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.
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.
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!).