Monthly Archives: April 2010

Record of a Tenement Gentleman (Nagaya shinshiroku, Japan 1947)

The boy and the widow

This was the first film that Ozu Yasujiro was able to make for five years (he was stationed in Singapore from 1943-5) and it was made on a shoestring at Shochiku’s Ofuna Studio in Kamakura, the ancient city South-West of Tokyo where Ozu lived and died. According to David Bordwell the film was scripted in just 12 days and the final cut lasted only 72 mins – it was after all a very difficult time in Japan.

Bordwell writes in detail about the film, including the similarities to prewar films by both Ozu and Naruse but he doesn’t mention the two things that struck me straightaway – the social and industrial context and the neo-realist feel. (To be fair he probably mentions these traits in other parts of his book that I haven’t read.)

The story is very simple. One of a group of people living in a clutch of houses amidst the rubble of Tokyo comes home one day with a small boy in tow. All the local residents have temporary jobs that reflect a struggle to make ends meet in this period of post-war reconstruction – yet there are also ‘new’ characters such as the smart young niece of one of the men.

The boy appears to have been abandoned by his father in the city and Tashiro (Ryu Chisu) has taken pity on him. But Tashiro doesn’t want to look after the boy himself and he tries first to unload him on his neighbour Tamekichi and when he refuses, on the widow Tane. She doesn’t want to look after the boy either but she lets him stay the night. Over the next week the reluctant Tane comes to accept the boy. That’s about it really as far as the narrative goes. There are incidents and there’s an ending, but the film is about the characters and the social situation rather than the narrative structure. This is why I think that neo-realism is a valid reference. The situation in Tokyo was similar (worse probably) than in Rome or Berlin. Perhaps the Japanese were fortunate in not having so many ‘displaced persons’ (although there were Korean and Chinese migrants in Japan under the Occupation Authority). Like the neo-realists, Ozu was working with a familiar daily occurrence and seeing what it allowed him to explore in communities. May 1947 was too early for Ozu to have seen Bicycle Thieves or Germany Year Zero – or indeed any of the German ‘rubble films’ of the postwar period. But there are similarities in the situation and his approach. Although most of the film is studio bound, there are significant location-shot scenes. There are studio sets and these are studio actors, but still there is a sense in which this is a ‘story from the streets’ (rather than a literary adaptation like many of Ozu’s later films). It’s worth remembering also that the Occupation Authorities were supportive of some themes while they banned others. A story about a widow in the ‘new Japan’ was probably very acceptable in a climate of support for women’s rights.

I’m beginning to realise, as I watch more of Ozu, that most critics are too keen to ‘sectionalise’ the director’s output – as if he stopped making one kind of film and then started something else. He didn’t of course. There is a gradual accretion of stylistic devices and although there are shifts in thematics, there are also threads running through the whole body of work. For instance, I understand that there was reference to the difficult social realities of contemporary Japan in the 1930s films. In this sense, Record of a Tenement Gentleman is a continuation rather than a new beginning. The comic tone that lies on top of the sentimentality in the film is also a recurring element and the focus on the boy picks up on earlier films and is repeated in cameo appearances in Late Spring (1949) and is very evident in Ohayo! (1959).

In stylistic terms, this film has some of the ‘straight on’, Medium Close-Ups/Mid-Shots (as in the image above), shots of laundry drying, groups around the stove in the houses etc. – as well as shots outside amongst the rubble and along the beach. (I honestly can’t recall whether the camera moved in these sequences or if it was the movement of characters within the frame – certainly there is the sense of movement along the beach.)

I see no real reason to separate this film from those that followed in the so-called ‘late period’ of 1949-62. I haven’t watched all of the later yet, but I’m sure that I will find them both similar and different, but consistent – if that makes sense.

The Ghost (France/Germany/UK 2010)

Ewan McGregor as the ghost writer

The Ghost (in the US The Ghost Writer) proves that it is still possible to produce grown-up mainstream films. Ewan McGregor can act (why does he take so many crap roles when he doesn’t need to?), Olivia Williams is electric and on a technical level this is the best-made film I’ve seen in a long time.

The most often quoted reference is North By Northwest and it’s not hard to see why. McGregor is no Cary Grant but he has a similar mix of naivete, charm and base cunning (though not enough in the end). The score by Alexandre Desplat is very Hitchcockian (Herrmannian?) and the photography by Pawel Edelman is particularly good. The script is terrific – especially delivered by performers of this standard directed by Polanski. I was surprised at just how witty the film was – I laughed more than in most so-called comedies.

The negative critics of this film are completely at sea. There is no point attacking the ‘seriousness’ of the plot. In a thriller like this, realism is not really an issue. The entertainment depends on the performances, camerawork, editing, music and design – and a director who knows what to do. I hope Martin Scorsese watches it and reflects on Shutter Island. A 4-2 win for Polanski I think.

Oil City Confidential (UK 2009)

This may not be the best UK film of the year, but for anyone who was alive in the late 1960s/early 1970s in London it will probably be the most enjoyable. In fact, I’d say that the first 40 mins of the film is the best British Cinema of the last few years and even if you’ve never heard of Dr. Feelgood, you should get a lot from it.

Julien Temple is famous as a maker of both fictional and non-fictional films about the UK music scene. This film is his documentary about Dr. Feelgood who stormed out of Canvey Island to take on the world in 1972. For those outside the UK, I should explain that Canvey Island is an island in the Thames Estuary, famous for a Shell Oil Refinery, a tacky seafront and beach – and Dr. Feelgood. As the film points out several times there are some uncanny parallels between the island and the Mississippi Delta region. From my few forays into deepest Essex I can attest to the unworldly atmosphere of the region and it isn’t so surprising that two such charismatic (and slightly deranged) characters as Wilko Johnson and Lee Brilleaux should be born there.

An early flyer for the band, l-r John Sparks, Lee Brilleaux, Wilko Johnson and John Martin

All four members of the band lived within a few streets of each other and the film scores big points by using the dramatic footage of the 1953 floods which caused havoc in low-lying areas across all the coastal regions of Northern Europe. What comes across very strongly is that these were absolutely typical English lower middle-class kids who found themselves growing up in a distinct environment at a special time. The sense of being slightly odd compared to kids of the same age in suburban London perhaps explains why they were into proper R & B when far too much of British youth was wasting its time with prog rock. This meant that the Feelgoods were at home in the pub rock scene of the early 1970s and could be seen as a form of ‘pre-punk’.

Temple’s strategy is to build the film around the still riveting presence of Wilko Johnson, now without the hair and marginally less manic, but still highly entertaining. The other two band members fill in with details and Lee Brilleaux, who died in 1994, appears in archive footage and through the memories of his American wife and his sparky mother. ‘Witness statements’ are then mixed with lots of archive footage from the lads’ childhoods, from performances by the band and by some added dramatic reconstructions. Finally and most controversially, there is a very liberal use of archive footage from British film and television series of the 1940s and 1950s. I’m not sure what to make of this. In small doses it is very interesting – working to dispel the ideas that nothing happened in British Cinema in that period and providing an interesting commentary on the kind of world the lads were coming from. But I did feel (as have others, I notice) that there is too much of it and sometimes it just becomes silly. The stories about Wilko Johnson as a secondary school teacher are weird and wonderful enough without illustrations from the TV series Whacko! from the 1950s. The main films that are used include the They Made Me a Fugitive (1947), Brighton Rock (1949), The Criminal (1960), Payroll (1961) and Robbery (1967). I’m not sure why the Feelgoods have to be linked to gangsters and spivs, but at least it gives the documentary a different feel – a gritty texture. I confess that I’ve not watched a Julien Temple film all the way through before, but I think his instincts are generally right on this one.

I don’t remember going to see the Feelgoods (but I might have done) but I remember them well nonetheless. I’m surprised that they weren’t better known. Can somebody please do a similar job on the Kursaal Flyers now?

Lady Oyû (Oyû-sama, Japan 1951)

Tanaka Kinuyo as 'Lady Oyû'

Unusually for a film by the great master Mizoguchi Kenji, I found Lady Oyû quite difficult to get into. Oddly though, I now find myself thinking about it quite a lot. Viewed by many critics to be one of the weakest of Mizoguchi’s films and disowned to some extent by the director himself, it still has much to offer and according to Tadao Sato in Mizoguchi Kenji and the Art of Japanese Cinema “Every single scene [in Lady Oyû] is like viewing a masterpiece of Japanese painting” (2008: 66-7).

I would agree with Tadao, especially in relation to the first sequence in the film (from which the still image above is taken), but there are quite a few other issues here. Mizoguchi made three films for three different studios in 1951 and this one was for Daiei, with whom Mizoguchi would have great success overseas in the next few years. (This DVD is one of the twin packs of Mizoguchi Daiei releases from Masters of Cinema.) Mizoguchi was faced with a studio job that was frustrating in several ways. The problems began with the property itself.

Lady Oyû is an adaptation of a novella by Tanizaki Junichiro, one of the most important figures in 20th century Japanese literature. The novella appeared in 1932 as The Reed Cutter. It is a ‘tale’ told to a traveller by a reed cutter on a moonlit night. The tale is about a marriage triangle in which a young man goes to a marriage meeting where he falls in love immediately, not with the young woman who has been chosen for him, but with her older widowed sister. The younger sister eventually marries the man, but refuses to consummate the marriage and explains that she agreed to wed in order that the man could be close to the widow (who shouldn’t marry in deference to her in-laws because she is bringing up her small son). The story is about the obsessive love for a beautiful aristocratic woman who is on a pedestal. Mizoguchi was faced with two changes imposed by the studio – the title was changed and the narrative structure of a tale told in flashback was replaced by a linear narrative. The title change seems a commercial decision to draw audience attention to the image of obsession – but it does mean that the images (and songs) which reference the reeds become puzzling. The shift to a linear narrative is more problematic however. My main criticism of the film is that it has three distinct aesthetics which for me don’t blend together. If they had been presented as flashbacks this might not have been such an issue.

The three different types of sequence presented in the film are: (i) the formal and highly ritualised meetings which include musical performances as well as the initial marriage meeting and the wedding (ii) interior and more intimate scenes, shot in the studio, involving the three main characters and (iii) location shots by the sea and river bank or in the woods. The mix between studio and location seems quite abrupt and reminded me of many Hollywood films of the 1940s (with some quite unconvincing background shots of railways which I thought might be models). On the other hand, scenes are separated by quite long fades to black.

Mizoguchi is best known for two aspects of his work. His wonderfully fluid camera, sometimes adopting a slightly high angle, often follows characters as they move diagonally across the frame. This has been likened to the unrolling of Japanese scroll paintings (emakimono). This camera movement is part of a ‘long take’ style which in more confined spaces becomes translated into what the French call a plan-séquence. In Tadao’s book he offers an anlysis of a single take of 6 minutes and 57 seconds from one of the interior scenes in Lady Oyû. I intend to use this analysis in a class so I’m going to watch it again a few times. The stunning cinematography is the work of Mizoguchi’s long-time collaborator Miyagawa Kazuo.

The other well-known aspect of Mizoguchi’s work is his fascination/obsession with the lives of ‘suffering women’. Partly this was connected to his own early life spent with his mother and older sister (who was forced by economic circumstance to become a geisha in order to support the family). In 1946 women in Japan got the vote for the first time as a result of the ‘democratisation’ process set in motion by the Occupation Authorities. Several of Mizoguchi’s films of the period featured protagonists struggling for women’s rights. Some of these films, like Lady Oyû were set in the later Meiji period (i.e. between 1880 and 1910). One was My Love Has Been Burning (1949) starring Tanaka Kinuyo. Tanaka was a major star in Japanese Cinema throughout the 1930s and into the 1960s and since 1940 she had become Mizoguchi’s ‘go to’ star. But as Tony Rayns, in the useful intro to each of the films in this MoC series, points out, she was known as a ‘strong woman’, positively animalistic in her vigourous portrayal of women fighting for what they believed was right. She was therefore not well-cast as a reserved aristocratic beauty – the kind of woman a young man would put on a pedestal and admire from afar. Much as I respect and highly rate Tanaka, I cannot see her as an ethereal beauty. In Lady Oyû her usual star persona comes to the fore in a remarkable scene where she ‘joshes’ and tickles the young man, laughing joyfully and mischievously all the while.

While I can see these problems with the film, I’ve enjoyed researching Mizoguchi in this period and I’m now looking for the other films that I’ve not seen made around the same time. Does anyone know of an (English-subtitled) DVD of A Portrait of Madame Yuki (1950) made by Shintoho?

Kundun (US 1997)

Kundun – the Dalai Lama (left) with three of his counsellors

Kundun is Martin Scorsese’s biopic about the 14th Dalai Lama who left Tibet in 1959 after increased persecution by occupying Chinese forces. I was offered the chance to introduce the film and accepted, partly because I didn’t see the film on release and I was intrigued about what I would find – especially in the context of my recent viewing of Shutter Island.

Kundun was made for Disney. It cost $28 million – mostly I’m guessing on the shoot in Morocco (as well as North America) and the matte and digital work in post-production. The cast are all unknown Tibetans who speak different forms of accented English (the English subtitles on the DVD are helpful here). The production team includes Scorsese regulars Dante Ferretti on production design and costume design and Thelma Schoonmaker as editor. Exceptional cinematography from Roger Deakins and a score from Philip Glass make for a memorable experience . I just wish that I’d seen the film on a giant screen with a decent sound system.

The film had a difficult release. Disney failed to support it properly – giving way to objections by the Chinese authorities in order to protect their future relationships and media deals in the territory. Some critics were very negative about the film and Scorsese certainly suffers because of the perception that he is an ‘action’ director. I’ve seen all of Scorsese’s features (bar The Last Temptation of Christ) and I think that my favourite is The Age of Innocence – probably because I taught it a couple of years ago, but mainly because it is so clearly drawing on Scorsese’s vast knowledge of international cinema. There are some similarities with Kundun, most noticeably in terms of the fascination with rituals and forms of etiquette. Both films I think are made partly in hommage to Visconti and The Leopard. A further criticism – or perhaps an assumption from those who haven’t seen the film – is that it is another example of an American take on ‘Bhuddist chic’. Also in 1997, Jean-Jacques Annaud released Seven Years in Tibet starring Brad Pitt as the German who escaped from a British internment camp in India and spent time in Tibet from 1944-1951.) Earlier, Bernardo Bertolucci made Little Buddha (1994) in Hollywood. The leading Buddhist and Tibetan supporter in Hollywood is Richard Gere who has been involved in many promotional activities.

There are also some very positive reviews of Kundun, including one from Andrew O’Hehir in Sight and Sound (April 1998). He takes the film to be a triumph of form and pure cinema. I think that I would agree with that position – but I find the lack of narrative drive and emotional engagement a problem. The film is essentially a biopic or to be more precise a ‘religious biopic’. In an interview in Sight and Sound (February 1998) with Amy Taubin, Scorsese refers to Rossellini’s Francesco, guillare di Dio (1950) and he dedicates the film to his mother – an indication that he thought about the stories of the saints from his childhood. Yet he declares that it can’t be a film like Rossellini’s and that as a Hollywood film it will inevitably be compared with epic films like Lawrence of Arabia – but it’s not that kind of film either. Scorsese calls his film a ‘hybrid’ and rails against US critics and what he sees as their failure to understand cinema outside Hollywood. On this I think he is correct. As I watched it, I was conscious of many films set in Central Asia – Chinese, Korean, Mongolian etc. and also of the ‘international’ epics such as Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor and The Sheltering Sky (1990). But these films all have strong casts and usually quite strong scripts. I think I agree with Amy Taubin’s Sight and Sound comments that the weak element in Kundun is the script. (It’s worth remembering that Rossellini’s Francis was scripted by Fellini even if the monks were non-actors.) I’m not sure what specific expertise Melissa Mathison had that led to her adapting the Dalai Lama’s autobiography. She is best known as the writer of ET – based on an idea by Steven Spielberg – and her adaptation of The Black Stallion. According to Wikipedia, she approached the Dalai Lama and interviewed him to create the property which was then offered to Scorsese.

The film is divisible into three parts. The first recounts the early life of the ‘Kundun’ (the ‘presence’) and involves several children playing the boy at different ages. In some ways this is the most familiar Hollywood part of the film, but since there are four actors in all playing the Kundun and most of the other characters are monks, it requires a tighter script to involve an audience I think. Part two sees the now 15 year-old Kundun facing the problem of what to do about the territorial claims of the PRC founded in 1949. This at least gives us some international politics with a trip to Beijing and the possibility of action and then in the final part the film moves into the flight from the Chinese. This last section becomes more like an art film with its shifting time periods and stunning imagery, including dream sequences. I got the impression that Scorsese enjoyed this most and I seem to remember reading that in the editing process he and Schoonmaker decided to stop worrying about matching shots and locations and began to cut together different monastery rooms and chambers to create a mood or tone rather than narrative continuity. I think too that this decision also affected how some of the earlier scenes were edited so that the whole film became less linear and more essay-like.

I feel like I didn’t really learn enough about either Tibet or Buddhism and certainly not enough about the Chinese occupation and persecution of Tibetans. We never understand why the Chinese are so insistent on ‘reclaiming’ Tibet for China. It is interesting how the Kundun looks to the UK and US for support and eventually crosses into India. This ‘westward-looking’ stance may explain something of the Chinese attitude, but it is more complex than that. In 1959, I think that Mao’s concern was that India might become more closely allied with the Soviet Union and securing the border with India in Tibet may have been an important military objective (China and India went to war over this border in 1962). But this doesn’t explain the attitude towards the Tibetans. Perhaps that had more to do with  quenching religious activity within the PRC – most Chinese having some form of attachment to Buddhism. It might have been helpful to know whether the Dalai Lama has any kind of status amongst Buddhists outside Tibet (Buddhism as I understand it does not have formal congregations or leadership). Perhaps this is why the charge of ‘American chic’ has some weight if the Dalai Lama is treated as an iconic figure acting as a focus for American reactions to Chinese oppression. Anyone any thoughts? I suspect that none of this bothered Scorsese much and he did make a great piece of cinema.

The Postmodern Life of My Aunt (China-HK 2006)

Siqin Gaowa and Chow Yun-fat photographed against the modern Shanghai skyline.

My second bargain from YesAsia turned out to be an intriguing film displaying a creative tension between its presentation and its title. What did I expect from the title – a quirky comedy of modern manners? I remember other East Asian films that seem to fit the Western conception of postmodernity including the work of Kim Ki-duk in Korea and the Chinese film Suzhou River (1999). By contrast, this film seems much more Chinese in conception – although ironically its approach seems more in line with my own take on pomo.

Director Ann Hui is a celebrated figure from the Hong Kong New Wave of the late 1970s. Trained in London at the International Film School and learning her trade in television in Hong Kong, she had a major international success with her 1982 feature Boat People, the final film of a trilogy about Vietnam and Hong Kong. Like her fellow New Wave director Allen Fong, Ann Hui helped to bring approaches to documentary and social realism into Hong Kong Cinema and to foster a grittier Cantonese language film culture in an industry previously dominated by transplanted mainlanders producing traditional Mandarin language films.

Hui was born in North East China in 1947 and taken as a child first to Macau and then to Hong Kong. Now back producing films in mainland China, she is able to draw on experience of a much greater range of production approaches than many of her contemporaries. The Postmodern Life of My Aunt is based on a popular novel which I haven’t managed to find so I don’t know if it was Hui who decided that the central character comes from the city in Manchuria where she herself was born.

Plot outline

Ye Rutang (Siqin Gaowa) is a middle-aged woman living on her own in an apartment block in Shanghai. Eventually we will learn that she is divorced and that there is a daughter and ex-husband still living in Manchuria. In the course of the film Mrs Ye meets a number of characters, most of whom in some way exploit her loneliness, humanity and civic responsibility. Her adventures have lighter and darker moments, but overall the story is about coping (or not) with modern Shanghai living from the perspective of someone born at the time of the founding of the PRC in 1949.

Commentary

I’m not sure where to begin. Perhaps with the DVD. I have the Hong Kong version (Region 0) with both the original Mandarin track and a Cantonese dub. It’s easily the best quality HK DVD I’ve acquired. The cinematography is excellent and beautifully presented and the score by Joe Hisaishi, composer of all of Miyazaki Hayao’s films, is delicately emotional and absolutely right. Siqin is very impressive and the supporting cast includes both Chow Yun-fat and Vicky Zhao who both offer strong performances.

More problematic is any attempt to categorise the film. It has elements of what I term ‘the comedy of embarrassment’ – those excruciating moments when you know what is going to happen and you feel for the characters. Mrs Ye is a wonderful creation. In many ways an irritating woman, but drawn with such humanity that I couldn’t fail to care for her. So, what begins as possibly light comedy moves through a quite touching romance and then finally to, if not tragedy, a downbeat social realism. This mix of genres and aesthetics is what explains the ‘postmodern’ reference in the title. On the ‘Extras’ DVD (it’s a 2-disc set) someone suggests this directly – although I can’t be sure. The English subtitles for cast and crew interviews are very poor.

The different aesthetic is clearly evident in the visual representation of Shanghai compared to later scenes in Manchuria. I was conscious of how beautiful Shanghai looked. The actual locations have been chosen to show traditional apartment blocks with the new Shanghai evident in the background and occasionally (and crucially) in the form of walkways and flyovers. The old part of the city looks clean and glowing with a golden nostalgia and the new buildings shimmer on the skyline (see the image above). By contrast the Manchurian cityscape is grey, cold and industrial. The two locations are linked by a fantasy shot of an enormous yellow moon which fills the window of the bedroom, first of Mrs Ye in Shanghai and then of her nephew come to visit her in Anshan.

In one sense, this is a very traditional narrative – ‘country mouse’ comes to the big city where she is dazzled by the possibilities, duped by the sophisticated town mice and begins to long for the security that she left behind. But in Hui’s hands it becomes humanist drama and a telling commentary on the ‘New China’. The ‘new Shanghai’, which over the last ten years has often been singled out as the prime example of the postmodern cityscape is, as I’ve indicated, presented in literally glowing terms. We see it from Mrs Ye’s perspective and I was intrigued by how many incidents and locations I recognised from the detective novels of Qui Xiaolong in which Chief Inspector Chen attempts to solve crimes in the new China. So we have older people with their complicated social histories and their sense of civic duty alongside the new young entrepreneurs and the traditional noodle stores alongside the new palaces of leisure and entertainment. (There is a particularly painful scene when Mrs Ye visits a swimming pool in her red knitted swimsuit that she has made herself.) The complex social background is intriguingly set up by two incidents that only released some of their potential when I reflected on the film after watching it. In the first, Mrs Ye applies for a job teaching English to the small boy of an aspirant middle-class family. But after the first few sessions she is released. The parents explain that although her teaching is first-class (they have had it checked by experts!), Mrs Ye speaks British English and they want their son to learn American English since this is what he will need in his school career. As the father says, British English is very beautiful but, like Classical Chinese, nobody needs it anymore. This seems like a sad but true observation and I wondered about the film’s plot – how does Mrs Ye know British English? Later on her daughter during a family row remarks that her mother ‘married a worker’ – implying that perhaps this skilled and resourceful woman came from a middle class family and perhaps married a worker during the Cultural Revolution?

I read a number of reviews and ‘user comments’ on the film and it strikes me that the modest box office returns in China reflect differences in the appeal across the generations and between popular and arthouse audiences. Younger audiences may not find Mrs Ye such an interesting figure and if they approach the film expecting Chow Yun-fat in an action role or the kind of slapstick seen in some Chinese New Year comedies, they’ll be sorely disappointed (even though there is one such moment featuring Chow and a watermelon!).

Woman Basketball Player No. 5 (China 1957)

I’ve been foraging in the bargain bins at YesAsia.com again and I was pleased to find a couple of films that I have been looking out for. The first is this film from Xie Jin – his first high profile success and a key Chinese film in what scholars refer to as the Seventeen Year period (i.e. from the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949 up to the start of the Cultural Revolution in 1966).

Xie Jin is the single most important Chinese director of this period – and he continued to direct films after the end of the Cultural Revolution and into his late 70s. He died in 2008 and his last film in 2001, Woman Football Player No. 9 was a virtual remake of Woman Basketball Player No. 5. None of Xie Jin’s films are available in the UK on DVD, but his best-known film in the West, Two Stage Sisters, is available from the British Film Institute on 35 mm.

The DVD that arrived was published in China by Beauty Media (www.gzbeauty.com). These DVDs also seem to be available via Amazon.com, but YesAsia is considerably cheaper. I wasn’t expecting much and in that sense I wasn’t disappointed. The disc is Region 0 (NTSC) and played fine on my sometimes temperamental player. But although the sound was OK, the image was bleached out (this was one of the first Chinese colour films, I think) and very scratched – it must have come from a damaged 35 mm print source. As the running time matches IMDB’s 86 mins (84 for DVD), I can’t be sure if it has been cut, but it certainly felt like it – see below.

Plot outline

The protagonist is Tian, a 40 year-old retired athlete who has become a coach and at the start of the film he arrives in Shanghai to coach the local women’s team. The team is in some ways more like a ‘girls’ or young women’s team since all the players, as far as I could see, are students of 17-18. They are all giggly and the man who welcomes Tian describes them as ‘naughty’ in the English subtitles (which are somewhat unreliable). One of the team is a particularly tall young woman named Lin Xiaojie, ‘Player No. 5’ who arrives at the training camp after the other girls. She has a boyfriend who is pressurising her to go to university to study engineering and she later tells the coach that her mother doesn’t really approve of her basketball either. Tian proves to be a strict coach who requires discipline from his team members and there are some frictions between him and the team, some jokes about a single man coaching a team of young women and some petty jealousies within the team – in fact, many of the conventions of the Hollywood team sports drama. However, the film shifts gear when in a series of flashbacks we realise that Tian himself was a star basketball player as a young man in Shanghai in the late 1930s, when he loved a young woman (Lin Jie) whose father owned the team that Tian played for. I won’t spoil the narrative pleasure at this point, but most readers will have guessed that Tian’s girlfriend eventually became the mother of Lin Xiaojie and inevitably she must meet Tian again.

This plot outline suggests that the film will be a mix of the sports film with traditional Chinese film melodrama. But in fact it is more than that since any film made in China in the 1950s also had to have a directly political/ideological function – to promote the PRC, national pride in Chinese identity and the benefits of the communist system. Chinese films in the 1950s, produced by the state-run studios, were expected to follow the approved aesthetic of ‘socialist realism’ – that strange version of Hollywood realism developed in the Soviet Union under Stalinism to emphasise the heroic nature of workers and collectivism in a socialist society being built with revolutionary zeal. Most films would include a strong element of didacticism, often related to current Chinese Communist Party policies. Xie Jin includes one such speech (which is actually delivered twice) in which Tian tells a story about being humiliated as an athlete from the ‘sick man’ state of East Asia when he visited the West and how it is the duty of the young women on the basketball team to become strong athletes and to work together as a team in order to project their pride in the nation through victory on the basketball court.

Tian (Liu Qiong) holds his washboard as he tries to explain to the girls that he does his own washing. "Don't you?" he asks. Lin Xiaojie (Cao Qiwei) is the tall girl behind his left shoulder

This speech stands out in what is in other ways a conventional Hollywood-style sports film. Xie Jin does not display the socialist realist visual aesthetic – he is able, somehow, to combine Hollywood with the traditional Chinese melodrama and escape official disapproval. Xie’s Hollywood influences are primarily John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy – he also refers in interviews to being influenced by Bicycle Thieves. Though not as accomplished – or as beautiful – as the later Two Stage Sisters, Woman Basketball Player No. 5 is recognisably the work of the same director. By all accounts the film was very popular in China and even represented the PRC abroad, but I’m still suspicious about the version on this DVD (and on VCD). There are some odd inserts of train shots (almost Ozu moments!) that don’t make narrative sense as they are rural scenes when all the main characters are in Shanghai. Later, when the team travel to Beijing, there is a train sequence with a group song (dubbed by opera singers). The final scenes of the film are very rushed and I do wonder if anything else was there in the first cut – but again there are similarities with Two Stage Sisters. Instead of the Hollywood ending that often celebrates the moment of triumph, the ‘now’, Xie’s two films finish by suggesting that the major work is just beginning (i.e. as the team fly off to represent China overseas).

I enjoyed the film, but felt a little disappointed that the budget didn’t run to more than a few glimpses of Shanghai and Beijing in the 1950s. The representation of Shanghai in the late 1930s is reminiscent of Two Stage Sisters with villainous businessmen and Tian forced to play against a team of American sailors as part of a crooked deal. The melodrama works well and there is an interesting use of a symbolic pot of orchids which Lin Jie (herself a No 5 player in the women’s team in the 1930s) gives to Tian. A similar potted orchid then turns up in the later scenes. The actors are generally good and there is some interesting action on court, but I did feel that the actress who played Lin Xiaojie was rather ungainly in her movements for someone playing a top athlete. I think I may now buy some more Xie Jin films via YesAsia. (Two Stage Sisters is available.)

There is an interesting debate about Xie Jin on The Auteurs website discussion forums and two of his films are included in Chinese Films in Focus: 25 New Takes, ed. Chris Berry, BFI 2003.

The best direct commentary on Woman Basketball Player No. 5 that I have found is from Timothy Tung in ‘The Work of Xie Jin: A Personal Letter to the Editor’ in John Downing (ed) Film & Politics in the Third World, NY: Autonomedia, 1987. Tung stresses that Xie Jin was a celebrated ‘director of women’ and that he tended to find a new female star for each of his major films. He also argues that the group of young women seen in the film display an “uninhibited vitality” that was rare and fleeting in Chinese Cinema in the Seventeen Years period. The film was released at a time when Mao had announced the ‘Hundred Flowers Bloom’ campaign, urging intellectuals to speak out and the girls could be seen to represent a bright future of liberation. But the Anti-Rightist campaign stifled such voices only a few years later.

The best online resources on Xie Jin are available from Jump Cut No 34.

A translation of the full film script by two American students is available here.