy director to a filmmaker who dares to defy the Confucian tradition of the doctrine of the mean: seldom do we see in Confucian literary tradition that people would risk their lives for pure love, lust, and hatred. I have no idea whether director Feng is aware of this fact, but it seems to me that he is reviving an ancient tradition so vividly depicted in the literature of the Warring States period, when Confucian tradition had not established its roots in Chinese mind. More specifically, The Banquet could be viewed as a film about China’s forgotten myth of death. The film is obsessed with the “beauty” of death: Empress Wan, Emperor Li, Prince Wu Luan, and Qing Nu all seem to willingly embrace their ultimate destiny in his or her own way. We encounter this death instinct more often in works written before the Han dynasty: suicide, sacrifice, and willingness to take one’s life for simple honor and dignity. It is in this sense that I see The Banquet more of a Chinese story than another version of Shakespeare’s “To Be or Not To Be”. It revives the ancient “wind” of China, when Chinese emotion hadn’t been tainted by Confucian doctrine.

Of course one might say that I over-interpret the film, but this is what most critics do. I saw the film in Hongzhou prior to its nationwide release. We were bused to the city from Shanghai by the Huayi Brothers and fed with a real banquet before watching the film. To be frank, I felt a little uneasy with this practice because the whole activity was organized by the Huayi Brothers, the very company that made the film, and we were asked to write film reviews afterwards. But after finishing the film, I felt relived, because I did like the film. There are several reasons as to why I give high marks to the film. First of all, I support any effort to make the Chinese film industry strong and competitive on international stage. While I love art films, I am fully aware a nation’s cinema cannot sustain itself by only producing art films. A healthy cinema must consist of two wings: big budget commercial film and small budget art film. On international stage, it is largely through the effort by Feng Xiaogang, Zhang Yimou, and Chen Kaige in recent years that Chinese cinema has reached an audience beyond the university campus. This is what Hollywood has achieved long time ago with its dominance over the international film market. Second, although I felt the film sometimes needs to be trimmed, because the first half lacks focus and emotional intensity, I was overwhelmed by the film’s finale, where the emperor sets a lavish banquet and invites all the ministers and marshals to attend. This is where the film reaches its climax, a climax that successfully brings otherwise fragmentary pieces together and finally succeeds in involving the audience on both intellectual and emotional levels.

The film’s theme song, composed by Tan Dun and sung by Zhang Liangying, one of the famed “super girls”, also succeeds in elevating The Banquet to a higher level.  If the film can be called a tragedy, it owes a great deal to Tan’s and Zhang’s collective effort in making this song an instant classic. Audiences should remain seated before the song wraps up the film. It will pay off.