One of the great contemporary Chinese filmmakers is currently Jia Zhangke, who made A Touch of Sin (2013), one of my favourites of the decade. His interest in small people dwarfed by huge government building programmes or infrastructure projects seems to run through his films, and is certainly evident in the screenshots (seen here) of the three narrative feature films (and one documentary) I’m reviewing in this post, all from the 2000s. However, more than that, they seem to be about people who are alienated from their society, or otherwise find difficulties in being connected, people who slip out of the system or are trying to keep in touch despite enormous societal changes going on around them.
Following my review of Dead Pigs earlier today, another recent Chinese film to make waves, and not just because it was the only film directed by a woman in competition at the prestigious Venice Film Festival in 2017, is this one, Angels Wear White. In it second-time director Vivian Qu challenges sexually predatory men within Chinese society, part of what is implied to be wider corruption at the heart of the society, and a welcome challenge no doubt.
There’s a lot of discussion these days (and rightly so) about the destructive effect of sexual violence within patriarchal and authoritarian power structures can have on young women, and this film is a fine example of a situation in which institutional deficiences fail the people society is supposed to protect. It sets up a scenario involving a number of characters, each of which has their reasons for overlooking or excusing a horrific crime (the rape, not seen on camera, of two young girls by a corrupt police official). In many ways this is the same setup as another film I saw in the London Film Festival the same year (Beauty and the Dogs) but it’s done far more sensitively to my mind. The girls’ point of view is necessarily laconic, but we see their parents find reasons not to press charges, preferring to think about payouts and education in an area deprived of resources for this, while another strand follows a witness to the crime: a slightly older girl who has similarly been mistreated, having run away at a young age and is now living without the necessary government ID required to receive any support, doing menial cash jobs for little reward. In many ways she represents the younger girl a few years later, having toughened up and run away to a bigger city, but still prey to predatory men hanging around, offering the basic necessities of life in exchange for money or favours. It’s a corrupt society, no mistake, only exacerbated by the literally enormous metaphor of female sexuality on high heels that stands overlooking the seaside resort where it’s set.
Director/Writer Vivian Qu 文晏; Cinematographer Benoît Dervaux; Starring Vicky Chen [or Wen Qi] 陳文淇, Zhou Meijun 周美君; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Thursday 18 October 2018.
One recent talent to have emerged from film festivals — and who has already been attached to direct the new Harley Quinn DC superhero film, Birds of Prey — is Cathy Yan, who was born in China but has studied and worked for much of her life in Hong Kong and the USA. She returned to China to make her feature film debut, basing it around the enormous international city of Shanghai, as a sort of microcosm of the kinds of changes she wanted to satirically skewer.
There’s no doubt that debut feature filmmaker Cathy Yan is trying to pack a lot in here — like many modern Chinese films, it’s about the toxicity (literally, for the pigs) of modern venture capitalism, speculative building developments wiping away old communities, about changes to jobs especially for land-based occupations (like farming), about class and wealth differentials, and a whole lot more. Therefore, it can’t help but feel a little hurried at times, and a little bit busy, but for the most part I enjoyed it. The colours are bright, and the performances are sparky and watchable — not least Vivian Wu’s intractable yet stylish aunt, and Meng Li as a rich young woman looking for something more. Also, it has a karaoke singalong towards the end (though sadly nobody took part in my audience).
Director/Writer Cathy Yan 閻羽茜; Cinematographer Federico Cesca; Starring Vivian Wu 邬君梅, Li Meng [or Vivien Li] 李梦, Yang Haoyu 杨皓宇, Zazie Beetz; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Thursday 18 October 2018.
There are no shortage of challenging documentaries about Chinese history (such as last year’s Dead Souls), many of which get a little bit too political for the Chinese state. However, films like Turtle Rock take a less overtly political viewpoint in tracking the rhythms of life in a small Chinese village. (NB Although the main credited director, Xiao Xiao, is a man, the co-director/producer is a woman, Lin Lin, hence my use of the ‘directed by a woman’ tag and inclusion on related lists.)
There’s such an enormous range of documentaries in the world, it’s ridiculous to put this in even the same category as something you might find hyped on Netflix. In its textures and its setting, this is far closer to a filmmaker like Lav Diaz — it is, after all, very much in the vein of ‘slow cinema’, with long tracking shots in lush black-and-white, with very little in the way of narrative to drive it. That said, it’s not boring: it presents this small mountainous village (where the director grew up), the rhythms of daily life and ritual, the gossip amongst the inhabitants, and little vignettes of their existence. Bamboo cropping early on provides the indelible sight of these enormously long stalks being carried precariously by a man and woman to a truck in the background, but the film manages to find wonderful images throughout, whether misty vistas or close-ups on pets, looming haggard faces crunching through nuts, or a woman chopping up garlic and chillis while haranguing an unseen neighbour about his poor tiling skills. It tends to avoid any overt political commentary aside from the postscript that this community had been formed many generations ago by those escaping mid-20th century war, and one imagines there have been many hardships over the intervening years, but people in the film seem to be getting along just fine without much of the modern world.
Directors Xiao Xiao 蕭瀟 and Lin Lin 林林; Cinematographer Xiao; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Monday 21 January 2019.
This Friday sees a UK cinematic release for Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son, which I saw at the London Film Festival a few months ago. I’ve already done one themed week around films about China (generally Taiwanese or Hong Kong films, or otherwise films not themselves produced by China). However, China is an enormous country with a great deal of varied filmmaking, and has a long and rich history and culture, so it’s worth returning there for a second themed week. This one will have more films actually made in and by the Chinese, although as ever there are films which aren’t exactly sanctioned by the state, and that’s the case with this film, about China’s controversial ‘One Child Policy’.
A powerful film combining the personal testimony of the filmmaker(s) with documentary footage uncovering the extent of the “One Child Policy” in China, which ran from 1979-2015. Nanfu Wang seems to be the dominant voice on the film, but it’s co-directed with Jialing Zhang (or Lynn Zhang, who was also involved in the 2017 documentary Complicit about the lack of environmental protections afforded to Chinese workers), and the film is prompted by the birth of Wang’s child. We see, in pretty graphic terms at times, how the policy affected generations of Chinese families, leading to forced abortions and even infanticide; we see too the propaganda aimed at encouraging families to follow the policy; and then there are the many layers of government, both national, regional and local, aimed at enforcing it. Clearly some areas were more ruthless than others (one interviewee recounts how there are two children in her family because of rather more lax rules in rural areas), but there’s also a persuasive picture of how the policy dovetailed with patriarchal attitudes, meaning a huge number of young girls were essentially sold or taken into “orphanages”, which then placed these children with overseas families, and one strand of the documentary deals with a couple helping to track down such children. It’s a sad film, but a fascinating one nonetheless.
Directors Nanfu Wang 王男栿 and Jialing Zhang [or Lynn Zhang] 张嘉玲; Cinematographer Wang and Yuanchen Liu; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Wednesday 16 October 2019.
One of the most striking feature debuts of recent years is this almost four-hour Chinese film by Hu Bo. Perhaps part of the reason it gained distribution is that it was also, sadly, the final film for its director, but I think it stands on its own as a rendition of life in a northern Chinese city. Most Chinese films of this length can’t seem to help but allegorise some aspect of Chinese political life, but Hu Bo puts the focus more resolutely on his characters and, one assumes by extension, on himself and his own feelings. Its length and the sadness contained within it make me feel like I didn’t really do this film justice with my brief notes below, and I want to revisit it again in future with a bit more hindsight.
This is a film filled with darkness. At first that that’s just literal darkness; the early scenes feel like they’re only barely registering in the half-lit gloom of darkened rooms in a miserable industrial town that nobody really wants to live in. But it’s also the darkness that lies within the characters (and, it would seem, from autobiographical details, the director), most of whom seem to be grappling with feelings of mortality or worthlessness or self-hatred or disgust toward their parents or spouses or authority figures… There’s this sadness branching off in so many directions, but mostly it’s directed inwardly.
The film appears to be set over the course of a single day — or at least that’s my reading of it — and is made up of these long takes, often following behind a character. There’s a lot of violence, but you never see this on-screen, it always just happens outside the frame, so instead the camera stays on the faces of those witnessing it or inflicting it; there’s no cathartic release, only the pain of violence refracted back onto the participant. Therefore it’s important that the actors are all excellent, really finding space within this bleak town, within their characters, in an almost documentary-like way.
If that all makes it sound less than entertaining — and be mindful too that this film is almost four hours long — then you would indeed be reading my review correctly. That said, I think there’s a lot of fantastic talent in there, and for all the darkness, there’s still something which connects, but it connects in difficult ways.
Director/Writer Hu Bo 胡波 (based on his own short story); Cinematographer Fan Chao 范超; Starring Peng Yuchang 彭昱暢, Wang Yuwen 王玉雯, Zhang Yu 章宇, Liu Congxi 李從喜; Length 234 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Saturday 15 December 2018.
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] 张嘉玲; Writer Christopher Seward; Length 82 minutes.
Seen at Barbican Cinema, London, Monday 13 March 2017.