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 a lot of stuff you can latch onto in this film, but yet it feels so difficult to pin down or talk about because it is so fraught. It’s about people being evasive, who don’t want to be seen to be doing the wrong thing and who, at a certain level, live their lives within the frame the narrative creates for them and the camera allows them — I’m not sure if they can exist beyond these 90-something minutes and I’m not sure if I want them to. Anyway I’m being a bit vague because I can’t really pin down how I feel but when I first saw this 16 years ago I wasn’t married, and who knows what it’ll be like in another 16, but I’m fairly sure I’ll still love it, and maybe I’ll even have a deeper sense of it. In any case, Wong is clearly infatuated with Godard but luckily that doesn’t determine the course of the film: this is very much its own thing. Doomed romance, that yearning soundtrack, Maggie Cheung’s high-necked cheongsam dresses, the rain, the endless food being dished up, the smoke, the empty corridors. All of it.
Criterion Extras: There’s a short film called Huayang de Nianhua made up of archival clips, beguiling images of old (and to me, unknown) Chinese actresses, like a hint at what Wong was thinking about while making his feature.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Wong Kar-wai 王家衛; Cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Mark Lee Ping-Bin 李屏賓; Starring Maggie Cheung 張曼玉, Tony Leung 梁朝偉; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Tuesday 24 July 2001 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 5 March 2017).
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.
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.
This is a simple film too, straightforward in its emotional appeal to the audience by telling a gentle story of an ageing family maid, Ah Tao, and her increasingly close relationship with the family’s unmarried son Roger (Andy Lau) as she gets ever older and more precarious. It does a good job of toning down the more saccharine sentimentality that could have taken hold, favouring instead slow-moving compositions over wordiness or plinky-plonky muzak. At first Roger keeps Ah Tao distant, eating the food she cooks him without much ceremony, but after she has a stroke and must retire from her work, he finds himself taking greater care of her. In some ways, the story goes where one might expect, but it’s a pleasant, undemanding watch all the same.
Director Ann Hui 許鞍華; Writers Susan Chan 陈淑贤 and Roger Lee 李恩霖; Cinematographer Yu Lik-wai 余力爲; Starring Deanie Ip 葉德嫻, Andy Lau 劉德華; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 20 December 2015.
This film was presented at the London Film Festival, presented by the CEO of the BFI along with the film’s director and producers, who stayed for a Q&A afterwards (though I had to dash off to my next film).
It may be based on real people (the parents of film star Jackie Chan, apparently), but this sweeping historical romance in fact subsumes itself into a familiar overheady melodramatic register, making it a struggle to glimpse the reality behind the burnished cinematography and period set recreations. Still, it’s never boring and occasionally even transcendent at evoking Anhui (a province, not a city, as far as I can tell) and Shanghai during World War II. The third city of the title is Hong Kong, to which the family escapes after the coming of the Communists, and it’s where the film starts out, which may head off worries about our lead characters’ survival, though there’s still plenty of nail-biting tension in the backstory which the following two hours builds up. At the heart of the piece are Sean Lau and Wei Tang as the lovers Daolong and Yuerong, who first meet in a small fishing village when she is caught by him smuggling opium but then released because things are too chaotic and he feels a tug of pity. Like any good epic, the setting changes from scene to scene such that recounting the twists and turns of the plot is difficult, suffice that between Shanghai and their homes in Anhui province, they are reunited once again and fall in love. They each have two kids from previous marriages, but those seem like the story’s losers (certainly their fate is not dwelt upon), as Daolong and Yuerong struggle to make a home for themselves somewhere away from the threat of violence and governmental oppression. Perhaps the past is the safest place to tell a story of people who were openly working against the Communists, but it still imparts a frisson of topicality, and whatever the film’s weaknesses, a fondness for grand storytelling in the David Lean style is not one of them.
Director Mabel Cheung 張婉婷; Writers Cheung and Alex Law 羅啟銳; Cinematographer Wang Yu 王昱; Starring Sean Lau 劉青雲, Wei Tang 汤唯; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Thursday 15 October 2015.
I mainly wanted to post a quick review here for my New Year’s resolution (it has a female screenwriter), which is the reason I made it along to an 11pm screening of this film (one of only two in London upon its ‘release’ — I guess the distributors are focusing on the home and VOD market). Those who are more knowledgeable about the horror film form may find more to like here than I did, and there’s a hint at some metatextual thought about acting and narratives: the central character is a down-on-his-luck actor, and scenes play on this self-referentiality. For myself, I found it a struggle to stay engaged, and though the effects have a pleasing visual grittiness, they are so manipulated as to suggest more of a comic book, dissipating any sense of terror (again, this is speaking for myself). Still, there is a really tactile sense of decay in the central setting of a crumbling housing estate, and an occasional voiceover monologue suggesting a more deranged Wong Kar-wai film.
Director Juno Mak 麥浚龍; Writers Mak, Philip Yung 翁子光 and Jill Leung 梁禮彥; Cinematographer Man-ching Ng 伍啟銘 [as “Ng Kai-Ming”]; Starring Chin Siu-ho 錢小豪; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at Hackney Picturehouse, London, Friday 1 May 2015.
When I was younger, I seem to recall liking this film best of John Woo’s output (that I’d seen), but those were long-ago days, and frankly it’s quite likely that more than one viewing just leads to exhaustion — if anything, it’s the defining feature of Woo’s agressive style. Woo uses a lot of his fondest techniques, including the one so heavily-used in The Killer of two dudes pulling guns on each other while the camera circles around and they cagily exchange words, but mostly there’s just a whole lot of explosions, ensuring that Hong Kong’s film pyrotechnists are kept in work. Basically, the two guys are both cops, though Chow Yun-fat is the detective, and Tony Leung the one working undercover in a criminal gang. Stuff happens, there’s a generous dollop of sentimentality, and of course, there are lots and lots of stylishly violent gun battles.
Criterion Extras: For the most part, due to necessary lack of funds, most of the films have been seen in non-Criterion editions, but I managed to source a copy of this rather vintage out-of-print DVD, which has a collection of intriguing extras. There’s a commentary, as well as an early student film, a strange little soundless black-and-white Super 8 oddity called Accidentally (1968) which features a story of a boy and a girl and some rope, all very rough and unflashily done, though with a few interesting shots. More substantial is a collection of 11 trailers covering Woo’s Hong Kong career from a bunch of early kung fu films in the 1970s as well as some odder projects like a Cantonese opera adaptation and what looks like a fairly broad capitalist satire, through to his gangster-and-guns films of the 1980s. Because the trailers use large chunks of Woo’s filmmaking and run to three or four minutes in length, there’s a good sense of his developing style, and brief text introductions contextualise the films. There are also some essays, but presenting written contributions on DVD screens seems like a fad which has had its day, and more recent Criterion editions prefer a chunky booklet.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director John Woo 吳宇森; Writer Barry Wong 黃炳耀; Cinematographer Wong Wing-hang 黃永恆; Starring Chow Yun-fat 周潤發, Tony Leung 梁朝偉; Length 128 minutes.
Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, December 1997 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 16 November 2014).