China Digital Film & Program Union

December 25, 2009

The China Puzzle

Yes, after almost five months, I am back in China. It turns out that my friends were wrong (or maybe back then they were right): I can get access to my blog site and update my postings here in China. I feel quite relieved as it is always good to be physically in China to write about Chinese cinema. Many sites, including facebook, twitter, and youtube, however, are inaccessible. It is ironic that one of my graduate students is going to write his MA thesis on YouTube and the so-called “partcipatory culture”. I simply don’t know whether he would be able to pull it off.

China Digital Film & Program Union, Dec. 17, 2009

This is what I call the “China Puzzle”. On the one hand, the authority remains absurdly backward-thinking when dealing with the Internet and new media. Recent campaigns targeting the so-called “pornographic” and “indecent” Internet contents have led to the closure of numerous Internet sites, even resulting in many people thrown into jail. Many service providers have also been warned. On the other hand, the government-led media campaigns have also called for a rapid development of China’s “soft power”, making Chinese culture and economy more “inventive” and “innovative”, as if innovation and invention could be built in a repressive or at least restrictive environment.

Back to the picture. It was taken on Dec. 17, 2009, two days after I came back to China. This mini-conference marks the official establishment of the “China Digital Film and Program Union”, a government supported organization aiming to produce and distribute China’s digital contents (including games) and enhance their competitiveness. Following Chinese tradition, I was hand-picked (literarlly, because I didn’t know until my name was called) to be the Vice President of the Union Council. Nothing can be done in China without the involvement of the government. This union is only another proof.


Back to China

December 12, 2009

Going back to China, but Unsure Whether the Site Could Be Updated

I’ll be flying back to Shanghai, China tomorrow (Dec. 13, 2009). I was hoping I’ll be able to update the site as frequently as possible, but my hope has been partially dashed as my friends in China told me that it’s impossible to open the page in China. The notorious “Great FireWall” of China must be behind this. I hope my friends were wrong, as I still remain cautiously optimistic that it is only caused by some technical problems.  If the site is not updated in two weeks, then the reader should assume it’s not because of my laziness, but due to the “Great FireWall”. If this happens, well, what can I say? That would only indicate there is a long way to go for China to really “rise”.

James Cameron's Avatar (2009)

There is another thing I will miss when I am in China: the movies. I’m talking about this ground breaking James Cameron saga Avatar. The film will open in China two weeks after its US premiere (Jan. 2, 2010). This film has to be appreciated in a nice theater, with great sound and 3-D projection. Although Shanghai is supposed to be a world-class city, its cinemas are not so good in terms of sound and 3-D projection. I saw Transformer II in Shanghai this past summer and the experience was simply a disaster. It was in Shanghai’s Film Art Center, supposedly a first-class venue, but the sound was unbearable and the image was simply not bright enough to see the details. God, I paid 90RMB (US$14) for this crap! So, that’s why I say I will miss all the good movies and movie-watching experience here when I am in China. Luckily, I’ll be back in several months.

Top 10 Chinese Films of 2006

December 9, 2009

Top 10 Chinese Films of 2006

In 2006, China made 330 feature films, out of which more than 100 were shot in digital, almost double last year’s 52. The 2006 Chinese film box-office reached 2.62 billion RMB, up 30 percent over the 2005 figures. In addition, a total of 366 silver screens were added to Chinese cinemas across the country in 2006.

Again, I don’t want to claim I’ve seen all the 300-plus films, but based on what I’ve seen and read about, I selected Top 10 Chinese films of 2006 as follows. No. 1 is the best of the 10:

1. The Road (Fangxiang zhi lu), d. ZHANG Jiarui
The Road reminds one of many Chinese films made after the 1980s. But what makes The Road stand out lies in the fact that it avoids any melodramatic treatment of the Cultural Revolution and rewrites the history with a sweet-bitter personal touch that refuses to paint the history in a black-white manner. The Cultural Revolution might be a black page in modern Chinese history, but it is during the Cultural Revolution that Chunfen had her “brightest days.” Her first kiss in a rainy night makes Chunfun’s remaining days, including the days in the 21st century, irrelevant in her memory. Besides Zhang Jingchu’s outstanding performance, it is this calm and personal rewriting of history that makes The Road a classic, a film that can be easily grouped with such great works as In the Heat of the Sun by Jiang Wen and Scarified Youth by Zhang Nuanxin.

2. The Forest Ranger (Tian gou), d. QI Jian
This environmental protection-themed film reminds one of some of the best short stories by Lu Xun, whose New Year’s Sacrifice and Medicine feature a lonely individual (either a victimized widow or an “enlightened” revolutionary) facing the cruel and inhuman crowd. The stubborn forest ranger refuses to compromise his values even at the expense of the security of his family as well as his own life. Great hand-held camerawork and excellent performance by Fu Dalong and Zhu Yuanyuan give the film a raw look, perfectly matching the rough reality of the mountainous area.

3. Crazy Stone (Fengkuang de shitou), d. NING Hao
This film was the talk of 2006. An unlikely hit from a low-budget portrait of gangsters and drifters chasing a gem in grimy urban China, Crazy Stone is a mix of Quentin Tarantino-style gangster films and black humor with a Chinese accent. Dominated by rapid-fire dialogue delivered in a tangy dialect that calls for subtitles even for many Chinese audiences, the film reaped over 22 million RMB at the box office at a cost of just 3 million. Director Ning Hao, whose first feature Mongolia Ping Pong was never able to travel outside the festival circuit, becomes an instant household name in China.

4. Curiosity Kills the Cat (Haoqi hai si mao), d. ZHANG Yibai
Teaming with noted writer Huo Xin (Kung Fu Hustle, Quitting, Shower), director Zhang (Spring Subway) 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. Curiosity represents a fresh and healthy trend as Chinese cinema enters its post-centennial era. The film is another proof that China can produce quality contemporary dramas on a par with any other countries, despite the annoying hurdles of censorship.

5. The Knot (Yunshui yao), d. YIN Li
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. It 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 shot (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.

6. The Contract (Zu qi), d. LU Xuechang
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 director Lu’s work outstanding is the fact that he refuses to treat the story in a melodramatic and sentimental way. Even though the man and the prostitute are attracted to each other, they nevertheless go on their own paths after the staged marriage 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.

7. The Banquet (Ye Yan), d. Feng Xiaogang
Despite overwhelming negative responses to the film in China, I was quite impressed with Feng Xiaogang’s transformation from a light-comedy director to a Hamlet-inspired poet. I was especially impressed 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 “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 resonates. It will pay off.

8. Still Life (Sanxia haoren), d. JIA Zhangke
This Golden Lion award-winning film bears a lot of familiar traits of Jia’s filmmaking: monotonous, slow paced, minimalist, quiet on surface but volatile in inner psychology. Jia in this film left his familiar Fengyang, a small town in China’s northwest, and settled in Fengjie, a small town located on the Yangtze River in Sichuan province, just upstream from the giant Three Gorges Dam project. Without getting too political, Still Life is a subtle comment on human prices paid in the unprecedented transformation of Chinese society. Contrary to many critics, I don’t think the film is Jia’s best to date. His first two films, Xiao Wu and Platform, are still among my favorites.

9. Curse of the Golden Flower (Mancheng jindai huangjin jia), d. ZHANG Yimou
Like Zhang’s Hero, which received harsh criticism from Chinese scholars and critics, Curse is also viewed as Zhang’s betrayal to art film in favor of a more market-driven and audience-pleasing filmmaking. Some critics are especially appalled by Zhang’s perceived obsession with violence, incest, and sex. Zhang is also accused of being only good at creating visual spectacles but clumsy in telling a coherent and meaningful story. While I agree with some of the comments, it nevertheless appears to me that Curse requires us to look beyond the dichotomy of art vs. commerce and form vs. content. If we place the film not entirely in the context of Chinese filmmaking but in the increasingly globalized context of film consumption, then we may come to a different conclusion. Besides, there are many symbolic scenes that remind us of Zhang’s earlier works.

10. Shanghai Rumba (Shanghai runba), 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. 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).

Review of Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (千里走单骑; China/Japan, 2005)

December 6, 2009

Review of Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (千里走单骑, China/Japan, 2005), A Toho Co. (in Japan)/Sony Pictures Classics (in U.S.) release of a Gilla Co. (Japan)/Beijing New Picture Film Co., Elite Group (2004) Enterprises (China) presentation of an Edko Films (H.K.)/Zhang Yimou Studio (China) production.

Reviewed by USC Student William Velarde

Director: Zhang Yimou, Yasuo Furuhata
Producers: Xiu Jian, Zhang Weiping, Bill Kong
Cinematographer: Zhao Xiaoding, Daisaku Kimura
Art Director: Sun Li
Screenwriters: Zou Jingzhi
Cheng Long
Music: Guo Wenjing
Sound (Dolby Digital): Tao Jing
Running time: 107 MIN.
Cast: Ken Takakura, Shinobu Terajima, Kiichi Nakai, Li Jiamin, Qiu Lin, Yang Zhenbo (Mandarin, Japanese dialogue)
Release in China: 2006

Shaoyi’s Rating: A (Exceptional)

Riding Alone (Qian li zou dan qi, 2005), d. Zhang Yimou

Zhang Yimou’s Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles is a touching multi-national production that, in both its compelling narrative and the stellar performances delivered by an international cast, helps point the way forward for Chinese cinema while delivering an enjoyable work. The laconic protagonist, Gouichi Takata, is a Japanese man that, in his grief following his wife’s death, fled to a remote fishing village in Japan. In so doing, he left his son Kenichi feeling abandoned, leading to an enmity by his son that Gouichi was never able to fully overcome. When he arrives in Tokyo to attend to his hospitalized son, his daughter-in-law Rie gives him a video produced by his son in his efforts to record the Chinese opera “Riding Alone of Thousands of Miles” by a man that espouses to be the preeminent performer of the work. Gouichi immediately sets off for the remote village visited by his son in an effort to achieve absolution in his son’s eyes. His efforts are stymied by the actor’s incarceration and his grief at being separated from his illegitimate son, whom Gouichi promises to bring to the actor in an effort to make the performance occur. While his efforts are in vain – mechanical problems and his son’s illness combine to preclude the elder Takata from returning to Tokyo with the recorded performance – he ultimately makes his peace both with his own past through his caretaking of the actor’s son and with Kenichi, who was deeply moved by his father’s efforts.

Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles is a film with a refreshing “microfocus”, specially the meaning of paternal love and the contrast between the Japanese and Chinese cultures. While he never has the opportunity to address his ailing son before his death, the deep significance of Gouichi’s journey is not lost to his son.  Gouichi is a man of few words but yet of very deep thoughts and emotions, and while we understand that his lack of communication after his wife’s death was possibly the biggest factor in the falling out between his son and him, his facility in speaking to the audience in his interior monologue serves to give life to what would otherwise be a typical story of regret and redemption.

The effusively emotional Li Jiamin, in his role as the opera performer, serves as a cinematic foil for the Japanese protagonist, as his ability to cry and lament in public is in harsh contrast to Gouichi’s difficulty in letting any emotion shine through. While the movie’s narrative remains moving throughout, arguably the most powerful moment in the film is when the proud Gouichi, in begging for permission to film the incarcerated Li and aware of the gravity of the situation and the lack of hope he would otherwise have, cries in front of the camera. Gouichi later notes that his staid demeanor is not a manifestation of control but rather of an inability to open up to others, a possible consequence of the grief following his wife’s death. Watching him with Li’s son, alone, is thereby as enjoyable for the audience, who finally had the definite proof of the compassion of which Gouichi had always shone dimly, as it was for the protagonist.

In addition to its narrative, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles is notable in its use of both comedy and cinematography to maintain the proper tone for the film. There is a sort of tragic humor that pervades throughout the film – indeed, the main reason the protagonist even goes to China is based upon the assumption that this actor and this play were worth the trouble – but instead of detracting from the basic messages of the narrative, it infuses it with an air of realism. Zhang demonstrates the basic humor behind life’s incongruities, such as when Gouichi’s translator hangs up his banners upside down during his touching speech and when Gouichi films Li’s son going to the bathroom while the two are completely lost. Moreover, there is stunning imagery throughout the film, such as shots of the protagonist gazing into the grandeur of the mountains and the oceans. While lacking the vibrant colors of Ju Dou or Hero for a more mature subtlety, these juxtapositions of man upon nature reflect the deep loneliness that both his son and he felt throughout their lives.