桃姐 Tou Ze (A Simple Life, 2011)

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.

A Simple Life film posterCREDITS
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.


山河故人 Shanhe guren (Mountains May Depart, 2015)

BFI London Film Festival This film was presented at the London Film Festival, introduced by its director and leading actor Zhao Tao.

It feels like it’s been a long road for me towards appreciating director Jia Zhangke’s films properly since his first film Xiao Wu (1997), but Tian zhu ding (A Touch of Sin) was up there at the top of my year’s favourite films of last year. This new one also takes a multi-part approach to storytelling, but rather than four separate (if interwoven) stories, here it’s three focusing on the same characters but over time (1999, 2014 and 2025). It’s very easy to recount the key ideas which Jia is going for here and make them seem banal — I think we’ve all become familiar now with films that look at technology and social media as symptomatic of a modern social disconnection that we have from one another as people. With respect to China, there’s also a link made here with westernisation and capitalism, which makes the choice of the song with which the film opens and closes (“Go West” by the Pet Shop Boys, accompanied by a delightful dance sequence) seem somewhat inevitable. And yet none of this is really quite as obvious while the film is playing: it’s instead a gentle and at times subtly harrowing story of a woman growing up in provincial China (Zhao Tao), the man she marries (Yi Zhang) whose life is dedicated to wealth-creation (leading him first to Shanghai and then Australia), and their son (Daole, or “Dollar”, played by Zijian Dong), who grows up with his father after the parents split, and finally has troubling reconnecting with his mother. Each of the three time periods is presented in a different aspect ratio, which lends further artfulness to the presentation. The long final stretch set in the future is probably the most challenging (not least because the characters all speak in English, Daole having lost the ability to speak his native tongue, and because Yi Zhang’s old-age look is so transparently unconvincing), but it’s also the most fascinating section, whereas the 1999 sequence has a sort of bright sheen of hopefulness (and even, dare I say it, a hint of televisual melodrama). It’s a strong work, if not my favourite of Jia’s recent output.

Mountains May Depart film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jia Zhangke 賈樟柯; Cinematographer Yu Lik-wai 余力为; Starring Zhao Tao 赵涛, Yi Zhang 张译, Zijian Dong 董子健, Sylvia Chang 張艾嘉; Length 131 minutes.
Seen at Vue West End, London, Thursday 8 October 2015.

Tian zhu ding (A Touch of Sin, 2013)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Odeon Panton Street, London, Monday 2 June 2014 || My Rating 4 stars excellent

© Kino Lorber Films

Jia Zhangke has proven himself over the last two decades to be one of China’s most intriguing directors, beginning with the microbudget, underground Xiao Wu (1997). He may have graduated to ‘official approval’ for his filmmaking, but his vision of modern China is still unsettling enough that this latest film has had trouble in being certificated for its local market. That might be attributed to the more forceful exegesis — it takes its form from four interwoven stories which are bookended by bloody acts of brutal violence — but really it’s more likely to be related to the way this violence is contextualised within contemporary society. If it’s not specifically a Chinese malaise that causes this violence, locating it there and basing it on real events, torn as it were from the headlines (or rather, the social media), can’t have been helpful. That said, this isn’t a documentary or even a docudrama: it has a very cinematic sweep, with much of its violence more indebted to traditional cinematic forms (wuxia for example, as hinted by the title’s evocation of A Touch of Zen) than to real life. It’s also simply beautiful to look at.

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