Purple Butterfly (Zi hudie, China-France 2003)

Hui Ding (Zhang Ziyi) and Itami Hidehiko (Nakamura Toru)

MUBI has recently included several films by the Chinese auteur Lou Ye as part of its rolling monthly programme. They titled their mini-season of Lou’s films ‘Freedom and Defiance: The Cinema of Lou Ye’.  Lou Ye (born 1965) made his first features in China in 1994 and 1995, but it was not until 2000 that he became well-known internationally through the screenings of Suzhou River at international festivals. Suzhou River got a UK release and I used it for a couple of education events associated with ideas about New Wave cinema in China. I think only one of Lou’s subsequent films has even managed even a DVD release in the UK.

Suzhou River gained attention for three reasons I think. First it appeared to be a deliberate attempt to ‘play’ with the narrative ideas of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (US 1957). Second, it did so using a subjective camera and other distinctive aesthetic choices and thirdly its presentation of Shanghai as a modern ‘global city’, coupled with the first two points, led to it being seen as a good example of a ‘postmodern’ film at a time when ‘postmodernity’ as a concept was fashionable.

Lou Ye found himself in 2000 being described as a ‘Sixth Generation’ Chinese director, something which he resisted. The label has to some extent stuck though it has now dropped out of discussions about contemporary Chinese art cinema. In 2000 it generally described a group of younger Chinese ‘independent’ filmmakers, born after the Cultural Revolution who sought to make low-budget films rather than progress through work with the major state-controlled studios. Co-productions with France, Japan etc. were not uncommon as were links to TV, popular music and other ‘non-cinematic’ institutions. MUBI’s reference to ‘Freedom and Defiance’ was prompted mainly by Lou’s 2006 film Summer Palace which confronts questions about the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 and led to a Chinese ban on Lou’s films for 5 years.

Hui Ding with her Chinese resistance leader played by Feng Yuanzheng

Purple Butterfly is in some ways a companion piece to Suzhou River, again a film about a Shanghai romance with strong hints of film noir and a complex narrative structure. The film starts in Manchuria in 1928 where there is already a significant Japanese presence following victory in the Japanese-Russian War of 1895 and the subsequent control over the Southern Railway. Japan had also annexed Korea, bordering Manchuria to the east. Zhang Ziyi plays Hui Ding, a young Han Chinese working in a bookshop and learning Japanese. She has fallen in love with Itami Hidehiko (Nakamura Tôru) an older Japanese man and the couple spend blissful hours together, seemingly oblivious of the gathering tension in Manchuria. But eventually Itami is recalled to Japan.

The narrative jumps forward to 1930 and the similarly febrile atmosphere of Shanghai, the ‘global city’, a trading port where the Western nations have ‘concessions’. In the next few months Japan will fully invade Manchuria and prepare for invasion of the rest of China. In the meantime, Shanghai is awash with secret agents and resistance groups of various kinds. A young Chinese couple meeting at the railway station are mistaken for another couple and are attacked because they are believed to be carrying secret documents. The young woman (played by Li Bingbing) is killed but her partner Szeto (Ye Liu) survives and begins a search for vengeance. Hui Ding (aka ‘Cynthia’) is now in Shanghai as a member of a secret Chinese resistance group ‘Purple Butterfly’ and it won’t be long before Itami arrives in Shanghai as a Japanese secret agent.

Hui Ding and Itami Hidehiko together in a Shanghai nightclub

Given the relatively simple plot this is a surprisingly long film (128 mins) with some sharp bursts of violence as the agents of the Japanese and Chinese clash. But it is also languorous in dealing with the personal relationships and uses flashbacks, forcing the audience to piece together their understanding of the narrative flow. The big question is will Ding and Hidehiko get together again? If they do, will love triumph over commitment and patriotism? And how will Szeto view Purple Butterfly – which may have been responsible for his girlfriend’s death?

I found the film to be less successful than Suzhou River in fully engaging my attention and I was surprised by this as the background for the romance interests me a great deal. It may be that, as a film drawing heavily on film noir and stories of treachery and deceit, it fails to offer all the genre pleasures inherent in such narratives. Lou seems more interested in the look and ‘feel’ of Shanghai in the thirties than in the narrative events themselves. Ironically he ends the film with newsreel footage from the full-scale Sino-Japanese War that developed after these initial skirmishes – as if he had a wider perspective all along.

Perhaps I was spoiled by my relatively recent experience of watching The Age of Shadows (South Korea 2016) a genuine ‘resistance thriller’ by Kim Jee-woon set in Seoul in the 1920s? That film didn’t have the same level of intense ‘romance’ but it offered much more beautifully choreographed action. However, I don’t want to ignore Lou Ye’s beautiful evocation of Shanghai in 1930 or the strong central performances. Cinematographer Wang Yu (associated with Jia Zhang-ke and Ann Hui among others) offers us many close-ups in scenes with shallow focus and creates a real sense of the crowded streets of night-time Shanghai.  I wanted to watch more of the MUBI season, but as is often the case, I couldn’t find the time to complete my viewings of two other films before they disappeared.

This clip from the film has French subtitles and demonstrates the camerawork and lighting that creates the noir world of Shanghai:

Godspeed (Yi Lu Shun Feng, Taiwan 2016)

‘Little Boss’ and ‘Old Xu’ find themselves bundled into the boot of a car . . .

This year’s Chinese New Year screening at HOME Manchester presented by the Chinese Film Forum UK and the Confucius Institute at The University of Manchester, was a Taiwanese film. We’ve had a variety of features over the last few years in Manchester and they have usually been films that haven’t been acquired for UK release. This is particularly the case with Taiwanese films which struggle to get any kind of profile in the UK. Godspeed introduced me to Taiwanese auteur Chung Mong-Hong who wrote and directed as well as photographed his film (using his cinematographer pseudonym Nakashima Nagao). Chung’s credits on IMDb suggest that his career began in his early 40s and that he has performed one or more of his three creative roles across seven fiction features and one documentary since 2008. This seems unusual and I wonder what he did before?

The screening was introduced by Fraser Elliott representing both HOME and the Chinese Film Forum. Fraser suggested that this was a ‘multi-genre’ film drawing on the repertoires of crime, comedy, the road movie and the buddy movie. It was successful both commercially and with critics in East Asia, winning various prizes. Director Chung is part of the renaissance of Taiwanese film at the start of the 21st century and there are several interesting features of Godspeed. Fraser explained that one of these was the casting of Michael Hui, one of the legends of Hong Kong cinema in the 1970s and 1980s, who then became an important figure in HK television. It has been suggested that Hui has not worked so often in Taiwan or the Mainland, partly because of the difficulties he has had learning Mandarin. His Hong Kong status is utilised in Godspeed by making his character ‘Old Xu’, a not very successful taxi driver who moved from Hong Kong to Taiwan in the 1990s. Fraser suggested that Godspeed offered something somewhere in between “Samuel Beckett and Golden Age HK Cinema”. What on earth did he mean?

The young man (Lin Na-Dou) has to follow conoluted instructions to perform his role as courier . . .

It fairly quickly became apparent that Chung Mong-Hong belongs to that small group of directors who pitch their films somewhere between the arthouse and the multiplex. Similar directors often move some titles a little towards the arthouse and sometimes in the opposite direction, but always there is an intelligence and a ‘knowingness’ about genre. As I tried to make sense of Godspeed, the only handle I could grasp was my knowledge of Johnnie To, whose films seem to inhabit the same fictional universe. Godspeed opens with two seemingly separate stories. In one a Taiwanese man (Leon Dai) travels to Bangkok for some kind of trade that appears to go badly wrong. In the other a sad and overweight young man (Lin Na-Dou) answers a newspaper ad and gets a job as a courier to take a package to the South of the island from Taipei. He decides to take a cab and is approached by a yellow cab of some vintage with an equally vintage driver – ‘Old Xu’. The young man is reluctant and haggling ensues before an uneasy truce and the journey begins. Eventually we will realise that this is a drug mule choosing an unusual mode of transport and that the two stories are actually linked – but we won’t make all the connections immediately.

The long sofa still covered in its plastic wrapping. What will happen when it comes off?

Chung is seemingly not interested in the kinds of conventions which enable genre films to be easily exported. I found the film’s opening hard to follow. In Bangkok there is a play on whether or not a large rock will contain jade if broken open – and if someone could tell, just by handling the rock. I know that jade is very important in Asian art and culture, but I wasn’t sure what the allusion was here. Was it about expertise or trust or being a good gambler? In the other story, the procedures the young man has to follow to accept the job and carry it out were tortuous and mysterious. I thought at first that Old Xu was ‘in’ on the drug run and that the young man was meant to take his cab. But apparently not. Fraser described the drug run as a mundane genre element and indeed there are aspects of the film narrative that do feel rather tedious in laying out the plot. If the film is to take off, it requires that interesting relationships are developed between pairs of characters. This is certainly the case and all the lead performances are excellent. Each relationship also has an underpinning of comedy. This is strongest between ‘Old Xu’ and ‘Little Boss’ (as he terms the young man) but it is also there in the meeting between Leon Dai’s character and his partner which involves an odd conversation about an enormously long sofa, still in its plastic packaging. Chung inserts many quirky plot details into scenes and creates a delicate ripple of absurdity. He then ups the violence and there are some very gruesome scenes at various points. These last might make the film commercially viable for an international audience (remember the ‘typing’ of ‘Extreme Asian Cinema’ used by Tartan Video to sell East Asian horror and crime?). However, the other features of this unconventional film are likely to deter Western buyers.

The last third of the film sold the whole package to me. This is when Little Boss and Old Xu learn about each other and a relationship develops which is genuinely moving. I confess I’d like t0o have followed this story into its next phase as a father-son relationship seemed to be developing. There are more comic moments and more emotional moments in this last third than in the rest of the film. I knew steamed buns were important in Chinese culture and this confirms it. I’ll certainly watch another Chung Mong-Hong film if I get the chance. The trailer below from the Seattle International Film Festival gives a good insight into the style of the film. I was taken by the landscape of levées and waterways and the unusual locations for events including the abandoned mini theme park and bowling alley.

 

Ordinary Heroes (Qian yan wan yu, Hong Kong (Cantonese) 1999)

Anthony Wong as Fr. Kam with street children

‘Creative Visions’ is the title of the latest celebration of Hong Kong Cinema at HOME in Manchester (continuing a series of celebrations that started during the cinema’s previous incarnation as Cornerhouse). This latest short season of films presents work from 1997-2017, twenty years since the handover of Hong Kong back to China.

HOME’s seasons come thick and fast these days and this was the only screening I could attend. Ordinary Heroes is an Ann Hui film and the ‘heroes’ of the title are five people engaged in political campaigns in the 1970s and 1980s, mainly concerned with the Yau Ma Tei boat people. Ann Hui is one of a handful of global auteur Hong Kong filmmakers. She first came to attention in the late 1970s when working in Hong Kong television after training at the London Film School. She has always been interested in displaced and marginal peoples – Hui herself was born in Northern China in 1947 and moved first to Macau and then Hong Kong as a child. Her so-called ‘Vietnam Trilogy’ concerns the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the people who left the country in the late 1970s. These were commercial films and Hui has worked with the major stars of HK cinema. She has tried to straddle the ‘personal’/’commercial’ divide, often with films based on social issues, historical themes and real life stories.

The central character of Ordinary Heroes is based directly on a real political figure – an Italian priest named Franco Mella who arrived in Hong Kong in 1974 as part of PIME (Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions). Fr Mella becomes Fr Peter Kam (Anthony Wong) in Ordinary Heroes, depicted as a dedicated worker with street people and professing a form of Maoism as part of his liberation theology. He works in a garment factory by day and follows his mission by night, eventually committing himself to the needs of the ‘boat people’ – poor fishermen who live on their boots on the Kowloon waterfront. When they attempt to move onto land and seek housing, the colonial authorities decide to deport any wives from the mainland who are not accepted as HK residents. Kam begins a hunger strike in an attempt to shame the authorities. Hui also shows us a more conventional politician/organiser Yau (Tse Kwan-ho) and two young helpers Sow (Loletta Lee) and Tung (Lee Kang-sheng). The whole story is presented as two parallel narratives, one the dedication of Fr Lam and the other the complicated love story between Sow and Tung.

I’m still not quite sure why Ann Hui wanted to present the story in a non-linear fashion so that we see first the aftermath of an accident in which Sow has lost her memory and then through flashbacks (including the use of younger actors to see Sow and Tung as young teenagers) we learn all about the stages of their involvement in the political campaigns. One argument might be that this way we see just how much work goes in to developing the campaigns and how they are rooted in the community. The romance keeps us engaged during what is quite a challenging presentation of political struggle. One final element in the narrative is a ‘street theatre performer’, who also appears to be a ‘real character’ performing a variety of sketches which offer a Marxist and then Maoist history of China in the 20th century.

It’s difficult to source decent quality prints of films from Hong Kong – even when films are less than 20 years old – and HOME had to use what appeared to be a DVD or a digital source derived from a DVD master. It was a little washed out and the subtitles were not the best. Given the non-linear structure, I struggled to follow the first sections of the narrative, but gradually I sorted out the story and the performances of Anthony Wong, Loletta Lee and Lee Kang-sheng began to assert themselves. By the end of the film I was fully aware of the political struggle – another reminder of the suppression meted out by colonial forces as late as the 1980s. We too easily forget that British authorities were acting in this way at the time of Chinese suppression of protestors in Tiananmen Square. If you can find a DVD, it’s well worth the effort.

Ann Hui is one of the Chinese filmmakers profiled in Chapter 11 of The Global Film Book.

Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (Hong Kong 2011)

Louis Koo, Gao Yuanyuan and Daniel Wu on the original HK poster.

Louis Koo, Gao Yuanyuan and Daniel Wu on the original HK poster.

MilkyWay Image Productions, the imprint set up by Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai, has been responsible for both the crime films by Johnnie To that have circulated in the West and a series of romcoms that haven’t circulated widely outside East Asia. Don’t Go Breaking My Heart marked a ‘return’ to directing for the prolific Johnnie To after a couple of years as solely a producer. Some reviewers credit both partners as co-directors, but on the print I watched, only Johnnie To has a directorial credit. Wai Ka-Fai is joined by three others as co-writers. Cinematography is by the usual MilkyWay DoP, Cheng Siu-Keung.

There are several features of this film that are seemingly ‘different’ and they all relate to a move by MilkyWay towards the mainland market. So this film features Gao YuanYuan, the beautiful mainland star who first appeared in the independent films of Sixth Generation directors such as Wang Xiaoshuai (e.g. in Beijing Bicycle 2001 and Shanghai Dreams 2005). She plays Zixin a young woman from Suzhou (close to Shanghai) who is working in Hong Kong bank as an investment analyst. This means that as well as trips to Suzhou/Shanghai, the film features a language track that mixes Cantonese, Mandarin and English instead of a dubbed Cantonese track throughout.

At the beginning of the narrative, Zixin is still extricating herself from a long relationship when she is spotted by Shen-ran (Louis Koo), the CEO from a neighbouring bank. But before he can move in, Zixin is rescued from a difficult situation by the dishevelled but charming drunk Qihong (Daniel Wu). Wooed by Shen-ran, Zixin misses a date with Qihong and then eventually gives up on Shen-ran as unreliable. The plot moves forward a few years. Shen-ran hasn’t given up his pursuit and after the financial crash of 2008-9 he re-emerges as the new CEO of the company which employs Zixin. In the meantime Qihong has sobered up and, re-vitalised, has become a successful architect with a new office in a building opposite that housing Shen-ran’s bank. The tri-angular love affair can now develop via displays through the plate-glass windows of the two office blocks and the extensive use of camera-phones.

Qihong and Zixin skating (he has lived in Canada and plays ice hockey.

Qihong and Zixin skating (he has lived in Canada and plays ice hockey).

The original Chinese title of the film translates as ‘Single Men and Women’ and since the three leads are all in their 30s I do wonder if there is some kind of commentary here about the new wealthy young elite, giving up their youth to make money and then conducting affairs in the alienated landscape of Hong Kong’s and Shanghai’s skyscrapers and using (for me at least) the alienating technology of mobile phones? Perhaps I’m just an old romantic? Having said that, I still found the film engaging. It’s interesting to see a narrative in which it is definitely the woman’s story. It begins with her and she chooses between the men. (But then I guess that is what usually happens in a romcom?) I very much enjoyed Gao YuanYuan’s performance and I’m intrigued that in Derek Elley’s Film Business Asia review he suggests that she has a very different ‘Mainland style’ of acting compared to the two male Hong Kong performers (who he describes as ‘slick’) and that she comes across “in a fresh way”. I think I know what he means but this notion of different acting styles needs investigation. Since many major Chinese productions now include both HK and mainland stars it should be evident on a wide scale.

Two or three aspects of the film confirm that this is a MilkyWay production. As several reviewers point out, the film moves along as effortlessly as we might hope for with a very experienced director and crew. The script has enough unusual ideas to be constantly engaging and at times it moves into fantasy levels that suggest some kind of screwball comedy narrative. And yet it is pretty shallow stuff and I felt irritated by the gloss and the constant references to conspicuous consumption. I longed for some of the characters who populate the MilkyWay crime films. Regular player Suet Lam is here, but as a buffoonish office manager. Perhaps the consumption angle (exotic cars, expensive meals) is a deliberate ploy to attract mainland audiences? Looking back to a film like Go, LaLa Go (China 2010), the central character seems to start at a lower level and work her way up – and in that film she has female friends/colleagues. Zixin seems very much on her own.

Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (is it an Elton John/Kiki Dee reference) was successful enough at the HK and mainland box office ($16 million) to warrant a sequel which appeared in 2014. From the reviews it sounds as technically efficient and blandly enjoyable as the first outing. I’m intrigued now to find examples of earlier MilkyWay romcoms which fans seem to prefer.

Trailer with English Subs:

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.

Assassin (Taiwan/HK/China 2015)

Shu Qin is the assassin Nie Yinniang

Shu Qi is the assassin Nie Yinniang, who spends time observing from vantage points

Assassin is the kind of film that you don’t expect to understand after a single screening. As I left the cinema an audience member spoke to an usher who asked him what he thought of the film. “Well, it was very beautiful”, he said, “I didn’t understand it all, but that’s OK because I enjoyed the experience”. I feel much the same, except I thought I understood quite a bit of it until I spoke to my viewing companion and then started to read the reviewers who did understand it and who had actually discussed it with director Hou Hsiao-hsien (such as Tony Rayns in Sight and Sound February 2016). As I read more about it, the film made more sense but also revealed some of the aspects that I’d either missed altogether or seen but failed to make sense of. I do hope to watch the film again, although I’m not sure where. Assassin is not playing in many cinemas and I do worry about how StudioCanal are organising its distribution. In the meantime there are aspects of the film I’d like to discuss and I’m conscious that there is almost a ‘meta-text’ being constructed in the various discourses about the film both in print and on the internet.

The aunt who trains Yinniang as an assassin

The aunt who trains Yinniang as an assassin

The story of Assassin involves a young girl Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) betrothed at 10 years-old to her cousin Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen) in Weibo, a province on the Northern edge of the empire. When a change in family policy prevents the marriage, the girl is taken to the imperial capital by her aunt who trains her as an assassin to serve the empire. Thirteen years later the young woman ‘fails’ to complete an assassination task and her aunt sends her back to Weibo with orders to kill her cousin, now the governor of the region and becoming a threat to the centre. The main part of the narrative deals with what happens when Yinniang clashes with her cousin.

Tian in his chambers

Tian in his chambers

Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien hadn’t made a feature since Le voyage du ballon rouge, a co-production with France in 2007, when he completed Assassin in 2015 and then won the Director’s prize at Cannes. Before 2007 he made two other films which got distribution in the UK – Three Times (2005) and Café Lumière, (2003) both also co-productions with France and Japan respectively. Before 2003, Hou’s work was quite difficult to see outside East Asia despite his status as one of the most important auteurs in global cinema. (His earlier films in the late 1980s were shown in the UK but have not remained in print.) As a consequence, I suspect some of the reviewers faced with Assassin had little context in which to try to ‘place’ his Cannes prizewinner. To confound critics further, Hou had not previously made a film set in the far distant past, so when he announced his interest in adapting a 9th century tale from the Tang period and exploring the wuxia or martial chivalry genre, a lot of blind alleys seemed to open up.

Tian's wife in her gold mask takes on Yinniang

Tian’s wife in her gold mask takes on Yinniang

In many ways, approaching the film as a wuxia seems to me if not a ‘mistake’, at least a ‘problematic’ enterprise. For most viewers in the West, wuxia is only familiar through the work of a handful of filmmakers, most of whom are auteurs like Hou. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon by Ang Lee and Hero by Zhang Yimou are the two most widely-seen examples of films with strong elements of wuxia and, even so, neither film is fully satisfying to Chinese fans of the genre. Wuxia implies a ‘period setting’ and a conflict which at its centre concerns the opposition of distinct groups or individuals who practice a school of martial arts – i.e follow a specific teacher and a code of honour. The action sequences will take place in what is known as jianghu. This term seems to have several meanings, but all of them suggest a different, alternate fictional world in which there are different ‘rules’ and identities and in which martial actions are directly linked to philosophical and spiritual questions. (A detailed discussion of jianghu and the elements of wuxia is included at the end of my notes on Hero.) Rayns (2016) suggests that the whole world of the Tang dynasty might be seen as jianghu in Hou’s envisioning of the period. What is certainly true is that there is a profound contradiction between Hou’s approach to the staging of the historical period and his use of certain familiar wuxia elements.

A Kurosawa-style composition from the prologue – another long-shot composition

A Kurosawa-style composition from the prologue – another long-shot composition

Wuxia narratives (popular in novel form as well as films –Hou seems to have remembered the novels of his youth rather than the films of the great Taiwanese master King Hu) feature the jianghu which can include super-powers for the warriors. This is famously represented by wire-work choreography that allows actors to fly or to leap up into a tree or on to a roof where swordfights can be staged in spectacular fashion. These warriors have sword skills that enable them to deflect arrows and athleticism to dodge flying blades. They can shoot arrows that split hairs etc. The jianghu also includes the possibility of the supernatural with ghosts and witchcraft. All of these elements are present in Assassin, but they sit alongside an intensely realist presentation of the ‘real world’. Hou’s inspiration for the some of the military scenes and also of the remote villages in Weibo is in the work of Japanese filmmakers and especially Kurosawa Akira’s approach to the production of Seven Samurai (Japan 1954). This approach relies on getting the historical details correct as far as possible:

I wanted to try my hand at the genre [i.e. wuxia] one day – but in the realist vein which suits my temperament. It’s not really my style to have fighters flying through the air or doing pirouettes on the ceiling; that’s not my way, and I couldn’t do it. I prefer to keep my feet on the ground. The fight scenes in The Assassin refer to those generic traditions, but they are certainly not the core of the drama. All else aside, I have to think about my actors. Even with protective padding and other safety precautions, even using wooden swords, such scenes are necessarily violent . . . Actually, the biggest influences on me were Japanese samurai films by Kurosawa and others, where what really matters are the philosophies that go with the strange business of being a samurai and not the action scenes themselves, which are merely a means to an end and basically anecdotal. (Hou quoted in the Assassin Press Notes)

It’s possible to see the problems for some critics (and even more so for some distributors) in this apparent contradiction. Hou seeks out the realist presentation and eschews too much reliance on action – which for many fans is the major attraction of wuxia. Comparisons with Zhang Yimou’s wuxia films are interesting because Zhang too is interested in those ‘philosophies’, but where Zhang stages the narratives in often spectacular settings – large palaces, hundreds of extras etc. – Hou chooses much more intimate settings – small palace chambers, clashes between groups of a dozen or so warriors etc. Hou also selects to use ‘narrow’ screen shapes – Academy 1:1.37 for the prologue (in monochrome) and something slightly wider for the main film (I thought 1:1.66 but IMDB says 1:1.41, which I’ve never come across before) with at least one insert of 1:1.85. Hou also favours long takes featuring a static or a slowly tracking camera. He doesn’t create the sense of movement with the camera or edits – only with the moments of swift movement by the actors within the frame. For much of the time, the principal character Yinniang waits quietly in the shadows, observing the scene before she acts. As a consequence, some audiences find the film ‘boring’ or ‘uninvolving’. Against this, many scenes are breathtakingly beautiful. Hou travelled to remote areas in Inner Mongolia and Hebei to find the silver birch woods, mountains and streams that become the ‘authentic’ settings for his story. Even with my limited knowledge of Chinese visual arts, I recognised the emotional power of the settings. The beauty of the settings is enhanced by Lee Ping-bing’s cinematography. A long-time collaborator with Hou, Lee uses monochrome and colour in startling ways creating a palpable texture for images featuring rain and mists. I was sat quite close to the screen and sometimes there was a high level of grain in the image and at other times the image seemed processed. There were also some very subtle shifts of focus in some of the long shots of figures moving through landscapes. As far as I can tell, Lee shot most of the film in 35mm (except perhaps for the monochrome prologue – on 16mm?). It’s frustrating that I haven’t as yet found any further details online. The interior mise en scène is just as meticulously constructed with costumes and sets designed by Hwarng Wern-Ying. Again the historical detail is more important than any melodrama excess but Yinniang often observes from behind curtains, gauzes etc. which match the mists in the exterior scenes.

A long-shot composition with action in the foreground and misty mountains in the background

A skewed long-shot composition with action in the foreground and misty mountains in the background

Thinking about Assassin in relation to the films of Zhang Yimou, I remembered that Hou had been one of the producers of Zhang’s Raise the Red Lantern (1991), a film that intrigues between the wives/concubines inside a war-lord’s house – itself a carefully constructed setting. Zhang also sought out new and spectacular settings for his second wuxia, The House of Flying Daggers (2004). Like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Flying Daggers is a wuxia romance with female warriors in central roles and this is a description that might fit Assassin. However, it is another Zhang Yimou film that seems most relevant to me. The Curse of the Golden Flower (2006) has a similar structure of brief moments of action set between what is effectively a power struggle within a royal household. It’s much more spectacular than Assassin but the importance of the intrigue and the conflict of family ties and real politik is similar.

Hou’s final trick in making life more difficult for the audience – and adding layers to the intrigue – is to use another story told by a character as a kind of key. This is the story about the bluebird given as a gift. The bird fails to thrive until someone suggests that a mirror is put in the cage and then the bluebird revives, singing and dancing to its own reflection. Here is the clue to both the script and casting decisions. Many of the characters are ‘doubled’ and the casting and costumes/make-up seem to deliberately attempt to confuse the viewer – they certainly did for me. Thus it isn’t easy to distinguish between the wife and the concubine of Tian Ji’an and similarly Tian himself is sometimes easily confused with his officers. My first task when I re-watch the film will be to make sure I know who is doing what to whom.

Assassin9

Yinniang’s mother – seen in flashback as remembered by Yinniang. This sequence is presented in 1.85:1 with the rest of the film in 1.37:1

Whatever my problems following the narrative, I have no doubts that this will be one of the most interesting films I will see this year. And I haven’t even mentioned the music by Lim Giong which also needs more of my attention. I’m sure I saw a reference in the credits to music from ‘Dakar’ (in Senegal?). I must find out more. Trailers can never possibly convey the pacing or complexity of a film like Assassin but you can get to see some of the beauty and some of the features outlined above in this trailer:

Hou Hsaio-hsien is a case study director in Chapter 11 of The Global Film Book.

Lost in Hong Kong (China 2015)

Ba as Cai Lala (left) and Xu Zhen as Xu (right)

Bao Bei’er as Cai Lala (left) and Xu Zhen as Xu Lai (right)

Here’s the latest indicator of the development of Chinese film in a global context. American-based Asia Releasing, which currently distributes Chinese films in North America and Australasia, has moved into UK distribution with a limited ‘day and date’ release of the third in the ‘Lost‘ franchise of Chinese blockbusters, Lost in Hong Kong. The film opened in major city centre Odeons in Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield and London in its first week. In the second week it expanded to include screens in Newcastle, Edinburgh and Oxford. Lost in Hong Kong grossed over $100 million on its first weekend in China and became the Chinese film with the biggest opening day box office. The high profile of the film meant it wasn’t too much of a gamble in attracting Chinese students in the UK (the largest Chinese student group in Europe). The film is also likely to appeal to the Cantonese HK diaspora because, as the title implies, it pays hommage to both Hong Kong the city and the popular Hong Kong films of the 1990s. In its first weekend in the UK Lost in Hong Kong made No 14 in the chart with a screen average of £9,477 – the highest for any title except Secret Cinema’s The Empire Strikes Back. Showings of major Hong Kong films during the Chinese New Year period have been relatively common in London and Manchester for several years, but otherwise Chinese film fans have had to wait for UK distributors to release Chinese art films or for occasional limited cinema releases of popular genre films which usually find their audiences via DVD. In that context the Asia Releasing strategy is innovatory and matches the current UK practice with blockbusters from the Hindi and Tamil film industries.

The Lost franchise began with the relatively low key Lost on Journey (China 2010) starring Xu Zheng. Lost in Thailand (China 2012) caught the imagination of the rapidly-growing mainstream Chinese audience and became one of the biggest box office winners of the last few years. Xu directed the second film himself and the cast included other internationally-known stars such as Fan Bingbing (as herself). I haven’t seen either of these two previous films but I’ve read comments on them that suggest a central plot idea that sends Xu on a journey which will see him entangled with a character who is bound to get him into trouble and the result is a ‘comedy-adventure’ narrative with broad humour and numerous stunts. One reviewer referred to the ‘Road’ films starring Bing Crosby and Bob Hope from the 1940s to 1960s (the last of which was The Road to Hong Kong in 1962). This seems a good reference and in contemporary cinema, Lost in Thailand has been seen as riffing on the Hollywood Hangover films.

I had two disadvantages watching Lost in Hong Kong. I haven’t visited Hong Kong and I haven’t seen enough Hong Kong films to spot all the allusions and to get all the jokes. Having said that, several references were signalled so clearly that even I couldn’t miss them. At one point a DVD of Peter Chan’s Comrades, Almost a Love Story falls to the ground. There are also explicit references to Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express and 2046. At other times, though, it’s necessary to recognise actors, directors or locations to appreciate the joke. I’m sure the mainly young Chinese audience behind me laughed more often than I did.

In the nostalgic flashback, Cai (Zhao Wei) tends to Xu

In the nostalgic flashback, Cai Bo (Zhao Wei) tends to Xu Lai

These films are part of a developing industrial franchise but they don’t utilise the same characters. I think that only Xu Zheng himself is a constant alongside the narrative formula. Lost in Hong Kong begins with a nostalgic flashback to the college days of the three central characters – something of a current trend in films catering to the 1990s generation of students? Xu Lai (Xu Zheng) is an artist/designer who falls in love with artist Yang Yi (Du Juan) but is being pursued by business major Cai Bo (Zhao Wei). When Yang Yi leaves to go to Hong Kong, Cai Bo is successful in her pursuit and the couple are married with Xu becoming a designer of brassieres for Cai Bo’s family lingerie business. Twenty years later the family takes a vacation in Hong Kong. The whole family is concerned that Cai Bo has not yet produced a child but Xu is hoping to sneak off to the opening of Yang Yi’s major new exhibition. His only problem is that his brother-in-law, the manic man-child Cai Lala (Bao Bei’er) insists on following him everywhere with his video camera, claiming he is making a personal documentary. When Cai Lala inadvertently films a crime, he sets up the possibility of a chase. This will then take up most of the narrative.

I’m not usually a fan of action blockbusters and I went to the screening out of purely academic interest but I confess that there were some long sequences that I enjoyed partly because of Xu’s performance and partly because of the sheer skill and creativity of the action stunts. Some of the very broad ‘family humour’ was familiar from the Alls Well, Ends Well HK comedies and it was interesting to try to think about which famous HK action films might be the inspiration for various stunts. From my limited viewing of mainstream Chinese films I was surprised that Zhao Wei (‘Vicky’ Zhao) was so under-used – I think of her as a major star who is here presented in a very unflattering way. Several scenes – including the climactic action scene – are played out high up on skyscrapers. So beware if you suffer from vertigo. I wondered whether this was again a specific Hong Kong film culture reference. As well as the rooftop scene from Infernal Affairs, suicides from tall buildings feature in several films (and in real life in the case of Leslie Cheung).

Overall I thought Lost in Hong Kong, as a ‘global film’, stands up well in comparison with Hollywood as well as Hindi and Tamil blockbusters. Watching it I was reminded of some recent ‘Hindie’/New Bollywood films like Delhi Belly or 3 Idiots. The latter did become a global film that performed well in Hong Kong cinemas. I wonder if Chinese producers will one day think of making Lost in Mumbai?

Teaser Trailer

An outline history of developments in Chinese Cinemas (PRC, Hong Kong and Taiwan) is given in Chapter 11 of The Global Film Book.