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).