LAST TRAIN HOME, THE DITCH AND OTHER ACCLAIMED ART HOUSE MOVIES FROM CHINA

ACCLAIMED ART HOUSE MOVIES FROM CHINA IN THE MID AND LATE 2000S

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Wang Quan’s “Apart Together”, about a couple separated for decades by the Taiwan Strait, opened the Berlin Film Festival in 2010. Wang won the top Golden Bear award at the festival in 2007 for his film “Tuya’s Marriage”. In “Tuya’s Marriage” Tuya is housewife that lives with her family and 100 sheep in northeast Inner Mongolia. Her husband can no longer work as a result of an injury. He urges Tuya to divorce him and find a new husband so she can better take care of their family.

“Suzhou River”, directed by Lou Le, (2000) is a mysterious, modern noir film that finds its visual inspiration in the watery channel that runs through Shanghai, and takes its narrative framework from Alfred Hitchcock’s "Vertigo". At its center is the unseen videographer through whose eyes the film unfolds. One actress plays two women, who an obsessive love is unable or unwilling to tell apart. She is both Meimei, the videographer’s girlfriend and a "mermaid" at a sleazy tropical nightclub, and Moudan, a businessman’s teenage daughter who is in love with a motorcycle courier working for her dad. No good comes from this convoluted plot, but as the Village Voice’s J. Hoberman observes, director Lou Ye "has transformed Shanghai into a personal phantom zone . . . making a ghost story that shot as though it's a documentary — and a documentary that feels like a dream."

Yung Chang’s “Up the Yangtze” is highly-acclaimed film in the vein of Jia Zhangke. It is about the mass displacements caused by the building of the Three Gorges Dam and the widening gap between cities and the countryside. “Up the Yangtze” won the Golden Gate Award for Investigative Documentary Feature at the 2008 San Francisco International Film Festival.

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“Thomas Mao” (Xiao dongxi), directed by Zhu Wen, is a fictional tale about a Chinese farmer and a German artist; then it flips to a semi-documentary about a Chinese painter and a European curator. Zhu stages various confrontations between the Foreigner and the Chinese in a series of modes (comedy, science fiction, wuxia, documentary) and flips the stakes again and again, until the outside/inside distinction starts to blur and melt away. Kevin Lee of dGenerate Films wrote, “This is technically a state-approved production, having passed the Film Bureau and premiered at the Shanghai International Film Festival. But its irreverent, independent spirit is undeniable and unlike any other film that made it to official movie screens (the possible exception being Jiang Wen’s Let the Bullets Fly). Using everything from broad comedy involving animal sex to sophisticated CGI, Zhu Wen paints a lively, shape-shifting relationship between Chinese artist Mao Yan and German curator Thomas Rohdewald, who switch roles halfway through. Zhu Wen, a lover of opposites as seen in his past films Seafood and South of the Clouds, does a lot here with thematic face-offs: Chinese vs. foreign, urban vs. rural, educated vs. primitive. Probably the most playful Chinese film of the year, one that keeps you guessing from start to finish. [Source: Kevin Lee, dGenerate Films]

Good Websites and Sources: dGenerate Films dGenerate Films is a New York-based distribution company that collects post-Sixth Generation independent Chinese cinema. The site Chinese Films http://www.chinesefilms.cn features news, film release dates, cast and crew details and plot outlines. There are also links to Chinese studios and the websites of film-makers, as well as independent English language reviews of movies. Chinese Movie Database dianying.com ; Internet Movie Database http://www.imdb.com/ ; Shelly Kraicer’s Chinese Cinema site chinesecinemas.org ; Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC) Resource List mclc.osu.edu ; iFilm Connections — Asia and Pacific asianfilms.org ; Love Asia Film loveasianfilm.com ; Journal of Chinese Cinemas intellectbooks.co.uk ; Wikipedia article on Chinese Cinema Wikipedia ; Senses of Cinema sensesofcinema.com ; Film in China (Chinese Government site) china.org.cn ; Directory of Interent Sources newton.uor.edu ; Chinese, Japanese, and Korean CDs and DVDs at Yes Asia yesasia.com and Zoom Movie zoommovie.com ; Wikipedia List of Chinese Filmmakers Wikipedia ; Chen Kaige at They Shoot Pictures Don’t They theyshootpictures.com ; Zhang Yimou, Ang Lee, See Separate Article Expert on Chinese film: Stanley Rosen, a professor at the University of Southern California. One of his books is “Speaking in Images: Interviews With Contemporary Chinese Filmmakers”.

Links in this Website: CHINESE FILM INDUSTRY Factsanddetails.com/China ; HONG KONG MOVIE INDUSTRY Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE FILM MAKERS AND THEIR FILMS Factsanddetails.com/China ; ZHANG YIMOU AND ANG LEE Factsanddetails.com/China ; HONG KONG FILM MAKERS AND THEIR FILMS Factsanddetails.com/China ; FOREIGN FILMS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE FILM ACTORS Factsanddetails.com/China ; JACKIE CHAN Factsanddetails.com/China ; BRUCE LEE AND JET LI Factsanddetails.com/China ;

Last Train Home

“Last Train Home” (2009) explores the largest human migration on the planet by focusing on one couple, who represent their fellow travelers. Think about the rush to get home for the Thanksgiving holiday in the U.S. Now multiply that beyond imagination and you have a sense of the crush of 130 million Chinese workers seeking to return to their families each lunar New Year. A stunning documentary by Canadian-Chinese filmmaker Lixin Fan, "Last Train Home" explores the largest human migration on the planet by focusing on one couple, who represent their fellow travelers. Zhang Changua and Chen Suqin have left their teenage daughter and young son with Grandma to find jobs in the booming clothing manufacturing plants far from their home in rural Sichuan. The long absences take their toll on the family and lead to large gaps in values and expectations between the generations. In his rave review in the New York Times, A. O. Scott called "Last Train Home" a film "of melancholy humanism that finds unexpected beauty in almost unbearable circumstances . . . a story that on its own is moving, even heartbreaking. Multiplied by 130 million, it becomes a terrifying and sobering panorama of the present."

Scott wrote in the New York Times: “Fan, a Chinese-Canadian filmmaker whose guile and courage with the camera can seem almost magical, looks down at a throng of migrants pressing toward the train station in the southern city of Guangzhou. The crush of faces, possessions and umbrellas looks almost like an abstract composition, until you are in the middle of it, at which point it becomes chaotic and overwhelming. In what looks almost like a random encounter, Fan zeroes in on two individuals, a married couple whose travails will provide a painful, local illumination of a huge and complicated social phenomenon.” [Source:A. O. Scott, New York Times, September 2, 2010]

“Zhang Changhua and Chen Suqin, who come from a rural village in Sichuan province, have worked in the factories of Guangzhou for 15 years, stitching and bundling garments, sharing quarters in a dormitory and returning home each year to visit their children. Zhang Qin, their daughter, is a high school student when the film starts, and her younger brother is in middle school. The children live with their grandmother, who settled in the area when the Chinese government was sending workers from cities to farms, and who is part of a long cycle of sacrifice and suffering propelled by changes in state policy and shifts in the global economy.”

“It is clear that Chen Suqin and her husband want a better life for their children, but their way of expressing this desire sounds, to Qin in particular, like nagging and unfair criticism. Her mother pesters her to improve her grades, and she has trouble accepting the authority of a parent she sees only for a few days a year. Eventually — Fan’s story unfolds slowly and episodically over the course of about three years — the girl leaves school to join her parents in urban factory work.”

“But rather than bringing them closer together, this shared ordeal only highlights a generational chasm that can hardly be confined to this family. Qin’s parents cling to old Confucian values and sturdy peasant customs, living modestly and thriftily in the service of the future. But Qin is not content simply to produce consumer goods that will be sold elsewhere; she also wants a share of the pleasure that the modern economy promises. On her day off from the factory she goes shopping with some young co-workers, ogling and sampling items made by girls like them or parents like theirs.”

“Last Train Home” won the Golden Gate Award for Investigative Documentary Feature at the 2010 San Francisco International Film Festival and received the Best Feature-Length Documentary Award from the 2009 International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, the world’s largest documentary film festival. On one of the themes of the film Fan said: "China has become the world’s factory due to its cheap labor, but the question is: do people benefit or suffer from globalization?”

Lixian Fan and Making the Last Train Home

Ella Taylor of the New York Times called “The Last Train Home” “a quietly devastating documentary.” The film also won praise at the Los Angeles Asian-Pacific Film Festival and the Sundance Film Festival. Fan and a skeleton crew of three spent three years, on and off, making the film between 2006 and 2009. Fan who as born in Sichuan was 33 when the film was released in 2010. [Source:Ella Taylor, New York Times, August 27, 2010]

Ella Taylor wrote in the New York Times, “To gain the family’s trust Fan and his crew ate with them in their dormitory in Guangzhou, taught them how to manage their own wireless mikes, which they wore constantly, and would sleep on the pile of warm jeans the couple made while the crew waited to tag along after they finished their shift at midnight. So 15 minutes into the film, after that first train ride, he said proudly, we’d already known each other for a year. The mom once told me that they worked for 29 days, 15 hours a day straight, Fan said. The dormitories are right across the street from their factory, so it takes one minute exactly to go from their sewing machine to their bed. So that’s what they did for that month — sewing machine, bed, sewing machine, bed.”

“At home Zhang and Cheng encountered their deeply resentful daughter, Qin, 17, who rebels against her parents’ pressure to get the grades they see as her passport to a better life. At one point the simmering tensions come to a boil, forcing Fan to decide on his feet whether to intervene. The kids want more attention, and the parents are never around, he said. The parents know that education is the only way to, as we call it, jump out of the dragon’s door, out of poverty. But Qin, who is rebellious, independent and smart, did it her own way.”

“Fan belongs to a new generation of Internet-savvy filmmakers schooled in Western liberal ideas... His father was a college professor and projectionist, and Fan grew up watching foreign films. Like many of his generation, he broke with tradition by leaving home for Beijing, then gave up a prestigious job (My mom thought I was crazy) with the CCTV network, briefly relocating to Canada before working as a sound man and associate producer on the well-received 2007 documentary Up the Yangtze,about the mass displacements caused by the building of the Three Gorges Dam.”

Fan’s next project is a documentary about China’s green initiative focusing on a state-financed wind farm on the Silk Road in the Gobi Desert. He plans to shoot at a remote mountain school where Taoist philosophy originated and where they plan to recruit peasant children to teach them Tai Chi with martial art.

Wang Bing and The Ditch

Wang Bing’s “The Ditch” (“Jiabiangou” ) — a film about human suffering at a re-education camp in the windswept Gobi Desert premiered at the Venice Film Festival as the ‘surprise film’ in the competition. Set in 1960, the film chronicles the conditions facing inmates accused of being right-wing dissidents opposed to China's great socialist experiment, condemned to digging a ditch hundreds of miles long in the dead of winter. Famine stalks the camp, and soon death is a daily fact. [Source: Gina Doggett, AFP]

“The Ditch” (Jiabiangou) is Wang’s first feature film. He has made a fiction short “Brutality Factory” (Baonüe gongchang, 2007) as well as a widely acclaimed series of feature documentaries. It is a thoroughly independent drama, filmed in Inner Mongolia, with post-production in France and Belgium. “The Ditch” won three awards at Las Palmas de Gran Canaria International Film Festival, including Jury Special Award, Audience Award and Signis Award

Shelly Kraicer wrote in the Chinese Cinema Digest: “It opens in 1960 in the Jiabiangou reeducation camp, when a new batch of condemned “rightists” arrives to exhaust themselves digging ditches and most likely starve to death on severely restricted rations. Entirely based, according to Wang, on testimony from former camp inmates whom he has interviewed and whose published accounts he read, the film focuses on the day to day brutality inflicted on these men, and on their sufferings, exhaustion, and attempts (sometimes successful) to avoid dying of starvation.” [Source: Shelly Kraicer, Chinese Cinema Digest]

“The film shows unrelentingly misery. The details of The Ditch are striking, sometimes very near sickening to watch (he spares the audience very little), and add up to one of the bleakest, darkest films I’ve seen on this subject. Men die in their beds as a matter of course ; numb routines (once work is suspended because of the severe food shortage) consist of seeing who dies and attending to the bodies. The inmates, barely differentiated by the darkness of the setting and by Wang’s distant camera, mostly sit passively, and occasionally face ridiculous political attacks. Sometimes vermin are trapped, to be eaten. Two dramatic incidents mark the second half of the film: an escape attempt, ambiguously resolved, and the appearance of the grieving wife of one of the dead inmates. Her story closely matches, in many details, the factual narrative of He Fengming, the subject of Wang’s second monumental documentary Fengming: a Chinese Memoir (He Fengming, 2006).”

Wang told AFP, “It's a film that brings dignity to those who suffered and not a “denunciation film or a protest film.” “We wanted to preserve the memories, be aware of the memories, even painful ones.” As Wang was born in 1967, the events “took place before my birth, so I put in great effort to understand the 1950s and 1960s in China, to understand the historical truth.” he said.

Justin Chang wrote in Variety of “The Ditch” : “this powerful realist treatment offers a brutally prolongedimmersion in the labor camps where numerous so-called dissidents were sent in the late 1950s. Result makes for blunt, arduous but gripping viewing that will be in demand at festivals, particularly human-rights events, and in broadcast play.” Wang Bing’s previous efforts are “Fengming: A Chinese Memoir”, his three-hour epic documentary about China's “anti-rightist” campaign, and nine-hour “West of the Tracks”. [Source: Justin Chang, Variety]

Chang wrote: “”The Ditch” makes only glancing reference to the political events that precipitated the anti-rightist movement, and the film's minimal context and thinly sketched characters could be read as a broad condemnation of atrocities and abuses perpetrated in any country... Set over a three-month period in 1960, at the Mingshui annex of Jiabiangou Re-education Camp, the film observes as a new group of men arrive, are assigned to sleep in a miserable underground dugout (euphemistically described as “Dormitory 8') and begin the long, slow process of dying. The work is intense, but hunger is the prisoners' chief struggle as well as the film's main preoccupation. Rats are eaten as a matter of course, consumption of human corpses is not unheard of, and, in the most stomach-churning moment, one man happily helps himself to another's vomit. Eating seems a compulsion rather than a sign of any real will to survive, and new bodies are dragged out daily, making room for fresh arrivals.”

“Drawn from a novel by Yang Xianhui and interviews Wang conducted with survivors (one of whom, Li Xiangnian, is credited with a ‘special appearance’ as one of the prisoners), the film has an overpowering feel of unfiltered reality that persists even as tightly framed dramatic moments begin to emerge. Admirers of Wang's documentaries know his ability to capture real moments of extraordinary intimacy, and the sense of verisimilitude here is so strong that those walking in unawares may at first think they're watching another piece of highly observant reportage -- never mind that no filmmaker would ever have been granted access, just as no humane documentarian could have kept the camera rolling without offering his subjects a scrap of food at the very least.”

“The film eventually comes to center on the friendship between two men, Xiao Li (Lu Ye) and Lao Dong (Yang Haoyu)... The second half is almost entirely unmodulated in its portrayal of suffering, and the illusion of realism Wang has conjured falters a bit... Dramatically, “The Ditch” is as arid and unrelenting as the setting it depicts, and its commingling of anguish and anger is far from subtle. But this may be the only way to properly dramatize and empathize with these men's experience; if barely two hours seem unendurable, three months defeat the imagination.”

Karamay


Chinese director Xu Xin’s film Karamay documented the unfortunate story about Karamay, a town in Xinjiang, China, where 323 people including 288 students of elementary and junior high schools lost their lives in a tragic fire on December 8, 1994. The 6-hour documentary without any narration or musical score impressed audiences with survivors’ interviews: ‘someone demanded that everybody keep quiet; don’t move; and let the leaders go first.” Annoyed by this film, Beijing ordered local governments to block its showing.

Kevin Lee of dGenerate Films wrote: “Karamay” is a radical statement that ties the aesthetics of oral history to its own moral regard for its subjects. Capturing the testimonies of parents whose children were among hundreds who died in a tragic fire at a government event, Xu lets the camera run with minimal direction, rendering his camera in near-total service of his subjects, as if compensating for the years of neglect they’ve suffered in seeking justice following their tragedy. Seemingly spare in design and intention, the effect is immersive, compulsively watchable and undeniably devastating. [Source:Kevin Lee, dGenerate Films]

“One sentence centered my attention on this incident, and that was the instruction to the students to ‘stay behind, don’t move, let the leaders go first,” Mr. Xu, a former art teacher, told the New York Times. “That left a mark on my psyche.”

Xu Xin, 44, said he hoped someday to have his films exhibited in Chinese theaters and on Chinese television. But, he added, making them is even more important than getting them shown. “I think my job is to supplement history, the official history,” he said. “Not many people are aware of the truth, of things that really happen, so to make a record for the future is the basic duty of a documentary filmmaker.”

Piano Factory

Shelly Kraicer wrote in the Chinese Cinema Digest: “Zhang Meng’s “The Piano in a Factory” (Gangde qin) is a black comedy, co-produced by Korean director Kwak Jae-yong, was made inside the Chinese system. It is an important step forward for Zhang Meng, whose first film “Lucky Dog” (Erduo da you fu, 2008) showed much promise. A delightfully offbeat, quirky workers’ comedy with dark shadings, Piano stars Wang Qianyuan and Qin Hailu as a most unlikely couple. Wang plays Chen, a steelworker in a shut-down rust belt steel factory (the film was set in the 1990s, and was actually shot in Anshan). Qin plays his lover, and a singer in the pickup band of coworkers he leads. When his affluent wife appears after several years and wants to divorce him, he agrees, but wants to keep custody of his young daughter. But the daughter will only agree if he provides her with a piano: she is a devoted music student. He promises to provide said instrument. When his comical attempt to steal one from a school with the help of his work buddies fails, he determines to lead this motley group of superannuated skilled laborers in a seemingly impossible task: they will design and build their own piano in their metalworking factory from scraps and refuse they glean from the industrial debris surrounding them. You can see the film’s symbolic language locking into place.”[Source: Shelly Kraicer, Chinese Cinema Digest]

Zhang told Shelly Kraicer of Chinese Cinema Digest that he hopes his film will be a small, sharp needle, pricking the awareness and conscience of today’s audience. The film conveys more than simple nostalgia for a collective past with pre-monetized values; though its implied critique of a country that has simply thrown away an entire class of workers in its embrace of post-global capitalism is there to be discovered.

“The Piano in a Factory keeps a comic tone with occasional absurdist excursions, but there is a lining of melancholy, buried strands of sadness that pull it towards something deeper and more resonant. Some of the most surprising scenes involve the cast bursting into song, sometimes in character, other times as if they really all are secretly yearning to inhabit a classic musical from 50 years ago. On the evidence of the version premiered in Toronto (a working print, about 20 minutes longer than the projected final cut), there is a gem of a movie inside. But it will need serious pruning and some substantial excisions to find it.”

Wang Jing and Invisible Killer

On “Invisible Killer” (2009) by Wang Jing, Derek Elley of Variety wrote: “Strongly etched characters and perfs compensate for the almost total absence of physical action as the central mystery unfolds via flashbacks, making this a contender for some fest sidebar play and cablepickup.” Wangs two previous films are “his superb 2008 multi-character ensembler,” “The End of Year” and his 2004 debut feature, “The Last Level”, based on the true story of a guy who died after spending 60 days nonstop in an Internet café. “Invisible Killer” establishes Wang Jing “as one of China's most interesting middle-generation talents, though totally unknown offshore.” [Source: Derek Elley, Variety, June 18, 2009]

Elley wrote: “The only regular action occurs in a tense opening as the local vice squad, led by hard-assed femme cop Zhang Yao (Feng Bo, good), busts some crooks in a hotel. The cops also arrest a guy leaving an adjoining room, thinking he's also involved. After some detective work, Zhang and her colleagues (Yu Linda, Gao Xin) identify him as Gao Fei (Yin Xiaotian), who's been dubbed a “fugitive” on the Internet...Co-written by producer Xie Xiaodong (who also co-penned “Year”), the script isn't directly preachy, beyond the needs of the drama, about Internet misuse...but it also doesn't build to a solution quite worthy of the tangled lead-up. Still, there are plenty of opportunities for the well-cast actors to sink their teeth into their characters...Wang's beautifully paced helming keeps the atmosphere gently simmering beneath the outwardly quiet, coastal setting.

Robin Weng and Fujian Blue

“Fujian Blue” is an acclaimed film by Robin Weng (Weng Shouming). Andrew Chan wrote in The Auteurs: “”Fujian Blue” explores the aspirations of mainlanders who would rather be anywhere than where they are. The province of the film's title has historically been a launching point for Chinese immigrating to other countries, and Weng's film is equally convincing when it sympathizes with the desire for mobility and critiques the materialism that often instigates it. Though it begins amid seedy settings and bawdy humor, Fujian Blue slowly reveals its emotional sophistication, building toward an unexpectedly devastating ending.” [Source: Andrew Chan, The Auteurs, March 4, 2010]

“Fujian Blue” (“Jin Bi Hui Huang” ) is ‘split down the middle: the opening plot involves a group of young gangsters who try to swindle “remittance widows” whose husbands are living abroad; the second narrative follows a young man's dashed dreams of smuggling away to a better life in England,” Chan wrote.

Mike Fu, a graduate student in Chinese cinema at Columbia University, wrote: Featuring idyllic natural landscapes side by side with Fujian province’s urban sprawl, Weng’s narrative follows a group of young hoodlums circulating carefree in a vapid nightlife of karaoke bars and dance halls. By day, they pursue a more malicious endeavor to extort money from local housewives, whose husbands have made their fortunes abroad and left them floundering at home.”

“Far from the reach of Beijing’s tendrils, the ne’er-do-wells seem to flaunt this lack of governmentality with abandon were it not for a few run-ins with the law. Only then does their uneasy relationship with the state come into focus, but it’s brushed aside just as quickly in pursuit of their dreams to find wealth overseas. We’re told at the very beginning that Fujian is notorious for its human trafficking operations, run by snakeheads who collect gross sums of money in exchange for passage to a new land. It is this transitory sense of being in-between that renders the social fabric unstable and nearly illusory.”

‘stunning cinematography and understated acting merge for a rapturous experience in Fujian Blue. Weng’s directorial debut reveals an up and coming talent whose keen aesthetic sensibilities become the vehicle for a vibrant portrait of freewheeling youth culture in China today.

Chongqing Blues at Cannes

“Chongqing Blues” by Sixth Generation filmmaker Wang Xiaoshuai debuted at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. Maggie Lee wrote in The Hollywood Reporter, “Flowing with the same pensive, heavy cadence of the river that visually and metaphorically dominates the film, it is an old style exploration of the new face of China through an itinerant father's return to the titular city to make sense ofhis son's death after abandoning his family for 15 years. It may be solidly directed with Bressonian detachment and anchored by an absorbing performance by lead actor Wang Xueqi, but it is neither outstanding nor revelatory enough to play outside of a cluster of European art house cinemas.” [Source:Maggie Lee, The Hollywood Reporter, May 13, 2010]

While away on a long voyage, ship captain Lin Quanhai (Wang)'s 24-year-old son Bo (Zi Yi) was shot by police for a random stabbing and hostage taking incident in a mall. Lin left his native city Chongqing when Bo was only 10. He goes back to talk to those involved in the case or close to Bo's life in order to understand the circumstances of his death...Lin's journey is both that of an errant father taking stock of his guilty past and the return of a prodigal son to his hometown to find himself an outsider. However, other than a vague suggestion of wanderlust and phone calls from Lin's new wife expressing agitation at his long absence, there is no penetration into why he was unwilling to stay put with either of his families. Wang's director's statement citing Lin as a symbol of restless, ever-changing contemporary China doesn't explain or convince. Wang's usual strength of depicting without condescension youth boxed in by their backgrounds (“Beijing Bicycle”) or political milieu (“Shanghai Dreams”) are compromised by contrived scenes to emphasize Lin's disconnect from his son's generation. ...The city's grungy character is captured by a roving handheld camera that follows Lin's from behind as he wanders around muggy streets strewn with dank and weathered buildings, always teeming with scruffily dressed crowds wearing stressed out frowns. These downcast images are intermittently juxtaposed with splendid wide shots of the riverside cityscape, veiled in layers of fog and haunting compositions of a pier filled with scrap construction vehicles.

Liu Jiayin and Oxhide

Director Liu Jiayin is considered one of the most talented woman filmmakers in the world, and an important voice from the new generation of China’s independent filmmakers. She made her first feature film “Oxhide” in 2005 when she was only 23. She made “Oxhide II” four years later.

The Chicago Doc Film Festival described Oxhide (2005) as one of the most important Chinese films in the past decade and a monument of world cinema: “Oxhide is a brilliant paean to the powers of formalism. Liu Jiayin cast her parents and herself as fictionalized versions of themselves. Through the thousand daily travails of city life, a genuine and deeply moving picture of Chinese familial solidarity emerges from the screen.”

Oxhide II (2009) breaks new ground in cinematic art. Liu Jiayin’s follow-up to her masterful debut Oxhide turns a simple dinner into a profoundly intimate study of family relationships. Building on the stunning vision of Oxhide, writer-director Liu Jiayin once again casts herself and her parents in scripted versions of their life in a tiny Beijing apartment. At the same time, “Liu’s shots are carefully, rigorously, exquisitely composed” (Berenice Reynaud, Senses of Cinema).

The Global Times reportedl: “Liu Jiayin reveals all in her autobiographic film “Oxhide” in which her father tries to bully her into growing taller by forcing her to drink milk, and also urges her to hang from a pull-up bar. Her mother, also concerned she isn't flowering into a curvy woman, urges Liu to dress more daintily, like a Japanese girl.” [Source: Hao Ying, Global Times, August 4, 2010]

“Liu based the script for the emotionally taut Oxhide on some of the most sensitive moments in her family's life, and had her mother and father play themselves. It was shot with a single stationary camera, using very long takes. Other people might be distressed by having the world know their most intimate stories, but this doesn't seem to phase Liu, who has made Oxhide II and is currently finishing the story for Oxhide III.”

“Oxhide II took a more formalistic approach, with the carefully crafted script calling for a series of long shots as the family makes dumplings, exploring their dynamics in a more gentle and subtle manner. Oxhide III will focus on the difference between the real life and the interior world or imagination of her family.”

“Liu maintains her movies have had no effect on her family ties, despite the intimate scenes, which, for example, call for her father to play himself verbally bullying other family members. After all, she says, her family has been quarreling about those things for years.”

A Shanghai Timeout Review of Oxhide II goes: Oxhide II — pushes the previous film’s formal radicalism one step further: it breaks down an even smaller domestic space and its 133 minutes into nine shots of uneven lengths and varied angles that go around the table in 45-degree increments (performing a complete 180-degree match). Within this minimalist framework, several layers of emotion/narration intersect. Liu’s shots are carefully, rigorously, exquisitely composed. What is even more amazing is how tension is expressed within the frame, how every gesture, every verbal exchange reorganize the balance of power between the three protagonists.”

Ann Hui and A Simple Life

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Ann Hui
In the Chronicle, Kimberley Jones writes: "A first-generation New Wave filmmaker, Ann Hui started in television and moved into features in the late 70s. She's tackled just about every genre under the sun, but the autobiographical “Song of the Exile” is a straightforward, quietly affecting family drama. Maggie Cheung stars as Hui's surrogate, Hueyin, a young woman educated in the UK. At the film's beginning, set in the 70s, Hueyin reluctantly returns home to Hong Kong to take care of her widowed mother (played by Tan Lang Jachi Tian), who immigrated after the second Sino-Japanese War. Hueyin then accompanies her mother to her native Japan, and there--unable to speak the language, an odd duck in bell-bottomed jeans--she slowly awakens to the helplessness of cultural alienation that bedeviled her mother, the exile, for so many years."

Shadow Magic (2000) was Hui's directorial debut. It is sort of a Chinese version of Cinema Paradiso, set at the turn of the 20th century, just as film was emerging in China. Hui's “A Simple Life” was screened at the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals in 2011. "After an elderly maid for a Hong Kong film producer has a stroke, he finds a nursing home for her to move into," wrote Shelly Kraicer in Cinema Scope. "With that simple premise, based on the real life story of producer Roger Leeand his actual family's amah Chung Chun-tao (aka Ah Tao), Hong Kong director Ann Hui has crafted one of her greatest films. This low-key masterpiece of almost documentary realism features big stars and non-professionals: king of Hong Kong cinema Andy Lau plays Roger and the remarkable actress Deannie Yip plays Ah Tao, while the home's elderly residents play themselves. Ann Hui's brilliant filmography extends back to 1979, and this new work instantly earns pride of place as one of its glories." [Source: Venice Film Festival, September 6, 2011]

Quiet, polite, almost self-effacing Roger (he's at one point mistaken for an air conditioner repairman) negotiates film budgets for a living. At home, he's aided by his family's long time maid, or amah, Ah Tao, who's been with his family for four generations, over 60 years. She's a tough bargainer in her own right, buying just the right ox tongue in the market for Roger's favourite stew. But when she collapses from a stroke, she's the one who needs to be cared for. Following her wishes, Roger finds a nursing home for her to live in. She gradually integrates into this new society of strong-willed seniors, as her physical health continues to decline.

Deannie Yip, winner of two Hong Kong Film Awards over twenty years ago, is remarkable as Ah Tao, embodying a quiet but vibrantly alive woman whose spirit, once sharp, now flickers with age (her performance won Venice's best actress award, where the film premiered). Andy Lau's performance gives her perfect support: reserved, subtle, self-effacingly warm. In one exemplary scene, Lau is standing just behind Yip: the focus is on her, as it should be, but Hui's camera catches, in the slightest change of Lau's facial expression, a flicker of Roger's affectionate nostalgia that revives the whole of his past emotional life with A Tao, shaded with his knowledge that it will soon be lost.

If one was looking for something to criticize in the film, and one would have to look pretty hard, then a comparison with Hui's The Way We Are (Tianshuiwei de ri yu ye, 2008) may be instructive. That earlier film finds a kind of perfection in its minimalism, its honest adherence to a realist aesthetic, its eschewal of star performance, and its absolute horror of any kind of dramatized, let alone sentimentalized dramaturgy. A Simple Life does not strive for that kind of purity. It does acknowledge, playfully, the "starness" of the stars who inhabit it. It keeps a certain distance from dramatization and sentimentality, but doesn't absolutely abjure them. Traces of dramatized sentiment remain, placing the film inside the wenyi tradition while keeping it largely free from the kind of "melodrama" that has negative connotations in western dramatic aesthetics. Hui does make certain, limited concessions to the kind of dramatization that practical movie-making in Hong Kong now demands , especially movie-making with this level of star power. But her judgement is astute, her compromises are strictly limited. Her film speaks with a liberated assurance, a quiet beauty, in a confidently mature, modestly self-effacing voice that is recognizably a woman's but that speaks directly to our innermost feelings.

"A Simple Life is loaded with cameos by celebrities from Hong Kong's action-packed cinema including martial-arts legends Tsui Hark and Sammo Hung," notes Neil Young in the Hollywood Reporter. "But, as the title implies, the movie is a world away from its violent extravaganzas. . . Susan Chan and Roger Lee's script is a bittersweet, unmistakably heartfelt look at ties between people who aren't blood relations but who have in effect a mother/son bond. The film is a pretty smooth technical package with crisply high-definition cinematography from Yu Lik Wai--best known for his rather more ambitiously challenging work with Chinese auteur Jia Zhangke--a consistent plus. His clear, direct images suit a movie which thankfully eschews the easy route of heavy-handed tear-jerking: Ah Tao, a sparky, no-nonsense old bird, would surely have approved."

"At times it is all a bit cloying and too prettily organised, the saving grace being the presence of veteran Hong Kong actress Deanie Ip, who walks naturally through the part, without any effort," finds Dan Fainaru in Screen. For Manolis at the Film Experience, the "tender story has broad appeal but breaks no new ground and begins to drag towards the end."TIFF programmer Giovanna Fulvi: "Delivering what may be the best performances of their careers, Lau and Ip display perfect chemistry and restraint as two people who have known each other all their lives. Affecting but never sentimental, A Simple Life is undoubtedly one of Hui's best films to date."

"The picture is surprisingly unsentimental," writes Movieline'sStephanie Zacharek, "and Hui has a gift for zeroing in on the telling detail. In one sequence, we watch as Au Tao prepares to attend a movie premiere with Roger: She puts on her nicest clothes--simple items that have clearly been cared for and treasured for years--and slips two modest gold and jade rings on her fingers. She takes out a tube of lipstick that's almost completely worn down--this, too, may have been cherished for years--and in a moment that speaks volumes about the complex relationship between economy and vanity among the aged, smudges a bit on her lips with her fingers."

"One particularly sly scene features a director in shades who could only be a stand-in for Wong Kar Wai," notes Justin Chang in Variety. "The Chinese cinema in-jokes, however, are merely peripheral to the film's straightforward story. . . The final scenes scrupulously avoid milking the situation for pathos, and are played with the warm, forthright emotion typical of the story as a whole."

Cai Shangjun's People Mountain People Sea

Cai Shangjun's "People Mountain People Sea" was screened at the Venice Film Festival in 2011. "A pitch-black tale of murder, corruption and almost every other conceivable form of human injustice is taken to its bleakest possible conclusions in People Mountain People Sea," writes Justin Chang in Variety. "Set in motion by a man's hunt for his brother's killer, helmer Cai Shangjun's slow-burning second feature employs a certain narrative vagueness as its protagonist betrays not a word of his increasingly dark motives. But the story's threads, even if only partly grasped, come together in powerful fashion in this grim, formally impressive drama." [Source: Venice Film Festival, September 11, 2011]

The Surprise Film of the Festival and winner of the Silver Lion for Best Director "had reportedly come to Venice without first receiving permission from the Chinese film censors (when Lou Ye did this, premiering Summer Palace at Cannes in 2006, he was officially banned from filmmaking for five years), and halfway through the screening it seemed for a moment that their government might be striking back." For indieWIRE, Shane Danielsen reports on what little is known about what caused the interruption and the 20-minute delay, which was doubly frustrating "because the film itself was superb, easily one of the very best things here . . . Shangjun's storytelling was elliptical, with the viewer left to make many of the connections for themselves. Yet rather than seem maddening, as it might, this actually worked in its favor, increasing the clammy sense of dread throughout. And his direction was never less than absolutely assured."

The story "crisscrosses southwest China from one amazing location to another until the narrative simply implodes in the final key scenes, severely limiting the appeal of this intriguing work," writes Deborah Young in the Hollywood Reporter. "Even the title is abstruse. People Mountain People Sea is a Chinese expression that refers to a magnificent sea of people, perhaps pointing to a sweeping ambition to say something about the country's teeming poor and disenfranchised."

“People Mountain People Sea” (“Ren shan ren hai”) was announced near the end of the Venice Film Festival as its "surprise film" of the competition. Cai Shangjun and his producers did in fact intend to make a film that could pass censorship, but so far haven't found a way to secure a Longbiao (the "Dragon Seal", the Film Bureau's official seal of approval that must be affixed to the beginning of every film showing in theatres in China). And it's not clear how they could, given the darkness and violence that is fundamental to this film's story and vision.

Lao Tie (played by theatre actor Chen Bingjian with the smoldering intensity of a slow-burning fuse) is a minor quarry boss beset with debt in dirt poor Guizhou province. One day his brother, a motorcycle courier, is murdered by a passenger. The police quickly identify the murderer, named Xiao Qiang, but can't find him. Lao Tie decides that his mission is to revenge the murder of his brother. He camps out at Xiao Qiang's house, living (apparently amicably) with Xiao Qiang's mother and child for a few days. When Xiao Qiang doesn't appear, Lao Tie goes out on the road. The film then transforms into something like a purified road movie, moving through Chongqing (where Xiao Qiang has connections), the countryside of Sichuan, Inner Mongolia, and finally back to Guizhou.

Lao Tie rarely speaks; he becomes a physical incorporation of two abstractions: a desire for personal vengeance, and a force that must keep in motion in order to exist. Along the way, the film shows him seemingly casually raping his ex girlfriend, abandoning (for the second time) his young son, beating up a corrupt cop, and tangling with a desperate drug dealer (it's hard to imagine any of this surviving a Film Bureau-sanctioned cut). The final substantial section of the film takes place in near darkness, in a coal mine, where Lao Tie finally finds Xiao Qiang. But when personal vengeance is thwarted, his actions become quasi-apocalyptic.

I wish I knew what all this means. Part of the problem is Cai's management of narrative: he wants to be elliptical, which is fine. But the combination of darkness, lack of dialogue, and near-invisibility of faces in the mining section of the film leaves most viewers in the dark about the crucially important events that occur there... I can't think of a bleaker vision of contemporary life in any recent Chinese film. If Cai Shangjun had been able to wrestle his fragmented, fractured visionary ferocity into something more articulate, had he been able to design a logical structure that invited audiences to do something more than sit back and stare, with horror, at the nightmares he presents, then he would have had the makings here of a great film. As it is, though, People Mountain People Sea is singularly riveting.

Wang Xiaoshuai's 11 Flowers

Wang Xiaoshuai's “11 Flowers” (Wo shi yi) received its world premiere at TIFF. Wang's own opening voiceover announces that this this work is based on autobiography: it is certainly his most personal film to date. It is also his most successful film in ten years. Set in 1975, one year before the end of the Cultural Revolution, in Wansheng, a small town in the Chongqing region of Sichuan, it parallels his own youthful experiences while an eleven year-old growing up in China's interior. His parents, like his stand-in in the film, Wang Han's, were relocated, along with many other former Shanghaiers, to remote interior cities in the early 1960s. This was part of Mao Zedong's "third front" policy of establishing safely remote bases in China's interior for strategic industries under what was perceived to be the threat of Soviet invasion. These displaced urban communities contained many members who retained a strong sense of their previous urban identities while living in this sort of internal industrial "exile". In fact, Wang's film Shanghai Dreams (Qing Hong, 2005) investigated a more fictionalized version of this dilemma, in which a family of Guizhou residents dreamed of returning to their Shanghai homes.

In his new film, Wang's voice over announces that he finds it necessary to stop dreaming others' lives and start facing his own. So he tells a story of Wang Han, his eleven year-old fictionalized self who, along with four classmates, navigates through a community riven by political, sexual, and familial tensions. Despite the stated urgency of facing reality, Wang Xiaoshuai has opted for a smooth, seamless, fictionalized packaging that transforms his lived experience into something like an idealized, perfectly well-designed, impeccably dramatic whole. There is a dramatic arc constructed around Wang Han's involvement with a mysterious female schoolmate and the subsequent murder of her rapist by her brother. Performances by the young cast (especially the young boys playing Wang and his buddies Louse, Mouse, and Weijun) are charming: engaging and well modulated. The entire film displays a smooth mastery of narrative pacing, acting, and art direction (vividly evoking the mid-1970s period) and cinematography, all functioning together as tightly regulated narrative machine that catches an audience immediately and knits us into the drama of the story, investing emotionally in the fates of the characters.

So what's missing? Despite Wang Xiaoshuai's explicit invocation of real life as necessary basis for the renewal of his filmmaking, reality is substantially sealed out. The film labours so masterfully to exclude precisely what one might call "real life". The drama is shaped, the shots are designed and selected, the performers are coached to mesh together into a very vivid, engaging simulation of reality, one that's dramatically clean and effective. But messy details, a sense of real life's confusion and complications, are left out.

Wang also made of Beijing Bicycle (Shiqisui de danche, 2001).

Image Sources: IMDB. YouTube, Wikicommons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2011


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