Snowflower and the Secret Fan (雪花秘扇,China/US, 2011)

July 27, 2011

This China-US co-production, based on Lisa See’s bestseller and directed by Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club), will be soon cited as a negative textbook case about how co-production could easily go wrong and how a slew of A-list stars couldn’t save a contrived and badly written story. I saw the film at a LA Laemmle Theater and couldn’t wait for the film to come to an end. It makes me feel that Wendy Deng, the film’s producer and Rupert Murdoch’s third wife, is more adept at socking the face of her husband’s pie-wielding aggressor than producing a decent film that works.

Snowflower and the Secret Fan (d. Wayne Wang, China/US, 2011), starring Li Bingbing and Gianna Jun)

Snowflower and the Secret Fan suffers from many directions. It has too many flashbacks and flash-forwards, a narrative device that aims to weave together a fragmented timeline that spans more than a century. But it never works. Instead, what is presented in front of the audience is a story that lacks a focus, a “couple” that lacks chemistry, and a seemingly serious tone that sometimes feels laughable. It is true that the story is about (or tries to be so) the intimate relationship between Snowflower and Lily (and their modern “reincarnation” of Nina and Sophia) bound by the “laotong” (old comradeship) tradition and women’s script (nvshu). But this “intimacy,” so to speak, proves to be a hard sell for the audience, as there seems to be no sexual tension/chemistry between the two (or maybe the director believes mutual attraction could be simply expressed through looking at each other), and the audience is left wondering as to where their quasi-lesbian feelings come from (to be fair, Wendy Deng might be not the one to blame, as overt gay or lesbian subjects are banned in China). To make the matter worse, the film introduces too many characters and constantly shifts back and forth between 19th century China and 1990s’ Shanghai and then to present-day Shanghai, never trying to seriously explore the relationship in an in-depth manner. What is on the screen, then, is a fragmented story that has too many characters, too many locations, and too little information/explanation as to why there is such a strong female bonding between the two in the first place.

According to Box Office Mojo, as of July 25, 2011, 11 days after its initial release at 24 theaters in North America, Snowflower and the Secret Fan made US$436,170 at the box-office. This figure is next to nothing considering the film cost more than US$6 million to make, and Wayne Wang’s The Joy Luck Club raked in nearly 33 million at the worldwide box-office in the early 1990s.


SIFF Report (IV, a Wrap-Up)

July 8, 2011

Another new Chinese film I cautiously recommend is Folk Songs Singing (2011, 107 min., 郎在对门唱山歌), directed by probably the oldest member of the “sixth generation” of Chinese filmmakers Zhang Ming, who turns 50 this year and teaches directing at BFA (Beijing Film Academy). Zhang is known mainly through his existential take on human relationship in Rainclouds Over Wushan (1996, 巫山云雨). This was followed by a few obscure titles that were rarely shown at local cinemas. With this new film, however, Zhang will for sure get more media exposure and festival invitations.

Director Zhang Ming (right) and lead actress Lv Xingchen at the 14th Shanghai International Film Festival (2011).

The success of the film largely comes from the casting choice the director makes. The one who stands out most is the newcomer Lv Xingchen. She is not as beautiful as Fan Bingbing, Li Bingbing or Zhang Ziyi, but has this ability to instantly grab the audience’s attention with her somewhat naive, sweetheart-like, yet unyielding look on the big screen. In the film, she portrays a girl/woman emotionally caught up between two guys, one a stone-faced college graduate/music tutor who comes from a poor family background but with music talent, the other a blockhead who talks like a bad textbook but comes from the local Party boss family. Lv’s mesmerizing performance makes the character’s transition from an innocent high-school girl to an emotionally tormented woman seem effortless.

Folk Songs Singing (d. Zhang Ming, 2011), starring newcomer Lv Xingchen.

When I say “cautiously recommend,” I mean the film to me is sometimes uneven and hard to pin down in its narrative direction. It seems to me that Zhang Ming has this ability to build up tensions but at the same time the audience would probably feel disappointed since it is often the case that no result will really come out of these tensions. For instance, the beginning rooftop sequence, excellently filmed, introduces the girl’s father, a local deputy police chief who seems to be willing to do whatever he can to fawn on the local Party boss to get himself promoted. This seems to point to a forced marriage between his artistically talented daughter and the dumb blockhead. But as the story develops, this carefully built tension is entirely dropped out in favor of the girl’s unhappy relationship with the music tutor. The obstacle between the girl and her music tutor is thus reduced to a woman of few words who quietly takes care of the tutor’s ailing mother (who never appears on the screen).

Using film as a means to promote local culture and tourism is increasingly a common practice for many county-level governments in China. Like Eyes of a Beauty (西施眼, 2002) by Guan Hu, which “advertises” the small but beautiful city of Zhuji in Zhejiang Province , Folk Songs Singing is also meant to promote the local culture of Ziyang, a small county located in Shan’xi Province. Judging from these two works, one can at least say this model, with investment from the “advertised” city/county (in this case, 5 million yuan from the local government) and film talents from elsewhere (usually Beijing or Shanghai), has produced some positive and win-win results.

Folk Songs Singing pocketed three major awards at the 14th Shanghai International Film Festival: Best Screenplay for Zhang Ming, Best Music for Wen Zi, and, of course, Best Actress in a leading role for Lv Xingchen.

SIFF Report (III)

July 1, 2011

It’s now an open secret that filmmaker Jia Zhangke, once an outcast, has a special relation with the Shanghai Film Group, which begins with his much acclaimed Venice winner Still Life (三峡好人, 2006).  Due to this special relation, it is no wonder that he attends SIFF almost every year and participates actively in a variety of festival events. This year is no exception. He is literally everywhere, from film forum to press conference, and from promotional parties to private gatherings. Although he does not have a film of his own, his presence at this year’s SIFF is still worth mentioning.

Jia Zhangke (center) promotes his produced film "Hello, Mr. Tree" at the 14th Shanghai International Film Festival.

First of all, he is here to promote Hello, Mr. Tree (树先生, 2011), a new Chinese film he helped to produce and helmed by a young filmmaker named Han Jie (trained at Beijing Normal University’s Film & TV department). Han became a known name in the film community because of his bleak portrayal of contemporary Chinese youth in Walking on the Wide Side (赖小子, 2006), which has never been shown in China. Although Hello, Mr. Tree went on to win the Jury Grand Prix award and Han Jie also pocketed the Best Director prize, personally I don’t highly recommend the film. It is flawed with uneven tone and pacing, exaggerated acting, and an awkward mix of the real and surreal.

Jia Zhangke (center) also has a documentary, which he produced and partially directed, to promote at SIFF 2011.

Then, Jia is also at the festival to promote Yulu (语路, 2011), a short-documentary compilation that involves seven filmmakers (mostly young and unknown), including Jia himself. The compilation features eight Chinese-style success stories united under the theme of “perseverance” and “keep walking,” a brand slogan for Johnnie Walker Whisky, which I guess sponsored the whole project. The upbeat documentary has its interesting and funny moments, but suffers again from uneven style and treatment of the interviewed subjects.

Jia Zhangke lashes out at state censorship at SIFF's film forum, calling it "cultural naivety."

Jia’s most meaningful presence is probably felt at one of the film forums organized by the festival, at which he, in front of a large audience (many of them from Chinese media outlets), lashes out at the Chinese censorship apparatus. He claimed that he scrapped a film about a man’s sex life after an official decided it might break anti-pornography laws. He also abandoned a spy film about the Communist party and Kuomintang due to censorship: “If I want to make the movie here, I have to portray all the communists as superheroes,” Jia said, but “this would betray my original idea and make it difficult to develop the story.” He added: “This kind of cultural over-cleanliness that bans the erotic, violent and terrifying is cultural naivety.”

Jia Zhangke presents Best Director Award to Ms. Iris Helfer (UCLA) at SIFF's sidebar event "Sino-US Student Shorts Exhibition and Competition."

Jia is also a juror for a SIFF sidebar event called “Sino-US Student Shorts Exhibition and Competition” co-organized by Shanghai University’s School of Film-TV and University of Hawaii’s Academy for Creative Media. The five awards Jia helped to decide went to 1) Best Director: Iris Helfer (UCLA), My Education; 2) Best Short Feature: Julio O. Ramos (UCLA), A Doctor’s Job; 3) Best Creative Idea: Jason Kaneshiro (U. of Hawaii), From a Dead Stop; 4) Best Short Documentary: Wang Yufei (Communication U. of China), Cordyceps Woman; 5) Special Xie Jin Award: Zhang Jiajun (Shanghai University), A Long Long Alley.

It is gratifying to see that Jia Zhangke, while always on the road to his next project, is actively involved in supporting emerging young and student filmmakers. The presence of a filmmaker of his caliber alone is a great support and encouragement for the young and aspiring.