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Chinese Cinema, Documentary, Festivals and Conferences, French Cinema

Cambridge Film Festival #3: Archives, New Wave and Chinese Banking

Our third day began with the Arts Picturehouse’s regular archive film screening, enhanced during the festival with a double-header programme. Jane Jarvis, Screen East Digital Heritage Co-ordinator, presented the results of a joint project with the French archive responsible for Normandy in a programme that promised ‘Bon appetit!’ and included extracts from a range of films dealing with regional foods, the highlight of which for me was eel fishing, both in the Fens and in the open sea. Alex Davidson from the BFI Film and TV archive then unearthed a number of food related clips. These were well-chosen. A three minute extract from a 40 mins Peak & Frean’s film from the 19o6 showed the operation of the biscuit factory in Bermondsey.

Fanny Craddock, TV chef

This is in the BFI Mediatheque (which has  an access point in the Cambridge City Library) and looks very interesting. Wartime ‘Food Flashes’ are always fun and a Lotte Reiniger animation from 1951, Mary’s Birthday, was wonderful in its creative presentation of food hygiene issues. But the main treat was a 1967 TV programme from one of the first celebrity chefs, Fanny Craddock. The food she prepared (and the context – ‘The Bride’s First Dinner Party’) had the audience gasping in disbelief.

Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut

Two in the Wave is the title of Emmanuel Laurent’s documentary about the relationship between François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. This documentary was quite similar in format to yesterday’s Glenn Gould doc. So much archive footage exists plus the films themselves, newspaper clippings and magazine articles that the subjects could virtually tell the story themselves, despite Truffaut’s relatively early death and Godard’s current reluctance to be interviewed. I’m not sure that there is much ‘new’ in the documentary, but if you don’t know the details of the story they are entertainingly presented here. I was particularly struck by the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma that made those articles that we used to read in translation seem so fresh in their original page layouts. Equally, Laurent has access to some wonderful stills and crisp new prints of New Wave films. It seems extraordinary now that audiences in paris in 1961/2 were not much interested in films like Godard’s Une femme est une femme or Jacques Demy’s Lola. Enjoyable and informative, the film is a treat for both nostalgists and younger film fans.

The third film of the day was an intriguing prospect that in the end was I think disappointing but still interesting. Empire of Silver (HK/Taiwan/China 2009) is a Chinese historical drama with epic pretensions. Set at the end of the 19th century and up to the 1911 Boxer Rebellion it looks stunning with shots over cityscapes and desert landscapes filling the CinemaScope frame with beautiful imagery. The story, adapted from a novel by Cheng Yi, concerns the Kang family of bankers from Shanxi in the North of China who are involved in building up and modernising the banking system in China. I missed part of the opening credits, but the story seems to be told in flashback by the youngest member of the family who is a babe in arms in 1911 and is therefore addressing the current generation as a very old man.

Aaron Kwok and Hao Lei in Empire of Silver

The Kang family has four sons, one of whom is a deaf mute. When the eldest and most likely heir is seriously disabled in an accident and the fourth son has a nervous breakdown, the wayward third son becomes the family’s only hope for the future. This means liaising with his father, but apart from disagreeing as to how to run the business, No 3 son also has a major issue concerning his father. As a young man he had a young woman ‘assigned’ to teach him English and with whom he fell in love, only for her to be married to his widowed father and thus become his stepmother. If all of this wasn’t enough for a family melodrama, the backdrop of the narrative is the clash between the decaying Imperial order, the Christian churches in China and the Boxers who oppose them and the troops sent by Western powers to support their business interests. It ought to be a potent mix, but I don’t think it works. One serious problem for non-Chinese audiences is that there are no recognisable stars (i.e. from either international arthouse cinema or popular Hong Kong action films). The third son (they don’t have names in the family) is played by Aaron Kwok who came out of Cantopop in Hong Kong and then became a Taiwan/HK star, but I don’t recognise the titles of his films. The remainder of the cast are mainland stars, mainly of TV and films not released outside China. Jennifer Tilly is rather wasted as an American churchman’s wife. In a story where most male characters dress in a similar manner with shaved heads, it is quite difficult to follow individual characters in what is a complex plot. Star recognition helps the audience get a foothold.

The obvious question is why release this film internationally. It has taken eighteen months since Berlin in 2009 for this film to be prepared for release in the West via Hanway Films. Jeremy Thomas is Executive Producer and the post-production seems to have been carried out all over the world – why? Clearly a film that features a narrative of banking crises and a debate about the morality of banking, as this film does, possesses a USP during the current international banking mess. However, I don’t think that this mostly talky film with a couple of brief action sequences is likely to intrigue audiences. I have to agree with Variety‘s reporter who suggests that the film looks like the “carcase of a bigger film”. I kept thinking something was missing. Theatre director Christina Yao with her first film (directed and co-written) needs a bit more help in getting audience juices flowing. As it is, they will mostly appreciate the efficient camerawork and production design from Hong Kong regulars Anthony Poon and Chung Man Yee.

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