Monthly Archives: March 2016

Mermaid (HK-China 2016)

mermaidposter

This record-breaking Stephen Chow comedy was released in the UK only 10 days after its Chinese release. Sony released the film taking advantage (presumably) of the new strategy devised by Asia Releasing which gets new Chinese films into cinemas in cities with a sizeable Chinese diaspora population. Mermaid opened on 19 screens in the UK.

This release strategy is similar to that of the Bollywood distributors in the UK and Mermaid shares something with mainstream Hindi popular cinema in offering romance (with songs) and broad comedy alongside special effects and action. The massive success of the film is, however, due, I think, to jokes in the Mandarin dialogue (which I couldn’t catch) and a serious theme. This latter gave the film a Japanese feel for me.

Mermaid‘s simple plot sees an extremely wealthy businessman Xuan Liu (Deng Chao) buying an area of coastal National Park for re-development and then entering into partnership with the dangerous Ruolan (Zhang Yuqi), a beautiful woman who expects Xuan’s attention but is interested mainly in money. Xuan’s plan is to use sonar devices to drive away all marine life away from ‘Green Gulf’ and then re-develop the area (or sell it for re-development at an inflated price). At a party to celebrate the new partnership, Xuan is approached by a young woman, Shan (Lin Yun) who everybody assumes is a dancer or a ‘goodtime girl’. Xuan is interested, even if only to spite Ruolan. What he doesn’t know is that Shan is a mermaid from the last surviving group of ‘merpeople’ in Green Gulf. She is the ‘honey’ in a trap designed to capture and kill Xuan and prevent the redevelopment. The rest of the plot flows from this premise. Will Xuan fall for Shan? Will she be party to his murder? Will Ruolan allow all this to happen? Will the mer community be wiped out etc.? You can guess the answers to these questions.

Lin Yun and Show Luo as Shan and her 'uncle'

Lin Yun and Show Luo as Shan and her ‘uncle’

I enjoyed the film and the central performances. Stephen Chow has appeared himself in previous blockbusters such as Kung Fu Hustle (HK 2004) but now he is limited to producing, writing and directing. Deng Chao and Lin Yun make a good couple and Zhang Yuqi is an excellent villainess. I thought that Show Luo, the well-known Taiwanese dancer, had a very interesting role as a merman who is half octopus/half man. Chow mined this character for some good comic material.

The Japanese connection comes with both the ecological theme shared with Miyazaki’s Ponyo (Japan 2008) and the various documentaries about pollution in Japanese waters including The Cove (US 2009). I don’t know enough about critiques of pollution and narratives of ecological destruction in Chinese media to judge how unusual this is. I’m also intrigued by the strength of the anti-business message and wonder how this is being received in China. Unlike Hollywood blockbusters, this Chinese blockbusters seems to be ‘about’ something. This places it alongside other Japanese genre pictures such as the Godzilla films.

Deng Chao as Xuan Liu

Deng Chao as Xuan Liu

Ruolan played by Zhang Yuqi

Ruolan played by Zhang Yuqi

Xuan Liu is quite a bit older than Shan and some reviewers feel this is an issue for the romance narrative. I should also point out that many reviewers criticise the CGI in the film. I never notice these things – they seemed to work fine. But perhaps evaluating effects is just a skill I don’t have? It’s far more important to have a good story and interesting characters. The role of Ruolan is played ‘straight’ by Zhang Yuqi. This is the better option, I think, than playing the villain as a comically evil character. Overall Stephen Chow makes the right decisions throughout the production.

The Lesson (Urok, Bulgaria-Greece 2014)

Nade in her classroom.

Nade (Margita Gosheva) in her classroom.

The Lesson is another gem of of European Cinema that seems to have slipped by without too much fanfare. Well done New Wave Films for getting the film into UK theatrical distribution. It’s one of the most accomplished first features I’ve seen and notable as a directing job undertaken by a couple, Peter Valchanov and Kristina Grozeva. He is more inclined to editing and she to scriptwriting. They both directed and were together on set  – but so was their 3 year-old daughter, so they needed good communication with their crew. They were fortunate to get funding from Greece and also extra funding to finish the film for an international release from the German TV station ZDF. Even so, the film had to be made over several weeks/months as funding became available. They had a professional actor, Margita Gosheva, in the lead role of Nadezhda, but many parts were played by non-actors (often relatives or colleagues). Margita Gosheva’s husband Ivan Barnev, also an actor, plays Nade’s husband.

The story

The story is ‘torn from the headlines’ – a technique pioneered by Hollywood studios, especially Warner Bros in the 1930s. This headline referred to the desperate and surprising actions of a teacher. In The Lesson, Nade, a high school English teacher and part-time translator is faced with the kind of dilemma (finding money quickly to avoid losing the family home) that might make her consider any kind of action – and she does things that severely question her own code of ethical conduct. At the same time she is faced with a thief in her class and how to deal with the situation. The filmmakers say that the film is the first in a potential trilogy – the next will feature a railway worker who finds a large sum of money on the railway track.

The style and approach

The film is primarily a realist drama but it also includes elements of comedy (the comedy of embarrassment?) and eventually turns into a thriller narrative. The filmmakers believe that by adding these ‘popular genre’ elements they are able to make the film more, rather than less, realistic:

. . . this is very important point to us as directors and the stories that we want to tell. We want to tell dramatic stories, but with a bitter smile. For example, our previous short film, Jump, was more of a comedy with elements of drama and now it’s the opposite. It’s very important to mix these genres because for us this mix of humour and drama makes the story closer to real life.

Some reviewers have compared the style and approach to that of Ken Loach or the Dardenne Brothers. Like these filmmakers, Valchanov and Grozeva have used experience of making documentaries in their approach to making a fiction feature and they discuss using documentary methods in shooting the classroom scenes. This is also evident in the use of long shots and long takes – especially in the sequence when the rushing Nade discovers her car has run out of fuel and she takes a shortcut to catch a bus.

Loach perhaps uses more melodrama in his films – The Lesson eschews one element of melodrama by dispensing with a music soundtrack. Everything depends then on the sound design which is very good. The Dardenne Brothers do change their approach sometimes to suit the nature of the story (e.g. adding comedy or thriller elements). What is common to all three is the creation of strong characters who find themselves at the centre of events they struggle to control. Nade is in many ways like Sandra, the central character played by Marion Cotillard in the Dardenne Brothers film Two Days, One Night (2014).

The film depends on Margita Gosheva’s performance – the camera is always with her and we are forced to experience her distress while trying to get beneath her veneer of control. It’s a remarkable performance, aided, I think by mise en scène and framing. Nade’s mother has died a few years earlier and she was clearly a beautiful woman. A large portrait of her mother on the wall is often in shot, almost as if she is looking over what her daughter is up to. (Nade in turn has a small daughter who also plays a role in the set of ethical dilemmas Nade faces.

The money

It’s probably useful to know that the currency in Bulgaria is the ‘lev’, which is worth around 40p, so a 10 lev note is around £4 and at one point the hero’s whole future seems to depend on a missing 60-70p.

It’s difficult being a filmmaker in Bulgaria where around ten films are made each year and cinema attendance is only 0.7 visits per head of population. The only source of funds is the Ministry of Culture and there is still the suggestion of networks of the ‘privileged’ that existed before 1989. The film comments on both the economic crisis of 2008 and its aftermath and the possibility of corruption in a small town where those networks from the past may be re-appearing. The Lesson is a co-production with Greece and this seems a good strategy. Following the excellent Thirst (2015) at the London Film Festival last October, also by a female director, it looks like something worthwhile is happening against the odds in Bulgaria. I notice now that Ivan Barnev is in both films and that he played the lead role in Jiri Menzel’s I Served the King of England (Czech Republic/Slovakia 2006).

References

The quotes are taken from interviews and the Pressbook, obtainable via the New Wave Films website: www.newwavefilms.co.uk

Trailer

(Caution: There is a slight spoiler towards the end of the trailer)