Category Archives: Chinese Cinema

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.

The Golden Era (Huang jin shi dai, China-Hong Kong 2014)

Tang Wei as Xiao Hong in Golden Era

Tang Wei as Xiao Hong in Golden Era

This film was playing at the Glasgow Film Festival where I saw two other recent Chinese films, Dearest (China-HK 2014) and Red Amnesia (China 2014). I saw The Golden Era earlier at Cornerhouse in Manchester for the annual Chinese New Year treat courtesy of the Chinese Film Forum. Golden Era is a biopic, a melodrama and a very personal film by Hong Kong auteur Ann Hui (one of the case study directors in The Global Film Book). The Hong Kong entry for Foreign Language Oscar in 2015, The Golden Era did not make the final selection but this is no surprise given its length, large cast of mainly ensemble players and its lead character who is an important Chinese writer from the 1930s but not widely known outside China itself.

I usually prefer to see films ‘cold’ but in this case I think it would have been useful to have read some of the background on the narrative’s subject, Xiao Hong. This might have made it easier to understand the inter-relationships of the central characters and their movements during the turbulence in China in the 1930s. Xiao Hong was born in Manchuria close to the border with Russia in 1911 and eventually found her way to Hong Kong where she died in 1942. She tells us this in a ‘to camera’ statement at the start of the film and this is a strategy Ann Hui deploys throughout the film as different characters in the story comment on their ‘take’ on the writer and what happened to her. This is both a narrative device to disrupt the conventions of the biopic and something of a necessity because there are so many gaps in the known history of the character. This means we get some contrasting versions of what might have happened and why. The device made me think of Actress/Centre Stage (HK 1992) Stanley Kwan’s audacious film about the 1930s Shanghai film star Ruan Lingyu in which Maggie Cheung plays the star and appears as herself.

Xiao Jun  (Feng Shaofeng) and Xiao Hong (Tang Wei) the young lovers.

Xiao Jun (Feng Shaofeng) and Xiao Hong (Tang Wei) the young lovers.

The Golden Era is a complex story about a genuine rebel character. Originally named Zhang Naiying, Hong had an unhappy childhood and ran away from an arranged marriage only to find herself pregnant ‘out of wedlock’ and abandoned at 20 in a cheap hotel in Harbin. Her rescuers were from the local group of writers. She fell for one of them and the couple changed their names to Xiao. She became Hong, he became Jun. From her early beginnings as a writer Hong wrote about her feelings and about the social environment. In 1931 Japan occupied what a year later would become the puppet state of Manchukuo. Hong herself would later spend time in Tokyo where she coined the term ‘Golden Era’ to describe a special period in her own life – recognising that she had time to herself (Jun was not with her) to write and that this was what she prized most. (I found this to be a striking observation for a young woman in her twenties.) At other times she visited Shanghai and became part of semi-official Chinese literary culture. However, as the Japanese invasion of the rest of China began to take hold in 1937, she and her fellow writers began to move West, ahead of the Japanese and joining up with the Communist Party. Hong and Jun split – for several reasons. He wanted to fight, she just wanted to write. When she did eventually marry it was not for love.

It isn’t difficult to see what attracted Ann Hui to this project. She herself was born in Manchuria in 1947 and her mother was Japanese. Like Hong, she moved to Hong Kong (but as a child aged 5). For one of the most acclaimed female directors in Chinese film, Hong’s story is full of important examples of refusal to abide by the conventions that bound most Chinese women of the time – of family, of ‘romance’, of ideologies of ‘cultural work’. The role of Hong requires an actor of great presence and strength and this is a wonderful performance by Tang Wei, probably best known outside China for the lead female role in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (China/US/Taiwan 2007). The remainder of the ensemble cast is very strong too, many are actors who seem familiar including Hao Lei as Ding Lin, another prominent female writer, but one who is a redoubtable CCP soldier.

The film appeared at major festivals including Venice (closing night film) and Toronto but it received a mixed reception. Variety called the film ‘stifling’ and ‘unilluminating’. I’m an Ann Hui fan but I confess that in the opening sequences, knowing that the film was 177 minutes, I did wonder where it was going to go and whether I’d be able to cope with so many characters. In truth I thought the second part of the film was preferable to the first. I think there are two reasons for this. One was that I began to feel more comfortable with the array of characters and secondly the film became more of a recognisable melodrama. I guess that around half the audience in Manchester were Mandarin speakers and I noticed that they laughed at one moment when I was responding to what seemed like classic melodrama. It may be that the subtitling didn’t carry a joke – or perhaps it was that the younger Chinese audience is less familiar with classic melodramas. I thought about the films of Xie Jin in particular, but was also reminded of my recent viewing of Spring In a Small Town (China 1948). In these films it is usually the woman at the centre of the story – and often it is relationships between women that really matter.

Thinking about melodrama also prompts considerations of the films problems – and potential solutions. The interior lives of writers are difficult to register on film. At the two extremes are sequences of someone writing in a room or visualisations of their ideas that might be quite spectacular. Xiao Hong’s biography does indeed comprise many scenes in rooms punctuated by dramatic events in a country mired in war (a lot of train trips, wagon rides and ferries). Melodrama at least offers us the pleasures of costume, colour, hair and make-up and this is a feature of The Golden Era. I enjoyed the cinematography of Wang Yu (Suzhou River, 24 City) and the art direction of Zhao Hai.

Reading the varied responses to the film I was struck by that of Derek Elley for Film Business Asia. He thinks that the film fails (he also refers to another recent version of the same story, Falling Flowers in 2012). Elley argues that Ann Hui is less comfortable with period films but he puts most of the blame on Tang Wei who he agues is completely miscast. I haven’t seen Ann Hui’s other period films so I can’t comment on that aspect. The Tang Wei argument is more troublesome. Elley clearly doesn’t rate her as an actress and argues she can’t hold the narrative together. I’m not sure she has to. The story is as much about the people around her and how they see her. Elley makes sharp comments. Here’s an extended quote:

Looking and acting way too modern throughout, Tang is unable even to come up with a consistent style of delivering her dialogue, wobbling between softer standard Mandarin and a hard, gutsy northern accent. She seems out of place from the start and doesn’t make Xiao Hong (for all her faults) somebody worth caring about across three hours of drama and tragedy. It’s a typically loose, unfocused performance by the 34-year-old actress that seeps out into the rest of the movie.

It’s always difficult watching a film and having to rely on subtitles and being unable to distinguish accents and dialects. But this is a common charge in many film cultures (I’m equally guilty of criticising UK and US actors for inappropriate accents). Perhaps that laughter quoted above was aimed at the delivery of the dialogue? As to the performance overall, Ann Hui is a vastly experienced and highly-celebrated director. I can’t really see her accepting the kind of performance Elley refers to. I acknowledge his comments and I agree with some of them up to a point but overall I enjoyed the film and Tang Wei’s performance. Unfortunately, like the other two films mentioned at the start of this review I don’t think that The Golden Era will be widely seen in UK cinemas. Distributors seem afraid of releasing Chinese films of any kind.

Here’s the international trailer with English subs:

And a Chinese trailer with English subs:

The Midnight After (Hong Kong 2014)

The survivors in home-made protection gear prepared to take on whatever comes next in THE MIDNIGHT AFTER

The survivors in home-made protection gear prepared to take on whatever comes next in THE MIDNIGHT AFTER

Fruit Chan is the Hong Kong director best known in the UK for his independent film classic Made in Hong Kong (HK 1997) and his horror features and portmanteau film episodes such as Dumplings (HK 2004). His latest venture proved a suitably bonkers but enjoyable finale to the Asia Triennial 14 Festival screenings programme at Cornerhouse, Manchester. Chosen by festival programmers Sarah Perks and Andy Willis, both HK cinema fans, it proved to be the ‘popular cinema with a message’ that doesn’t usually get onto UK cinema screens.

The Midnight After is an adaptation (loosely, I imagine) of an internet novel that went viral and was eventually published in print form. At first glance it looks like a conventional horror genre flic. A mini-bus driver is called from his mahjong game as a substitute driver for a late-night service starting in Kowloon and heading out to Tai Po in the New Territories. The passengers are a motley crew of students, young couples and older eccentrics. Part way through the Lion tunnel something happens and the bus arrives in a deserted and apparently post-apocalyptic Tai Po. Panic gradually sets in, some members of the group break away and die in mysterious circumstances. We’ve seen it all before but Chan’s track record suggests that the usual conventions won’t deliver the usual outcomes or the usual pleasures.

I’m not going to pretend that I knew what was going on for much of the film and I certainly didn’t ‘get’ the ending – just like everyone else. I can also understand the complaints that the film is too long (123 mins is pushing it for this kind of production) but overall I enjoyed the experience.

Chan’s 1997 film was one of the last of the films exploring life for youths in Hong Kong during the final months of control from London before the ‘handover’ to China. It doesn’t take too much imagination to work out that the passengers on the minibus (and the driver) are representative of certain groups in Hong Kong society and that trying to organise themselves into a group in order to survive – and to try to understand what is happening – is a metaphor for ordinary HK residents trying to deal with the Chines authorities. On the other hand, they also behave a bit like the marooned schoolboys in Lord of the Flies and the folk getting together to fight zombies in Romero’s Living Dead films. Chan gives us some good laughs between the blood and gore and other effects. A highlight is a decoded message referring to David Bowie’s hit ‘Space Oddity’. Another reference is to the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

The ending of the film seems like it is deliberately set up for a sequel. (In fact the whole narrative feels like an extended episode or episodes of Dr Who.) The film was successful in its home market where the actors, the dialects and cultural references – as well as the political implications – make most sense. I wonder if it might also do well in other parts of East Asia. At times it reminded me of Korean and Japanese films. One website informs us that Chan released a second version of the film cut to be screened to under-18s and an obvious ploy to expand the audience. The Midnight After made HK$10 million after just 6 days on release and Chan has said that he will definitely make a sequel if the box office passes HK$30 million. To put this in perspective, the target is the equivalent of just under US$4 million. Still, this is a significant amount for a domestic HK film these days. I hope the director gets his wish. I’m just glad to have seen an enjoyable comedy-horror in ‘Scope.

Hong Kong popular cinema is discussed in both Chapter 2 and Chapter 11 in The Global Film Book. The idea of developing an internet novel into a film is explored in Chapter 2 in terms of the smash hit South Korean romantic comedy My Sassy Girl (2001).

Here’s a trailer (an English-subtitled Region 3 DVD is available from YesAsia):

Spring in a Small Town (Xiaocheng zhi chun, China 1948)

Yuwen and Liyan

Yuwen and Liyan

Spring in a Small Town has attained almost mythical status in the history of Chinese Cinema. It dates from the brief period between the end of the Sino-Japanese war and the final victory of the Chinese Communists and the foundation of the PRC. The studio Wenhua was a small company formed in 1946 but Fei Mu (1906-51) was an experienced Shanghai director who had made melodramas with the major star Ruan Lingyu in the early 1930s. He was also very interested in Peking opera and open to ideas from Western filmmaking. Production of Spring in a Small Town was possible only because Fei was prepared to work with a small budget and a limited cast of just five actors for only a few weeks during a forced break from his major production of the opera film Eternal Regret – China’s first colour film with the leading opera star Mei Linfang.

Fei was interested in the possibility of making a new kind of film based on a script by a 26 year-old writer Li Tianji. His approach was to attempt to find a way to balance realism and romanticism and to to do this by exploring aesthetic ideas. These are discussed in detail by David Der-wei Wang in a paper titled ‘A Spring That Brought Eternal Regret: Fei Mu, Mei Lanfang, and the Poetics of Screening China’ (2013). The film lasted only a few weeks in Shanghai cinemas. It was then suppressed by the PRC officials charged with overseeing Chinese cinema post-1949 and its reputation was only kept alive by some of those Shanghai filmmakers who migrated to Taiwan and Hong Kong. (Fei Mu himself went to Hong Kong, but died soon after arriving.) The film was also shown in Taiwan. The PRC officials condemned the film for ‘petty-bourgeois decadence’ and ‘ideologogical backwardness’ creating a ‘narcotic effect’ on audiences. (This para draws primarily on Chinese National Cinema by Yingjin Zhang, Routledge 2004). Spring in a Small Town was not properly seen again until the 1980s in China and has been unavailable in the UK for many years but has now been released in a restored version by the BFI. It is now hailed by Chinese critics as one of the greatest films in Shanghai cinema and indeed one of the best films in Chinese film history.

I was not disappointed when I finally saw this in the cinema. I’d only seen short extracts before, although I was familiar with the remake Springtime in a Small Town (2001) directed by the 5th Generation director Tian Zhuangzhuang. Ironically the remake marked Tian’s return to favour with the Chinese authorities after his earlier critical film The Blue Kite (1993). But although I was familiar with the outline story of Spring in a Small Town, I wasn’t really prepared for the treatment of the script or the intense emotional power of the film.

As I suggested in discussion of Ozu’s A Hen in the Wind, 1948 is a pivotal year in global cinema with many films set in the ‘rubble’ left by the preceding years of war. In that sense, Spring in a Small Town is related to Rossellini and De Sica’s work in Italy and to Ozu, Kurosawa and the other Japanese masters, even if none of the filmmakers were themselves aware of the similarities. It isn’t a neo-realist film as such, except in the sense of having little in the way of budget or indeed facilities – and therefore limited choices in terms of techniques. Fei Mu chose a distinctive approach with long takes and a panning, moving camera covering dialogue rather than cross-cutting. Each scene ends with a fade to black. The tension that the camerawork evokes is compounded by the approach to sound. I don’t know if this was intended or whether it is the result of restoration using damaged source materials but it appears that the sound has been post-synched. Apart from the dialogue, music/songs and certain sound effects, the film is silent – i.e. there is no ‘atmos’ or ambient sound and quite long periods without sound at all. Allied to this, there are lengthy narrated passages by the female lead.

The story is relatively simple. In 1946, after eight years of war and its immediate aftermath, a Shanghai doctor Zhang Zichen returns to his home town ‘somewhere in rural China’ (it was actually filmed in a town not that far from Shanghai) to visit his old friend Dai Liyan. He is taken aback to discover that his friend is ill with tuberculosis and heart disease and that he has been married for several years to Zhou Yuwen, who was once Zhang’s own love interest. The Dai family home, once wealthy, has been damaged by war and the one family servant left forlornly attempts to rebuild the garden walls. Liyan’s young sister, 16 year-old Xiu, is the one lively element in the household. (No other inhabitants of the town are seen but Yuwen frequently walks along the ruined walls of the town.) Zichen and Yuwen have an obvious erotic attraction and the narrative tension is built around developments which bring them together and then keep them apart. Liyan is energised – and disturbed – by his friend’s arrival and invites him to stay. He then has the idea that Zichen might marry Xiu.

The complex network of desire and fear creates the intensity of melodrama, but without the usual outlets of expressionist camerawork or musical score it is sometimes their absence that helps to create emotional power. One outlet for the usual excess of melodrama is costume and this is developed around the outfits designed for Yuwen, including an opulent cheongsam/qipao and an array of scarves and combs. I was amazed to see what looked like seamed stockings (several shots focus on her feet and ankles). By contrast, Xiu is mostly dressed simply. The effects of the costume are accentuated by lighting – candles being used when electricity in the town is cut off). There are at two songs in the film, both of which surprised me. One is a folk song that seems to reference a Kazakh man (which I could understand if the film was later than 1948, but perhaps Russian songs had already reached Shanghai in the 1930s and 1940s?). The other referred in some way to whips on the body (!) according to the subtitles. If memory serves it is the young sister who sings the songs (and dances on another occasion).

The romantic triangle has within it the seeds of potential tragedy but I won’t spoil the plot (the film is available on video in North America). Less clear-cut is the sense that the narrative also explores a metaphor about the state of China in 1948. Zichen tells Liyan that he has worked in many parts of the country during the war and now he is in Shanghai. He is always in Western dress while the other three (and the servant) are dressed traditionally. He is ‘modern China’ visiting the ruins in the countryside. By contrast Liyan has done nothing during the war except preside over the decline of his house and the household seems to exist out of time (and almost out of place). After 1948 the film gradually became the focus for a nostalgia about China especially for overseas Chinese. Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood For Love (HK 2000) with its passionate but repressed non-affair and Maggie Cheung’s breathtaking costumes strikes me as at least one film drawing on that nostalgia (Wong’s family had migrated from Shanghai soon after Spring in a Small Town was produced in Shanghai).

There are several academic essays on this iconic film. As well as Zhang and Wang discussed above Susan Daravala’s (2007) ‘The aesthetics and moral politics of Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town‘ in the Journal of Chinese Cinemas 1:3 offers several useful arguments. She argues that Fei’s approach aims to be:

the avoidance of the theatricality and suspense that made viewers concentrate on the narrative to find out what happened next. He wanted instead to engage them by putting the focus on psychological description, which would be more likely to produce a self-reflexive, thoughtful response in the audience . . .

Daravala also compares the film with David Lean and Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter (UK 1945), also a melodrama in which a married woman has an affair with a doctor that is not consummated but displays erotic tension. Both films have the voiceover of the woman.

After I finished writing this I read Noah Cowan’s essay on the film, ‘Love Among the Ruins’ in Sight and Sound, July 2014. It’s a useful summary of the various takes on Fei, his ideas and this specific film and might be the best piece to read first. There is certainly a wealth of scholarship to explore – more than I have briefly covered here. But you should watch the film first and be amazed.

A Touch of Sin (China/Japan 2013)

The man who 'can't take it any more' in A TOUCH OF SIN?

Jiang Wu as the man who ‘can’t take it any more’ in A TOUCH OF SIN

Jia Zhangke is one of the most important directors in China and within global cinema. He wrote and directed this film titled carefully to nod towards King Hu’s A Touch of Zen (Taiwan 1971) and his script won the major screenwriter’s prize at Cannes in 2013. Why then has it taken a year to get to the UK and still hasn’t got a Chinese domestic release?

The second question is perhaps easiest to understand since Jia paints a disturbing picture of contemporary China. The Chinese censors have succeeded in stimulating the circulation of pirate copies to significant audiences in China. The problems with UK distribution of anything other than Hollywood blockbusters are well known. I’m glad that Arrow managed to get the film into a few UK cinemas but I fear that they don’t have the muscle to promote it properly. But then Jia isn’t the easiest filmmaker to put before the public. The content of his films often appeals directly to popular audiences but the pacing and contemplative style sometimes cause barriers. But if you can get into the groove, Jia offers both great filmmaking and plenty to think about.

The motorcycle killer taking a boat trip – and reminding us of A STILL LIFE

The motorcycle killer (Wang Baoqiang, on the right) taking a boat trip – and reminding us of Jia’s earlier A STILL LIFE

A Touch of Sin is based on four news stories from the past few years, all discussed on the Chinese equivalent of Twitter (Weibo) but not so readily on official Chinese News channels. Importantly, the stories emanate from Shanxi (North), Chongqing (West), Guangzhou (South) and Hubei (Central) – and not from Beijing or Shanghai (or the most remote parts of the country). This is like a UK film featuring stories from Dundee, Southampton, the East Midlands and North Wales – but not London. The stories are also said to make references to traditional wu xia tales. Much has been made of this apparent shift towards genre filmmaking but the links to Jia’s earlier films are still strongly in place.

The four stories represent the lives of ‘ordinary people’. In one a worker in a town which has effectively been ‘sold’ by a local politician eventually flips and attacks what he sees as the parasites who are destroying opportunities for local people and stealing all the profits. In another, a man who travels hundreds of miles to find work in order to support his ageing mother decides that robbing (and killing) the rich on his travels is more profitable. A woman finds work in a sauna/massage parlour before the behaviour of the guests drives her to violence and in the final story a young man is driven to despair by the alienation of working in a typical Chinese factory making goods for the West.

Zhao Tao as the woman who also reaches the end of her tether in A TOUCH OF SIN

Zhao Tao as the woman who also reaches the end of her tether in A TOUCH OF SIN

Jia allows the stories to overlap (two characters from different stories might pass each other at a road junction or a railway station) so that we get the impression that we are on a roundabout constantly moving through stories about degradation in modern China. The settings for some of the stories are the mundane cityscapes and small town milieu familiar from Jia’s earlier films but they also include some of the more surreal settings Jia has also previously explored – a resort/nightclub with girls dressed in outlandish costumes recalls The World (2004). The inference seems clear – the negative impact of globalised forms of ‘recreation’ alongside the mind-numbing factory work courtesy of contracts for global corporations.

The moments of violence are presented in well-edited action sequences but the overall aesthetic is of the long take and long-shot composition. This, for me at least, is the most distinctive aspect of Jia’s style and I marvel at his ability to compose images with his regular cinematographer Yu Lik-wai. The protagonists of three of the four stories are actors I recognised from other Chinese films, including his partner Zhao Tao.

I have no doubt that there was much I missed in the representations of modern China in these four stories. I’m looking forward to seeing the film again when it appears on DVD (September in the UK). Please don’t miss it!

Ilo Ilo (Singapore 2013)

Jaile brings Terry some shark's fin soup at his grandmother's birthday party. Terry has to sit outside the function room because there are no free chairs for her.

Jaile brings Terry some shark’s fin soup at his grandmother’s birthday party. Terry has to sit outside the function room because there are no free chairs for her.

The title of this film refers to a province of the Philippines, Iloilo, from where a new maid arrives in Singapore in 1997. The collapse of the ‘tiger economies’ is underway but it hasn’t yet hit the parents of ten year-old Jaile. He is a bright but unruly boy, missing his grandfather who died recently. Now his heavily pregnant mother is finding housework and a full-time job too much to cope with. Tension exists between her and the boy’s father, a not very successful salesman. The family is described as ‘middle-class’ in several reviews but this is a definition of Asian families that in the West might be better defined as ‘lower middle-class’. The family has little extra money and the maid is a necessity to allow mother to work.

The film is informed by the memories of its young writer-director Anthony Chen who developed a strong relationship with his own ‘yaya’ as a young boy. What he has created here is a well worked out and beautifully executed family drama which allows space for each of the four principal characters to have their own separate narratives – though it is the boy and Teresa (‘Terry’) the maid who tend to dominate. Chen studied film first at home in Singapore and later at the National Film School in the UK (where he met his French DoP Benoit Soler) – he is now based in London. There is that same mixing of influences – British social realism, Chinese and Japanese family drama/melodrama – that we associate with films from Ann Hui and other Hong Kong filmmakers as well as Taiwanese New Cinema directors. Edward Yang’s Yi Yi is a useful reference, but I’ve also seen references back to Ozu and to contemporary Kore-eda. Not surprisingly perhaps, there are also glimpses of Eric Khoo’s work on Be With Me. The result is a first feature (after several shorts screened at festivals) that won the Camera d’or at Cannes in 2013.

The film is quite ‘clean’ and ‘open’ in its depiction of 1997 – it doesn’t have that same sense of atmosphere and city vibrancy that is often evident in the Hong Kong films leading up to the handover. Partly, I think, this is a function of the very different ‘feel’ in Singapore, characterised perhaps by the orderly ‘pledge to the nation’ made by the pupils at Jaile’s (English medium) grammar school. The sense of time and place is created in quite a subtle way, although younger audiences will probably spot the period markers more easily than older audiences. Jaile’s mother works on an electric typewriter and his father drives a battered Honda Accord. (I have difficulty in distinguishing car models over the last twenty years.)

The drama is quite straightforwardly constructed as a conventional ‘getting to know you’ narrative between the maid and the boy set against the problems arising from the stress the parents begin to feel as the recession bites. At first Jaile resents Terry’s presence and deliberately tries to make her life miserable but a dramatic incident brings them together and soon they are supporting each other. Overall, this is another of those ‘nothing much happens’ family narratives that stand in stark contrast to Hollywood entertainment. But what ‘doesn’t happen’ is actually absorbing, partly because of the excellent performances (by actors drawn from TV and film industries in Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines plus a remarkable boy) but also the attention to detail. The only disappointment for me was not finding out more about the life Terry left behind to come to Singapore – there is a dramatic revelation but then little more. Is there any other nation that has exported so many workers overseas as the Philippines? There is a story there that needs to be told in more depth. In the meantime I look forward to more from Anthony Chen. This is another little gem, picked up by Soda Pictures in the UK, that requires much more exposure.

Press Pack (from US Film Movement website)

Official Trailer (which does give away many plot details):

Cape No. 7 (Taiwan 2008)

Aga (Fan Van) escapes to the beach to try to clear his head. This is one of several beautiful images of the local environment.

Aga (Fan Van) escapes to the beach to try to clear his head. This is one of several beautiful images of the local environment.

Cape No. 7 is an excellent case study in the recent surge of local commercial hits in East Asian markets. Ostensibly a rom-com with music this film without major stars became the best-selling local film in contemporary Taiwanese cinema as audiences embraced its mix of genre and local history/nostalgia.

Writer-director Wei Te-Sheng had been working in the film industry since the early 1990s and in 1996 he had been assistant director on Edward Yang’s Mahjong. His early short films and his first feature had won prizes but not commercial audiences. It was a brave decision therefore to risk a relatively large budget (by Taiwanese standards) on Cape No. 7.

Outline

The film’s title refers to an address in rural Taiwan as written under the Japanese occupation of the island from 1895 to 1945 and Wei got the idea from a newspaper report about a (successful) attempt to deliver mail to such an address in contemporary Taiwan. In Wei’s story, the package sent from Japan refers to the parting of lovers in 1945 when the young man is forced to ‘return’ to Japan. Wei opens the film with the man’s voiceover expressing his emotions as he sails out of Taipei bound for Japan. The narrative returns to this flashback at key moments later in the film.

The temporary postman charged with delivering the package 60 years later is a ‘failed’ rock musician who is forced into temporary work in the small seaside town of Hengchun, a popular tourist resort on the southernmost tip of the island. Aga is in fact ‘coming home’ from Taipei. Meanwhile, a dispute between a large resort hotel and the local council leader means that a music festival on the beach can only take place if an ‘authentic’ Taiwanese band opens the show for a visiting Japanese pop star. Aga is dragooned into forming this band with a motley crew of young and old musicians, representing the diverse population of the region and different musical traditions and including ‘Taiwanese aboriginals’ and the various identities of Han Chinese, including Hakka and Hokkien. The differences between these groups are highlighted in the interactions between the various characters. Charged with getting the group together is a Mandarin-speaking Japanese woman, Tomoko – a former model who reluctantly takes on a kind of mother/schoolteacher role. Will Aga get together with Tomoko? What role will the memories of the lovers of 1945 play?

Commentary

From the outline it’s clear that there is a potent mixture here of romance, music, comedy, the melodrama of families and the drama of competing interests of hoteliers, local councillors etc. Who was the girl left behind in 1945 and what became of her? How can the band become ‘authentic’ – what kind of music will they play?

Cape No. 7 was something of a surprise hit on a small scale but once it started to contact with local audiences it began to grow ‘legs’ staying in cinemas for three months and making 10 times the production cost. Later the film won several international prizes in East Asia and opened successfully in Hong Kong. A release in the PRC (mainland China) was delayed and eventually a severely cut version of the film was released. (It has been argued that the film was seen as ‘Japanised’.)

As a ‘local film’, I found the opening half hour intriguing but slightly difficult to follow as I didn’t easily pick up all the clues about the diversity of the population and the inter-family disputes that fuel the melodrama. This feeling continued for a while and I realised that I was engaged and appreciative of the filmmaking but still not totally understanding the complexities of the narrative. It was only in the last third of what is a long film (by rom-com standards) at 133 minutes that I felt fully in control of my own reading. Now, looking back over the narrative I can make sense of most of the actions and I have fully enjoyed the experience. I feel like I’ve learned a lot about Taiwanese culture as well as having a good time. The films mix of ingredients attracted what the Hollywood studios refer to as the four quadrants of young and old, male and female (the film was released by Disney in Taiwan).

There is an appeal to nostalgia, especially in relation to the period under Japanese occupation and the mix of experiences related to those times. Popular musical forms are popular throughout East Asia and these must also have been important (a soundtrack album and a very successful DVD release followed). Perhaps most important of all, here was a chance to celebrate the success of a local popular film after decades of domination by first Hong Kong and then Hollywood imports. Having broken records, Cape No. 7 was then overtaken by later local hits such as You Are the Apple of My Eye. I’m grateful to Felicia Chan and the Chinese Film Forum in Manchester for introducing me to both films.

(Cape No. 7 is released on a Region 2 DVD by Flynn Entertainment.)

Trailer: