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.