Four Films by Jia Zhangke: The World (2004), Still Life (2006), Dong (2006) and 24 City (2008)

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.

Continue reading “Four Films by Jia Zhangke: The World (2004), Still Life (2006), Dong (2006) and 24 City (2008)”

嘉年华 Jia Nian Hua (Angels Wear White, 2017)

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.

Angels Wear White film posterCREDITS
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.

海上浮城 Haishang Fucheng (Dead Pigs, 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).

Dead Pigs film posterCREDITS
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.

团鱼岩 Tuan Yu Yan (Turtle Rock, 2017)

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.

Turtle Rock film posterCREDITS
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.

One Child Nation (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.

One Child Nation film posterCREDITS
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.

Criterion Sunday 272: La commare secca (aka The Grim Reaper, 1962)

Bernardo Bertolucci’s first film is made in the years after Neo-Realism, with a script worked on by Pasolini, and has something of a similar feel to his compatriots in telling a mystery about a prostitute found murdered, whose body we see near the start. The police follow up with a number of suspects, whose intersecting stories we hear and see over the course of the film. The filmmaking is direct, but with little flourishes such as those of the dead woman getting ready for her day, each a single shot inserted before the torrential rainstorm that repeats through each of the stories we hear. There’s also a nighttime park where all the suspects cross each others’ paths, and shots of characters are seen repeated from multiple vantage points, suggesting the many counter-narratives that are presented here (and of course the debt it owes to Rashomon has been mentioned many times by critics, even if Bertolucci hadn’t seen it as he claimed).

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s an interview from 2003 with Bernardo Bertolucci about the film, in which he recalls starting his film career with Pasolini on the latter’s debut Accattone before being giving the reins of this Pasolini project at the age of 21 (Pasolini was focusing on Mamma Roma at the time). It was always tied to Pasolini, Bertolucci ruefully recalls, despite his best efforts to differentiate it, such as with a constantly moving camera or little poetic inserts (as mentioned in my review).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Bernardo Bertolucci; Writers Bertolucci, Sergio Citti and Pier Paolo Pasolini (based on Pasolini’s short story); Cinematographer Giovanni Narzisi; Starring Giancarlo De Rosa; Length 93 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 31 October 2019.

Peterloo (2018)

Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent’s 2018 film The Nightingale is released in UK cinemas today, by all accounts a brutal drama about a woman seeking revenge. Last year also saw the release of Mike Leigh’s grand reenactment of historical events that are now 200 years old, a brutal massacre by the government of poor and disenfranchised people demanding Parliamentary reform, a massacre which led eventually to changes in the electoral system. I didn’t love the film, but there’s plenty to commend it all the same.


Oh, there are bits in this long evocation of working-class northern England (well, Manchester, specifically) that I really liked, but I’m already struggling to remember what those were in the overwhelming sense that this is a piece of teachable didactic history intended to be introduced in classrooms with study packs and discussion points… [adopting teacher voice] “So you heard the aristocrats voicing their anxiety about the French Revolution while idly quaffing wine; do you understand how that could have been an underlying reason for why they felt compelled to send in the cavalry so quickly?” etc etc. The problem is, I never really felt any of that: the characters were types, represented ideas and classes, embodied such roles as ‘mill workers’, ‘land-owning reformers’, ‘aristocrats’, ‘the King, who is obviously a massive wanker’ et al. When they discussed ideas, I never got a sense of what these might mean for any actual people, and so the whole just came across as a pageant (or even as propaganda), such that the final battle never really had much emotional pull for me — other than the obvious ‘this is bad: never trust the government’. There’s also a constant sense of cheeky jollity on the sidelines, sparkling little bits of wordplay or hamminess, that made me feel like I was supposed to laugh at everyone. The performances are fine, as far as they are written at all (Maxine Peake is never bad), but too much of it is fairly one-note, so it’s only in small details that the film comes alive — fiddlers practising in the fields on the outskirts of town, a cat leaping around behind a mill owner fulminating at his workers taking time off, that kind of thing. It’s well-mounted, it will hopefully spur discussion and understanding, but it never really felt alive to me as a film.

Peterloo film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Mike Leigh; Cinematographer Dick Pope; Starring Rory Kinnear, Maxine Peake, Pearce Quigley; Length 154 minutes.
Seen at Vue Islington, London, Saturday 17 November 2018.

幕末太陽傳 Bakumatsu Taiyoden (A Sun-Tribe Myth from the Bakumatsu Era, aka Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate, 1957)

It’s all too easy to think of the 19th century here in the UK as the ‘Victorian era’ for the most part, and have an idea of what kind of feeling and look to expect from a 19th century-set film. However, other countries obviously have their own eras, and the Bakumatsu era lies towards the end of the 19th century in Japan, when the shogunate was ending and Japan was moving towards a less isolationist policy.


I get the feeling that the great works of Japanese art heralded in the West are generally in your Kurosawa school of well-mounted historical epics, but this Japanese favourite is clearly a comedy. The central character, a grifter who is mostly called “the Grifter” (Frankie Sakai), strikes me as nothing so much as a John Belushi-like figure of excess and troublesomeness, as he makes his living doing odd jobs and taking advantage of people at a brothel. The introductory section set in the modern era immediately suggests some contemporary criticism of Japanese post-war morality (under which prostitution was banned), but this works as a period-set rambunctious comedy from the time when Japan was starting to embrace the rest of the world, albeit not always willingly.

CREDITS
Director Yuzo Kawashima 川島雄三; Writers Kawashima, Shohei Imamura 今村昌平 and Keiichi Tanaka 田中啓一; Cinematographer Kurataro Takamura 高村倉太郎; Starring Frankie Sakai フランキー堺, Yoko Minamida 南田洋子, Sachiko Hidari 左幸子; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at aunt’s home (DVD), Gullane, Tuesday 26 December 2017.

Under Capricorn (1949)

Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna is always a trove of fascinating older films, covering a range of genres and national cinemas, but you can always count on a few good period dramas. One such was this screening of a 35mm Technicolor print of Alfred Hitchcock’s underrated and underseen 1949 film Under Capricorn, set in 19th century Australia (though not filmed there).


One of Hitchcock’s more underappreciated films, and I do wonder if for English-speaking audiences it’s because of Ingrid Bergman’s rather patchy Irish accent. Needless to say, coming right after he made Rope, it’s filled with a bravura sense of adventure with the camera, which for all its physical clunkiness, seems to glide around these sets, particularly in a pair of scenes as a character approaches a home and moves around it and into it with ease, revealing these little snippets of the life within. Well, of course, that life is melodramatic and rather cloistered, a tale of power and class and the way that old English money (represented by Michael Wilding’s character, who has an imperious hauteur which is progressively broken down through the film) looks down on the transported criminals whose past it may have been untoward to enquire into, but who are also clearly very much aware of said pasts. In this case, it’s that of Joseph Cotten’s Flasky which comes into question, and his strange drunken wife played by Ingrid Bergman. The film begins and ends with the British flag flying over Australia, and plays out in 1830s Sydney, and there’s a hothouse atmosphere which the filming only heightens. Some of the characters may allow for rather broad performances, but this a beguiling Technicolor film that should probably have a higher standing amongst Hitch’s filmography.

Under Capricorn film posterCREDITS
Director Alfred Hitchcock; Writers James Bridie and Hume Cronyn (based on the play by John Colton and Margaret Linden, itself based on the novel by Helen Simpson); Cinematographer Jack Cardiff; Starring Michael Wilding, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, Margaret Leighton; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Arlecchino, Bologna, Monday 24 June 2019.

The Beguiled (2017)

Sofia Coppola’s career has taken in a lot of hothouse environments of young women, guiding and socialising with one other largely independent of men, from her debut feature The Virgin Suicides. Her 2017 feature, from a novel already adapted in 1971 by Don Siegel, received a lot of criticism at the time for its elision of Black people in its southern US Civil War-era story, and there may of course be merits to those criticisms but there are other films that deal with these events, and Sofia Coppola is probably not the best-placed director to do justice to such themes. Instead, it takes the setting as a backdrop for another of her stories about young women’s coming of age, in difficult circumstances.


Sure, there are plenty of valid criticisms you could make, but I like Sofia Coppola’s work and I like what she’s doing with this film. A group of women isolated from their country and society isn’t exactly new territory, and if it’s not quite the masterpiece that The Bling Ring (2013) and Marie Antoinette (2006) were, it’s still very assured. Beautiful cinematography turns on a tightly judged acting performance from each of the women (and Colin Farrell), in which allegiances and sympathies shift markedly with only very subtle changes in the relationships (until it becomes less subtle and then the film just ends, rather swiftly). I don’t know if it says anything really about the period of the Civil War-era America or the end of the antebellum South, but I would venture that it’s more about sex and desire in a cloistered environment.

The Beguiled film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Sofia Coppola (based on the novel The Painted Devil by Thomas P. Cullinan); Cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd; Starring Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Angourie Rice; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Living Room Theaters, Portland OR, Friday 30 June 2017.