Thursday, 1 November 2007

The Man Behind the Courtyard House (2011)

Chinese title: 守望者:罪恶迷途.

This film reminds me of NatGeo's Air Crash Investigation.

What I learnt from the program is that modern air planes are very safe. For example, a plane can still fly when it loses 1 or all of its engines. Or that it completely runs out of fuel. In fact, this scenario had occurred, and the pilots were able to land the plane with minimum casualties.

What usually brought about the crash is the result of a series of unforeseen, accidental events; some are technical, some are man-made. For example, the pilots take bad advice from ground control cruise after some technical malfunction, and this led to their eventual crash. This was an actual example of a crash.

This is what happens in the story, a series of unforeseen events occur, bad advice is given, and our main character takes those advice and is a step closer to the tragic end of his mass murder.

The story is told in increasingly regressive flashbacks. I.e. the story starts with the homicide, then previous flashbacks, one early than another are eventually unfolded.

This is like the air crash investigation. The air crash investigator arrives at the scene of the tragedy, (s)he wonders what happens by working backwards to an earlier and earlier times to piece together the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle. The audience is shown how in each successively earlier flashbacks, a decision was made by taking bad advice from other people, the main character is taking closer to his decision step by step until the final massacre of the whole family.

It also shows how in each of this flashback episode that how a totally innocent, or trivial decision would alter the course of events, and lead to a very different conclusion.

The Man Behind the Courtyard House (2011)A popular saying goes something like this, "To a handyman, all problems could be fixed with a hammer" (Ok, there may not an EXACT saying like this. But something along this line). Our central character in this movie may have taken this expression to heart. When he nails somebody, he puts a nail into their scalp with a hammer.

Here's a riddle. You enter a living room, you see a broken glass, and some water on the floor. Lies next to the puddle of water is Jane. Jane is dead. What happens?

Give up? Well, Jane is a fish. Don't know what I'm talking about? You will after you see the movie.

If you expect a slasher film because of the homicides, you will be sorely disappointed. All the killings are done out of sight. I guess this is to comply to the Beijing Film Bureau's heavy handed censorship. If you enjoy a movie with a philosophical musing, and a non-linear story structure, this may be your cup of tea.

The story is much better told in that 3-rewinds structure. It gives the audience 3 unique "Ah...I see", or eureka moments, which would be lost if told in a conventional way.

If this is this director's 1st movie (it seems so), I'm looking forward to his later works.

A Simple Life (2011)

Chinese title: Sister Peach (桃姐).

A Simple Life (2011)
A housemaid is usually addressed with the 'sister' title. She's a 'sister' to Roger's (played by Andy Lau) parent, but she's more like a 'mother' to Roger. It's funny that I watched a HK movie from 1988 where Yip and Lau played mother and son only last week.

This is a postmodernist film for whatever that word means to me (if I know what it means, then I'm not a post-modernist. But enough about me). It breaks down the barrier between social classes of the old, as recent as less than 2 generations ago in HK society. Sammo Hung, Tsui Hark and Raymond Chow play themselves in this film. Or a version of themselves. And Andy Lau also plays somebody who works in the film industry. Did I mention that this director Ann Hui also made The Postmodern Life of my Aunt?

I may have mentioned somewhere else in this list that she's one of the minority in HK film directors who made few commercial escapist films. Rather she made the kind of art-house films in genres that more similar to Taiwanese, and Mainlanders.

This is a HK movie, or a movie produced, written, acted by HK talents, and yet all the dialogues are delivered in Mandarin!!! Yes, all SB productions are in Mandarin, but this was the situation nearly 3 decades ago.

Nope. It isn't a Cantonese movie dubbed in Putonghua because I could recognise the actors' original voices. And what's more, most of them have Cantonese accents (although Andy Lau, and Deanne Yip's Cantonese accents are quite slight, but still noticeable). Except for Paul Chun ('uncle Kin'), and Anthony Wong whose voice was dubbed, probably because they can't speak Mandarin (it's hard to teach old dogs new dialect. Actually Paul Chun could speak very good Mandarin. Why he's dubbed it's 1 of those showbiz mystery).

And all of these lead me to believe that this HK movie is made for the Mainland market (and/or international market). This explains the low profile of the movie in HK itself. Well HK movie goers don't care about that anyway.

The film is carpeted with dry humour, if you like that, you would be floored.

The emotion in this movie is raw and honest. It's also sad, funny, poignant, heart warming, and even uplifting. You would be anything but unmoved by it.

This movie breaks record in HK film industry for winning the most international film awards as one would expect from a good art-house movie. She continued to outdo herself. Good to see.

See my IMDB list for all my available reviews of Chinese language films.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

How Bruce Lee Changed the World (2009)

This is another excellent doc on Bruce Lee. The name of this doco should be clear what it's all about.

I'm not going to make a laundry list of how Bruce Lee changed the world. You could find out from this movie yourself. But I will make a laundry list of how Bruce Lee changed the HK film industry. A summary of what I already mentioned in various places in this list.

1. He invented the kungfu genre. Before him, SB (the most important HK studio that dominated HK film industry before Bruce Lee arrived)  only made wuxia genre. What's the difference between kungfu and wuxia flicks? There're 2 major distinguishing features.

How Bruce Lee Changed the World (2009)Wuxia is also called swordplay, and as such, the martial artists often fight each other with swords. Of course, they don't ALWAYS fight with swords. They do so MOST of the times. Other times, they use other weapons.

Similarly, in kungfu genre, martial artists fight each other with fists (and legs). In other words, the body is the weapon. Again, they don't ALWAYS fight with their bodies. They do so MOST of the times. Other times, they use weapons. Bruce Lee, for example, used nunchuck and other weapons from time to time.

The more important distinction between kungfu and wuxia genre is WHEN the story takes place. Wuxia tend to take place in Chinese antiquity. I say, as a rule, before 19th century. Could be much further back in time. In ancient times, many Chinese carried swords. Even poets carried swords (doesn't mean they were expert swordsmen). While after 19th century, people don't walk around with swords, hence we have people fighting with fists, not swords. This is the period where kungfu took place - post 18th century.

2. The emergence of patriotic martial arts genre (read Fist of Fury (1972) and Hapkido (1972) for more comments about this development). Since wuxia took place before the 19th century China, the contacts between Chinese and foreigners were very limited. There were always so called patriotic historical dramas being made before, but they fought Chinese neighbouring countries that eventually took over China and dominated over the Han majority. E.g. The Jurchens, the Mongols, and the Manchus. They weren't invaders from across the seas. All these neighbouring invaders were eventually being Sinicized and become Chinese minorities (or 'nationalities' as they're more accurately called by PRC today). So such movies are much less controversial because of the people as well as the huge separation of time.

How Bruce Lee Changed the World (2009)By focusing the stories in the period of 19th century and early 20th century China, the patriotic kungfu flicks concentrated on the foreign invaders from across the seas - Europeans in the 19th century, and Japanese in the 20th century. Because of the much closer time frames, the HK film makers were more sensitive to the whole enterprise.

As a result of these, foreigner faces begun to appear in HK movies after 1970 when Bruce Lee came to Chollywood (Can I call HK and Chinese film industry Chollywood? I love to invent new word).

The whole of Once Upon a Time in China franchise is a best - and far from being the only one - example of the patriotic kungfu flicks spurred into existence by Bruce Lee. The hero(es/ines) in these films are patriots (Wong Fei-Hung, Chen Zhen, Hou Yuanjia, etc).

3. He turned wuxia directors into kungfu films directors. Most notably Chang Cheh, who is called the Godfather of HK Cinema follow Bruce Lee's lead. Actors who played blades wielding swordsmen were turned into fisticuffs boxers (Wang Yu, David Chiang, Ti Lung, Chen Kuan-Tai, etc).

4. Even his death created wave of Bruceploitation movies, and many martial arts actors whose careers came into existence impersonating Bruce Lee, while others directions were decided in one shape or another after this. Jackie Chan is an example of both Bruce Lee's wannabe, and somebody whose career's direction was effected because of Bruce Lee. Other martial artists like Sammo Jung, and Liu Chia-Liang also jumped on the comedy action bandwagon for the same reason.

5. He - along with Chang Cheh - reversed the dominant female bias in SB films, and transformed the whole Chollywood into a more masculine pivot (Bruce Lee was from America, and the Yang principle is very strong in Hollywood). Female leads that used to dominate SB movies before 1971 - in most genres - were going down hill from here on.

This isn't an exhaustive list, but simply the salient points

Sunday, 7 October 2007

Mad Detective (2007)

When watching the same average unoriginal crime is a tired experience, this film can offer some boredom relief.

Vincent van Gogh cut off his left ear, and gave it to his prostitute as a gift. Why? Because he was mad. As is our made detective Bun. Mad people by its very nature think differently, perceive thing non-linearly. The madder you're, the more unconventional your thinking becomes, and the closer you're to being genius. Both Vincent van Gogh and detective Bun are schizo, especially when Bun didn't take his colourful pills. I'm quite sure that Wai Ka-Fai the talented writer had a leap of imagination from van Gogh and his medical condition.

When I watched My Left Eyes Sees Ghosts (2002), I was slightly - just mildly - surprise by the unusual departure from Johnnie To's usual crime genre. In My Left Eye, the female lead was able to see ghosts with her left eye. And in my (long) description for that movie in this list, I proposed that Yin-Yang Eye is a metaphor of somebody's ability to to see things she wouldn't want to see, or inner demons.

In this movie, detective Bun has a gift of seeing inner personalities that others can't. Once again, the idea of a gift of special vision. When you can finish your girl friend sentence, or know exactly how she would react in ANY given situation, it's said that you can read her mind. Metaphorically speaking. Not literally, only a psychic can do that (if that ability exists. Perhaps, that's what psychic is, a metaphor for people with special ability to get under people's skin, and think other people thoughts MUCH MORE than ordinary people).

In those 2 movies, those metaphors are turning into physical reality. But these are how many many many original literature creations come about - as metaphors for something else. Vampires, werewolves, Hercules, Thor, Superman, Batman, etc. Or the idea of a movie where that 2 characters swap bodies, literally (quite a number of those). Or the idea that somebody is being possessed by demons (even larger number of these). But these ARE original ideas, just like these 2 movies are.

Not coincidentally that both scripts are written by Wai Ka-Fai. Both are inventive in the idea of somebody possessing a special gift. Well, the Yin-Yang Eye isn't original, but having only one - the LEFT - Yin-Yang eye is a brilliant stroke, and totally original.

Seeing it from another perspectives (so to speak), her Yin-Yang eye reflects emotional issues that she has - that she denies to see the real truth, while seeing multiple inner personalities in others reflect on the mental issues that he has - that he's a schizo, a split personality. He's the only one who has more than one personalities in reality.

Like Exiled (2006), John To / Wai Ka-Fai are breathing fresh lives into this crime genre as least, and redefine it at best. It's looking like they're progressing in the quality of their ideas over the years. Keep up the good work!

Blind Mountain (2007)

After an official ban (typically 3 years) on his last award-studded film Blind Shaft, he followed with another film to tackle another glaring social problem in China.

If Chinese film makers highlight all the social problems in their films, they will be set for the next 30 - 50 years. Of course, some of these problems will either be diminished or gone by then due to its industrialisation/modernisation, political and social reforms. Of course, we'll have new social issues by then, the kind that are usually dealt with in Taiwanese film - middle class personal dramas. One could only hope.

I like the balance that Li Yang brings to his movies. His 1st film deals with the social problem that brought about by greed and industrialisation. This movie brings attention to a social problem of not enough industrialisation.

The kid from the countryside in Blind Shaft represents the innocence and simplicity of the country folks. This is what city folks like to see. 'Blind Mountain' is just a more polite, but less colourful American term for 'hillbilies'. The point is, such ignorance-led bigotry caused by remoteness is sadly universal. Despite America's much longer industrialisation - about 0.5 century ahead of PRC, remoteness still has a hold on heartlands of KKK. The point is, hillbillies are NOT confined to USA, China too has their class of home-grown hillbillies. I'm sure America has less hillbillies now than 5 decades ago, and I'm also certain that China would have less hillbillies in 0.5 century from now.

In olden days, arranged marriages were the norm in China. Modern Chinese refer to it as 'blind marriage and mute nuptial' (盲婚啞嫁) because literally your bribe/groom could be blind or mute. Figuratively speaking, in the arranged marriage, the couples may never meet until the day of their wedding, hence blind, and have no say in the marriage, hence mute or dumb.

It isn't hard to see how such BLIND arrangement could eventual lead to the acceptance of the buying of bribes. Marriages were never the decision of the couple. The marriage was arranged without the knowledge of our heroine. The scam couldn't have taken place otherwise.

There's another allusion to the word 'blind' in this movie. Chinese word for illiterate is 'wen mang' (文盲), which literally means BLIND to letters/words or civilisation/civility. Words open people's eyes. And the people in this village think reading is a waste of time.

There's yet another blindness, many people turn a blind eye when our heroine pleas for help. And the long arm of the law just not reaching far enough into the Chinese Deep North mountainous rural regions (as expressed by the Chinese saying "the mountains are high, and the Emperor is far away" (山高皇帝遠)). I'm suddenly in a mood to quote Chinese sayings.

It's these 3 blindness - outdated tradition(arranged marriage), illiteracy, indifference - that leads to the tragedy of our heroine.

This movie also touches very briefly on another social problem that is much more widespread than this one - the killing of baby girls. Again this problem is much more confined to the rural areas than the city. Of course, this is a tragic side effect of the One-Child Policy. But such preference of boys over girls is very outdated regardless of One-Child Policy.

I hope Chinese director would make a movie about this inhumane practise that once again caused by blindness. And make the showing of this movie to villages and 2nd and 3rd tier cities and small towns FOR FREE. They showed Communist party propaganda films in the villages in the past for free. The opening of people's eyes is surely more important. Well, we can't have a loss of face, PRC. Let's live in denial.

Maybe Li Yang should make this the topic of his next movie called Blind Love. A trilogy of great films that highlight the social blindness of China. And open our and their eyes.

Unlike Blind Shaft where the scenery is grey and depressed to indicate the degradation of the environment. This movie is set against a typical unspoilt, magnificent verdant natural beauty of the countryside. This is of course, an irony, for this is essentially a forced labour prison camp for our heroine that she would do anything to break out.

On the 1 hand, this movie is the exact opposite of Not One Less. I.e. our heroine from the countryside is being victimised by the city (folks). While in this movie, the opposite is the case.

On the other hand, and at a deeper level, the 2 movies address an identical social problem - i.e. the lack of education in the remote villages. This in turn is caused by an vast income disparity between the city and the rural. If the income level of the countryside is lifted anywhere closer to the city, education would become more widely available, and such outdated, culturally backward, and indeed illegal practise wouldn't have occurred in a cultural desert that's cut off from the nourishment of civilisation.

Another parallel with Not One Less is that both movies used mostly non-professional act(ors/resses). It's quite effective, they look like real characters in a movie, not act(ors/resses) playing parts.

Sometimes, reality is even more cruel and frightening. If you ready for it, you can check out my article.

This movie won 3 international awards.

Saturday, 6 October 2007

The Chinese Botanist's Daughters (2006)

Chinese title: Botanical Garden (Never mind the incorrect writing of the word "家" in the movie poster)

The Chinese Botanist's Daughters (2006)The botanist could prescribe himself a few brews of polygonum multiflorum (or He-shou-wu in Chinese) that he lectures to the future TCM physicians as a remedy for constipation. He could use it for his anal retentive shortcoming, if you know what I mean (disclaimer: this isn't a medical advice. Trust me, I'm not a doctor).

If the picturesque landscape in the movie spurs you to book a flight to Kunlin, China you have been led astray. I was confused when I watched the mesmerising natural wonders that looked oddly familiar, and yet I knew I had never been to Kunlin, China, where the Botanical Garden is located.

My suspicion of the filming location was confirmed when I was graced with the scene of a railway track that lined by densely populated residential housing on both sides only a few paces from the rails without any fencing (it's actually too close to the track to erect fences).

I was finally 100% confirmed by the closing credits that most of the crews are either French or Vietnamese. In fact, the only Chinese in the acting cast are the 3 actors who play the family members of the botanist. I believe the breathtaking scenery are those around the Ha Long Bay, and the temples looked very Vietnamese (I should know), and the railway track that runs through the centre of Hanoi are well known touristy sight of Hanoi (I should know). So this is the tourist destination if you fancy a holidy that piqued your interest by this French travelogue of North Vietnam.

With the script of lesbian eroticism, the French studio knew full well that their application to make such film in China will be torpedoed by the Chinese film bureau faster than the high speed rail that get them there, so they settled to make this film outside China - at the expense of authenticity - somewhere in Asia. If this is a Hollywood movie, the place of choice would likely to be Thailand (the records show), since this is a French production, choosing its former Asian colonial outpost for its film location seems logical. French making films in Vietnam is as common as Vietnamese bakeries making French sticks. Bon appetit !

Exiled (2006)

Exiled (2006)Johnnie To had created a new crime subgenre that I would like to call 'urban western'. But if you want to make a comparison of this made-in-HK subgenre with that created by the Italian director Sergio Leone that is nicknamed 'spaghetti Western', then we could call this 'lo mein western'. That is, if you have food in your mind or a foodie. I don't mind either, I do like to eat and cook both these 2 national dishes. I'm still partial to 'urban western' as it has more universal appeal (despite being a foodie). We can also call it 'eastern western' that sounds like an oxymoron. I loik it. I loik it a loit.

For those who fail or refuse to see that this movie is a western, here's some clues. 1st, a slow soft hypnotic western music is being played throughout the movie. 2nd, the group of main characters are professional hitmen, therefore they're like outlaws in the American West (the title is Exiled, meaning outlaws). But this bunch of old guns are good guys.

If you miss these 2 things, the story takes them to a 'wilderness' in Macau that looks like the desert of the American West (Navada maybe) as shown in this movie poster - sandy, and rocky. If you're still not convinced this is a western, the hitmen set up a campfire in the 'desert' at night, and 1 of them whips out a harmonica and plays it. Yes, a harmonica! Who plays a harmonica these day (ok, I did, but not these days). In the American Old West, it's either the banjo or harmonica (outlaws don't usually carry banjos while on the run. Too bulky). The only thing they haven't done is donned on cowboy hats. Oh look at the poster again for clues, 1 of them is wearing suspenders. Who wears suspenders? People in the American Old West, that's who! (best effect is achieved if you say it in Texan accent).

The pace is somewhat slow as in a typical western. It's about building up of tension to the climaxes of the explosive shootouts. It's also sleek and stylish.

I'm tempting to make comparison of the ending of this movie with several of the Hollywood western classics, but doing so will spoil the finale for you.

Exiled (2006)
The 'dessert' in Macao
This movie is another subgenre in the making; another step forward for the HK film industry. This isn't copying, this is innovation (did somebody say spaghetti came from China, brought over there by Marco Polo, an ancient Italian?). It's so innovative that the IMDB genre classification doesn't even recognise it's a western. Its says 'action, crime, thriller' when it should be 'western, crime, action'.

Another possibility would be to take wuxia, but place it in a modern context to create a 'urban wuxia' subgenre. Well John Woo had done that. Read my description in A Better Tomorrow (1986).

There're many similarities between western and wuxia genres, not the least is the recurring theme of a gunslinger trying to have a shoot out with the best in western genre. Similarly, in wuxia, there's always the young swordsman eager to challenge the best to get instant recognition. Also during these duel to the death, honour and sportsmanship are held at the highest regards. Dirty tricks are very much frowned upon.

I often wonder if these many similarities are coincidental or results of copying. After all, the famous western classic The Magnificant Seven is inspired by another Japanese classic The Seven Samurai. Borrowing, or better still, stealing ideas are common practise in movie industries, and arts in general.

This is a landmark film that opens up a whole new world of possibilities.

Friday, 5 October 2007

The Maid (2005)

This horror flick is in this list for a number of reasons. This is a few films come out of Singapore. Living in the Sin City - as the locals nicknamed this island state - for the last 3 years have alerted me to the fact that the Hungry Ghost Festival is an important tradition to the Chinese speaking Singaporean community.

The Maid 2005And I've regularly heard from office workers who spoke about the many superstitious beliefs about this festival in dinner conversations. And this film certainly explores many aspects of these superstitions and customs, including such things as the death marriage (a concept, much less practised these days, is also appeared in My Left Eye Sees Ghosts (2007)). Because of this, I'm quite sure that this horror flick would be much more scary to the locals than the audience who aren't soaked into their bones with scary bed time stories relating to this ghost month while they're growing up. This film is about exploiting these fears that have been crept into every Singaporean (and Chinese in other parts of Asia).

This is a great film for people who are interested in the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival rather being freaked out. I wrote a couple of entries about the festival: Ghosts on Parole and 2 Chinese Ancient Festivals.

Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (2005)

Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles 2005Zhang Yimou has pulled off another tearjerker after Happy Times. I've much more to say about these 2 movies.

Yunnan, China, lies not far from the foot of the Himalayas, would provide plenty of breathtaking gorgeous peaks for the tourists to behold in awe. This inspiring backdrop also serves as the backdrop for this story. But natural wonders aren't the only draw cards for this province, what most tourists flock to see is its diverse ethnic minorities living in their traditional lives, which plays a crucial role in this film.

2 recurring themes run through several of Zhang films. The 1st one is Chinese bureaucracy that he addressed in The Story of Qiu Ju (2005), and Not One Less (1999), now this one. He must have a lot of frustration himself swamped in government red tapes while trying to make a film in China. The other theme is the trio of tradition vs modernity, collectivism vs individualism, countryside vs city. These 3 pairs of ideas are different, but closely intertwined. Tradition, collectivism, and village represent the old, while modernity, individualism, and city points to the new. This movie examines the contrast of these 2 extremes.

He addresses this themes in Happy Times from a different angle and context. In villages, people live in very closely knit community. When the kid becomes an orphan, the whole village takes up the responsibility of caring for him. When he gets lost, the whole village comes out looking for him. When the Japanese visits the kid, the whole village throws a banquet for him. There's no individualism, the village acts as a whole. One for all and all for one. This is communism in essence. In contrast to the Japanese family, who lives in Tokyo, a typical cosmopolitan city. The Japanese son, like his father, is always alone. When somebody lies on a street in a city, most of us would walk past without looking. This wouldn't happen in a village. It isn't that city folks are particularly heartless, that's the nature between city and village. Living in apartments, we hardly know our neighbours. This is true the world over. Only differing in degree. But with the West being more developed, such difference is narrower. With China being developed so fast, and the gap between the 2 is huge. Hence, this is preoccupying many Chinese intellectuals. Not the least, this director.

Remember the title of this movie is Riding ALONE for Thousands of Miles. Loneliness, alienation, estrangement is all part of a modern life AND individualism in a city. You can't feel lonely and isolated in a village like this, even IF you want to. Tough luck! In this film, Zhang is taking a more balanced approach than in Happy Times (2000) (probably after some public criticism and/or soul searching). He also points out the negative side of being a villager. The kid was never asked what he wants because there's no individualism. The village knows best. There's little freedom to act, in fact, to think individually.

It's in this village that the Japanese lead found understanding, connection with other people and ultimately his own son.

I just recently watched Bird People in China (1998), which is a Japanese film about a Japanese experience in Yunnan. In it, it suggests that Japanese people might have been originated from Yunnan (also birth place of Mao Zedong). It's interesting that once again that in this movie a Japanese is coming to Yunnan. I don't know if Zhang knows about this other movie or that legend of the origin of Japanese people, or this is simply a coincidence. This should add another dimension to the story whether Zhang knows it or not.

Dam Street (2005)

Dam Street 2005, Chinese dramaA gritty art house drama that sets in Sichuan, China (a place that's world renown for its tongue scorching spicy steamboat, and giant panda).

No self respecting Chinese director makes a movie without making comment about the social condition of China, especially those in the last 30 years since the Opening Up in 1978 (engineered by Deng Xiaoping, who happened to be born in Sichuan).

I could tell you everything about the director's social comments on Chinese society without revealing a single thing about the plot because they are completely not essential to the plot, but it's crucial in setting the social context in which the story is taken place.

The story starts in 1983 when the Opening Up has made very little or no effect on the society that just came out the devastation of the Cultural Revolution. When the school girl got pregnant in high school, she's being openly ostracised via loud public speakers in school ground. This should give the audience a taste of what the Cultural Revolution was all about - public humiliation. If saving face is important, then a fitting punishment would be to make some body lose face in public.

The movie fast forward 10 years later. China has undergone drastic change in that decade. After 1978, China moved at the speed of the Internet. 10 years is a long time in the Internet world as well as China. With the economic opening up, the director also shows how money corrupts people. The parvenu asks his fiancee's friends to have sex with him for money. He couldn't understand how anyone could turn down his offer. The girls sit around talking casually about working as prostitutes in Shenzhen. One says that she would do it if she isn't pregnant.

The director also laments the loss of tradition due to the modernisation. The female lead is trained in Sichuan Opera. When she tries to perform her traditional Sichuan Opera in Pussykat Karaoke, the audience jeers at her, and demanding her to sing pop songs. She relents and ens up singing pop songs from HK in her operatic costume.

Yep, this director is painting quite a scathing picture of the changes taken place in China.

In many of the famous Chinese films by Zhang Yimou and Jian Wen, while its story it is conventional, it's the cultural, political, social contexts that set it apart. I consider this film falls into this category.

Take Jian Wen's In the Heat of the Sun, without the Chinese context, it's just a coming-of-age movie.What I like the most about these films is that you can watch it and totally oblivious to the directors' messages and still enjoy the story. A bad movie is where the messages are interfering with the narratives. I.e. when the messages take higher priority than story telling.

It won 3 international film awards.

Crazy N' the City (2005)

Crazy N' the City (2005)When you try to put everything into a movie - drama, action, romance, crime, social commentary, comedy - and try to please everyone, you end up pleasing nobody. Did I also mention plot and character developments? Too many balls to juggle.

But when you manage to get these balls in the balance and in sync, everybody applauds. This movie somehow manages to get all these elements into the movie without making a mess of it. The comedy doesn't seem out of place; the romance isn't mushy or touchy; the drama is reasonably solid; the characters are believable and able to relate.

It's funny, heart warming, moving, even inspiring would you believe. It's a perfect popcorn movie to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Nobody expects this anything but a feelgood flick, and the director never pretends anything else either. The humble expectation (especially with that title) makes it a surprising treat.

Having said that. I hope I don't prop up people's expectation of the movie. Keep it low.

Blind Love (2005)

Blind Love (2005), Japanese pink filmThere were a lot of Japanese pinku films back in the days (1970s and 80s) where the sexual fetishes were the main meat, while the plots were cobbled up as a vehicle where the erotica took place.

This is a pink film (or pinku eiga), but it works without most of the nudity and sex scenes. Although some of these sex scenes work organically into the stories (while other aren't). Besides, Dasuke Goto's works are in this genre.

This film must have something to say to win all those awards.

The film lasts only about 1 hour. It's about a classic triangular affair with a couple of interesting twists.

The following contains some spoilers.

Daisuke (Japanese can mean "Big, Help". Also happens to be the director's first name) is a ventriloquist, who has an apprentice named Yoichi. They have a close relationship until one day when a girl comes into their lives.

A blind girl Hikari (Japanese for "Light"), who's a fan of Daisuke's ventriloquist act, decides to present Daisuke her idol with a bouquet of flowers. She bumps into Yoichi as she hands her flowers to Daisuke. Yoichi is a man of action (if you know what I mean) with few words. Since Hikari identifies people by their scent, she's now mistaking Yoichi for her admirer Daisuke.

When Hikari asks Daisuke out on a date, Daisuke asks Yoichi to come along for confidence boost. This is where the comedy begins. Hakuri thinks she's dating only Daisuke.

Daisuke, who's the man of words (and not of actions), doing all the talking while Yoichi, in a way, becomes Daisuke's dummy/puppet and stays silent on the whole date.

After the date, they - all three of them - check into a hotel. Since Hakuri identifies Yoichi as her date, she has sex with him instead of her admirer Daisuke, who fills in the dialogues during sex. The apprentice becomes the master. Who's the dummy now?

Another issue that this short comedy deals with is Daisuki's insecurity about his height to the point that even though he's dating a blind girl who couldn't see him, he wears platform shoes to boost his height. Who's blind?

It's well worth the time, considering it's only one hour.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Kung Fu Hustle (2004)

Kung Fu Hustle (2004)
Stephen Chow latest target of burlesque is the kungfu genre. This is hardly surprising, as this is not only a very popular genre for audience, but this genre has always associated with comedy (think of all the Jackie Chan and Sumo Hung action/kungfu flicks). Last but not least, Stephen Chow is a huge kungfu fan. Just look at his physique.

Just like Forbidden City Cop (1998), a parody of wuxia, the great martial artists in both films, whom usually portrayed as cool looking, respectable, upstanding characters are being down played as some comical, shabby, loud-mouthed characters. This times, the characters behaved this way not simply for laughs, but grows out of the organic needs of the story that they need to lay low and blend in.

For Cantonese movie fan who have watched The House of 72 Tenants (1973), you will correctly guess that the characters, and indeed the stage set of Kung Fu Hustle comes from that 1972 historically the most important Cantonese movie.

And the most memorable character of the Landlady bears a striking resemblance of the Shanghai Po (Lydia Shum) in The House of 72 Tenants.

The Landlady
In this kungfu spoof, he has managed to escalate his brand of humour to a fine art form. It's so obscenely ludicrous that it's good. It's mo-lei-tau at its best.

Having said that, the kind of absolutely over-the-top almost supernatural kungfu depicted in this movie also inspired by old Cantonese Buddha Palm that was made in the 1965. Every movie goer who grew up in the 1960s are unaware of this Cantonese classic.

You could say that this action comedy is a tribute to the 2 well known Cantonese B&W classics - one comedy and the other kungfu flick.

The House of 72 Tenants (1973)
This set and cast from The House of 72 Tenants bears a strike resemblence
with Kung Fu Hustle.

Oh yeah, there's also a bit of feel good romance on the side just to keep the female date you take to the cinema interested. Now, your girl friend would crane her neck over and snuggle into your broad, solid chest (I assume you have those) while the sweet scenes appear. No need to pretend you're having a big yawn to put your arm around her. Such sneaky move is done to death, and very transparent (even if it occurs behind her back, AND in the dark). You may even get a fat, juicy smooch out of the blue (I mean, out of the dark). But it may become a distraction for this fine comedy. Well, you win some, you lose some.

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Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Running on Karma (2003)

Chinese title: Big Guy with Big Wisdom.
Alternative Chinese title (appears in this poster): Big Guy.

Running on Karma (2003)The Big character, played by Andy Lau in a full prosthetic suit, reminds me of superhero from DC Comic. This, by the way, is a high compliment. DC Comic is a hot bed of imagination that crystallises in the superhero(es/ines, who deal with many social/political/philosophical issues.

I have problem deciding which section of the list I place this movie into as many Johnnie To / Wai Ka-Fai movies are unconventional, meaning they defy to be pigeonholed into conventional genre. So I just put it in the same genre as most of his movies fall into.

The idea of not being too stubborn, obstinate, wilful, too limited by conventions and constraints, and one must let go of things are made abundantly clear and the central theme of the movie. This idea is being illustrated with his job in striptease, and smoking. The directors certainly take this advice to hearts when it comes to making their films. They don't stick to old conventions, or precepts.

My Left Eye Sees Ghost (2002), Running on Karma (2003), and Mad Detective (2007) are trilogy of movies where their hero(es/ines) have special "visions". In the 1st one, our heroine sees ghosts with her left eye, in the 2nd, our hero sees past lives, and in the 3rd, our hero sees other people's multiple personalities. This special visions are similar to the superhero(es/ines) from DC Comic. E.g. Superman has X-Ray vision.

To me, Johnnie To / Wai Ka-Fai team is 1 of the more interesting thing comes out of HK film industry in the last 10 years. This trilogy of 3 movies are re-inventing, re-invigorating, re-interpreting, and breathing new lives into the existing tired old HK films' supernatural, action and crime genres respectively. And all 3 movies are allegories of something that are far deeper than its surface stories with some meats to chew on (so to speak).

Blind Shaft (2003)

Blind Shaft (2003)Banned in China (for its brutal honesty). Beijing Film Bureau never explains to the director as to why. Well, you couldn't really expect the Bureau to be equally honest and said, "We don't like your honesty! We only want you to make propaganda movies that sing China praises". Let's say it's a tacit agreement.

This movie is based on the book title Sacred Wood. I don't know about being sacred. I suppose the wood refers to the coal - a commodity that fuel China's current industrialization, but at the cost of many lives. To prevent such dire human toll, the government puts in strict measure to punish those coal mine operators that are unsafe. This government action gives rise to such scam as depicted in the film. This reminds me of Mao's mandate for increased industrial output. The result wasn't an actual increase, but a masquerade of increase.

This Chinese movie title is Blind Well. In both Chinese and English title, the common, and indeed the operative word is 'BLIND'. Blind as in one way; blind as in pitch darkness, blind as in blind justice, blind as in the country kid's ignorance to the deadly scam, blind as in government total oblivion of the how its policy backfires, and blind as in how the coal mine operators are blind to the con-men's scams because they're con-men to the government themselves.

The realism is so raw that its believability of the situation is unquestioned with scenes from the poverty stricken mining town's streets to the local whorehouse to their living quarters. The principle actors too delivered their realism that would match the backdrop. The lightning is harsh and gives 1 the impression the movie is monochromatic.

Apart from pointing out this particular problem of coal mine operations, as usual the general social commentary is there, as in many Chinese award winning dramas, is characteristically and splendidly unflinching, and uncompromising. How much does a coal miner worth in China? About 10,000 yuan (or about 1,250 USD/AUD/SGD).

What the Bureau SHOULD be doing is making this film available to Chinese, especially the coal mine oprators and policy makers, and prevent the movie being shown outside China to prevent their paramount concern of a loss of face. Well, guess what, the reverse is achieved by the Bureau because of their self-denial, which usually twists their logics that makes it totally incomprehnsible to the outsider and most importantly, to themselves.

It won numerous awards because, more than any reason, of the Bureau's heavy handed cencorship. The more the Bureau's attempt to silence a voice that should be heard, the louder the voice gets. BTW, most Chinese would be able to watch this and ALL other banned movies WITHIN China. It's just goes underground. Like I said, the Film Bureau lives in self-denial - sweeping rubbish under the carpet and pretends it isn't there. In other words, they're BLIND.

It won 16 international film awards.

Cell Phone (2003)

Feng Xiaogang made number of social satires.

I was undecided which section of the list of I put this movie in: comedy, social drama, or family drama. It's comedy, but as a social satire, it isn't a LOL type of comedy. I would put it in a family/relationship drama section if this occurrence is somewhat unique to few families. But it isn't. Since it hasn't done in an art-house fashion, and the issues aren't confined to China, I decide to put it in this section.

Cell phones are new even in the West, but to our central character who grows up in the village in the 1980s, throne of people have to wait outside a post office to use the only (land) phone in the village.

Before the invention of cell phone, suspicious wives relied on the sense of smell to sniff out husband's extramarital activity. Or a lock of hair that's belonged to neither couple. Such evidence collected by DIY CSI techniques are unreliable and all circumstantial.

The cell phones bring people closer together. Sometimes too close for people's liking. Especially cheating husbands. The cell phone becomes a tool for collecting extramarital evidence that are far more precise than the inexact science of sniffing of perfume or squinting at hair sample (could be leftover from previous grannie visits).

What seems incredible at least to the audience in the West is that the wives seem to be able to obtain printout records of her husband's cell phone calls. So, the husband's attempt to clear all traces of extramarital 'crime' by deleting the call logs on his cell phone are pretty futile. In the West, only the police WITH a warrant has such authority to look at people's cell phone call records (as far as I know. Either them or Rupert Murdoch's employees). I never have to deal with that issue.

Welcome to the brave new world of Orwellian 1984 where your wife is the Big Brother. Obviously, the problems aren't with the cell phones. But a deficit of trust. Guns don't kill people, people kill people. I guess the issues that the movie confronts - on both sides of the equation (cheating husband and suspicious wives) - is sadly universal, and timeless. Therefore, classic.

No. This isn't a date movie. Don't watch it with your significant - or insignificant - half. (S)He might get the wrong idea. Watch it with your lover(s) on the side. It's safer that way. Don't forget to turn off your cell phone when watching it to avoid intrusions into their lives like our 'hero'.

Men Suddenly in Black (2003)

Chinese title: Real Men (大丈夫).

Men Suddenly in Black (2003)
The Chinese title "Dai Zhang Fu" or "Daai Cheung Foo" in Cantonese  (大丈夫) could read either as "Real Men", or "Big Husbands". Its meaning would be clear after the movie. The term ("Dai Zhang Fu") is usually used to refer to men in jianghu, which the HK gangster sometimes refer to the underworld.

The English title Men Suddenly in Black also has double meaning. Metaphorically, it's a dress for covert operation or to achieve anonymity. Literally, 'the Gang of Four' wear it because they don't own black tuxes. So if they were spotted from afar, they could always deny as mistaken identities. Yep, they thought of EVERYTHING. And so it could very well be serve as A Guide on How to Cheat On Your Wife. Or at least, An Unofficial Quick (very quick) Sex Guide to HK. The brothel that's dressed up as Internet cafe is an eye openers for non-HK locals. And the Internet cafe scene is a riot.

It's a witty, funny, original parody of the gangster genre, which is probably the most parodied genre, perhaps due to its popularity, and seriousness, thus create the best  contrasting tensions. Audience with the appetite for gangland flicks would get this clever spoof much more. If I watch more comedies like this, I wouldn't need to go to the gym, or buy 1 of those ridiculous contraption to flatten my abs.

Despite the sad gross figure says otherwise (I must have misread it), the audience must have loved this (what is there not to love) because they made a sequel. And it deserved to win 3 awards.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Double Vision (2002)

Chinese title: Double Pupils (双瞳).

Double Vision (2002), Taiwanese Horror Flick
Hollywood thinking that why instead of produce bad remakes of Asian horror flicks (of which there're many: Ring (1998), Pulse (2001), The Eye (2002), Ju-On (2002), Dark Water (2002), etc), why not do a joint production with Asian? In this case, Taiwanese.

With the large number of Asian horror remakes, it seems that Hollywood is running out of ideas in the horror genre. At least, Asian horror flicks are good enough for Hollywood to recycle. Whether it's good it's another matter.

Taoist monks firmly believe in immortality. In fact, this is the primary reason for become a Taoist monk (either that or as a job that puts food on the table). The Taoist monk sub-genre had been dominated with hopping zombies that more or less started with Sammo Hung. Being a comedy action artist, all his Taoist monk 'horror' flicks aren't scary. It's about action and comedy. But this is a Taiwanese film, they don't do kungfu flicks (not any good anyway). They do like to make horror flicks, which don't suck in general.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (2002)

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (2002)When the 2 city boys - Ma and Luo - are sent to the remote mountainous village during the Cultural Revolution to be 're-educated' and to rid of themselves their bourgeois backgrounds, they end up educate and indeed impart the ignorant villagers their bourgeois ways. Sweet poetic justice to the insane movement, one might say.

What's more bourgeois than Mozart's music and French literature by Honoré de Balzac? Bear in mind that the word 'bourgeois' comes from French, and Balzac and Karl Marx were in fact contemporary to each other.

Ma brings the bourgeois music of Mozart to the village under the guise of Chinese music. Luo's reactionary background stems from the fact that his father had once fitted a false tooth for Chiang Kai-shek, but later he did dental filling for the Chief using the banned book of Western medicine. The Tailor make French fashion inspired by the French novels. Most importantly, the Little Seamstress has completely turned French.

This film also tackles something similar to Zhang Yimou's Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (2005) in the 2 pairs of distinct, but closely related issues of collectivism vs individualism, countryside vs city except that the conclusions are opposite. This isn't surprising given that the period where these 2 films are set against. This film concludes with individualism and city triumphant because the story set in a time of cultural desert (early 1970s), while in Zhang's film collectivism and countryside wins out because the story set in a period (2005) of breathtaking change.

This film is directed by Dai Sijie (戴思杰), who also directed The Chinese Botanist's Daughters (2006). This movie is based on his novel, which in turns is based on his own experience in the reeducation in rural Sichuan. Like the hero in the novel/movie, Dai left China to study in France.

Undoubtedly this seamstress business and title role grew out of his own experience. His father owned a tailor shop, and he became a tailor himself. And the tag-line in the movie poster reads, "A tailor-made love story". How very true on more levels than one!

This movie, and other of his movies and novels are well received in France as they draw very much on French and Chinese culture. It make good cultural bridge movies.

My Left Eye Sees Ghosts (2002)

The title suggests that's a comedy. The only reason is classified as horror is because it has ghosts in it. Not because of any horror. This movie isn't trying to scare you, or even make you laugh. But make you think (ok, just make me think).

This is quite a departure from Johnnie To's usual cops and robbers flick.

My Left Eye Sees Ghosts (2002)Some Chinese believe in the existence of Yin Yang Eyes. I.e. people who can see ghosts. Since only her left eye can see ghosts, it becomes very convenient to identify what she sees are ghosts or people by covering up the appropriate eye.

Judging from the number of HK movies dealing with the concept of Yin Yang eyes, I often wonder what the term means. I don't know if it exists, but like many myths and legends, it usually are metaphors for some deeper truths. E.g. the story of the Biblical Garden of Eden is symbolic of the loss of innocence. To me the Yin Yang Eyes is a metaphor for self-denial or scare to face the truth. I.e. some true is so uncomfortable to deal with, denying its existence is the easiest ( but worst way) to cope with it. Inner demon is one of those things. Thus, ghost is just another word for ugly or scary truth, or inner demon (regardless of the existence of ghosts, the metaphor holds).
So people with a gift of Yin Yang Eyes has a gift to see that scary truth. Whether one's embracing that gift is another matter.

This also ties in well with another Chinese - I say superstitious - belief that people down on their luck would tend to have higher chance of seeing ghosts. This work well with the idea of self denial. If you are unlucky, things don't go your way, you tend to have to face more ugly or scary truth.

The story is about how the main character in this film is in self denial in several truths.

And then there's another Chinese folklore or mythology regarding death. After we die, we would cross a bridge and drink a 'tea' from an old woman that would makes us forget everything that ever happened in our lives. Keep in mind that funeral is for the living, not for the dead. And that forget-all tea is advice for the living. Don't take all those things to the grave. The crossing of the bridge is symbolic in every culture of moving from one phase in our life into another phase.

Did Johnnie To meant to say all that in his movie? You bet.

Springtime in a Small Town (2002)

Chinese title: 小城之春

Springtime in a Small Town (2002), Chinese period drama
This movie is a remake of 1948's Spring in a Small Town. It's renamed 'Spring' to 'Springtime' to fix the unintentional sprouting and the bouncing hiccups in the title caused by richness of the English language.

This is 1 of the several Chinese directors (in this list) who was banned from directing for some years in Mainland China for making The Blue Kite. Officially 3 years, but Tian didn't make another film after some 10 years.

Springtime is a pretty safe bet because it criticises the issues of a bygone era that otherwise known as Republican Era. The leftover feudal traditions in this period were severely criticised by the Communist party. So any movie that sheds a negative light on this period like this 1 will get a keen green light from the Film Bureau, who's the censorship body in China.

Like Raise the Red Lantern, this film tackles issues that were residual from the feudal Qing dynasty. Issues like polygamy in Raise the Red Lantern, or in this case the feudal tradition of arranged marriage. Of course, this movie deals with many more themes other than arranged marriage. But it lies in the heart of this triangular romance.

In this Republican period drama the clash of the old and the new is more subtle. Zichen in his modern clothing and man of the world obvious represents the new while Liyan and Luwen wore traditional clothes reflecting their traditional attitudes. There's no generational gap, or should I say, the generation gap exists in the same generation because of the cultural gap, which in terms caused by the abrupt changes in the Chinese society in a single generation. Something similar are happening today.

My attention is as short as a typical 21st century man. So I was surprise that despite the slow pacing of this drama, I didn't once check my watch, or my mind wandered off to a happier place. Despite its slow rhythm, the story does move along, keeping the audience interested. Still, you can shave 20 mins off this drama and make it more dramatic (less is more as often in arts), and it can still be slow enough to convey the slow rhythm of a small town and their torpor existence.

If you like, this film could be classified as a romantic Republican period drama.

Monday, 1 October 2007

Big Shot's Funeral (2001)

English title: Big Shot's Funeral.
Chinese title: Big Shot (大腕).

Big Shot's Funeral (2001), Chinese comedy filmFeng Xiaogang made more comedies than any Mainland Chinese director of this generation. And Ge You in most - no, all - of them.

Most of his comedies tend to be satires and such, which tend to translate better into another culture. Of course, there's always things like wordplay which fail to translate. There only a few of these in this movie. Besides, comedies rely too much on such things as puns or other assorted wordplay aren't good comedies anyway. This comedy should be able to be understood easily by people from the West as it’s about the East-West cross cultural issues.

Here's an example of wordplay. the title 'Da Wan' means 'Big Name' or 'Big Shot', but it also sounds the same as 'Emperor' (homophonic jokes or puns are popular in Chinese culture). So it's a clever wordplay on the idea of having a big shot's funeral looks like a funeral for the Last Emperor. Well, such clever wordplay won't give anybody any LOL moment. The best it does is giving you a smile (if that). But it doesn't mean it isn't fun (even if it isn't funny).

Since this comedy is based on the idea of funeral, I guess it could be considered as a black comedy from that perspective. I like satirical farce, and this isn’t a bad effort, so I enjoy it. People who say it isn’t funny may simply because they don’t like this form of comedy. Besides, comedy is very personal and subjective. Anyhoooo, I think satire isn't supposed to be a form of side-splitter comedy. It may put a smile or 2 on your face, or produce a few chuckles. That’s all. Don't expect non-stop guffaws. Try sitcoms or slapsticks or stand-up, daytime soap opera (wenwang..wenwang...ding..Like Sands through the hourglass, so are the Days of Our Lives) if that's what you're after. Having said that, the comedy comes mostly from the interactions of various characters, especially between Sutherland and Ge You). The satire is simply a vehicle for the whole story.

It would be hard - harder than Viagra aided car tyre - to convince me that these comedy writers have never watched Crazy Money (1975), which is a comedy classic, a satire on capitalism, a black comedy resolving around death and insanity by the legendary Hui Bros. And all that coincidences are mere freaks of accidents. I’m not suggesting that the 2 movies are the same, simply saying that these script writers must have watched the Hui Bros’ classic and inspired by it. In fact, Da Wan is much more witty, which shouldn't be surprising with some 25 years of hindsight.

Peony Pavilion (2001)

English title: Peony Pavilion.
Chinese title: Strolling in a Garden/Interrupting a Dream (游园惊梦 "You Yuan Jing Meng").

Peony Pavilion (2001). Chinese LGBT period dramaThe Chinese title is based on the names of 2 acts in Peony Pavilion, which is the most popular play performed in the Kunqu Opera.

Having said that, the movie isn't at all based on the story of this Chinese classic. Part of this play however is performed by the 2 female lead characters (Lan & Jade) in Kunqu Opera tradition in this film.

I suspect the inclusion of Kunqu Opera into the UNESCO's intangible heritage list in 2001, and the release of this film in the same year may not be a coincidence. Especially given the fact that Yonfan's passion for the Chinese opera could be seen by the fact that he made a documentary film about Kunqu Opera.

The Kunqu Opera performances in this film were done in the classical gardens of Suzhou. Anyone who travels to Suzhou to see the UNESCO classical gardens would inevitably has exposure to Kunqu Opera as this art form is originated in the Wu culture, and Suzhou is the capital city of the ancient Wu Kingdom (the area that's known as Jiangnan - considered the most beautiful area in China - today is in fact that of the Wu Kingdom).

This Yonfan movie focuses on the letters 'B' an 'L' in Yonfan's list of LGBT films.

I mentioned the 3 Chinese gender bending/ambiguity/fluidity in Chinese culture in Bishonen above, I'd like to add a 4th.

If you see women in China holding hands while walking in the streets, don't jump the gun and say they're lesbians. Such public display of same sex affection (both males and females) are common in China. As I travelled, I also saw a lot of public displays of male bonding like hand holding, and many other physical intimacies in such places as diverse as ME, African, S. America and many parts of Asia. In the eyes of the the people of Anglo Saxon cultural origin this is immediately equated with homosexuality (I think the expression is "this is so gay"). This kind of same-sex closeness probably has to do with, or at least, reinforced by small personal space. In China, personal space is close to zero (at least between the same gender).

This public display of same-sex bonding is by definition normal because they represent the majority of the world's cultures. However, since cultural dominance isn't a democracy, it's the influence - even if it's the minority - not majority, that counts. The major popular influence of Anglo Saxon culture is of course through Hollywood.

The public expression of affection for the opposite sex was NOT acceptable in the days while same sex public display of bonding was. These days, the public display of female affection for each other is diminishing (although still could be readily seen) in China, and the public displays of the male male bonding are less so, thanks to Hollywood.

Peony Pavilion (2001)

Back to this movie. Any Chinese female audience who watches the early part of this movie would never be entirely sure if the gestures of intimacies between Lan and Jade are normal displays of sisterly love, or something more. I suspect the Western audience would have less trouble concluding that Lan (Joey Wang) is a lesbian until Xing (Daniel Wu) turns up, then they will conclude that she's a bisexual. Or is it really so clear cut? Could we be totally certain that what Lan has for Jade isn't purely sisterly love? As Lan says to Xing that the love she has for him is different for Jade. 1 is physical love, the other emotional bond (in other words, lust vs love). This is deliberately vague. Here's another event that Yonfan likes to play with the idea of the ambiguous relationship of the 2 women. Lan asks Jade why she cries. Is it because she saw her and Xing together, or heard the news about the death of 2nd housekeeper? Jade is silent, and Lan says "never mind". The answer could be both.

Apart from her physical intimacies with Jade, Lan also likes to dress up as men in both Western and Chinese traditional attires. Nobody in the household raises any eyebrows when Lan and Jade holding hands, lay together in bed, dance together, and even kisses because such displays of sisterly affection was common in China, especially in the olden days. Sure they may have crossed the line a little more than usual. It's a quantitative, and not a qualitative difference. Where's the line? Who draws the line?

Isn't the whole film permeates with a slow pace, a sense of languor. And isn't the languor a metaphor for the ambiguity as it drags, it's coalescent. It doesn't snap out of it.

For those who has to see things in black and white, the many ambivalence/ambiguity in this film drive them up the wall. That's the 4th Chinese gender fluidity/ambiguity I'm talking talking about earlier.

Beijing Bicycle (2001)

Chinese title: Seventeen Year Old's Bicycle.

Beijing Bicycle (2001), Chinese drama filmThis movie is overdue for 2 reasons.

1. I was wondering for years when is the Bicycle Kingdom - as China was nicknamed - going to make a movie about bicycle. The movie was made in 2001, and by then bicycles in Beijing accounts for only 30-40% on the road (my guesstimate), compare to in the early 1980s when the country had just opened up, about 85 - 95% of the bicycles filled the streets of Beijing. Today, sadly that number drops further leading to ridiculous traffic congestion and pollution.

2. The life of a Chinese migrant worker adjusting to life in the big smoke. Chinese migrant workers build the modern China in the last 3.2 decades, literally.

The two 17 year olds symbolise the 2 diverging worlds in China - the city and the rural. And their concerns are of course just as different as their background. While the city boy is concerned with such thing that most typical 17 year old does in the developed economy, the country boy's concern is much more basic.

This movie is a cross between Zhang Yimou's Not One Less and Jian Wen's In the Heat of the Sun. Actually it's a film made up of 2 neat parts from the 2 above mentioned movies.

Let's look at the 1st part. Like teacher Wei in Not One Less, Guo the courier boy in this movie are both from the countryside who are totally ignorant in the way of the city, and they both are absolutely determined to find some(one/thing) that they lost in the city. Against all odds, they eventually find what they are looking for.

The only difference is, after Guo finds what he was looking for - his bicycle - it's just the start of his troubles.

The 2nd part of the movie is more similar to In the Heat of the Sun from rivalry for girl, boys behaving like typical 17 year olds, right down to the brick to the head (seems like the trendy thing to do among the Chinese youth).

Unlike the other 2 movies, this one is slightly more light hearted. But behind the humour lies the bitter struggle of the typical migrant worker - our 17 year-old country kid - and his culture shock and difficulty in adapting to the city way of life. All this compounds with his unusual attachment to his bicycle. This is understandable because the bicycle is a concrete symbol of his 1st accomplishment in the city - his pride and joy. In his father's generation, a bicycle would in fact a status symbol, a symbol of adulthood. Something akin to a 1st car in the West. This is the concern of our 17 year-old city kid. Despite the lighter touch, the movie is quite touching in parts.

Lots of sceneries of the how people live in Beijing hutongs are being featured in this movie because bicycles make sense in the narrow hutongs, which are too small for cars.

No serious director can make a decent film about China today without tackling the myriad of social issues brought about by the enormous changes occurring in China due to its Opening Up / industrialisation / modernisation / Westernisation. And many, includes this film address the clashes between the 2 worlds of the new and the old, and the city and the countryside, and they are symbolic of the struggles between the two 17 year olds.

It won 3 international film awards.

Shaolin Soccer (2001)

Chinese title: 少林足球

Shaolin Soccer (2001), Chinese action filmWhat to parody next is a question in most of Stephen Chow's mind. It has to be something popular, it's best to have plenty of actions, and the light bulb suddenly lit up above his head - sports (and kungfu, what else?).

This is the movie when Stephen Chow transformed from a HK Leslie Nielsen into Mel Brooks. I.e. he became an actor/director. And challenging the stereotype that director who appears in his own film is no good. The standard of his film improved since he became a director.

If you ask me, I say he's a much better director than Mel Brooks, who are also a great spoof films maker. I find CHow's comedy are more original while Mel Brooks suffered from a chronic case of incurable recurring corny jokes. Mind you, I'm a great fan of Brooks' films and wouldn't hesitate for a sec to see any new films he make (not that he's still making any films at his age). I'm just suffer a hopeless incurable case of Brookitis.

But more importantly, he pioneered and refined his own brand of unique comedy that come to known as Mo Lei Tau (無厘頭).

Monday, 10 September 2007

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Chinese period, wuxia, swordplay film
This is the most noted nuxia flick since A Touch of Zen, and it's the most famous nuxia flick outside Chinese community.

Feminist theme is what gains respectability for this movie in the West. To those who are not familiar with the Chinese wuxia genre, nuxia is a well established subgenre.

As a high profile, big budget wuxia (or as Ang Lee said that he tried to make this the best wuxia film there is), he was inspired by many SB produced wuxia. At least, he was influenced by or made allusions to the following SB movies (probably more):

The Love Eterne (1963)
Come Drink With Me (1966)
A Touch of Zen (1971)
Legendary Weapons of China (1982)

This film also opened the nuxia/wuxia genre to the world (via Hollywood). And reinvigorated the wuxia genre that had been dominated by the kungfu genre since Bruce Lee.

* This movie comes from the 4th wuxia book of a Pentology by Wang Du Lu.

* The Jade Fox is called Jade Eyed Fox in the novel. A Jade Fox is pretty stony, not much movement, it sits on a shelf. So why would anyone would call her that? A Jade Eyed Fox is a kinda species of fox with green eyes. Now, that's agile and cunning creature that befitting the character. Also read my description in Come Drink with Me for reason why Cheng Pei-pei was chosen for the role of Jade Eyed Fox.

Devils on the Doorstep (2000)

Chinese title: The Nips are Coming.

I couldn't decide if I should put this in the comedy section of my list. The English title suggests that it's a horror, and there're some war atrocities committed in the movie, but its original title "guizi lai le" (鬼子来了) is more indicative of a comedy. I finally decide to put it in the historical/war sevtion of my list.

Devils on the Doorstep (2000)This film is produced, directed, and acted by Jiang Wen. It won him a Grand Prix at the Cannes. This movie is banned in China because it was made without Chinese film Bureau's green light. He was banned for making movies for 2 years. He kept himself busy acting while he was put on ice for directing.

As usual, meanings are usually lost in the translation. And there're more such lost in the translations in the story, although it's done deliberately by the Japanese translator to save his own skin. There's also the mis-translation, or more correctly, mis-interpretation of the Chinese word 'going' to mean 'about to die'.

The film is full of gallows humour. For those who think this is a film satirises the Japanese soldiers, they're off the marks. This seems so because the bulk of the movie occurs during the Japanese occupation of the village. But the lampoon continues well after the surrender of the Japanese, and the arrival of the KMT. This is a anti-war film, not anti-Japanese film as it could easily be misconstrued. Far from an anti-war film, it's also anti-ignorance, and xenophobia on the part of some of the Chinese villagers. Besides, Jiang Wen is somebody who's too smart to make a Japan bashing film.

It also won Mainichi Film Concours - am annual award run by a Japanese newspaper - for 2003 Best Foreign Language Film.

The farcical nature of some of the humour reflects the farcical nature of war, while it's peppered with dark comedies, and ironies that are as sharp as a bayonets.

The movie is shot in black-and-white to give it a WW2 documentary/news-reel tone, as well as renders starkness.

Happy Times (2000)

It's nice to find out that Zhang Yimou, after a long and distinguished career, has FINALLY made a film about city folks in contemporary China.

It's a delightful comedy that is deeply poignant and evocative (Don't forget your dry hankie). It's a wonderful bittersweet Dickensian tale about kindness of strangers, and white lies of the most beautiful kind.

Happy Times (2000), Chinese drama filmThis movie could be viewed on 2 levels - as a simple Dickensian tale of kindness, cruelty, and hardship, or as a critical social comment on China today.

Its social resemblance to Victorian England is uncanny, but not surprising. They're in the similar stage of economic development (London fog and smog in Chinese cities is one CLEAR evidence). It's about the negative social impact of Chinese industrialisation. The old bus (called "The Happy Times Hut") that symbolises the good old times of romantic simplicity - maintained by Zhao - is being hauled away by crane - the symbol of China's ceaseless drive to modernisation - to make way for new things.

The story highlights the contrasts betwen the selfishness of the individualist culture of capitalism (Wu Ying's father and step mother), and the communal spirit of the old Communist system (Zhao and his retired fellow workers). In short, she is abandoned by the new selfish capitalist society, and supported by the old socialist system.

With all the breathless pace of change, people are nostalgic for the simple , idealistic past, and conveniently overlook the imperfections, and unhappiness of the old socialist past. This is how selective recall, and happy memories works. This longing for the simple past could be seen in the revival of all things harks back to the Mao Era.

This is China today. It's the best of times. It's the worst of times. It's Happy Times, it's unhappy times. But mostly it's Happy Times.

Fun Facts:
Zhang Yimou had adapted another Mo Yan's novel into his film. The 1st is Red Sorghum (1987). Mo Yan is a Nobel Prizewinner for Literature in 2012.  Mo Yan's stories are filled with rich symbolism. The original title of the novel is called Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh. This is obviously a comedy, but Zhang had retained the dramatic, but restrained the comedy elements. The result is a bittersweet tale.

Yi Yi (2000)

The movie starts with a wedding where the bride is pregnant with a new life, and ends in a funeral. So the movie show the slice of life for the different family members of different age from the primary pupil to grandma, and their daily struggles between the wedding and funeral. The young boy deals with school bully (including the teacher), the older girl with friendship and dating, the wife with mid life crisis, and the husband with career and his old flame. Boohoo, the struggle of the middle class! It's saying money can't buy happiness. Money certainly can't bring meaning to your life (unless you give lots of it away then the act itself gives meaning). It's better off to have some money, then we can have the luxury in dealing such thing as existential angst and whatnot. A very nice position to have.

For those who hasn't seen the film, this movie poster (I hope they don't change it) shows the back of Yang Yang, a kid studies in primary school. Yang Yang likes to take photos, and especially the backs of people so he can show people what their backs look to them. The movie has a lots of symbolism like this. When you look into a mirror, you don't see your back, that's why the barber hold up a mirror to show you the back of your heads. Thus, the idea of reflections also frequently shows up in the film with various surface reflections of mirrors of apartments, cars, etc. Talking to grandma while she's in coma is also another form of reflections - hearing your voice echoing back to you. It's acoustic instead of light reflections.

The eulogy given by Yang Yang at the end is too wise for his age, but then, kids are usually much wiser than adults as we're too bogged down with too much complicated details and forget about the basics. A rubber balloon is something Yang Yang used to fill air or water with while adults insist on calling it 'condom'.

I can't say I particularly enthralled by this movie as its focus is too diffused for me. There's nothing wrong with this, just not my most favourite genre. But I don't dislike it, or else I wouldn't put it in this list. Artistically it's a great movie; emotionally it just doesn't ring my bell. It's like looking at modern abstract arts, it has lots to think about. It connects to me cerebral. Call me old fashioned, Picasso and Rembrandt connects to me much more viscerally. That's what I like in a movie. If I'm a boxer, I'll say, 'Aim for my guts, not my head'