My final day of the London Film Festival sends me to three films from Asia (two directed by women), and all of which deal with families in their various guises, though Bombay Rose has more of a romantic flavour than the other two. All three represent reasons why I continue to love contemporary cinema, and value the films that the LFF presents.
Two more documentaries about China from director Wang Bing, that unearth certain difficult periods in China’s history, most notably the re-education camps instituted by Mao in the 1950s.
Continuing my theme of films about China, these two are made in and about China by Chinese women, that elucidate certain aspects of Chinese society one imagines were not particularly pleasing to those in power in that country. It’s about young people and the opportunities (or lack thereof) that await them upon graduation.
There’s almost a subgenre of documentary that deals with activist issues of social justice campaigning, and that’s very much the wheelhouse of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. Complicit is a fine example, focusing on the global electronics industry, specifically their factories in South-Eastern China (on the Pearl River Delta). It’s not so much the sweatshop conditions here as the workers’ exposure to dangerous chemicals (benzene most notably, which causes leukaemia), a situation not really being tackled by the enormous global companies contracting out the work. The filmmakers here are canny to focus not on the Chinese government but on these companies in their (as the title suggests) complicity with human rights violations — though that complicity obviously extends to the audience also, those who use these electronic devices (a certain fruit-based designer is particularly targeted). It’s the stories of the workers, and their often futile attempts to get recompense from or to even be heard by the companies, which are the heart of the film.
Directors Heather White and Lynn Zhang [Jialing Zhang]; Writer Christopher Seward; Length 82 minutes.
Seen at Barbican Cinema, London, Monday 13 March 2017.
A sweeping documentary achievement (though one suspects it’s one that would be a multi-part television series were it made today), veteran documentarian Joris Ivens and his partner Marceline Loridan spent many years filming in China in the early-1970s to cover the Cultural Revolution. There are 12 parts, several of them feature-length, and several which are short films (for example, “The Football Incident” — which can be found on YouTube — runs at only 20 minutes, and there are a couple of under-half hour pieces about the circus and opera in Beijing), and needless to say I watched it over a period of weeks when I could steal some time.
For all that its aims could be broadly stated as propagandistic in nature — or at least, not exactly out of step with Chinese government policy of the era — it still captures some wonderful material touching on people’s lives being lived in the period. Much of it is filmed along the Eastern coastal stretch of China, from the oilfields in the north-east to a couple of pieces about Shanghai (one touching on the work of a city pharmacy, and another just an impressionistic sense of the city as a whole), to a fishing village somewhere in between those two, as well as the short films about the Peking Opera and Circus. (There are a couple of pendant 1977 short films about ethnic minorities in the north-west, The Uyghurs and The Kazakhs, which are boxed up with the French DVD release.)
Ivens’s camera is often in motion, moving around its subjects, as they talk to each other in meetings, gather at lunchtimes to debate how best they can meet their work targets and improve their engagement with one another, and sometimes speak directly to camera. Largely eschewing subtitles (except in a sung scene from the opera), instead we get a man and a woman’s voice (in English or French depending on the version watched) either commenting on the scene or translating the words heard, presumably intended to reflect the two filmmakers. The colours are rich and the camerawork fluid: what is presented is clearly the best of the Cultural Revolution in action, though it does largely stick to workers (in the oilfield, in shops, in factories, making dolls and, the shortest of the films, a university professor grappling with the new dialectic method).
For me, the two most striking things were firstly the constant engagement with dialectics: in the classroom scene, even the teachers admit their fallibility and try to engage with the students as equals; the professor laughingly admits he has had difficulties; and in the factories there are constant discussions about how to best and most fairly resolve collective work disagreements. Secondly, the role of women is celebrated and given equal time (the final of the films is “One Woman, One Family” which focuses a single woman in her factory work, where she is a leading union organiser, and her family life — though it does take in some of her co-workers arguing that maybe she shouldn’t be at the centre, because many others do equally valuable work). Throughout all the episodes, it is made clear that — in the ideal revolutionary world being shown — women are every bit as effective as their male comrades. There’s an all-woman fishing boat crew, while women take visible and leading roles in the factories’ work (less so the oilfields).
It’s a broad canvas, and not entirely exempt from criticism — would that the revolutionary unity depicted in the film were either sustained or borne out by history — but it’s a beautiful, moving film about the work and lives of ordinary people.
Directors Joris Ivens and Marceline Loridan Ivens; Cinematographer Joris Ivens; Length 763 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 25 March 2017.
One of the things that cinema can do most powerfully (and it’s by no means the only thing, or something that all films can or should be doing) is to give a sense of what it’s like to be in a particular place at a time in history. It seems to me, as well, that this is a really valuable gift, as few enough of us get a real empathetic sense of what other people’s lives are like, and even travelling only gives us a partial understanding (as the places we go are most likely the places that are prepared and open to us as tourists). Well, Wang Bing’s 9-hour long documentary West of the Tracks is a glorious example of the empathetic power of cinema at its finest: a document of industrial decay in the north-east of China, and how it affects a community (or rather, perhaps, a series of interlocked and interdependent communities).
It’s split into three broad parts (“Rust”, “Remnants” and “Rails”) of roughly four, three and two hours respectively, the first and longest dealing with three large factories (dedicated to smelting, zinc sheets, and steel cables). Wang filmed over the course of 1999-2001, and even in the early sequences we get a sense of how these factories are on their last legs, far from the shiny glass and steel modernism we might be used to, but crumbling relics of a past era. Workers are seen not just on the factory floor, but bickering in the changing rooms and wandering around naked in and out of showers, playing mahjong and receiving rare visits from bosses. As the time goes by, the work becomes more haphazard, the permanent staff replaced by temps, all kinds of dangerous practices going on, and having often not been paid for months, there’s a flagrant disregard not just for safety but for property — so tenuous is the business that employess openly discuss what they’re going to try and make off with before inevitable layoffs.
The second part goes to a nearby residential community, as it too slowly disappears, with evictions quickly leading to rows of roofless properties, among the rubble of which the last few hardy souls make do without electricity, boiling up food on wood-burning stoves. It would tempting to say the only colour in their dwellings comes from the bowls of food which are served, but even this is sometimes just bland porridge and steamed buns. It’s evidently not an easy life, but somehow the people there just keep on going, while wondering with increasing resentment why the alternative accommodation they’ve been offered is too small for their families, and too expensive for them to afford. (It’s never really made clear why these settlements — where the factory workers and their families lived, paying no rent — are being demolished, but it’s obviously linked to the closure of the factories.) The focus here is on the teenage children of the families, growing up without a sense of where to work or what to do. They move around the streets and the makeshift street markets chatting and jostling with one another like any kids anywhere in the world, but having watched the four preceding hours, it’s clear that this is a changing world. The film’s third part is set amongst a small group of rail workers (specifically old Mr Du and his son), running up and down the single-track line serving all these factories, and using the job to scavenge materials, an occupation clearly destined for oblivion.
Obviously the idea of sitting down to a nine-hour film is a daunting one, but it also creates its own sense of time passing that’s at odds with a lot of the instant-reaction fast-cut media with which we are most often faced. It allows the space for reflection and, most interestingly, allows a sense of possibility that bite-sized news items can sometimes occlude: in watching these massive societal changes to this area, there is without question struggle and bleakness, but it’s also a powerful testimony to what might be called a certain indomitability of human endeavour (okay, that seems a little too portentous a phrase). Everyone we see is dealing with their lives and forever trying to move forward, however many obstacles are placed in their way. It’s just that some obstacles seem insurmountable.
Director/Cinematographer Wang Bing 王兵; Length 551 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 23 November 2016.
Sometimes the way that film distribution works really confuses me. Most foreign language films which get a release in this country, along with write-ups in the press and coverage by major film critics, come via favourable film festival screenings, or — if they’re from established directors with a public profile — they may get a release directly to cinemas. Usually any films released this way make it to a small handful of ‘arthouse’-friendly cinemas like the ICA or the Picturehouse or Curzon chains (based primarily in London; a bit sparse elsewhere in the country).
But then there is the popular cinema of non-western countries, which may make it into major chains like Odeon or Cineworld (easier to access and with more screenings, in many cases, than the more discussed arthouse releases from these places), and fly almost entirely beneath the radar of the English-language press. It seems to be rare for there to be much of a crossover between these two niches. If you live in the North-East of London, you may see Turkish films down the schedule on your local Cineworld; if you live out East or West (Ilford or Feltham, say), you’ll see a large number of Indian, Sri Lankan and Pakistani films. And if you go to the Odeon Panton Street, there will always be some Chinese-language films. Any of these can be an unexpected delight, but more often western viewers (okay, I’m talking about me here, obviously) will just be confused, for it turns out that the popular cinemas of various countries come with their own, often impenetrable, customs and codes of behaviour (I recall fondly seeing a South Indian film where every frame showing any kind of alcoholic product merited an onscreen warning about over-consumption for as long as it was pictured).
My point here is that I don’t really always understand what separates the two categories, for in many ways Someone to Talk To (the novel it’s based on translates the title as “One Sentence Worth Ten Thousand”) shares plenty of characteristics with the usual well-regarded dramatic pabulum you get from the US or UK domestic markets. You can easily imagine the four central characters being played by A-list actors in the US and the film would be reviewed as a solid, engaging relationship drama which gives space and time to its actors, and largely effaces any showiness (there are a few overly ingratiating travelling shots during scenes of exposition, but that’s all I can remember noticing). The way it develops its central theme — that people just need to communicate with one another to have successful relationships (hence the title) — can be pretty clunky at times, too.
Still, there’s a lot of sensitive acting on display, whether the perpetually perplexed and hang-dog looking Hai Mao as Aiguo, a cuckolded husband who won’t grant a divorce to his estranged partner Lina (Qian Li) for quite evidently petty reasons, or Wei Fan as cheery local chef Song, who remarries Aiguo’s sister Aixiang (Pei Lu), both lonely but ardently hoping to have… someone to talk to. The women get a little bit of melodramatic suffering to play, but the film isn’t about their unhappiness so much as the blinkered expectations of its two male leads, which are gently corrected as the film goes on. There’s rather a lot of suicidal ideation (and I feel I can’t not provide a content warning for a plot point which puts a child’s life in the balance), but for the most part this is a solid, involving relationship drama.
Director Yulin Liu 刘雨霖; Writer Zhenyun Liu 刘震云 (based on his novel, though the book is usually translated as One Sentence Worth Ten Thousand); Cinematographer Di Wu 邬迪; Starring Hai Mao 毛孩, Qian Li 李倩, Pei Liu 刘蓓, Wei Fan 范偉; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Panton Street, London, Thursday 10 November 2016.
The title translates as “Beijing Meets Seattle”, but those were the settings of the first film (which I didn’t see), and instead our star-crossed lovers (Tang Wei and Wu Xiubo) here live in Macau and Los Angeles, the former setting introduced in tourist-brochure terms as a mecca for glamorous international gamblers. Indeed, I gather this sequel uses the same actors and the same basic premise, but is an otherwise standalone film — not that anyone would have any difficulty catching up with it, given the broad generic sweep of its storyline. The plot leans heavily on the romantic novel 84 Charing Cross Road in orchestrating a romance based on the anonymous exchange of letters between lovers which have been sent to that London address (London only shows up in the film’s rather absurdly, but almost touchingly romantic, denouement). In a sense, all of its contrivances are little more than absurd nonsense — and in its insistence on written letters, a strangely old-fashioned film — but after all, it’s a romantic weepie in which our two photogenic leads keep almost bumping into each other, as their feelings gradually deepen into love. Therefore, whatever reservations I may have, I still find it ultimately likeable, though it helps to see a film which finishes up in London at a cinema mere steps away.
Director/Writer Xiaolu Xue 薛曉路; Cinematographer Chi-Ying Chan 陈志英; Starring Wei Tang 湯唯, Xiubo Wu 吴秀波; Length 129 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Panton Street, London, Friday 29 April 2016.
Stephen Chow has a directorial reputation for silliness, though I’ve only ever seen one film of his from 20 years ago now (God of Cookery). However, by all accounts, this latest one, a box office blockbuster in its native China, is very much on brand: it is utterly, ridiculously demented. The plot basically involves a colony of half-human mer-creatures (what even is the collective noun for mermaids et al.?) whose existence is threatened by ruthless capitalist Liu Xuan (Deng Chao) and his sea-life-destroying sonar technology. And so the mer-people send out Shan (Lin Yun), the mermaid of the title, to reel him in with her womanly charms, as she shuffles along, her tail awkwardly fitted into socks and shoes. For this effect — and in general throughout the movie — the CGI is pretty ropey, but presumably it’s intended to be, to point up the silliness of the conceit. By the time Xuan’s business partner Ruolan (Zhang Yuqi) is double-crossing him with a view to exterminating these aquatic pests, everything in the plot has become very contorted, but the film continues to throw out all manner of visual gags, while staying grounded in the budding romance between Shan and Xuan. Somewhere in all this there’s a strong message about environmental responsibility, and the power of love to transcend money (and, presumably, biology). Still, it’s all pitched at a sustained level of silliness that doesn’t always cohere, but at least ensures that it remains enjoyable even when the occasional aquatic bloodletting happens.
Pedantic Note: All the marketing calls the movie “The Mermaid” but I’ve gone with the English title appearing on-screen, which omits the definite article.
Director Stephen Chow 周星馳; Writers Chow, Kelvin Lee 李思臻, Hing-ka Chan 陳慶嘉, Chih-chiang Fung 馮志強, Miu-kei Ho 何妙祺, Ivy Kong 江玉儀, Zhengyu Lu 盧正雨 and Kan-cheung Tsang 曾瑾昌; Cinematographer Sung-fai Choi 蔡崇輝; Starring Yun Lin 林允, Chao Deng 鄧超, Yuqi Zhang 張雨綺; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Panton Stret, London, Wednesday 24 February 2016.
Hou Hsiao-Hsien makes slow films. I’m still fairly certain that the most walk-outs I’ve ever experienced from a film screening was when I went to see his magisterial Flowers of Shanghai (1998) when it screened for the first time at my local film festival (about half the audience left, and that’s a festival crowd). He returns to a Chinese period setting with his latest film (this time it’s the 8th century Tang Dynasty), so I’m not surprised to hear people criticise it for a certain coolness to its narrative exposition. For my own part, the period setting strikes me in the same way as, say, Shakespeare plays do: I’m not always exactly sure the historical importance of each of the characters, but I get the gist of what’s going on. Shu Qi plays the titular figure of Nie Yinniang, who is instructed by the nun who raised her to assassinate a corrupt government minister, Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen), but she finds it difficult to complete the mission when it transpires he is a cousin and former betrothed of hers. These are the broad brush strokes, but Hou fills in the rest with his cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin, using a gorgeous colour palette and elaborate costumes. Yinniang is often filmed through veils and obstructed by trees in outdoor settings, lurking in the background as Tian and his wife (Yun Zhou) hold court. I confess I probably need to see this film again to properly appreciate its artistry, but on a first viewing it certainly doesn’t disappoint. Unless, that is, one goes in hoping for a more action-packed genre-inflected wuxia.
Director Hou Hsiao-Hsien 侯孝賢; Writers Hou, Chu T’ien-wen 朱天文, Hsieh Hai-Meng 謝海盟 and Zhong Acheng 鍾阿城; Cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin 李屏賓; Starring Shu Qi 舒淇, Chen Chang 張震, Yun Zhou 周韻; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 26 January 2016.